Turn Coat Chapter 4546

Chapter Forty-five

The naagloshii walked over to me and stood there, smiling, as its inhuman features shifted and contorted, from something bestial back toward something almost human. It probably made it easier to talk.

’’That was hardly pathetic at all,’’ it murmured. ’’Who gifted you with the life fire, little mortal?’’

’’Doubt you know him,’’ I responded. It was an effort to speak, but I was used to meeting the rigorous demands of life as a reflexive smart-ass. ’’He'd have taken you out.’’

The skinwalker's smile widened. ’’I find it astonishing that you could call forth the very fires of creation-and yet have no faith with which to employ them.’’

’’Hell's bells,’’ I muttered. ’’I get sick of sadistic twits like you.’’

It tilted its head. It dragged its claws idly across the stone, sharpening them. ’’Oh?’’

’’You like seeing someone dangling on a hook,’’ I said. ’’It gets you off. And once I'm dead, the fun's over. So you feel like you have to drag things out with a conversation.’’

’’Are you so eager to leave life, mortal?’’ the naagloshii purred.

’’If the alternative is hanging around here with you, I sure as hell am,’’ I replied. ’’Get it over with or buzz off.’’

Its claws moved, pure, serpentine speed, and my face suddenly caught on fire. It hurt too much to scream. I doubled up, clutching my hands at the right side of my face, and felt my teeth grinding together.

’’As you wish,’’ the naagloshii said. It leaned closer. ’’But let me leave you with this thought, little spirit caller. You think you've won a victory by taking the phage from my hands. But he was hanging meat for me for more than a day, and I left nothing behind. You don't have words for the things I did to him.’’ I could hear its smile widening. ’’It is starving. Mad with hunger. And I smell a young female caller inside the hogan,’’ it purred. ’’I was considering throwing the phage inside with her before you so kindly saved me the bother. Meditate upon that on your way to eternity.’’

Even through the pain and the fear, my stomach twisted into frozen knots.

Oh, God.

Molly.

I couldn't see out of my right eye, and I couldn't feel anything but pain. I turned my head far to the right so that my left eye could focus on the naagloshii crouching over me, its long fingers, tipped with bloodied black claws, twitching in what was an almost se*ual anticipation.

I didn't know if anyone had ever thrown a death curse backed by soulfire. I didn't know if using my own soul as fuel for a final conflagration would mean that it never went to wherever it is souls go once they're finished here. I just knew that no matter what happened, it wasn't going to hurt for much longer, and that I wanted to wipe that grin off the skinwalker's face before I went.

I wasn't sure how defiant you could look with a one-eyed stare, but I did my best, even as I prepared the blast that would burn the life from my body as I unleashed it.

Then there was a blur of light, and something darted past the naagloshii's back. It tensed and let out a snarl of surprise, whirling away from me to stare after the source of light. Its back, I saw, bore a long and shallow wound, straight across its hunched shoulders, as narrow and fine as if cut by a scalpel.

Or a box knife.

Toot-toot whirled about in midair, a bloodied utility knife clutched in one hand like a spear. He lifted a tiny trumpet to his lips and piped out a shrill challenge, the notes of a cavalry charge in high-pitched miniature. ’’Avaunt, villain!’’ he cried in a shrill, strident tone. Then he darted at the skinwalker again.

The naagloshii roared and swept out a claw, but Toot evaded the blow and laid a nine-inch-long slice up the skinwalker's arm.

It whirled on the tiny faerie in a sudden fury, its form shifting, becoming more feline, though it kept the long forelimbs. It pursued Toot, claws snatching-but my miniature captain of the guard was always a hairsbreadth ahead.

’’Toot!’’ I called, as loudly as I was able. ’’Get out of there!’’

The naagloshii spat out an acidic-sounding curse as Toot avoided its claws again, and slapped a hand at the air itself, hissing out words in an alien tongue. The wind rose in a sudden, spiteful little gale, and it hammered Toot's tiny body from the air. He crashed into a patch of blackberry bushes at the edge of the clearing, and the sphere of light around him winked out with a dreadfully sudden finality.

The naagloshii turned, kicking dirt back toward the fallen faerie with its hind legs. Then it stalked toward me again, seething in fury. I watched him come, knowing that there was nothing I could do.

At least I'd gotten Thomas away from the bastard.

The naagloshii's yellow eyes burned with hate as it closed the distance and lifted its claws.

’’Hey,’’ said a quiet voice. ’’Ugly.’’

I turned and stared across the small clearing at the same time the skinwalker did.

I don't know how Injun Joe managed to get through the ring of attackers and to the summit of the hill, but he had. He stood there in moccasins, jeans, and a buckskin shirt decorated with bone beads and bits of turquoise. His long silver hair hung in its customary braid, and the bone beads of his necklace gleamed pale in the night's gloom.

The naagloshii faced the medicine man without moving.

The hilltop was completely silent and still.

Then Listens-to-Wind smiled. He hunkered down and rubbed his hands in some mud and loose earth that lightly covered the rocky summit of the hill. He cupped his hands, raised them to just below his face, and inhaled through his nose, breathing in the scent of the earth. Then he rubbed his hands slowly together, the gesture somehow reminding me of a man preparing to undertake heavy routine labor.

He rose to his feet again, and said, calmly, ’’Mother says you have no place here.’’

The naagloshii bared its fangs. Its growl prowled around the hilltop like a beast unto itself.

Lightning flashed overhead with no accompanying rumble of thunder. It cast a harsh, eerily silent glare down on the skinwalker. Listens-to-Wind turned his face up to the skies and cocked his head slightly. ’’Father says you are ugly,’’ he reported. He narrowed his eyes and straightened his shoulders, facing the naagloshii squarely as thunder rolled over the island, lending a monstrous growling undertone to the old man's voice. ’’I give you this chance. Leave. Now.’’

The skinwalker snarled. ’’Old spirit caller. The failed guardian of a dead people. I do not fear you.’’

’’Maybe you should,’’ Listens-to-Wind said. ’’The boy almost took you, and he doesn't even know the Din¨¦, much less the Old Ways. Begone. Last chance.’’

The naagloshii let out a warbling growl as its body changed, thickening, growing physically thicker, more powerful-looking. ’’You are not a holy man. You do not follow the Blessing Way. You have no power over me.’’

’’Don't plan to bind or banish you, old ghost,’’ Injun Joe said. ’’Just gonna kick your ass up between your ears.’’ He clenched his hands into fists and said, ’’Let's go.’’

The skinwalker let out a howl and hurled its arms forward. Twin bands of darkness cascaded forth, splintering into dozens and dozens of shadowy serpents that slithered through the night air in a writhing cloud, darting toward Listens-to-Wind. The medicine man didn't flinch. He lifted his arms to the sky, threw back his head, and sang in the wavering, high-pitched fashion of the native tribes. The rain, which had vanished almost entirely, came down again in an almost solid sheet of water that fell on maybe fifty square yards of hilltop, drenching the oncoming swarm of sorcery and melting it to nothing before it could become a threat.

Injun Joe looked back down again at the naagloshii. ’’That the best you got?’’

The naagloshii snarled more words in unknown tongues, and began flinging power with both arms. Balls of fire like the one I had seen at Château Raith were followed by crackling spheres of blue sparks and wobbling green spheres of what looked like Jell-O and smelled like sulfuric acid. It was an impressive display of evocation. Had a kitchen sink gone flying toward Listens-to-Wind, conjured from who knows where, it wouldn't have startled me. The naagloshii pulled out all the stops, hurling enough raw power at the small, weathered medicine man to scour the hilltop clean to the bedrock.

I have no idea how the old man countered it all, even though I watched him do it. Again he sang, and this time shuffled his feet in time with the music, bending his old body forward and back again, the motions obviously slowed and muted by his age but just as obviously part of a dance. He was wearing a band of bells on his ankles, and another on each wrist, and they jingled in time with his singing.

All of that power coming at him seemed unable to find a mark. Fire flashed by him as his feet shuffled and his body swayed without so much as singeing a hair. Crackling balls of lightning vanished a few feet in front of him, and resumed their course a few feet beyond him, apparently without crossing the space between. Globes of acid wobbled in flight and splattered over the earth, sizzling and sending up clouds of choking vapors, but not actually doing him any harm. The defense was elegant. Rather than trying to match force against force and power against power, the failure of the incoming sorcery to harm Listens-to-Wind seemed like part of the natural order, as if the world was a place in which such a thing was perfectly normal, reasonable, and expected.

But as the naagloshii hurled agony and death in a futile effort to overcome Listens-to-Wind's power, it was also striding forward, closing the distance between them, until it stood less than twenty feet from the old medicine man. Then its eyes glittered with a terrible joy, and with a roar it hurled itself physically upon the old man.

My heart leapt into my throat. Listens-to-Wind might not have come down on my side in this matter, but he had helped me more than once in the past, and was one of the few wizards to hold Ebenezar McCoy's respect. He was a decent man, and I didn't want to see him get hurt in my defense. I tried to cry out a warning, and as I did, I caught the look on his face as the naagloshii pounced.

Injun Joe was smiling a fierce, wolfish smile.

The naagloshii came down, its mouth stretching into a wolflike muzzle, extending claws on all four of its limbs as it prepared to savage the old man.

But Listens-to-Wind spoke a single word, his voice shaking the air with power, and then his form melted and shifted, changing as fluidly as if he'd been made of liquid mercury that until that moment had only been held in the shape of an old man by an effort of will. His form simply resolved itself into something different, as naturally and swiftly as taking a deep breath.

When the naagloshii came down, it didn't sink its claws into a leathery old wizard.

Instead, it found itself muzzle to muzzle with a brown bear the size of a minibus.

The bear let out a bone-shaking roar and surged forward, overwhelming the naagloshii with raw mass and muscle power. If you've ever seen a furious beast like that in action, you know that it isn't something that can be done justice in any kind of description. The volume of the roar, the surge of implacable muscle beneath heavy pelt, the flash of white fangs and glaring red-rimmed eyes combine into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. It's terrifying, elemental, touching upon some ancient instinctual core inside every human alive that remembers that such things equal terror and death.

The naagloshii screamed, a weird and alien shriek, and raked furiously at the bear, but it had outsmarted itself. Its long, elegantly sharp claws, perfect for eviscerating soft-skinned humans, simply did not have the mass and power they needed to force their way through the bear's thick pelt and the hide beneath, much less the depth to cut through layers of fat and heavy muscle. It might as well have strapped plastic combs to its limbs, for all the good its claws did it.

The bear seized the skinwalker's skull in its vast jaws, and for a second, it looked like the fight was over. Then the naagloshii blurred, and where a vaguely simian creature had been an instant before, there was only a tiny flash of urine yellow fur, a long, lean creature like a ferret with oversized jaws. It wiggled free of the huge bear and evaded two slaps of its giant paws, letting out a defiant, mocking snarl as it slid free.

But Injun Joe wasn't done yet, either. The bear lifted itself into a ponderous leap, and came down to earth again as a coyote, lean and swift, that raced after the ferret nimbly, fangs bright. It rushed after the fleeing ferret-which suddenly turned, jaws opening wide, and then wider, and wider, until an alligator coated in sparse tufts of yellow fur turned to meet the onrushing canine, which found itself too close to turn aside.

The canine form melted as it shot toward the alligator's maw, and a dark-winged raven swept into the jaws and out the far side as they snapped shut. The raven turned its head and let out mocking caws of laughter as it flew away, circling around the clearing.

The alligator shuddered all over, and became a falcon, golden and swift, its head marked by tufts of yellowish fur that almost looked like the naagloshii's ears had in its near-human form. It hurtled forward with supernatural speed, vanishing behind a veil as it flew.

I heard the raven's wings beat overhead as it circled cautiously, looking for its enemy-and then was struck from behind by the falcon's claws. I watched in horror as the hooked beak descended to rip at the captured raven-and met the spiny, rock-hard back of a snapping turtle. A leathery head twisted and jaws that could cut through medium-gauge wire clamped onto the naagloshii-falcon's leg, and it let out another alien shriek of pain as the two went plummeting to the earth together.

But in the last few feet, the turtle shimmered into the form of a flying squirrel, limbs extended wide, and it converted some of its falling momentum into forward motion, dropping to a roll as it hit the ground. The falcon wasn't so skilled. It began to change into something else, but struck the stony earth heavily before it could finish resolving into a new form.

The squirrel whirled, bounded, and became a mountain lion in midleap, landing on the stunned, confused mass of feathers and fur that was the naagloshii. Fangs and claws tore, and black blood stained the ground to the sound of more horrible shrieks. The naagloshii coalesced into an eerie shape, four legs and batlike wings, with eyes and mouths everywhere. All the mouths were screaming, in half a dozen different voices, and it managed to tear its way free of the mountain lion's grip and go flapping and tumbling awkwardly across the ground. It staggered wildly and began to leap clumsily into the air, bat wings beating. It looked like an albatross without enough headwind, and the mountain lion was hard on its heels the whole way, claws lashing out to tear and rake.

The naagloshii disappeared into the darkness, its howls drifting up in its wake as it fled. It continued to scream in pain, almost sobbing, as it rushed down the slope toward the lake. Demonreach followed its departure with a surly sense of satisfaction, and I couldn't say that I blamed it.

The skinwalker fled the island. Its howls drifted on the night wind for a time, and then they were gone.

The mountain lion stared in the direction that the naagloshii had fled for long moments. Then he sat down, his head hanging, shivered, and became Injun Joe once more. The old man was sitting on the ground, supporting himself with both hands. He stood up slowly, and a bit stiffly, and one of his arms looked like it might be broken midway between wrist and elbow. He continued to look after his routed opponent, then snorted once and turned to walk carefully over to me.

’’Wow,’’ I told him quietly.

He lifted his chin slightly. For a moment, pride and power shone in his dark eyes. Then he smiled tiredly at me, and was only a calm, tired-looking old man again. ’’You claimed this place as a sanctum?’’ he asked.

I nodded. ’’Last night.’’

He looked at me, and couldn't seem to make up his mind whether to laugh in my face or slap me upside the head. ’’You don't get into trouble by halves, do you, son?’’

’’Apparently not,’’ I slurred. I spat blood from my mouth. There was a lot of that, at the moment. My face hadn't stopped hurting just because the naagloshii was gone.

Injun Joe knelt down beside me and examined my wounds in a professional manner. ’’Not life-threatening,’’ he assured me. ’’We need your help.’’

’’You're kidding,’’ I said. ’’I'm tapped. I can't even walk.’’

’’All you need is your mind,’’ he said. ’’There are trees around the battle below. Trees that are under strain. Can you feel them?’’

He'd barely said the words when I felt them through my link to the island's spirit. There were fourteen trees, in fact, most of them old willows near the water. Their branches were bowed down, sagging beneath enormous burdens.

’’Yeah,’’ I said. My voice sounded distant to me, and full of detached calm.

’’The island can be most swiftly rid of the beings in them,’’ Injun Joe said. ’’If it withdraws the water from the earth beneath those trees for a time.’’

’’So?’’ I said. ’’How am I supposed to-’’

I broke off in midsentence as I felt Demonreach respond. It seemed to seize upon Injun Joe's words, but then I understood that nothing of the sort had happened. Demonreach had understood Injun Joe only because it had understood the thoughts that those words created in my head. Communication by sound was a concept so inelegant and cumbersome and alien to the island's spirit that it could never have truly happened. But my thoughts-those it could grasp.

I could all but feel the soil shifting, settling slightly, as the island withdrew the water in the ground beneath those trees. It had the predictable side effect that I realized Injun Joe had been going for. Once the ground around the trees'roots had become arid, it began to leach water from the trees themselves, drawing it back out through the same capillary action that had brought it in. It flowed in from the outermost branches most quickly, leaving the structures behind it dry.

And brittle.

Tree branches began to break with enormous, popping cracks. A lot of branches broke, dozens, all within a few seconds, and it was like listening to packs of firecrackers going off. There was a sudden cacophony of thunder and gunfire that rose up from the docks below, and flashes of light that threw bizarre shadows against the clouds overhead.

I tried to focus on my other knowledge of the island, and I felt it-the surge in energy being released below, the increased flow of strange blood into the ground beneath the affected trees-blood that they drank thirstily, in their sudden drought conditions. The Wardens were moving forward, into the tree line. The vampires were racing ahead of them, their steps the light, swift stride of predators on the trail of wounded prey. Strange things were dying in the trees, amidst bursts of magic and flurries of gunfire.

A light rose over the island, a bright silver star that hung in the air for a long moment, like a flare.

Once he saw that, Injun Joe's shoulders sagged a little, and he let out a slow, relieved breath. ’’Good. Good, that's done for them.’’ He shook his head and looked at me. ’’You're a mess, boy. Do you have any supplies here?’’

I tried to sit up and couldn't. ’’The cottage,’’ I blurted. ’’Molly. Thomas-the vampire.’’ I looked toward the bushes where one loyal little guardian had bought me precious seconds in the thick of the fight and started pushing my way to my feet. ’’Toot.’’

’’Easy,’’ Listens-to-Wind said. ’’Easy, easy, son. You can't just-’’

The rest of what he had to say was drowned out by a vast roaring noise, and everything, all my thoughts and fears, stopped making any noise at all inside my head. It was just... quiet. Gorgeously quiet. And nothing hurt.

I had time to think to myself, I could get to liking this.

Then nothing.

Chapter Forty-six

I heard voices speaking somewhere nearby. My head was killing me, and my face felt tight and swollen. I could feel warmth on my right side, and smelled the scent of burning wood. A fire popped and crackled. The ground beneath me was hard but not cold. I was lying on blankets or something.

’’... really no point to doing anything but waiting,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’Sure, they're under a roof, but it's leaking. And if nothing else, morning should take care of it.’’

’’Ai ya,’’ Ancient Mai muttered. ’’I'm sure we could counter it easily enough.’’

’’Not without risk,’’ Ebenezar said in a reasonable tone. ’’Morgan isn't going anywhere. What's the harm in waiting for the shield to fall?’’

’’I do not care for this place,’’ Ancient Mai replied. ’’Its feng shui is unpleasant. And if the child was no warlock, she would have lowered the shield by now.’’

’’No!’’ came Molly's voice. It sounded weirdly modulated, as if being filtered through fifty feet of a corrugated pipe and a kazoo. ’’I'm not dropping the shield until Harry says it's okay.’’ After a brief pause she added, ’’Uh, besides. I'm not sure how.’’

A voice belonging to one of the Wardens said, ’’Maybe we could tunnel beneath it.’’

I exhaled slowly, licked my cracked lips, and said, ’’Don't bother. It's a sphere.’’

’’Oh!’’ Molly said. ’’Oh, thank God! Harry!’’

I sat up slowly, and before I had moved more than an inch or two, Injun Joe was supporting me. ’’Easy, son,’’ he said. ’’Easy. You've lost some blood, and you got a knot on your head that would knock off a hat.’’

I felt really dizzy while he said that, but I stayed up. He passed me a canteen and I drank, slowly and carefully, one swallow at a time. Then I opened my eyes and glanced around me.

We were all in the ruined cottage. I sat on the floor near the fireplace. Ebenezar sat on the hearth in front of the fireplace, his old wooden staff leaned up against one shoulder. Ancient Mai stood on the opposite side of the cottage from me, flanked by four Wardens.

Morgan lay on the bedroll where I'd left him, unconscious or asleep, and Molly sat cross-legged on the floor beside him, holding the quartz crystal in both hands. It shimmered with a calm white light that illuminated the interior of the cottage much more thoroughly than the fire did, and a perfectly circular dome of light the size of a small camping tent enclosed both Morgan and my apprentice in a bubble of defensive energy.

’’Hey,’’ I said to Molly.

’’Hey,’’ she said back.

’’I guess it worked, huh?’’

Her eyes widened. ’’You didn't know if it would?’’

’’The design was sound,’’ I said. ’’I'd just never had the chance to field-test it.’’

’’Oh,’’ Molly said. ’’Um. It worked.’’

I grunted. Then I looked up at Ebenezar. ’’Sir.’’

’’Hoss,’’ he said. ’’Glad you could join us.’’

’’We waste time,’’ Ancient Mai said. She looked at me and said, ’’Tell your apprentice to drop the shield at once.’’

’’In a minute.’’

Her eyes narrowed, and the Wardens beside her looked a little more alert.

I ignored her and asked Molly, ’’Where's Thomas?’’

’’With his family,’’ said a calm voice.

I looked over my shoulder to see Lara Raith standing in the doorway, a slender shape wrapped in one of the blankets from a bunk on the Water Beetle. She looked as pale and lovely as ever, though her hair had been burned down close to her scalp. Without it to frame her face, there was a greater sense of sharp, angular gauntness to her features, and her grey eyes seemed even larger and more distinct. ’’Don't worry, Dresden. Your cat's-paw will live to be manipulated another day. My people are taking care of him.’’

I tried to find something in her face that would tell me anything else about Thomas. It wasn't there. She just watched me coolly.

’’There, vampire,’’ Ancient Mai said politely. ’’You have seen him and spoken to him. What follows is Council business.’’

Lara smiled faintly at Ancient Mai and turned to me. ’’One more thing before I go, Harry. Do you mind if I borrow the blanket?’’

’’What if I do?’’ I asked.

She let it slip off of one pale shoulder. ’’I'd give it back, of course.’’

The image of the swollen, bruised, burned creature that had kissed Madeline Raith as it pulled out her entrails returned to my thoughts, vividly.

’’Keep it,’’ I told her.

She smiled again, this time showing teeth, and bowed her head. Then she turned and left. I idly followed her progress down to the shore, where she walked out onto the floating dock and was gone.

I looked at Ebenezar. ’’What happened?’’

He grunted. ’’Whoever came through the Nevernever opened a gate about a hundred yards back in the trees,’’ he said. ’’And he brought about a hundred big old shaggy spiders with him.’’

I blinked, and frowned. ’’Spiders?’’

Ebenezar nodded. ’’Not conjured forms, either. They were the real thing, from Faerie, maybe. Gave us a real hard time. Some of them started webbing the trees while the others kept us busy, trying to trap us in.’’

’’Didn't want us getting behind them to whoever opened the gate,’’ Listens-to-Wind said.

’’Didn't want anyone to see who it was, more likely,’’ I said. ’’That was our perp. That was the killer.’’

’’Maybe,’’ Ebenezar said quietly, nodding. ’’As soon as those trees and the webbing came down, we started pushing the spiders back. He ran. And once he was gone, the spiders scattered, too.’’

’’Dammit,’’ I said quietly.

’’That's what all this was about,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’There was no informant, no testimony.’’

I nodded. ’’I told you that to draw the real killer out. To force him to act. And he did. You saw it with your own eyes. That should be proof enough that Morgan is innocent.’’

Ancient Mai shook her head. ’’The only thing that proves is that someone else is willing to betray the Council and has something to hide. It doesn't mean that Morgan couldn't have killed LaFortier. At best, it suggests that he did not act alone.’’

Ebenezar gave her a steady look. Then he said, ’’So there is a conspiracy now-is what you're saying? What was that you were saying earlier about simplicity?’’

Mai glanced away from him, and shrugged her shoulders. ’’Dresden's theory is, admittedly, a simpler and more likely explanation.’’ She sighed. ’’It is, however, insufficient to the situation.’’

Ebenezar scowled. ’’Someone's got to hang?’’

Mai turned her eyes back to him and held steady. ’’That is precisely correct. It is plausible that Morgan was involved. The hard evidence universally suggests that he is guilty. And the White Council will not show weakness in the face of this act. We cannot afford to allow LaFortier's death to pass without retribution.’’

’’Retribution,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’Not justice.’’

’’Justice is not what keeps the various powers in this world from destroying the White Council and having their way with humanity,’’ Ancient Mai responded. ’’Fear does that. Power does that. They must know that if they strike us, there will be deadly consequences. I am aware how reprehensible an act it would be to sentence an innocent man to death-and one who has repeatedly demonstrated his dedication to the well-being of the Council, to boot. But on the whole, it is less destructive and less irresponsible than allowing our enemies to perceive weakness.’’

Ebenezar put his elbows on his knees and looked at his hands. He shook his head once, and then said nothing.

’’Now,’’ Ancient Mai said, turning her focus back to me. ’’You will instruct your apprentice to lower the shield, or I will tear it down.’’

’’Might want to take a few steps back before you do,’’ I said. ’’If anything but the proper sequence takes it apart, it explodes. It'll take out the cottage. And the tower. And the top of the hill. The kid and Morgan should be fine, though.’’

Molly made a choking sound.

’’Hngh. Finally made that idea work, did you?’’ Ebenezar said.

I shrugged. ’’After those zombies turned up and just hammered their way through my defenses, I wanted something that would give me some options.’’

’’How long did it take you to make?’’

’’Nights and weekends for three months,’’ I sighed. ’’It was a real pain in the ass.’’

’’Sounds it,’’ Ebenezar agreed.

’’Wizard McCoy,’’ Mai said sharply. ’’I remind you that Dresden and his apprentice aided and abetted a fugitive from justice.’’

From behind me, Listens-to-Wind said, ’’Mai. That's enough.’’

She turned her eyes to him and stared hard.

’’Enough,’’ Listens-to-Wind repeated. ’’The hour is dark enough without trying to paint more people with the same brush we're going to be forced to use on Morgan. One death is necessary. Adding two more innocents to the count would be callous, pointless, and evil. The Council will interpret Dresden's actions as ultimately to the support of the Laws of Magic and the White Council. And that will be the end of it.’’

There was no expression on Mai's face-absolutely none. I couldn't have told you a darn thing about what was going on behind that mask. She stared at the two older wizards for a time, then at me. ’’The Merlin will not be pleased.’’

’’That is good,’’ Listens-to-Wind said. ’’No one should be pleased with this day's outcome.’’

’’I'll take Morgan into custody, Mai,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’Why don't you take the Wardens back to the city in the boat? It should give you less trouble without me and Injun Joe on it. We'll follow along in the other boat.’’

’’Your word,’’ Mai said, ’’that you will bring Morgan to Edinburgh.’’

’’Bring him and bring him unharmed,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’You have my word.’’

She nodded her head once. ’’Wardens.’’

Then she walked calmly out. The four Wardens fell into step behind her.

I kept track of them once they were outside. They started down the path that would lead them back to the dock.

I looked up at Listens-to-Wind. ’’I need your help with something.’’

He nodded.

’’There's a patch of blackberry bushes out there. One of the Little Folk tried to play guardian angel for me. The naaglosh-’’

’’Don't say the word,’’ Listens-to-Wind said calmly. ’’It draws power from fear, and from spreading its reputation. Referring to them by name can only increase their power.’’

I snorted. ’’I saw you send it running. You think I'm giving it any fear?’’

’’Not at the moment,’’ Injun Joe said. ’’But speaking the word doesn't accomplish anything good. Besides, it's a sloppy habit to get into.’’

I grunted. I could accept that. He'd probably phrased things that way intentionally. Besides, of the two of us, which one had a better track record against naagloshii? I decided to not be an idiot and listen to the medicine man.

’’The creature,’’ I said, ’’knocked him out of the air. Maybe hurt or killed him.’’

Injun Joe nodded. His broken arm had been splinted with a field dressing and wrapped in medical tape. The Wardens had probably brought their own gear. ’’I saw the very end of your fight. Which is why I felt it appropriate to give the creature the same treatment.’’ He shook his head. ’’It took a lion's courage for the little one to do what he did. I already went looking for him.’’

I felt a little bit sick. ’’Was he...?’’

Listens-to-Wind smiled faintly and shook his head. ’’Knocked senseless for a while, and wounded by blackberry thorns, though his armor protected him from the worst of it.’’

I found myself barking out a short little laugh of relief. ’’That armor? You're kidding.’’

He shook his head. ’’Worst thing hurt was his pride, I think.’’ His dark eyes sparkled. ’’Little guy like that, taking on something so far out of his weight class. That was a sight to see.’’

Ebenezar snorted. ’’Yeah. Wonder where the pixie learned that.’’

I felt my cheeks coloring. ’’I didn't want to do it. I had to.’’

’’You picked a good fight,’’ Listens-to-Wind said. ’’Not a very smart fight. But that old ghost is as close to pure evil as you'll ever see. Good man always stands against that.’’

’’You had it on the run,’’ I said. ’’You could have killed it.’’

’’Sure,’’ Listens-to-Wind said. ’’Would have been a chase, and then more fight. Might have taken hours. Would have made the old ghost desperate. It would have started using innocents as shields, obstacles, distractions.’’ The old medicine man shrugged. ’’Maybe I would have lost, too. And while it was going on, spiders would be eating fat old hill-billies and picking their fangs clean with their bones.’’

Ebenezar snorted. ’’Never would have happened. I don't much care for vampires, especially not those White Court weasels, but I'll say this much for them. They can fight, when they have a mind to. After the first rush, those bugs were a lot more careful.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’They didn't have much of a spine when they tried to stop me on the trail to Edinburgh.’’

Both of the old wizards traded a look, and then Injun Joe turned back to me. ’’You got jumped by spiders going through the Way?’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. I thought about it and was surprised. Had it happened so recently? ’’Two days ago, when I came to Edinburgh. I told you about it. The killer must have had some kind of watch put on the Chicago end of the Way, to get them into position in time to intercept me.’’ I let out a weary little snigger.

’’What's so funny?’’ Ebenezar asked.

’’Nothing,’’ I said. ’’Just appreciating irony and getting punchy. I guess he didn't want me letting the Council know where Morgan was.’’

’’Sounds like a reasonable theory,’’ Injun Joe said. He looked at Ebenezar. ’’Got to be somebody at Edinburgh. Cuts the suspect pool down even more.’’

Ebenezar grunted agreement. ’’But not much. We're getting closer.’’ He exhaled. ’’But it won't do Morgan any good.’’ He stood, and his knees popped a couple of times on the way. ’’All right, Hoss,’’ he said quietly. ’’I guess we can't put this off any longer.’’

I folded my arms and looked at Ebenezar evenly.

The old man's face darkened. ’’Hoss,’’ he said quietly, ’’I hate this as much as you do. But as much as you don't like it, as much as I don't like it, Ancient Mai is right about this. The real killer will know that Morgan is innocent-but the other powers won't. They'll only see us doing business hard and quick, like always. Hell, it might even get the real killer enough confidence to slip up and make a mistake.’’

’’I told Morgan I'd help him,’’ I said. ’’And I will.’’

’’Son,’’ Injun Joe said quietly, ’’no one can help him now.’’

I ground my teeth. ’’Maybe. Maybe not. But I'm not giving him to you. And I'll fight you if you make me.’’

Ebenezar looked at me and then shook his head, smiling sadly. ’’You couldn't fight one of your little pixie friends right now, boy.’’

I shrugged. ’’I'll try. You can't have him.’’

’’Harry,’’ said a quiet voice, weirdly mutated by the shield.

I looked up to see Morgan lying quietly on his pallet, his eyes open and focused on me. ’’It's all right,’’ he said.

I blinked at him. ’’What?’’

’’It's all right,’’ he said quietly. ’’I'll go with them.’’ His eyes turned to Ebenezar. ’’I killed LaFortier. I deceived Dresden into believing my innocence. I'll give you a deposition.’’

’’Morgan,’’ I said sharply, ’’what the hell are you doing?’’

’’My duty,’’ he replied. There was, I thought, a faint note of pride in his voice, absent since he had appeared at my door. ’’I've always known that it might call for me to give up my life to protect the Council. And so it has.’’

I stared at the wounded man, my stomach churning. ’’Morgan...’’

’’You did your best,’’ Morgan said quietly. ’’Despite everything that has gone between us. You put yourself to the hazard again and again for my sake. It was a worthy effort. But it just wasn't to be. No shame in that.’’ He closed his eyes again. ’’You'll learn, if you live long enough. You never win them all.’’

’’Dammit,’’ I sighed. I tried to put my face in my hands and had to flinch back as my right cheek touched my skin and began to burn with pain. I still couldn't see out of my right eye. ’’Dammit, after all this. Dammit.’’

The fire popped and crackled and no one said anything.

’’He's in a lot of pain,’’ Listens-to-Wind said quietly, breaking the silence. ’’At least I can make him more comfortable. And you need some more attention, too.’’ He put a hand on my shoulder. ’’Take the shield down. Please.’’

I didn't want to do it.

But this wasn't about me.

I showed Molly how to lower the shield.

We got Morgan settled into a bunk on the Water Beetle and prepared to leave. Molly, troubled and worried about me, had volunteered to stay with Morgan. Listens-to-Wind had offered to show her something of what he did with healing magic. I grabbed some painkillers while we were there, and felt like I could at least walk far enough to find Will and Georgia.

Demonreach showed me where they were sleeping, and I led Ebenezar through the woods toward them.

’’How did Injun Joe know about me claiming this place as a sanctum?’’ I asked.

’’Messenger arrived from Rashid,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’He's more familiar with what you can do with that kind of bond. So he went up to find you and get you to take those trees out from under the bugs.’’

I shook my head. ’’I've never seen anyone do shapeshifting the way he did it.’’

’’Not many ever have,’’ Ebenezar said, with obvious pride in his old friend's skills in his voice. After a moment, he said, ’’He's offered to teach you some, if you want to learn.’’

’’With my luck? I'd shift into a duck or something, and not be able to come back out of it.’’

He snorted quietly, and then said, ’’Not shifting. He knows more than any man alive about dealing with rage over injustice and being unfairly wronged. Don't get me wrong. I think it's admirable that you have those kinds of feelings, and choose to do something about them. But they can do terrible things to a man, too.’’ His face was distant for a moment, his eyes focused elsewhere. ’’Terrible things. He's been there. I think if you spent some time with him, you'd benefit by it.’’

’’Aren't I a little old to be an apprentice?’’

’’Stop learning, start dying,’’ Ebenezar said, in the tone of a man quoting a bedrock-firm maxim. ’’You're never too old to learn.’’

’’I've got responsibilities,’’ I said.

’’I know.’’

’’I'll think about it.’’

He nodded. Then he paused for a moment, considering his next words. ’’There's one thing about tonight that I can't figure out, Hoss,’’ my old mentor said. ’’You went to all the trouble to get everyone here. To lure the killer here. I give you a perfect excuse to roam free behind the lines with no one looking over your shoulder so you can get the job done. But instead of slipping up through the weeds and taking down the killer-which would clear up this whole business-you go up the hill and throw down with something you know damn well you can't beat.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’I know.’’

Ebenezar spread his hands. ’’Why?’’

I walked for several tired, heavy steps before answering. ’’Thomas got into trouble helping me.’’

’’Thomas,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’The vampire.’’

I shrugged.

’’He was more important to you than stopping the possible fragmentation of the White Council.’’

’’The creature was heading straight for the cottage. My apprentice and my client were both there-and he had Thomas, too.’’

Ebenezar muttered something to himself. ’’The girl had that crystal to protect herself with. Hell, son, if it went off as violently as you said it would, it might have killed the creature all by itself.’’ He shook his head. ’’Normally, I think you've got a pretty solid head on your shoulders, Hoss. But that was a bad call.’’

’’Maybe,’’ I said quietly.

’’No maybe about it,’’ he replied firmly.

’’He's a friend.’’

Ebenezar stopped in his tracks and faced me squarely. ’’He's not your friend, Harry. You might be his, but he isn't yours. He's a vampire. When all's said and done, he'd eat you if he was hungry enough. It's what he is.’’ Ebenezar gestured at the woods around us. ’’Hell's bells, boy. We found what was left of that Raith creature's cousin, after the battle. And I figure you saw what it did to its own blood.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said, subdued.

’’And that was her own family.’’ He shook his head. ’’Friendship means nothing to those creatures. They're so good at the lie that sometimes maybe they even believe it themselves-but in the end, you don't make friends with food. I been around this world a while, Hoss, and let me tell you-it's their nature. Sooner or later it wins out.’’

’’Thomas is different,’’ I said.

He eyed me. ’’Oh?’’ He shook his head and started walking again. ’’Why don't you ask your apprentice exactly what made her drop the veil and use that shield, then?’’

I started walking again.

I didn't answer.

We got back into Chicago in the witching hour.

Ancient Mai and the Wardens were waiting at the dock, to escort Ebenezar, Injun Joe, and Morgan to Edinburgh-’’in case of trouble.’’ They left within three minutes of me tying the Water Beetle to the dock.

I watched them go, and sipped water through a straw. Listens-to-Wind had cleaned my wounds and slapped several stitches onto my face, including a couple on my lower lip. He told me that I hadn't lost the eye, and smeared the entire thing with a paste that looked like guano and smelled like honey. Then he'd made me a shoo-in for first place in the International Walking Wounded Idiot competition, by covering that side of my face and part of my scalp with another bandage that wrapped all the way around my head. Added to the one I needed for the damn lump the skinwalker had given me, I looked like the subject of recent brain surgery, only surlier.

Will and Georgia were sleeping it off under a spread sleeping bag on an inflatable mattress on the rear deck of the Water Beetle, when I walked down the dock, over to the parking lot, and up to a parked Mercedes.

Vince rolled down his window and squinted at me. ’’Did you curse everyone who desecrated your tomb, or just the English-speaking guys?’’

’’You just lost your tip,’’ I told him. ’’Did you get it?’’

He passed me a manila envelope without comment. Then he leaned over and opened his passenger door, and Mouse hopped down from the passenger seat and came eagerly around the car to greet me, wagging his tail. I knelt down and gave the big beastie a hug.

’’Your dog is weird,’’ Vince said.

Mouse was licking my face. ’’Yeah. Whatcha gonna do?’’

Vince grinned, and for just a second, he didn't look at all nondescript. He had the kind of smile that could change the climate of a room. I stood up and nodded to him. ’’You know where to send the bill.’’

’’Yep,’’ he said, and drove away.

I went back down to the boat and poured some Coke into the now-empty water bottle. I sipped at it carefully so that I wouldn't break open one of the cuts and bleed some more. I was too tired to clean it up.

Molly fussed around the boat for a few minutes, making sure it was tied down, and then took two sets of spare shorts and T-shirts from the cabin's tiny closet and left them where Georgia and Will would find them. She finally wound up sitting down on the other bunk across the cabin from me.

’’The shield,’’ I said quietly. ’’When did you use it?’’

She swallowed. ’’The skinw-the creature threw Thomas into the cabin and he...’’ She shuddered. ’’Harry. He'd changed. It wasn't... it wasn't him.’’ She licked her lips. ’’He sat up and started sniffing the air like... like a hungry wolf or something. Looking around for me. And his body was...’’ She blushed. ’’He was hard. And he did something and all of a sudden I wanted to just rip my clothes off. And I knew he wasn't in control. And I knew he would kill me. But... I wanted to anyway. It was so intense...’’

’’So you popped the shield.’’

She swallowed and nodded. ’’I think if I'd waited much longer... I wouldn't have been able to think of it.’’ She looked up at me and back down. ’’He was changed, Harry. It wasn't him anymore.’’

I left nothing behind. You don't have words for the things I did to him.

Thomas.

I put the drink aside and folded my arms over my stomach. ’’You did good, kid.’’

She gave me a tired smile. An awkward silence fell. Molly seemed to search for something to say. ’’They're... they're going to try Morgan tomorrow,’’ she said quietly. ’’I heard Mai say so.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said.

’’They expect us to be there.’’

’’Oh,’’ I said, ’’we will be.’’

’’Harry... we failed,’’ she said. She swallowed. ’’An innocent man is going to die. The killer is still loose. That entire battle took place and didn't accomplish anything.’’

I looked up at her. Then, moving deliberately, I opened the manila envelope Vince had given me.

’’What's that?’’ she asked.

’’Surveillance photos,’’ I said quietly. ’’Shot through a telephoto lens from a block away.’’

She blinked at me. ’’What?’’

’’I hired Vince to take some pictures,’’ I said. ’’Well, technically Murphy hired him, because I was worried about my phone being bugged. But I'm getting the bill, so really, it was me.’’

’’Pictures? What pictures?’’

’’Of the Way to Chicago from Edinburgh,’’ I said. ’’Where it opens up into that alley behind the old meatpacking factory. I had Vince take pictures of anyone coming out of it, right after I informed Edinburgh about the meeting on the island.’’

Molly frowned. ’’But... why?’’

’’Didn't give them time to think, kid,’’ I said. ’’I was fairly sure the killer was in Edinburgh. So I made sure he or she had to come to Chicago. I made sure he didn't have time to get here by alternate means.’’

I drew out the pictures and started flipping through them. Vince had done a crisp, professional job. You could have used them for portraits, much less identification. McCoy, Mai, Listens-to-Wind, Bjorn Bjorngunnarson, the other Wardens were all pictured, both in a wide shot, walking in a Right Stuff group, and in tight focus on each face. ’’And I made sure Vince and Mouse were there to watch the only fast way into town from Scotland.’’

While I did that, Molly puzzled through the logic. ’’Then... that entire scenario on the island... the meeting, the fight... the entire thing was a ploy?’’

’’Wile E. Coyote,’’ I said wisely. ’’Suuuuuper Genius.’’

Molly shook her head. ’’But... you didn't tell anyone?’’

’’Nobody. Had to look good,’’ I said. ’’Didn't know who the traitor might be, so I couldn't afford to give anyone any warning.’’

’’Wow, Obi-Wan,’’ the grasshopper said. ’’I'm... sort of impressed.’’

’’The smackdown-on-the-island plan might have worked,’’ I said. ’’And I needed it to get a crack at the skinwalker on friendly ground. But lately I've started thinking that you don't ever plan on a single path to victory. You set things up so that you've got more than one way to win.

’’What I really needed was a weapon I could use against the killer.’’ I stared at the last photo for a moment, and then flipped it over and showed it to her. ’’And now,’’ I said, a snarl coming unbidden into my voice, ’’I've got one.’’

Molly looked at the picture blankly. ’’Oh,’’ she said. ’’Who's that?’’


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