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Fight and Flight

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You can call me a pessimist… And you’d probably be right. But on some level, ever since that day I left for Ebenezar’s farm, I’d known it was going to end up this way.

I’d lived most of my life with that piece of knowledge right at the back of my mind and when the moment finally came, it didn’t surprise me. I was ready.

Molly and I arrived at the shoreline warehouse with the late afternoon sun burning hot overhead. The warehouse itself wasn’t visible but I knew it was there, and a lone figure stood sentinel outside of it.

Carlos Ramirez was less than ten years older than Molly but still wore the gray cloak of the wardens about his broad shoulders. He was one of only a handful in charge of helping me keep the entire United States in check.

He was of average height and in good shape, with a physique that I guessed came from spending a decent chunk of time lifting weights, probably as much for narcissistic reasons as to keep himself fit for combat.

Of the wardens, he was the one I knew best and probably the only one I could really call a friend.

He raised a hand in greeting as Molly and I approached, his forced smile not so much missing the area code he was shooting for as the city.

“Evening, Harry,” he said, nodding at me, then Molly. “Miss.”

“Carlos,” I replied, accepting his hand and shaking it. “How’re you doing?”

His eyes strayed to Molly for a second, his mouth twitching into a grimace for a brief moment before he managed to school his expression once more.

“Been better,” he admitted. “Listen, man… Can I have a word in private?”

I looked over to Molly. She was shivering where she stood, despite the sweltering heat, and sweat ran in rivulets down her cheeks, ruining her makeup.

“Please keep your hands in sight and don’t move,” Ramirez said. “I’m under orders to shoot you if you try to escape. I’m sorry.”

He had a desert eagle holstered at his hip, ready for the draw, but at least he wasn’t posturing with his hand by it like a Wild West gunslinger.

Whatever little color was left drained from Molly’s face. I put a hand my hand on her trembling shoulder and bent down until we were at eye level. Her wide, blue eyes were darting around the area in panic, and it took a few seconds before they locked on mine.

“It’ll be alright,” I promised her. “No matter what happens, I won’t let anyone hurt you, okay? Stay right here.I’ll be back in a second.”

She nodded jerkily, wiping at her nose.I turned back to Ramirez, trying not to think of how little I would really be able to do in a fight against the Senior Council, and walked until we were out of earshot.

“Was that really necessary?” I asked, glaring at him.

I’ll give the kid some credit. He didn’t flinch, though he did avoid my gaze.

“Better tell her now than have her do something stupid,” he shot back.

He took a few moments to calm himself before continuing. When he spoke, his tone of voice carried the careful pitying note used to address someone who had recently lost a loved one.

“This isn’t going to go well for you, Harry. Marta Liberty, McCoy and Listens-To-Wind haven’t reported back from the fight yet. The Merlin has all their votes.”

Shit. I swallowed and did the math in my head, weighing up the options, the metaphoric cards in my hand and those now in The Merlin’s. The man didn’t like or trust me and had wanted me executed when I’d been the one up for trial.

He had even less of an incentive to be helpful now, and the help I’d once had wasn’t there. Even with the help of Ebenezar and his allies, it would’ve been up to the Gatekeeper’s decision but now... I did the math again, but there just wasn’t any way of walking into that warehouse that meant walking away alive.

“Thanks for telling me,” I told him stiffly.

My gaze drifted down to his belt again and something new caught my eye there. A single, black hood.

“I’m really sorry, Harry,” he said and turned us back towards Molly. “There’s nothing I can do.”

I put my hand around his shoulder.

“I appreciate it, man.” I caught Molly’s eyes and mouthed the words “Get ready.”

The next part was going to get dicey. Ramirez was a very competent combat wizard; he didn’t have as much raw power as I did, but what he did have he used well. In a fair fight, it would be all but impossible for me to take him down without killing him.

He was one of the good guys. Killing him just wasn’t acceptable. I walked another few steps along with him, my arm slung around his shoulder in an amicable fashion.

He relaxed, and I made my move.

I slipped in behind him, snaking my arm around his throat and tightening it hard.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as he panicked at the sudden lack of oxygen. “I can’t risk it.”

A proper choke works fast, as Murphy had shown me. Ramirez struggled, slamming his elbow into my ribs several times, each blow sending pain lancing through my body. Slowly but surely, Ramirez’ strength began to fade and the blows became weaker until he finally went limp.

I dropped him as gently as I could onto the asphalt and hurried over to Molly. Her eyes were wide with confusion, but she followed me as I took her hand, hurrying over to the Beetle. It took me three tries to get the key into the ignition with my shaking hands, and when I finally managed it, I had to force myself not to scatter gravel everywhere as I drove away. If we were spotted leaving, I’d be one good hex from capture and certain death. Nice and easy. That was how we were going to get out of this.

 

I kept rubbernecking, but nobody came running and no alarms were raised. It looked like we were safe for the time being.

As soon as we hit the highway, I put the pedal to the metal, tearing down the asphalt and leaving the acrid smell of burnt rubber in my wake.

“What are we doing, Harry?” Molly asked. Her voice was still trembling with fear and almost childlike confusion.

“Running. Fleeing. Skedaddling. Give me a second, alright? I need to think.”

To be specific, I needed to seek counsel from a being I’d avoided the past few years, except under the direst of circumstances. It wasn’t just my life at stake this time around, though, and I could only think of one source that would give me the information we needed.

“Lasciel,” I thought. “I seek your assistance.”

“And wisely so,” the fallen angel replied.

Upon glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw that she’d appeared in the backseat of The Beetle, legs primly crossed, hands folded in her lap. She smiled at me, a little bit insolently, and buckled up her seat belt. I guess I should be grateful she spared me a Sharon Stone impression.

“You have little time, my host,” she told me, as if she was suggesting what I might have for dinner. “The White Council will be aware of your desertion momentarily, and the Wardens will soon be upon you.”

“I’m glad you’re here to tell me these things,” I shot back at her in annoyance. “What do you suggest I do next?”

Lasciel made a thoughtful sound.

“It is a risk, but you must go to your apartment. Order the pixies who clean it to get rid of anything that might be used against you in a tracking spell. I would recommend you burn it all down to the ground just to be safe, but I don’t think you’d agree to that.”

“Damn straight I wouldn’t.”

“One would think that after all the buildings you’ve burned down, another would barely register.”

“One would also think that joke would get stale after a while, but apparently not,” I groused. “Can we get back on track?”

Lasciel sighed.

“Very well. Upon your return, fetch the skull and your gear. I will show you how to summon my coin.”

“No fucking way,” I spat out immediately.

“Please hear me out, my host,” she pleaded. “When the Council search your house, they will find the coin. And when they do, you will surely be condemned. Thus far, although you are a dangerous wizard, you have not seriously harmed anyone. If they knew you had my coin, they would treat you in the same manner as they did Kemmler.”

I swore under my breath and Molly gave me a wide-eyed look. Out of respect for Michael, I try not swearing around him or his family. I shook my head and returned to my mental conference with Lasciel.

“I won’t pick up the coin and I don’t have the time to work my way through the concrete.”

“Indeed. You will pick up the coin of your free will one day, my host, but not this day. I am not attempting trickery or deception. I can teach you to summon the coin in a few seconds and you needn’t accept it.”

I gritted my teeth.

“Fine. What about after that?” I asked.

“The car is the least predictable method of travel, especially considering you might not only be dealing with the White Council. It is also probable that they will involve the authorities, whether it be directly or indirectly. You should change car as soon as it is convenient and move back and forth through the Nevernever.”

“Thanks, Lash,” I said. There was a moment of startled silence following the statement, and I saw a brief flash of a smile.

“Certainly, my host.”

I shut down the link and shoved the fallen angel far back into my subconscious as we left the highway and returned to Chicago proper.

“In the next few hours, we’re going to be dealing with a couple of difficult choices, Molly. What it really boils down to is whether you’re with me or not. If you want, you can turn back to the council. They’ll probably execute you. You could try to run on your own, if that’s what you want, or you can come with me.”

Molly took a few seconds to come up with an answer. I could all but tell what she was thinking. She wanted to go home to her father. Michael was a good man, and he’d gladly die for any of his children - Molly knew that as well as I did and didn’t want to put her family in that position.

“You saved my life,” Molly said, in a quiet thoughtful voice. “You didn’t have to but you did. I’m going with you.”

We lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, which only grew worse as we got closer to my apartment.

“We’ve only got a minute,” I told Molly firmly as she reached the block where my apartment was. Some jerk had parked a green Volvo in my parking spot, which forced me to park on a side street a little way away from the building.

“Whatever happens in the next few hours, don’t use magic on another human. If you can pull up a veil, do it, but that’s all. Understood?”

“Okay,” she said, looking over her shoulder before following me down the flight of stairs that led to my door. “Gotcha.”

I disabled the wards that had kept my apartment safe over many years, though they wouldn’t have done diddly squat against the assembled might of the White Council, and slipped inside. My cat, Mister, frightened Molly half to death as he rammed into my shin and then out of the door.

I’d have to ask Murphy to take care of him later. I’d at least had the foresight of asking my half-brother Thomas to take care of Mouse in case something went wrong.

“My trouble kit is in the bedroom over there, under the bed. Check the pantry in the kitchen for stuff we can take with us that won’t go bad,” I instructed her.

There probably wasn’t a lot, but I needed a few seconds in the lab.

Molly did as she’d been told. Nothing like a bit of mortal peril and a daring flight to get her used to taking orders, it would seem. This whole apprenticeship thing was moving along swimmingly already. I told my cleaning staff, present but invisible at the moment, to scour the place as Lasciel had instructed.

I pushed aside the rug, opened the trapdoor, almost tripping and killing myself in my hurry to get down the stairs.

“Harry, what’re you-?” Bright orange lights flared up in the eye sockets of the bleached human skull sitting on one of the many shelves in my lab.

“Pipe down,” I hissed. “No talking in front of, or near the girl, or anywhere she can hear. No contact at all.”

“Jawohl, herr kommendant,” he muttered sourly.

“Bob. I’ve got the entire White Council on my tail. If they catch me, they catch you, so for once in your life, shut up!”

Bob’s jaws clacked shut and for once in his unlife, he did what he’d been told.

I faced the ring of silver on my floor where I’d buried Laciel’s coin under a foot of concrete.

“Picture the coin in your mind, sigil up. Focus on the sigil and repeat after me…”

She said a word, a long, complicated word in a tongue I didn’t know or recognize. She repeated it, over and over, and I mimicked her until I finally got it perfect and a solid weight settled in the gloved palm of my left hand.

The coin was small, blackened with age, except for the sigil, Lasciel’s name shining with a bright silver sheen.

“Well done, my host. Let us depart.”

I made it up the ladder again and found Molly waiting for me.

“Are you ready?” I asked her, already heading towards the exit.

She nodded shakily and followed me as I shoved the door open. A year back, zombies had tried to tear their way in and I hadn’t been able to afford a professional to fix it up. My own repairs had left it fitted awkwardly, so you had to give it a good shove to open.

There was a yelp as the door slammed into somebody on the other side. I only had a moment to take in the sight of a blurry humanoid form on the ground, concealed flimsy veil.

Acting on instinct, I lashed out with a sweeping blow, slamming the bottom part of my staff to its head. The staff impacted with a thunk and the shape resolved itself into that of a young stocky woman with a buzz-cut and a gray cloak. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, though that didn’t tell you a lot when it came to a wizard.

I idly noted that it was probably a good thing I hadn’t known she was a woman when I’d hit her, or I might have hesitated for a critical moment.

She wasn’t out cold, but her eyes looked vague and I doubted she’d be able to work any magic. There wasn’t any time to spare worrying about her condition, in any case. This warden wasn’t part of any strike force the Merlin would prefer to send. She was someone he’d placed here for the contingency where I ran for it. By the looks of things, he’d had a pretty limited supply of wardens to go to for that, what with the battle in Oregon and all. But rest assured, there were wizards coming who could and would utterly destroy me, if need be, and I had to get the hell out of dodge before they found me.

I readied my shield bracelet and cleared the stairs in three strides. I could hear Molly stumbling along in my trail, but didn’t look back to confirm. That was fortunate because warden number two sucker-punched me the moment I could see the street.

My shield was ready, but my balance was off and the ground not ideal. I caught the blow of raw kinetic force on my shield, which caused it to flare up for a moment in a disc of blue light, before returning to invisibility.

The blow hadn’t been particularly powerful, but it was well placed and came in with a bit of spin, sending me stumbling. My left knee struck the concrete hard and I scraped my hand as I scrambled to get back up.

The warden didn’t hesitate for even a moment,the second spell coming for me less than a second after the first. My shield intercepted it too, but I hadn’t had the time or the focus to block it properly this time.

Some of the force bled through and hit me right on the nose. Which sucked.

I braced myself for the third spell, knowing full well that this time, my defense would not be ready in time. Suddenly, a shower of sparks and a flare of power burst from behind me.

It wasn’t much. It didn’t even make it all the way to the warden, but it bought me a second. A second was all I needed.

I jumped up the last of the stairs onto the solid ground of the little garden, readying my staff and taking stock of my attacker. He was of average height, dark of skin, and slim, with droplets of sweat beading on his bald scalp.

“Molly,” I said, groping in my pocket for a moment and fishing out the keys. I tossed them to her. “Start up the car.”

As she reached out for them, I was reminded that it was Alicia and not Molly who played softball as the girl fumbled with the keys, dropping them onto the gravel.

One would’ve thought that I’d be too busy with a magical duel to accidentally notice - and I’d like to stress accidentally, especially if her mother asks - the amount of thigh exposed by Molly as she bent over to fetch the keys, but apparently not.

I caught a flicker of movement over by the stairs. The warden I’d clubbed seemed to be back on her feet and under a veil again.

Picking your ground and using it well is the key to winning any fight, large or small, magical or otherwise. The older of the two wardens had done it well, and his younger compatriot had been unlucky that she’d been hit by the door, or she might have sucker-punched me.

Maybe she was still a bit dizzy, because she clearly wasn’t paying attention to where she was standing.

I drew in power and pointed my staff at the hydrant two feet away from her.

“Forzare!”

Raw force surged forwards and tore the hydrant out of the ground. Water erupted from the resulting wreckage and slowly, like grease on a frying pan under hot water, the veil slid off the warden.

She began to move away, stumbling more than running, and tripped before she’d gotten more than three strides. Under the spray of the water, it’d be difficult for her to put together a spell , which bought me another few crucial seconds.

Her fellow warden sent another blast my way, but he just wasn’t strong enough now that I was prepared for it. I deflected the blow to the right scattering gravel everywhere.

I backed away slowly, not willing to risk killing them with a full strength blast. What I needed was a smokescreen of some sort, or a distraction… I’ve never been a very subtle guy, though. A literal smokescreen would probably do the job just as well.

Behind me, the beetle’s engine coughed to life. It was time to go. My gaze locked onto the green Volvo that was parked in my spot. It stood about halfway between myself and the Wardens. Perfect. Fuck you very much, Mr Parking Space Thief.

“Fuego!” I shouted, sending forth a tightly focused beam of fire, laced with just a smidgen of hellfire. It gouged a hole straight through the metal carapace of the old Volvo.
Cars don’t explode from crashes like in the movies, or when driven off a cliff. Not unless you’re very, very unlucky, at least. But if you pour hellfire into their gas tank, well...

I’d already begun to run in the opposite direction, but some of the heat and the shockwave caught up with me and I staggered, dropping to my hands and knees for a second, before picking myself up and running for my life. I ducked as a blindly sent spell howled past me and cracked the pavement a couple of feet to my right.

I dove into the passenger seat, no small feat for a man my size in a car like the Beetle, and Molly sped off down the street before I’d even gotten the door closed, leaving the wardens behind us.

“Are you alright?” I asked Molly as she took us into the questionable safety of Chicago traffic.

“Y-Yeah,” Her eyes were flitting left and right as she kept track of the other cars, compulsively checking the rearview mirror every few seconds.

“Molly,” I said, forcing myself to calm down, to speak slowly. “Do you even have a driver’s license?”

She shook her head, earrings clinking together and jangling at the motion.

“Okay,” I said, still talking slowly. It wasn’t easy, coming down from the adrenaline high of our escape. I had to grip my hands onto my knees to keep them from shaking visibly.

“Pull over to the side here and we’ll switch.”

She pulled over and let go of both the clutch and the break at the same time. The Beetle lurched forwards and Molly quickly stomped her feet down on both the pedals again, only narrowly managing to bring the car to a stop before we crashed into a parked Sedan.

With another panicked glance in the rear view mirror and a stream of sputtered apologies, she turned the engine off and dashed around the car to switch with me.

We left Chicago by the highway. A bit obvious, I know, but if we’d gone by smaller roads there was always the risk of the car dying and leaving us stranded. The Beetle was as reliable a car as I’d ever had, but it would break down on me again, sooner or later.

My heartbeat began to slow down by the time we hit the highway that would take us southeast into Indiana and I glanced over to Molly. She looked pale in the wan light left from the setting sunI put a hand on her shoulder.

“We’ll be okay,” I said, as much to myself as to the girl. She needed someone to show the way. Where probably didn’t matter as much as the fact that she believed I knew what I was doing.

So I drove, pretending I had a clue. I realized about an hour in that I was heading for the Ozarks. I guess it made sense. The place represented safety and stability to me and, besides Chicago, it was the closest thing I had to a home.

But I couldn’t take Molly there. I owed Ebenezar more than to drag him into my own mess.

Lasciel appeared again in the backseat.

“My host,” she said politely. “There is the Way to Florida the Summer Lady showed you. You needn’t alter your course for a while longer. From Florida, I know of a Way that would take you to Australia. You have always wanted to go there, have you not?”

I blinked at that. She was right about the Way. It wasn’t that far from here. Mostly, though, I was surprised by how thoughtful the suggestion had been. It probably said as much about me as Lasciel that my first instinct was to look for landmines.

“We’ll do Florida, then we’ll see where we go from there,” I said.

“Florida?” Molly asked, yawning a little.

Woops. I hadn’t realized I’d said it out loud.

“I know a Way to Florida through the Nevernever,” I said and pulled over as I spotted a gas station. The beetle was still on half a tank, but it wouldn’t hurt to fill it up as much as possible. The most important reason was for us to borrow a phone. There were a few calls I had to make.

I called Thomas first. He wasn’t at home and, as much as it pained me, I had to leave him a message. I explained everything to him and promised to keep in touch, asking him to keep an eye on Mister and Mouse.

It was a terrible way of saying goodbye, but there wasn’t anything to do about that. Next, I called Murphy’s cell phone and she answered on the fourth ring.

“Murphy,” she said, her voice slurred with exhaustion. She’d had a bunch of crappy days, too, and I’d probably woken her up.

“Hey Murph,” I said. “Uh, I don’t have a lot of time to explain, so you’re just going to have to take my word on this. I fucked up the trial and we had to run. The Wardens are on my ass – uh- you may hear about some burning cars around my place if you haven’t already.”

There was a moment’s silence following my words. “Oh. Shit.”

“Yeah, things went FUBAR pretty quickly and I’m sorry. I have to go – check in on Mouse and Mister, would you? I’ve asked Thomas, too, but you never know with me and phones.”

I could hear the tears she wasn’t allowing herself to shed yet in her voice. “Of course, Harry. I’ll take care of Chicago until you get back. Just- be safe.”

I nodded, even though she obviously couldn’t see it. “Thanks Karrin. I will.”

Last, I called the Carpenters. Molly, who’d gotten the Beetle fueled up and used the bathroom whilst I was on the phone came walking over as I waited.

“Carpenter residence, Charity speaking,” said a woman’s voice on the other end, sounding tense and tired.

“It’s Harry Dresden,” I said. “Molly’s alright. I need to talk to Michael.”

“Harry, what-“

I cut her off.

“I need to talk to Michael. It’s urgent.”

There was a moment of silence and then the sound of the phone being put down on a counter a little bit harder than was necessary. Ten seconds later, Michael picked up the phone.

“Harry? Is everything alright?”

There was something about his calm, trusting voice that shattered whatever defenses I’d manage to hold up for Murphy’s sake. I felt tears begin to run down my cheeks and my voice sounded raw when I spoke.

“I fucked up, Michael,” I said. “I should’ve waited, but I didn’t know, I swear. I had to take Molly and run, we-“

I cleared my throat. Damn it, this was not the time to break down like a fucking wimp. Now was the time for the self-discipline expected from a wizard of the White Council.

“We’ve got to run, Michael. I don’t know how far, or for how long, but we have to get out or they’ll kill us both. I-“

I clenched my jaw and tried to keep the tears out of my voice. It came out sounding steady, but hollow. “Thank you for being my friend.”

He began to say something in that gentle, comforting voice of his, but I’d already passed the phone over to Molly. She didn’t hold up any better. I gave her a minute of tearful good-byes with Charity and Michael before telling her we had to go.

We got back into the car, sitting in an uncomfortable silence. It was a while before Molly spoke again, and, even then, her voice sounded raw and unsteady.

“Why do they want to kill me?” She cleared her throat and then added. “The Council.”

“It’s a precaution,” I explained. “Warlocks usually don’t find their way back without anyone to help them, and even when someone does try, it often doesn’t work.”

Molly watched me in silence for a while.

“You were a warlock, weren’t you?”

I returned the look, meeting her eyes and nodded.

“My first teacher was one twisted son of a bitch. He tried to put a magic mind-lock on me to turn me into his enforcer. I fought him and killed him.”

“But you got better?”

I offered her a bitter smile and shrugged.

“I had a good teacher,” I said. “He was hard on me, and I’m going to have to be hard on you too. I expect you won’t like that. I don’t care. I’m going to teach you and you’re going to do what I tell you. Understood?”

She nodded, but as I’d predicted, she wasn’t enthusiastic about what I was telling her.

“So while we’re on the subject. What did I tell you about using magic against other people when we were at my apartment?”

“I-“ She grimaced. “You said I shouldn’t.”

“And what did you do?”

“But he was going to-“

I felt anger rising inside me. It wasn’t entire fair to the girl, but some of it leaked out into my voice.

“Quiet,” I snarled. “Answer the fucking question. What did you do?”

“I tried to attack the warden with magic,” she said sullenly, eyes fixed on the dashboard, her cheeks red with indignation.

“Yes. You probably saved both of our lives and don’t think I’m not grateful for that…”

I put a hand on her chin and gently turned her head up to face me.

“But from now on you will do as I say, when I say. Is that understood?”

She spoke her next words through gritted teeth, but she said it, by thunder.

“Yes, sir.”

I nodded and returned my attention to the road. It was a long damn road to spend with a sulking teenager…

“It would be wisest to wait for her to come to you, my host,” Lasciel advised me from the back seat. “It means she surrenders to your will and admits to being wrong.”

I glanced at the rear-view mirror, then at Molly, who was sitting with her arms folded under her breasts, looking uninterested and sour.

“It’s eight hours drive until we get to the Way,” I pointed out. “That’s a long time, and I’m getting tired.”

Even in the dark, I could see the white gleam of Lasciel’s teeth as she smiled.

“She will not take eight hours, my host, and you could always talk to me.”

I gave her a dubious look, at which she shrugged and said: “I am merely offering.”

It was probably a testament to my suicidal stupidity when it came to women that I actually began to feel sorry for turning her down. Maybe one day I’ll learn… But probably not.

An hour passed and it was one long hour. We passed through fields and smaller cities, and Molly remained stubbornly silent, though I could sense the restless energy in her.

Another ten minutes went by before she finally spoke.

“Will you teach me how to use magic without hurting people?”

I turned my head to her. “I will.”

I drank deep from the can of coke that I’d brought before continuing.

“First of all, we’ll have to see what your talents are. Being able to pull up a veil without anybody showing you how is damn impressive. I had one of the best wizards on the White Council trying to teach me and I still can’t do them properly.”

 

“Really?”

Even in the dark car, I could see her cheeks flush at the praise, her voice full of disbelief. It was really cute. I smiled a little to myself as I leaned back into my seat, checking the side-view mirror.

As with all good things, this one also had to come to an end.

 

“Here come the fuzz,” I muttered, keeping the Blue Beetle steady as I looked sideways to Molly, and then back over my shoulder. “Have you ever tried veiling something bigger than yourself?”

Blue lights illuminated Molly’s wide-eyed expression,the blaring of sirens following a moment later.

“No.”

My hands tightened on the wheel.

“You’re about to try.”

Molly blinked, looking back at the approaching police cars, then her face set into determination. Power swirled and buzzed around her as she gathered her will about her, extending it outwards.

I felt that power brush by me, surprising me with how skillfully it was wielded, especially for someone with no formal training. The world around us blurred as the spell enveloped us, and I quickly realized the downsides of being invisible on a highway.

I swerved out of the slow lane in a panic as someone with the wrong idea of slow tried to drive straight through me.

The Beetle groaned and sputtered, tires skidding along the asphalt. Behind us, the police were approaching fast. I wrenched at the wheel and the vague outline of a police car shot past where we’d been just a moment earlier.

Beside me, Molly was muttering under her breath, eyes screwed shut. A bead of sweat was running down her pale cheek.

“Hold on,” I said. “You’re doing great.”

The police were already disappearing into the darkness, visible only by the lights of their sirens. Things finally seemed like they were about to work out.

And then, as is par for the course, fate decided to rear her ugly head and smack me with the irony stick.

The Beetle's engine coughed and spluttered, and black smoke began to rise from the engine. A second later, Molly’s veil faltered and she fell back against the seat, panting as her veil faltered.

An exit appeared. I turned off onto it, urging the Beetle on with every trick in the book. It bought us a hundred yards before my trusty steed finally gave up the ghost.

It wasn’t until we’d come to a stop that I realized a third police car, without any sirens to herald its arrival, had caught up with us.

“Time to go.”

I reached back for our bags and pushed my way out of the car in time to see the police car skid to a halt a few yards away. Three police officers moved out and dashed into cover behind the car. Two of them had pistols drawn, the third a shotgun.

The highway had exited onto a far smaller road, corn growing high on either side. Lights were spaced far apart, leaving patches of darkness in between.

“Come out with your hands above your head, Dresden!” One of the officers called.

I recognized the young, good looking man who had called out to me. Rudolph, looking pale and frightened under the streetlight where they’d parked the car. If I knew the sniveling little coward right, he had filled in his colleagues with enough bullshit to explain how terrified they both appeared.

I couldn’t run with them behind me. Three people firing at us only thirty yards away didn’t give us great odds of survival.

“Get behind me, Molly. Whatever happens, stay close.”

I began to walk forward, pushing power through my shield bracelet and staff, lighting up the night in blue and crimson.

“Put down the stick and surrender, Dresden, or we will open fire!”

Call me petty, but I gained a lot of satisfaction from the way his voice shook and squeaked. I didn’t say a word and just kept on walking. Their nerve broke when I’d crossed half the distance.

Rudolph’s gun roared first, shattering the Beetle’s window behind me and drawing a startled gasp from Molly. I reached back and seized her with by the shoulder with my right hand just to make sure she wouldn’t try to run off.

The shotgun roared in response, follow by more, measured gunfire. My shield flared up in sprays of blue sparks with each bullet and shell that struck it but it held firm and kept moving with slow measured steps until I was ten feet away and the weapons clicked empty.

“Forzare,” I roared, slashing my staff through the air.

The car lifted clear off the ground with the screeching of protesting metal and tumbled off to the side to land on its roof a few feet from its original position with another huge crash and shattering of glass.

Three deadly pale cops stared at me. One was holding a walkie talky thingy with its wires torn free and tangling from where they had once been connected to the car. Rudolph’s hands were shaking so badly that he fumbled and dropped the fresh magazine he was trying to feed into his gun. The third cop was staring with at the wreckage of their car with a blank expression on his face.

“It’s been a while, Rudie.” I kicked the dropped magazine out into the shadows. “You’ll get three guesses about what I want you to do next.”

“Jesus, Dresden,” Rudolph stammered, tossing his gun aside without question. “Jesus. Please don’t.”

I didn’t speak. I just stood there, looking down at them .The other cops followed suit a few moments later.

“If anyone pulls a hidden gun out from somewhere,” I warned them. “I’m dropping the car back on top of you. Repeatedly.”

I could hear the sirens returning. In a minute, we’d be getting more company. It was time to Meep-meep right the hell out of here.

I didn’t trust Rudolph’s word for a second but I did trust that he was too much of a coward to even try to shoot me in the back. The other two I didn’t know, so I backed off with my shield active and towards them, trying to keep the strain of holding the spell up for so long off my face.

The sirens drew nearer but I kept backing off slowly, feeding power into the bracelet and keeping my steps steady. I needed a way out and Lasciel kindly provided without even being asked. There was no time to debate the subject, with the police hot on our heels. If they managed to scramble a helicopter or dogs, the jig would be up even with a veil.

I cast a look over my shoulder and spotted a second car that had stopped to check on Rudolph and his buddies. It was out of hex range now and once it got close enough, it would be going fast enough that any hexing would mean people dying. I lengthened my stride and Molly hurried to keep pace.

“You didn’t happen to run track in school?” I asked.

The girl was already panting as I settled into a jog.

“Soccer.”

“Right. Pretend there’s a ball off somewhere because we’ll need to cover some ground here.”

We set off into the darkness towards the Way Lasciel had marked in the field to our right, a few hundred yards ahead. Too far ahead, it turned out, when the car closed in on us, sirens howling.

“Into the field,” I called, darting off the road and into the corn field. “If you see any murderous kids, run the other way.”

I’d hoped to not be forced into running through the field but like the rest of the day, it seemed like Murphy - the law, not charged with upholding it - had decided to shit on my couch.

We’d only made it a few feet into the field before our line of sight was cut down to zilch. It would have to do. Calling forth light with my mother’s pentacle amulet would give the police too good of a target if any of them were feeling trigger happy. We slowed, mindful of the uneven ground.

There was shouting behind us as the car skidded to a halt and a flashlight cut a swath through the darkness.

“Molly, wait.” I reached out and only barely managed to snag her by the wrist before she vanished off into the field.

I crouched and turned over towards the car, extending a hand towards it.

“Hexus!”

The flashlights died, the flashing red and blue lights followed and the sirens droned on drunkenly for a few moments longer before going silent. We stayed still, crouched and listening, with nothing but our own heavy breathing and loud swearing from the police officers.

I grabbed Molly’s hand and began to slowly lead her through the field. I couldn’t see more than a foot ahead of me. Fortunately, Lasciel had a flawless sense of direction and had created the illusion of a flare above the location.

“It’s time for Nevernever 101,” I told Molly as we neared Lasciel’s beacon. “Everything is dangerous. Don’t trust anything or anyone you meet. Don’t look at them, if you can help it and whatever you do, don’t talk to them, even if they look human. Especially if they look human.”

“Okay.”

I had a feeling the breathless, almost choked quality to her voice was from fear, not exhaustion, but I didn’t comment on it.

“If we run into trouble and I get taken out, you run and you call for Lily,” I enunciated the name clearly. “Call her name three times and tell her Harry Dresden is cashing in his favor and she’ll get you out.”

I wasn’t entirely sure she would, but without Lea around, that was the best contingency I could some up with.

“Oh. Okay.”

We’d reached a patch of clear ground where a large old tree had been cleared, leaving behind a stump and a couple of feet of open ground around it. Molly stuck close by me, her face pale. She was trying to be brave and I had the feeling it wouldn’t help to let her know I saw through it.

I was getting tired but there wasn’t any time to waste on thinking about that. With a wave of my staff and a quiet aparturum, I opened up a few into the spirit world.

The Nevernever is an awesome and scary place and at no time more so than the first time. Molly’s first visit had been to Arctis Tor, the heart of the Winter Court. There were worse places, sure, but I’d never seen any of them personally. She hadn’t been conscious for a lot of the trip, as far as I knew, but I still wanted her second visit to be… Well, less traumatic.

The location we were to cross over to was as good a place as any you were likely to find, especially considering the circumstances.

The change wasn’t as dramatic as one might have expected. There are supposedly some terrifying and mesmerizing places in the Nevernever, but the lands of the Sidhe, much like the Lords of Faerie themselves, were a lot like their human counterparts.

At first glance, you probably wouldn’t have realized you’d passed into the Nevernever at all. We stepped into another clearing, though the forest that surrounded us now mostly consisted of large trees without much in the way of brush. Autumn leaves covered the ground in red and yellow and the light breeze was pleasantly warm.

A hundred feet away to our left, a little river went by and across it the lands were green and trees budding.

It didn’t look very dramatic, but the river was what separated the lands of Winter and Summer. There was a bridge a kilometer away, but we weren’t going that way. The way I’d understood it, this whole area was a kind of neutral zone.

“It looks so- normal,” Molly said, looking around.

“Fairie looks lot like the mortal world,” I confirmed. “Some places are weirder than others, but this is probably as close as you’ll get.”

I suddenly stopped in my tracks and Molly, who had been drifting out of my personal bubble a little as she relaxed, quickly took a step closer again

“Look,” I said, pointing towards the trunk of one of the large trees. Molly looked along the length of my arm to where I pointed and her eyes widened when she spotted what I had.

A pixie was sleeping on a low-hanging branch. It was pretty big for one of the wee folk, maybe four inches tall, and looked like a young man about Molly’s age, with blue hair that drifted in the soft breeze as it snored softly.

“Is it dangerous?” she asked, eyeing the faerie with much the same expression as one might a kitten.

“Yes,” I told her seriously. “Everything here is dangerous.”

I noticed her tensing and added. “But not alone and not unless we piss it off. Come on.”

We detoured a little to avoid disturbing the pixie and made our way down to the river without being disturbed or disturbing anyone. Between two trees that had grown together to form an arch of sorts, I opened another Way.

We returned to the mortal world in the middle of a forest. The sun still shone here, fading by the horizon. It had been hours past midnight in Chicago but the trip had taken us many, many time-zones back. The air wasn’t as hot or humid, but still warm.

“Where are we?” I asked Lasciel.

“Southern Sweden,” the fallen angel provided. “Just outside a… village, I suppose. I am uncertain about the degree to which it has grown in the hundred years since I was here last.”

She managed to insert a shrug into the words somehow and then continued.

“You should be able to find lodging there and in the morning, you’re one to two hour’s walk from the way that’ll take you to Australia.

I nodded.

“Cool. Thanks.”

“People used to appreciate Ways far more in the past,” Lasciel noted, sounding almost chiding.

I rolled my eyes at the darkness.

“You’re very awesome, Lasciel. I’d like you even better if you showed me where to walk next.”

She sighed and a light appeared in mid-air thirty feet into the distance. Molly looked suitably impressed when I told her where we were and we set off.

As much as I hated to admit it, Lasciel was right. We’d have to stop soon to rest. Under ideal circumstances, I could probably stay awake for another twenty-four hours but the circumstances were not ideal. I’d slept badly the last few days and used up a lot of my magic, too. If I collapsed or if I was too tired to think properly, we’d both pay the price.

Molly was already stumbling along the uneven paths that took us up and down hill after hill and I stayed close in case she tripped over one of the many exposed roots and rocks.

 

We found our way to a road after about an hour of trekking through the forest and followed that for a while longer until we finally reached… Civilization, I suppose.

It was a community of a couple of hundred people at most. At least it made finding what seemed to be the only hotel easy enough.

A young guy, probably about Molly’s age, sat behind a counter. He had a magazine with pictures of cars in it flipped open and was currently asleep, drooling on the picture of a fancy Mercedes.

I rapped my knuckles against the counter and he almost fell out of his chair in his haste to pretend he hadn’t been sleeping on the job.

 

He said some stuff I didn’t understand, blinked in realization and switched language.

“Uh, hello.” He blinked a few times and managed to focus his bleary eyes on me. “How can I help you?”

“One room,” I said. “Do you have any with twin beds?”

“Yes,” he said, eyes on the money. Then he glanced at an open ledger by the desk. “Oh- actually,, we don’t. Sorry.”

“Just… Any room with a big bed,” I said tiredly. My eyelids were getting leaden and there was no time to waste on being picky.

I paid him - fortunate that they actually accepted dollars at all - got the change in whatever the local currency was along with a key. We ambled up a stair, down to the end of a corridor, and went inside. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it looked and smelled clean. There was a single bed standing at the center of the room, a TV on a little table by the wall opposite the foot of the bed and a door leading to a bathroom.

I felt the weight of Molly’s eyes on me, but when I looked at her, she’d turned away.

“I’ll take a quick shower first,” I told her. “There are some things I need to set up before we sleep.”

Molly nodded nervously, still not looking at me. Her cheeks were flushed pink and she was fussing with one of her sleeves.

I haven’t had a proper heater since I moved into my old basement apartment and here the water was blissfully warm. It took me a pretty serious effort of will to cut my time short at five – okay maybe ten - minutes, but I managed it. I’d brought a fresh change of clothes, which was a small mercy given that I’d been wearing my leather duster all through the trip.

By the time I came out, Molly was sitting at the foot of the bed. She’d kicked out of her shoes and had her arms wrapped around herself as though she was freezing.

“Your turn, kid,” I said, hooking a thumb at the shower. She got up and walked into the bathroom, carefully closing the door behind her. By the time I’d turned around to the bed, Lasciel lay on it. I would’ve expected her to wear some ridiculously slinky silk negligee, or perhaps nothing at all.

Instead, she lay on her stomach, facing me, wearing fluffy white flannel pajamas with kittens printed all across it.

I stopped in my tracks to take in that sight, mouth dropping open. Hell, she was even wearing horribly clashing green socks. It was adorable and way, way weird.

“What’re you doing?” I asked her tiredly.

She looked perfectly innocent, of course.

“Getting ready for sleep, of course,” she said, without any trace of irony or mockery. “I presumed that if you wished for me to wear the seatbelt in your car, you would likewise wish me to be appropriately prepared for bed.”

I sighed. I did not have the energy to argue this with her.

“Sure, whatever,” I said. “What do you want?”

Lasciel gave the door behind me a pointed look.

“That girl means to seduce you tonight,” she said, an edge of teasing to her voice. I couldn’t tell if she got off on the idea, or if they just thought it was funny.

“Yeah,” I replied in a dry tone, grimacing. “She’s not as subtle as she thinks she is.”

The fallen angel laughed merrily.

“No, she is not. You could let her. Give her what she wants. It would be an excellent tool for controlling her.”

“I’m going to teach her, not control her. Move out of the bed.”

Lasciel raised one golden eyebrow at me. “As you wish, my host.”

She vanished.

I moved the bed a few inches away from the wall, moved the bedside drawer into a corner and began to pour sand onto the linoleum floor in a circle around the bed. I had to make it a bit thinner than I would’ve preferred, since my earlier trip to Splattercon had meant using up a bit of the stock I kept at hand, but it was good enough.

Next, I set up a ward at the door. It wasn’t a very good ward and it didn’t have much in the way of power behind it, but it was enough to make a racket if somebody tried to mess with the door.

Molly emerged from the bathroom, dressed in her old clothes and with her hair mussed up from being dried sloppily with a towel. When she saw the circle of sand around the bed she stopped, looking at me with a pensive expression.

“Circle of power,” I explained to her. I swung my legs off the bed and patted the bed next to me. “Come over here. Don’t step on the sand.”

Molly did so, looking sheepishly embarrassed as she settled a little bit too close. I acted as though I didn’t notice.

“A circle of power does all kinds of things,” I told her. “Magic can’t go past it, from either side. You can use it to store energy when you’re working a delicate spell, to summon or trap something, or what we’re about to do, to use it as a protective barrier.”

Molly blinked, then nodded.

“Okay. Is it working now?” She waved her hand through the air over the sand, as though expecting to brush up against something.

“No and if it had been, you would’ve broken it. Put your hand over the sand.”

Molly bent over the circle and touched her fingers to it and stayed that while for a second before asking.

“Uh. And now?”

“Want it to close. Focus on that intention and-“ There was a snap of magical energies as the circle closed and I felt a little surge of pride.

“Well done.”

Molly beamed at me.

“Okay. What do I do now?” She asked eagerly.

“Sleep,”

Her smile faltered again and I couldn’t blame her. I remember the first time I’d gotten to study magic. It had been the most amazing feeling to finally find something you were good at, and someone who understood you. I hated to spoil that for Molly.

“I’ll show you more tomorrow,” I promised her. “But for now, we really need to rest. You never know when you’ll get a chance to do it next.”

Molly nodded, moved over to the other side of the bed and hesitated for a moment before pulling her top off to reveal a black bra that strained to contain her bust.

She glanced at me and if she’d been brave enough to do it while undressing, she probably would’ve caught me looking. As it was, I had just stopped staring and looked down at my own clothes. I’d planned to sleep dressed on top of the covers, maybe using the duster as a bullet-proof blanket, but it was just too warm for that.

Screw it. I kept the shirt on, but unbuckled the jeans and pushed them to the floor, then hurriedly slipped under the blankets. Once there, I changed my mind, and got rid of the shirt, too. Only when I had done that did I return my attention to Molly.

She lay on her side with the covers pulled up to her pale shoulders, facing me with her cheek on the pillow. I’d only just put my head on my own pillow and gotten blissfully comfortable when I realized the lights were still on.

I groaned and looked up at the ceiling, considering whether I should wait for the concentrated magic in the circle to fry, or hex it down myself.

“I’ll get it,” Molly said quickly and shot back up from the bed. It was a calculated move and a rather blatant one at that and more or less confirmed both mine and Lasciel’s theory.

I couldn’t help looking. Molly was wearing the hell out the flirty black pair of bra and panties and watching her walk was very, very intriguing, no matter the angle. She dared to look at me more quickly this time around, and her eyes caught mine. There was heat there, as she watched me watch her and whatever little shred of doubt or denial I’d had left died with that look.

She really was about to try to seduce me. Hell’s bells.

The bulb overhead flickered out and with the heavy blinds closed, there was only barely enough light to navigate by, but the sound of rustling sheets a moment later confirmed that Molly had found her way. There was silence following the sound of the sheets and the pop of the circle being re-activated and I lay back to wait for the inevitable. To the kid’s credit, it didn’t take long.

She made her way over to my side of the bed, bringing her pillow along with her.

“I’m cold,” she said in a small voice. “Can I-?”

I sighed internally. I couldn’t deny her that small comfort, especially not when she sounded that vulnerable and if I was going to be completely honest with myself, I needed comfort as much as she did. I’m an idiot, I know. I’ve been told.

My eyes had adjusted enough to see a shy little smile on her lips as Molly snuggled up to me, resting her head on my shoulder as much as on her pillow. It wasn’t long before she slung an arm across my chest.

“Better?” I asked.

Molly made an ‘Mmm’ sound and cuddled up closer, the swell of her breasts pressing up against my side… and then her hand began to descend. She was slow about it, though I think it was from nerves and not patience. I’d like to say I didn’t react, but I’d have been lying.

Molly was warm and beautiful and I’m only human. Some parts of me wanted to seize that comfort and revel in it, knowing how little time either of us was likely to have left... If she’d sucker-punched me with this, then maybe those parts would’ve won out. Now though, I was ready and had too much sense left in me to be able to ignore the fact that it would be wrong to take advantage of Molly like this.

I didn’t tell her to stop. I just put my hand over hers, where it currently rested at my heart, and held it there. She froze and even in the dim light I could see the blush rising up her cheeks.

“It’s okay, Molly,” I told her gently. “No harm done. This just isn’t a good time for either of us, okay?”

There were tears in her eyes, but she quickly blinked them away, accepting what comfort I had to offer. I curled my arm around her shoulders and it felt nice. It had been a long while since I’d fallen asleep next to somebody, but it didn’t take long.

The room was warm when I woke up. The afternoon sun was to blame for a lot of that, but not solely. Molly had been pretty cozy when we’d fallen asleep, but now she lay more or less draped over me, her legs tangling with mine in a way that was about as innocent as O.J.

She’d stirred about at the same time that I had and seemed to have become aware of our positioning and its implications, judging by the deer caught in headlights look on her face. She rolled away and shambled out of the bed and into her clothes with jerky motions, refusing to look at me until after she’d gotten back from her shower.

 

My legs ached and protested as we made our way back out onto stairs leading down the sloping green lawns and the down to the gate that lead out onto the street. Standing in the archway made up of two slightly curved slabs of white sandstone and a second, flat slab of wood on top, was a cloaked figure.

He was a stout old man in dark robes, holding a staff of a dark, twisted wood.
Ebenezar McCoy… and by the looks of things, he’d brought the Black Staff.

Fuck.

***

I let go of my staff and the heavy oaken stick clattered once before rolling away along the cracked asphalt. Next, moving slowly, I removed my duster, letting it fall down my arms and onto the ground.

My blasting rod was tied to the inside of the coat and my gun was in one of its pockets. I looked over my shoulder to Molly, who had frozen in place and whose eyes sought mine, wide and fearful.

“Stay where you are, kid,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “No matter what happens, don’t move.”

I turned back to my mentor and his sad but determined expression scared me more than the instrument he’d brought with him – and there was no mistaking it was the Blackstaff, either. I could feel its energy all the way over where I stood – something cold, hungry and primal.

I held up both my hands, palms out to my old teacher.

“I don’t want to fight,” I told him.

Ebenezar frowned at that and his eyes drifted over to Molly.

“Explain yourself, Hoss.”

And so I launched into the summary of what I’d been up to between our last meeting at the warehouse, sparing him none of the relevant details save for the mention of Lasciel. By the time I’d given the whole story, his wary stance had relaxed somewhat.

“I met the girl’s father two days ago,” Ebenezar said gruffly. “Good man. I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you if it weren’t for him.”

He sighed.

“I understand why you did what you did, Hoss, but that doesn’t change anything. You put two wardens in the hospital and assaulted a regional commander to escape with a warlock. The Merlin won’t give a good Goddamn about how pure your motives were.”

“No,” I said darkly. “He wouldn’t.”

Ebenezar grimaced and scratched the pate of his bald head.

“Even the others wouldn’t have any choice in the matter, Hoss.”

I looked him in the eye without fear. We’d exchanged a soulgaze, many years ago, when I’d been an angry kid who he’d taken in and saved.

“Where does that leave us, sir?”

Ebenezar had always had a vibrant energy about him, but in the wake of my question, he looked very much like a man pushing three hundred.

“I can’t help you with the Council. I understand why you did what you did. You had little choice in the matter, but as much as I hate it, it leaves us with few options. You have to run. Consult the creature who calls herself your Godmother and get her help to stay hidden. I will contact you when I can.”

“Wait!” I said. “How are you going to find me?”

The question sparked another more relevant one.

“How did you find me?”

He moved in close and showed me the palm of his hand so that nobody but the two of us could see. There was a cut in the meaty part by the thumb. His dark eyes met mine for another moment in a significant look.

“Blood, Hoss,” he said. “Now go. They’re coming.”

I stared at his hand until he drew it back and even after that, I remained rooted to the spot in pure shock. He’d used blood to track me. Not my blood, but his own. Just like I had done with Charity’s blood to find Molly at Arctis Tor.

That meant… It was damn fortunate that I was too manly to faint, because otherwise I might have. But in the few seconds I worked out the implications of what my old teacher had shown me, he’d disappeared behind a veil and vanished.

I’d see him again. Or, I would if I survived. If I wanted answers to the million questions buzzing through my head, now was the time to get a move on.

I picked up my gear, grabbed Molly’s hand in mine and ran for it.

***

My legs protested as the path took us downhill yet again. Roots poked up everywhere, threatening to rob me of my already questionable balance.

“Another two hundred yards and then the path veers off to a bridge over a small river,” Lasciel supplied me. “From there, you follow a new path for a kilometer before taking a right out into the woods. There is a large rock there. Three paces - two for you, I suppose - in front of it, you can open a way.”

Problematic terrain aside, the forest we were trundling through was picturesque. The trees grew tall, with little to no brush in between them, and under different circumstances it would have been a nice place for a brisk walk with Mouse. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the day I was having.

“It’s really nice here,” Molly said.

We’d both been quiet for since we left town and it sounded like she’d been feeling uncomfortable about it.

“Kinda looks like something out of those new Lord of the Rings movies,” I agreed. “Have you seen those?”

She rolled her eyes the way only people her age can, conveying supreme disapproval at how old and out of touch I was.

“Of course,” she said. “Daniel begged me for a week to take him.”

“Well… That was nice of y-”

I wasn’t sure what made me do it, but I turned around and brought up my shield on pure reflex and less than a second later, it flared up in a flash of sparks as an unseen force slammed into it with the force of a professional linebacker. I skidded backward on the soles of my boots and only barely stayed up.

Warden Donald Morgan stood behind me, feet planted, the silver sword of his office drawn but not raised. Even so, I could feel the overwhelming presence of his power in the air.

“It is over, Dresden,” he growled. “Surrender now.”

“Nice seeing you too, Morgan,” I shot back, moving so that I stood between him and Molly. “I’m fresh out of surrender but I do have a special on ‘Go fuck yourself’. What do you say?”

Morgan had never been the sort to appreciate my humor and the years hadn’t changed that.

“The girl is already condemned,” he said. There was sadness there in his voice, but no doubt or hesitancy. “But The Merlin is willing to show lenience toward you.”

“I’m not letting you take her,” I said, pushing Molly in behind me.

“And I can’t let you run.”

I snarled and slammed my staff onto the hard earth and the runes carved into the wood flared up as I called power into it.

“I guess that only leaves us one way to go.”

“Yes.”

Morgan raised his sword to guard. I addressed Molly but never took my eyes off him.

“Molly… This is the end of the road. Run. Don’t stop for as long as you can. Remember what I told you.”

I could see her nodding in my peripheral vision and running off in my peripheral. A few moments later, the sound of her footsteps disappeared.

I grabbed the warden’s cloak from my bag and dropped it on the ground. It wasn’t just a significant as a gesture. They must have found me somehow and the only thing I had on me they could possibly use for a tracking spell was the cloak.

“Tell McCoy I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

Molly’s departure didn’t change the situation much. Morgan was well known as one of the most powerful wizards in the world. What was more, he had almost a century of experience in the field on me. I could never beat him and we both knew it.

His first attack had been an attempted sucker punch, meant to take me down without killing me. If he’d wanted it, he could’ve come at me with enough power to kill me through any defense I could’ve thrown up.

Now he’d have to fight… But he wasn’t attacking. I took a step backward, being careful with my footing. Morgan did the same. He was stalling.

Another step. Morgan followed and he stepped into the hole in the ground covered by leaves. It was only about two inches of a drop and didn’t unbalance him or give me an opening for a sucker punch of my own but Morgan’s right leg trembled.

And I remembered. Morgan and the rest of the wizards had been fighting the Red Court, presumably with Morgan right there at the front lines. He was injured.

Even on his best day, I’d take Morgan in a foot race. If his leg was hurt, I’d outpace him easily. All I needed was to get away from him.

“How far is that bridge again, Lasciel?” I wondered.

“Two-hundred and fifteen yards,” Lasciel responded quickly. “But you’ll never make it unless you distract the warden.”

“That really is advice well worth the price of my soul. Fucking fantastic, Lash.”

Morgan’s stalling would pan out sooner or later and then I couldn’t even hope for a death curse that’d buy Molly some extra time.

Salvation came not in the form of a fallen angel but the daughter of a Knight of the Cross. There was a blur in the air to Morgan’s left and Molly appeared beside him without a sound to betray her approach.

That was my moment. I aimed my staff low and send a wave of kinetic force meant to send Morgan sprawling and at the same time Molly swung a heavy stick at his head. Morgan was fast. Faster than any man, let alone one his size, should be allowed to be.

He swept his sword up with his right hand, one-handed, and the silver blade cut improvised club in half. At the same time he thrust his right hand forward to bring up a shield. The spell blasted him back. The full power between every single one of my force-rings, though.

That had the desired effect. I didn’t aim at him, though. I aimed at the ground right in front of him.

“Run, Molly!” I shouted as a spray of leaves and dirt covered them both.

Molly was already on the way, coughing and sputtering. I pointed my staff at the ground again and called in more of my will.

“Ventas Sertivas!”

A gale wind came at my beckoning and we ran while it provided us cover. Unfortunately, Morgan didn’t care about our clever smokescreen or line of trivialities like targeting. We’d barely gotten more than a few yards when the ground beneath our feet began to shake.

Earth cracked and shattered all around us as we ran and stumbled our way forward. A tree came crashing down behind us and I whipped my head around at the sound and spotted Morgan, disheveled and dirty and more than a little pissed, appear from my wind spell.

The tree blocked his path and as I backed down the little hill we’d been standing on, we were out of his line of sight again, too. With no other options, I dashed down the path, jumping over roots and rocks, hoping to make up for speed with stealth. By the time Morgan got past the tree and up the hill to see us, we’d be out of range.

We made it up another steeper hill and down it again, spotting the river and the slender wooden bridge leading across it with only two hundred feet of light brush and a meadow between us and it.

“Just a bit longer,” I panted, pulling Molly along. “Just past that bridge and we’ll be clear.”

The rickety structure of the bridge had never felt so comforting under my boots as it did in that moment. I drew a relieved breath. And then something resembling a rushing bull hit me in the back.

I hit the floor hard, only managing to turn sideways enough that I hit with my thick skull and not my jaw first. Dentistry bills aside, that was probably a bad trade-off.

“Harry!” Molly wavered drunkenly back and forth in my vision and when I tried to push myself up against, my arms wobbled and faltered when I put my weight on them. Her voice came out shrill and broken with panic. “Come on. Get up!”

Morgan had managed to tag me with a spell from over a hundred yards away. It shouldn’t even have been possible to hit a moving target at that range, let alone put enough power into the spell that it didn’t fizzle half-way. Or to calculate the amount of power to assure the strike would not be lethal. Hell’s bells the guy was good.

“Please, Harry. You have to get up!”

I grunted and pushed my way up to my knees. The world span like a merry-go-round but Molly supported me on one side with her shoulder under mine and I had the railing on the other.

“Sarah Connor was a much better inspirational speaker than you are,” I informed Molly. “No? Haven’t seen that one, either? We’ll get to it eventually.”

We moved one step. Then another. Then another. Slowly but surely, emphasis on slowly, we made our way over the river.

By the time we’d crossed, my head was mostly back in the right order and Morgan had caught up. He looked about as well as I felt, with his left pant-leg soaking through with blood where the strain must’ve popped stitches.

“Fuego!”

Fire roared as it poured from my blasting rod tearing the bridge to kindling and sending the broken remains down into the depths of the river. Morgan glared at me from the other side.

“You cannot escape the White Council’s justice, Dresden!”

“Watch me,” I called back. “Don’t worry, Molly. He can’t cross the water.”

In my defense, I’d like to point out I was technically right. Morgan thrust a hand forward and the soil behind him rose like a wave, crashing forward and spilling into the river.

“I guess he could cross that, though. Run!”

We set off into the trees again. My legs burned with every step as the ground got rockier and the forest thickened around us. I took comfort in the fact that Morgan would be having an even harder time and that he wouldn’t be able to take any more potshots at us.

It was hard work tearing an opening in reality, but I pressed on, knowing we were reaching the finishing line. I closed it again, just to make sure Morgan wouldn’t be able to follow. We walked a few paces through a forest with dead spindly trees, whose branches almost seemed to reach out for us as they moved in the breeze. Fifteen steps. A turn to the left. Another two steps.

We went through five different Ways before Lasciel declared it was the last one, leading us through what I think must have been a Svartalver mine at one point, and back into the mortal world.

It was the middle of the night and sky was bright above us. The air was warm and dry, the ground rocky and sandy. I grinned, giddy with triumph and relief.

“Welcome to Australia.”

Molly was unfortunately too busy being sick in one of the nearby thorny bushes to appreciate the scenery. Oh well. We had time.

Chapter Text

It had been almost two decades since I’d lived at Ebenezar’s farm in the Ozarks but I still remembered my favorite part about it: The quiet. For an angry, confused and frightened 16-year-old wizard, it had been perfect.

The Australian outback was a lot like that. It even had the hot dry weather. I’d lived so long in Chicago that I’d almost forgotten what the sky looked like without the light pollution, but with nothing but a campfire for light for miles and miles, it spread out in all of its vast star-spangled breadth.

I sat a few feet away from the flames, my back leaned up against a rock with nothing but a small foam mattress between me and the hard soil. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but Molly had fallen asleep the moment she’d gotten her dinner down and currently rested her head on my shoulder. I hadn’t had the heart to rouse her yet.

We’d spent the early hours of the evening practicing earth magic, a discipline it was clear neither of us had any talent for. Molly, who lacked my raw power, had worn herself ragged after only a few minor workings. At least we knew now that earth magic was never going to be her strength. I look back up at the sky and sighed in contentment.

“Molly?” My voice had been soft, but the girl stirred, mumbling something unintelligible before settling her head back against my shoulder.

“Molly,” I repeated, a little more firmly.

“Mm-whatsit?” She blinked blue bleary eyes open, trying to focus on me through the darkness. My eyes had long since adjusted and I could see her cheeks turn pink in the flickering light of the fire.

“You should get some rest,” I told her. “You'll need it. The first few times you bump up against your metaphysical limits, it hits you hard.“

I rose gingerly, stretching my stiff back and then offered Molly my hand. She took it and I hauled her to her feet. Her gaze fell on the little tent we’d pitched a few yards away from the fire, then back to me. She hesitated a second, maybe two, then asked.

“Aren’t you tired?”

I thought I could hear a ghostly feminine chuckle from Lasciel and ignored it.

“Exhausted. I’ll check the wards and then I’ll be right with you.”

Molly returned to the tent and I stepped out into the pitch black night, trusting my wizard’s senses. A hundred feet out or so, I reached the edge of the ward I’d constructed with Lasciel’s help. It wasn’t anything potent, but it would tell me if any mortal crossed it and make hell of a lot of a ruckus. Without a threshold to build it on, it’d break apart at dawn and make the noise then, serving as an alarm clock.

I almost jumped out of my shoes when I turned around and found Lasciel standing beside me, staring past my shoulder and out into the darkness, as if she could see the wards I’d woven there.

“God damn it, Lasciel,” I spat under my breath as my heart lurched.

“In all probability,” she murmured, one corner of her mouth turned up into a little smile.

I sighed wearily. “What do you want?”

Lasciel’s smile widened.

“The girl’s talents are considerable, but they are also limited. Unless you indulge her talent at psychomancy, she will be at a disadvantage in any fight you undertake. And that's without ever taking the troubles her sensitivity will bring into account.”

“I know that.”

“Indeed,” the fallen angel said. “But you do not wish to hear it, or to acknowledge the obvious truth.”

“Psychomancy won’t help her in a fight against a wizard or against several enemies, “ I countered.

“At her current skill level, it would not. I feel I must remind you, however, of how the Corpsetaker utilized it – and while we are on that subject, that she will need to, at the very least, learn to defend herself against such assaults.”

I grimaced at the memory, but mostly about that fact that Lasciel was right. I hated it when she was right.

“It would take her decades to get to that level,” I argued. “Probably centuries.”

Lasciel smirked, a confident, almost arrogant expression. “Not with the assistance of myself, or one of my fellows. For whom do you really think I was intended?”

I shook my head.

“No,” I said firmly. “That’s not even on the table. You teach me, I teach her. That’s the deal and the only fucking deal, do you understand me?”

Lasciel frowned but nodded in acquiescence.

“Very well. There is always mortal weaponry. Martial arts. It would allow her to defend herself without the use of her power, against any foe. Combined with her talents, some basic knowledge and training would be sufficient to turn her into a rather dangerous assassin.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said as I approached the fire.

I threw a few more logs on, enough to keep it going for a while longer and then slipped into tent. Lasciel stayed outside.

 

***

 

I felt intensely, desperately out of place as I stood in the clothing store, hip and shoulder leaned up against a wall while I waited for Molly to leave the changing booth. The worst part? This had been my idea.

It wasn’t like we had a lot of options in the matter. We needed clothes appropriate to the climate, preferably stuff that didn’t make us stand out in the crowd of tourists.

Molly had gotten rid of most of her piercings, the visible ones anyway, and she’d let her hair retake its normal golden brown color. I’d dumped my staff in a cave half a mile away from the Way we’d arrived to Australia from and kept blasting rod and the duster stowed in my backpack. It was far too hot to wear it in any case.

I’d drawn a line at dying my hair peroxide blonde, though, to Molly’s disappointment. Lasciel had been kind enough to provide me a demonstration of how it would’ve looked. I’d made the right choice.

The heavy drapes closing off the changing room from view parted and Molly stepped out. I’ll be the first to admit that Molly is attractive – as long as her mom and dad aren’t around to listen - but I’m not comfortable with the fact.

I suppose the outfit was appropriate for the hot Australian weather, but that was the only damn thing it was appropriate for. The shorts had looked rather small when she’d selected them, but on her... Let’s just say they were form-fitting and fitted to interesting forms and leave it at that.

“Lovely, isn’t she?” Lasciel murmured into my ear. “You’ve been meaning to get started with the jogging again, haven’t you? You should definitely do it when she’s wearing that.”

“If you’re going to keep doing this, I want the good little angel on my other shoulder,” I told Lasciel sourly.

To top the shorts off, Molly had gone with a tank-top of a light pink fabric that didn’t quite hide the outline of her bikini underneath. I tried to keep looking neutral, I really did, but the glint of Molly’s eyes informed me that I probably wasn’t doing a good job at it.

Shit.

Lasciel wasn’t wrong, after all. Watching Molly run in that outfit was likely to be a very interesting experience.

I nervously glanced towards the ceiling, half expecting lightning bolts to be descending from on high.

“You’d probably be able to sneak in there with her when she picks her next outfit, you know,” Lasciel whispered, a wicked smile on her lips.

I ignored her. Molly was looking at me expectantly.

“Probably not the best outfit if you want to avoid attention, Grasshopper,” I told her.

She pouted. It was terribly unfair.

“Oh come on,” she badgered, adding on the puppy eyes. “The rest of them aren’t bad.”

“Fine,” I grumbled, desperately hoping that was true.

Spoiler warning: It wasn’t.

 

***

 

We generally tried staying out of people’s way, but it wasn’t always practical or even possible.

Fortunately, there were a lot of tourists travelling around Australia from all over the world. Blending in amongst them wasn’t difficult. A majority of the tourists were young, most of them in their late teens or early twenties, which definitely had its advantages.

“You’re a really, really great teacher, you know,” a very drunk Molly said, grinning a wide grin as she half lay, half sat leaned up against my side.

And disadvantages…

My apprentice and I were stuck in a little hostel a couple of miles outside of Sydney with another dozen travelers. We’d met up with the group two days earlier and had decided to try to blend in while we made our way to Sydney. Odds were good that the Wardens were looking for the two of us, not the whole group.

This particular evening, they were learning about the evils of Goon, which was a boxed beverage that could only be loosely affiliated with wine. It was a horrible swill, but it was also cheap.

I looked down at her and shook my head.

“You’re really, really drunk, Molly,” I told her, my attempted stern paternal tone ruined by the way I turned her name into a hiccup.

“Yupp!” She agreed, laughing.

The sound was wonderfully carefree and her smile was dazzling. It was the kind of sound and expression that brightened a room and an evening. One I hadn’t seen from her since that day in the treehouse.

Our gazes locked and Molly’s eyes widened. Her smile faded into a curious, searching expression. She tilted her head to the side and leaned in.

It was… Close. I found myself leaning in, too, for just a moment but managed to steer things into a hug at the last second. I caught a quick glimpse of her disappointment and she held herself stiffly for a few moments before relaxing into my arms.

I had to be a lot drunker than I’d previously thought if even the idea of kissing Molly had been something I entertained. We were drawing a few curious looks from our fellow travelers already and small wonder, since our cover story was that we were siblings crossing the country to see our grandmother.

“I think we should get some fresh air,” I said, standing. The room spun around for a moment, then steadied.

“Sounds like a plan, sensei,” Molly said, the S sounds drawn out into slurs.

She made to bring her box of wine, but I patiently took it and put it down. She scowled, but went with it and we brought our packs. Partially because it was common sense never to leave your stuff unattended but mostly because I had Bob and lots of magical gadgets there.

I sighed in contentment as I breathed in the fresh, cool air, feeling some of the dizziness fade. Even with a sense of clarity more or less restored, some of the effects of whatever the hell had almost happened in there still lingered.

“Do you miss home?”

A few minutes had gone by in silence and we both sat on the edge of the curb. It was difficult not to notice how great Molly’s lean, strong legs looked in her jeans shorts. I tried, though. Valiantly. Unsuccessfully, perhaps, but I’d still like to draw attention to the valiance.

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “I would kill for a steak sandwich right about now.”

She smiled a little.

“I even miss mom.”

I chuckled at that. I respected the kid’s mother, but I’d be lying if I said I ever liked her much.

“We’ll see them again,” I promised. “As soon as things calm down a bit, we’ll go back and see your folks again, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, leaning her cheek on my shoulder again. Within a few minutes, she’d fallen asleep, her soft breath tickling my neck.

It was getting to be a thing and I knew I really should dissuade her. Especially after what had almost happened just a few minutes earlier. I didn’t, though. I’ve never claimed to be particularly smart.

As it turned out, circumstance, fate or something in between decided to step in. There was an explosion somewhere in the far distance and Molly jerked awake, bleary eyes darting from one spot to another in the dark.

Another explosion sounded, this one nearer and I only just managed to pull Molly up to her feet and drag her into the pool shadows between the walls of the hostel and a large tree, when the young woman came running.

She couldn’t be much older than Molly. Eighteen or nineteen. She was of a height with her and they were built similarly. She passed under the illumination of a streetlight and I caught more details.

Though she was – Uh – stacked in a manner similar to Molly, she was also haggard looking, her face pale and drawn, her clothes torn and hanging off her thin body.

She was limping as she ran, dragging her left leg after her. Her right arm looked to have been broken and she held it close to her body. I was just about to go do my thing and protect her from whatever evils the big bad world had thrown her way when more people rounded the corner.

There were three of them, two men and one woman, and at first glance they didn’t look out of place. They were dressed appropriately for the warm evening in shorts and t-shirts. One of the men was actually barefoot.

My instincts told me something else entirely, though. Even if they looked like tourists, they weren’t. They moved in a graceful, almost military unison and with a predatory confidence, eyes taking in the street and finally locking on the fleeing girl. Confirmation arrived a moment later in the form of a cold, slithering sensation brushing up against my senses and making the hair on my arms stand on end. Vampires. Red Court vampires. I immediately flattened myself to the wall, pulling Molly close. We weren’t quite out of sight, but the creatures were plenty busy.

The girl cried out a harsh sounding word and sent a ball of fire, as powerful and as tightly controlled as anything I could’ve managed, howling at the vampires. It missed and hit half a dozen feet short of them, blasting the asphalt up into their faces.

The vampires scattered, disappearing into the shadows in eerie silence. If the silence was disturbing, what followed was even worse. Joints popped as their bodies twisted out of their human guise. Flesh tore and ripped, sounding clearly through as the night-air as the vampires, reverted to their true forms somewhere in the shadows. I got stupid. It was probably inevitable.

I pushed Molly back behind me and reached into the bag I’d brought with me, digging through it until my fingers closed on the familiar length of carved wood hidden there. The fleeing young woman was backpedaling clumsily on her bad leg, her wide, terrified eyes darting from one patch of shadows to another. She was smart enough to know that if she tried to flee, she’d be run down in a matter of seconds.

I might not be able to see the vampires, but despite their preternatural senses, they didn’t actually have any powers of concealment. Unless I was exceptionally unlucky. Gulp. So, with my blasting rod out, I focused on shutting out my other senses. Sight went first and the entire world went blurry and indistinct. Smell went second and the scent of Molly’s shampoo, the wine and the leaves of the tree we stood crouched by disappeared.

I could hear the distant traffic, the birds on their nightly hunts, the insects buzzing, Molly’s frightened panting and – forty feet to my left, along the wall of the building we stood by, the crunch of boots on dry twigs. I turned slowly until I had the location more or less pinpointed and slowly let my senses return to normal. Knowing that the vampire was there, I could see the vague outline and I aimed carefully. Once I made my presence known and got the party started I would have to be ready to dance.

“Fuego!”

Using magic under the influence of alcohol generally isn’t a good idea, kids. Especially not the complicated stuff. Instead of the tightly focused beam of fire I wanted, a torrent the width of a garbage can roared out of my blasting rod, spreading the stench of sulfur through the air as it surged forward. The vampire had enough time to see it coming but not to get out of the way, and its horribly disfigured bat-like face managed to look surprised before it was charred to ash.

“Stay close,” I told Molly firmly as I strode out onto the street in a, if I may say so myself, very Clint Eastwoodian fashion.

Hunting cries from the vampires echoed through the night and I could see the stranger half-turn towards me. Then her gaze fell on Molly and she seemed to come to a decision, turning away from us so that we stood back to back.

She was clearly suspicious, and I didn’t blame her, but for the moment I felt pretty sure we could work together.

“If only they sparkled, then at least we’d see them,” I muttered to myself. “I’m Dresden.”

There was a startled pause.

“Hannah.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Circumstances could be better, I guess, but that’s how it goes.”

The girl’s chuckle of laughter sounding painful, but at least she had some appreciation for proper humor.

“Maybe they’re gone?” Molly suggested hopefully from behind me.

“Nah,” I said. “They’re just scared.”

Maybe my well-crafted provocation yielded fruit and drove the vampires into a blind rage or maybe I just timed it well. Either way, the words were barely out of my mouth when they struck and they did so in unison, both of them aiming for me. Hardly fair, but then again, that was generally the way life went.

I brought my shield up with a word and the first vampire slammed into it like a speeding car. My boots slid an inch back along the ground, but I kept my balance. Then the other vampire hit me from behind. I tried to shift my shield to interpose it, but only managed to send the vampire sprawling off balance and while that might have bought me two or three seconds with a human being, this was another matter entirely. I leveled my blasting rod at its center mass even as I caught the gleam of flashing claws.

“Fuego!”

The blast of fire tore into the creature’s flabby, bulging gut like a shotgun shell, but not before its claws got me. We both fell back, but I felt something hot and sticky sting my cheek, which quickly began to grow numb.

The pain from the wound had only barely made its presence known when it began to fade. Shit shit shit. The Red court’s venom was a powerful narcotic with effects similar to heroin – only way better. And worse. My legs gave out from under me and I sank to the ground, body throbbing with a slow, sensual pleasure. I could see the vampire I’d injured try to drag itself away from me, only for the girl it had pursued to step up to it and with a harsh word in a foreign tongue, blow its head off. An impressive display of fire magic, really. I would’ve asked her how it was done if I wasn’t busy.

As I lay down on my back, I saw the other vampire in a similar state. Which was good. That meant it wasn’t about to chomp down on my neck and ruin my high. Fantastic. The venom was dragging me down, but the sight of Molly’s pale, sweaty face appearing in front of me gave me a few more moments of clarity.

“The blood,” I told her. “Get rid of the blood. Find a safe place. Threshold. No hospital. Venom. Blood – burn. No hospital.”

The stars were really lovely, twinkling and spinning and…

 

***

 

I woke up slowly, with a half-remembered dream still lingered with me as I blinked my eyes open. Vampires – a girl –a fight – the look of pure terror on Molly’s face as I blacked out. It was hazy, blurry and jumbled, but vivid enough that I would’ve sat up if a hand hadn’t been planted on my chest, pushing me back down again.

A man in his late fifties or early sixties stood above me. He looked to be of middle-eastern extraction, his dark hair and beard shot through with silver. He was a little on the heavy side and surprisingly strong.

“Lay still,” he said, the words enunciated and carrying an accent. “You’ll bleed again.”

Spotting the bandages wrapped all around my midriff, from my right hip all the way up to my ribs, I decided it was probably best to do as I’d been told. For now. I took in the room instead. I was laying on a sofa and my legs hung over the edge. A blanked had been draped over them. My headed pounded, my mouth felt dry and the sun stung my eyes.

“Sure thing,” I agreed. “How long have I been out?”

The man glanced at his watch.

“Ten hours. “

He disappeared for a minute and returned with a bottle of water. It was blissfully cold and I drank it all, letting my eyes drift shut once I’d managed that monumentally exhausting task.

“Thank you,” I said. I offered him my hand and he shook it with a firm grip. “Harry Dresden.”

“Yusuf.”

I had questions, but before I had time to ask them, I drifted off again. When I regained consciousness dusk had fallen. My headache was gone and I needed to use the bathroom rather badly.

The apartment wasn’t particularly big, which meant that finding it was a simple matter of exploration. I examined myself in the mirror when I was done. Despite the sleep, I looked tired, worn out and my stomach was aching with hunger. At least the bandages were clean.

I drank water from the faucet and when I left the bathroom, my host was waiting for me. He stood in the space leading into the kitchen and I could see a woman behind him by the stove, working on something food-related. My stomach growled but I stayed put.

“Where’s Molly?” I asked, looking around. I wasn’t going to go barge around the guy’s house. Not unless I absolutely had to.

The man’s brows furrowed briefly. He probably didn’t know her name, but unless his wife was named Molly too, there weren’t all that many suspects.

“The girl is fine. Resting.”

“Where?”

He nodded, pointing towards the second bedroom next to the bathroom.

“She refused to leave your bedside for many hours. If I hadn’t told her it was out of the question, I am certain she would’ve slept with you.”

I looked at the man again, somewhat impressed. Molly generally wasn’t a fan of being told what to do and even took issue with things I told her to do. Then again, her parents had raised her well so maybe she’d decided to be a good guest.

“And she did it?”

He nodded with a weary smile.

“She collapsed a couple of hours ago. My wife helped her to bed.” He hesitated for a moment, then added. “It is none of my business, but is she not a little too young for you?”

“We’re not actually-” I felt my cheeks grow hot and grimaced as I cleared my throat. “We’re not… together. Believe me when I say I know she’s too young.”

Yusuf chuckled. “I take it she disagrees, then?”

“Often.”

“Such is the way of young people these days,” he said, shrugging. “They’re willful. They think they know better than their elders. I know. My daughter married a Jewish boy. "

He grinned and the expression stripped a decade or two of wear from his face.

“I think dinner is just about ready. I expect you’re hungry?”

I’ve never really been much of a connoisseur but I’ve always liked trying new things.

“Hell yeah,” I agreed. “I’ll wake Molly. One second.”

The room had presumably been Yusuf’s daughter’s at some point and it didn’t seem like much had been done with it. An old desktop computer stood by the desk and there were posters of boy bands popular half a decade ago on the walls. The blinds had been drawn and an old fan was wheezing on steadily on the bedside table.

Molly was fast asleep when I walked into the room. She’d tugged the sheet up to her chin and her toes poked out at the other side. I moved the chair away from the desk as quietly as I could and settled into it, watching my apprentice sleep.

It had been close. Far, far too close. The Red Court operations teams always consisted of six and that probably meant that their buddies had been somewhere in the area. If they’d arrived after I was knocked out, Molly would have died horribly – or worse yet – lived.

If she hadn’t been there at all, I would most certainly have died that night. She’d gotten the both of us to safety. I’d thought we were in the clear, too far away for anyone or anything to catch up with us. I’d been stupid and my failure had almost gotten us both killed. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, wizards are terrific at brooding and I spent a while doing just that in that dark room. So long, in fact, that Molly stirred and slowly blinked her eyes open. She brushed stray golden brown locks away from her face and looked up at me.

“Harry?”

“Hey there, Grasshopper.” I moved my chair closer until my knees brushed up against the edge of the bed. “Are you feeling okay?”

She propped herself up on one elbow, giving me a blank look.

“Am I okay?” She exclaimed with a faint note of hysteria to her words as she pushed herself into a seated position. “Harry you- You were bleeding and you wouldn’t wake up. I thought you were going to die.”

“I would’ve but you saved my ass.” I grinned. “Which I appreciate.”

Her blue eyes were bloodshot and watery, but she managed a weak smile and grabbed hold of my hand. It was the left hand, the one that had gotten all but melted by flame-thrower wielding vampires. I couldn’t actually feel her touch, but I squeezed back as well as I could. Molly caught me by surprise when she grabbed hold of the leather glove and began to peel it off.

“Molly. What’re you-“

I grabbed her wrist out of pure instinct but she barely reacted, pulling the glove the rest of the way off. The fingers of my left hand were stiff, pale and still looked a little like a half-melted wax-sculpture. If it disturbed the girl, she it didn’t show on her face, though. She pushed her palm against mine and twined our fingers together.

“When you were… Out of it, I guess, you… You said things.” She took a deep breath and squeezed down hard. “You were scared. They…”

Even in the dim lighting, I could see her face twist with distaste and worry. “They hurt you, didn’t they?”

I felt my blood run cold at the implications and the memories being dredged up from the dark hole at the back of my mind where I’d firmly repressed them. I didn’t know what I’d told her under the influence of the venom and the less she knew the better. She had enough things to be scared of already.

“They hurt a lot of people, Molly,” I said. “That’s why they’re monsters and that’s why we fight them.”

“But-“

I don’t know when we’d gotten so close and I didn’t really realize until I brushed my fingers along Molly’s cheek. But with my hand on her soft, warm skin, I became painfully aware of it. We were only a few inches apart. Molly tilted her head a fraction to the side, eyes questioning. She leaned in half an inch, then hesitated. God help me, but I almost leaned in, too. At the last second, sanity returned and I pressed the kiss to the girl’s forehead instead.

“We need to get moving,” I told her, softly. “It’s almost dark again and we need to be out of town by the time it is. Are you ready?”

She blinked in confusion, then visibly steeled herself and nodded.

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

Molly was growing up to be one hell of a woman.

 

***

 

“So. What do you think?”

I was standing in the middle of the living room of an apartment. There was a ratty old couch in one corner and a table by it. It wasn’t a large room and the kitchen was off in the corner by the entrance, opposite the small bathroom.

The only other room was a bedroom. I don’t exactly ask for a lot when it comes to the place to call home, but I felt a stab of longing for my old basement apartment in Chicago as I looked at the stains on the wall. What did I think?

On the bright side, the rent was pretty cheap, which was a good thing since we barely had any money. On the other, it was one of the worst shitholes I’d ever seen, and let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of those.

I looked sideways at Molly, whose nose was scrunched up at the reek of cigarettes that had built up inside. She shrugged and I guessed why. The money wasn’t really hers so she didn’t want to butt in on the decision. I turned to the owner. Or the owner’s son, maybe. The kid was only a few years older than Molly. He was out of his teens, but not by a lot, skinny and a few inches below average height, with hair in dire need of a wash. He’d been polite and pleasant enough, but something about him had my instincts twigged.

“We’ll take it.”

He nodded.

“Rent’s 400 a month and it’s another 400 in deposit. You’ll pay on the 25th of each month.” He frowned in thought. “It’s the 20th now so we’ll say 100 this month. You can keep the stuff that's here if you want"

Mathematically, that wasn’t exactly fair… But when you don’t have any papers and you’re on the run, you sometimes have to accept that life isn’t fair. I dug out my wallet and handed him the deposit plus the rent for the month, trying not to show him that I didn’t have enough for the next month. He counted the money. Twice. His tongue wiggled between his lips as he did and then nodded when he was satisfied that the rumpled small bills I’d gathered were enough.

“Enjoy your stay.”

He pushed off the doorframe, handed me the key, and closed the door behind him, officially starting off the first day out of ninety-two as flat mates with Molly.

 

***

 

Day One

 

I woke to the sound of traffic in the distance and people shouting outside the window. The scent of some spicy food was wafting in along with the noise and the morning sun and I groaned. It was getting hot already and I felt a slight headache building, prompting me to abandon the questionable comforts of my lumpy new bed, get dressed and head out into the living room. The room still stank of smoke, even though we’d kept the windows open all night.


Molly lay spread haphazardly over the sofa, one leg on the floor. She’d used a few jumpers as covers but had shed them over the course of the night, leaving her wearing a pair of black panties and a t-shirt. I headed over to the faucet, cupping my hands under the blissfully cool water and gulping down greedy mouthfuls. By the time I felt marginally better, I could hear Molly moving over by the couch and turned to find her yawning and stretching. She grimaced in discomfort as she got to her feet, fingers trailing along her spine, and I’d be lying if I said the way that thrust her chest out wasn’t intriguing to watch.

“You alright?”

“Yeah.” She moved over to the sink and drank much as I had, then took a step towards the fridge before stopping half-way there. It would be empty – or at least I really hoped it was. She frowned as she looked at me.

“What’s the plan now, boss?”

We’d only really discussed things loosely since we’d fled the Red Court a week prior, eventually deciding we needed a place with an actual threshold where we could seek shelter.

As it turned out, getting a place when you were an illegal immigrant without any contacts wasn’t easy, and we’d eventually had to settle.

“We need rent-money,” I said, looking around. “Food, something to clean this place up with… A pad of paper to make this list on.”

I ran a hand through my hair. It needed cutting, but that wasn’t going to be an option in the foreseeable future.

“Could we use magic?” Molly asked uncertainly. “Like, a cleaning spell or something?”

I couldn’t help but grin as I shook my head.

“Nope. We’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. How much money do we have left?”

 

Day Five

 

I’d always thought Thomas was a problematic roommate. He’d been a shameless slob, he’d brought girls home and had sex with them on every imaginable surface of the apartment - as well as several one would not expect - and had been an overall pain in my ass. But he’d been my brother and as much and as often as we’d gotten on one another’s nerves, it had all been something I could deal with. With Molly, it was different. She was perfectly courteous most of the time, didn’t shy away from helping out cleaning the place up, and our looming bankruptcy and starvation aside, we were actually getting along well. She was also completely evil and scheming on a level that far outstripped Thomas’ abilities.

It all started with the sofa the previous tenant of the apartment had left us. With only one bedroom, we decided I’d get the bed and she the sofa. I’d like to stress that I did volunteer to take the sofa, but she insisted that since I was taller I should have the bed. It wasn’t the kind of logic I could argue against.

She was patient about setting her plan in motion. A complaint here or there, some stretching, nothing major at first. A few more days went by and then, one night, just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard the soft patter of footsteps on the floor. There was the squeaking of springs and the mattress sank down a few inches as someone settled on it.

“Hey… Harry. Are you awake?” Molly whispered.

“No,” I muttered, too tired to raise my face off my pillow.

“Can I sleep here tonight?”

She was holding the small of her back, with a look of discomfort on her face.

“The ravages of age,” I muttered. “Yeah, sure.”

In retrospect, that was the moment where I should have shut her down. Told her to go back to the couch and that we’d solve everything in the morning. I didn’t. I was already drifting off again. I wouldn’t realize the full extent of my mistake until the next day.

 

Day Nine

 

I looked up from my vigorous scrubbing of the kitchen floor when the door opened. Molly was walking in, her head only barely poking up over the pile of clothes in the hamper she was carrying.

“Did everything work out?” I asked, straightening from my work.

Molly set the hamper down with a grunt of effort.

“Yeah. I’ve got six younger siblings, Harry. I know laundry.”

I chuckled at that, looked more closely at her, then frowned at what she was wearing.

“Molly. Is that my t-shirt?”

I knew it was, of course, with the familiar KISS logo on black background, falling to cover most of her tan thighs. It unavoidably left my stupid brain wrestling with the question of what she might or might not be wearing underneath it, even though I knew there had to be something. She shrugged and that did confirm that she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath.

“Yeah. All my stuff’s in the machine now. Yours is all done.” She glanced at my work on the linoleum floors, which stubbornly remained dirty looking despite my best efforts.

“So you decided to take my shirt,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, her smile perfectly innocent. “Is that weird?”

Was it? Only if I made it weird, really, and that would probably be worse…

“Cause I can take it off if it is,” she couldn’t quite hide her grin as she grabbed the hem of the t-shirt.

“No! No, it’s fine. Keep it.”

She smiled sweetly at me.

“Thanks. It’s really comfy.”

Of course it was.

“I’ll see if I have more luck with the bathroom,” I told her, getting my bucket and rag. I paused in the doorway, remembering something.

“I found something, by the way, so keep your schedule clear on Friday.”

 

Day Twenty

 

The first spell Molly had ever managed to put together was also the one she’d thus far proved most talented at, and after only a few months of my tutelage, her veils were already better mine.

The problem was that the same talent that allowed her to craft such delicate spells, to sense things that I would never be able to perceive, were turning out to cause her problems in the presence of intense emotions. The more skilled she got, the worse it would get, and as much as I wanted to keep her out of anything resembling a combat situation, the way our lives had been going, that seemed unlikely.

And that was why we were pressed together under one of her veils, sneaking into a concert. I’m going somewhere with this. Really.

“Are you sure about this, Boss?” Molly asked. I could all but hear her grin.

“Yes, Molly. It’s a local band. I asked around and the girl at the ticket place said, and I quote, ‘they are rad’. That’s praise from you young’uns, isn’t it?”

“Uhm… Probably. I still don’t think this is going to be your kind of music, you know?”

I looked around. The kids were wearing a lot of dark clothes and gothy accessories.

“It’s just music. How bad could it be?”

 

***

 

“This is so bad.”

“I did tell you.”

I scowled at the girl.

“You don’t have to be that smug about it,” I groused, covering my ears with my hands.

We were in the middle of a muddy field, in front of a large raised stage, upon which Driveway Park or something like that were plying their… Craft. And yes, I’m using that term very loosely. It was all noise, screeching, horrible noise, with something vaguely related to singing somewhere in the mix.

The sun had disappeared an hour earlier, but its warmth still remained in the air.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

“One of these days I’m going to take you to a Springsteen concert so that you get to experience real music.”

“It’s a date,” she said cheekily.

I gave her my best unamused look and ignored the comment.

“Are you ready to go again?”

Molly’s face paled considerably, but she nodded and I dragged the tip of of my sneaker across the circle I’d drawn in the ground. She rocked back as the pressure of the crowd washed over her like a wave.

“Focus,” I told her. “It’s not about force, it’s about balance. Don’t push it away. Let it slip by.”

Molly stood still, her hands locked into fists, her spine rigid, her teeth grit into a grimace. For her, this was the metaphysical equivalent of pressing an ear to the gigantic loudspeakers the band had spread out. What I was trying to teach her wasn’t to shut them down but to put in a pair of earplugs.

Tears were forming at the corners of her blue eyes and she’d begun to pant with exertion. She wasn’t succeeding, but I couldn’t get worked up about it, or I’d just add the the noise. I had to serve as a beacon for her to home in on, to lean on.

A piteous moan slipped past her lips and I stepped into the circle, willing it shut behind me, steadying Molly when she stumbled.

“Forty-six seconds,” I told her. “That’s ten seconds more than last time. Good job.”

She made a soft nonsensical sound, then straightened enough to lean her head against my chest. It was intimate enough to make me a little uncomfortable, but if I was going to motivate her, then I had to indulge some of her bad habits occasionally.

“It’s nothing,” she muttered. “I need to do more.”

She was as stubborn as I had once been. Well, almost anyways.

“What’s the most important aspect of magic?” I asked her.

“Patience,” she parroted impatiently. “I know, but I-”

She made a frustrated sound and I couldn’t help but to smile, remembering Elaine sounding just like that, almost two decades in the past.

“No buts,” I said firmly. “You’ll learn learn to handle it.”

She nodded and stepped back, wobbling a little before steadying in the middle of the large circle.

“Okay. Let’s do it again.”

I considered her carefully. Her jaw was set in determination and I could already see her try to gather herself.

“If you’re sure.”

She flashed me a grin.

“One more.”

Molly kicked at the circle and the noise came roaring back in.

 

Day Thirty-three

 

I’ve always been a sucker for routine and after little over a month in the apartment, I had settled into doing any and all shopping we needed during the pleasantly cool evenings.

“I’m heading out, Molly,” I called through the bathroom door. “Want me to get anything?”

The shower was running on the other side.

“No, that’s okay,” the girl called back. “See you in a bit.”

Humming to myself, I pulled my jacket on and headed out, locking the door behind me and raising the modest set of wards I’d set up around the place and began to head down the stairs.

The building had four floors and our apartment was on the third.

“Harry?”

I paused with my hand on the the door leading out of the building at the sound of a familiar voice. I sighed and turned around to face our landlord. His name was Liam Jefferson, though Molly and I called him something different, and he wasn’t actually the landlord. He was the landlord’s son, and for all intents and purposes, that was the same thing.

“Yeah?”

The guy walked up to me. His feet were bare, despite the dingy floors.

“The rent was due yesterday,” he said, voice level and polite, despite clearly being annoyed.

I’d seen him deal with other residents and most of the time, he didn’t bother with courtesy. Then again, most of the tenants weren’t well over a foot taller to him, I suppose. I felt around in my jacket for my wallet and frowned when I couldn’t find it. I could’ve sworn I put it there earlier.

“Yeah. I’ve got it. Let me go get my wallet.”

“Sure, sure. How’s your roomie doing?”

I’d been about to walk away but I turned around and stepped up to the kid, close enough to get inside his personal bubble.

“She’s doing well,” I said, keeping my voice carefully neutral. “Thanks for asking.”
He eased back half a step from me, grinning and holding his hands up, palms forward.

“Hey, mate. Can’t blame a guy for trying, can you? Hot piece of…” He caught himself and went silent.

I had a thing or two to tell the kid, but I couldn’t. At best, that’d lead to us being thrown out onto the street. At worst, the police would get involved and then the Wardens would be tagging along for the party shortly thereafter.

“I guess not,” I said. “Give me a few minutes.”

I headed back upstairs again, disarmed the wards, opened the door and closed it behind me.

“Molly, have you seen my-?”

The last word died on my lips and I froze in place on the doormat, staring.

Molly stood in the middle of the room, completely naked, with droplets of water still running down her skin, down along the sumptuous curve of her…

And then it got worse. Molly turned around towards me. For a long moment we both stood there, staring at one another and then I turned around facing the door.

“What the hell, Molly?” I asked. “Why are you naked?”

I was never going to get the mental image out of my head. Damn it.

“You said you were going to the store,” she protested. “I didn’t think you'd be back so soon.”

“I wasn’t going to be, but I met The Creep on the way out and he wanted rent money… And I forgot my wallet around here somewhere - Go get dressed.”

“Fine.”

She stomped off and I didn’t turn around until I heard the door close. A minute later, she re-emerged, dressed and holding my wallet. She walked up to me, blush brightening with every step, and held it out for me.

“Oh come on,” she said, giving what she probably thought was a coy smile. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

I gave her a look and cursed her infectious smile as I found myself joining in.

“I am definitely not answering that.”

Her smiled turned into a pout and she walked off with a bit of extra sway to her hips. I found myself with a lot to think about as I walked off to the store.

I returned to the apartment about thirty minutes later, with our bills for the month paid and two bags of groceries. The fridge groaned when I walked up to it, as it always did, and I put the perishables in quickly, then grabbed the second bag and headed over to the sofa.

“How was work today?”

She groaned and the moment I’d settled into the sofa, she put her feet in my lap.

“Fine,” she muttered, head dropping back against the cushions. “Did I ever tell you how much I hate whoever came up with high heels?”

“You may have mentioned it once or twice,” I said, working my thumbs against the soles of her foot.

Considering how vividly I could still picture Molly from earlier, I wished she’d be a little less vocal in her appreciation. A quarter of an hour went by and I pushed Molly’s feet out of my lap. She made a sound of vague, sleepy disapproval.

“I thought we’d practise some magic today,” I told her. “Unless you’re too tired.”

It took Molly two seconds tops to get vertical.

“I’m okay,” she insisted. “What’re we doing?”

“You’re going to learn to construct defenses against a psychic assault. I’m going to sit here, say ‘hmm, that’s interesting’ and make Freud jokes.”

 

Day Sixty-Two

 

“This is a really nice place for a date,” Molly said.

We’d lain out a blanket in a secluded spot in the grass by a little pond in the park. It was two bus rides and a long walk from our apartment but it was calm and quiet, both of which essential for what we were doing there.

And it wasn’t a date.

“It’s not a date,” I told her. “It’s a lesson.”

“Of course.” She yawned and stretched where she lay, joints popping. “So what’re we doing?”

“If you look away for a little while, I’m going to call on a friend.”

Molly turned her head my way.

“That sounds like something that should have me crying stranger danger.”

"Very funny,” I said, dryly. “Cover your ears too, while you’re at it.”

She rolled her eyes but did as I’d told her and I cupped my hands and whispered a name. I repeated it the standard three times and gave Molly’s shoulder a nudge to let her know she could uncover her ears again.

“So… What was that about?”

I just smiled at her and said nothing for a while just because I knew it annoyed her. That’d show her to make bad jokes when that was clearly my thing.

“A surprise. We’ll probably have to wait a bit and speaking of surprises…”
I opened up the cooler we’d brought along and Molly pushed herself up into a seated position. She looked inside and her frown was quickly replaced with a bright smile as she picked up the cake.

“I can’t believe you remembered,” she whispered. Her cheeks were bright pink and she wasn’t looking at me, favouring the cake instead. It was chocolate and banana, with a single unlit candle in the middle.

“Of course I remembered,” I said, handing over the plastic fork and a knife.

She didn’t accept either and instead grabbed hold of my hand, squeezing and running a thumb along my skin.

“Thanks,” she said softly, looking up at me. “I really appreciate it.”

The circumstances were conspiring against me. The warm, late afternoon in the shadow of the tree, the birds twittering, the warm, soft hands holding mine. Molly’s blue eyes staring up at mine, unconcerned about the growing intimacy of the gesture.

“Anytime.”

She hesitated a moment and then wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug, holding on almost desperately. It wasn’t until I felt the tears dripping down on my shoulder that I realized she was crying.

I didn’t mention it. There wasn’t any need. If she wanted to talk about feeling homesick, and I felt fairly certain that was what it was about, then she would. If not, then I’d wait.

“We’d better get a slice and then put it back in the cooler before it melts,” I told her.

I sliced up a piece each and put the cake, stuck the single candle into hers and and lit it with a quiet incantation.

“Make a wish.”

We both demolished our first piece within a minute of Molly blowing out the candle and went for seconds. I caught my apprentice’s hand before she could eat the last piece.

“Do you remember what I told you about The Sight?” I asked.

She nodded, eyes bright with interest.

“Put the last piece in your hand and look over towards the base of the tree.”

I moved over to her side, pointing towards the foot of the large eucalyptus tree we were sitting under.

“Close your eyes and focus on this spot here. You’ll feel it when it works and you can open them again. Hold out the cake.”

I put a finger between her eyebrows and opened my own sight. Out of the many skills wizard-level talents are born with, The Sight is among the most useful and dangerous.

My Sight cut through the mundane veil of the world and with it, I Saw everything. I saw the lifeforce of the old tree, from the roots burrowed into the soil, spreading out until the thinnest of its twigs.

And behind it, a little creature was poking its head out. It looked something like a Chinese dragon in miniature, two inches long at the most, its skin a shimmering rainbow of colours.

I could feel Molly tense when she managed to access her own sight.

“Easy,” I told her, keeping my voice slow and calm. “Focus on the… Whatever it is. It’s not dangerous.”

The rainbow snake thing swam through the air, from side to side, edging closer, its forked tongue darting out to taste the air the way a snake’s might. It took it a minute to make its way over to Molly, by which time the cake had all but melted in her hand.

It seemed to make no difference to the creature and it lapped it up and let a giggling Molly pet its head while it ate. It gave her hand a fond nudge with its head, the way a Mister sometimes did, and then vanished back behind the tree and into the brush.

“Good job,” I told her, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Close your eyes again and count to five.”

And that was when Molly got stupid. I really should’ve seen it coming, of course, and I really should’ve warned her before-hand, but I hadn’t and she turned her Sight toward me.

Her reaction was almost immediate. A brief moment of surprise and then her eyes widened in shock.

“Harry, you’re bleeding!” She put a hand to my chest, as it trying to apply pressure to a wound, then one to my abdomen that would’ve been awkward and distracting under other circumstances.

The look on her face made me fairly certain that her efforts weren’t doing much good.

“Look at me,” I told her, keeping my voice as calm as I could. “It’s not real.”

I put both my hands on her cheeks, thumbs under her chin, forcing her eyes to mine.

“Look me in the eye, Molly. It’s just the sight. I’m not hurt.” She blinked and tried to wrench her head free but I held firm. “Close your eyes, Molly. Breath.”

“Okay,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut. “Okay.”

A minute passed in silence before Molly opened her eyes and looked at me again. I smiled wryly at her.

“What have you learned?”

She glared at me but it lacked any semblance of conviction.

“That The Sight is really crazy?”

She shuddered as the thought brought the memory back to her, as fresh and vivid as when she’d first seen it. The same way it would stay there, for as long as she lived.

“That… And that you should trust that I tell you to do things for a reason.”

“I got that, thanks,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.

“You’d better,” I warned her. “Or next time you might get to see something you can’t handle and then I can’t help you. Okay?”

She gave me a tight nod.

“Tell me you understand.”

Fear and worry made it come out angrier than I’d intended and the girl flinched. She tried to hide it, but I didn’t miss it.

“I understand.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry. I just… I wanted - It was stupid.”

“Yes, it was.” I gave her shoulder a pat. “Do you want more cake?”

 

Day Eighty

 

Keys jangled outside the door and I turned away from the sandwiches I’d been preparing. The stove had broken. Again. Metal scraped and the door handle rattled but the door remained closed. Muted swearing could be heard from the other side of the door and after a few more seconds, the lock turned and the door swung inwards.

Molly all but toppled in along with it, coming to an unsteady halt in the middle of the room. She kicked off her shoes and walked up to the couch, collapsing upon it without saying a word.

I finished up the sandwiches, poured us each a glass of milk and brought the entire load over to her, kicking the door she’d left open shut on my way over.

We’d recently invested in a little coffee table by the couch; I set the food and drinks down on it before sitting down next to Molly.

“Long day?”

“Yeah.”

She groaned and inched closer, just enough to rest her cheek on my leg. I watched her for a moment as she snatched up one of the sandwiches and tore into it.

“Will it ever get better?” Molly asked.

“It will,” I promised.

“When?” She made a frustrated noise and pulled herself up into a seated position, looking up at me with bloodshot blue eyes. “How much longer?”

“It’s complicated.” I raised a hand to forestall her objection. “I know that sucks and I know that’s not the answer you want, but it’s as good as I can do for you right now.”

She looked down at her lap.

“It just feels like it gets worse, sometimes. Like I’m backsliding.”

“That’s because your powers are growing. You’re getting more input and you’re having a hard time adjusting. You’ll get there.”

When she finally looked up at me there was an uncertainty in her gaze. She looked at me, not in search of information but for a promise that everything was going to work out.

“Are you sure?”

I bent down to kiss her forehead.

“Positive.”

 

Day Ninety-two

 

I’ve never had a sleeping schedule that people would refer to as normal or healthy… Or even sane. It’s been one of the constants of my life, no matter how hard I’ve tried to adjust.

Because of that, waking up in the dead of night wasn’t anything new to me and I thought I was just about to turn over on my pillow and try to go back to sleep when I heard it. A knock on the door. There’d been a doorbell. Briefly. Well, it was still around, it just didn’t work anymore.

I glanced sideways at the old clock on my bedside table - which informed me it was 03:49 in the morning. The bedroom window of my apartment was open and a cool, refreshing breeze rolled in continuously, bringing with it the sweet, pervasive scent from the local bakery that had recently begun their work.

Stepping into a pair of sweatpants, I cast one last longing look towards the bed. It wasn’t new and it was lumpy but Molly lay there, soft and warm, with her hair fanning out in a golden halo on her pillow. The covers had slipped halfway off her, barring legs and an ass that a lesser man would’ve paused to stare at.

Fortunately I wasn’t a lesser man. I was just considered whether she might be… freezing. What was I supposed to be doing again? Oh yeah.

There was another knock on the door, this one more insistent. I muttered a few choice words to myself as I walked across the yellowed linoleum floors, through the tiny kitchen slash living room and towards the door.

If Thompson at the floor above had gotten confused about where he lived again, I just might lose it. I’d have sent him a swarm of rats if I wasn’t sure his apartment already had one living there.

I opened the door and my reprimand got stuck in my throat in an undignified noise. It was not Jake Thompson, resident junkie and pain in my ass, who was standing outside of my apartment door.

It wasn’t the Liam, the landlord, with some bogus complaint and an attempt to flirt with Molly.

It was a man of average height and unassuming build. He was in his Clooney Years - and had been for millennia - with silver gracing his dark hair at the temples. His trousers and silk shirt were both tailor-made, throwing a sharp contrast to the slender of length of a hangman’s noose he wore about his throat like a tie.

“How the mighty have fallen,” Nicodemus Archleone said, smiling as he took in my disheveled, undressed appearance. “Good morning, Dresden.”

I blinked at him, my heart going at about a million beats a minute. Fortunately, my smart-ass reflexes couldn’t be overcome even by a shock as potent as this one

“Fancy seeing you here, Nick,” I said, my voice coming out croaky. “How’s the family?”

The man’s smile widened at that.

“Quite well. Thank you for asking. I am glad you took my lesson about properties to heart since the last time we met.”

I just stared at him. My brain was beginning to catch up enough for me to analyze the situation. He wasn’t visibly armed, but I knew the man well enough to be certain that he had more than enough gear on him to kill me ten times over.

But if what he’d wanted to do was kill me, then why had he waited?

“Sure,” I said, tentatively questing out with my magical senses to see if I could detect something my mundane senses could not. “What do you want?”

It may have come out just a little hostile. Nicodemus shadow, which had pooled in front of his gleaming leather shoes, flickered and writhed for a moment before settling down again.

“I want you to work with me.”

“And you decided that the asscrack of the morning was the best time to come by?”

Nicodemus didn’t seem to enjoy my brilliant wit, but he was evil and a douchebag so I didn’t let that bother me.

“Unfortunately, I am somewhat short on time, which is why I came as soon as could be arranged and why there is little time for us to exchange… Pleasantries.”

I leaned my hip against the doorframe and just looked at the guy.

“You still haven’t gotten to the point where you tell me why I should give a shit.”

Nicodemus smiled and remained completely relaxed, even though I felt reasonably sure he wanted nothing more than to strangle the life out of me right then and there. He was not a man who was used to being insulted and I expected he was even less used to allowing the insulter live.

“We have a common problem. If we fail to deal with it we will all suffer the fallout.”

“So we must band together against our common foe and I’m sure we’ll find out we’ve got all sorts of stuff in common over the course of our adventure, huh?”

I might not have been particularly subtle with the sarcasm.

“I am offering you a chance to potentially end the war with the Red Court and to prevent horrors you could not even begin to imagine. Why would I come all this way only to lie to you?”

I weighed my next words carefully - really, I did.

“Because you’re a dick, Nicodemus. Not to mention kind of evil.”

“And because of that you would let the world burn?”

My patience was fraying.

“Nah. I’ll just do it on my own. You murdered Shiro and tried to kill off my city with a plague. So tell me why I shouldn’t kick your ass down the stairs and go back to bed?”

Nicodemus smiled at that, a cool, dangerous expression. He wasn’t even a bit scared of me.

“You’d be dead before you could draw power. Even if you somehow managed to hurt me, the lovely young woman in your bed - Carpenter’s eldest, isn’t she? - would be shot. I could also have the entire building leveled.”

The worst part wasn’t the extent of how fucked I was. What really, truly scared me was that Nicodemus was not the sort of villain who told you his entire evil plan, which meant that he had a lot more up his sleeve than he’d just told me.

“If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead. I wouldn’t even have to get my hands dirty. One phone call to your White Council would’ve had you dead within a few days. As much as it pains me, we have common foes and they need to be dealt with now.”

I gritted my teeth but stepped aside to let him come inside.

“If I’m going to hear any more of this bullshit I’m going to need some coffee.”

The coffee machine I’d bought the antique’s shop didn’t make good coffee, but even bad coffee has caffeine and that was the important part. I dumped in extra sugar and cream to make up for the difference.

“I’ll get right to the point,” Nicodemus said. Then he took a long, slow sip of coffee. I carefully reminded myself that he was the one pressed for time and not me. “As you are probably aware, The Red Court has gained the support of human practitioners and through them, outsiders.”

I rolled my wrist in an impatient “go ahead” gesture. He was correct about not spelling out anything that was new to me, or The White Council. For now.

“What you may not know is that one, or several of these practitioners, are among my order.”

I had the feeling that this wasn’t something he wanted to admit to and that he was, at this moment, far down his list of plans. I mean, come on. I’ve never been anyone’s plan A.

My next few words, I choose very, very carefully.

“Would they be doing things like… Using hellfire to attack Arctis Tor while the Fae and the Council were busy fighting The Red Court?”

Nicodemus’ poker face cracked - just for a moment - and I knew that was news to him. Damn, Mab must’ve kept the lid on tight on that shit.

“Hellfire,” he said, his voice a bare whisper. “Are you certain?”

“Yes.” I frowned at him. “Trust me, I know hellfire.”

That brought a toothy smile to his lips.

“I suppose you would.” He tapped his fingers on his leg a couple of times, expression thoughtful. “Were they successful?”

“Probably not. They didn’t get Mab but they banged up Arctis Tor pretty well. What they were after is anybody’s guess.”

It all depended on why the attack had been perpetrated. The thought of the denarians, as powerful as they were, attempting to kill Mab was laughable and worrying all at the same time.

Nicodemus made a thoughtful sound and sipped at his coffee.

“I see… It might be relevant in the future but for now, we have immediate concerns. Perhaps you should wake Miss Carpenter? I would rather not waste time to repeating myself.”

“Yeah, about that…” I leaned forward in my chair. “I think it’d be best if I laid down some ground rules.”

Nicodemus made a sound of inquiry.

“If you, or any of your ‘friends’ hand her a coin, or drop one near her, or accidentally misplace one where she might find it. If you do anything or let anything happen to her, I will kill your fucking daughter. Are we clear?”

That actually got to him. He lowered the cup from his lips, toying with it in his hand for a moment. A threat against him wouldn’t phase him because we both knew it was pointless. His darling daughter was another matter entirely.

“I think we understand one another, Dresden,” he said. “Call on the girl.”

 

***

 

In retrospect “We need to talk” might not have been the best way to start off the conversation. Molly looked understandably apprehensive as she shambled along in a pair of hastily grabbed jeans and a t-shirt, running her hands through sleep-tousled blonde hair.

Nicodemus still sat in my ratty old sofa, idly sipping his cup of coffee, seemingly perfectly at ease. He inclined his head to Molly when she came through the door.

“Miss Carpenter,” he said smoothly, rising and offering his hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

A golden eyebrow with a single, slender metal ring through it rose and Molly cast a questioning sideways glance to me. I gave her a quick, shallow nod.

“Yeah…” She said, watching him carefully as she shook his hand. “Who are you again?”

“Nicodemus.”

Molly stiffened for a moment as she pulled back and I felt certain it wasn’t the first time she’d heard that name. She gave me another sideways glance, without ever taking her eyes off Nicodemus, and spoke through clenched teeth.

“What’s he doing here, boss?”

I decided that this was a time for choosing my words carefully.

“You know the saying about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions… Or maybe legos?”

Molly frowned.

“The first part, sure.”

I nodded.

“This might be that first step. I have to go to Mexico. The war’s getting back into gear and Susan’s in danger. I’m not going to ask you to come with me.”

Molly put her hand on my shoulder and smiled up at me.

“Sure. So when are we leaving?”

Chapter Text

Chapter One

“I might as well have worn a raincoat,” I grumbled, tugging at the collar of my shirt.

It let some air in, but that air was unfortunately just as hot and humid as the rest, and I just ended up more miserable. So far, I was not enjoying Brazil or Rio de Janeiro. There weren’t even any skimpily clad women or carnivals going on. There were a lot of people in what I judged to be the central parts of the city, true, but it seemed to be a Tuesday like any other. Everything I’d seen on TV had clearly been a lie.

“I’m melting!” Molly shrieked, grinning at me and flailing her arms about. She drew looks from locals walking by us but didn’t seem to notice. At least the kid knew her classics.

Deirdre cast us a look of thinly disguised irritation. Nicodemus’ expression never flickered but I got the feeling he didn’t appreciate our brilliance any more than his daughter.

“One gets used to it eventually,” he said.

“I told you I should’ve bought that bikini,” Molly said, just a touch smugly.

I remembered that bikini. I remember how well it had fit her. I wished I didn’t. I bestowed upon my apprentice my most wizardly glare. Well, I tried, anyways.

“It’s not fun when you’re the one being snarky,” I told her.

She beamed.

“Then why are you smiling?”

I guess she had me there.

“I guess there’s no way of being that close to comedic genius without some of it rubbing off.”

Nicodemus sighed deeply. Molly and I exchanged knowing looks and kept on grinning as we kept on moving down the street.

“Should we be walking around in the open like this?” Molly asked. “I mean, the sun’s up and all, but someone could still see us and decide to shoot us or something.”

She eyed a couple of people as we walked by them, but the grocer in question didn’t pull out a shotgun from behind his cart of tomatoes. Nicodemus offered her a chill smile.

“As you may be aware, the Red Court have dominated these lands for a long, long time with little opposition. They’ve divided their holdings up into territories, each ruled by one of the Lords of Outer Night.”

He said it as though it was common knowledge and I tried not to stare. The Council knew some about the Red Court, of course, but our foremost expert on them had been the first target when the war got started.

“Over the millennia, these Lords have squabbled over the lands and, in the case of the two closest to this city, things supposedly have been close to civil war on occasion. As such, it was decided that this particular city be a demilitarized buffer zone of sorts.”

I frowned at him. “Is that why we’re here? One of the vampire lords of whatsit are trying to head back into the Rhineland?”

“One of them has and that is part of why we are here. It is not our primary concern, however.”

“And what’s that?”

“Best discussed in private, I should think,” Nicodemus said smoothly.

We fortunately didn’t have very far to go before we reached the car that had been prepared for us in a nearby parking garage. It was dark and overall discreet german model with blacked out windows. I had a feeling that not even German engineering was going to keep the AC running for long with two wizards in the back seat but for the moment, at least, we all got to enjoy a brief respite from the sweltering pervasive heat.

The car came with one of Nicodemus’ tongue-less goons as a chauffeur. Maybe Nicodemus hadn’t bothered getting a driver’s licence.

With poor Molly squeezed in between me and Deirdre in the backseat and Nicodemus riding shotgun, we set off onto the streets.

The driver took us in circles around town for half an hour before we finally pulled over outside of a hotel.

“Miss Carpenter,” Nicodemus said, without turning around in his seat. “It’s time.”

Molly nodded and took my hand. She’d looked perfectly relaxed besides Deirdre for the whole trip, but her hand was sweaty and her fingers trembled when she grasped mine. There was a moment’s silence as she focused her power and then, with a whispered word, the world blurred around us.

The Red Court was a large organisation and they had eyes and ears everywhere. Nicodemus travelling around was one thing. He was a major player in the supernatural world. They could not stop him from coming and going as he pleased without causing a ruckus. Me, on the other hand?

If an informer didn’t tattle to the Red Court, they probably would to the council. The only difference to the end result would be where my blood ended up instead of my cooling body.

So Molly and I followed Deirdre out on her side of the car, staying close to one another under the cover of her veil. I gave Molly’s fingers a light squeeze and we waited patiently while Nicodemus took care of the living arrangements.

“At least we’ll get a nice room,” I said, leaned in close to Molly’s ear. Her veils would cover us but she hadn’t quite learned to keep sound from going out yet.

“Mmm.” Molly’s voice came out breathless and I winced, stepping back just a bit. “Will we be rooming with them?”

I frowned.

“No,” I said. “He doesn’t trust us any more than we trust him.”

My predictions turned out correct as we made our way up the stairs and to the fifth floor.

“We will be busy for the next couple of hours,” Nicodemus said. “I suggest you stay confined to your room and… Likewise prepare yourselves.”

“And by ‘suggest’ he doesn’t actually mean ‘suggest’,” I clarified.

Nicodemus eyes flicked to me as he opened to door to his and Deirdre’s suite, mildly amused for the first time. “Correct.

I glared at him stepped into the room with Molly, closing and locking the door.

“Harry-”

I put a finger to her lips and she cut off, eyes widening. Without speaking any further, I stepped up to the door and Listened. Nothing.

I looked around the room. It wasn’t the penthouse but it was impressive all the same, a large open-space living room, a balcony, and a bathroom with a jacuzzi large enough for half a dozen if they weren’t too squeamish about personal space.

I did a circuit of the room and pulled the cord out of the tv and the lamps, then moved to what I judged to be the center of the room and hexed the shit out of absolutely everything. I didn’t put it above Nicodemus to have our room surveilled but even if he didn’t, The Red Court might. We were too far behind enemy lines to take risks.

“Sorry,” I said. “You were saying?”

Molly blinked.

“I - Uh -” She drew a deep breath. “Can we really trust them, Harry? They could be calling the Council right now. Or the Red Court. Or anyone else.

“Trust them? Hell no. But if he wanted us dead or if he wanted us handed to the White Council, he could’ve done that back in Australia. We can trust him so long as we’re useful and not a second longer.”

Molly turned away from me. She walked around the apartment much as I had, pulling the blinds and peering out for a while before returning to me.

“I don’t like this,” she said.

“Good. I don’t like it, either. If we did, we’d be stupid.”

Molly heaved a sigh and walked back to the bed, flopping down on it.

“So what do we do now?”

I settled by her feet on the bed, facing away from her.

“We wait. Catch some sleep if you want to. I’ll keep watch.”

“No.”

I looked at her over my shoulder, giving her my “Are you serious?” look. During the months we’d spent together she’d prompted it enough that she recognized it immediately.

“Just listen for a second, Harry,” she said. “When was the last time you slept properly?”

I thought about it and couldn’t come up with an answer. That probably meant it was a while ago.

“What’s your point?” I asked.

“That I can handle things for a few hours.”

We’d also spent enough time together that I recognized when she was about to be stubborn. The key with that one had always been to choose your battles.

“You’re very eager to get me to bed. What is it with you and hotel rooms?”

I grinned at the way Molly’s cheeks colored and how her denials came out as garbled stuttering. It was probably stupid to tease her but she made it so easy that it was sometimes difficult to resist.

“You’re right, though. Thank you, Molly.”

My apprentice smiled at me, clearly pleased. She was right. If we were going to survive like this, we needed to trust one another. Something I needed to work on.

I kicked off my shoes and lay down next to Molly on the bed, the mattress soft enough that I groaned in pleasure as it gave way pliantly under my weight. After months on more and less literal slabs of rock, it felt damn near divine. Molly raised an eyebrow at me as she climbed off the bed, going for a tour of the room. She moved a chair from the living room table to the door, settling its back under the door handle, then settled in one of the remaining chairs.

Then her face brightened and she shot up off it again, heading into the bathroom and starting up the shower. She closed the door most of the way and then returned to her chair.

“If anyone comes in, I’ll veil you and they’ll think you’re in the shower.”

“Good thinking, grasshopper,” I said through a yawn.

She said something but I couldn’t be sure. I was already drifting off.

***

I woke up confused and with metaphorical alarm bells ringing in my head. I sat up in bed and glanced towards the door, which was closed and then at Molly, who stood up by her chair, eyes intent towards the door. I was just about to ask Molly what was going on when a sharp series of knocks rapped against the doorframe.

“In a minute,” I answered grumpily, getting vertical and stretching. I moved silently across the floor and checked the peep-hole with a shield-spell up in case someone was waiting to shoot me through the door.

Molly was on her feet and even though I couldn’t see her, I heard her move over the bed and into the bathroom, staying clear of the line of fire.

Nicodemus and Deirdre stood outside, looking none too pleased to be kept waiting. I might have let them stew outside for a little while longer but under the circumstances, I had to curb my more juvenile instincts. Mostly.

I opened the door with a look of surprise.

“And here I thought it was room service. Hey, Dee-dee. Sup, Nicky?”

Two pairs of dark eyes flicked from the hallway to me, the expressions identical. Then Deirdre made to push past me and into the room. I moved aside for her with a flourish of my hand.

“By all means, come on in. Mi casa es tu casa.”

“As much we appreciate your hospitality, we’re not staying,” Nicodemus said. “Fetch the girl.”

Molly chose that moment to appear at my side in a, if I may say so myself, very Batman-esque fashion. She leaned up against my arm and beamed at Nicodemus.

“Here,” she said.

“Excellent,” Nicodemus said.

The man hadn’t even blinked. Molly looked a little disappointed. That’s the life of the professional wizard, though. A lot of hard work and most of the cool stuff you do is never appreciated.

“Miss Carpenter. Would you please veil yourself and Dresden so we can be off?”

I wanted to ask him where we were going but I knew I couldn’t. If I did, I’d be showing I was scared and in any case, if he didn’t want me to know, I wouldn’t. If he did want me to know, I would.

“What - Right now?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed but his voice remained calm and steady.

“Unless you are terribly busy...”

“Well, it would cut in on my personal brooding time.”

“He would fit in the trunk, father,” Deirdre said through grit teeth.

Nicodemus took a moment to consider that. “Tempting. For now, he is more useful than annoying.”

“He is,” Deirdre said. “The girl isn’t.”

Molly flinched at that, but it got to Nicodemus, too. He clearly hadn’t forgotten my threat from earlier.

“She has a part to play,” he said. “And we are running out of time.”

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s roll.”

Deirdre walked past us and the glare she threw me was almost as sharp as the one she directed at her father. Molly veiled us and we followed them down the hallway at a safe distance.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to piss them off this much?” Molly asked.

“Yeah.” I didn’t hesitate for a moment. “We have to show them we’re not afraid. The second we show weakness, they’ll stab us in the back.”

“And they won’t do that now?”

“They’ll think twice before doing it, at least. Trust me, grasshopper. There’s a madness to my method.”

“I don’t think that’s how the saying goes.”

I grinned. “That’s why you’re the padawan and I’m the jedi.”

We went for another ride in the car, again with the twists and turns to dodge people potentially tailing us, and left the city. My suggestion that we drop by the Burger King drive-in for a burger was promptly shut down and we eventually ended up in a derelict industrial area by the docks.

Two more cars, rentals by the look of things, were parked nearby. Nicodemus left the car first and we came along a few seconds later, following him into one of the warehouses.

The lighting inside was dim and I walked in with my senses extended and Molly behind me. The people we were meeting, five of them, stood in a single line in the center of the room, men and women of varying ages and ethnicities. My gaze locked on the leftmost woman, tracking up lean legs emphasized by snug tan shorts, all the way up to dark, familiar eyes.

I wanted to go with something witty but my head was still spinning, so I just said:

“Hello, Susan.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

 

“Harry.” Susan’s dark eyes were wide and darted from each of us in turn before finally settling on me. “What are you doing here?”

“Selling girl scout cookies,” I said and hooked a thumb back at Nicodemus. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Mr Dresden and his... associate are assisting me in this matter,” Nicodemus cut in smoothly.

There was a subtle emphasis on the word associate that suggested all kinds of things and if he thought I wasn’t going to be bringing up my feelings about the game he was playing later, he was mistaken. For now, though, we had slightly more pressing concerns.

“Will you vouch for him?”

At first I didn’t recognize the man who had spoken and it wasn’t until I gave him a closer look that I realized it was Susan’s partner, Martin. Judging by the way he held himself and how the rest of the group looked to him, he was one in charge.

“I could,” Nicodemus said, shrugging. “But it should be noted that Dresden has a certain tendency towards irrational behaviour. I will vouch for the fact that I will kill him myself if he jeopardizes our mission, if that makes you feel better.”

“My behaviour is perfectly rational, thank you very much,” I shot back. “But as long as we’re doing what Nicodemus said we would, I’ll be a team player.”

Martin shrugged. “Good enough. Susan?”

“It’s them.” Susan glanced at her watch. “We should get moving. We’re running out of daylight.”

It didn’t escape my notice that she was quite deliberately not meeting my gaze. I was probably in for a Talk later. As if this trip wasn’t complicated enough already.

“Very well,” Nicodemus said. “Lead the way.”

With the afternoon sun still broiling the area, we quickly filed into the cars and hit the road again, heading back into the city with the Order of St Giles leading the way. Our driver had apparently done this before because he didn’t run into any trouble and never once lost them, even with the crazy traffic.

They took us to a central upper middle class neighborhood not too far from Nicodemus’ hotel.. A sign by the road showed a little child chasing a ball with text below presumably telling us to watch out for playing children. The last house at the end of the road. It wasn’t quite Michael’s neighborhood with the white picket fences but it seemed like a decent and quiet sort of area.

Susan knocked and I say the drawn blinds be pushed aside. A moment passed and then the door opened to reveal a large south-american man pointing a rifle at us.

His finger moved off the trigger when he recognized Susan but he kept the gun trained at us. They exchanged a few terse phrases in Spanish and Susan poked her finger through the doorway. Only then did he lower his weapon.

It was clever, really. The neighborhood was public enough that The Red Court couldn’t wholesale assault the place without causing far too much of a ruckus but it wasn’t quite far enough into the upper class that they would be sticking out like sore thumbs. A good thing, too. The Order of St Giles were, technically, terrorists.

The house must have had a threshold, too. It wouldn’t last for very long with too many people coming and going, but it would be good enough to repel her if she had turned. I stopped in my tracks as I watched Nicodemus walk straight on through without a worry in the world. It would also be good enough to bar the magic of a wizard of the White Council.

“What’s up, boss?” Molly asked quietly. She’d followed my lead and we were the only ones still outside and the rest of them were suddenly getting very tense.

“Threshold,” I said. “We’ll need an invitation.”

Susan opened her mouth to speak but Martin beat her to the punch.

“You know the rules, Rodriguez. No invitations.”

Susan looked ready to snap something back to him but bit down on the words. She may not like her partner very much but she seemed to respect him enough not to openly question him. With Susan that was a rather considerable mark of respect. Questioning people and things she ought not was what had made her career - and ended it.

“Come on, Harry,” she said, under her breath.

“You want us to walk in there, with them, without our powers?” I shook my head. “Hell no.”

“Would you rather stay out there?” Martin asked. “It’s getting dark.”

I shrugged and leaned my shoulder against the doorframe.

“Hey, if that’s what you want. You probably picked this neighbourhood because people won’t call the cops for the smallest thing… But the longer we stay out here the more likely it’ll be that someone gets suspicious.”

Martin observed me for a long while and then exchanged a look with Susan.

“Fine,” he said, waving at someone inside the house.

A young man appeared and said, in stuttering, heavily accented English.

“You… And you. You invited in.”

He pointed to each of us in turn and then quickly moved out of the way as we headed inside.

The living room of the house had been turned into a staging area for a minor war. Weaponry was laid out everywhere on tables, or stashed in boxes, and at least a dozen people had gathered. Nicodemus stood with Martin by a whiteboard, where several photographs, both of locations and people, had been stuck to the surface. Notes surrounded each photograph. Deirdre stood some ways off next to a young woman. My eyes were already moving on towards Susan when they snapped back to the young woman and it took me a couple of seconds to realize why.

She was a tall, gorgeous redhead with enough curves to make the dark long-sleeved shirt she wore stretch intriguingly. She warranted a second look, I supposed, but that wasn’t it. Even as I tried to gather my thoughts, they slid away from me like water through my fingers.

“It’s that girl,” Molly said, nudging me with her elbow. “From Australia. The one the vampires attacked.”

And then it all flooded back to me and I remembered that same girl, disheveled and scared, bleeding and stumbling in the dark. Her eyes caught mine and widened.

“You! I remember you. You’re that maniac who almost got himself killed.”

“Guilty,” I said. “Though I had that completely under control. It was all a clever ruse for the apprentice.”

There was a chance they didn’t buy that explanation. Molly rolled her eyes and the redhead grinned.

“Hannah Ascher,” she said, holding out her hand.

I shook it, and a jolt of static electricity shot up my arm as our aura’s brushed. Holy crap. She may be young but she had power. More than enough to make the White Council. I pulled my hand back. By the look on her face, Hannah had felt something similar as I had. She was watching me intently.

As if by magic, Susan appeared at my side. She moved well within my personal bubble, just a fraction closer than Molly.

“I don’t think you’ve introduced your friends, Harry,” she said, eyes shifting from me, to Molly and over to Ascher.

I’d dated Susan long enough to know when things were likely to be headed in the direction of shit creek. This was one of those times.

“Oh. Uh.” I pointed to each of them in turn. “Molly Carpenter, apprentice. Hannah Ascher, damsel in distress.”

“Damsel, my ass.” Ascher grinned at me. “I saved you just as much as you saved me.”

“I was the one who had to drag him out of there,” Molly protested. “Do you have any idea how heavy he is?”

Something wicked glimmered in Susan’s eyes for a moment.

“Some,” she said, giving me a closer look. “You changed your hair.”

“I’m going for the outlaw look to compliment my outlaw status,” I said.

“Did you do it yourself because it looks-”

Martin cleared his throat and she went quiet. Molly, who’d been the one to cut it, looked offended but didn’t break the silence that had fallen. Susan cast me her ‘We’ll talk later look’.

“Two days ago, we received information that the Red Court was working with mortal practitioners, preparing a spell that would bring a demon into the world and attack headquarters.”

Martin drew four red circles around locations on a large satellite picture of the city.

“These are the known Red Court safehouses in this city. We know they have taken captives for sacrifice to fuel the ritual but we do not know the site of the ritual itself. We will hit all the safehouses at the same time and then regroup and hit the ritual site before the summoning is complete.”

Nicodemus stepped up and Martin moved aside, showing the Denarian a degree of respect that he hadn’t ever bothered with when it came to me. Interesting.

“The ritual will happen after nightfall tomorrow and-”

“How do we know that?” I interrupted.

Nicodemus scowled. I beamed at him.

“The summoning in question cannot be done at any time or any place. They will wait for sundown tomorrow and then act as soon as possible. We will strike them before they can get that far.”

“How?”

Nicodemus smiled. “That is where the plan gets complicated. We are not sure about where the ritual is to be done, specifically, but we know it is in town.”

“Hence the raids,” Martin said.

“And if that fails?” I asked. “Do we have a plan B?”

Nicodemus teeth flashed. “We pray.”

I didn’t believe for a second that Nicodemus didn’t know more than we all did, and that he had many plans laid out for any eventualities, but I didn’t feel like telling him that. I shook my head. “Wonderful. How do we do this?”

Martin pointed at one of the locations. “This one will be yours, Dresden. Susan and I will accompany you. Ascher will take the safehouse down by the docks. Nicodemus and Deirdre will take the central location.”

He pointed out each location in turn and handed us each a folder, which proved to contain a detailed report on the locations, including floor plans and estimates reports on movements. The Order had been thorough, at least. That only made the mission marginally less suicidal but it was something.

“Get into position early,” Nicodemus said. “We strike the moment the sun rises.”

He nodded, dismissing us in everything but formality. I felt a tug at my arm and found Susan giving me look.

“Do you have a moment to talk? In private.”

I glanced sideways at our team and nodded. Nicodemus and Martin were talking while Deirdre had approached Ascher. That couldn’t be good. Martin didn’t seem like the kind of guy to join up with Nicodemus but you never know with people. It’s always the quiet ones.

Susan took me aside into a bedroom and was about to close the door behind us when Molly slipped in. Molly made to shut the door once she’d gone past it but that time, Susan was the one to hold it open with casual strength.

“It’s not really a private conversation if you’re here listening in - Molly, was it?”

Have you ever been introduced to someone and you’re so focused on making a good impression that you forget their name only a few seconds after they’ve told you? It happened to me a few times as a kid but learning how important names could be to wizards, I trained myself to always pay attention to people’s names. Susan, who had been a reporter, and a damn good one at that, had learned similar lessons. She did not forget anybody’s name. Ever.

Molly frowned and looked at me for direction.

“Should I be alone out there with… Them?”

“Probably not,” I said, then lowered my voice. “But Susan and I need a moment. Veil up and we’ll be back before they even realise you’re out there.”

I was sure that Nicodemus and the others wouldn’t hurt Molly even if they did find her or I wouldn’t have sent her out there to begin with. Besides, her veils were solid. If we ever got back to Chicago we’d have to put them to a test against the Alphas.

Molly sighed and a few moments later, she vanished from sight. The door closed a few seconds later, affording Susan and me some privacy.

“A little young for you, isn’t she?” Susan asked. She tried to sound wry but she held herself too stiffly to pull it off. She had consciously put a bit of distance between us, too, as a precaution. That was telling. She worried this conversation may head somewhere that’d get her upset and even if an angry Susan wouldn’t be green, I did not want to see her when she was angry.

“Is this why you wanted a private conversation, here and now?” I asked. “To ask me if I’m screwing my apprentice?”

Susan took a deep breath.

“No. I’m sorry. We’re not together anymore and I have no right to pry.”

“We’re not. And you don’t…” I met her eyes. “But for the record, no.”

Susan shoulders sagged and she managed an apologetic smile.

“Right… What I wanted to ask was what you’re doing here. With Nicodemus.”

I shrugged. “Fighting the good fight.”

“With him?” Susan asked incredulously. “Seriously?”

“Hey, I don’t like it much either, but it’s what I’ve got okay, okay?

“You trust him?”

I scoffed. “Hell no.”

Susan nodded. “Are you alright? I heard about your falling out with the council. They said you fought off the captain of the wardens.”

A younger me probably would’ve let her believe I’d fought off Morgan and I still had to curb the instinct to not correct her, so that she’d think better of me.

“I never really fought the guy. Just sucker-punched him and ran for the hills.” Her mouth twitched up in a familiar smile. “It’s been a tough couple of months for us, but we’re pulling through.”

It might have been a trick of the light, but something I said made her eyes flicker with darkness.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Susan said, her tone controlled and wooden, like it always got when she was angry and didn’t want me to be able to tell. “You should probably go. You’ll want to get somewhere safe before the sun goes down. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I hesitated and then reached out and put my hand on her shoulder. Susan kept herself standing carefully still and I gave her a light squeeze before stepping back.

“Look for the burning buildings and you’ll find me,” I said winking as I headed back into the main room. “Come on, Nic. Let’s motor.”

 

***

 

“My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts.”

The words echoed softly through my head, as though someone had spoken from the other side of a small, entirely empty room.

“Molly,” I said. “We’ve talked about this. Star Trek is heresy and I will not stand for it.”

I couldn’t actually see her roll her eyes at me but the message was somehow conveyed regardless.

When I had been fifteen Elaine and I had devised a spell that let us communicate telepathically with one another. Mostly to save us the bother of exchanging notes in class. Molly and I had managed to extend the range of that spell and, in theory, would be able to include other people.

“Susan. Martin. Do you guys copy?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, then they nodded. Since neither of them had any talent they couldn’t actually reply, though Molly and I had agreed it would theoretically be possible with a greater investment of power on her part. For now, this was plenty.

We were all sitting in the back of a dark van, a few streets away from our intended target. A floor plan was laid out on the floor, with scribbles all along it where we’d added notes over the course of the previous hour.

The car rattled as we hit a pothole. We were getting close. In a few minutes, it’d be time to get going. Molly was staring ahead blankly, her knuckles white from how hard she was clenching her hands. She was breathing slowly through her nose as though she might be sick. Martin and Susan, meanwhile, seemed to be handling things well.

“We’ll wait fifteen seconds after you’ve made your entry, Dresden,” Martin said.

I nodded, absentmindedly reaching over to rub Molly’s back. I focused on the mental link, sending my thoughts only to her.

“Are you going to be okay?”

She swallowed and nodded, relaxing marginally. Susan came over, settling on Molly’s other side.

“It’s always worst the first few times,” she told Molly. “Did Harry ever tell you about the time I snuck after him to a Red Court masquerade ball?”

Molly cast her a sideways glance. “No.”

“I ended up selling some of my memories to one of the fae. Then I got kidnapped and he had to rescue me.”

She shook her head ruefully. “Not my greatest moment.”

“You forgot to mention you were dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood,” I said, quickly picking up the thread.

Molly was watching our exchange with some interest. The lead-up to a fight isn’t easy. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, you’ll never get used to dealing with that kind of stuff. You learn coping mechanisms… Or you break.

Susan glared at me playfully. “At least I wasn’t dressed up as a cheesy vampire. Really, what kind of person would do that?”

“Someone with a great sense of humour, that’s who,” I muttered.

At the front of the car, Nicodemus’ goon cleared his throat and held up his fist, two fingers raised. Two minutes.

“Ascher told me you went to Australia,” Susan said. “Did you like it?”

We’d spent years planning a vacation there but we’d never had the time or the money.

“It was nice,” Molly said. “Warm.”

She pressed her lips closed again, wincing.

“Scorpions, man-eating spiders and the wine was just…” Both Molly and I shuddered at the memory. “But we got to pet a baby kangaroo, so it balanced out.”

The driver held up his hand again, one finger extended.

“Sounds nice,” Susan said, her voice gaining an edge of urgency. “Listen, Harry. There’s something I need to tell you-”

She exchanged a look with Martin, who cast her a harsh glare and shook his head in a swift jerk. Susan met that look with an expression I remembered from countless fights. It said that she knew he was right, but that she didn’t like it one bit.

“It’s…” she closed her eyes. “Be careful, okay?”

“You too.”

The car came to a stop.

I gave Molly’s shoulder a light squeeze, then grabbed my wizard’s staff, my blasting rod, and set off across the street. The light outside was wan but the heat had already arrived and I really wished I’d had a bullet proof t-shirt instead of my long, black leather duster. Martin and Susan walked calmly on their way to the back of the house, their weapons hidden in large sports bags slung across their shoulders. It wasn’t their first rodeo.

“Knock knock.”

The link wasn’t just speech. I could actually tell Molly was rolling her eyes and though her voice came out sounding tired and mildly scornful, the warmth behind the words tingled on my skin like sunlight.

“I’m not going to say it.”

I grinned. “Oh come on. Don’t be like that.”

Molly sighed. “Who’s there?”

“Me. Forzare!”

Kinetic forced surged forward and the door blasted right off its hinges. It hit the floor and skidded down along the ground for several yards. Schwarzenegger, eat your heart out.

Light spilled in and banished the worst of the darkness. I sent a surge of power down the wood of my wizard’s staff and the tip lit up, adding to the light. Ahead, a hallway ran down the length of the house, leading off to three separate rooms along the left side with closed doors. To the right, it opened up almost immediately to the kitchen and, farther ahead, the adjoined living room.

Everything was still and I held my staff up as I walked inside, listening carefully. We had the element of surprise and the daylight on our side and had to make the most out of both. I moved into the kitchen at once, ripping down the heavy black curtains and letting in swaths of sunlight.

It let me see more details. The kitchen didn’t seem to be in use, save for empty bottles of alcohol in one corner of the kitchen counter along the wall. There were two full, black garbage bags leaned up against one corner of the room. They looked… And smelled as though some unfortunate soul had been stuffed inside. I didn’t look.

In the connected living room, things were kept neat as well. I wondered which of the vampires had been made to vacuum the carpet. That had to be embarrassing.

There was a soft click from on ahead and more light streamed into the room. Martin moved in through the back door, giving me a brief glance before turning his attention toward the hallway. Three doors and who knew how many vampires?

I could go over there and tear the door open but if anything was lurking right behind it, I’d be dead before I’d be able to open my mouth, let alone cast a spell… Which is why I used magic and blasted them open. The first door smashed into a bathtub and then into the clinkers covering the wall with a sharp crack. I couldn’t see any slavering beasties and there wasn’t anywhere to hide.

Room number two was in the middle of the hallway, between kitchen and living room, the carrying wall in between. I frowned and waved Martin over, sending him to switch with me, while I moved over to the third door. I looked over to my companions and they both nodded. Another blast of kinetic force tore the flimsy wooden door off its hinged and down a flight of stone stairs until crashed into a wall with a hollow thump. A basement. The last time I’d gone vampire hunting in a basement I’d gotten most of my hand melted. This just kept getting better and better.

“Keep an eye,” I told Susan and walked over to the last door.

Martin stood by the kitchen entrance, his combat shotgun raised and pointed at the door, making sure that anything that popped out would get caught in our crossfire. I didn’t waste any of the time that we were rapidly running out of and tagged the door with another blast of force. Wood cracked and splintered as it tore free off the hinges and then slammed into something with a soft thud.I couldn’t see what it had hit but I could see Martin tense. The shotgun roared and fire bloomed from its barrel and with that, the party was officially on.

Hunting cries echoed from around us and I heard Susan swear in between the smatter gunfire from her sub-machine gun. Martin’s shotgun roared several more times before going silent. With the narrow passage of the stairs leading down to the basement we would be able to bottleneck them there. I moved over to help.

Which is when a vampire tore its way through the ceiling and landed behind me. Red Court vampires are incredibly fast and powerful, moving faster than a speeding car (well, mine anyways) and are strong enough to literally rip limbs off a man without much trouble. They still can’t ignore good old physics, though, and no matter how fast or strong, it takes them as long as it would any human to drop down from the ceiling. That wasn’t much. Not enough for me pull together a spell, for example, as the slick batlike creature blinked the dust and plaster out of its bulging pitch black eyes but enough for me to raise my right fist in its direction and trigger every single force ring on that hand.

Against a human target, that much force would most certainly have been lethal. Against a vampire I was far less confident. Fortunately, I didn’t actually have to kill the vampire with the blast. Mother nature would do that part for me. The vamp hurtled through the hallway as the equivalent force of a speeding truck caught it and sent it flying out in the street. Even with its inhuman features I could see a moment of panic in its eyes before the sunlight consumed it. There wasn’t any time to reflect or to even watch what happened next.

Susan had run out of ammo and there were more tearing sounds from above. They were literally coming out of the woodwork.

“Get back!” I hollered, backing down the hallway. Susan was already doing just that, dropping one clip and slotting in another while Martin, who had moved around through the kitchen, was providing cover fire. They didn’t have enough sunlight to provide them cover at their side and had to take care of that bit themselves but it wasn’t far. They’d make it.

Moments later, vampires tore out of the cellar. The first had half of its upper torso blown to shreds by a shotgun shell but another followed closely behind, jumping from the floor to the wall, and tearing up along it like a gargantuan, misshapen spider. The next turned to me. I observed the better part of valor and ran for it. On a normal day, running from a vampire would’ve been stupid. But not stupid as standing in a compromised position against an unknown number of enemies. Besides, we’d prepared for just this occasion and I promptly hauled ass toward the sunlight. I hopped over the broken remains of the door I’d started off the day by breaking down with the howls of the Red Court behind me. Plaster crunched as their claws dug into them. They were catching up but I felt certain I would make it.

Then I heard a sharp tearing sound from above and on instinct, I threw myself to the side and into the kitchen a moment before yet another vampire came down through the ceiling, blocking the path a few yards shy of the sunlight.

My pursuer slammed straight into his buddy, apparently taken by surprise by my sudden juke, and the moment it took for them to disentangle themselves was enough for me to move over into the sunlight pouring in through the kitchen windows.

The vampires watched me, saliva dripping down from their long, pink tongues as their inhuman mouths twisted into smiles. Another three were in the living room, where the light wouldn’t touch them directly. Two of them in their beastial forms while the last, a young, woman, remained in guise. I had a feeling she was in charge. For one, she had enough self control to stay within her flesh mask and for the other, the others were all looking to her, waiting. For now.

We’d definitely caught them sleeping because she was standing there stark naked and had apparently only bothered to grab a dagger before going after me. She ran the flat of the blade down along the curve of a shapely breast, head tilting to the side in… Recognition.

“Harry Dresden,” she said with all the warmth of a dear old friend who you hadn’t seen for a few years. “Of all the people to run into. I am honored.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. The monsters are generally at their most dangerous when they’re playing nice because it means they’re busy deciding how they’d like to season you.

“Uh. Likewise, whoever you are.”

I tipped an imaginary hat at her. I probably didn’t look particularly sauve, sitting leaned back against the kitchen stove but I’ve heard somewhere it’s the effort that counts. While we were all occupied with the pre-dinner pleasantries, I cast a quick, nervous glance sideways. The vampires in the hallway were standing at the edge of the sunlight, staring hungrily at me.

I was thoroughly trapped. I could keep the vampires off me for long enough that they’d fry if they came at me while the sun was protecting me. If I tried to smash my way out in either direction, I had a feeling my odds weren’t good. There was another problem, though: I’d seen the sky before I’d gone in. There was sunlight, yes, but it was an overcast day. Sooner or later, a patch of clouds would blot out the sun… And then I was a human happy meal. Judging by the rare display of patience from the vampires, they knew it, too.

“I am Countess Ferreyra.”

I slowly pushed myself to my feet and tried to act casual.

“Nice to meet you. I love what you’ve done with the place.”

I waved a hand about, indicating at the wreckage around us. Ferreyra licked her lips, shifting her hips enough to draw the eye to her rather lovely legs. Her skin was the ruddy bronze of the native maya and I felt certain a great many young men had gotten lost in her beauty over the years. Probably right up until the moment she revealed what she truly was. Beneath the flesh mask, I could see her true self squirm and writhe, her skin rippling unnaturally. It had been a long time since I had been that young man unable to see past the mask to the monster. I’d learned better. That didn’t mean I didn’t have an appreciation for the aesthetics of a great rack, mind, I was just thinking of a way out of this mess whilst appreciating it.

“Of all the people to run into,” she murmured. “Ariana is going to be very grateful when I bring you in. She has had a special cage commissioned for you... did you know?”

I needed to make a move and soon or I’d be begging for her to kill me if it meant being spared from the villain-speeches.

“No… but if you live through this, tell her I think it’s great that she’s got a hobby to help her through the tough times.”

One of the vampires flanking her, still in its true form, bent down to the floor where a splash of scarlet stained the linoleum and the edge of a carpet, its horrible, long tongue slithering out of its maw to dip into the blood. Its entire body shuddered in slow, ecstatic waves disturbingly akin to sexual gratification.

“As rude and as arrogant as they say,” Ferreyra said. “I think my mistress won’t mind should I bring you to her de-”

Irritation flickered across her features and her body shifted in a blur of movement. My shield bracelet flared up into a concave disc of blue light in front of me but the attack never came. Instead, Ferreyra turned on the vampire indulging its thirst, her leg lashing out in a kick that caught it straight in its bulging belly. The force of the impact literally sent it several feet up into the air and its shriek of pain felt like someone jamming pencils into my ears. The creature scrambled back, head bowed in deference, and once more turned its attention to me.

“When I bring you to her, dead instead of alive,” Ferreyra continued as if she’d never stopped talking.

Now… If you ever want to take up a career in professional villainy there is a reason you should read the evil overlord list. Because if you do, then you’d know that while you’re doing your grand evil monologue - and it’s a very fine monologue you’ve got going there - I’m going to be busy doing something, too. Sometimes that something might even resemble a sensible plan. All I needed was a temporary distraction. Something to even the odds just a bit.

I reached for my link to my team and found it still upheld by Molly. A little bit of background feedback, like a radio just a touch out of tune, had begun to build up. The effort of holding up the spell was probably getting to my apprentice but she was holding out.

“Something loud and distracting right about now wouldn’t go amiss,” I said.

They couldn’t respond, of course, but the blood spatter suggested that both of the order operatives had gotten out with only light injuries. All I could do now was wait.

Seconds ticked by. The vampires kept their patient, hungry vigil.

“Get ready, Harry,” Molly’s voice said quietly in my mind. She sounded distracted… Like when she was working a difficult spell. I grit my teeth. Fucking apprentices. I’d told her. I’d fucking told her!

“Stay clear, Molly. I’ve got this.”

There was no response. I glanced to my left. The two vampires in the hallway weren’t watching me anymore. They were staring out the hallway towards the sun.

I peeked out of the window and saw Molly stand there with planted feet, a bloody utility knife in her hand, blood dripping from a cut in her hand. The air around her was blurring with heat shimmers and I could feel the powerful surge of her will in the air. One of the vampires moved a step forward, closer to the light. The other stood frozen in place. The pressure doubled and with a snarl, one of the vampire’s leapt at Molly, clawed fingers reaching out to tear at her unprotected form.

The sun slammed into it like a speeding car, flattening it down to the asphalt and pinning it as its flesh burned and melted. Molly stared down at her downed enemy, bloodshot eyes wide with shock, the flaring of her power tangible in the air even from across the distance.

There was no time to hesitate.

“Forzare!”

I swept my staff in the vague direction of the vampires and sent a wild surge of kinetic force towards them, forming a great wave of that turned over chairs and tables, cracked the floors, and sent cups and bottles flying everywhere. I didn’t watch it impact the vampires. It wouldn’t kill them. It would probably not even hurt them, spread that thinly. It would, however, buy me time. In a fight, even a fraction of a second is often the difference between life and death.

I leveled my left fist and sent the entire load of the force rings howling down the hallway at the remaining vampire, smashing it into the wall with enough force that bones snapped audibly. I pelted past it, dodging a weak sweep of a claw. Behind me, I heard the angry snarls of the vampires and I could see Ferreyra coming after me, tearing free of her flesh mask at last, and charging down the hallway. then something exploded. Even with my back turned, the light was unbelievably bright. The house rocked and I stumbled the last few steps, grabbed onto the doorframe, and righted myself.

Gunfire was going off again, heavily at first, followed by short, precise bursts. Ferreyra, having made it halfway down the corridor before I’d gotten out into the sunlight and whirled around in time to spot the gleaming barrel of a shotgun poking around the corner. Martin stepped forward and the weapon belched flame. Ferreyra dashed to the side and instead of hitting her dead square in the center mass, the shell tore her left arm to shreds. Barely even seeming to notice the damage, Ferreyra almost bounced off the wall, ducking low and trading her life for a portion of her skull and one of the protruding batlike ears.

Martin kept firing, forcing the vampire to weave and bob as she got closer. The shotgun clicked on an empty barrel and for a moment, it almost seemed like the vampire would make it. Then the second Order of St Giles operative showed up with with an uzi and immediately opened fire. In the narrow hallway, no matter the supernatural speed of the vampire, there simply was no way she would miss. Susan unloaded on full automatic and round after round slammed into the vampire, all of them aimed in the area of her bloodgorged, bulging belly. Blood spattered the walls and spilled out on the floor as the vampire finally collapsed into a twitching pile.

Martin loaded a fresh shell in, put the muzzle of his weapon a few inches away from the vampire’s head, and pulled the trigger. He looked up from his grim business to me.

“Still alive, Dresden?” He asked. He may have sounded a disappointed.

“And kicking,” I said. “I think the coast is clear. Let’s check the cellar.”

Both of them had a couple of hastily bandaged wounds, some of which they’d simply wrapped in duct tape, but they seemed to be fine.

We scoured the apartment and came away with a couple of kilos of cocaine, the street value of which I estimated to about a fuckton, and some computery gadgets that meant it was time for me to leave.

I found Molly where I’d left her. She sat on the ground, knees tucked up to her chest, arms wrapped around them, staring down at the melting mess that had once been vampire and before that, a human being. She twitched when I grabbed her under the arms and pulled her up to her feet.

“Move,” I told her, my voice firm. “There’s going to be cops here any minute now.”

We’d already drawn quite a crowd of people who were staring at us. Some were taking photos with their phones. Well, they were trying anyways. Most of the phones seemed to be experiencing difficulties.

“Molly.” I said, giving her a light shake. “Snap out of it. We need to move.”

She met my eyes, hers bloodshot and watering, and blinked, then nodded jerkily.

“Yes. Okay.”

The words came out stiff and wooden but she stumbled with me into the house. I moved to the kitchen, finding it generously stocked with bleach, and dumped it all onto the blood spatters left on the walls and the floors. By the time it was evening, the blood would probably be too dry to use in any spell but I didn’t want to chance it. When I felt satisfied, I led Molly into the little hallway the order operatives had early used for the escape and pulled my apprentice close. My veils aren’t anything to write home about - especially compared to my apprentice’s, but I’d gotten enough practise that I could do a passable one. We headed out the back door, into the crowd and then quite literally vanished into it. I kept the spell up a couple of blocks until we’d made our way off into a nearby alley, around a corner, and into the cool shade. I looked around, making sure nobody had followed us, and then rounded on Molly.

“What were you thinking?” I growled at her. “You could have gotten yourself killed!”

I wasn’t even sure why but I was furious and Molly flinched back from me.

“I told you to stay in the van and to keep watch.”

“But-”

“But what? I told you to stay back. I told you twice.”

“I was just trying to help.”

I let out a snarl of pure frustration and slammed my first into the wall a foot off from her head. It was concrete and hurt. A lot. It didn’t hurt as much as the look Molly gave me, though. I’d raised my voice at her before and, for all her obstinacy, I’d never doubted that she’d respected me. But for just a second there, she’d looked genuinely afraid of me.

“I am not going to stand at your funeral and tell your parents that you died because I failed to teach you what the hell an order was.”

She looked down at the ground. Her shoulders trembled.

“I thought we were in this together,” she whispered. Tears were making their way down her cheek and it made me feel sick to the stomach to watch… but if that was the price I had to pay to ensure she was safe, I would.

“We are. But right now you’re the apprentice. I’m the master and when I give you an order you will fucking obey. Do you understand?”

She nodded shakily and I eased down on the intimidation, stepping back and running a hand through my hair.

“Christ, Molly. You could’ve been killed.”.

Molly wiped the tears out of her eyes and met my gaze calmly. “Yes.”

“You scared me,” I admitted before I could stop myself. “For a second there, I thought it was going to get you.”

She chuckled weakly. “Yeah, me too.”

I raised a hand and reached out for her, moving slowly, and she didn’t flinch away when I touched her shoulder.

“What spell did you use on the vampire, Molly?”

She shuddered and pressed her lips together hard, as if she feared she may throw up. It took a few seconds before she spoke and when she did, it came out stilted.

“I made it hungry. Hungrier. It’s… They’re always hungry. It’s all there is, really. Just… Emptiness, little tiny fragments of whatever person they were, and the hunger. I just… Made it more important, that bit. Kinda veiled its fear from it, you know?”

She shook her head, as if the memories were waterdrops clinging to her and she couldn’t dislodged them.

“Psychomancy,” I said, watching her carefully.

She nodded.

“I know I only said not to use it humans but this is really pushing the line, Molly.”

“I know,” she said in a small voice. “I just couldn’t think of anything else.”

I smiled a little despite myself. “It worked. I didn’t even know it was possible to influence Red Court vampires like that.”

“They’re… Different. Their minds-”

She stopped talking. I didn’t blame her. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must feel see the inside of a monster’s head and really didn’t feel like trying.

“You’re far too brave for your own good, kid,” I said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder.

She leaned into me and hugged me hard, clinging almost desperately.

“I learned from the best.”

Well… What was I supposed to say to that?

Chapter Text

Martin and Susan were waiting for us at the rendezvous point by a nondescript van. Susan was tying more bandages around a wound on her calf where a vampire’s claws had caught her, face perfectly placid, while Martin kept watch.

One of Nicodemus’ tongueless goons waited in the driver’s seat. It was another older gentleman, with black hair mostly gone gray, who watched us both with calm, patient eyes. It seemed in character for Nicodemus not to throw away a tool while he still might find another use for it. Though it also begged the question of just how many of these lunatics he kept around. I had a feeling that this alliance we had going wasn’t the start of a beautiful friendship and that any piece of knowledge I could pick up would be useful the day we inevitably came to blows.

There were some computery things in the back of the van, the boxy things I’m pretty sure were called hard drives, and I settled on the opposite side, my back to the front section of the vehicle. As long as they weren’t actively running, they should be safe. Probably.

Molly settled next to me, dropping down in a limp heap. She looked exhausted, like she’d just pulled an all-nighter at work with nothing but stale coffee and pilfered cookies to keep her going. Little tremors ran down her arms to the tips of her fingers and she clenched her hands into fists, teeth gritted. I had a feeling I wasn’t looking much better.

Stupid heroics aside, she’d handled herself fine. (And yes, I am aware of the hypocrisy, but it’s a wizards prerogative to throw stones wherever we please, glass houses be damned.) I just worried about the toll it would be taking on her psyche. We’d practised but we’d been a long way from finishing… And there’s a great deal of a difference between practise and the reality of combat. If I pushed her too hard, she might break, made brittle like iron subjected to the stress of the elements.

I didn’t want to talk in front of Nicodemus’ man so I lay my arm across her shoulders instead and Molly leaned a little closer. By the time our driver took us out of the parking garage, she was conked out. I let her rest. It might be some time before she’d get another chance.

We drove in circles around Rio De Janeiro for a while, eventually finding our way in another parking garage where Susan and Martin grabbed the hard drives and hopped into another van. They sped off and Nicodemus’ goon repeated the process. We drove past the hotel and a block or so away, stopped in an alley.

I nudged Molly awake. “Come on, grasshopper. It’s time to let this guy go pick up Miss Daisy.”

Molly frowned, still clearly exhausted, but shuffled out of the van with me of her own accord. Tough kid. I touched a hand to her shoulder and enveloped us in another veil. We made our way up to the hotel and Molly beelined for the bed, collapsing face-first onto it.

I chuckled and went for the bathroom, washing up in the sink. By the time I returned my apprentice was snoring softly. I let her rest. She got half an hour or so before someone knocked impatiently on the door. Deirdre stood outside, hands on her hips, the surly expression quite fitting for the teenager she looked like.

“We’re good on cookies, thanks,” I said, smiling genially at her.

I could all but hear her teeth grind together. “Father wishes to invite you for lunch.”

On one hand it was tempting to tell her to piss off for for the sake of the expression on her face. On the other, I was hungry, and any bit of information I could collect on Nicodemus would be useful. As it often does, my stomach won out.

“Fine. We’ll be right there.

Deirdre inclined her head. “See? Not so hard, was it Dresden?”

I shut the door in her face. Molly hadn’t stirred through our exchange and I settled by her side, touching her shoulder. She mumbled something unintelligible. Then her eyes flew open and she lashed out, catching me with a kick to the stomach as she scrambled back onto the bed, frantic gaze flitting back and forth across the room.

Unprepared as I was I fell off the bed and ended up on my back on the carpet, wheezing. A moment passed and then Molly appeared, face sheet-white.

“Sorry!” she yelped. “I’m so sorry. I was dreaming and - are you okay?”

I grunted. “I’m fine. You’re not match for my adonis-like abs.”

She laughed nervously and offered me her hand. I took it and let her pull me up. She had to be pretty shocked to not get a dig in at me and I settled next to her on the bed.

“Nicodemus invited us for lunch.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

I watched her for a few seconds. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

Some of the panic seemed to return. “No. I’ll come. Just… Give me a second to wash up.

 

I caught her by the arm before she could go and made her turn around to face me.

“Are you sure?” I asked her softly. “Because I will definitely go in there and steal all of the guy’s food and bring it back if you want. Or we could order room services with his money.”

Molly managed a wan smile. “I’m okay. Really.”

I wished I believed her.

***

Say what you will about Nicodemus Archleone but he isn’t a cheapskate. What awaited us in his suite wasn’t just lunch but a buffet of just about anything edible one could imagine. The man himself sat at the head of the table with a handful of grapes he threw into his mouth one at a time.

“Dresden,” he said, issuing at the food. “And Miss Carpenter. Please, help yourself.”

I settled at the opposite of the food-laden table and filled up a plate of my own, making sure to add some greens so as to set a good example for the apprentice. I eyed the plate of donuts in secret. Maybe if she got distracted I could grab one.

“Did you find anything of interest?” Nicodemus asked.

“Lots,” I said. “Didn’t the others get back to report?”

“They did… But I thought I might get your opinion as well. You have varied areas of expertise.”

“Vampires. We killed em’. Took their stuff and rode off into the sunset.”

Deirdre pushed off from the wall where she’d been standing and watching. Her eyes were intent on Molly “I hear you killed one of the vampires. Your first kill, was it?”

My apprentice still looked pale and simply nodded.

“How did it feel?”

Deirdre’s eyes were alight with pleasure. I was about to cut in and tell her to take a hike, but stopped myself. Molly had been right, earlier. We were supposed to be working together. She needed to handle this on her own.

Molly eventually gathered herself and met Deirdre’s gaze for a moment. “I’m betting the second will feel better.”

Nicodemus cleared his throat. He exchanged a look with his daughter, who backed down. “I had hoped you’d be willing to listen to reason, eventually.”

I grabbed a few olives to go with the Italian sausages and chewed slowly before answering.

“If you’ve got a speech prepared you might as well get it over with.”

He seemed to consider me for a second. “It’s more along the lines of a question.”

“Ask away.”

“When your country was set to invade the main islands of Japan over a million purple hearts were prepared to hand out to the fallen. As we both know, another option was utilized. And so the question is: was it right to kill hundreds of thousands, in order to avoid a far greater death toll?”

I frowned. He wanted to discuss philosophy?

“No,” I said. “Those people were civilians.”

“And an invasion would have been free of such casualties?”

I gritted my teeth. Nicodemus kept eating, smiling to himself. “No. Neither option is right, Nicodemus. It’s never right to kill people.”

“To use another ethical query, you would let the train car smash into the group of five people, rather than to swerve and kill one, because you are too weak of will to save four lives at the cost of your conscience.”

I considered it. “I don’t know.”

And I didn’t. I’d killed people and not-people, but it had never been as cold and callous as Nicodemus described it. He wasn’t wrong but he sure as hell wasn’t right, either.

“That is the burden of leadership, Dresden,” Nicodemus said. “Sometimes the only options available are the greater and the lesser evil.”

“Maybe you’re just lacking in creativity,” I said.

He shrugged, untroubled.

“Perhaps. That is why one seeks the counsel of those with, shall we say, differing opinions.”

Nicodemus made a sweeping gesture toward myself and Molly.

“In any case,” he continued. “What if the stakes in question were this entire world and every single soul who dwells here, what price would you be willing to pay for them?”

I tried to think of something snappy to say, but couldn’t think of anything.

“Just about anything,” Molly whispered.

A soft hissing filled the air, a harsh guttural tongue being spoken, coming from nowhere and absolutely everywhere. Nicodemus shadow flared out behind him, writhing and swaying, even as the man sat perfectly still in his chair.

“Yes, yes,” Nicodemus muttered, speaking aloud to the room in general, expression twisting in annoyance. “Later.”

I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Hardly,” Nicodemus said. “We will continue this conversation in a more… Appropriate venue. Do eat up. I expect we shall hear from the fellowship about the files soon enough.”

We didn’t hear from them. We had time for dessert and a nap before they reached out to us, and we could get going, sneaking out of the hotel and to the parking garage where a small armada of cars awaited us. It was finally time to rumble.

 

***

Any city of significant size tends to show a certain split between the nicer and the less desirable areas in which to live. Or rather, those rich enough tend to create their own little walled off communities where they can feel safe from crime and the unwashed masses. Oh, it looks a little different from city to city and country to country, but it’s pretty much a constant. I’d seen my fair share of both sides of that particular coin, but moving from one side of Rio De Janeiro to another over the course of a day definitely highlighted the division.

I understood why people with enough money wanted to live this way, especially in a city with as much poverty and crime as this one, but I still had a deep-rooted urge to cause a little bit of property damage. Things that were too pristine made me a little uncomfortable. Maybe I should see someone to talk about that sometime.

So there I sat in a fancy town car and glared at the high walls, the wrought iron gates, and the fancy cars parked behind them as we cruised by at a sedate pace, five miles an hour under the speed limit. The sun was setting but I could still see the occasional jogger, dog walker or parent with a child in a stroller.

“If we fire a single bullet here we’ll have half the police force on our asses within twenty minutes,” I said.

“Hardly,” Deirdre answered.

She sat lazily reclined in her seat, legs crossed. I could see her foot twitch a little every so often, though. Fear and nerves… Or maybe just anticipation of the violence to come.

“You wanna bet?”

The Denarian gave me a sideways look, as if considering it.

“The mortal authorities are in all probability handsomely paid to watch this area. They will be paid even more not to mind any disturbances where we’re going.”

She was probably right… But I wasn’t about to admit that, was I?

“All it takes is one good citizen calling it in and some overzealous cop who won’t take no for an answer,” I reminded her.

“How fortunate we are not living in a Clint Eastwood movie.”

“Speak for yourself, punk,” I muttered.

We moved upwards along the mountain and the spacing between each of the houses widened as we went. The sun was setting behind us.

“I wonder if the girl has agreed to take up a coin yet,” Deirdre said after a couple of minutes of silence. She was smiling, white teeth glinting in the moonlight overhead.

“I doubt it,” I said. I kept my voice calm and uninterested, even as my heart pounded faster.

She snorted. “You sound sure. How precious.”

I was reasonably sure, actually. Nicodemus was not the kind of man who would gamble when he already held what he probably felt was a winning hand. We were already working with him, coin or no coin. Then again, that was assuming Nicodemus thought the way I did, and that was a dangerous assumption. It was all I had to go on, though. From what I’d seen about the way he operated he had several achievable objectives in his plan, to ensure he’d always profit. He wanted to stop this ritual rather badly, but there was also the opportunity to enlist me (however briefly). If things went south and I died he could gift Molly with a coin and promises of revenge. Or, I suppose, he could make me the same offer if the situation was reversed.

“I’m a persuasive guy,” I told her with a winning smile. “I said pretty please and everything.”

She considered that for a while. I wasn’t sure if she guessed at what I’d actually told her father.

“What about you?” She asked. “Imagine all the good you could do for the world with Lasciel’s help.”

Something in her voice had changed. She sounded completely earnest and for the first time, she was actually looking my way. I looked out the window instead, at the steep decline and thick brush at the side of the road.

“I’ve seen the good you do with their help,” I said. “Not interested.”

She smiled: A sad, almost pitying look. “You have not seen. Not yet. You will. We are at war, Dresden. We always have been. Once you see what’s at stake. What we are up against you’ll understand why we do what we do.”

My stomach crawled around uneasily at her words. There was the same quiet, assurance Michael sometimes had to them, a dark echo of his faith.

“And what’s that?”

“We’re trying to save the world, Dresden.”

I laughed, scornful and loud, but Deirdre barely seemed to notice.

“We’re trying to save it from itself, from its own folly. Like I said: We are at war. War demands sacrifice. Necessary evil that Carpenter and his ilk are too righteous and cowardly to sully themselves with.”

We took a right turn onto a small offshoot road that the jungle had mostly reclaimed and came to a stop. With absolutely no idea of what to say to Deirdre and a mounting feeling of unease, I took the offered lifeline and got out of the car.

Deirdre followed me, her slim form blending almost seamlessly into the darkness. Tyres crunched on gravel and a moment later, a second car had joined us. Nicodemus and Molly came out a second later. My apprentice wore a pair of loose dark jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt under a Kevlar vest, her golden hair bundled up under a baseball cap.

Nicodemus was still in a suit, though it was at least dark so as to blend into the night. There was a small, smug smile on his lips and that just couldn’t be good in any way, shape or form. I’d no doubt he’d spoken to my apprentice during the journey. The question was whether she’d listened or not. Molly had a great poker face but I could see the tension she was carrying with her in the set of her shoulders. I smiled at her as she came over.

“Feeling okay?”

“No,” she said. “I think I’m gonna hurl.”

I put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. For a while, Molly simply stood there, drawing slow, measured breaths.

“You’ll be fine,” I told her.

I was faking it but she didn’t know that. She had no idea how scared I was or how out of our depth we were. On one hand, we had Nicodemus, his darling psycho daughter, and his goons. On the other, we had the Red Court and whatever allies they’d dragged out of the darkness. I was an idiot to get myself involved in this and downright irresponsible to drag Molly in with me… But we were in it now, past the point of no return. It was time to face the music.

Again, tyres crunched on dry twigs as a large dark van came through the trees and stopped a few inches behind Nicodemus’ car. Men began to pour out of it, a full dozen of them, all dressed in dark camo-gear, toting enough weapons to take over a small nation. It didn’t make me feel any better. Hell, it made me feel worse. I’d expected Nicodemus to come prepared.

“What’re we going to fight that’ll take a frickin’ bazooka to kill?” Molly whispered, watching the soldiers pull out three of them, along with a mountable turret machine gun.

“Maybe he’s watched King Kong or something.”

Molly gave me a look like she wasn’t sure if I was serious or not. “If you’re trying to make me feel better you’re kinda sucking at it,boss.”

I managed a sheepish grin. “Yeah, I know.”

Nicodemus came up to us with Deirdre in tow and the soldiers all rallied around us. I eyed them. “You sure you brought enough men?”

“As many as we’ll need,” Deirdre cut in, her hair moving as though touched by the wind, though there wasn’t any. I tried my best not to flinch.

“It’s time,” Nicodemus said. “Miss Carpenter and Mr Dresden. You will lead the way along with myself to ensure the path is clear. Deirdre. You’ll take the rear.”

I didn’t make a dirty joke at her expense. Both because it wasn’t the time and because I’m a mature adult. I may have snickered. Hey, nobody’s perfect. His daughter clearly didn’t like being sent off. She glared at me but nodded. Nicodemus cleared his throat and addressed his soldiers.

“Stealth is of the utmost importance here. If our enemy is alerted of our presence before we take the complex our endeavor is likely to fail.” His voice lowered and a paternal smile touched the corner of his mouth. “I know you will make me proud.”

The men snapped their hands up in a crisp salute and formed up, letting Nicodemus, Molly and myself take the lead into the jungle and the darkness ahead. In case you’ve never trekked through thick jungle, uphill, in the evening, let me give you a free tip: Don’t.

It was nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t trip and knock myself out on something, especially with most of my senses occupied reaching out for magic in the air. Lights began to appear in the distance in soft specks seen through the trees and Molly held up her hand.

“Stop,” she hissed.

Nicodemus raised a closed fist and as one, his soldiers all crouched, vanishing into the darkness and the brush.

“I take it you have found their countermeasures, Miss Carpenter?” He said.

I moved a little closer to them, frowning out at the dark. There was a ward spun in the air, as fine and strong as spider silk, and if Molly hadn’t pointed it out I wasn’t entirely sure I would’ve noticed it in time.

“This is White Council level stuff,” I said, “Well spotted, Grasshopper.”

Tense though she was, a brief smile touched Molly’s lips. The expression was wonderfully open, a stark contrast to the careful control she’d exercised since we’d set out with Nicodemus.

“It’s nothing,” she said smugly. “Piece of cake.”

“Excellent,” Nicodemus said. “How long will it take for you to bring it down?”

Doubt and fear flashed across my apprentice’s face for a second before she could get a hold of the smug satisfaction from earlier. “Uh- I don’t- Let me check.”

A minute went by in absolute silence. There were some sort of mega-mutant mosquitoes whose favorite food turned out to be yours truly. Sweat ran down the small of my back and I really, really regretted agreeing to this whole thing.

“Here… We go,” Molly said a moment later, fingers flicking through the air in a quick series of gestures. Unnecessary, wasteful showmanship, but that was sometimes as potent a weapon as the magic itself. Power flared and for a moment, a green half-sphere net lit up where Molly’s hand had been outstretched, receding slowly out into the night. The girl’s face quickly went sheet white.

“Oh crap,” she muttered. “Crap, crap crap.”

“What is it, Miss Carpenter?” Nicodemus said, sounding mildly annoyed but not afraid.
My apprentice swallowed visibly.

“The good news is I’ve made us a hole to go through. The bad news is that the whole net is pulling back and the moment it’s gone, it’ll fry the gear of whoever’s called it up and they’ll know we’re here. “

“Ah,” Nicodemus said. “Then we best not waste any more time dawdling.”

He set off up the hill and his soldiers followed without him needing to tell them to do so, fanning out a half-dozen yards behind their master. Molly and I hurried after.

“How long?” I whispered.

“A few minutes at most,” she replied, wincing. “There was a tripwire and I only got the alarm in time before the whole spell just unspooled on me.”

We’d stopped in the cover of a few bushes. A wall barred our way ahead, ten feet of white stone, smoothly polished and gleaming where spotlights cast their glare on it. Two watchtowers stood at either side of the wall’s corners, and I could see the vague outline of guards with assault rifles.

“Wait for thirty seconds or until you hear the sound of gunfire,” Nicodemus said, shrugging out of his jacket. “We will open the front gate.”

He handed it over to one of his soldiers, who accepted it with a look near reverence. Nicodemus sword was already strapped to one hip and he had a gun holster at the other. Deirdre had come up to his side and they exchanged a few quiet words. Then they both darted off toward the wall.

Deirdre changed mid-step, her legs twisting to goatlike limbs, her hair lengthening and sharpening into dark, steely ribbons. She leapt at the wall and her hair dug into the stone as though it were wax, and she made rapid progress up the wall.

Nicodemus’ shadow swept him up off the ground like a great wave, sending him smoothly up to the top of the turret. The guard caught a glance of him at the last second and his head fell to the ground with his mouth still open in surprise.

Deirdre flipped up over the turret’s wooden railing and her hair all but enveloped the guard’s form. There was a low, choked sound, and then he too fell to the ground in a limp heap. The whole messy affair had taken a handful of seconds at most and the Denarians descended into the complex,keeping to the shadow cast by the wall as they hurried toward the next set of watchtowers.

Meanwhile, the rest of us got into position. Nicodemus’ men seemed to have their own chain of command and they kept moving as smoothly as they had under his direct command. The gates turned out to be large, thick wooden constructions that you’d be hard pressed to take down with anything short of siege weaponry. We waited in the bushes and by my headcount we were on twenty-three when the gates slowly slid open to admit us. Deirdre stood before us, her dark clothes and face splattered with red, a satisfied smirk on her face.

“It’s clear,” she said. ”Let’s go.”

The night was still silent. Ahead, a gravel road zig-zagged up across an emerald-green lawn for a generous distance all the way up to a mansion that looked like it had been transported off a Louisiana plantation.

“Stay behind me,” I said, casting a quick sideways glance to Molly. “If everything goes to shit, you ditch us and run.”

She held pace with me, a couple of steps behind me and to my right, but there was a rebellious light in her eyes. I had a feeling she’d be ignoring that particular order but there wasn’t any time to get her head in the game. The house was enough of a distance away from the perimeter wall that I was pretty sure nobody could have seen the guards being taken down, vampire senses or no. That said, sooner or later, someone was going to miss a check-in, or we were going to be spotted. If the Red Court was present in force, a dozen of Nicodemus’ soldiers wouldn’t be enough to stop them, no matter how well trained they were. Especially not out in the open. We still needed the use the element of surprise for all it was worth.

We trekked along the wall for a while, using the shadows for cover until we reached a small garden at the midway point between us and the house.

“Father waits for us by the door,” Deirdre said. “We breach immediately and head for the basement.”

The air smelled sweet of apples and I could hear insects buzzing by. Molly was muttering softly under her breath, going through a working of some sort, the air blurring as she slowly gathered her power about her.

“McDermott, Andersson, Lee. You’ll be coming with me.” She pointed three men out in turn, then walked over to a grizzled man in his late thirties. “Jones. You will be in charge of the rest. Clear the house and keep guard by the basement entry. Hold it at all costs.”

The men nodded and as we set off again, I could feel something settle over us like a thin layer of plastic wrap, sticking to my skin and leaving the world around me a little blurry. Looking around, I could see the vague outline of the rest of the group… But only barely. From a distance, I doubted even supernatural senses would be enough to see us coming unless they were looking for it.

“Not bad, Grasshopper,” I said quietly. “Not bad at all.”

I could hear her snort. “I feel like I could take on the whole empire by myself.”

We made our way up to the main entrance where a solid oak door barred our path and Nicodemus melted out of the shadows, the weak moonlight gleaming off his teeth and the polished steel of his sword.

“Mr Dresden. Miss Carpenter,” he said. “If you’d be so good as to check for wards before we breach.”

His men were already picking up plastic explosives from their packs and I walked up to the door, holding my hand up toward it. I could feel a soft static of a ward there but it was no stronger than the net we’d gone through earlier. This house had a very, very weak threshold or none at all. If monsters like the Red Court were traipsing around, that made sense. Such a thing would deteriorate those protections quickly. Whatever it was laid out to protect the house, it couldn’t be very strong, which was good. We were in a hurry… And the moment I came to that realization, our time ran out and the loud, howl of a siren cut through the evening. Molly flinched and stepped back from the door.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t even-”

The ward was weak, in all probability another warning net like the previous. Fuck it. With the siren blaring and the sheer force of the sound pressing against my skull, I put the tip of my staff to the construct and sent a disruptive corkscrew of energy against the ward.
A second warning klaxon joined in with the first. On the upside, my less sneaky solution to problems was back on the table. I rocked back a step as some of the dispersed energy washed back over me, regained my balanced, pointed my staff back at the door and roared

“Forzare!”

The wood didn’t splinter. The whole damn thing was wrenched out of its frame and sent hurtling backwards. It landed ten feet into a large, open room with a bang loud enough to be heard even over the warning klaxon. We rushed in, Nicodemus at the lead, and his soldiers quickly spread out through the building. The rest of us bee-lined for the basement and headed down the stairs, down into the cold earth.

It looked like any kind of basement I’d ever seen. Smooth white walls stained with patches of dampness surrounding us, concrete steps under our feet. It descended sixty feet or so and there a second door blocked our path. I stepped up with Nicodemus, my shield bracelet ready to go, bracing myself for whatever might be facing us on the other side.

Nicodemus held up a hand, three fingers extended. Two. One. We burst through the door and into… A rather nice living room. That’s what it looked like at first glance. Floors of dark, smooth wood, covered in carpets in shades of lush red. To our immediate right, nudged into a nook, was a little library. A liquor cabinet, a fireplace, cushy-looking leather chairs.

Ahead, a hallway lead further into unlit rooms, and to the left, there was a little kitchen. White clinker tiles, marble worktop in the center, polished steel of the fridge, freezer and the faucets gleaming under the overhead spotlights. To my immediate left a wide-screen TV was set up, along with several chairs and a sofa. Shirts of famous soccer players hung along the walls here, signed and encased in glass. Pelé. Maradonna. Beckenbaur. Cruyf.

It wasn’t until I bothered with a second glance that I realized that this was the scene of a nightmare. The skin of the leather chairs... Was human. In the kitchen, suspended above a counter was a six feet by six feet glass container. Inside it, a young, naked man was suspended and immobile. He had a plastic tube running down his throat, a catheter, and two thin tubes leading from his wrists down into what looked like a cappuccino machine. It came complete with cute little porcelain cups.

“Oh God,” I heard Molly mutter behind me. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

Nicodemus made a sound of vague disgust. “Miss Carpenter, please.”

We stalked forward slowly and I was expecting horrors to come jumping out of the corners shouting “Boogidy boo!” at any moment. They didn’t… And it didn’t make me feel one bit better. Instead, the tension simply built and built as I moved ahead of the troops, my shield spell at the ready. The soldiers must have been briefed on what I could do because they stayed close together and behind me as we moved forward.

The hallway awaiting past the kitchen was shadowed and ominous. I could feel the uncomfortably loud, heavy thumping of my heart pounding in my ears. The underground complex was huge. Doors opened up into rooms as we moved through the hallway: An auditorium, bedrooms, playrooms indulging in every dark, depraved desire imaginable, a medical bay, an archive and so on. Every step we took, I could feel something begin to creep up on my senses. Something unrelated to the fear of the battle to come, of the unknown, and the monsters waiting for us.

Power was brewing. Something dark and powerful that set my teeth on edge as it brushed past me. I glanced sideways. Nicodemus was walking beside me, Molly just behind.

“Can you feel that?” I said.

“Yes,” Nicodemus said. “The summoning has begun.”

“The summoning of what?” Molly asked, her voice coming out just a touch shrill.

“Probably something best described as ‘eldritch’ and ‘tentacular’,” I said under my breath.

I could see Nicodemus’ teeth flash in a brief, wolfish grin.

“Don’t worry too much, Miss Carpenter,” he said. “It might just be a shoggoth.”

“What’s a shoggoth?” Molly asked, her voice gaining a high, almost panicked note. “Harry… What is a shoggoth?”

Neither of us answered. Nicodemus because he’s kind of a dick. Me, because I honestly didn’t know. Ahead, the corridor finally came to an end at a large open room, steps descending to a courtyard, and at the far wall, what looked like a miniature of the remains of the main temple of Chichen Itza – a ziggurat-style pyramid. At its top there was an opening into a small cube-shaped room, and at its center, gleaming in the light of the braziers lit all across the room, a squat bloodstained altar. Things got progressively worse from there.

Vampires were storming up toward us, claws gouging out chips of stones as they tore up the stairs. At the top of the pyramid were figures in dark robes and cloaks. They looked humanoid, though one of them had spurs of bone jutting out from his joints. Now, they might have been having a midnight picnic, but the sphere of obsidian darkness hovering between them, at the center of the temple, suggested that maybe, just maybe, something nefarious was up.

In the courtyard, a dozen or so people were chained up. About as many shackles were empty and, with the blood running thickly down along the steps from the main temple, it wasn’t difficult to guess what had happened to them.

I stared for a moment at the scene before us. Then I turned to Nicodemus and, I felt, summarized the scene in exemplary laconic fashion. “Well, shit.”

Fortunately, Nicodemus’ soldiers were on the ball and formed up, which was when the other vampires, that I hadn’t seen, hit from both flanks at once. Everything devolved into chaos from there. Gunfire roared as several of the men opened fire down at the vampires swarming up the stairs.

One of Nicodemus’ soldiers spotted the threat coming at him from the side, but didn’t have time to redirect his weapon before a red court vampire rushed past him, slashing his throat all the way down to his spinal column before attacking his buddy. The second soldier was quicker on the uptake and managed to intercept the strike with his rifle. The claws sheared straight through its barrel and the man fell back, staring the broken pieces as the vampire pounced. The steely tendrils of Deirdre’s hair plunged into the vampire’s body as the Denarian swept forward, spearing it through arms and legs and lifting it up to expose its bulging, blood gorged belly. She slashed it open with several more tendrils and blood fountained like something out of a Tarantino movie. The vampire thrashed wildly until Deirdre stalked up and kicked it down the flights of stairs.

There was a gateway hanging suspended mid-air, a rip into the fabric of reality leading into the Nevernever, and another vampire was already making its way through it. A sudden instinct sent me spinning around, turning my back on the action just in time to see another Way opened in the corridor we’d just come in through and a vampire to come rushing at us from behind.

My shield bracelet lit up in a in a concave disc that filled the hallway and the vampire smashed headfirst into it. It knew full well that the best approach against a wizard was speed and, failing that, that it wasn’t easy to pull a spell together in a battle like this. Not to mention the fact that anyone behind me could take me out if it kept me tangled.

“A hand here, anyone?” I called, as the vampire shoved against my shield again, pushing my boots back over several inches of stone floor.

I glanced backwards where the fight was still on. Nicodemus was covering one flank, Deirdre another. Some of the soldiers were exchanging fire with one of the spellcasters at the top of the temple. One of the soldiers turned at my call and took a step to the side for a clear line of fire around me. We exchanged a look and I put the hand I didn’t have raised in front of me behind my back, three fingers extended. I pulled one into a fist. Then the second. On the third, I released the shield, and bullets howled past me to turn the vampire into a mess of blood and helplessly thrashing limbs.

There was a crackle, a flash of light and the shooter who’d helped me take down the vampire fell as a bolt of lightning struck him full on in the back. The robed figure still held up a shield and was deflecting the heavy fire still being poured into it, even as it sent a fireball the size of an inflatable exercise ball our way.

I stepped out of the hallway and spread my shield wide, as far out from me as I could. The fireball collided with it twenty feet out, flames blue of and green trickling down along it, clinging like napalm. My new and improved shield bracelet stopped most of the heat, but even so, I felt pretty sure the first row of soldiers lost their eyebrows.

The figure’s hood turned a little to the side, as if whoever was under there was listening to something said from the temple structure… And then, without warning, the temperature in the room plummeted. The sensation of it slithered along my spine as if someone had dumped a bucket of cold frying oil over my head, raising the hair on my arms. Something had just changed. Figures darted out of the temple and they all made a run for it along the back wall. They reached a corner and a hidden door opened for them even as the temple they’d abandoned exploded outward, scattering stone and mortar everywhere and sending a cloud of obscuring dust out through the room.

The last Red Court vampire standing froze for a moment and barely that, but it was more than enough for Nicodemus to carve it up like a Christmas ham. He whipped some of the blood of his blade and took stock of the situation. Two of his men were dead, another two hurt pretty badly.

“Take the injured upstairs,” Nicodemus said. “Miss Carpenter. Accompany them.”

Molly looked to me and I gave her a sharp nod. “Go. We’ll deal with whatever-”

A noise came out of the dust cloud. Something dragging along the stone and- something else under it. Voices, I realized. Hundreds, thousands of voices, all of them moaning in endless, indescribable agony. A hand emerged from out of the dust, the width of a car’s tyres with its fingers extended, and those fingers dug into the stone floors as though they were made out of wax. Then another, and another, and another. Dozens upon dozens of arms shot out and dragged an amorphous shape out of the wreckage.

My mind screamed warnings at me, that I had to look away, and I felt my fingers flex as I restrained myself from the sudden instinctive urge to claw my own eyes out, just so I wouldn’t have to look at the thing any more… And despite all that, I could not look away. There was something that kept me there, rooted to the spot, staring.

“Miss Carpenter,” Nicodemus barked. “Move!”

“Close your eyes, fool,” Deirdre hissed.

I forced my mental shields up and it wasn’t until that point that I realized I was already under attack. Whatever that thing was, it was reaching out to me, its influence seeping into my mind. Only Deirdre and Nicodemus seemed unaffected, both of them forcibly turning their soldiers around from the thing and pushing them towards the exit.

The thing was already making its way out of the rubble of the temple, the dust finally settling to show its form. Even with my shields up, it was a horrible sight to behold. Hundred if not thousands of arms extended from the huge, pale, flabby mass of its main body, nightmarishly long, their fingers oustretched and reaching. There were no eyes and yet I could feel the thing watching us as it dragged itself forward, much faster than any creature that size had any right to be.

The prisoners didn’t stand a chance and were dragged towards the bulk of the creature and pressed against it. There, the skin split and they were thrust into the darkness.

Nothing but the arms protruded and the flesh quickly closed. Clothes fell off and the limbs began to jerk, break, reknit, and break again, lengthening and growing paler until they joined the countless sea of arms swaying through the air like kelp in the currents of the sea. The main body of the creature bulged and swelled, growing exponentially.

A few guns went off but the bullets didn’t even slow the thing down. It simply pressed on. Well, then. It was time to give it a warm welcome to our dimension. I drew in power and all the hellfire I could muster. The runes of my blasting rod lit up as I drew it, symbols of a deep scarlet appearing along the length of wood as I leveled it at the creature.

“Fuego!” The fire roared across the room in a tight column that would slag a car down to molten scraps. It met the creature’s body… and simply split in two directions, gouging a hole in the ground several feet deep at either end.

Oh. Oh shit. If this thing grew that fast from consuming people, and it got to the city… I didn’t even want to think about the havoc it’d wreak before it was stopped. If it could be stopped at all.

“It’s time for us to withdraw,” Nicodemus said, a slight edge to his voice. For all of that, he wasn’t flinching.

“I’m fine,” I snapped back. “Get Molly out of here. I’ll hold it back.”

My magic could not affect the thing. It could, however, affect mundane things. Like the ceiling. I pointed my staff up at it instead, releasing a second evocation.

The fire smashed into the roof, cut directly out of the rock, and tons upon tons of stone came crashing down. I didn’t stay and watch. I turned and bolted and caught up with the group in the corridor. Nicodemus was ushering Molly along and I slipped my arm under hers, supporting her. As I did, our aura’s brushed up and I extended the protection of my shields over hers. Molly jerked in my arms and blinked her eyes open, like she was waking up from being half-asleep. I could feel her power at work as she pushed her own shields up. For mental attacks they were honestly better than mine. I withdrew my protections and Molly began to move along with us, shaking off the stupor.

“What the hell was that?” She called as we pushed into the hallway.

“Outsider. I’ll explain later.”

I could hear movement behind me and only barely made it into the next room, throwing myself into the kitchen area as the hallway filled up with long, long arms and raking fingers. I damn near squished Molly under me as I landed and the both of us scrambled on hands and feet to get clear.

Nicodemus’ goons stood in the center of the room and seemed be keeping their shit together, firing towards the creature.

“What do we do, father?” Deirdre called.

The hands had taken a hold of the frame of the inside wall, black nails digging into the stone, pulling its body through the narrow opening like a squid. Nicodemus walked over to the center of the room, where some of his braver soldiers still held their ground, Deirdre standing ahead of them.

“Dresden and I will buy you time,” Nicodemus said. ”Fetch the equipment and set it up upstairs.”

“Yes, father.”

Deirdre grabbed a few of the soldiers and dashed upstairs. The remaining flanked Nicodemus and myself, pouring fire into the monster, ripping into flesh and releasing sharp, short wails of pain that came not from the creature, but whatever lay trapped inside. In mere moments, the wounds sealed.

“Magic doesn’t work,” I said. “Guns don’t work. What does work?”

Nicodemus didn’t look away from the Outsider as he responded. “The last time a creature such as this was brought into our world was a hundred years ago in Tunguska.”

I stared at him. “I don’t have any asteroid or nuclear warhead that I can get here in the next few minutes. Do you have any other suggestion?”

The creature was coming through.

“A few,” Nicodemus said, stepping forward. “For now, we buy time.”

That was when things managed to somehow get even more disturbing. The creature pressed its massive bulk through the hallway, arms fanned out to its sides, easily thirty feet long, to reveal the flabby, scabbed formless mass at its center. That mass split open to reveal a horrible darkness within. A void, vast and cold, that hungered endlessly and insatiably.

Nicodemus held up one hand, closed into a fist. His soldiers ceased firing immediately. Anduriel flowed across the ground, settling between the outsider and Nicodemus.

The creature spoke, countless agonized wails bleeding together into some semblance of a voice. At first, I thought it was all nonsense, until Nicodemus answered it in a similar tongue, harsh and gutural. Hebrew? In that moment I made a choice I had shied away from for the entire trip. I focused my attention inwards and reached out for the presence of my very own fallen angel.

“Lasciel. What the hell am I dealing with here?”

A female voice answered, mildly amused. “Hebrew, as you suspected. An archaic form of it, at any rate.”

“That’s wildly useful, thanks. What is that thing. Where does it come from and, for a reward of a million bucks, how do I kill it?”

“It is an outsider, and as the name suggests, it comes from beyond our reality,” Lasciel said, her voice calm and prim, like a schoolteacher admonishing a small child. “Nicodemus is correct. Killing such a creature is not easy. Few wizards have managed it.”

I took half a step back. A twitch ran down several of the arms, as if they were restraining the urge to strike.

“I’m not hearing anything that’s helping me, Lash.”

“That is because there is little you will be able to do, my host. I would advice fleeing.”

I shoved her back into the darkest corner of my mind, where replays ran over and over of that sparkly vampire movie Molly dragged me out to watch once, and got back to business. Lucky, that, because a moment later, the negotiations broke down.

The arms struck like serpents, surging forward in a vast wave, impossible fast. Not as fast as Nicodemus, though, whose shadow enveloped him and carried him off to the side of the room like a wave. Silver flashed as he struck out with his sword, severing hands and arms in precise sweeps. He bobbed and weaved, dodging some attacks while his shadow solidified and deflected others.

I summoned my best shield, stretching it as far as I could to cover the soldiers. The center held for a moment, sparks showering the floors, and then the shield shattered. The edges had not been able to withstand the might of the attack at all. Men screamed as they were grabbed and dragged in. They kicked and fought, one even managing to slam a fresh magazine into his rifle and emptying at point blank range before being consumed.

“Harry!” I could hear Molly’s voice behind me but I didn’t dare to turn. I stumbled backwards in horror, sweeping aside one of the reaching hands with my staff, snapping fingers with the solid length of wood and dodging back out of the way. It was time for desperate measures.

I called up all the hellfire I could muster and felt the staff heat up in my hand, smoke stinging my nostrils as I waved the tool from left to right with a roared incantation. Fire roared up from the ground in the middle of the room, rising high up off the ground and cutting off the outsider from sight.

“Get down!” Deirdre called from behind me.

She needn’t have bothered to tell me. Exhaustion slammed into me and down seemed like the direction to go. I stumbled backwards, head spinning and eventually found myself sitting down on the ground and staring at the roaring inferno. Above me, Deirdre was carrying what looked like a gleaming black steel tube over her shoulder. She must’ve picked up the bazooka and returned to the fray.

Fire bloomed from it and a moment later the entire room rocked with the impact of the explosion.

I groggily got back to my feet, Molly helping me as best she could. At least we had the wall of fire. The thing wouldn’t be able to see us through that. I turned and began to hobble towards the stairs but something nagged at me. I was missing something, overlooking some detail in all of this. Oh.

A steel vice closed around my ankle and I realized my mistake. The damn thing didn’t have eyes. My smokescreen had been useless and I found myself on my stomach, hands scrabbling along the smooth polished wooden floor for purchase and finding none as I was dragged slowly towards the creature’s horrible maw.

Hell, I wouldn’t even make it that long. The wall of hellfire that was rapidly setting the common room on fire would turn me to ash. I called my will to me but I could feel it drain out of me as quickly as I could summon it, sucked into the hungering void of the outsider. There was a sudden rush of wind and suddenly, the crushing vice around my ankle slackened.

I scrambled to my feet, kicking the pale, disturbingly human hand off of me, and saw Nicodemus stand between the creature and myself, sword at guard. Another arm shot out of the gathering smoke and Nicodemus deftly sidestepped it, severing the limb in a smooth stroke. Two more came for him and he dodged one, lopping off the second.

“Upstairs,” Nicodemus called. “Now!”

His soldiers leapt to obey and I pushed Molly ahead of me, then followed.

A shadow appeared by the hellfire and then the creature pushed past it. Hundreds of grasping hands lashed out and were met by Anduriel, swelling up off the ground and stopping them cold. For the moment.

Deirdre, who had been lingering, watching Nicodemus, looked genuinely worried and only started moving upstairs when her father did. We pelted up the steps and spilled into the hallway. The soldiers had been preparing alright. A M2 Browning machine gun had been set up on a tripod, aimed down the basement stairs, and the moment Nicodemus and I got clear they opened up at a rate of about four fucktons of bullets per second.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Along the walls of the room, several large shells of the sort you’d stick into artillery had been set up with pressure-plates. The kind of good, basic tech that wasn’t likely to go explody in the presence of a wizard, but that would also level the entire damn building.

“Leave the guns,” Nicodemus called, his voice barely audible over the howl of the machine gun. Pale, bloody hands were grabbing onto the frame of the door leading downstairs and despite the heavy fire, it seemed the outsider was getting out.

We ran, through the hallway where a few armed men in civilian clothing lay dead along with a couple of red court vampires, and out onto the mansion’s garden. The grass was slippery under our feet and apparently someone hadn’t thought to disable the sprinklers, because I got soaked rushing straight through the spray of one. I managed to keep my balance, barely, and then our friend Mr Grabbyhands set off the explosives.

My stumble turned into a fall, which I managed to turn into a roll, coming up and running. Ahead, I could spot lights and figures. I drew in power, but Nicodemus put a hand on my shoulder.

“They’re with us,” he said, as the people approached, then raised his voice. “Prepare to fire.”

One of his goons snapped a crisp salute and spoke into the walkie-talkie. Apparently this one had kept his tongue.

I almost didn’t want to look back to see if the IEDs had done the trick, but I forced myself, and saw a mangled mess of the creature rising from the smouldering ruins. Some of its arms were snapping and jerking back into place. Others were dragging as it pulled itself out of the rubble.

“Fire.”

Nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever.

“Molly.” I put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and put on my best Austrian accent. “I think it’s time for you to get to the chopper.”

She blinked. “The what?”

“It’s time for you to run. And to add The Predator to the list.”

Order operatives had joined the fray, firing into the bulk of the outsider with a wide array of weaponry as it began to move down along the lawn like a great slug.

“I’m not-”

There was a sharp whooshing sound and the night erupted into fire and thunder. I stumbled backwards as the earth shook from the impact of shell after shell of artillery slamming into the ground around the outsider. Someone seized me by the arm, steadied me, and I could see Nicodemus shout something at me. The words were lost in the chaos, but when he shoved me backwards I continued in that direction without looking back.

Modern artillery, guided via computers and satellites is very, very accurate. The artillery from previous eras, on the other hand, usually means you point to a hundred yard area on the map you want to flatten, and presto. Hopefully, Nicodemus had invested in the former, but even then, getting further away seemed like a good idea.

The troops behind us were clearly thinking along the same lines and we all began to move. Nicodemus’ goon with the walkie-talkie was well ahead, shouting instructions. I was out of grabbing range but even so, I couldn’t help but imagine nightmarishly long arms reaching out for me, cold, dry hands grabbing me and hauling me back. It wasn’t until I was a couple of hundred feet out of the way that I dared to look back.

The outsider had managed to make its way some thirty feet down into the garden and shell after shell hammered into it.

Nicodemus hadn’t moved. He stood, hands clasped behind his back, and watched as dirt and dust swept down on him, as shrapnel sent splatters of blood onto the ashen grass. Finally, as the barrage reached the one minute mark, he held up a hand, and some ten seconds later, the night grew quiet save for the ringing in my ears.

“McDermott. Andersson,” Nicodemus barked. “The grenades, if you please.”

Two men rushed forward, each carrying a belt of grenades, which they handed over. Nicodemus stepped forward into the dust as the wind began to disperse it. The outsider was in bad shape, limbs mangled and broken, its main body pocked with rips and tears that emitted the slow agonized chorus of voices.

It jerked and twitched like a smashed insect as Nicodemus approached, and I could see its wounds start to knit and heal. One of its arms snapped back into place and flashed out towards Nicodemus, only to be slashed off at whatever passed for an elbow in the creature. Nicodemus pulled out the pins on the grenades and then unceremoniously tossed the whole lot into one of the wounds. He turned on his heel, Anduriel flaring out behind him, and walked off as the creature exploded in a shower of gore in the background.

Chapter Text

I don’t remember what happened next. I have a few vague memories of sitting in the car, staring at nothing, with Molly next to me doing more or less the same. When I came to, I was in a safe-house of some sort, a small apartment with a single room and a bathroom, the single high-set window covered in bars.

We fumbled and stumbled our way inside, Molly’s frayed veil finally faltering as we closed the door behind us. It was cool inside, with the airconditioning toiling in one corner, and it made me all the more aware of the way my t-shirt stuck to my skin. Sweat was running down my neck and my back, mingling with dust and blood.

I headed straight for the kitchen sink, turning on the faucet and cupping my hands under it, splashing the mercifully cool water on my face. I raised more to my lips, and then stopped myself. Drinking tap water in a foreign country usually didn’t end well. I stepped aside to let Molly wash up, too, finding several bottles of water in the fridge. I popped the cap of one and guzzled it and handed the second to my apprentice when she came up for air. She promptly did the same, then returned to the sink to splash water on her neck and face.

A minute went by before Molly finally straightened. She had gotten out of her kevlar vest at one point, but I honestly couldn’t remember when. With the water and the sweat her white t-shirt stuck to her skin enough that I could see the outline of her black bra underneath it. I was too tired to care or to find it anything beyond mildly intriguing.

“You take the shower first,” I told her.

Molly’s blue eyes widened in something like panic and her fingers tightened on mine. I squeezed back. Partly to instill comfort, partly to keep her from breaking my fingers.

“I-”

She squeezed her eyes shut, taking a step toward me, and I reached out to grab her shoulders, steadying her.

“Hell’s bells, Molly. Are you okay?”

She smiled and shook her head in a grim expression that reminded me of Michael when times had been tough.

“No,” she said. “I’m not.”

Well, duh, Dresden. Of course she wasn’t okay.

“I can go first, if you’d prefer.”

Before I could get anywhere, she’d slung her arms about my waist and pressed in close. It wasn’t so much a hug as it was physical restraint and I really, really didn’t know what to do.

“Molly?” I said, trying keep my voice as gentle as I possibly could.

She was shaking badly and I just stood there, holding her until some of the tension drained out of her.

“This was all I ever wanted,” she said, her voice sounding raw. “Fighting alongside you.”

I took her hands in mine. “I know.”

“I didn’t think it would be this hard.”

“It only gets worse,” I told her. “None of your friends died. That’s still a good day.”

I could feel her fingers trembling in my grip. “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“No. It doesn’t. You get better at dealing as you go along.”

“Does it ever stop hurting?”

I shook my head and, for some reason, that made her smile a little. “A few days ago you would’ve lied to me.”

“I probably would’ve, yeah. A few days ago, you would’ve believed me.”

Molly looked up at me, her gaze searching. She hesitated and some colour returned to her cheeks, tinting her skin pink.

“Stay with me. Please?”

It sounded like the words hurt coming out. I swallowed and despite all the water, my mouth suddenly felt dry. I was pretty sure I wasn’t imagining what she was really asking for through implication.

“Molly - I don’t know if-”

“I see it,” she whispered, voice hollow. “Every time I close my eyes, it’s right there, clawing and tearing inside my head and I can’t get it out. Please.”

Damn it. This was all my fault. I’d started this whole mess over protecting her from the so called justice of the White Council and then I’d gone right ahead and dragged her off to war. There weren’t a lot of Council records about Outsiders, but from what I’d read, wizards a lot more experienced than either of us had gone insane from just looking at one of the damn things. And that wasn’t even accounting for the ordinary trauma of combat. Wizards were no more immune to PTSD than other human beings.

I nodded and we walked into the bathroom together. It was a modest room. A sink, a toilet, and a shower without any curtain hung up to separate it from the rest. The floors were cheap linoleum, but at least they were clean.

Molly stepped ahead of me and stood there for a moment with her back to me. I was about to ask if she was alright again when she grabbed hold of her t-shirt and peeled it off her skin, throwing it aside. Her jeans went next. She’d managed to get sunburnt on the back of her neck and the parts of her shoulders that weren’t covered by her t-shirt. A nasty purple bruise was forming a few inches above her right hip where, by the looks of things, her kevlar vest had taken a bullet or some shrapnel.

She turned to me and smiled shyly. I kept my eyes level with hers. It was difficult with her sweat soaked sports bra clinging to the curves of her breasts, but I mostly managed it. Molly’s gaze turned questioning as she approached. She dipped her fingers underneath my t-shirt, brushing them along my hip bones as she raised the fabric up over my stomach. I helped her the rest of the way and by the time I’d gotten the stupid shirt untangled from my face, she was eyeing my belt.

She was breathing more heavily now, little shivers touching each exhalation as she drew a line across my belly to the fading scar on my hip.

“What happened?” She asked in a hushed, almost reverent voice.

“Small caliber bullet,” I said. “A sorcerer was summoning demons and killing people with black magic. One of his flunkies shot me.”

Her fingers drifted up over several long, jagged lines across my stomach.

“Ex-Denarian sorcerer,” I told her. “One of Nicodemus’ old pals.”

Molly’s eyes widened for a moment and she flattened her palm against a spot a few inches farther up, across my ribs, where three slender, equally spaced lines stood, still red and angry. I smiled wryly.

“I guess you know that one.”

“Yeah.”

For a moment her eyes welled up and then she blinked, swallowed, and her hand descended again. Her nails left a tingling sensation in their wake until she was hesitating once more with her fingers on my belt-buckle. After a few seconds, she drew back, reached behind herself, and unsnapped her bra. She let it fall to the floor and then quickly, as if fearing her courage might run out if she paused to think, she pushed her panties down her legs. Only when she’d done that did she look at me again.

Her honey-blonde hair clung to her neck and I reached out, brushing it aside to better see the slithering serpent running down most of the way to her shoulder. Another tattoo, this one an intricate weave of barbed points crept like vines down her shoulders to the upper swell of her breasts. My eyes dipped and took in the stark contrast where her tan from Australia faded to pale, milky white skin. Gold loops pierced the taut peaks of her nipples.

“Turn around,” I said, voice coming out low and a touch strained.

A little tremor ran along the muscles of Molly’s stomach at the words and she did as I’d told her, moving under the showerhead at my light touch at the small of her back.

I stripped out off my shoes - Christ did that feel good - then ditched my pants and everything else, stepping in under the showerhead and turning the knob. The water that splashed down over us was pleasantly cool. Some shampoo of a brand I didn’t recognize stood on a little shelf mounted to the wall and I squeezed a generous dollop into my hands.

I massaged the shampoo into Molly’s hair, carefully trying to keep the suds from getting into her eyes, and Molly soon leaned back against me, her head resting against my chest. I held her there for a while, with one arm around her waist, as I washed the dust, sweat and blood out of her hair. When I was done it took her several long seconds to move.

“Do you want to do mine, or do you think it’s too high to reach?” I said.

Molly turned around and smacked me on the arm. Her smile was a feeble thing, but she smiled by thunder. Whoever said my wiseassery was a waste of breath, have yourself a slice of humble pie.

Molly stretched up on her toes and set to working shampoo into my hair and I closed my eyes as she did. That way, my eyes wouldn’t wander. Then again, with the way she pressed in close, her breasts against my chest, it was really an exercise in futility.

On the surface, it had sounded innocent. I would just be supporting her. We’d wash up, maybe rest together on the bed for a while, and when we’d recovered things would be back to normal. Master and apprentice. Some flirting on her end and a gentle, exasperated rebuke on mine. A beer at the end of the day. But if I pushed past the denial, as a proper wizard should, then I knew exactly where this was headed. It was time to face reality.

Once she was done with my hair, Molly’s hands descended slowly down along my body until she rested her flattened palm over my heart.

The water sluiced over us both and I tracked its progress down the contours of her body. Minutes passed by and like that evening in the motel at the start of this arduous journey - thank you, word of the day toilet paper - I waited for Molly to build up the nerve.

“We’ll be alright,” she said, softly. “We’ll go someplace nice for a while, after this, just the two of us.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Somewhere cold.”

She smiled and drew a teasing spiral pattern down my belly. “A nice cottage, maybe? We could skii all day and sit in front of the fireplace at night.”

“I’d like that. I’ll even take the risk of renting a cabin in the woods.”

She looked up at me, her blue eyes red from the tears, and yet she’d never been more beautiful. She was earnest and afraid and looking for something, anything, to cling on to. I’d been the one to drag her into this utter clusterfuck of a situation, and now it was my time to help. Whatever that might mean.

I slid my hands up along her back, slowly tracing the tips of my fingers along her spine. She shuddered and leaned into me, her own hand drawing a hesitant slalom down my belly, coming to an abrupt halt at my hip. Molly took a deep breath, held my eyes and pressed her lips to mine. For the first time I didn’t pull away.

A little shiver ran down Molly’s body at the light brushing contact, her eager breath tickling against my lips. She drew back for a moment, eyes wide, and then kissed me again. She was more confident this time around, the tip of her tongue teasing along my bottom lip until I answered the kiss. Something snapped and Molly made a soft noise of pure, unadulterated need, pressing herself flush against my chest.

Her hand trailed lightly across my thigh and grabbed a hold of my cock. She frowned.That might have put some guy’s self esteem off, mine included, if I hadn’t known why. I wasn’t hard. I’d like to stress that isn’t an issue I’ve had before. Ever. I’ve never really gotten drunk and fooled around, but even when I’d shared a bottle of wine with Susan, everything had been in working condition. Now, not so much.

Molly’s dismay was quickly replaced with determination, though, and she began to stroke me with gentle fingers, slowly coaxing a response out of me.

“Do you want…” Molly’s eyes flicked down. “I could… If you want.”

“Uh, Molly-”

Her kiss silenced me and her lips moved down along my jaw, gentle kisses along my throat turning into light bites down my shoulder and my chest. She paused for a moment after a kiss to my belly button and then looked up at me with a bashful grin.

Then she continued and took me in her mouth, hot velvet enveloping me. Molly slipped her hand into mine, squeezing once. She definitely knew what she was doing - and I tried not to reflect too heavily on that when I heard her make a soft sound. It was a muffled mewling thing, and I cracked my eyes open again to see one her hands, moving slowly between her thighs. Her hips shifted in a undulating motion against her fingers.

It was a kind of surreal experience, looking down at Molly, going to town on me and herself at the same time. It had been a damn long time since I’d had anything even close to this and, by all rights, I should be worrying about making a mess of things. Instead, I was only just now getting properly hard.

Fucking hell, Dresden. Get a grip of yourself and get your damn head in the game. Man up.

This is wrong, a little voice at the back of my mind whispered to me. You know it is. You can still stop this. Molly’s tongue piercing made an introduction and a soft, treacherous moan slipped past my lips. It was too late, I told myself. A lie.

Molly disengaged with a soft plop. She stayed on her knees in front of me, looking up, eyes full of need. She gave my hand a soft tug.

“I need more,” she murmured, and I moved down along with her, settling on the cool linoleum.

She smiled at me and despite all the horror and death we’d been through in the past day there was still hope there. Whatever words I’d been about to say - and I honestly can’t remember - they died in my throat. She straddled my hips, her mouth hot on mine, hips immediately shifting forwards in search of friction. Toned arms snaked around my neck, forearms resting against my shoulders as she rolled her hips forward yet again, slick, hot arousal pressing against me. She made a noise, something low and hungry, near desperate, and ground herself against me.

It was too late, now.

Molly reached down between our bodies and grabbed ahold of my cock. She lifted herself up off the floor, moved forward a little, and then sank down, slowly taking me inside of her. Molly winced once or twice, biting down on her bottom with with a look of determination and pressing on until I was completely within her.

“It… It didn’t really hurt as bad as they said it would,” Molly murmured. She began to move, slowly, a shy smile touching her lips.

I didn’t look away. I couldn’t. What was I doing?

She quickly picked up the pace. The little signs of discomfort were slowly replaced by her soft panting. She ran her hands down my shoulders and along my chest. Her smile was radiant as she leaned in and kissed me… And suddenly it all came crashing down on me. I was fucking Molly Carpenter. Or getting fucked by her, to be precise, but that was a moot bloody point. Hells Bells.

I felt bile rising up my throat and tore out of the kiss, wrapping my arms around Molly so that I could look past her. Anywhere but at the gorgeous curves of her body moving atop mine. It was all I could do not to throw up right then and there. I focused hard, centering everything on the water falling a few feet ahead from the showerhead. The droplets of water, lit from above by the few surviving spotlights, shimmering like little gemstones.

I focused on breathing slowly and evenly, managing to fight down the worst of it but tasting bile at the back of my tongue all the same.

“Not yet,” Molly said, her voice coming out throaty. “Just hold on a bit longer.”

That wasn’t going to be a problem.. Silver linings and all that, I suppose. I held her close, trying to focus on the warmth and softness of her body and distancing it from what we were doing.

At least I wasn’t going flaccid. It might have put an end to this whole mess, which would’ve been good… But it would’ve hurt my male pride. In the battle between sense and logic versus my pride, my pride won. This is why men don’t live as long as women. We’re sometimes very stupid. Observe Exhibit A.

Molly made a soft sound at the back of her throat and rode me harder. My back was starting to hurt from sitting on the hard floors. It was time to man up and do something. I needed to finish this. I raised my hand to Molly’s cheek, fingers trailing softly along her skin. She shivered at my touch and needy little sounds slipped past her lips.

My hand moved down her body. I didn’t hurry, idly brushing the tips of my fingers down her throat, along her clavicle, marking her neck with bruising kisses the way I remembered Susan had both enjoyed and chided me for doing each and every time. Molly just tilted her head to the side and bared more of herself to me as my hands made their way down to her breasts, cupping them and carefully running my fingers along the slender hoops of gold piercing her nipples.

“Harder,” Molly said.

I raised an eyebrow and gave the band a light tug. Molly’s body arched against me and her breath caught. I did it again, harder, and a choked gasp slipped past her lips. Interesting. Not something I’d ever wanted to know… But undeniably interesting. I kissed her shoulder, teeth scraping lightly, as I raked my fingernails down along the flat plain of her belly, down through wet dark golden curls, and pressed the pad of my thumb to her clit.

I started off slow and light, drawing tight little circles, focusing on the movement rather than dwell on what I was doing, moving faster and adding more pressure as Molly’s rhythm increased.

“I’m gonna come,” Molly whimpered.

Her breathing had grown ragged and she had her arms looped around my shoulders, holding me close as her hips ground down against me. I met her movements, my hips shifting up against hers as well as I could - wincing at the pain in my tailbone, until she froze up in a long, slow shudder. She collapsed against me, head dropping down to rest against my chest and I held her close, enjoying the little shivers running down her body.

She kissed my throat with a soft, tired, and thoroughly contented noise as I stroked some of the hair clinging to her cheek out of her face.

“We should get some rest,” I told her.

Molly made a sound of vague agreement and then frowned.

“You’re still hard. Didn’t you - uh - didn’t you come?”

“It’s okay. Some other time.”

No. No. No. Why had I said that? Some other time made it sound like I was considering… No. There would definitely not be another time. Doth the gentleman protest too much? Probably, but it’s the only Shakespeare reference he remembers.

“Are you sure?”

She sat up a little straighter in my lap and shivered. I was still rigid inside of her.

“Yeah. Don’t worry.”

Getting back to my feet was a little awkward and, despite everything that had happened I still found myself watching Molly’s rear as she walked back under the falling water. Sighing, I followed her. My back was killing me - Christ I was getting old - and I stretched awkwardly in place to the sound of little cracks and pops.

Clean - again - we toweled off and walked out into the main room. It was dim and the air was cool and crisp from the air conditioning. I flopped down on the bed and groaned. It had been one hell of a long day. Molly moved over to her side and crawled under the covers to my side. She kissed my shoulder and lay down, resting her cheek against my chest, looking up at me.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” she said quietly.

“I know.”

Molly grinned up at me, her eyes shimmering. “And here I thought I was playing it cool.”

“You were very cool,” I assured her. “Just not that sneaky.”

She closed her eyes and for a moment, I thought she’d fallen asleep, then she said:

“I love you.”

I didn’t respond. In that moment, I prayed to just about anyone or anything and would have taken just about any interruption to save me from responding. I should’ve known better.

The lights went out. The air conditioning shut down. The low hum of the refrigerator ceased, along with every other ambient sound of the room. And then, somewhere in the distance, I heard a high, piercing cry.

The Red Court had found us.

I really, really should’ve known better.

Chapter Text

The apartment door slammed open. I threw myself up and out of the bed, dragging the covers with me. Power surged down my aching limbs as I leveled my fist at the door -- At Nicodemus. His dark eyes flicked from me, to Molly, and then to something moving around in the night outside.

I glanced sideways to Molly, who without the covers I’d snagged, stood stark naked by the bedside.

“Miss Carpenter. Mr Dresden,” Nicodemus said, as though we were speaking over a cup of coffee. ”Get dressed.”

He stepped into the room and I saw Deirdre out in the corridor, staring down its length. Nicodemus crossed the room and took a position by the window, his shadow enveloping him and rendering him nearly invisible.

“You could’ve knocked,” I muttered to myself. “It’s a little early in the relationship for you to see us naked, you know?”

I sighed and tossed the cover to Molly, who was blushing furiously as she tried to cover herself up with her hands and find her clothes at the same time.

Getting back into my dirty clothes from earlier wasn’t fun but it still ranked above going naked, so I quickly pulled them on, donning my leather duster last and getting my gear from where I’d dropped it on the floor.

“Open us a Way, Dresden,” Deirdre said, her voice tight. “Let us be done with this place.”

My heart pounded in my ears and I could feel a headache coming on. My gaze flicked from Deirdre, to Nicodemus, and finally to Molly who was pulling her pants up over her bare ass. My attention lingered there for a moment longer than strictly necessary, because of reasons.

“I’m hope you know what’s on the other side, Nicodemus,” I said, and waved my staff through the air. “Aparturum!”

I’d worried we’d be opening a way leading to somewhere dreadful, like immediately above an active volcano, but it was almost worse. Nothing happened. The power was there and I did the spell just the way I had a hundred times before, but the fabric of reality refused to budge. That couldn’t be good.

“Houston, We’ve got a problem.”

Nicodemus’s voice gained a dangerous edge. “What?”

“Door’s closed. Come on. We need to-”
Metal screeched and glass shattered. A slick black form squeezed through the window- and its head toppled onto the linoleum floor with a wet thunk. Blood gushed out and I stared in shock at the spreading pool and the bent steel bars.

“Move, Dresden!” Deirdre hissed.

I shook myself out of the stupor quickly, making to pull Molly along with me, but finding her already doing the same. Clever girl.

Nicodemus flicked blood off his blade, but didn’t sheathe it, and brought up the rear. I could hear more hunting cries, echoing all around us.

The Red Court was gathering outside and it was just a question of time, now, before they found the courage to swarm us.

“I need someplace that’s different from all the apartments,” I told Nicodemus. “If someone’s managed to lock down the area on the other side, this whole place is a bust.”

Nicodemus watched me for a moment. “If this is a ploy, Dresden, be assured that I will end you.”

I seized him by the shoulder and met his dark eyes for a dangerous moment. “I don’t want you dead so badly that I’m going to get myself killed to do it.”

For a moment, I thought my gamble had misfired and that he would kill me. I’d been pushing both him and Deirdre every step of the way and it was like balancing on the tip of a knife. A tiny slip too far, in either direction, and I was dead. Nicodemus’ fingers twitched on the hilt of his sword, and then he relaxed once more.

“We will discuss the matter later,” he said, and steered his steps down the hallway. Outside, a strident cry joined in with the others from the vampires and I knew, somehow, that their leader had joined the battle.

They were coming. All of them.

Nicodemus took us up the stairs to the roof, and suddenly we were under the night sky. I went over to the side of the building, peering down. A group of Red Court vampires, still in their flesh masks, formed a loose circle around our building. More - many more - were smashing their way into the apartments, and a couple were climbing up the walls like great spiders. I think the proper term was “A fuckton of Aragogs.”

“Company,” I said, backing off.

“Over here, Dresden,” Deirdre said, waving me over to the other side of the roof.

I hurried to them and felt my heart sink when I saw what they were planning to do. Some thirty feet away, and ten feet lower than us, was another similar apartment building. Even as I put things together, Deirdre took a few steps back and then charged at the gap, changing into her monstrous blade-haired, reverse-jointed form and throwing herself out into the empty air. The hair formed into a sail-like shape and as she slammed into the wall a few feet off her mark, it shot out in individual strands, digging into the concrete like icepicks.

“Miss Carpenter,” Nicodemus said. “You’re next.”

She stared at him, wide-eyed. “Are you crazy? I can’t make that jump.”

“I can take you over,” Nicodemus said. “Unless you’d rather Dresden does.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “You better fucking catch her because I’m coming over right after.”

The vampires were coming and knew I only had a few seconds. Nicodemus jumped off the edge of the roof and glided effortlessly on his shadow, landing smoothly on the other side.

I pointed my staff at Molly and then hesitated. She was terribly pale, but she gave me a stiff nod. This spell had to be perfect or it was going to kill my apprentice.

“Forzare,” I murmured, forming a cocoon of force around Molly. Behind me, the first Red Court vampire mounted the roof with a slavering, hungry snarl, and I could see Molly’s eyes widen in terror. We were out of time.

“Forzare!” A sharp burst of force sent Molly hurtling forward. I didn’t wait to see how it went. I was right behind her, jumping off the building and pointed my staff back with a hasty invocation. I flew across the gap, past Nicodemus and Deirdre, who’d managed to catch my apprentice, and toward the other edge of the building. Another gaping maw of empty air and darkness opened up ahead. There was no time for anything subtle or careful. I slammed more power down the length of my staff, pointing it straight out ahead of me, and was brought to a sudden, lurching halt as the wooden implement slammed into my stomach. I fell to the ground, wheezing and gasping for breath.

I wanted to lay down and curl up in a foetal position, but that wasn’t an option, and I forced myself to my feet with the help of my staff.

“Where to now?” Molly asked.

“Away,” I said. “We need to find someplace with a different resonance where we can open a Way.”

I looked around and found fire stairs leading down the edge of the roof I’d almost taken a tumble down.

“Here,” I shouted.

A vampire hopped over the gap and landed on the roof, but it seemed savvier than the ones from earlier. It made a lunge at Nicodemus, but it proved to be a fake, and his sword whooshed through the air as it pulled out of the way. It didn’t want to kill us by itself, just hold us up long enough for his its buddies to rally. Even as I realised that, another vampire leaped the span between the two buildings.

Nicodemus must’ve known it, too, because a gun appeared in his hand out of nowhere and the vampire and his recently arrived buddy scrambled for cover. Nicodemus didn’t waste any more time and we dashed down the fire escape as fast as we dared.

We ended up in the shadows of the alley between two buildings. The streetlights outside and the stars above only just gave us enough light to see the debris-covered street and, as I looked up, two vampires made a leap from the roof to the wall and down into the alley with us.

Garbage crunched under my sneakers as I ran out into the bright, flickering glare of a streetlight and scanned the area from left to right. Tyres screeched as a car sped off at the end of the road, but other than that, I saw nothing. Then the vampire hurtled out of the shadows. I got my shield up only to realize the vampire hadn’t been going for me. It jumped straight at Molly, claws bearing down on her form. Molly vanished out of thin air and the confused vampire landed where she’d just stood. It hesitated for a brief moment before sweeping its arm through the air a few feet off its first strike. There was a sharp snapping sound, like a dry twig breaking in half.

Molly re-appeared, her face sheet white and one of her arms tucked in close to her chest. I could see the bone poke through the skin two inches below her elbow joint and glistening with blood.

I leveled my free hand at the vamp and sent the vicious uppercut of kinetic force from my force rings at it, knocking it off balance as I closed the distance between us. Its angry snarl cut off into a gagging sound when I slammed my blasting rod into its maw and screamed. “Fuego!”

Hellfire surged down the length of the rod and, even on the vampire’s deformed face, and in its pitch black eyes, I could see a flash of realisation before its entire head erupted into god awful mess of blood and bone.

The rush of power left me dizzy, and I almost missed the second vampire emerging from the shadows.

“Dresden!” Deirdre shouted. “Come on!”

They were crossing the street and I could see the pursuers from the roof weren’t sufficiently discouraged by my display of pyrotechnics. They were hurtling out towards us, claws tearing into the asphalt as they went. I looked around. Nicodemus was leading Molly, who’d picked up my staff with her one good hand, in between two parked cars and into another alley. Deirdre was still in the middle of the street, fending off a vampire intent on menacing my flank.

There wasn’t any time for fancy spellwork. Even as I turned to run, I swept my blasting rod at them and sent a broad gout of flame slewing from left to right, scattering the vampires and buying a few precious seconds of time.

I ran across the street, past Deirdre and the vampire she was pinning down to the asphalt, gouged on bloodslick steely tendrils.. I hopped the car’s hood in my best Dukes of Hazzard impression, caught my staff as Molly threw it to me, and turned around.

“Get down, Dee Dee!”

I drew in power and felt it thrum through my blood. Deidre was already running my way with the vampires hot on her heels. At my call, she turned the run into a slide along the asphalt, and I unleashed the spell.

“Forzare!”

The unleashed kinetic force sent a fuckton of steel at the vampires as the car barreled past Deirdre by a worrying small margin.

I turned to run and stumbled, dropping down to all fours. My vision was blurry and the world spun around for a few seconds before steadying. I pushed myself up again.

Deirdre cast me a murderous look as she swept past me and we both made our way further into the alley, through it, along a narrow street with small, across it, and toward one of the many rustic, small houses squeezed together. Nicodemus waited for us to catch up there, accompanied by Molly. My apprentice was walking on her own accord, but I could see the toll the strain of keeping up appearances was taking on her.

“This should suffice for a new location,” he said, and unceremoniously kicked the door in. He moved inside and a moment later, there was a sound of a brief scuffle. Then Nicodemus came up to the door, holding a middle-aged woman by the back of her neck and pointing a gun at her temple.

He spoke a few words in what I took to be Portuguese, and I knew what he said. “Invite them in.”

The woman blinked tears out of her eyes and stuttered something. Whatever it was, it must’ve satisfied Nicodemus, because he nodded to us and let the woman go. She promptly headed upstairs and I could hear a door slam shut. When I stepped past the threshold, my magic came with me. I immediately stepped up Nicodemus, getting into his face.

“Was that strictly necessary?” I snapped at him.

“It was expedient,” he said. “Feel free to lecture me once you’ve secured our means of egress.”

I muttered to myself, but he was right. We’d have accounts to settle, but there was no reason to do that here and now. I moved into the woman’s sparsely decorated living room, waved my staff through the air, and once more said “Aparturum.”

And once more, my spell failed. I stared at my staff, feeling numb. How was this possible? It wasn’t. It couldn’t be. The Nevernever was huge. Some general areas led to similar areas in the Nevernever, but we’d moved far enough that it shouldn’t have been possible. Blocking a single spot was hard, hard work. Blocking all of the Nevernever was impossible. Something very, very bad was at work here.

“Dresden?” Nicodemus asked.

I winced. “We’re not getting into the Nevernever until sunrise at the earliest.”

He considered me for a moment, probably trying to decide if i was lying, and then said. “Very well.”

He plucked a phone out of his pocket and stepped further into the living room to make a call.

Deirdre had resumed her human form once more and joined her father, while Molly stood leaned up against a wall out in the house’s hallway, her expression rigidly defiant.

“Let’s take a look at your arm, Molls,” I said, walking up and slipping my arm under hers on her uninjured side.

She almost collapsed against me and we made our way into the kitchen, where she sank into a chair.

“Hurts,” she said. “Can’t think straight, it hurts so much.”

I winced in sympathetic pain. “I know. It’s gonna hurt more for a little while.”

I grabbed what supplies I could find: a newspaper, a bottle of rum and a clean-looking kitchen towel, and settled next to her. I tore the thong I tied my blasting rod to my coat with free, folded it across itself, and offered it to her.

“Bite down,” I said. “This is going to hurt.”

Molly took the leather strap between her teeth and bit down. Then I pushed the bone back into place. Molly screamed into the leather strap, face twisting up in agony. I tried to work fast, splashing the rum over the injury, before remembering you weren’t really supposed to do that, and wrapping it up first in the towel, and then in the newspaper as an improvised splint. Molly took the bottle of rum from my hand and took two deep pulls while I tied the leather thong everything and pulled it tight. She squeezed her eyes shut, face drawn with pain, but bit down the scream.

“I’m sorry,” I said, cupping her face with my hands on her fever-hot cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”

She was trembling badly, but she pushed off the table with her one good hand and remained standing.

“I’m okay,” she promised. “I’m okay.”

I considered her, hesitated for a moment, and then leaned in and kissed her forehead.

“We’ve only got a little bit longer to go,” I lied.

Molly put her hand on my chin and guided me into a heated, desperate kiss. For a moment I let myself forget that and soaked in the heat and comfort of her proximity, the taste of sweat and cheap rum. It hurt to break away, but I forced myself to do it, and I almost walked straight into Nicodemus on my way back into the living room.

“Alright,” I said. “Let’s get the party back on the road.”

Deirdre and Nicodemus exchanged a look that I had a feeling got a hell of a lot of communicating done in the span of just a few seconds.

“They are closing in on us,” Nicodemus said. “We must strike, scatter them, and move through the lines.”

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me in the slightest that Nicodemus was, in essence, suggesting Blitzkrieg.

“And then?” I asked.

“I have made preparations,” Nicodemus said. “There’s no time to discuss them. We must leave. Now.”

I wanted to stay here and hide, but I knew better. We had something like an hour, maybe more, until sunrise. That was more than enough for the Red Court to get mortal gunmen or just burn the entire block down around us. We needed to keep moving.

“Fine,” I muttered, and raised my voice. “Come on, Molls. This is a town full of losers and we’re pulling out to win.”

The backdoor deposited us into yet another alley, from which we promptly made a hasty retreat. The streets were still quiet, but I could feel the slow shift of energies in the air from the approaching dawn. Molly was walking close by my side, eyes darting left and right at every noise. Nicodemus and Deirdre were just as cautious, if less skittish.

We all stuck to the shadows. For now, the Red Court didn’t know where we were. The longer we could keep it that way, the better. No sooner had I thought that, than I heard a high hunting cry from some hundred yards away. The vampires had found our temporary hide-out, by the looks of things.

We kept going, crossing streets only rarely, as we moved into a poor residential area. Big, blocky buildings formed U-shapes, with courtyards in their centers. We moved through several such areas at a light jog, and I could tell that Molly’s endurance was flagging.

“We need to stop,” I said, bending over to check on the girl’s injury. The binding on her arm was soaked through with blood.

“No,” Nicodemus said. “We press on or we die.”

The sound of the Red Court communicating with one another had become a constant, now, echoing all around us in the night.

“We can take a minute,” I hissed.

Nicodemus wheeled around. “We press on,” he repeated. “Carry the girl, if you must.”

“M’fine,” Molly mumbled. “Just gotta find a second wind’s all.”

The denarians kept moving and, for all the lengths Nicodemus had gone to keep us alive so far, I had a feeling I was reaching the limit of his sudden generosity.

We set off again, moving under a spot where three buildings met to form the U-shape, across a parking lot, and toward another, identical set just like the previous.

Two Red Court vampires were there, talking to one another in a low, guttural tongue that was all rasp and hissing. I raised my blasting rod, but Deirdre’s fingers tightened around my wrist like a steel vice.

Her dark eyes bored into mine, and she shook her head, then jerked her chin forward. Nicodemus was visible for a brief moment and then disappeared in the enveloping cloak of Anduriel’s shadow. The vampires never knew what hit them. His blade fell on the first’s neck, severing it neatly. The second vampire’s scream died in its throat as Nicodemus thrust his blade through it.

“Come on, Molly. We’re almost there,” I said.

She chuckled tiredly. “No we’re not.”

“Doesn’t hurt to be optimistic,” I said. “Come on.”

“Gallows’ humour is the best humour,” she agreed feebly, and began to stumble along with me.

We didn’t managed much more than a brisk walk, and soon found Nicodemus and Deirdre disappearing into the dark of the building ahead. More vampires were making themselves heard around us now, dozens at the very least, and they were closing in on us.

We moved past the dead vampires, across the courtyard where a basketball hoop had been set up, and as we got close to the end of the building, I thought I could see Nicodemus waiting. Odd. Why was he staying? Not for us, surely. We’d lost our utility the moment he realized a Way into the Nevernever wasn’t an option. Now, we were relegated to a good distraction.

Another hunting cry, this one just behind us, made me flinch and lengthen my stride, pulling Molly along with me as best I could. I glanced over my shoulder. A vampire was coming around the wall at the tip of the U-shape, its foot-long pink tongue lolling out and dripping saliva onto the dusty asphalt. More and more of its fellows joined it, fanning out and slowly closing the gap, as we slowly retreated back through the bottleneck toward Nicodemus. The man was still holding his ground, and in that moment, I realized we weren’t a distraction any more. We were bait.

I looked up above us, and saw several figures appearing on top of the buildings, all in dark clothing and wielding heavy assault carbines. Others came through the building ahead of us, moving up until they were in line with Nicodemus. He waited for a long moment, until a solid dozen vampires had come in, before barking. “Fire!”

His command was answered by the howl of his men’s weapons and the children’s playground was promptly turned into a meat grinder. Most of the vampires didn’t even have time to react before they were cut down in the swath of bullets, and even those that did barely managed to turn around before they joined their fellows. Even as they lay there, twitching and writhing in agony as they died, Nicodemus’ men didn’t let up. They each made a point to put several precise shots into each vampire’s head.

They descended from the highground to join us, flowing out different stairways of the apartment complex. We didn’t stop to congratulate ourselves. More vampires were nearby and, by the sounds of it, closing in fast. Nicodemus took point again, and we moved into the next parking lot where three large panel vans awaited us. We filed into the backs of the cars and hit the road.

The moment we were out of sight of Nicodemus, Molly collapsed against me, her eyes drifting shut as she lay her head down on my shoulder. I checked on her arm again. It was swelling and bleeding and I had absolutely no idea what to do. I’d seen my fair share of injuries, sure, but this was beyond me. There was nothing I could do to help her besides make sure we got out of this mess and soon.

“It’s just a flesh wound,” Molly said, mouth turning up at one corner.

“Tis’ but a scratch,” I agreed, brushing back her hair from her face. “Just hang in there.”

“Of course,” Molly said. “You’d be screwed without me.”

I swallowed thickly. I really would. “Stay on your toes, Grasshopper. Just a little bit longer.”

Glancing ahead, I could see we were driving through the central parts of town. Maybe Nicodemus was hoping the Red Court would be less willing to throw themselves at us when there were other drivings around. If so, he would’ve been wrong.

Tires screeched behind us and it wasn’t until that moment I realized I’d be dozing off. I hurtled to my feet in a panic and stumbled as something slammed into us. Steel ground against steel with a shriek of protest and the entire world turned sideways.

I slammed shoulder-first into the wall - ouch - and forced myself back to my feet, staying at a crouch to keep my center of gravity low. Again, the vampire slammed their car into ours, and I made my way to the front of the van to see Goon One gesticulate frantically to Goon Two. I poked my head in between them, peering out the passenger side window to see what was going on.

A car was right beside us and the window was rolling down. We passed under a streetlight and I saw dark, dark eyes staring down the gleaming barrel of a compact submachine gun.

“Down!” I shouted.

Molly hit the deck and I stumbled over her way as the driver turned us sharply away. Bullets whizzed by, the car slid and I slammed my other shoulder into the wall, catching myself as the driver regained control, and throwing myself on top of Molly’s prone form. She drew a sharp pained breath between her teeth. I must’ve put my weight on top of her arm.

“Sorry,” I said. “Sorry, Molly.”

Another volley of bullets tore into the van and I covered my head with my arms. Several rounds slammed into my ribs and though the coat stopped them, it couldn’t do much about the fact that the rounds came at me at 1500 feet per second. So it still hurt. A lot. A lot, lot.

The guns went silent once more and then car started to drift and slow. That couldn’t be good.

“You okay, Molly?” I asked, pushing myself to my feet.

“Yeah.” Her voice came out strained and raw.

“Stay down. Unless I die. Then you should probably run.”

The vampires had parked ahead of us and were getting out of their cars.

I grabbed the dead soldier and pushed his limp body out of the driver’s seat. Trying to ignore the pool of blood left there, I put the pedal to the metal. I had the intense satisfaction of seeing the vampire rushing at us give me a shocked look before I smashed into him. The car jolted as he went under the tires and I sped straight for his wheelman.

He was scrabbling desperately with something and, at the last moment, came up with an uzi. I didn’t turn away. I just got down as low as I possibly could and keep my foot on the accelerator. He got a few shots off and then the far heavier van slammed his car out of the way in a crunch of metal and shattered glass

I kept on going, trying to think through the racket made by coughing wheeze of the labouring engine and the approach of several speeding cars behind us. The rest of our little convoy was a few blocks ahead, parked along the side of the road with the engines running and I pushed the car for all it was worth to get there.

We cut through an intersection narrowly dodged a maniac running a red to my left. The cars on our tail weren’t so lucky. One swerved off into the nearby street, another panicked and drove into a wall, and yet another careened and smashed broadside into - through the immaterial car.

I blinked for a moment and only then realized that Molly had come up to the front of the van and was standing there, holding on to the back of the passenger seat with her one good hand, muttering an incantation under her breath. An illusion.

I glanced into the rearview mirror and grinned at the pile-up the vampires were only just now managing to disentangle themselves from. We weren’t out of trouble yet, but that had definitely increased our odds.

“Good work, Molls,” I said. “Hang on tight.”

The surviving car caught up and I swerved wildly to the side to dodge it it swung against me, almost bumping up against the curb in the process. To hell with that. They came for me again and this time, I turned into them, slamming our cars together, sparks flying as steel ground and tore against steel. Glass smashed and without the black-tinted windows, I could see the vampires inside. And yes, in case you were wondering, a red court vampire looked absolutely ridiculous in its true form, sitting behind the wheel of a car.

I didn’t really get to enjoy the absurdity because a moment later, it kicked open the door and lunged toward our car, claws gouging into the driver’s side door. At the same time, the car’s engine gave out, and we began to slow down.

“Molly, abandon ship!”

I grabbed my staff and leveled it at the vampire where its head poked through the door and shouted.

“Forzare!”

The spell surged forward and tore the entire door, vampire attached, free of its holdings flying across the street. The pursuit car swerved wildly and caught its buddy on the hood, where it dugs in its claws and brought itself to a stop.

I pushed myself out of the car, feeling my legs almost give out under me in the process. I slammed my staff down into the ground for support and leaned up against the cool metal of the truck’s hull. Molly came over to me from the back of the van and stayed low, hunched over with her arm tucked close to her body. Her clever spellwork earlier had bought us some time, but that time was just about up now. One car was already screeching to a halt nearby, and I could hear more nearby.

“We’ve got to make a break for it,” I said. “Can you veil us?”

She didn’t look too certain, but she nodded. I felt her veil slip over us both and the world blurred and we ran for it with all we had left. One of the vampires had clambered up on top of our van and his buddy was pulling a gun from out of the car, pitch black eyes sweeping the street. Then they locked on, and he leveled the gun at us.

I pushed Molly down and behind me, raising my arm and pouring my will into my shield bracelet. I wasn’t fast enough and my left leg went out from underneath me. Bullets slammed into my shield, quickly at first, and then with a steady methodical cadence. I knew what that meant. The shooter was just trying to keep me busy until his friends arrived.

Holding the shield against him, I looked back from where we’d come and saw the second vampire skulking along the building I had my back to, set to take me from the flank. The rest of the cars were catching up now, too, engines roaring louder as they closed in on us.

“Molly,” I said. “It’s time to run just like I said earlier. I’ll hold them off.”

I could see her out of the corner of my eye. I could see how frightened she was. She considered running, for just a moment, and then she set her jaw in defiance.

“No.”

A car came speeding down the road from the opposite direction, straight toward the gun wielding vampire. He was still in his flesh mask, but when he smiled it bared needle-like teeth that gleamed with saliva.

“Cute trick,” he spat, and took aim at Molly’s head.

Then the very real and very solid car slammed into him at seventy miles per hour. In the movies, being hit with a car is usually something the hero survives unscathed. In reality, though, even low-speed collisions are very dangerous. The vampire’s legs snapped like kindling upon impact and blood spattered far enough that I was glad that my shield was up.

Without him to worry about, I turned to vampire number two, poured rage and fear and hellfire into my blasting rod and sent it all out into a scythe blade of dark fire. The beam bisected a telephone pole, dug a furrow through the asphalt and finally tore the vampire in half.

Several of Nicodemus men were out on the street, opening up on the oncoming cars which swerved out of harm’s way. We hobbled our way over and piled into the cars and the doors hadn’t even closed behind us before we were speeding off again.

The vampires were hot on our heels and now that central Rio was getting close, they were clearly getting more desperate. Two managed to crash into one another in their zeal to get at us and another car managed a head-on collision with a civilian vehicle. We kept on driving and more and more cars converged on us.

Deirdre was buying us time, hopping from car to car and going to town on the vampires within. She slashed up the tyres of one car and with another she sunk her hair down through the stool roof, tendrils whipping back and forth inside and leaving the windows misted red with blood.

We pushed onwards to the harbour and the moment we were out of the inner city, our pursuers began to push in close again, though the tight streets between warehouses meant Nicodemus’ men managed to dissuade them.

I could see the water and a large boat moored at the end of a pier through the narrow alley when our luck ran out. A large truck cut into the alley from the other side and parked diagonally across it. Men poured out of it and more were on our tail, effectively boxing us in.

For a moment, I thought we were screwed and then the driver of the lead van took a sharp turn, bowling straight through the wall of the final warehouse before the beach, narrowly missing one of the heavy wooden beams keeping the roof up. We filed out in a fashion far from orderly and made our way to the center of the warehouse where the interior walls met up met up in an a three-way intersection. The room expanded inwards in the fourth direction to what looked like a large freezer where meat must’ve been stored once upon a time.

With the vans mostly blocking the way in, and Nicodemus’ men throwing any piece of debris they could find into the three points of entry, it was about as good a spot to make a stand as we were likely to find.

I pressed my back to the wall and peered around the corner, up to one of the high-set windows through broken down shelving units, waiting for bad guys to appear.

“Two minutes until dawn,” Nicodemus said, his pistol out and aimed high in the other direction. “Break for the door on my command.”

Two minutes was virtually forever in a situation like this. I didn’t have the power to do anything crazy to buy us the time. Molly was leaning on one of Nicodemus’ goons for support and I wasn’t sure if she’d realised the guy wasn’t me she was so out of it. The poor guy in question looked really out of his depth and held his sub-machine gun one-handed, supporting my apprentice’s weight with the other. I decided I might let that one life, if the tables ever turned.

Seconds passed, very, very slowly, and I could hear cars arriving and creatures moving around outside. What was the count on now? 1:45? 1:30? I didn’t know. Claws dug into the warehouse wall just outside, first one, then many, many more, and I drew in my will.

Ready or not, here they came.

I greeted the first vampire to pop it’s head up with a tightly focused ball of fire the size of my fist and it smeared the walls with blood. Another dozen of them appeared in that space of time and crawled through the half-broken windows heedless of the shards of glass no doubt cutting into them. More died as Nicodemus’ men opened fire, but something pushed them now, to act heedless of fear and self-preservation.

Out of maybe a dozen, only half ever reached the floor alive, but another dozen were coming through in their wake, set to swarm us. I didn’t even know how things were going on the other side of the building -- there wasn’t time to look. We needed time. Every single second of it we could buy.

“Forzare,” I called, sending my will forth in a great wave that brought debris with it and pelted the vampires with old coke cans, nails and glass even as it bowled them over.

They scrambled back to their feet and I felt my head start to spin. Nicodemus’ men were clearly on the same page, aiming for the blood reservoir of the vampire’s bellies and scattering innards and blood everywhere.

More and more of them fell, and more and more came, leaving the old concrete floor a sticky mess of blood. It wasn’t long before it was hand-to-hand and Deirdre swooped over to our side, tendrils lashing out at any vampire trying to brave the narrow doorway.

“Now!” I heard Nicodemus call.

It was time to go for broke. I didn’t have enough magic in me to kill or even disable all the vampires, but there was one thing I did better than pretty much anyone else: Property damage. So, instead of leveling my blasting rod at the vampires, I pointed it upwards at the wooden beams keeping half of the roof up.

“Fuego!”

Hellfire surged upwards and cleaved the beam in half.

“Run!” I bellowed and realized that besides Deirdre, the rest of them were already doing just that.

Behind me, the roof came crashing down and everything got dark and confusing as the dust swept over the room. I found myself almost running into Deirdre, bowling into a confused vampire, and barely got my staff in between us as he swept at me with a claw, snapping it in half.

I sent whatever power I had left in my energy rings at him, which barely rocked him back. I bought me enough time for Deirdre to finish the job, tendrils boring deep into his body and literally ripping it in half. We caught up with the other and found them trying to advance past the vampires blocking the door. Some of Nicodemus’ men were down to fighting with knives at this point, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Several fell.

The few that still had ammo either got the vampires or punched through the wall. The east-facing wall. At first it was just a few rays of light, but more and more came along, and of the men seemed to realise that, slapping in a fresh magazine into his rifle and emptying it all on full automatic into the wall.

Some of the vampires weren’t fast enough and they died horribly. The rest broke and ran, shrieking in agony as the stray rays of sunlight tore into them. With the coast clear, the few of us still standing pushed out through the dock-facing delivery door and out into the dawn.

We’d left three people behind and a few others had to be carried, but we were close now. I stayed at the rear as everyone else moved down the pier to the boat, and that’s when I saw her. A tall, statuesque woman, with the long, striking features of the ancient Maya, her eyes as dark and cold as the void of space.

I hadn’t seen her before but I knew, just knew, that she was here for me.

“Hi there, Sunshine,” I said cheerfully. I took one step back, and then another.

She bared her teeth and they were long and jagged.

“Too bad you left the sunscreen at home,” I continued, putting another foot between us, “or you could’ve come out to play like Deacon Frost.”

At which point, the vampire stepped straight out into the sun, just like I’d planned. The part where she didn’t burn, I hadn’t planned. That part sucked.

“Wizard Dresden,” she said in perfect English. “How long I have wished to meet you.”

“I’m glad you finally got the chance. Gonna have to cut the meeting short, though. Places to be, monsters to kill. You understand.”

“I am Duchess Arianna,” the vampire continued as if I hadn’t spoken, keeping pace with me down the length of the pier.

Ah. Fuck.

“I guess that was your little operation we just busted, huh?”

Arianna shrugged and I wasn’t too busy with my impending death to notice what that did to the curves of her breasts. Sigh. One of these days I will learn to focus.

“You may surrender yourself to me, peacefully, and your companions will be permitted to leave unscathed.”

I bared my teeth at her in as good a smile as I could manage and went for my best Austrian accent. “No deal.”

Arianna was fast. So fast that by the time I registered her arm moving, the power running down it, the moisture in the air coalescing into ice and called up my shield, it was already too late.

I looked down at what I expected to be a large shaft going straight through my chest and found… Nothing. She’d missed. No. No, she hadn’t.

I kept my shield toward her and turned around to see Molly with the shreds of a veil faltering around her and a slender spear of ice boring straight through her stomach. Her face registered complete and utter shock. She opened her mouth to speak, but blood bubbled past her lips instead of words. Her legs went out from under her and she collapsed onto the ground.

I had been tired. I vaguely remembered that. Very tired, in point of fact. Wrung out. On my last leg. When I turned back to Duchess Arianna that exhaustion faded away into a hot red rage.

“Lasciel,” I thought. “Help me kill this bitch.”

I could sense the sudden presence of her behind me, a warm embrace that suffused my limbs with strength and the weight of a cool, immeasurably heavy piece of silver settled in my clenched left fist.

I took the heat of the morning sun burning on the nape of my neck, the warmth of the waves lapping at the pier and the infernal fires Lasciel gifted me, and shaped it into a single spell.

The runes on my blasting rod lit up with an eerie scarlet and cracks formed along its length as I poured fire the likes of which I hadn’t wielded since I’d started the war with the vampires down its length.

“Fuego!”

A tightly wound deep red beam of fire speared forth from the blasting rod and then split, as the power slipped my grasp into individual strands like a cat o’ nine tails whip, each bearing down on Duchess Arianna to tear her to shreds.

Arianna dropped both hands to her sides and then swept them up in an X-shape in front of her chest. The waters all around the pier rose up in a solid wave and smacked straight into my spell. The fire tore through the water, raising a hissing cloud of steam, and for a moment I could see it strike Duchess Arianna’s shield, breaking it in places and leaving gouges down her arms to expose the creature beneath. Then the steam washed back against me and I had to scramble to my feet, raising my own shield as I moved over to Molly. I was sent toppling forward as a bolt of lightning surged through the mist and struck me. The shield held - barely - and I settled on my knees at Molly’s side.

My apprentice blinked and it took her a few tries to get her eyes to focus on me. She managed a weak smile, teeth stained red with blood.

“You remember that mage-hand spell you taught me back in Australia?”

I didn’t trust myself to speak, so I nodded.

“Well,” she said. “I got these. Let’s see if I still remember how it goes.”

She held up a bandolier of grenades and levitated them in front of her. A soft pressure pulled the pins taut and she gave me a grim smile. Then she pulled every single pin and flung the grenades into the dissipating mist.

I lifted her up in a bridal carry, careful not to put any pressure on her arm, and ran for it. Behind us, the grenades exploded and I rocked with the shockwave, but managed to stay upright. It should’ve been hard. Molly was almost six feet tall and fitter than most. Muscle adds up to quite a bit of weight. But it wasn’t hard.

A boat was waiting for us at the edge of the pier, a yacht that was startlingly out of place for this area of town, and Nicodemus’ men stood waiting and pulled the gangplank up the moment we’d made our way past. With the engines roaring, we sped out of the harbour.

Molly’s fingers dug into my shirt and her breathing was coming out in wheezy, laboured rasps. She held both her hands clutched to her stomach, blood trickling past her fingers. I looked around for something to use for bandaging and, finding nothing, shrugged out of my coat and pulled my dirty t-shirt up over my head. It’d have to do.

“Move your hands, Molly,” I said. “I need to see how bad it is.”

She nodded and pulled them away, leaving blood gushing out the moment the pressure eased. Wincing, I pressed my shirt down, watching the blood begin to soak through the fabric. I’m not doctor, but I’ve had my share of injuries, so I knew that this was a bad one. Molly was dying and there was nothing I could do.

I tried not to let it show. “Could’ve been a lot worse,” I said.

“Lasciel,” I thought. “Help me.”

I felt her presence beside me immediately and could see her form by my shoulder, ethereal and hauntingly beautiful, watching Molly with a sad expression.

“I cannot,” she said.

“What do you mean ‘you cannot’? Do something!”

“Were you the one injured, I would have been able to save you. Given time to repair the damage. I cannot do the same for the girl.”

“Then what fucking good are you?” I snarled and thrust her back into the far recesses of my mind.

I looked around wildly, trying to find something - anything - that’d be able to help. I guess I sort of found it.

“Nicodemus. Do something!”

I probably didn’t strike terror into his heart, standing there without my shirt, swaying drunkenly from the exhaustion and with tears in my eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

I took a step toward him. “Nic, if you don’t help her, I swear to God-”

I didn’t see him move. One second he was standing on the deck, perfectly relaxed, hands clasped behind his back. The next, he’d swept forward and caught me by the throat. He swung me up over his head and down onto my back.

“You swear you will do what?” He hissed.

The world above me spun. My back ached and I knew that, if he’d wanted to, Nicodemus could’ve smashed me down hard enough to crush me. It was over. I’d played and I’d lost. I couldn’t let Molly be the one paying the price of my pride.

“I can’t help her but you can. Please.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Name your price,” I said. “I’ll pay it.”

Nicodemus considered me, eyes flicking down to my burned left hand and the silver coin I held in clenched fingers. His mouth turned up in a chilly little smile and when he spoke, his words were crisp and tinged with just a touch of malice.

“When we are out of harms way, you and I will talk. Alone. You will listen to what I have to tell you and do so openly. Do we have an accord?”

I nodded and fuck me, even that hurt. “Deal.”

“Excellent.”

Nicodemus reached up and neatly undid the slender tie he was wearing to compliment his shirt and dress pants. Only it wasn’t a tie. It was a noose. Just before I passed out, I saw Nicodemus tie the noose of Judas about Molly’s neck.

 

Two weeks later

 

The cabin was small, warm and cozy. Outside, the snow fell and the wind howled. A fireplace crackled merrily in one corner and Nicodemus Archleone sat opposite me at the dinner table for two, casually watching the snow-clad landscape through the window. Two glasses of ridiculously expensive scotch stood along with the bottle between us.

“So…” I said. “I’m here. I’m listening. Let’s get this over with.”

Nicodemus took his sweet time about it, raising the glass of scotch to his lips, taking in the no doubt finely aged scents, and sipped.

“The future.”

He sipped again. Very, very slowly. Presumably, he was hoping the melodrama and suspense was going to kill me. I tried my very best not to tap my foot impatiently along the floor. He was enjoying messing with me and I supposed I owed it to humour him a little.

Deirdre had gone away for a walk with Molly to give the two of us a bit of privacy. I knew that was code for “If things go wrong, I’ll kill her.” but there wasn’t anything I could do about that. We’d played. I’d lost. It was time to pay up.

“The suspense is killing me, Nic. Indulge me.”

“You got a glimpse of the war I have been waging back in Brazil,” he said. “You saw a few of the players and the consequences should we fail.”

I eyed him.

“What I saw was that The Red Court are going completely bonkers, summoning Outsiders, but that isn’t exactly new. They’re monsters. That’s kinda par for the course.”

“The Red Court is a minor concern in the bigger picture,” Nicodemus said. “But they are a concern that we will need to take care of sooner or later.”

“That minor concern kicked our asses back in Brazil.”

Nicodemus smiled. “Regardless, they are not the enemy I have dealt with for two thousand years. If they were, they would long since be extinct. You got a glimpse of our true enemy down in that temple.”

I slouched back in my chair and took a sip of the scotch. It was a little smoky for my tastes, but excellent. “The Outsiders.”

“Yes. Our story begins, quite fittingly I might add, with Genesis. How well do you know your scripture?”

“Well enough to not to be a huge fan of it most days of the week. Why?”

Nicodemus chuckled. “A man after my own heart. Do you remember the first four verses?”

I thought about it. I did. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

“Quite,” Nicodemus said. “But you forgot the most important verse. The one that follows. ‘And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.’ The darkness never went away, you see. Ever since that day, it has wanted to find a way back in.”

“The outsiders,” I said.

“Yes. Tell me, Dresden. Have you ever heard of the Oblivion War?”

Chapter Text

The room reeked of fear. It lingered on the back of my tongue like dark chocolate, bitterness sweetened with honey. We were enclosed in a tomb of concrete, walls and floors, everything a drab, cold gray.

Four men sat tied to chairs, bound by their hands and feet. Their eyes were covered by thick scraps of cloth and gags kept them silent. More or less. The nearest man was young, in his early twenties at most, with a sorry attempt at soul patch and bleached white dreadlocks wriggling down his shoulders like worms.

I settled sideways astride his knees and yanked off his blindfold, then the gag. I almost wished I’d left it in. His breath stank of bile and cigarettes. Saliva dribbled down his chin in slow, viscous runnels.

“What’s your name?” I had to raise my voice to be heard.

He blinked drunkenly at me with eyes like pools of stagnant swamp water, as if trying to decide if I was real or not. Then, slowly, his eyes darted to the side, toward the long corridor leading into the little room we were in. I caught his chin before he could turn his head and see it properly.

“Look at me,” I said, my softly spoken words gaining an edge of steel. “What is your name?”

“Kevin,” he whimpered. “Listen - I don’t-”

“Shush.” My finger pressed to his lips and he went quiet. “You’re going to tell me everything you know, Kevin. Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know shit!”

I let the emotion fade into a look of cold calculation, staring him down. There’s a certain scent to a lie, potent enough to overcome the stagnant smell of body odor, tobacco and vomit, and this wasn’t it. That was alright. I could work with that, too.

“Are you sure?” I asked, all pretense at kindness gone.

“I don’t know anything, I swear!”

I turned to my second prisoner, a man in his early forties. His muscular arms were covered in tattoos and scars. I ripped off his blindfold before returning to Kevin. The man blinked at the light, looking dazed as he scanned the room, and then froze in place as he too, saw it.

Kevin’s voice rose in volume to frantic screams as I hauled him to his feet by the front of his shirt. He wobbled precariously for a moment, and then I turned him toward the open door. He faltered at the sight before him, mouth falling open in abject horror. I couldn’t blame him.

Arms stretched out through the entire sixty feet of hallway. Nightmarishly long, spindly, chalk-white arms, long fingers grasping. Dozens of them reached blindly through the air and the sound of muffled moans bled together into a single long wailing sound.

“Please!” Kevin screamed, voice cracking and leaving his next words a choked rasp. “Please. I don’t know.”

I planted a combat boot against his spine and kicked hard. Kevin wasn’t a big guy from the get-go and with his feet tied by the ankles, he toppled forward like a load of bricks. Pale, cold hands shot out with blinding speed, seizing the young man by his arms and legs and dragging him into their midst.

He screamed and screamed, shrill cries echoing off the concrete walls. His friends winced and shied away from the sound as far as their bonds would allow. As Kevin reached the end of the hallway, things got worse. The creature’s body was in the other room. A huge, pale, writhing amorphous mass of scabbed flesh. The hands pressed the man’s flailing form against its body and the flesh split open. For a moment, the sound of thousands upon thousands of voices, all different, all crying out in agonized despair, washed over the room as he was forced inside.

Kevin’s screams mingled with the other voices as he fought to get free, his arm getting stuck outside of the creature’s body as the flesh bubbled and merged together seamlessly. The limb twitched a few times and then grew still. The noise faded into the background again. Then Kevin’s arm twitched, a violent jerk that broke the bone at his elbow joint. It broke again, and again, and again, each snap echoing sharply off the bare walls. The t-shirt he’d worn melted off his arm as the limb slowly grew paler, lengthening with continuous snappings of bone, extending among the others.

I stalked over to prisoner number two, the leather duster flapping at my ankles, and removed his gag. He started crying for God, his mother--anyone out there who would listen.

But there was no God listening. No angels, no savior there to save his wretched life.

Just me.

I leaned in close and said, in the softest voice I could make heard.

“I’m going to ask you this once, and only once. Where is Harry Dresden?”

***

The Milton Lee Olive Park didn’t actually have any trees that you could pick olives off, but it was a pretty nice place to spend an afternoon in Chicago. Kids were running about under the watchful eyes of parents. College kids were hanging out, sometimes with books but more often with alcohol hidden away.

Molly and I had found ourselves a good spot under a tree and were sipping on coffee and bubble tea - whatever manner of heresy that was.

“I didn’t think I’d be nervous,” Molly said with a bashful smile. “Are you nervous?”

“Cool as a cucumber,” I said, but winked. Of course I was nervous.

Molly seemed to get it. “Yeah, okay. Good.”

Michael and Charity Carpenter arrived a little bit early. It had almost been two years since Molly and I had left Chicago and the time and stress seemed to have left a mark on them. They were both a little greyer, the wrinkles at the corners of their eyes more noticeable, but the smiles were just the same as always.

Once upon a time, Molly probably would’ve tried to maintain some of her coolpoints as a teenager, but not this time. She surged to her feet and threw herself into her parents’ arms. They parted for a moment, exchanging a few quick words, and embraced again. I stayed in my shaded spot under the tree and gave them space.

As their reunion continued, a car pulled up and a dog the size of a pony hopped out of the open window. I only just got to my feet before he barreled into me and toppled me back onto the ground, covering my face in doggie kisses.

“Mouse,” I called, wrestling him off me. “Calm down, boy.”

He backed off with an expression of perfect innocence, just like when he’d gotten into his snacks and gotten called out on it.

“Fine,” I muttered. “Come here.”

Mouse barked happily and climbed up into my lap like he was a puppy and not well over a hundred and eighty pounds of solid muscle, curling up and licking at my hands as I stroked his ears.

“He promised he’d be good.” Thomas was wearing his dark hair tied up under a baseball cap pulled low over his face A pair of loose jeans, and a camouflage-pattern jacket completed the look.. “Bad boy, Mouse.”

Mouse’s mouth dropped open in a doggie grin completely free of regrets and Thomas chuckled.

“Been a while, Dresden,” he said.

I inclined my head. “Yeah. That it has.”

His mouth turned up into a brief smile - a genuine and vulnerable sort of expression that I doubted many saw from him. “You alright?”

“Getting there,” I said. “It was rough a while back. In Rio.”

My brother’s eyes widened. “Ah. I heard about that. It did sound an awful lot like something you’d do.”

I grinned. “Yeah. Did a lot of what happened get out?”

“Barely anything,” Thomas said. “The Venatori knew a little, the Council a little. All we managed to get from that were a few crumbs.”

I looked around to make sure nobody was watching. “I can’t tell you everything, but we bloodied the nose of the Red Court pretty good.

“So Lara said,” Thomas murmured. “She wouldn’t say, or didn’t know what they were doing, but they were not happy about you getting in their way. At this point they might want to kill you almost as much as the White Council.”

“It’s good to know my hard work’s paid off. How’ve you been?”

Another genuine smile. “Good. I’ve got a job.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Doing what?”

He avoided my gaze at that and I swear to God, he blushed. The vampire blushed. “It’s not really important, just-”

“The hell it isn’t. That’s great. Come on, tell me. It can’t be that bad.”

My brother sighed heavily. “I have a beauty salon. Mouse works with me, actually. The customers love him and it helps having him there. Keeps my demon… In check. They’re spoiling him rotten, though. He’s getting fat.”

Mouse bumped his heavy muzzle against Thomas shoulder as though he resented that accusation, mouth open in a happy grin.

“Ah… I didn’t know you could feed like that.”

He winced. “I spread it out between the customers and I only take a little. It adds up. It’s not perfect, but it keeps me sane… And I don’t have to hurt anyone.”

I patted his shoulder. I was proud of him. I didn’t say it, but I didn’t have to, either. He knew.
A little distance away the Carpenter Family reunion was easing up and another familiar figure was approaching from across the park. Karrin Murphy wore a casual sport jacket, a pair of aviators and had her blonde hair bundled up under a Cub’s sport cap. To the casual observer she probably looked like someone who might be enjoying a leisurely stroll in the warm autumn weather, but I could see her keeping a close track of her surroundings, making sure nobody was following.

“She has been a pain in the ass ever since you left,” Thomas said.

“She was a pain in the ass before, too,” I said. She was still well out of earshot.

Thomas rolled his eyes and I could’ve sworn Mouse did, too. There wasn’t any time to continue, because The Carpenters were coming on over, and so was Murphy.

We spent a couple of hours in the park having lunch and catching up. For a little while, things were back to normal and we all let ourselves forget the circumstances of the world around us. But eventually, we ran out of time. Murphy pulled me aside and I followed, giving Molly privacy to say goodbye to her family.

We walked off to the water, standing side by side and staring out at Lake Michigan.

“Where have you been, Harry?”

“Here and there,” I said. “Australia first, for a few months. A trip to Brazil and then Canada. Yukon.”

Murphy raised an eyebrow at me. “Yukon? That’s far up north.”

“Yeah. We bought a little cabin in the middle of nowhere.”

“With what money?” She asked. “Did you rob a bank or something?”

I winked. “Maybe.”

She looked thoroughly unamused, but I knew she was just giving me a hard time for olds times sakes. Mostly, anyways. “Dresden. You only barely make rent some months. How did you make enough money to buy a cabin all of a sudden?”

A bit of her cop-glare was directed at me and it was kinda disconcerting. I decided to be honest.

“We did a job in Brazil. Afterwards, we had some money and needed some time… Away. Can’t say it was legal, but I don’t think you’ll be shedding any tears for the Red Court.”

She spat. “I won’t be, no. They’ve been around. Marcone’s mostly dealt with them, but we’ve had to pick up the pieces here and there.”

I shook my head. “Good to know he’s good for something.”

“He defends his territory,” she said, shrugging noncommittally and then swiftly changed the subject before she found herself complimenting the asshole. “When are you leaving?”

“Tonight.”

“Oh.” She was silent for a little while, staring out across the water. “There have been a few cases while you’ve been gone. We’ve mostly been able to pull through, but these past few weeks we’ve run into something new.”

I looked over my shoulder. Molly was trying not to cry as she hugged her parents goodbye.

“How bad?”

“Bad,” Murphy said, her tone deadly serious. “And with the potential to get worse.”

“If the council catches us-”

“They won’t. We’ll be fast and careful. In and out before they catch on.”

I snorted and waggled my eyebrows. “We both know that’s never how it goes.”

Murphy made an exasperated noise, but she wasn’t able to hide her smile. She’d missed me. She was just too stubborn to tell me so.

“Will you do it?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

*** 

“Tell me what we’re looking at, Harry,” said Murphy.

I removed the shades I’d cleverly disguised myself with and set them on a kitchen counter, taking in the crime scene in front of me.

We were in an apartment on Chicago’s gold coast, its decor a sleek, elegant mix of stainless steel, dark woods and glass. The curtains had been drawn, leaving us in a murky din that mercifully softened some of the details of what lay before us. The victim - and she was definitely a victim, even if the how and why wasn’t clear yet - was on the living room sofa.

Food and containers were scattered everywhere, as though a dorm room’s worth of students had all been cramming for a test and living off pizza and Chinese take-out. There were mostly empty tubs of ice-cream, the remaining contents melted into sticky puddles, stale coffee, and donuts that, thanks to their divine donut-i-ness, still looked edible. The dead woman lay at the epicenter of the mess.

“I don’t know, Murph,” I said. “This is… this is wrong on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin.”

Annoyance flickered across Murphy’s features, making her furrow her golden brows and scrunch up her cute button nose. She glanced down at her watch and then toward the mostly closed apartment door.

“But it’s something from your side of the street, right?”

“Either that or we’ve found the Umbrella Corporation’s latest batch of the T-virus.”

Murphy gave me a look. “Meaning yes?”

I nodded. “Meaning abso-fucking-lutely.”

She swore under her breath. “So what did this?”

Once upon a time, I would have withheld that information from her because technically us wizardly folk aren’t supposed to share that stuff willy-nilly.

“I have no idea,” I said.

Once upon a time, she would have doubted me when I said that.

“We need answers, Dresden,” Murphy said. “Am I looking for a perp that I can arrest or something else?”

I walked a few steps closer to the victim, focusing on breathing slowly through my mouth. It had been a woman. Past tense being key. At some point or another, this had been a human woman, in her early twenties. She’d been pretty, once, in the pictures Murphy had shown me on the drive over. Now, though?

She lay face-down in a half-eaten cake, her fingernails elongated, dark and covered in layers of different kinds of food and what may have been crusted blood. Despite that, she was emaciated. Her skin was greying, but not enough to hide the pitch black veins bulging underneath. Some of them had burst, and a tar-like substance had spattered from them. In case any of you haven’t seen a dead body before, that is not normal… And that was only when it began to get weird.

A second pair of arms jutted out from her chest half a foot underneath the first set, stunted and misshapen, but unmistakably real. I wish that had been the end of it. It wasn’t. Her belly had swollen and split vertically to form a horrible, toothy maw.

“A demon?” Molly asked. She stepped up next to me and though she looked a lot like that time we’d watched Braindead, she wasn’t flinching away.

“Maybe some kind of demon could do this to a person. Maybe.” I cast Murphy a glance over my shoulder. “Is there anything else?”

“Yeah. Two things. There’s a mark on her wrist. I don’t know if it means something to you.”

Getting anywhere close to that thing seemed like a bad idea, but since when has that ever stopped me? I moved in close and saw, almost imperceptible on the gray-tinged skin and and the black veins, a red letter O written in magic marker.

I shook my head. “No idea. What’s the second thing?”

Murphy cleared her throat. “Rawlings. How’s your hearing?”

The door to the apartment open and the large, aging cop who had stood guard outside poked his head in. “Not so good these days, Sergeant.”

He grinned at her and closed the door once more. Despite his outwardly jovial attitude, I noted that he had pointedly avoided looking at the corpse.

Murphy snorted. “Damn straight.”

She dug in her jacket pocket and came out with a glass vial the size of her pinky finger, filled with a pitch black substance. She held it out.

“I never gave this to you,” she said.

Most of her stern look was directed at me but some of it spilled over to Molly, and judging by my apprentice’s expression she wasn’t thrilled about that.

“Gotcha.”

I took the vial and held it up to the light, carefully moving the container to make the liquid slosh around. It was a thick, viscous substance and even through the glass it felt cold.

“It’s been making the rounds lately,” Murphy said. “Parties the first few times, then clubs. Some people have died without any of the - uh - other effects., but the last few times they’ve all changed.”

“It’s a drug?” Molly asked.

Murphy nodded. “Yeah. The few people we’ve grabbed had some of the worst withdrawals I’ve ever seen. Worse than heroin.”

I could see Molly wince. One her friends had been doing heroin on and off and she hadn’t even been able to stop when she’d been pregnant. Don’t do drugs, kids.

“And I thought the third-eye drug was bad,” I said. “Jesus christ.”

“Do you know what it is?” Murphy asked.

“I’ve never even heard of something like this before. I’ll need to do some research. Where did you find it?”

Murphy inclined her head to the body. “Her pocket. There was another from her bedroom drawer that’s going to the lab.”

“Have they gotten anything from it?”

She sighed. “No. We’ve already given them samples but they haven’t gotten back to us yet.”

Real police work is not like in the movies where a crack team of improbably attractive lab techs solve things in a day while bantering. Things take time and there’s never enough people or money to help everyone. And that’s if the lab techs genuinely want to help you. Special Investigations dealt with the weird stuff. With only a few exceptions, they weren’t particularly appreciated and ended up at the very bottom of the priority list.

“How many?” Molly asked.

Murphy pressed her lips together in a white line and looked up at me, ignoring the question. “A word in private, Dresden?”

I quirked an eyebrow. She glared. I raised my hands in capitulation.

“Fine. Molly, go see if you can help Rawlings keep a look-out. There’s stuff he wouldn’t spot that you would.”

Molly looked at Murphy, then at me, rolling her eyes. Oh, she knew I added the flattery to smooth it out, and it annoyed her. That didn’t stop it from working like a charm. She left without a word, closing the door behind her with a little bit more force than was strictly necessary.

Murphy waited a moment, glancing first to the door and then the body.

“She shouldn’t be here,” she said.

“You’re right. She shouldn’t. Then again, I shouldn’t, either.”

“She’s just a kid.”

“You weren’t there with us in Brazil, Murph. It was… It was really bad. Worse than Arctis Tor. Worse than this. It took us a while just to pick up the pieces after that, but if she says she’s ready she deserves a chance to face her fears.”

“And if she’s wrong?”

“If she’s wrong,” Molly said. “She’ll deal with it herself like the big girl she is.”

I was probably a little bit on edge, because I damn near jumped out of my boots. Murphy and I turned around to find Molly standing in the apartment’s kitchen, leaned back against a counter, arms folded.

I sighed and walked over to the door, finding Rawlings outside in a staring contest with another, sullen-looking Molly. Even as I watched her, that illusion melted, fading into nothingness.

Rawlings flinched, blinking at the place where she’d stood. “What in the name of-”

He looked inside the apartment and the real Molly waved at him. “Oh. Of course.”

Then he pointedly closed the door on us.

“Not bad,” I said. “How long have you kept that trick up your sleeve?”

“A wizard never gives away her tricks,” Molly said, a touch smugly.

I considered pressing her, but Murphy was tapping her foot behind me.

“Right,” I said. “We’ll talk about this later. For now, let’s get back to business.”

As much as I didn’t want to, we moved closer to the body and gave it a second, more thorough observation.

“There’s really only two options, and I’m not sure which I like least,” I said. “Either this thing is still alive or it’s something. Else…”

I looked at Molly and her expression fell as she caught on. “If it was a demon it would’ve turned to ectoplasm by now… Or at least some of this stuff should’ve, right?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“So it’s the other kind of thing?”

“What other kind of thing?” Murphy cut in. She didn’t bother hiding her annoyance.

“Something from beyond our reality,” I said. “We’ll need to do some research.”

“Beyond our-” Murphy faltered and shook her head. “Never mind. Just let me know when you’ve found something.”

“Might take a while,” I warned. “How do I get in touch?”

Murphy handed me a note. “Burner phone. Call me.”

I plucked my shades up off the counter. I cast the woman one last look where she lay face-deep in red velvet, and said. “I’ve seen a lot of fucked up shit, Murph… But this case takes the cake.”

I swept the shades on and walked out of the apartment. Aw yeah.

***

Murphy dropped us off at a local hotel and we went inside, veiled, and walked right back out again to head over to our actual hotel. I didn’t think anyone was following us, but I wasn’t taking any risks. We didn’t speak until we’d paid for our room and secured it with a few simple wards.

“She doesn’t like me,” Molly said, sinking down to sit on the side of the bed.

“Of course she does.”

My apprentice cast me a dubious look. “She couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”

I settled next to her. “She doesn’t know you. It took me years before she trusted me. She only wants to do her job well and keep you safe.”

She sighed heavily. “Fine. Fine. What do we do now?”

“Two things. You go get us some kebabs from that stall we passed on our way here. I’ll do some preparation.”

“Garlic sauce on yours?”

I grinned. “Oh yeah. No peppers, though.”

She nodded. “I know. See you in a bit.”

The moment the door closed, I locked it. I drew the drapes until the room was dark and turned off the lights. Then I got a couple of tea candles and spread them across the room, lighting them all. Finally, I dug into my backpack and brought out an etched, human skull. I settled it on the bedside table.

“Bob,” I said. “I need you to look at something.”

Little campfire sparks of light formed in the hollow sockets of the skull, blinking as it came to life. The jaws clacked open in a yawn.

“And I need something to new read,” Bob said. “That last one you got me wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Even I know that’s not how BDSM works.”

I sighed. I had suspected this might be coming up. Bob was a spirit of intellect and hella useful for a guy who isn’t able to be in the same room as a computer without it exploding. Sometimes literally.

“It was on the bestseller list,” I protested.

“It was unreadable,” Bob whined. “And I’m not that picky.”

“Fine. I’ll pick something up as soon as I close this case. I’m kind of on a schedule now, though, so if you could just tell me what this is, that’d be great.”

I dug into my duster pocket and pulled out the little vial. Bob’s eyelights widened.

“Harry,” he snapped. “Put that away!”

I frowned in surprise. “What?”

“Put it away!” Bob repeated.

I slipped it back into the pocket of my coat. “Sheesh, Bob.What’s the matter with you?”

“That stuff there. It’s dangerous,” Bob said. His voice sounded shaky and that was a big thing. Bob wasn’t a physical creature and I could name the times I’d genuinely heard him sound afraid on the fingers of one hand.

“I’d figured that out for myself, Bob” I said dryly. “I just need to know what it is and what it does. I’d rather do that without using my sight if I can help it.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“So you’re going to help me?”

“Nope. Absolutely not.”

Bob’s skull clacked on the wooden surface as he rocked back and forth, slowly turning himself around to face the wall. Hell’s bells. What were we dealing with that was so bad it had Bob running scared?

“I’ll get you an extra novel.”

“You could give me a hundred novels. I’m not discussing that thing with you.”

I ran a hand through my hair with an impatient sigh. “Come on, Bob. It can’t be that bad.”

“Oh, but it can,” The spirit insisted. “And it is. I’m not telling you squat. Unless…”

He turned back to face me, eyelights brightening slyly.

“Well, there’s always-”

“No,” I said flatly.

“You haven’t even heard of what I was going to-”

“No.”

Bob scowled. A pretty impressing thing without skin or muscle to work with. “Then I want to talk to the Cookie.”

I gave him a narrow-eyed glare. “The Cookie... She’s got a name, Bob.”

“Uh-huh. Those are my terms. I want to see her.”

Even before I’d taken up the Grasshopper as my apprentice, Bob had held a creepy voyeuristic, Bob-ish interest in her and I’d known bringing his lack of morality and Molly’s lack of judgement together would’ve been a shitshow. I’d also known that sooner or later, I’d have to do it.

Now, I’m not businessman but I have spent more time than most among the Fae. One of the life lessons my Godmother taught me very early on is that when you have a commodity someone really wants, you don’t just give it to them for free even if it’s to your advantage. Not even if you don’t really need it. You ensure you make a profit.

Case in point, my bony lab assistant and my apprentice. She’d need to learn how to use Bob sooner or later, but there was no reason not to get this favour out of the deal while I was at it.

“Fine,” I said. “but there are gonna be a couple of ground rules.”

Five minutes later there was a knock at the door. I grabbed my blasting rod and leveled it at the door, and waited. Another knock followed, then another, each tap spaced out about a second.

“Come in.”

The door opened slowly and Molly appeared, precariously balancing a load of two kebab’s wrapped in aluminium foil and two bottles of coke. She blinked at the dimly lit room, taking in the drawn drapes, the candles, and finally me, where I sat at the foot of the bed. She smiled hesitantly and almost dropped our food as she tried to set it down, fumbling and managing to secure her grip on the kebabs at the doom of our coke. Both cans tumbled along the floor.

I tried my best not to laugh, I honestly did, but it didn’t go all that well. Molly tried her best to look stern, but that just made me laugh harder, and Molly soon joined in. Christ, it felt good.

Muttering a few choice words under her breath, Molly collected the drinks and settled them securely on the table before taking a seat next to me.

“Romantic.”

I snorted. “Enjoy it while it lasts. I need to introduce you to a friend. Bob. Wakey wakey.”

The room got a fraction brighter as orange lights illuminated the eyes of the skull.

“Molly. This is Bob the skull. Bob, this is Molly.”

“I know that,” Bob said. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

He was clearly aiming for sauve and polite, but didn’t manage much in the way of either.

Molly was staring, wide-eyed and pale. “Uh- Harry. The skull is talking.”

I ran a hand through my hair. “Yeah. Bob’s my assistant and he’s pretty good at it.”

“Pretty good? Pretty good?” Bob said. “If it wasn’t for me you would’ve reduced yourself to molecules with one spell or another years ago.”

“Right,” I said, winking at Molly. “So Bob knows a lot about magic, but he’s not that good at right and wrong, which is why I didn’t want you to know about him before you were ready.”

“I know right from wrong for the most part,” Bob said loftily. “I’m simply beyond such mortal trivialities.”

Molly ignored him. I’d clearly already imparted some wisdom on her. “And I’m ready now?”

“I think so, yeah.”

Bob made a gagging sound. “Are we going to do some magic or do you two want to go get a room? Well, I suppose you’ve already done that. Go right ahead, you two.”

I scowled. Bob sighed.

“Tell me about the sample, Bob.”

Bob the skull made a thoughtful sound. “Oh… That. It’s something from Outside. I mean obviously. Just look at it. There’s a ritual to find out what it is and trace where it’s come from if you’re stupid enough to want to find out. It’s not going to be easy, mind you.”

He went silent and waited smugly, the bastard, making me ask for it. “What do we need?”

“You’ll need to chase down some ingredients, do the standard ritual cleansing, oh and you’ll need to be skyclad.”

I eyed him. “If you want me to do the ritual skyclad, Bob, I can do that. I just never thought I was your type.”

“Fine, fine,” Bob said. “The last part is probably optional, but I’ll have you know I wasn’t lying.”

“The ingredients, Bob.”

He told me. I wrote down the list, and stuffed Bob back into my pack, then I stuck the pack in a drawer. Then I drew a magic circle around the drawer and willed it shut. Just in case.

As with most magic, the ingredients aren’t all that difficult to get if you knew of them. It’s got to do with the symbolic value more than anything else when you’re doing magic. You can use the expensive stuff so called magic shops would try to sell you, and they’ll probably work, but most of the stuff I use, I buy at Walmart. Except the depleted uranium dust. That, I’m not at liberty to speak of.

Once we’d had our food, Molly and I went shopping. That’s usually the way to go about it. Never shop when you’re hungry. Not even for magical gear.

Once we had everything prepared we returned to our room for the ritual cleansing. We shut down the smoke alarm, just in case. I’d lost my white silk robe, the kind you were supposed to use, but the hotel did provide fluffy flannel bathrobes. Those would have to do. We both showered and then, finally, burned incense. I won’t bore you with the details - any more than I already have, but each step is important. Not necessary, but important all the same.

Molly came out of the shower, moisture clinging to her figure. Her hair was slicked back. A few strands clung to her face and she swept them back with an idle gesture.

“So…” She said and rested a hand at her loosely belted robe. “Do we go skyclad?”

I pushed down the momentary flutter of excitement. “No. You do that to minimize distractions and I don’t think that would help us focus.”

She grinned. “I guess not.”

We settled together on the ground, surrounded by a circle of braziers burning incense, and then another of salt. I reached out and Molly took my hands in hers and together, tipped the drug into a goblet of clear water.

The substance settled atop the water like oil and as Molly and I began to repeat the incantation, slowly, over and over, until the water boiled. Slowly, tiny droplets of black pitch rose up above the water, hovering a foot above our heads. Dozens, hundreds, they gathered in a little cloud, and then darted sharply in every possible direction, smack dab into the outer perimeter circle where they stuck like raindrops to a window.

It took me a second or two to get my head clear of the spell, and I waited a few more until Molly managed the same.

“Did it work?” She asked.

I looked up at the drops of tar spread in every direction. “Looks like. Sort of. Every single drop is going to lead us to a little piece of something similar. Probably another sample of the drug.”

“That’s going to be a lot of places to go,” Molly said. “Do we have time for that?”

I shook my head. “Not even close. Shit.”

“Out of ideas?”

“No. I know what we have to do. I just wish I didn’t have to.”

I dialed a number and after a few rings someone answered.

“Hey, Murph,” I said. “I’m going to need the address to Johnny Marcone.”

***

For the last decade or so, Chicago’s criminal underworld had been ruled with an iron fist by Johnny Marcone. I didn’t like him, not one bit, but he was a lot better than back when the vampires had run prostitution. Like with all of his employees, Marcone didn’t tolerate any violence. At all. It didn’t matter of you were realtor or a Senator - If you hurt one of his employees you were toast.

Bringing Molly into a meeting with Marcone hadn’t ever been something I’d planned to do. If I could’ve helped it, he never would’ve known I had an apprentice at all. But I guess the times were a-changing.

Since Marcone’s headquarters kept on changing location, and since he was rather tight-lipped about where past, current or future locations might be, it took a while to get everything set up, and by the time we arrived at Executive Health, night was setting.

“It’s a gym,” Molly said, coming to a halt on the sidewalk outside the well-lit building in central downtown. “Is he some kinda fitness nut?”

I frowned, having wondered pretty much the same. “I have no idea.”

I pressed the buzzer and waited. A chirpy woman’s voice answered. “Executive Priority. This is Billy speaking.”

Molly cast me a look and I shrugged. “Could you tell Mr Marcone that Harry Dresden wants to see him?”

I could hear someone choke on their own spit or maybe a gum. I waited patiently. Several long seconds past, and then Billy said. “I’ll patch you through.”

“Thank you,” I said, turning to Molly. “At least they haven’t forgotten who I am.”

Molly seemed about say something snarky when Marcone spoke. “Mr Dresden?”

“Marcone,” I said. “I need to have a word with you.”

The man made a thoughtful sound. “Interesting. I just had someone arrive saying something similar. Come on in. My employees will escort you to my office.”

I made a vague sound of agreement. Someone else? Who? Why? For a moment I pictured Morgan sitting there, sword drawn, waiting eagerly for me to come to him, and a chill ran down my spine. I reassured myself with the knowledge that if Morgan knew where I was, he would’ve been kicking me into the curb already. Waiting wasn’t his strong suit.

We stepped up into the gym and while Billy the receptionist might not have been the best at her job at the front desk, she was very, very pretty. And she was wearing an outfit that almost looked like a parody from a bad porno. Short, clingy shorts that resembled nothing so much as swimwear, coupled with a top that strained precariously against the curves of her breasts.

Glancing around, I saw several other women dressed similarly, all of whom were somewhere in between their early twenties and thirties, and all of whom were working beside a man. I could see them helping with the weights, leaning in close to offer words of advice, and in general making a lot more physical contact than one would expect from a personal trainer. As far as I knew, anyways. I’d never had a gym membership. The men, in turn, were pretty much all over forty, and they all looked like they had lots and lots of money. Hell, I recognised a district judge among them.

“This… Isn’t a gym, is it?” Molly said, watching one of the ‘personal trainers’ lead a man into the ‘spa area’.

“It’s not, no,” I said. “Just so we’re clear, we are never mentioning this to your mom. Ever.”

Molly giggled. She actually giggled. “That’s probably a good idea.”

Billy came up to us. “If you’d come with me, please.”

Molly and I exchanged another look. I touched the link we’d long since establish between our minds and sent a message through. “If anything looks fishy, you veil and bail.”

My apprentice sighed. “How long have you been waiting to use that line?”

“A while.”

Billy led us through a corridor with offices at either side and, at the very end of it, a door without a nameplate. Then she turned to the door one step removed from the end, to the left, and knocked.

“Come in,” said a gruff man’s voice.

I did so, fingers itching to reach for my blasting rod. Walking in blind like this, my instincts told me, was a very, very bad idea. But in for a penny, in for a pound. I pushed the door open and strode in like I owned the place. The guy who actually did sat straight ahead of me.

John Marcone was a man of early middle age, with pale green eyes and immaculately neat gray-streaked hair. He had a charisma to him of the sort you’d see in some politicians where you’d know damn well they were dirty but you still had to work very hard to dislike them. He sat there, in a suit more expensive than all the clothes I owned put together, hands clasped in front of him atop his desk.

“Mr Dresden,” he said. “Welcome back to Chicago.”

“Marcone,” I said. I didn’t bother faking any warmth the way he did.

I glanced sideways and found Hendricks and Gard, Marcone’s main enforcer and, I suspected, his valkyrie bodyguard. They were both tall and fit, though in Gard’s case it was a lean, dangerous strength, whereas Hendricks looked like he might turn green and hulk out of his suit at any moment. I gave Gard a nod of respect which may have amused her. I’m not sure.

And then I realised that there was a fourth person in the room. “Mr Dresden, I do believe you’ve met my guest. Miss Raith.”

“I’ve had the displeasure,” I said, turning to face her. “What’re you doing here?”

Lara Raith, the unofficial queen of the White Court of Vampires, stood leaned up against the wall of Marcone’s study. She wore a business suit of white, its cut immaculate, and her skirt just a touch shorter than one might usually see for such attire.

Lara met my eyes, hers a pale blue tinged toward chrome, and I had the feeling she was trying to read something off me. “I was contacted by a ‘mutual friend’ who suggested I visit Mr Marcone.”

“Who?”

Lara shrugged and I’m sure somewhere in the world a man was cured of impotence. “I have no idea. I had hoped you would be able to tell me.”

“I haven’t got the faintest.”

“Ah. And who is your lovely companion?”

I took a step forward to put myself between Lara and my apprentice. “You really don’t need to know that.”

She laughed softly. “And yet I am curious.”

“Molly Carpenter,” my apprentice said, stepping out from behind me.

I didn’t quite do the Picard facepalm, but it was close. I didn’t turn and tell the girl off for giving out information to one of the savviest women I had ever met, either. I kept my eyes locked on Lara’s nose.

“Molly, this is Lara Raith of the White Court of vampires. There. You’ve been introduced.”

“Then perhaps we can move our discussion on to what you do need, Dresden,” Marcone said smoothly. “I would rather not be in the vicinity when the White Council inevitably finds you.”

“Your town’s got a drug problem,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure this one isn’t the kind you profit from.”

“Yes,” Marcone said. “I have been made aware of a minor dealer whose products have had unfortunate side-effects. Lately the flow has stemmed, though. We had assumed the dealer had gotten himself detained or killed.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “There’s been another death. Today or yesterday.”

Lara had settled back against a bookshelf and was was eyeing the exchange with interest, gorgeous lips touched by the faintest of smiles.

“That is unfortunate,” Marcone said without a shred of sympathy. “But a single death is hardly a trend.”

“They’ve been at it for a while now and your troubleshooters haven’t found a way to deal with them yet. Trust me when I say that this could get far, far worse than a few more people dying. It might be very disruptive for your business.”

“Even if I were inclined to help, I doubt I have much more information than the authorities,” Marcone said. “This is, after all, their line of work and not mine.”

“I’m sure you know where I could find a few of them.”

He rolled a wrist in agreement to my point. “Certainly and so I have. None were of any consequence to the dealings at large.”

“So you’ve got absolutely nothing. Lovely. What about you, Lara?”

“I’m afraid I’m not privy to the details of this case, Dresden, and so I can offer only limited assistance.”

On cue, Marcone produced a folder from a drawer, settling it at the edge of his desk. Lara approached and ignored the way Hendrick’s meaty paw crept an inch closer to his side-arm, plucking the folder up and settling at the edge of the desk, crossing her legs to draw the eye to them. I had to admit I grudgingly respected Marcone for how little her naughty secretary act seemed to affect him. Unless he was gay, I suppose. There were those who spread rumours to that effect.

Lara flicked through the folder and the smile finally seemed to slip. “Ah. I believe I know who our mutual friend might be, Dresden, and what we are dealing with.”

She flipped back a few pages to the center of the folder, opened it and pushed it across the table for me. I glanced at the pictures. The young woman from before.

“This is why I’m here,” Lara said, and pointed at one of the few photos that weren’t horrifying stuff from out of my worst nightmares. A simple black marker circle around the woman’s wrist. “Have you ever heard of Club Zero?”

***

“When this goes to hell I want to be on record saying this is a really bad idea,” I said.

“Noted,” Molly said.

Marcone had been kind enough to loan us a car, the jerk, and I’d be lying if the old mustang didn’t run like a charm. We’d gone by the hotel for a change of clothes.

I could still remember the way Lara’s eyes had roamed over the both of us when she’d informed us that Zero had a certain image it had to maintain and that we’d need to make sure we looked like we belonged.

To that effect, the moment we’d gotten past the door labeled with nothing but a chalk-drawn circle and into a corridor with a big guy guarding another non-descript door, I stripped out of my t-shirt. I immediately felt self-conscious. I wasn’t as skinny as I’d been a few years ago, but needless to say I wasn’t selling the look the way someone like my brother Thomas might have.

Molly had taken the combat knife I’d given her for her nineteenth birthday to a pair of blue jeans until there wasn’t a whole lot of them left. She’d borrowed one of my western shirts and wore it open with nothing but a sports bra underneath. I had to try really hard not to make any Dukes of Hazzard jokes.

The bouncer held out a hand and we both paused. He looked at us expectantly.

“I’m Dresden,” I said. “Lara sends her regards.”

He mulled that over for a moment and took a look at his clipboard.

“Lara looked familiar,” Molly said. “Was she at Arctis Tor or something?”

“I doubt it.”

Before I could consider the question further, the bouncer looked up from his guestlist and opened the door for us. “Welcome to Zero.”

Before us, a corridor stretched into near darkness. Music washed over us, a heavy bass drum pounding like the heartbeat of some unimaginably large beast slumbering below. Scents came next, perfume and smoke chief among them, both intoxicating and probably illicit. Last came a wave of energy. The emotions of hundreds of people. It brushed up lightly against my senses, but Molly rocked back like she’d been slapped by a wave. Her eyes widened and she grabbed onto my arm for support.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

She nodded. I couldn’t be sure in the dim light, but I was pretty sure she was blushing.

“Yeah. I’m fine. This place - there’s kind of an energy to it.”

“Bad?”

“No. Not bad, exactly. Just intense.”

I realised that the tips of her breasts were now plainly visible through the sports bra. Ah. That kind of energy. I should probably have seen that coming. It was a White Court place, after all.

“You good to go?”

Again, Molly nodded, and we set off into the darkness.

Zero wasn’t what I’d imagined. Maybe I’m just a prude, but even expecting the worst about the White Court, the place outdid it. Once we’d gone down a couple of flights of stairs, we found ourselves on a walkway that was just a touch too narrow for people to pass by one another without brushing up. Molly drew a lot of looks and I’d be lying if I’d said some weren’t from me.

The walkway surrounded the beating heart of Club Zero. Bars were scattered around it, one in each corner and one central. There were scattering of sofas and chairs in small groupings across the corners of the room, and stairs led up to secluded balconies. Everything else was dance floor.

It was truly a hive of scum and villainy. No sin went unrepresented. People were having sex in threesomes, foursomes, and - uh moresomes - of every possible configuration. The air was heavy with cigarette smoke, and less legal varieties. People were drinking shots off other people’s bodies, then drawing up lines of white powder and snorting it. I could see a young man tie a string around his elbow joint and stick a needle into his forearm when the veins were visible. The substance looked like heroin, though, and not the stuff we were looking for.

I leaned in close to Molly’s ear to be heard over the throbbing beat of the music.

“If Charity ever finds out I took you here-”

Molly grinned. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Come on. I wanna dance.”

My first instinct was to find the darkest, quietest corner and lean up against a wall there. Maybe with a beer in hand. That wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, though, so dance it was.

“Keep your eyes open,” I said. “We’re here to work.”

“Don’t be such a grumpy old man,” she said, and slung her arm around my waist, guiding me out under the discolights. “We can multitask.”

We danced and I wished very, very badly that I could get a drink or five to loosen up. People were pressing in from every direction, latex, leather and bare skin brushing against me. I kept my eyes peeled for people enjoying their dubiously legal substances and hoped it’d come off as trying to sneak a peek at the many active couples. The place wasn’t short of voyeurs.

Alas, every superhero has a weakness. Superman’s got kryptonite. The Martian manhunter has fire. My weakness is dancing. Well, that and bullets, knives and… A lot of other stuff. Primarily dancing, though.

Molly didn’t have that problem. She moved with the music, hips swaying hypnotically. I wasn’t the only one admiring the way the improvised jean shorts fit her and it didn’t take long for a guy to come up and start dancing with her.

He was a few years older than her and fit looking, with a ram tattooed to one pec and a piercing through one nipple. He even kind of managed to pull something that silly looking off. They danced and I wasn’t jealous. I wasn’t. Not even when he held out a hand to her and Molly stepped in close, saying something into his ear. She smiled a little when he responded.

The guy looked at me, tilted his head to the side, and then said, loud enough to be heard over the music. “We can share him, if you want.”

Share me. Oh. I did not blush. I’d like to stress that part because it’s definitely the truth. Molly gave him a playful shove and he grinned as he walked off. She sauntered back to me, getting up on the tips of her toes so that she could link her arms around my neck and whisper in my ear.

“He thought you were hot.”

“Uh-huh. He clearly had good taste.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Come on. It can’t be the first time a guy hit on you.”

I frowned. It wasn’t really something I’d given that much thought. “The first time I’ve realised one was, at least.”

Molly considered me for a moment. “Does it bother you?”

“No.”

Molly’s expression turned coy. “If you dance with me people probably won’t try to butt in.”

She knew exactly what she was doing.

“Fine,” I said. “For the mission.”

“”Yes,” she said solemnly. “For the mission.”

She advanced slowly in rhythm with the music, pressing in close. It felt good, having her near, skin on skin. It took a pretty serious effort of will to keep my hands in the questionably neutral zone at her hips. She moved away and back to me, slinking away and returning. Spinning so that her back was to me, she ground her rear against my hips. She wasn’t doing anything different from what the other dancers were doing, but all the same, it was not how I’d expected our little trip back to Chicago to go. For a while, we moved through the darkness of the dancefloor together.

People moved around in the periphery, talking, mingling, flirting. I could only watch so many places at once, though. Even at well over six and a half feet tall, there’s only so much you can do. We needed a better vantage point.

“Let’s get a bird’s eye view,” I said. I didn’t need to lean in in order to be heard. Molly hadn’t moved away from me for a while and the press of her body to mine was more insistent than before.

She disentangled from me and tracked my gaze. There was a bold, direct quality to her gaze. “Up there?”

We made our way through the crowd, holding hands to avoid losing track of one another, slipping up a set of stairs and passing by a couple of giggling girls with smeared lipstick. Once up, Molly made her way over to the railing, settling her hands on it and leaning over to gaze out at the strobing lights, the throng of people at the center of the room and those moving at the periphery.

I moved up to stand beside her, but she caught my arm and my gaze, directing me to stand behind her instead.

“It’ll look less suspicious that way.”

I couldn’t argue with that reasoning. Well, I could and probably should, but I didn’t. I stepped in behind her, settling my hands over hers and looked out across the groupings of furniture in corners. Two guys were having a shot-drinking contest and half a dozen of drinks in one was throwing up all over the table. Classy. A helpful staff member was there within ten seconds and cleaning up the mess. I kept scanning, trying not to get stuck on the scenes of utter debauchery and finally spotted a guy in bleached dreadlocks talking to a heavily tattooed man.

They shook hands and in the sheen of the discolights a couple of vials of tarry black substance exchanged hands.

“Bingo,” I said. “You stay here and use the spell. I’ll grab them.”

“Gotcha,” she answered.

I moved down the stairs and into the crowd.

“Which do you want: Prison tattoos or Dreadlocks?”

“Dreadlocks. He’s holding the stuff.”

“Dead ahead.”

“Thank you.”

I moved through the dancers, disentangling myself from a few overly enthusiastic people, and found the tattooed man standing in a corner talking to a girl too young to be in a place like this. I took a deep breath, channeled my inner Marlon Brando, and stumbled over.

“Hey.”

The girl looked up at me and eased back half a step. I pointedly ignored her, casting a nervous glance over my shoulder. Dreadlocks didn’t look too impressed or intimidated.

“What do you want?”

“You know what I want,” I said. “You’ve got some of the stuff, right?”

He raised a brow. “Depends. Do you have the money?”

I fumbled with my wallet and showed him the respectable wad of bills I’d shoved in there. “I’m good for it. Let’s go somewhere else, though… Too many people watching.”

The guy watched me for me and I tried to fidget in place. “If you try something stupid…”
He raised his tank-top to show off the gun slipped between his hip and the jeans. I nodded, trying to appear cowed.

“Of course. Of course. No need to get violent, man.”

He took another moment to consider me.

“Prison tattoos is still around and on your six,” Molly said. “Thirty feet away or so. He’s just watching for now.”

I forced myself not to rubberneck. “So. Do we got a deal? Cos I’ll go someplace else with this money-”

He held up a hand in a gesture of placation. “Hey now. No need for that. We can deal. Upstairs, yeah? You look like some fresh air will do you good.”

I pretended to take a moment to decide, then nodded. “Deal. Come on.”

I turned my thoughts to Molly. “Follow us. I’ll watch this guy, you watch the other one.”

“Roger that.”

We made our way through the crowds, the corridors and finally out into the Chicago night. I took a deep breath of the comparatively fresh air and wobbled in place for a moment. Behind us, Molly was sneaking out and heading out toward the street. Dreadlocks and I, followed by his buddy, made our way a little deeper into the valley. There, he held out the two vials of product.

“This is enough for ten doses. You got the money or what?”

“Sure. As soon as you tell your buddy to come on over here.”

Tattoos frowned. He hadn’t expected me to spot him. Maybe I’d sold the act of being a junkie too well. Now, my break in character might be enough for things to get nasty. I raised both my hands over my head and tried to to look non-threatening. The other guy, a tall bald man with a hooked nose, wearing a leather jacket over a bare chest, came around to stand beside his buddy.

“Just a precaution,” Prison tattoos said, holding up both hands. “Some of our customers get a little crazy sometimes. You’ve got ten doses there. Don’t double-dose it. Time for you to show us the money.”

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you guys.”

Tension gathered in the set of their shoulders and I could see them both getting ready to either bolt or draw their weapons. “I probably don’t look very intimidating right about now-”

Even as I said it, I felt a tingle of magic starting at my head and trickling down my shoulders. When I looked down I was wearing my coat, dark leather flapping at my ankles. I had a hat, too, which I was less sure about. “Much obliged, Grasshopper,” I thought.

Both of them seemed to realise that something was going on beyond a random junkie trying to mug and they fell back a step.

“I’m Harry Dresden,” I said. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of me, but this is my town. The kinda shit you’re selling, that doesn’t fly here.”

Tattoos’ eyes widened. “You’re that guy-”

I nodded and let them stew for a little while. Tattoos seemed scared and he probably should be. Last I’d heard, the council had made sure I was declared a terrorist and put on several international wanted lists.

“The one and only,” I said. “I have a few questions for you, and if you answer them-”

At that, Dreadlocks lost his nerve. His gun cleared the waistband of his pants. I was ready for him, though. I spoke a word and invisible force formed into a solid wall in front of me. The gun roared and bullet after bullet slammed into my shield, the impact rattling down the arm I was projecting the power from. Dreadlocks’ eyes grew wide as shot after shot hit the air before me and stopped dead and took a step back, then another, firing more and more wildly until the gun ran dry. He looked sideways at Tattoos as if for help.

“As I was saying,” I continued. “I need information about the drugs. You’ve got an opportunity to tell me. Go for it.”

Fire kindled in the palm of my hand, a little blazing sun the size of a penny, burning so brightly it was painful to look at.

Tattoos squinted. “I’ll talk, okay? Just relax and I’ll talk. What do you want to know?”

“Funny you should ask. I need the drugs you’re holding. I need to know who made them and where I can find them.”

Dreadlocks was staring at his friend. “Don’t tell him-”

“Shut up, man!” Tattoos hissed. “We want to help you. We do. But the guys we work for are fucking crazy, okay?”

I let the power of the spell go a little and the fire rose into a blazing peak a foot high. “Do I look like I care?”

“Okay. Okay.” He took a step forward and carefully held out the vials, with his arm at full stretch. I released the shield and took them. Tattoos stepped back again. “We get them from this guy called Tyrone. He cooks it up with some friend of his and we sell it. We just sell it, man.”

“Where can I find Tyrone?”

“I don’t know. We meet him every other day and he gives us the stuff.”

I tapped my foot impatiently on the asphalt. Even in Chicago, sooner or later, someone was going to report the gunshots.

“And when are you meeting him next?”

“Tomorrow morning. 11 o’clock. At Denny’s.”

I sighed. “Which Denny’s?”

He gave me an address. I nodded and extinguished the fire. “Thanks. You may wanna get out of town. Marcone’s not very happy with you guys.”

They exchanged a look and seemed more frightened of that than the magic. “We’ll do that. Uh. Thanks?”

Like Clint Eastwood would have, I said nothing. I just walked away. Molly even managed to make my illusory coat flap dramatically in the wind.

***

We had a little time to rest, but not much, and two hours ahead of time, we arrived at the scene. I parked Marcone’s car across the street from the diner and scanned our surroundings. A nice, quiet street in a not-too-bad Chicago neighborhood. A basketball court in a decent state of repair was to our right and a few kids were already playing there.

I watched them for a while, thinking back to simpler times. Basketball had been one of the few things I’d been picked for at school. I’d played it quite a bit the year before I’d fought and killed my foster father.

Shaking my head, I turned back to looking at the cafe. I didn’t expect anyone who dealt drugs to be particularly punctual, but there was no point in taking chances. Slowly but surely, the minutes ticked on and the arrival of our guy drew nearer. Next to me, Molly yawned.

“I would literally murder someone for a cup of coffee right now,” she said.

I cast her a sideways glance. “Not me, I hope.”

She closed her eyes for a few moments, then straightened in her seat. “Depends. Do you have coffee that you’re keeping from me?”

“Knowing what I know, I’m not about to tell you that, am I?”

She leaned the over the gear shift and punched my shoulder lightly. “Fine. Next time we’re bringing a thermos.”

“And donuts.”

Molly scrunched up her nose. “As long as there isn’t any sour cream in them. Honestly, what kind of a monster puts sour cream on a donut?”

I nodded gravely. Our job here was serious, and maybe I shouldn’t be screwing about, but the sanctity of donuts was serious, too. “The worst kind. Canadians.”

Molly smiled and there was something almost carefree to the expression again. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen that. I didn’t want to ruin it, but we couldn’t dodge the question any longer.

“Are you feeling okay about leaving again?”

The smile flickered, fell. She tried her best to fake it, but it wasn’t enough to fool a master of the mystical arts. She made a few attempts to speak, but cut off each time, and ended up simply shrugging. The minutes dragged on.

“I don’t want to go, either,” I said after a while. “But we can’t stay here.”

Molly closed her eyes for a moment and drew a few slow, measured breaths, like I’d taught her. When she spoke up, her voice was reasonably steady. “I know that.”

I looked around the area again. More people were walking about now that we were getting to a more reasonable hour. A man was arguing with someone over the phone as he walked by. A couple of kids parked a van behind us and were eyeing the busy basketball court. A few customers came and went from the Denny’s.

I sighed and gave Molly’s shoulder a squeeze. “This won’t be permanent. We’ll figure something out.”

“I’m not mad at you.” She heaved a sigh. “Well, I am, but It’s not logical, and I know that. It’s not your fault.”

I winked. “Spock would’ve been proud.”

Another guy walked by, this one for the second time, and cast a sideways glance at Molly. There’s a reason magicians have pretty, distracting assistants and why wizard private investigators prefer not to. They draw attention. I sighed and resumed my vigil. We were closing in on the deadline, now.

I caught a flash of movement in my peripheral vision and I caught a brief glimpse of a tyre iron coming straight for my face. The car window shattered and everything went black.

***

I should’ve known he was trouble the first time I saw him. He came into my house, bruised and bleeding, his eyes dark and intelligent, five o’clock shadow stark on a sharp, pale jawline. He wore a big black canvas duster and had six foot quarterstaff that he left leaned up against a wall with a careless ease.

I had snuck down to watch Star Trek reruns. Mom would’ve blown a gasket if she’d caught me up at one in the morning, but dad just smiled. If he’d been alone, we probably would have watched the episode together before he’d sent me to bed. Tonight, he grabbed two beers, made me a cup of hot cocoa, and introduced me to his friend, Harry Dresden.

I should’ve known. In my defense, I’d been eleven at the time.

I came to curled up on the cold asphalt, dirty and shivering, head pounding viciously. Moving hurt, but I’d had worse, and I pushed myself up off the ground. I got up on my hands and knees. That turned out to be a mistake. Nausea washed over me and I pressed my lips together firmly.

I looked around, trying to figure out where I was, and spotted the car Harry and I had loaned. One of the windows were smashed, from when people grabbed him, and-

An image cut through, displacing the reality before me. A scene of perfect, stark clarity, as if I’d hit the rewind button on life. Twisted humanoid creatures, hunched and emaciated, carrying Harry off into a van, speeding off to the scent of burning rubber. The last thing I could see, in a narrow tunnel through a general haze, was a little rectangular sign with Lincoln’s face behind a couple of letters and numbers. The license place. Got em.

I grinned in triumph for a moment, maybe two, and then my stomach rolled and writhed, and I puked all over the concrete. In case nobody ever told you, the life of the apprentice wizard is flashy and ever so dignified.

Straightening and wiping at my mouth, I tried to focus through the pounding in my skull. Pain flared and I doubled over, heaving and gasping, steading myself with a hand to the rough brick wall.

I needed to reach out to Harry. I could do it. If he was still close, I could reach him. I closed my eyes and thought back to a day only a few months ago.

Yukon, Canada was cold and beautiful in the winter. I lay pinned on my back in the mounds of snow, Harry atop of me, feeling heat sufuse my body despite the harsh weather.

“What have you learned?” He asked, tone teasing.

I grinned up at him. “Don’t throw snowballs during our lessons?”

“There’s that. A close second, though, is focus.”

“I know how to focus,” I muttered. “You don’t know how to focus.”

He stepped back and helped me to my feet. I’d honestly rather have stayed there in the snow with him.

“You can do it,” he said and his voice carried enough warmth to stave off the chill. “You’ve done it before. Remember: It’s all about clarity. Let go of the distractions.”

I closed my eyes and let go.

Chicago was louder than the distant little Canadian town we’d rented a cabin outside of, but that didn’t change the method, really. It just meant more work. I focused on the things closest first: Pain.The headache, the acrid taste of bile on my tongue, a scuff on my knee, and the ache of fatigue. I pushed them aside one by one, let them flow past me like water around a rock.

“Clarity,” I mumbled to myself. “Let go.”

Next, I shut out the noise of the city, cars zooming by, driver’s liberally using their horns, people shouting into cell phones. I tried my very best to be that rock in the river and I felt the subtle tension of my magic gathering.

I began to reach out, and-

“For the last time, Sasuke is a way better villain than-”

My focus shattered and I opened my eyes to see two guys standing at the mouth of the alley, eyes wide as they took me in. Not a confidence booster, that.

They were maybe a few years older than me. One guy tall and skinny, the other average height and fit. They wore baggy jeans in the - uh - urban fashion. One wore a tank top, the other a t-shirt with the New York Knicks on it. I closed my eyes and tried to gather the tattered, fraying ends of the spell and-

“Uhm. Are you okay?”

“Shut up!” I snarled.

They startled and eyed one another again. Either worried or scared. I didn’t care. I closed my eyes and began to piece together my spell. Focus. Nice and easy. Don’t push it.

The spell coalesced and…

“Harry?”

Nothing. There was nothing but the silence and the throbbing, pounding sensation in my skull.

“Harry. Can you hear me?”

Nothing.

Panic surged and I felt my grip on the power slip, the structure of the spell cracking to pieces. Harry wasn’t there. He wasn’t responding. He was gone, he was d- No. He wasn’t dead. If they’d wanted him dead, they wouldn’t have grabbed him. They’d just have shot him. He wasn’t dead. He was just out of range. That had to be it. We’d worked on extending the range of the spell beyond a few hundred feet, but there just hadn’t been time.

I didn’t remember sitting down, but when I came to I was on the ground, hugging my knees to my chest. One of the guys had his phone out and was trying to make a call. His friend’s gaze flickered from him to me.

“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m okay. You can hang up to the cops or the doctors or whoever it is you’re talking to that you think could help me.”

“Girl, you look like you’re tripping balls. I’m sorry, but you need a doctor.”

I tried to sit up and the world began to spin. Maybe not. The ground was good. I could stay here for a while. From where I sat, I raised a finger to his phone and hexed the crap out of it. It didn’t explode in a shower of sparks or anything, but judging by the guy’s confused expression, it did suddenly give out. He lowered it from his ear and shook his head.

“Brand new my ass,” he muttered, eyeing his friend. “You go ahead and call them.”

“But-”

“Dude, look at her.”

I pushed myself up to my feet and waited for the the carousel impression Chicago was treating me to to stop. It took a few moments, but it did.

“I’m okay,” I said, and it came out firmly this time. Like I actually believed it. “Just got knocked on the head.”

The guy with the phone in the air considered it and then put it back in his pocket. Now that I had a moment, I tried to think. I needed to find Harry. To find him, I needed help. I needed a ride. Shit. I looked around and caught the eyes of the two guys. Now that I seemed at least mostly present and sane they seemed more comfortable.

“If you really want to help, I have few errands to run. I’ll need a ride.”

They both eyed me with naked suspicion, then exchanged a look.

“What kind of errands?" Asked the short of the two.

I tried to smile. It didn’t feel convincing and by the looks on their faces, it didn’t come off that way, either. “The kind that I’ll pay you a thousand bucks to help me with.”

“A thousand bucks doing what?” Asked the taller guy finally.

“I’m glad you asked…?”

“Jamal.” He pointed to his shorter friend. “This is Sam.”

“I’m glad you asked, Jamal. Like I said. I need a ride. Some help with the heavy lifting. Stuff like that.”

Jamal sighed. “How illegal are we talking?”

“We said we wouldn’t,” said Sam in a hushed voice. “I promised mom, man.”

“As much as I wouldn’t want to disappoint your hot mom…” Jamal eyed me. “It’s a thousand bucks. What exactly are we going to be doing?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“You’ll see eventually.”

Another look exchanged, this one longer. They didn’t believe me and honestly, I couldn’t blame them.

“Tick tock,” I said. “If you don’t want to help, that’s fine. I’ll do it myself.”

Jamal bit his bottom lip, considering me. Probably wondering just how crazy I was. “Show us the money first.”

I headed back to our deserted little car and ransacked it for everything I might need. Finally, I crawled past the shards of glass and into the backseat, pulling Harry’s black leather duster with me and draping its comforting weight across my shoulders. I closed my eyes for a moment and took in the familiar scent.

You can do this, Molly.

I fought not to cry. I could do this. I could. I had to. I was all there was.

I returned to the guys and counted out a thousand bucks in hundred dollar bills. “Another thousand once we’re done,” I said.

Jamal made sure to count them, then handed half over to Sam, pocketing the rest.

“Where to?” He asked.

What would Harry have said? He’d always been a sucker for the classics and why fix what wasn’t broken?

“We’re off to see the wizard.”

We weren’t, actually. It was the end objective and all, but first there was a sidequest to check in on. We were going to the person who’d sent us off to Zero to begin with. I just couldn’t think of an appropriate reference for ‘We’re going to go see the Queen of the Succubi.’

Oh, and we needed to get ourselves a van.

***

I left my ride a little while down the driveway from the gates to Chateau Raith.

“If I’m not back in two hours, or if anyone dangerous or way too hot comes to check in on you, drive as fast as you can. Because I’ll be dead.”

I had a feeling they were still going with the theory of me being a crazy junkie. That was fine. I still had a thousand bucks and all they had to do to earn it was wait in the car. They nodded and I walked off.

It took me several minutes just to get to the front gate and the little building attached to it. Two men were guarding it, both with guns that they seemed comfortable with. I’d grown up with soldiers and these two definitely struck me as soldiers. I tried for a friendly smile and stopped a safe distance away from them with my hands visible.

“Hi. I’m here to see Lara Raith.”

Soldier One looked to Soldier Two, who shrugged. He gave me a once-over, the kind that was more interested in concealed weapons than cup size. “You one of her… friends?”

I had no idea what that meant, but I nodded. “Yes. She asked to to come by.”

Soldier Two snorted. “Funny, because she hasn’t told us about you coming.”

“Maybe she just forgot?” Okay, not my best. I knew it the moment the words were out of my mouth, but it was too late then.

“She never forgets anything,” Soldier One said. “I think it’s probably best you leave now.”

He was being polite, so I decided to drop the bullshit. “Okay, so she doesn’t know I’m coming and I have no idea who her friends are, but I need to talk to her. Call her and check.”

I could hear the sound of a sports game playing in the background. He sighed. “Will you play nice and leave if she tells you she’s not interested in company?”

“Sure,” I said. “Just check. Tell her Molly Carpenter, Harry Dresden’s apprentice, is here to see her.”

He went off to make the call. Soldier Number One kept a careful watch of me while we waited.The phone conversation started off casual, but turned serious quickly. I tried to Listen. I couldn’t do it the way Harry could, but I listened really hard the normal way. A lot of “yes ma’am” and “Of course, ma’am”. A few seconds later, Soldier Number Two walked up to the window.

“Miss Raith is sending a driver to pick you up.”

“I always thought she did the picking up herself:”

Lara Raith apparently didn’t account for a sense of humour when it came to hiring people.

It took almost ten minutes for my ride to arrive, but man oh man did it blow the other one out of the water. A limo. An honest to God limo. Some slick, black chrome monster out of a fifties gangster movie. The upholstery was leather and there was plenty of wood paneling, sleek and shining with polish.

The driver was another tough-looking man, this one in his early forties and he remained silent the entire trip back through the lush gardens surrounding manor Raith. It was pretty amazing, like something out of the Princess Diaries, which I watched against my will, I swear. The place itself didn’t disappoint. It looked almost like a frickin’ castle. I felt pretty sure not even Harry would be able to huff and puff this place down and maybe that had been the point.

The soldier opened the door for me when we’d arrived and I was escorted into in a little office. A pretty young woman rose from one of the desks and came up to meet her. At first glance, I would’ve said her hair was platinum blonde, but when I took a closer look I realised it was white. She smiled at me in the pleasant, impersonal way of a waitress with twenty years on the job.

“This way, Miss Carpenter.” She walked me to the door and mouthed the words “be careful”. Then I was led into the office of Lara Raith. The door closed behind me and my heartbeat went crazy.

Lara sat behind a desk in an impeccable charcoal gray skirt suit, the shirt underneath left with two buttons undone. She signed a document with a flourish and set it into a pile, then scanned another document and repeated the process. She went through about half the pile before I lost my patience and cleared my throat. She wouldn’t have made Harry wait and I wasn’t going to let her waste my time, either.

The White Court vampire finally looked up from her paperwork and stretched languorously in her seat. Her blue eyes took a tour down along the length of my body in an examination thoroughly unconcerned with concealed weapons, and she smiled. It was a sharp, dangerous sort of expression. She licked her lips, which were full and inviting and- I swallowed. I hadn’t realised that my mouth had gone dry, but it sure had.

I’d thought maybe it had just been a fluke the first time I saw her, but I’d been wrong.

Now, I know it’s perfectly normal for people to be - uh - curious. Lots of people experiment, especially when they’re younger, and that’s totally fine. I’d just never really had any interest in that. I’d always pretty much always known what I wanted. But yeah, Lara Raith made me very seriously curious and in the mood for experimentation.

She knew it too. I could see it in the way she smirked at me as she pushed herself to her feet.

“To what do I owe this rude and unexpected pleasure, miss Carpenter?”

I forced myself to keep looking at her. It didn’t make things easier, but I had a feeling that looking away would be even more dangerous.

“Did you order your guys to take Harry?”

Lara’s expression didn’t betray anything. I might as well have told her the sky outside was blue for all the effect that revelation had on her.

“Let’s play a game, Miss Carpenter. Let’s pretend I did order for my people to take Harry Dresden. What do you believe compels me to share the truth with you?”

I kept looking at her, chancing a glance at her eyes. The periwinkle blue was gone now and they looked more gray than anything. I felt my temper rising. I’d never been very good at keeping my emotions in check and ever since I’d used that spell on my friends it had been worse.

“I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t have given you a choice.”

She laughed and tilted her head to the side, watching me intently. “Oh child,” she murmured. “You truly have no concept of what you have gotten yourself into, have you?”

She took a step over to me and and I immediately veiled. The world blurred and Lara surged forward. I stepped to the side, out of her path, but her arm shot out and caught my shirt. My back slammed into the wall the air wheezed out of my lungs at the impact.

A low, piteous groan slipped past my lips and I tried to squirm away, but to no avail. Lara pinned me to the wall, keeping me aloft with a single hand and absolutely no effort. My feet dangled off the ground… And there were specks of vomit on my shoes from earlier. Fantastic.

Lara let me down. My head was spinning, my legs ached and all I wanted was to just sink down along the wall. I didn’t and Lara kept me pinned there without any physical restraints… I hadn’t been wrong about her eyes. They were pure, silvery gray now. Like polished steel. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips and the corner of her mouth turned up into a lazily sensuous smile.

And I suddenly realised where I’d first seen her.

“Hang on. Are you Lara Romani?”

There was a moment of stunned, absolute silence. Then Lara burst out laughing. It wasn’t meant to be seductive, or mocking, or confident. It was just unaffected mirth and maybe it’s because I was tired or something, but I ended up laughing, too.

I don’t really know how that went on, but when I got my shit together, Lara was watching me intently.

“You’re naive but not hopelessly stupid. You knew coming here was dangerous, but you did so regardless. Foolish, but brave. Tell me, little wizard. Why should I help you and not simply kill you for the disrespect you showed me?”

“Because you wouldn’t kill a fan? And uh - Harry might be upset if you - uh - ate me.”

She considered that. “That is assuming he lives to find out. By the sounds of things, that is unlikely… And if he does, I am sure I could console him and ease the pain of your loss.”

“Don’t you dare, you bitch.”

I tried to hit her. I may have some anger issues and, surprise surprise, the vampire known for emotional manipulation had managed to push my buttons.

Lara’s hand shot out like a striking snake and she caught my arm. She hadn’t even looked.

“Ah… I see where your zeal comes from.”

She turned my hand to her and placed a kiss to the inside of my wrist, where my pulse raged furiously, and holy shit. That was a thing.

“You love him and yet… I can do this. Do you know what that means?”

I closed my eyes and tried to will the tears away. I did know what it meant that she could touch me.

“It doesn’t matter right now.” The words were acrid on my tongue. “Are you going to help me or kill me? Make up your mind and get it over with. I’m on a schedule here.”

Lara stepped back from me. It was just a gesture. I knew full well now that she could cover the distance before I could blink.

“I have a feeling we may work closely in the future, miss Carpenter, and when we do I hope you make a better show of your talents.”

She headed to her desk and retrieved a couple of folders. “I have had my own people look into the situation at Zero. Petty thugs, for the most part. I had intended to pass it on to Mr Marcone and the police, but some of what they found may help you. Give Dresden my regards if you find him.”

She settled in her seat and pushed a little stack of folders across her desk, returning her attention to the paperwork. My blood felt like it was boiling, but this was something. I’d have to settle and hope it was enough. I snatched the folders off the desk. Every instinct I had screamed at me to not turn my back to her, but I did it all the same, walking to the door without looking back.

I didn’t stop or relax until I was back in the car with Sam and Jamal. I sank back in the seat, closed my eyes, and willed myself to stop shaking. We were halfway back to town when I managed it well enough that I could flip open the folders and go through the criminal records of four men. The first and third stood out to me immediately: Prison Tattoos and Dreadlocks.

Sam was looking at me in the rearview mirror, worry etched across his features. He looked so damn young.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

I eyed him and suppressed a tired sigh.

“Do the Star Wars prequels suck?”

He frowned. “Do they?”

I sat up straight and cast him a steely look. “If you want to see that second roll of bills they do.”

“Oh. Yes. And you’re okay?”

“I’ve been worse.”

At least I hadn’t gotten shot or stabbed yet… But the day was young.

“Where to?” Jamal asked. He was driving carefully, eyes intent on the road.

“Hardware store. We’re going to need rope, duct tape and a hacksaw.”

***

“Are you sure you should go in there alone?” Sam asked. “It’s not a very good neighborhood and these guys sound dangerous.”

I just looked at him and pointedly strapped the combat knife Harry had bought me some months earlier from an army surplus store to my hip. Sam held his hands up in capitulation. “I’m just saying.”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s dangerous to go alone. I get it.” I smiled and hopped out onto the street. “I’ll be fine.”

I snuck up through the apartment building, dodging the occasional person wandering the halls, and stopped outside a door at the second floor. I could hear Iron Maiden playing from inside and smell cigarette smoke seeping through the cracks in the door. Raising my hand out, I felt for a threshold and found a faint, tingle in the air. There was something there, but it wasn’t enough to stop me. I felt at the door, just in case, and found it open. I actually froze in place at that. What kind of a drug dealer leaves their door open?

Could it be a trap?

I shook myself. No. It probably wasn’t a trap and besides, it wasn’t like I had a whole lot of options besides knocking if the door ended up being locked. I called up a veil. Cloaked in shadows, I slipped into the apartment.

I damn near blew it the very first second, as the reek of tobacco and weed enveloped me and nearly sent me into a coughing fit. The air was thick with it and it only got worse with every step I took. The apartment wasn’t big. A small hallway with a bathroom off to one side, a little kitchen, and presumably a living room ahead.

I could hear shouting and moved cautiously across the linoleum. The drapes had been pulled shut, which was good. In the darkness the barely-there shimmer of my veil would be nearly impossible to spot, even if you knew what to look for.

Dreadlocks sat in the living room couch with his two mates. Bottles of beer stood and lay scattered across the table accompanied by full ashtrays and a few pills that I assumed probably weren’t aspirin.

They were playing some sort of playstation game on a split screen, trading as many insults as they did bullets by the looks of things, and I felt pretty sure that even without my veil they wouldn’t have seen me. And now, for my dramatic entrance.

I let the veil fade about twenty percent or so, leaving my form visible but creepily shrouded in a wreath of writhing shadows, and then pulled on a trick that I hadn’t learned from magic but from reading my younger siblings to bed at night. In my best, deep and raspy impression of the Witch King of Angmar, I said: “Get to your feet.”

I’d meant to scare them, and to be fair, I did do that… Just a little bit more than I thought.

Dreadlocks shot up out of the sofa and whipped around, already pulling a gun out of his trouser lining.

I froze. Just for a moment - a single, potentially lethal moment - I froze in place. A light flashed in the din and a split second later something swept by my shoulder and the gun roared.

I should be dead, but I wasn’t, so I dove to the side, scrabbling along the hallway floor and into the kitchen. Shots hissed past me, something slammed into my elbow with enough force that I only barely managed to restrain a scream.

I ended up curled into the smallest ball I could make of myself, hunched forward behind the protection of my veil and Harry’s duster as shot after shot tore the kitchen to splinters and hit me again and again. When they finally clicked on an empty barrel, I hurt. A lot. It felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my back, but that was still a hell of a lot better than the swiss cheese I would’ve resembled without Harry’s coat.

For a while I just sat there, trying to calm by breathing and will my hands to stop shaking. I couldn’t break down. Not yet. Not until I’d gotten Harry out of this mess. I crawled to my feet and navigated my way out through the dust and wreckage and back into the living room.

The guys were pointing their guns vaguely at where I’d been and I held breath my for a moment as I passed by the barrel of one of them. They were empty. They had to be. I couldn’t be sure, but I’d just have to gamble.

I walked up behind them and cleared my throat. “As I was saying. I need you to come with me for a little chat.”

To make my point I slipped my hand inside my coat pocket and came out with an illusory gun. I leveled it at Dreadlocks. “Let’s go.”

***

“You’re kidnapping the guy,” Sam said as I coaxed Dreadlocks into the back of the van. “Are you serious? If the cops come asking when he starts making noise don’t you think they’ll arrest us, too?”

“I’m not kidnapping him,” I said. I may have been undermining that by tying his wrists behind his back with the best knot I could remember from the girl scouts. Next, I shoved a sock into his mouth and taped it shut. “We’re going for a little ride together to have a chat. He’s perfectly happy to come along.”

“You’re holding him at gunpoint,” Jamal pointed out. “You’ve got a literal gun in your hand.”

I smiled at him and with a flourish, I let the illusion fade away into smoke. “What gun?”

They stared at me, eyes wide. “Shit, man. I thought you were crazy or something. You’re for real? You’re like that guy on tv?”

“Something like that,” I said. “We’ve got three more to pick up. Let’s go.”

Hopefully, the next one would be smoother.

***

“Damn it, this was supposed to go smoothly!” I snarled.

My sneakers squeaked on the apartment building’s cheap linoleum floors as I turned the corner and once more caught sight of my target.

Guy number two was bald and muscular and his rotting teeth suggested he was probably sampling what he was selling. He was gasping for breath and leaving a stink of stale sweat and smoke in his wake as he ran.

He pelted down a set of stairs, then another, and toward the bottom he staggered for just a moment. I jumped at him, planting both feet at the small of his back, bringing him down onto the floor in a heap.

I stumbled off him and leaned against the wall with one hand, panting for breath despite the fact that we couldn’t have run more than a hundred yards.

“Listen up,” I said. “You’re going to come with me to the van. You’re going to play nice, or so help me, I’ll-”

The guy wasn’t moving. I poked him with my toe. No response. I kicked him in the ribs and he wheezed, rolling over onto his back. He was out cold.

I sighed… and set to begin hauling him toward the elevator. A couple of minutes, flights of stairs, and pauses to dry heave later, I opened the back door to the van and pushed the guy inside. Only then did I drop the veil I’d slung over both of us.

Jamal and Sam were both watching me, wide-eyed, as I appeared out of thin air. I closed the doors behind me and leaned back against the car’s inner frame, wiping sweat off my brow.

“I’m going to need a better plan for the next place, I think. Do you guys know any dealers?”

They both gave me a flat look. Woops. Maybe that had been a bit offensive to assume. “I’m sorry, but don’t you know anyone who might know someone?”

Sam winced. “I don’t think this is a great idea.”

“So you do know someone?”

Sam cast a sideways look to his friend.

“Fuck no,” Jamal said. “I don’t wanna talk to that guy. He’s a fucking creep.”

Bingo. “What guy?”

The two of them exchanged an uneasy glance. Sam was the one to finally relent. “A guy we went to high school with. You know the sort - wore camo gear and probably jerked off to guns and ammo. Started off dealing pot, but I think he sells just about anything you can think of now.”

Jamal shook his head. “Fuck sake, man.”

I ignored him.

“I just need a little something,” I said. “Don’t worry. It’s not for me.”

“Who is that guy to you?” Jamal asked. “The crazy wizard guy?”

“Everything.”

A bit cliché, yeah, but I’d be damned if it wasn’t true.

Jamal’s gaze softened. “Fine. I’ll make the call. I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

I hoped so too.

***

We ended up in underpass with a guy dressed in worn clothes wearing flashy looking headphones. He stood leaned back against the concrete wall, hands in his pockets, and watched us come up.

“This better be worth it,” Jamal muttered and then forced some cheer into his voice. “Hey man. Long time no see.”

“Hey Nick. How’ve you been?”

The man, Nick, was a tall, lanky guy. He was good-looking, in a sleazy I-don’t-give-a-shit sort of way.

“Good,” he responded, smiling without any real warmth. “You?”

Jamal shrugged. “Not bad.”

Nick nodded along.“So… Who’s your friend?”

“Nick. This is Molly. Molly, this is Nick. We went to school together.”

He gave me a once-over that lingered way too long. I fought down the creepy, crawly feeling of it. “So… Are you guys looking to party?”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Yeah. I want some roofies.”

Nick’s eyes widened in surprise and he grinned at me. “You? Roofies? Damn. That’s some messed up shit.”

I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand up and the nausea that had mostly faded came back with a vengeance. I tried to keep a straight face. “Uh-huh. Can you get me some?”

“Sure. I’ve got some.” He eyed Sam. “Damn, dude. You’ve really moved up in the world. I thought you’d still be a virgin, but here you are.”

Sam’s cheeks coloured. He spoke through gritted teeth and some heat leaked into his voice. “Here I am.”

“How much for five doses?” I asked.

“Let’s say two hundred bucks. Since we go back.”

I counted out two hundred dollars in cash and handed it over, getting a brown paper bag in return. I looked inside, pretending I knew what I was looking for, and nodded.

I looked around nervously, but couldn’t see any police leaping out of any dark corners to arrest us.

“A pleasure doing business with you,” I said, and if some sarcasm came through, he didn’t spot it.

“Anytime.” He winked at me. “You can come find me anytime.”

I smiled as if I wasn’t fighting down to the urge to throw up again, and walked off. I didn’t trust myself to open my mouth until we were back in the van.

“Do I want to know what he thought I wanted the drugs for?” I asked.

Jamal shook his head. “No you don’t. Trust me.”

“Right. Well, the next place is down by Burnside.” I tried for my deepest, most British accent. “Engage.”

There was a moment of confusion before Jamal turned the keys in the ignition and set off. I was surrounded by heathens.

We circled the block for a little while until I found what I was looking for. A Pizza Hut. I veiled up and snuck inside, trying my hardest to ignore the hungry growls from my stomach, dodging and weaving past the people hard at work. I watched them for a while, waiting for the coast into the personnel room to be clear. Talking. Laughing. Flirting. None of them had any idea what was going on in the shadows of Chicago. If not for what I’d done, maybe I could’ve been here with them, working for a little bit of extra money and learning magic from Harry. Ignorant. Happy. I shook my head. Stupid.

A girl came out of the room and I hurried past her, slipping inside before the door closed. The room beyond was a bit of a mess. Lockers crowded one side, with a few boxes stashed here and there, and a door leading to the bathroom in one corner. I washed off my face and dug through the boxes until I found a uniform, and got into my disguise. It came with a cap, which I gratefully bundled up my none-to-clean hair into. A glance in the mirror told me I looked absolutely ridiculous, but I suppose that’s par for the course. James Bond never had to deal with this kind of crap.

I snuck back out into the restaurant, stealing a few breadsticks to munch on while I waited for a pizza to be left unattended. The girl manning the phone flirted with one of the guys preparing the pizza. I watched their exchange for a while and the guy seemed completely clueless.

Then I got an opening. A customer at the front started complaining about the mushrooms she definitely hadn’t asked for on her pizza, and while everyone watched the exchange I grabbed myself box and two large cups of coke.

Sam and Jamal both snickered when I returned in the outfit, with the food, and settled at the back with the prisoners. I dumped a dose each into the cups and prayed that what I’d been sold wasn’t something more dangerous than advertised. We parked just around the block and I walked up to a run-down house with a chain-link fence around its debris-strewn yard.

I drew a deep breath and knocked. Heart hammering in my chest, I waited… and waited. No response. I knockered again, louder.

I didn’t know what I’d do if nobody was home. I didn’t have any other clues to go on and no time to look. I’d have to settle for the first two and hope they knew-

The door opened and a bleary-eyed man in a pair of jeans and no shirt blinked at the daylight. His chest and arms were covered in crude tattoos. “What’s it?” He asked, voice slurred by a yawn.

“Who is it?” Another voice called from inside.

“Pizza girl,” he shouted back. “Did you order?”

“No!”

I tried to make myself sound as young and as uncertain as I could. “Uh. Did I get the wrong house again? I’m sure the note said this address. I checked and - my boss is going to kill me.”

The guy held up both hands and I shut up. “Hey, hey. Relax.”

He frowned at the pizza, then popped the lid. Pineapple and ham. Great. I should’ve checked what I took. Only a complete monster would eat that.

“You know what, I think I’ll go for some pizza.”

Apparently he was a complete monster. It probably didn’t count as extenuating circumstances, but it was something. I wiped sweat off my brow. “Okay. Uh. Eight bucks. No need for a tip or anything. You really saved my ass here.”

He handed me a ten dollar bill. “Never going to say no to pizza…” He squinted at the nameplate stuck to the breast of my shirt. “Uh. Malcolm. Have a nice day.”

“You too!”

I took his money and handed over the pizza and drinks, then hurried back to the van where it stood parked out of sight. And then we waited. I sat leaned against the car’s frame, watching our two guests. They squirmed and fought against their bonds every so often, but they wouldn’t be going anywhere. The minutes ticked on by and before I knew it, I was asleep.

It didn’t take long for the dreams to find me. In my dreams, I was alone in a dark city, buildings towering above me and stretching all the way up into the sky. Figures moved in the shadows, tall, lanky shapes with pitch black eyes and rubbery skin. They hissed and snarled to one another in an alien tongue, and ever so slowly they closed the circle.

There were hands reaching for me, and I tried to run, but I kept on falling over. I felt them pulling at the fabric of my sanity, tearing and raking. I kicked and thrashed, tried to get up, but I just kept falling and they began to pull me in. I had to get away. I had to-

A woman appeared, tall and gorgeous, but with eyes that were bulging, black and empty. She raised a spear of pure crystalline ice above her head and smiled at me, baring rows upon rows of serrated teeth. Then she thrust the spear into my chest.

I woke up screaming.

I was sitting in the din, somewhere uncomfortable and hard. I could smell petrol, oil and body odour. There were two men in front of me. Rough-looking, guys, tied up, their mouths taped over. They looked at me with frightened, furtive eyes. The darkness began to creep in.

I was in a car - what car? Where was I? A young dark-skinned man coming over from the front seat of the van, eyes wide with fright and confusion, hands held out.

Where was Harry?

“Be quiet!” someone hissed, sounding close to panic. “Christ. If anyone comes in to check we’re fucked.”

“Hey,” said the young man, his voice soft and careful, talking to me like I was a spooked animal or a crazy person. “Holy shit. Are you okay?”

I blinked at the vaguely familiar face. No. I wasn’t okay. I was lost in a storm of memories, real and imagined, and I needed something to hold on to. I needed Harry.

It dawned on me slowly. He wasn’t here. It was just me and nobody else.

I choked down a sob and clenched my hands into fists. I needed to get my shit together. If I ever wanted to see Harry again, I needed to do it right the hell now.

I focused on my breathing. In and out. I did that until it came out slow and deep. Until my heart wasn’t pounding like I’d run a marathon. The world came back into focus again.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” I asked.

He frowned at the sudden turn. “You looked dead on your feet. I figured a few minutes couldn’t hurt.”

I grit my teeth. Every minute lost meant it was more likely they’d killed him. “How long?”

“Maybe thirty minutes or something. We had to wait anyways, for the stuff to take effect, you know?”

I nodded grudgingly. He was right. That had been the plan all along. I hadn’t lost much time.

“Fine. Thanks.”

He nodded and smiled awkwardly. “So… Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“You shouted in your sleep. You said things. A lot of it didn’t make any sense, but-”

“Don’t try to make sense of it,” I said. “You don’t wanna know about that stuff.”

I pushed myself to my feet and grabbed Harry’s coat from off the floor where I’d left it, wrapping it around myself. The weight and scent of it was comforting and I gave myself a few more moments.

“I’ll go on ahead first,” I said. “Drive the car up to the house. Honk twice if something happens.”

Sam and Jamal nodded, and I hopped out of the van and headed back to the little house under the cover of my veil.

I knocked once - waited - and then knocked again. Nothing. I tried the door. Locked. Well, crap. For some reason I hadn’t thought of that in my genius plan. Worst case scenario I’d just have to break and enter.

I checked up the potted plant, under the ‘welcome home’ rug. No spare keys. I circled the house, spotting a few bricks laying about that I might be able to use, but one of the back windows was open. I squeezed through it, losing my balance toward the end and crashing straight into a pile of discarded pizza boxes. It made one hell of a racket and I crawled across surprisingly clean floors and pressed my back against a cupboard. There was a threshold around this home - a solid one at that. My magic would be useless here.

I listened for a minute, waiting for someone to cock back the hammer or a gun or to pop around the corner with a baseball bat. Nothing. A tv was on some sports station.

I peered around the corner. One man lay on the sofa, another on the floor, both out cold, snoring and drooling. I approached carefully and poked one with my sneaker. No response.
Four out of four. Now all I could do was hope they knew what I needed from them.

We took them to a construction project far out of sight of any prying eyes… And then I got to work.

***

Prison tattoos’ gaze kept flicking from mine to the place where the long, slender arms swayed through the night air like seaweeds in the current. I snapped my fingers in front of his face.

He blinked, dazed. “What? Who?”

I hadn’t planned to hit him, but before I’d even considered it, I’d cracked my knuckles against his stupid face. “Harry Dresden. You and your friends here took him. Where is he!?”

“I don’t know any Dresden, I swear,” he said, his voice a soft whimper. “They just told me to get him. I never even knew who he was!”

“Who told you?!”

I was losing control. I knew it, but I couldn’t stop it. I wanted to hurt him.

“He’ll kill me if I tell. Please. You have to understand. He’ll kill me.”

I grabbed his chair and turned it fully against the horror occupying the hallway. Then I bent down to whisper in his ear. “He might kill you… But be honest with me, here. Isn’t that better than what I’ll be doing to you very soon if you don’t talk? Or do you want to go out like poor Kevin?”

I turned the chair back so that the monster was only just in his peripheral vision. I could find out whether or not he wanted me to. I could tear through his worthless little mind and pluck out everything I needed. I could bend it. I could break it. There was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

I reached over and undid the gag of guy number three, Prison Tattoos’ roommate. “What do you say? Do you have anything to share in case your friend here doesn’t?”

He swallowed and licked his lips. “Yeah. Let the guy go. I’ll talk.”

I walked over to him instead. “What’s your name?”

“Joe.”

“Joe. Why won’t you tell me what you know? I’m on the clock here and I think it’d be a shame if I had to try to encourage you to hurry up.”

“Sure, sure. I’ll talk. Take it easy. You don’t have to hurt anyone.”

I watched him for a few seconds. “We’ll see. Go ahead. Talk.”

“Kevin got stupid,” he said. “I told him to just leave it be, but he told Tyrone about what happened. Told them that wizard guy - Dresden - was after him. So Tyrone told us to grab him. He’s keeping him down in an abandoned building his gang uses sometimes.”

I felt hope flare somewhere in my chest, warmth spreading throughout my limbs. “Alive?”

“Yeah. I think so. He wanted to know something, but your guy wouldn’t talk.”

Sounded like Harry alright. Stubborn to the end. The question was how long they’d be content to beat him. I didn’t think he’d break… So what if they got bored and killed him?

“What do they want with him?”

The guy looked uneasy. “Tyrone and his buddy James cooked up something new. I don’t know where they got the recipe, but it got people hooked hard. I’ve never seen anything like it. Things started going wrong after a while. People died… And they didn’t just die.” He swallowed thickly. “Tyrone and James fought… And I don’t know what happened, but we never saw James again. He must’ve been the one with the recipe, because we didn’t have much left after that. Maybe Dresden knows something about it.”

Shit. It wasn’t a recipe that they needed Harry for. The drug, whatever it was, came from Outside. It was harder to reach out to something there than just contacting a demon, even with a name. Maybe Tyrone wasn’t strong enough to get enough of… whatever it was they needed to make the drug. Harry, though. Harry could help him with that. Hell, Harry could probably rip a hole in the fabric of reality and have the creature pop in for a visit.

I hoped I wasn’t too late.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m going to call the police and have them set you guys free.”

I left the three of them sitting there and walked straight through the illusion of the monstrous entity from beyond our reality that I’d filled up the hallway with. Sam and Jamal waited outside with Kevin, who they’d grabbed from under a veil and carried off.

They stepped apart the moment they noticed me and I was pretty sure I’d arrived in the middle of an argument. I eyed them in turn. “So…”

Jamal glared. “Is that all you’re going to say? What the fuck is this?”

“Interrogation. What did you think it was going to be?”

“Not that! Whatever the fuck you just did, I didn’t think it’d be that. Look at these guys. I know they’re a bunch of assholes, but they didn’t deserve this.”

“It’s not about what they deserve,” I said quietly. “It’s about what I have to do.”

Sam was pale and his hands were shaking. “I get that you’re trying to save your… whatever he is to you… We want to help, but this is too much.”

“We’re done,” Jamal said. “Seriously. This is some fucked up shit, and we’re done.”

“Fine.” I grabbed the remaining thousand dollars I’d promised them, shoved them at Sam’s chest, and walked on by without another word.

I collected my things from the van and then I went to a payphone and got myself a cab. While I waited, I called the cops about the dealers I’d left tied up. I rode to within a few blocks of the address I’d been given and veiled up.

The building was an old warehouse, by the looks of things, two stories high and it had probably been abandoned for a while.

I approached carefully, the way Harry had taught me, senses extended for any magical traps or nets to warn of my approach. There weren’t any, and I felt anticipation and fear rising in equal measure as I snuck inside the the old warehouse. A few people loitered inside, most of them young, most of them probably homeless.

I ignored them and went on by, up a set of concrete stairs to the second floor. I wasn’t sure what they’d been stowing away here back when the building was in use, but there was a big security door ahead. Seemed like the kind of place one might hide a hostage in case there were upset friends coming on by. The people I’d snuck by were probably sentries.

Right in the middle of the room, I could see Harry. He was tied to a chair and looked like he was unconscious, head lolled to one side.

I had to force myself to remain calm. It looked clear, but that didn’t mean it was. Harry might be bait. I moved up to the door slowly, peering inside, and saw nothing. Explore the room first, I told myself.. Check every nook and cranny before you go for Harry. It just takes one idiot with a gun.

I stepped into the dark. Something crunched under my sneaker. There were glass shards all over the floor where I stood. Shit.

I threw myself to the side.

“Now!”

The door slammed shut behind me.

“Get her!”

A gun roared. Something whipped past me and tugged hard at the coat. I rolled through glass and would’ve torn myself to shreds if it wasn’t for the spell-protected leather. I kept moving, trying my best to stay quiet, and came to a halt behind a pillar, pressing myself against the solid concrete.

I could hear movement everywhere, people moving, whispers. Someone flipped the light switch and for a moment, it was nearly blinding. I squeezed my eyes shut, foused, and muttered. “Hexus!”

The lights above fluttered and then died out.

“Get the candles,” someone hissed under their breath.

Lights re-appeared, tiny little pinpricks of illumination, and I could see another young man scatter a bag of flour in a wide arc through the empty air. They were prepared for me. They knew they were dealing with a wizard and they knew what I could do. A small part of me argued for grabbing Harry, pulling him under my veil, and trying for the door. But it wouldn’t work. Even if Harry had been awake, in fighting shape, and ready to go, that would’ve been a poor bet. I needed to clear the room first.

I gathered my will and dark, sinister shapes drawn from my worst nightmares grew out of the shadowy corners. They prowled the edge of the room, only barely visible, footlong tongues lolling out, fangs gleaming with fresh blood in the candlelight.

“It’s not real,” someone hissed from over near Harry. “Whatever she makes you hear or see or feel, it’s not real. Ignore it and find her!”

He seemed to know about magic and what I could do. This had to be Tyrone.

People moved around me, arms fanning out, and I looked down at the floor. I’d nicked something on a piece of glass and the trail of scarlet droplets led straight for me. I pulled the bleeding hand up into my sleeve and moved a few steps as quietly as I could.

This little game of hide and seek wasn’t going to last long. The room wasn’t big and there were several of them. Sooner or later, I’d be found.

If fear didn’t work, I’d have to settle for pain. I pushed my emotions outwards into the room. My aching feet, my bleeding hand, the beginning of a headache forming behind my eyes. I added the exhaustion, the despair I felt at the idea of failing. I saw several of them stop in their tracks. One kid, probably only fifteen, grabbed on to one of the concrete pillars for support. In the middle of the group, armed with a wicked looking curved knife, a young man narrowed his eyes.

“It’s just a trick,” Tyrone said. “She’s pushing things on you. You’re not tired. You’re not scared. You’re going to find her and then we’re all going to teach her a lesson together about not fucking with us.”

Their resolve seemed to firm up again and I circled the pillar, pressing my back up against it and closing my eyes for a moment. There had to be a way. There was always a way. I just had to be smart enough to think of it.

“Do you hear that, Dresden?” the man said. “We’re going to find her and hurt her until you tell us what we need to know.”

My heart sank. Harry wasn’t going to let them hurt me if he could help it. He’d happily martyr himself, but not anyone else. He’d tell them what they needed and once he’d done that, we’d be dead or hoping we’d die.

I would not let that happen.

Footsteps drew nearer. I slipped my hand inside the coat and pulled out my knife.

The kid came around the corner, one hand slowly fanning through empty air. He was way too young to be here, but he was still armed with a telescopic baton and firmly in the way of me getting Harry out of here.

I tightening my grip on the knife, stepped inside of his reach, and slammed the blade into his throat all the way to the hilt. His eyes widened in shock… And then there was blood everywhere. It covered my hands, hot and stick, and when I pulled the knife out I felt more spatter across my face.

The kid made a sound like someone getting the wind knocked out of them, then gagged and rasped helplessly for breath. For a few seconds, his eyes were everywhere, looking for me or for help. Then they grew vague and glassy. His balance faltered and he fell to the floor into the growing patch of scarlett. I could feel his confusion and his fear. They poured off him as if he was screaming.

Another guy, this one maybe a few years older, came running over. He fell to his knees in front of the kid, trying desperate to stop the bleeding. I slipped back into the shadows, listening to him pleading with the kid to hold on. He kept begging even as the kid stopped breathing.

I fell back into the darkness, fingers clutched hard on the slick grip of the knife. I was going to have to do this six more times…

I’d woken up in the hospital and at first I hadn’t remembered how I’d gotten there. Harry had been sitting by my bedside, looking like he hadn’t shaved or eaten properly for about a week. He’d straightened in his seat and smiled at me. It had taken a while for me to get my head back in order. It was all a blurry chaotic mess, but piece by piece, I put it all back together. Brazil. Nicodemus. The Red Court. The Outsider. Fleeing across the city. The icy spear hitting me. The pain. The fear. The cold. I’d been dying… And now, here I was. It wasn’t possible, and yet...

Harry had walked up to me, up to my bedside, and had taken my hand in his. I wish I could say I’d had something witty to say, but just seeing him was enough for me to break down and cry like a stupid kid.

“Hey.” He’d said quietly.

“Hi.” It hurt to talk. It hurt a lot, but there was something I needed to know. “What did it cost?”

Harry bent over me and kissed my forehead. “You should get some rest.”

A sizeable part of me voted in favour of that motion. I could barely keep my eyes open. But I didn’t miss the fact that he ignored my question. I squeezed his hand, fighting down the exhaustion.

“Saving me. What did it cost?”

Harry hesitated a moment. “Nothing I wasn’t ready to pay.”

I moved closer to Harry. Close enough to see his injuries even in the flickering candlelight. They’d beaten him. One eye was swollen shut. His lip was split. Someone had taken a knife to him, at one point. I looked at him. Really looked. Committed every bruise, every cut, every single injury to memory.

I let the anger that had been boiling through me all day off the leash. I let it turn into hate. I let it suffuse me, give me strength and resolve where I lacked either. This was the price that had to be paid. I was ready to pay it.

“Get the fucking guy,” someone hissed from the shadows. “She’s here for him, right? So fucking get him and make her come out-”

I took him at a run. He was scrawny and I hit him hard and low, leading with the knife. I bowled him over and plunged the blade into his gut, yanked it out, and hit him again, and again, and again, staring into his wide, uncomprehending eyes as the shock took hold.

There was a shout and I turned in time for two more people to pile on top of me. The knife skittered across the concrete, out into the darkness and far beyond my reach. Everything devolve into a chaotic mess of limbs. Fingers closed around my arm and pinned it down to the cold concrete. Someone tugged at my shirt and I kicked and thrashed, managing to keep my other hand free.

“Keep her down!” Tyrone shouted. “Don’t let her veil!”

I slammed my fist into my assailants stomach. He wheezed, but didn’t budge, fumbling around in the dark to grab on to me. I closed my fingers around his wrist and squeezed, muttering a word under my breath as I did.

I might not have Harry’s raw strength in terms of magic. He’d be able to burn this entire building down, smash the walls into powder. Stop bullets cold. I couldn’t do any of those things. But I had one trick.

Heat flared from my palms and the air filled with the smell of burnt meat. The guy on top of me screamed as the equivalent of a ripping hot skillet pressed to his skin and he scrambled backwards, kicking and thrashing. I pulled hard and managed to wrest my arm out of the other guy’s grip, rolling along the floor and through the spreading pool of scarlett before scrambling to my feet once more.

“No!” Tyrone called. “Don’t let her get away!”

I pulled the shadows in around me once more and vanished out of sight, putting one of the pillars between me and everyone else. The knife lay in one corner and I snagged it before anyone else could find it.

The room was descending into chaos. People were shouting. My heartbeat pounded in my ears.

“Last chance,” I said, and my voice came out sounding cold and hollow.. “You leave now or you never leave at all.”

I moved a little closer and it struck me just how young they all were. With the exception of the leader, I was pretty sure none of them were allowed to buy their own alcohol. Their eyes were darting frantically across the darkness.

“Don’t move,” Tyrone hissed. “Don’t you fucking move.”

“Fuck this,” someone snapped back.

I saw a flash of something silvery and threw myself behind a pillar a moment before the gun roared. It was unbelievably loud and I winced as my ears rung and my headache flared back up.

“Stop fucking shooting!”

They were panicking. I just need to give them a nudge.

I hissed a word under my breath and a light gust blew through the room, stirring the dust and extinguishing the candles, leaving us in total darkness. Next, I sent the illusory sound of slow, careful footsteps crunching lightly over shards of glass next to where I’d seen one of them hiding.

Tyrone must’ve figured out what I was doing, because he shouted. “No - Don’t!”, but it was too late. A gun went off, then another, and I stuck my fingers into my ears and prayed I hadn’t just gotten Harry killed. People shouted. Someone cried out in pain. The guns clicked several times on an empty barrel.

The moment they’d gone silent, I moved, slipping along one of the walls with nothing but my hands for guidance. Then I whispered the words of the first spell Harry had ever taught me.

“Flickum bickus.”

Light flared to life at each of the candles, bright little pinpricks that stung my eyes, and revealed one of the shooters dead ahead. He blinked when he saw me, and I realised my veil must’ve shattered when I cast the other spell.

He raised his hands like he meant to fight me. Here’s the thing. In the movies, James Bond or Jason Bourne might fight some guy with a knife and disarm them. In real life, any martial artist you’ll ask (or at least Murphy when I did) is going to tell you that if you’ve got any other option when someone comes at you with a knife, you run.

I didn’t slow down or try anything fancy. I feinted low and then slashed up, and more hot droplets of blood spattered the walls and floors when the knife bit into his wrist. I pulled back for some more room, and he tried to follow, and I jammed the knife into his thigh. I must’ve caught something bad - maybe even the artery - because blood began to spurt out at an alarming rate the moment I withdrew the blade. I hopped back and out of the way just in case he had enough fight in him to lunge for me. He didn’t, but his buddy did, and he ended up with nothing but a handful of my shirt. He yanked me closer with one hand, managing to grab hold of my wrist. He squeezed hard and the knife clattered to the floor.

The years of self-defense training my mom had put me through must’ve kicked in, because I raked him across the eyes. He grunted and caught my other arm, too. So I kicked him in the groin. He wheezed and his grip on me slackened. I tore free and kicked at his knee. Something cracked audibly and he howled in pain and crumbled to the ground.

Just a few more, I told myself. Just a few more and you’re done.

I picked up the knife, crawled across glass and wreckage to where he lay gasping on his back… and then I slit his throat.

I kept moving. I knew that if I stopped I’d break down and I couldn’t. Not yet. So I stepped into the center of the room and found Tyrone standing behind Harry with the gleaming blade to his throat.

I looked around. There was supposed to be one more, right?

And there had been. He lay dead next to one of the pillars, eyes blank and glassy, and with a hole the size of a fist at one temple where the bullet had gone out.

“Not one step closer,” Tyrone warned me. Despite everything, he almost sounded calm.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the blade he held to Harry’s throat. I very carefully didn’t move. “If you kill him you know I won’t let you go,” I said.

“I’m fucked, either way,” he said. “Either you kill me, or It kills me. Pretty sure I’d rather it be you.”

“It?”

He glanced at the shadows as if I wasn’t the one one who’d been hiding there. I extended my senses, but found nothing. Just death and fear.

“The thing - the demon, whatever the fuck it is. This guy told us about it, right? We thought he was full of shit, but we figured, why not?” He shook his head. “It taught us to make the drugs, but it wanted more. Wanted us to make more and more, and when we couldn’t…”

He shuddered and broke off. “James didn’t want to do it anymore. He got spooked, but I needed him-” He shook his head. “I didn’t have a choice. Still don’t.”

His grip on the knife tightened. He wasn’t going to give Harry back. He needed him. He’d killed his partner and now he needed someone else to help him to get into contact with the demon. My dad might have found a way to talk to him. He might have been able to get him to see that there was another way, but I wasn’t my dad, either.

Just one more, I told myself. Just one more. Harry’s right there. He’s safe and if you take care of just one more, he’ll stay safe. Just one more.

I shaped the will I’d drawn in and sent it toward Tyrone, meeting his eyes as I did. Our eyes locked and I pushed thoughts, ideas and feelings into his head. Guilt for what he’d done. It was already there, so I amped it up, made it the most important feeling.

“It’s all your fault,” I whispered. “There’s only one way out of this and you know that, don’t you?”

I could see him nod to himself as the idea took hold. The knife left a light scrape on Harry’s throat, and then Tyrone held it up in front of him. He stared at the blade for a few moments, almost in fascination. Then he turned it around, grabbed it with both hands, and slammed it into his own stomach. He twisted it, then dragged it up with a vicious tug. He tumbled to the floor along with his innards.

I used the knife one last time to cut Harry’s bonds. He blinked at me with his one good eye, but couldn’t focus properly.

“Hey Grasshopper.”

I squeezed my eyes shut for a few moments. I didn’t want to cry. I couldn’t. Not yet. I had to stay in control. Just for a little while longer.

“Can you stand?”

He managed something like a grin. His teeth were stained with blood and it made for a macabre expression. “No clue. Haven’t tried for a while.”

I tried to force some cheer into my voice. Maybe - just maybe - he wouldn’t remember this. Wouldn’t remember what I’d done. “You’d better or I’ll be making fun of how old you’re getting. Twice a day. At least.”

I slipped an arm underneath his and together, we made our way out of the derelict building and back to the streets of Chicago.

***

Harry barely spoke on the way back to the hotel and when he did, it was all unintelligible mumbles. He managed to walk, but only barely, and my shoulders and legs burned with exhaustion by the time I closed the door behind us.

We raided the bar for water. I hesitated for a moment at the doorway to the bathroom. I’d made a mistake back in Brazil. I didn’t want to make that mistake again or make him think I was about to… But I couldn’t exactly let Harry walk in there and brain himself on the floor when he fell over, either. Judging by the way he still wobbled precariously in place, he probably would. So I followed him and stripped. He grumbled a little in protest when I brushed aside his fingers from the buttons of his shirt and took over. There were a lot of scars. I’d always catalogued them greedily at every chance, fantasized about drawing my fingers along each and every one… Along with a few other things. Now he’d probably have a few more added to his collection. At least the injuries weren't bad. Superficial cuts. I didn’t think any would need stitches.

We stepped under the spray and the water turned red, then pink, but even when it ran clear I didn’t feel clean. I could feel the hot spatter of blood hit my face, feel it sticking to my hands.

I closed my eyes and went through Harry’s focus exercises, hands clenched into fists, and managed to get hold of my emotions. I could feel the weight of it all pressing down on my shoulders and I knew that, eventually, my knees would buckle. But not yet.

We moved over to the bathtub and I let the water run hot. I helped Harry move in first and settled behind him, wrapping my arms and legs around him, and pulled him close.

I might not know much about medicine, or anything about healing magic, but boobs are their own kind of healing magic.

I ran my hand along his scalp and Harry sighed tiredly, leaning back against me. For a little while, we sat there in silence as the bathtub filled up.

“Are you okay, Grasshopper?”

It came out rough and raw, as if every single word hurt, but it was the first thing he’d asked. Even with everything that had happened to him over the past twenty-four hours, his first concern was if I was okay. I didn’t know I could fall any harder, but there you go. My heart twisted and something inside me cracked and shattered. I tears ran down my cheeks. I tightened my hold on him, to remind myself he was real and here and safe, and so that he wouldn’t see me cry.

“I’m fine. Are - Are you?”

He coughed and it sounded like it hurt. “Had better days.”

“I bet you still feel better than when you had the flu.”

Something wry touched his voice. “I thought we agreed we’d never speak of that.”

I kissed his shoulder. “And I thought I said I made no promises.”

He took my hand and squeezed gently. “How did you get me out?”

I felt every fiber of my being tense.. “I-” I felt the blood on my skin. Hot. Sticky. I fought down a shudder. Harry couldn’t ever know what I’d done. If he did, we’d be done.

“Magic, duh,” I said.

“Ah.”

He was quiet for a while and I was beginning to wonder if he’d fallen asleep when he finally spoke again. “You did well, Molly. Thank you.”

I didn’t dare to talk. I didn’t trust my voice. So I just nodded and leaned my head forward, settling my chin on his shoulder, enjoying the stubble on his cheek against my skin. A few more minutes went by. The water began to get lukewarm. Harry slowly made his way of of my arms and I rose with him just to be ready in case he slipped. He moved sluggishly, but was smart enough to be careful, at least.

I went ahead and fetched the towels and found him watching me when I came back. His eyes dipped and I felt heat blossom low in my stomach. My heart began to beat a little quicker.

I looked up at him and he didn’t look away. I hesitated for a moment, then I took a careful step forward and wrapped my arms around his waist. I pressed in close, and shivered a little when I felt him respond - felt him get hard against my stomach.

It was just a physical response. I knew that. The look was the same as he’d given me - before and after Rio. They didn’t necessarily mean anything. Nor did… That. I’d promised myself not to push him again, like I had then. Even with every fibre of my being screaming at me to seize this opportunity for a distraction, something that’d make me feel safe and loved, I forced myself to remember that promise. To wait.

Oh, I flirted with him and tested the waters. It was nice. It let me feel like maybe, just maybe, we were something a little more than just friends. Let me pretend, for a little while, that we might become more. They were silly fantasies, but we need those, sometimes.

Harry’s eyes drifted down along my body again, lingering on each bruise. There were several along my back, arms and hips, where bullets had caught me. He traced each gently in turn, catching my gaze every so often to gauge my reaction.

“Is this okay?” he asked.

I nodded eagerly.

He reached out for me, gently stroking some of my hair away from where it had fallen across my eyes. He caressed my cheek and my eyes drifted shut until he nudged my chin up gently. I found him close, looking me in the eye, bruised lips slightly parted.

“Please,” I whispered, voice hoarse with need.

He kissed me and all the pain, all the guilt, all the horror, it all washed away.

***

I woke to the sound of frantic knocking and almost fell out of the frickin’ bed in my hurry to get to cover. Harry was up, crouched, hand raised in a warding gesture.

“Open the door,” hissed a familiar voice.

Harry didn’t hesitate. He went to the door and swung it open, revealing a pale dark-haired man with gray eyes. Clinging to his side was the pretty white-haired secretary that I’d seen at Lara’s headquarters. Harry had told me about them. His brother Thomas and his girlfriend Justine.

“What the hell, Thomas?” Harry asked. “What’s going on?”

Thomas ignored him until he’d helped Justine inside. One of her legs seemed to be broken. He closed the door, then turned to face Harry again.

“There was an attack. The White Court is gone.”