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Dry Bones Can Harm No One

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When Toot-toot found me, I was up to my knees in snow, wrangling slate onto the roof of an outbuilding next to Demonreach's old lighthouse. The snow whirling against my skin and melting into my socks was chilly, distantly, but it didn't hurt. My current day job gave me some immunity from the cold, from the elements.

Mab wasn't the Queen of Air and Misplaced Hammers, though, and when I blinked against a swirl of snow, missed the steel nail and caught my thumb square on my own, it hurt in a very real and present way. I swore and shook my hand out, trying to flap away the throbbing pain, and swore again in surprise when a tiny figure appeared out of the blizzard in front of me.

Toot watched with interest as I reacted gracefully to his sudden appearance by jerking backwards, toppling off the roof, and dropping four feet into a snowdrift that swallowed me completely. He landed lightly on the edge of the roof, gave a tiny scowl of concentration, and executed a perfect swan dive that turned into a belly-flop halfway down.

There was a puff of displaced snowflakes, and an exact, fairy-shaped hole; Toot's head popped out of it, wearing a fetching bouffant of snow. "Za Lord!" he saluted.

"Hi, Toot-toot," I said, frowning. "What brings you out here?" I wasn't mad at him or anything, but last I knew, I'd asked him to stay watching over... ...some stupid place where some stupid guy I wasn't speaking to lived. Also known as Chicago's largest human stronghold, Baron Marcone's Fort. And Toot takes his obedience to me pretty seriously.

"You told me to tell you if something weird happened! Sir!" He saluted again, knocking off a bit of his snow-do. "Something weird happened! Sir!"

"Such as?"

"The Sheriff Errant visited! She was really angry!"

My eyebrows rose. "Murph went to the-- Murph visited? Voluntarily?" It wasn't that she'd never gone there before; she stopped by now and then. But the world usually had to be ending. Again. Or she was visiting Luccio, and she wasn’t angry for those visits. Or she really needed a place to crash, and could avoid... ...that asshole jerkface we know.

"She was looking for you!"

I tried to man up. "Is she still there?"

"Nope! I told her where you were! She's coming to meet you! She left right away!"

"In this weather!?" ...and because I was the worst friend in the world, I was at least relieved that I wasn't going to have to go pick her up at the Fort. The snow was bad on Demonreach this winter; the snow was bad everywhere I’d been this winter-- well, everywhere that got snow. It was a good thing, I knew, but a stark change to the dry, droughty stretch the world had been trapped in almost since the sky had first blacked out.

"Do you want to go see her?"

"Yeah. Now." I could feel the hammer lying on the ground a few feet away, at the bottom of a chest-high drift. I left it. It wasn't like I couldn't find it later. And the hammer, unlike Murph, wasn't going to get frostbite. I ripped a hole in the Nevernever; it would lead through the island’s presence on the other side of the mortal line, and from there come out near my Hold in Winter. Once in Winter, there where paths that could get me almost anywhere in Chicago, anywhere in the mortal realm. "Mouse!" I yelled, and a snow bank a few feet away stood up, shook, and bounded through the hole in the air. Toot-toot hung back.

"Za Lord?" He said, worried sounding. "We're... not going by the Manitou, are we?"

"The wha-?"

"The Wind Walker? The flesh eater?"

I twigged-- there was a Winter fae, a wendigo-weetigo-whateveryoucallito that lived near my hold; our route would go past his territory. "Danny?" I waved the little fairy to follow me. "Danny's not so bad. We have a truce." We'd been down right neighborly ever since I solved a disagreement with a rock giant for him, right before the last time I'd set foot in That Stupid Place (it was for my day job, okay?). He even stopped by for tea and a chat once, somehow compacting his bony-- literally-- two-story tall form until it fit inside my hamster tube of a fallen tower. "Besides, he's been away for a couple of months." ...Had it really been that long? I felt a little small and cold suddenly-- and it wasn't just the snow melting into my socks.

"You're sure?" Toot zipped close, peeking out from behind my shoulder.

"Yeah. I'm sure."

 

As promised, no great white northern monsters blocked our way, and soon we were jogging through a crisp Winter's night-- me and Mouse were jogging, anyway, Toot was zipping forward and back, waiting for us to catch up and then darting ahead again until we reached the gateway out of the Nevernever.

We came out into darkness. It'd been evening when Toot had found me; now it was full night, still snowing. In Faerie we'd had the moon to navigate by-- stepping into the mortal world was like suddenly plunging underground. The only light source was Toot-toot's natural glow and a trickle of light from my pentacle: they were painfully bright in contrast with the black and the silently falling snow. Visibility was crap; I could see far enough to not trip over anything too obvious, and that was about it. Toot-toot, though, knew where he was going. Mouse and I slogged behind him. We were walking along what looked to have been a freeway; abandoned cars squatted like hibernating animals under a covering of snow, and at one point I tripped over something that clanged. Blowing off the snow, I saw the rusty remnants of a sign that promised a McDonalds and a Denny's off the next exit.

After a while Toot led us off the cracked pavement and onto dirt, and Mouse and I slipped and clambered down a hill towards a dark spot on the dark horizon. As we drew closer, it slowly took shape and became a little cluster of gutted buildings. The snow and drifts weren't as deep here, but it was still coming down hard, the flakes small and wet. I was pretty soggy when we finally saw the dim light of a fire.

The convenience store's big plate glass windows were just metal shells now; it had been looted, years ago, and nobody had bothered to try to patch it up. There were pine branches and random junk stacked over the worst of the breaks, freshly moved, with enough of a hole to let the smoke out. Inside were barren shelves, trash, and two cloth lumps sleeping next to a small, well-constructed fire.

The nearer, larger lump lifted its head and glared at me, one bar-pupiled eye gleaming balefully in the light of my pentacle.

Mouse growled low in his throat, and the big... I squinted... sheep? subsided.

The smaller lump of cloth sprouted a gun barrel.

"Step into the firelight, pal," Murphy said, her voice sleep-husky and still iron.

"Murph. Pax. I didn't mean what I said about the apocalypse making your butt look big." I stepped in, hands up. Toot hid behind my shoulder, staring at Murph over my left ear. It didn’t really hide him, he’s too big for that, especially with the way he glows, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.

She snorted a laugh and tucked the gun back under her pillow. "Speak of the camp wench."

"Toot said you were looking for me."

"...So you came out after sunset in this weather. Oh, wow, Harry. Never change." She peered at me. "Are you wearing shorts?"

I looked down. "Um."

"That's disgusting. I'm going back to sleep."

"Murph! I was worried about you!"

"Because I'm the one who goes out in the middle of the night badly dressed and has no wilderness survival skills." She grunted. "We'll talk in the morning. Pull up a stack of newspapers." She snuggled back down into her fur-lined bedroll, yanking it over her face.

Mouse dropped down next to the sheep, friction apparently forgotten, rooting with his nose until he was partially under the sheep's bedroll, and I sighed and sat down next to them.

Toot poked his head up from over the ridge of my shoulder as soon as Murphy seemed to be asleep, his Ken-doll sized nightlight impression not denting her ability to drop off whenever and wherever she needed to. His wings buzzed a comfortable white noise in my ear as he hoisted himself up, little hands braced against my shoulder, little feet against my shoulder blade, "Za Lord! Shall I return to the Fort?"

My mouth jerked down at one side. "Yeah. ...Keep an eye on it. Well done, Toot. Battlefield commendation for quick thinking."

"Sir!"

He zipped out, and I lay down, leaning on Mouse. I didn't mean to sleep, but the da... um... days? Two days? When had I last slept? Mouse was already snoring, and I meant to keep an eye on the door, but...

 

I woke up to the smell of something herbal. Murphy had a little camp pot slung over the new-built fire, and was stewing something wheaty.

"Tea?" Murphy grunted. It was her before-coffee voice. The knowledge that there was no coffee to get her back to humanity was a little scary. All she had was bitter tea in a couple of tin cups. She pushed one at me, and I swigged-and-winced.

Mouse shoved up from under my arm to go out for a pit stop-- the big sheep from last night came trotting back in to take his place, folding up primly and polishing one of his massive, curling horns against an empty merchandise rack.

"So. Weird silence about you at the Fort. Do I get to know what's up with that?" Murphy stirred the pot; took a drink of tea and grimaced.

"No." I sipped my tea again, made a face. "Do I get to know why you have a pet sheep?"

"No."

"See? That's why our friendship works. Communication."

She snorted and stirred the camp pot again, the scrape of metal on metal and the stink of smoke familiar and oddly comforting. "Yeah. Communication. You'd warn me if the Wild Hunt had declared Human Season, right?"

"What?" Okay. Too early. I reached for the tea once more, swigged it all down-- glagggh aagh bitter-- and reconsidered her question, how the conversation had come to that point. "What?"

"Wisconsin, northwest. There have been raids this winter, escalating. Whatever's doing it is strong enough to get past thresholds and the standard defenses: garlic isn't working, holy water isn't working, they bust right through salt circles. It's leaving the victims gutted and skinned like deer when it's leaving them at all."

I stared at her, horrified. Murph had been Chicago PD before the Darkness fell: first an officer on the street, then Special Investigations, facing the homicides so strange that Homicide wouldn't take them. She'd developed a cast-iron stomach for murder scenes. Me? I wanted to hurl just hearing the description.

"The Hunt doesn't do raids. They're a hunt. I mean, the Erlking could break a threshold, but it's cheating," I said, trying to shake the image of what Murphy was describing. The Wild Hunt isn't pretty, but it wasn't that kind of horrible. There wasn't anything safe these days, but people's homes, they were the closest things to it. For something to waltz in and do what Murphy was saying... "It could be a Rawhead and Bloody Bones, or ghouls, but..."

"But they can't break a threshold like that. And the survivors-- they couldn't see much. The attackers were covered up, hands and faces. But these things moved like humans."

That could have been Black Court Vampires-- but garlic would have driven them off, as would the rest of the normal battery of supernatural defenses. For one to make it past everything... it would have to be one hell of a strong or crafty Blampire. And since the mad buffet of the first years of Darkness had died out (I see your gallows humor and raise you one apocalypse), the Black Court were starving. Those humans that had survived, they'd learned fast about garlic and holy water and faith objects. A starving vamp was not a crafty or logical one. The Blamps could have used a Renfield, a lobotomized human slave, to break through the supernatural barriers-- except that as humans had learned about them and strengthened up, they'd slowly turned on their pet killers.

In Chicago, the vampires had fought hard a few years ago, a long drawn out stretch of constant attacks on settlements and homesteads, sometimes with remarkable foresight for all they were starving and angry, other times as scourges of hungry, mindless monsters. It had been similar in most of the other settlements I visited, or that we got news from. But in the end, there were more humans remaining than vamps, and spotting a Renfield was a rarity. One of Marcone's combat wizards had taken out a big chunk of the local non-eaten Renfields near the end of the struggles, and the Wardens had been taking them down whenever they found them. I couldn't see many Blamps these days having the patience to break and turn a servant when the alternative was a full meal. Kind of a 'give a man a fish, teach a fish to slaughter other fish for you' thing, but like I said, they were thinking with their stomachs these days.

“And it’s eating. All of them?” Some spirits and fae are very specific about what part of a human they go after. Kelpies and Nixies eat everything but the liver-- too much iron, I guess -- whereas other things eat nothing but. Murph and I both knew about that one, about as first-hand as we could with our chest cavities still intact.

She nodded. “I checked,” she said grimly. “Just in case.”

"Then I don't know," I had to admit. ...Bob would probably know. I wasn't going to go ask Bob. He was at the Stupid Place with the Asshole Guy I wasn't speaking to.

"Dammit." She hissed out a sigh. "I need to know what I'm up against. I headed up there soon as I heard the first rumour, but between the militia who thinks they own half of the cleared land and what’s left of the local Black scourge, I nearly got my leg blown off and my face eaten. Had to waste a bullet on the trigger-happy dumbass who took a potshot at me, too."

Wow. That was tacky. The Sheriff Errant wasn't just a cute nickname Toot had for Murph. It was a generally respected title: acknowledgment that Murph was pretty much the head of what was left of any kind of law enforcement, a representative of the police and emergency services who'd pulled together in a desperate effort to keep casualties as low as they could.

Even after the ammo had all but run out and most people had dug down into one of the fortified settlements, Murph had kept moving. She'd risked her life delivering messages and bringing food to stranded survivors all over the tri-state area for the past eight, nine years. A lot of the knowledge that had spread about garlic and faith objects and iron and salt was due to her and her deputies hiking for months through contested territory to reach human settlements. She says it's because she isn't about to settle down in Marcone's little Disney castle. I say it's because she's a big damn hero.

Between her and her deputies-- a couple other old cops, what was left of SI, mostly people she'd rescued or bartered back from the fae-- there was almost a mail system again. Miss Manners said that the proper reaction to that was inviting her in for the night and feeding her. A bullet to the leg? Gauche. Really gauche.

"I could try to research it. Head out there. Give it a wizarding eye."

She nodded. "I was thinking of that. Just one problem. I'm not exactly working with a contractor budget these days."

"Murph, don't--"

She cut me off with a sharp slash of her hand, cutting through the air between us. "I can't let you do me a favor, Sir Snowbunny." She gave me a rueful look. "And my usual methods of payment aren't going to work so great for you. Especially not for this. I saw your face just now. This is going to be hard on you. You don't know what you're getting into."

Sometimes I hate my job. Seriously. "The deal thing, it's a technicality, Murph."

"Yeah. No big deal until your boss decides I've short changed you and locks me in a glacier." She jutted her jaw, draining her tea to the dregs and scraping wheat gunk out of the stewpot and into the empty cup. She gave me breakfast in her only bowl, and a knife to eat with. "There's something I can offer you, though."

"I'm all ears." I started shoveling phauxtmeal into my mouth.

"...Luccio's making swords again."

I choked on breakfast.

"This is Warden work. You do it, you're overdue the sword."

“I thought I was persona-non-give-a-sword-to,” I said, brow furrowing, not wanting to hope too hard. “The Council doesn’t claim me unless I’m in trouble and it’s time for a spanking.”

“Luccio says there’s a little bit of thaw from Scotland. Sounds like some bigger fires have come up-- you’re not top on their to-screw list anymore. If you’re interested, of course.”

A symbol that I had a position helping humans, not just being Mab's go-fer? A reminder that I belonged in the mortal world? Golly. I didn't know if I wanted that. Enough to chew a limb off.

"...Harry, you look like Mouse when I eat in front of him and don't share." Murphy reached over and took my hand. I'd dropped my eating knife; I only realized when she squeezed my fingers. "It's not a limited time offer. If this thing in Wisconsin is too much for you, don't try to man it up. Luccio wants you alive. I want you alive. You're not the only one who could do this--"

"--but I'm the best one, because I'm a wizard who's not tied down to a settlement. Not to mention I get a free pass through Winter territory. And people like wizards." It had been a weird thing, going from being a public laughingstock to a treasured commodity in the space of a couple years. "People will talk to me."

"Most people like wizards. Most people don't waste ammo on other humans, either." She sighed. "You be careful, okay?"

"Sure thing, Murph," I said, snapping off a salute and scrambling to my feet, abandoning the breakfast sludge I'd only about half eaten. Murph didn't need to be wasting her supplies on me, anyway. She and the sheep could use it. "Come on, Mouse."

"Hold on, John Wayne. I don't know if you've been in Northern Wisconsin recently, but they still consider pets a source of protein up there." Murphy jerked her head. "You can't take him with you."

"He's a smart dog," I protested. "I'll look out for him."

"That's not the way your relationship works," Murphy said dryly. "I'd feel more comfortable if he was keeping an eye on you, too. But he's just going to make you a target."

"I'm not going to leave him alone on Demonreach."

"Who was asking you to? My next stop is Mac's place. The Hamlet-- Thomas and Wizard McCoy-- can take care of your pony between them, and there're enough people there these days, he won't be at a loss for attention." She screwed up her face in a smile for Mouse, and he thwapped his tail against the floor. "We'll take him along. The Damnsheep doesn't seem to mind him." Murphy hooked my half-eaten bowl with a finger and skidded it over to the animal in question, who started lipping up the dregs. She diplomatically offered Mouse her mug to clean: he held it daintily between his front catcher's mitts-- sorry, paws-- and started to lick oat gunk off the inside. It took him two swipes with the Slip-N-Slide he calls a tongue, and I think the second one was just for show.

"Murph. You don't like big dogs."

"Gosh, Harry, it's a good thing you're here to remind me. I might have forgotten," she said, rolling her eyes. "I can deal with Mouse. Go find out what's eating people so I can kill it."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And think about visiting the Hamlet. Mac says you haven't been back since the September before last. The visit with Billy and Georgia doesn’t count. You barely talked to anyone. They were worried."

"Yes, MA'AM!" I snapped off a salute and pushed down my guilt. It had been an awkward trip. I hadn’t known what to say to anyone but hadn’t really wanted to spend another day alone in my tube, and had left after an hour or two, feeling like more of an idiot than when I’d gotten there. Wait, 'Mac says?' Must have been a talkative day for him. "Anything else I should do while I'm at it? Clean underwear? Pack a change of socks? Eat my veggies?"

"A pair of pants wouldn't kill you."

I looked down at my dirty cargo shorts.

Oh. That too.


 

The trip to Demonreach to get my pants, traveling gear, and actual winter clothes took about half an hour, in daylight, and it was another half a day on the meandering path of the Ways-- in and out of some of the darker, nastier parts of Winter, through a rainforest and then the ruins of an outdoor shopping center-- and I was in Northern Wisconsin. For Murph, on foot with a pack animal, in the mortal realm and with community wizards only escorting her along the safest and best-known Ways? Two weeks at least, in a hurry. Probably more like a month, in this weather.

I tried not to feel guilty. This was why she was paying me the big bucks.

My Winter Knight protections didn't make the slog through knee-deep snow any easier: there weren't any wagon-rutted roads or even footpaths like I'd have seen in a population center like Chicago, and I hadn't come out near any roads. It was exhausting. When I saw buildings rising in the distance, it was hard to remember Murphy's words of caution and not just go straight over to grab a rest.

But no, I circled in cautiously, focusing on the little keep as I got closer-- there was a wall, stone and cannibalized brick, about ten feet high, and past that a second perimeter of razor wire. Behind that, sentries, who I was keeping an eye on just in case they decided to play target practice.

I backed off until they couldn't see me anymore, and I couldn't see them, and relaxed a little...

"Hands up," said a man's voice behind me. "Drop the staff. Turn around slowly."

I let my staff fall from my gloved fingers and turned glacially. "Is this a stickup? I left my wallet in my other snow pants."

I was half-surrounded by four bundled-up figures on snow shoes: three with bows, one standing further back with a hunting rifle sighted between my eyes. All of them were wearing mostly older clothes -- you know, the kind with zippers and synthetic fibers -- augmented with much rougher, newer looking fur and hide. "You're funny," said Mister Rifle-holder. He nodded to Mister-or-Missus Bow-holder on my left, who shifted their grip on the bow in their hands and pulled a small object out of their utility belt. "Catch it," he told me, and Mister-or-Missus Bow-holder lobbed it underhand.

I caught it, barely feeling the weight through my gloves, and squinted at it: a wrought iron hook with a screw end, like the kind you'd hang a plant from.

"Touch it to your face," Mister Rifle-holder said calmly.

I was tempted, briefly, to make a whole production out of it, maybe a few lines of 'I'm melting, oh what a world', but I actually thought better of it. Don't tell anyone. I touched the little iron piece to both cheeks and then my forehead before holding it out for them to take back. Mister Rifle-holder nodded and Mister-or-Missus Bow-holder came close enough to take it back from me. Close enough to throw water in my face in the next instant, quick-drawing a little pill capsule from the next pouch on their belt.

I spluttered as the holy water ran clammy down under my coat collar and started soaking through the front of my shirt; I gestured up at the sky, the sunlight filtering dirty through the clouds overhead. "You know daywalkers are just something they made up to sell Blade comics, right?"

"He's good," grunted Definitely-A-Mister Bow-holder.

"He's dandy. As long as he's not poaching," said Mister Rifle-holder placidly. "What's your business?"

"I'm looking into the raids up here for a friend of mine."

A glimmer of recognition. "Was he the angry short guy with the sheep--?"

I glared back. "That was her. The Sheriff, don't know if you've heard of her. She says thanks for the complimentary bullet under her pillow, by the way."

I couldn't see much through his balaclava, but Mister Rifle-holder might actually have looked a little sheepish. "That was Bravo Team. They were a little on edge; they shouldn't have attacked before doing a check, but they said he was-- she was armed. Is she all right?"

"She's fine." I crossed my arms. "Can I have my staff back now?"

Mister Bow-holder moved back. "Reach down slowly," he advised me.

"I'll do you one better," I said, irritated. "I won't reach down at all. Vento servitas!" My staff smacked into my hand in a swirl of wind-whipped snow. "Can I go try to figure out what's eating people, or do I get shot if I wander into all your well marked land for any reason?"

"Depends. If you give us twenty-four hours to tell the rest of the security patrols and the hunting teams, you'll be fine. If you're a smartass, you'll probably get shot," Mister Rifle-holder said, not rising to my bait.

"He's a wizard," piped in another Bow-holder, his voice higher, younger, but making it three-out-of-four manly men that I could identify now, plus one unknown (but I had a good guess), just voices under shapeless masses of clothes. "Don't piss him off."

"I'm being polite," Mister Rifle-holder told him calmly. "If he's investigating the raids, he knows that we've got good reason to be cautious. Don't you, Mister Wizard?"

"Sure thing. Being at each other's throats will definitely solve this mystery, gang." The air around me popped with ozone as I raised a shield between us, a little ostentatious but a firm reminder that his bullets didn't have to be a problem for me if I didn't want them to.

Winter shut us up. Lowercase-w winter, but really not much less deadly than the uppercase-W Winter: it came as a wind, howling down the trees that surrounded the complex, dragging with it a swathe of darker clouds that blotted out the weak light.

The people in front of me swore, went into a sudden, tight huddle; things were broken out of packs, two lanterns assembled and lit with the group forming a windbreak around them. Two little flames against a sudden darkness. They'd practiced this group-and-light routine, drilled it. Winter was hitting hard-- was it this hard a hundred miles south? Had I missed the sudden darknesses and icy winds while I was being sulky and immune to cold and safe on my own little island, or as a celebrity in Winter?

The territorial pissing contest was officially postponed on account of weather. The game was suddenly four mortals against the freeze, the oncoming blizzard, and the dark. The last dregs of the light would keep down the local Black Court-- out of habit, more than anything, old skittering instincts calling the shots in their hungry, rotten brains-- but not the in-between things that never used to come out in broad daylight, fetches and redcaps and other nasty things... they'd be circling a hunting party, too, because they'd eat off the bones of deer or bear just the way they'd eat off of humans. Everyone in this little group had maybe a fifty percent chance of making it back alive across the mile and a half between here and their fort.

No. They were organized. Seventy-five percent chance. That was a whole three out of four. If things went entirely according to plan, one of these people would still probably die this evening.

"We'll be going," said Mister Rifle-holder, all business suddenly. "You people can walk between worlds, right? You'll be fine."

Yeah. I'd be peachy: I could just waltz away through the Nevernever, and I had plenty of magical ammo to take on little minor hobgoblins. They knew it, and so did I.

Remember the good-old-days when seventy-five percent wasn't a reasonable survival rate for a walk in the woods?

"Fine? Me. Yeah." I fished under my coat and shirt, cold and damp from the holy water bomb, and held up my mother's pentacle, the jewel flashing in the center. I poured a little trickle of power into it, and the clear blue werelight lanced through the dark and the snow. A little power into my staff vaporized the ice that had been clinging to the carvings. Things at the perimeter of the light skittered back, and there was a near-silent whoosh as my shield suddenly got a lot bigger, catching the falling snow and pushing it away in a wide circle that surrounded all of us. "So will you guys."


Chapter Text

November, 4 years After

 

I knew something was wrong when the scavenging party came back with a body.

They were exhausted, many of them limping or bandaged-- legs and arms, hands and heads wrapped up with dirty rags and strips of rough, torn clothing. Three of them were dragging an improvised litter, the big form on it covered with the swath of one of the tents: a shroud.

You don't bring bodies into a homestead. There's no telling what they could have-- curses or diseases, either way. You might be bringing a vampire right into your house, or the latent arm of a demon or necromancer, biding its time. But the scavenging party had apparently missed that memo. I shot a quick look at Luccio-- had the policy changed since the last time I visited? It had been a couple of months... the tense line of her mouth said no.

John was exhausted himself, because everyone had been up preparing for the worst when the little raid dragged on later and later, and nobody came home, and while Luccio and I had traded off naps, he'd stayed awake the whole time, pouring over lists and plans and diagrams for in-case-of eventualities, triple-checking the medical supplies, the water rations, and God knows what else. It had been the longest wait in over a year. The Fortizens were good at this; they had raids down to a science, a well-choreographed routine. The group had already been gone a few days when I’d arrived, dropping in like the affable uncle I’d become to the Fort, and now they were two days late home and people were dead.

Those first three years, they'd been touch-and-go, with everyone packing up into wagons or SUVS or ATVs, fuel hoarded and siphoned carefully, snatch-and-dash teams striking the ruins of towns and suburbs and shopping centers like vikings on a foreign shore. But since this fourth year had started, things had grown more reliable, stronger, and the Fort along with everything else: solid walls, wards, an honest-to-God threshold gathering at the entrances to Marcone's old Higher Tax Bracket Than You mansion. We'd all begun to believe that the worst of it was past, that we'd soldiered through, and something maybe almost normal was being built out of the Darkness. And then the raid party hadn't come back.

The medics were in the courtyard, under the torches and scavenged sodium vapor lights where visibility was best, prepped with clean instruments, boiled bandages, and the strong herby reduction that served as antiseptic. A few wizards were spread out with them: some because they had skills with healing and could help; some because we'd learned the hard way that sometimes it wasn't just our own people who came back from these expeditions. I could see the questions on everybody's faces as we all did a headcount to see how many were missing, who they'd lost out there. It must have been bad; the party had set out a dozen strong and come back as seven survivors and one question mark on a stretcher.

The second-in-command of the raiding party-- a former Warden, Wizard Choi-- split off from the group, headed towards John and Luccio and I where we waited, crowded together far enough from the medics not to be in the way, close enough to the action to arrive fast, to know what was happening. Luccio, because she's short and sneaky and security conscious, had managed to get in front of John like always, and I heard her suck in a sharp breath as Choi drew closer. His gaze flicked across our waiting faces-- he nodded at Luccio, at John, at me. He was an old hand, born to railroad workers in British Columbia, right before the turn of the twentieth century. He'd been one of the handful of experienced Wardens to make it through the Red War alive. His face was drawn, etched with pain, exhausted.

Luccio gestured with one hand, to the main entrance to the house, and John led the way inside and upstairs to his office. I wasn't sure if I should follow-- I'm not technically in the Fort's chain of command, I was just visiting-- but I was sort of generally shuffled along and wound up heading in after Luccio.

John settled behind his desk, met my eyes over Choi and Luccio's heads as they filed in, briefly, for just a moment while I hovered in the doorway. I waited for him to tell me that I should close the door for them and wait outside, or go back out and help the others. Instead, he pursed his lips, just a little, like he does when he's been caught doing something only he and maybe Hendricks knows he shouldn’t be, and I followed everyone else into the office.

"We were attacked by Redcaps," Wizard Choi said, as soon as I closed the door behind us. "They've colonized the old State Line Power Station since the last time we were in that area. There were heavy losses," he said, only for the formality, for the record we all knew John would keep. "We pushed them back but we'll want to clear out the nest. If we can, we might want to involve one of the acolytes of Ammorachius."

"I'll consider it, once everyone is recovered. And you know our policies on bringing bodies back," John said gently. "I don't want to lose anyone because they were defending a corpse."

"I know, Baron. We decided to take the risk. All of us."

John had already known. He'd figured it out way before I had. I was still wondering why Choi was debriefing us and where Hendricks was. I know, I know. Stupid. But my head just wasn't wrapping around the idea. It wasn't like we'd been friends, and we'd never really trusted each other, not for the long haul, but he'd been here since the beginning, defended the Fort for years, built some of the additions with his own hands. The big redhead was as much a part of this place as the walls. Stars, I'd seen him take machine gun fire to the chest once, seen him go toe-to-toe with Denarians. Of course a bunch of fashion-challenged fairies couldn't take him down. No way.

"In future," John said with a nod, and then stopped. Just. Stopped. Sucked a breath through his nose. I think that was when I knew, finally, when I saw him actually falter. "You should have followed procedure," he finished quietly.

"Yes, Baron." Choi dipped his head penitently.

"We'll cremate the body. I do. Appreciate the favor. But the risk was too great." John nodded at Choi to dismiss him, his eyes blank as if he'd retreated so far inside himself that he'd actually pulled away from his own skin, leaving behind a shell of bureaucracy and good manners. Luccio was crying, silently, just a few tears sliding down her stern face. I looked down at the beaten carpet, clasping my hands in front of me so that I wouldn't fidget.

"Anastasia. Harry. Excuse me." John waved us out of the office. Luccio left immediately, to start preparing, leaving me adrift in the Fort with nothing to do because I didn’t have a role here, no routine to drown myself in, no expectations to anchor me down, wondering if it was just me or if the world had just tilted on its axis.

 

By nightfall, everyone knew. Butters had examined the body, pried the pistol out of Hendricks' cold, dead hands. Done the autopsy.

"It could have been worse. He hung on for a while. Rigor mortis only sank in a couple days ago," he told me quietly, as we watched the bonfire being built in the middle of the Fort's big yard. "Nasty hit, some kind of spear. To the lungs. He was never going to make it back." He didn't bother to say that if Hendricks had gotten to a hospital, he might be walking by now. There weren't any hospitals anymore. And the party had been two days out, which turned into four days walking wounded and dragging a stretcher, plus another half after the attack, picking up the pieces, tending to each other, retreating and preparing to come home.

The little medic looked at me. "Go ahead and ask."

"If they'd gotten home faster." If I'd been with them. If I had used my clout to get us through contested or dangerous Ways instead of hiding in Winter or on my island, leaving the hard struggles for the mortals who lived them everyday. If the trip had been measured in hours and not days.

Butters shook his head. "Nothing we could have done. We could have given him something for the pain. Maybe helped him hold out another day, although it would be pretty cruel of us to try. Even if Listens To Wind were here, and his best healers-- it wasn't just a broken bone, or a cut. The damage was extensive. As it was, he wasn't in pain for long."

A numb relief sank in.

"I have to go," he said quietly, kindly. He was a doctor, one of only seven Fortizens who'd actually been trained in medicine Before-- and two of those were veterinarians. He was very, very busy. And a lot of the survivors needed a lot of care.

I hung out and watched the bonfire being built, because I was really only good for heavy magical lifting and nobody had a job for me. Luccio spelled the fire alive: she'd known Hendricks better.

I'd thrown enough fire spells in my time to expect the stink of it, when the flames caught the body and rippled over the shroud. The smell of burnt hair and singed flesh was nauseating. It didn't matter. Not to any of the Fortizens gathered around the bonfire, not to me, and not to Baron Marcone, just a pale face at his office window.

I turned into the house, waving awkwardly at the two guards, solemn figures in the dark, their faces drawn where the glow of the fire caught them, and climbed the dark stairs, going by candlelight and werelight. The big estate house was quieter than usual, most of the inhabitants outside or at windows. I got some nods as I passed, my light drawing more attention than I did, but no one spoke. John's office door was shut; not locked.

I muted my werelight and tried to open the door as quietly as possible.

He wasn't watching at the window anymore. He was slumped over his desk, head in his arms, shoulders heaving. He gave a ragged gasp when I laid a hand on his shoulder, but didn't shake me off, didn't even look at me. I didn't speak, and for once in the usually crowded, bustling Fort, the only noises were the crackle of the funeral pyre outside and the sound of John Marcone sobbing.


Chapter Text

I didn't get a hero's welcome when we reached their fort, but I also didn't get shot on sight. It took the five of us longer than it would have taken the four of them-- snowshoes beat cowboy boots for walking through the snow-- but everyone made it back alive and none the worse for wear, all things considered, so I was willing to count it as a win. There was a few minutes of hurried exchange with the sentries, half hand gestures, half mumbled conversation, but eventually I was allowed past the perimeter with the four locals.

There were some mutterings from various Bow-holders about me not having done any good-- because nothing had attacked, and that was because nothing was out there, not because a tall bastard with a shield was playing escort, of course. Mister Rifle-holder, though-- name of Jeff, a big Nordic blond bear type under all his winter clothes-- gave me a nod and a simple 'Thanks' once the second security fence was closed behind us. I was shuttled off to a room where they could keep an eye on me while Delta team-- that'd be the hunting group I'd run into-- checked in.

Fort Refuge wasn't what I was used to in a town. It was maybe a quarter of the size of the extended Fort north of Chicago, still a little bigger than Mac's Hamlet in downtown. It was a little quieter, and cleaner-- in a very bare bones way, with no carpet or cover on the well-swept concrete floors. The big difference, though, was the makeup of the buildings. What I'd seen of the complex was mostly concrete block buildings written in the key of bunker. There were a couple of rougher, newer buildings-- one smelled like a barn, even in the cold, and the other was padlocked. They looked more like what I'd seen at Marcone's Fort.

The similarities pretty much ended there.

The two outposts I knew best-- McAnally's little Hamlet, centered around what had been his bar and expanding into the basements and rooms of surrounding buildings, was very obviously made up of the bits and pieces of downtown Chicago, built around with cannibalized brick and wood and metalwork from buildings that had never been meant to be defensible, the little pieces built up hurriedly into new structures that could hold back the things that went bump. And you could definitely tell that the old Chicagoland Fort's main hall had once been a McMansion, on an estate that was meant to be defensible-- by security cameras and guys with guns. Not so much civilians with torches and improvised weapons. Other places I'd visited, they'd all had that same cobbled-together vibe, even the reclaimed castles on the other side of the ocean, and what had been a stylized hotel up in the Canadian Rockies, because there hadn't been many places on earth built with defense against the supernatural as a priority. Fort Refuge, though, had been built before the Darkness fell. And it had been built with the end of the world in mind, with small windows and big solid doors.

And religious decoration, if the cross-stitched sampler of the ten commandments on my wall was any indication. It had a pattern of sheep on it, which made me think of the Fort-- which was still a comforting thought to me even if I was currently having a serious difference of opinion with its Baron-- and of Charity's Forge. Not that she'd been the type to display samplers or lots of religious iconography, even Before, but something about the brusque tone of all the thou-shalt-nots reminded me of her. Sort of practical and straight to the point and a little bit threatening, but nice when you got to know her?

I guess you'd have to meet Charity to understand. She was definitely the Thou Shalt Not kind. Her husband was more a gentle Thou Shouldst Not, Because I Love You And I Worry. ...I hadn't seen Michael in years, either, because I was never really comfortable in the little monasteries that had sprung up around the swords, and something in me twinged guiltily. I wonder what he'd think of this place, if anyone here knew about the monasteries at all.

An argument was going on outside my room. Someone from the hunting team I'd met was talking calmly, barely audible through the thick door, and someone was interrupting him stridently but not understandably.

The door swung open so sharply that the knob smacked the concrete wall, making me wince, and a thin guy in very, very worn slacks stormed in.

"If he was a sex demon, I think we'd have noticed," the oldest-Bow-holder-- Max, I think-- was saying as he caught the door on the backswing. The thin guy ignored him, pulling a bundle of cloth-wrapped medical instruments off of his belt, selecting a needle, and glaring at it.

"Hand," he barked at me, and I stuck it out without thinking. He grabbed my wrist in a deceptively tight hold, turned it over, and stuck the needle into the pad of my index finger more than hard enough to draw blood.

"Ow!"

He ignored my protest and held my hand in place, watching as a drop of dark blood welled up. He squinted at it as if he was expecting it to change color or do a trick-- which it didn't, even when he turned my hand over and shook the droplet onto a handkerchief, holding it close to the candle on the table to examine it in the light.

"...fine," he reluctantly concluded after a few minutes, making to shove the handkerchief into a pocket.

"Hey hey hey," I said, alarmed. "Hold on. Don't you guys know any magical hygiene?"

Blank looks all around.

Stars. It was like running into a bunch of people who still believed in bloodletting and opening holes in your skull to cure headaches. If it had been Before, I could have understood it, but people were supposed to understand these things now; their lives depended on it.

"My blood. You can't keep it."

More blank stares.

I scowled and waved my hand-- "glacius pulvis"-- and my blood froze and flaked out of the handkerchief, dry and useless now. The thin guy hissed, dropped the handkerchief while he shook out his fingers and the burn of cold, and caught it awkwardly with his other hand as it fluttered down. "Hell's bells, do you people go around introducing yourself with your full names and handing out housewarming baskets tied up with locks of your own hair, too?"

"What?" Max asked, politely.

"Have you ever even met magic?" How were these people even alive? This was basic stuff-- one plus one is two, c-a-t cat, the sun sets in the west, don’t give anyone something they could use against you. Stars.

The thin guy muttered something and stormed off. Max gave me an apologetic look. "Doc's been on edge." Apparently I’d graduated from ‘grumble-worthy nuisance’ to ‘new friend meeting the kooky relatives’, now that I was something they’d brought back home instead of someone who’d had to help them to their own front door.

"No. And I thought a fingerstick was the traditional greeting of your people."

"I tried to tell him. But sex demons don't respond to iron or holy water and he wanted to check--"

"Wait, what kind of demon are you guys getting close enough to to collect blood from?"

Max sighed. "We didn't know-- we thought she was a survivor. We didn't know until we caught her with Reverend Smith. Mrs Smith had a shotgun to hand, and..."

I winced.

"It didn't kill her. It took everything we had just to get her out of Refuge. Lost a dozen men, and Reverend Smith had a heart attack. But that's how we learned that they have pink blood."

"Wait," I said again. I held up a hand. "Okay. That's a vampire."

"I think I know what a vampire looks like," he objected. "They were everywhere here a few years ago, some still camp out and cause trouble a bit farther north; you can smell them a mile away--"

"--Black Court. Black Court. That woman was White Court. Specifically, a Raith. They feed on lust. And Skavis feed on despair, and Malvora feed on fear."

"And Orange Lanterns feed on greed?" Max asked dubiously.

I couldn't help it. I smiled sideways. It was always nice to hear the surviving stories of my tribe, the Geeks. "I didn't make this stuff up. White Court are emotion vampires, Black Court are your Dracula type vampires... never met the Jade Court but I've been told about them. And the Red Court were gone before the Darkness came."

Jeff had joined us and caught the tail end of that conversation. "If she was a vampire, why didn't the holy water work?"

"Because the White Court is a pain in the ass." I broke it down for them quickly-- the only thing that really put a dent in a Whampire was true love, or dismemberment. They seemed the most human but were the most inhumane. They ate your soul, took away the most important parts of you, bound you to them, to wanting it even if you hated it, knew it was destroying you-- if they didn’t eat you dry and kill you outright. And most of them these days were starving and crazy.

"These days, some of the stronger ones will eat some of the smaller things that go bump-- they feed on lesser demons and wildfae. The weaker ones got eaten a while ago. Or they get taken out when someone calls a Warden."

...I neglected to mention that I had some personal experience there, with a pretty nasty feral White who had been snacking on demons outside of Chicago. A really powerful one, clinging to something like morality by the skin of his perfectly manicured fingernails. It runs in the family. The power and the descent into darkness, I mean, not the fingernails. I turned the subject away to thralls and from thralls to Renfields and the Black Court, giving a little lecture about how it had been Before and what to look out for if a Renfield ever came calling, and why it was my personal theory that that probably wouldn’t happen.

Jeff's furrowed brow told me that he might have noticed that I was deflecting a little, but he wasn't pushing it. "Max, why don't you grab some extra shut-eye before rotation? I'm going to take Harry here to get some dinner."

Max nodded, and thumped me on the shoulder as he passed. "Thanks for the tips, Harry. I should get the guys together so that you can fill all of us in."

"Great. Magic 101. Really, your guys' wizard should have told you this," I grumbled to Jeff as he led me out of the little room through a different door than I'd come in. It opened onto a long, featureless hallway, all concrete and pipes and faded paint signs that weren't going to help me navigate without a lot closer study. Jeff hung a left, apparently taking me to wherever the food was, and I fell in line beside him, scanning up and down the hallway, the intersections we came to, nothing but more anonymous concrete corridors and doors. Very homey, lovely decor. "Where is he, anyway? Or she. Sorry."

Jeff's broad jaw jutted and his forehead beetled down in a slightly sheepish look. "Our last wizard didn't tell us much. And he's dead. Happened a few years ago, vampires-- Black Court,” he shot me a look, checking the terminology, “we think. Back when they were attacking everything they could. Lost a whole hunting team to them that year. There's Chief, of course; he showed up a couple months ago, right after the first big snow-- it was really early this year. A bad time. But he doesn't talk much either."

"Weird." I shook my head. "Your old guy must have been a traditionalist. I mean, before the Darkness, sure, the Wardens would have been around for a strongly worded chat if you told people about magic, but even the most hardass Wardens know that things have changed. You'd think he'd tell the people he was living with, for his own self preservation if anything."

Jeff was frowning again. "He didn't live here."

I blinked, digested that, and blinked again. I suppose it wasn't that unusual, really. Maybe. Sort of. Wizards and practitioners of all kinds had been in high demand since the Darkness, when we became one of the few sources of knowledge about what was hiding in the shadows going bump, and you know what they say about knowledge and power. Most settlements at least had someone who could establish rudimentary wards, and some had wizards with a bit more firepower of one sort or another. If a wizard played their hand right, they could bargain for a pretty good set-up: dibs on good beds, easy workloads, a choice of food.

Of course, there was the flip side of that, with some people taking an approach less ‘attract more flies with honey’, and more ‘attract more flies by forcing them into servitude by any means necessary’, but it wasn't really a viable business plan. Sometimes it would work... until the leverage broke, and then you had a former-overlord on one side and an angry, recently subjugated wizard on the other.

I'd had a run-in a couple years ago with a pair of capital-A-assholes with dreams of grandeur and their own pet Dresden. They'd had some strength backing them up-- not enough to bind me mentally in thrall, but enough that I spent half a year in a circle in an old basement while they tried. Their blunt force contract negotiations had broken down in the end, and I'd left with my will intact-- but not before going a little Nathaniel Hawthorne on their foreheads with my magic, marking them for anyone who knew how to look.

The smaller settlements-- sometimes barely more than a single family-- didn't always have a practitioner with them, but some of the surviving Wardens had taken up a riff on a traveling doctor routine, splitting up chunks of the world and going from camp to camp and shelter to shelter. The two main Chicago settlements-- That-Jerk-Marcone's Fort and Mac's Hamlet-- had more raw numbers and strength when it came to magic than most places I'd passed through. Luccio was permanently based out of the Fort, and had a solid handful of old Wardens and new blood underneath her. Ebenezar McCoy had taken up at the Hamlet a few years ago, and Mac offered safe haven to outcasts of all flavors, including a heavy population of Changelings, some with talents of their own, or talents they would grow into. Refuge was a pretty decent sized location to be, or have been, without its own wizard-- but I guess anything was possible.

Jeff stopped at a closed set of doors-- like the many I'd already seen in the long, underground tunnel he'd been leading me through, steel painted in a faded, institutional shade of orangey red that left my ears ringing at the double dose of high school and Before whiplash-- and pulled a key out of one of his cargo pockets. The lock was one of those heavy bar kinds, stretched right across the doors, and he gave it a shove with his hip as he fiddled with the key, and then held a door open for me.

"Cafeteria," he said. "Go on in." Then a beat later: "He's with me!" just as a heavy hand came around the door-- attached to an outstretched arm and that to a big man with an angry scowl, his fingers spread and palm out in a classic 'stop right there' gesture.

I spared a half-thought to be grateful he was using his hand and not the gun I could see in a holster at his waist. As startling as it had been to see Jeff's rifle out in the woods, it was more so to see a sidearm carried casually indoors. Most of the world had run out of ammunition years ago; what there was was used sparingly, and on attacking nasties. I couldn't help but wonder where I was that the intimidation of a weapon was necessary for other humans, for their own people.

But wherever I was, communication apparently wasn't a priority: the big guy either hadn’t heard Jeff or was fully committed to his follow-through. He kept coming, his eyes narrowed into a beady little grimace, his lips pulling back from his teeth.

I've had a lot to thank Murphy for over the years: putting up with my bullshit, helping out when I needed it, whether it was to lug a couch down some stairs or take out a demon infestation. Being there for me whether I thought I needed it or not. Training me in hand-to-hand relentlessly enough that my physical reflexes were, while nowhere near as honed her own, at least better than the average post-apocalyptic bunker-dwelling bear.

"Okay. I get that you're on edge," I said, as the big guy lurched past me and whirled-- I’d sidestepped so that he'd have to come through Jeff. He didn't, but he gave me a long, suspicious look and Jeff thumped his shoulder familiarly before he headed back inside, jingling with each step as the heavy set of keys at his belt bounced. Apparently the memo had finally reached his brain. "But seriously. You guys act like I have a third eye or something."

"Hank doesn't like new faces." Jeff shrugged massively. "I'm sorry; I should have thought, gone first, given him the head's up. He's off his game. We’ve had some trouble, and it’s been a hard winter-- all this snow-- and having a new mouth to feed rattled him. Not that Chief doesn't rattle everyone, a little."

"He's your new wizard--?"

"Yeah." There was that faintly sheepish look again. "He's not the... type... we would have welcomed in initially. But it's been two years since Turchin passed away. Even the real hardcore biblical sticklers have had some time to think it over." A defensive shrug. "We need a wizard."

I felt my eyebrows rising, smoothed my expression into a one-brow question. "You guys have a pretty tight screening process?"

"Something like that." He coughed a laugh deep in his chest and led me into the cafeteria, that sheepish self-depreciation chasing itself around his mouth; Hank skulked in the corner, and shut the door firmly behind us.


Chapter Text

October, 4 years After

 

"Hoss," Eb said, leaning against the roughly-hewn fence that marked the edge of his land. On his side of the fence-line the wasteland that had stretched the expanse from where I'd come out of the Nevernever a few miles away gave way to a field of tall, wild grasses, scattered through with colorful splotches of seedy wildflowers and weeds. There were even trees a little farther off, brightly decked out in all the colors of autumn-- old trees like you didn't get in the settled areas or the once-were-cities and without the faint air of menace that the Darkness and the wild had given those deep in the forests. I could even hear insects, faintly, buzzing and chirping under the rustle of the grass. "You have an icicle on your hat."

I reached up at my head, pawed around for the dangly pompom until I found the icicle and snapped it off. "Crossed by Hudson's Bay," I said. And through Winter, but that was a given. "Lots of snow, wind. There were polar bears."

"And the hearts?"

"Got to let the world know I'm a lover, not a fighter."

He snorted, disbelieving. The nerve. "And the sequins?"

I'd hoped he wasn't going to mention those. "Hat’s a gift from Maeve."

He grunted and popped open a new gate I hadn't realized was there, gesturing me in. "You coming?"

His wards twanged as I crossed into his territory, strong enough to make me stumble a half step. My mind scrambled to keep up, to dissect, or at least gain a picture of the layers I'd been invited through-- years ago, and seven months ago, and those invitations still stood, even if Eb was playing it a little safe today. Couldn’t blame him. There were wards against the flesh, the spirit, against demonic and eldritch forces, the Sidhe, the undead and reanimated, the thralled ...all on top of the subtle undercurrents of gentle, non-invasive mortal persuasion and the foot-thick, indiscriminate kick-to-the-teeth topsoil of pure force. I took a closer look at his fence and the sigils carved and burnt into each post, the barbed-wire like strands of iron, silver and copper strung between them.

I whistled, low and impressed. Things had been shored up since my last visit. "Expecting anyone?" I asked.

He smiled grimly, reaching for his staff where it rested against a fence post. "Just being neighborly."

"How'd Toot even get close enough to take a message?"

"We make some shore excursions. And your little dewdrop friends are pretty gutsy."

I nodded, "Yeah. Yeah." I scuffed my boot awkwardly in the dirt. "So. How is he?"

"Better. I wouldn't have sent a message if he wasn't ready for visitors." Eb waved me towards the buildings. "Come on."

I trailed him through the field until we came to a beaten-down path, and then I followed him down that. The sun was brighter than I'd seen it since the Darkness, burning clear through the layer of dimness and smog stretched across the sky. The closer we got to the buildings-- the barn and the old farmhouse I could probably still walk through with my eyes closed-- the more the grasses tamed, became shorter and unevenly trimmed, half grown-through with clover and walked-down with criss-crossing paths of wear and signs of life: a pail left on a stump here, a little pull-wagon there. A barn cat darted out from behind a woodpile stacked between the barn and the house, stopping just long enough to deliberately take no notice of us. It was giant-- closer to the size of a raccoon than a cat, and I felt my smile tug at the corners of my worry. Mister’d been busy since I’d left him in Eb’s care.

Eb gestured towards the buildings, and I pulled forward to walk beside him. "Where's your pack ox?" he asked.

"Mouse is staying with Mac and the Alphas. I thought... I didn't want to risk it."

Eb nodded as we passed the barn, veered toward the house. "Maybe for the best. He's past the worst of it, but he's still not strong."

"And Harry thinks Mouse would attack me."

I looked up sharply: the door of the house opened all the way. My brother came out, strolling to the edge of the porch and looking down at me with crossed arms, shorting the wires in my brain that remembered him in his Gold Coast facade apartment, remembered the time he'd slept on my couch, remembered the years I'd spent with Eb's farmhouse being my home. The effort of reconciling that cognitive dissonance, of putting all those pieces of family in the same picture was going to need someone more well-adjusted than me.

The last time I'd seen Thomas, he'd been an angry, flailing, feral thing in Eb's barn, starved to nothing more than bone and some stretched out skin, his eyes sunken in, lit with his rage and Hunger until they were almost as pale, almost as dead and waxy as his flesh. He'd railed at us, cursing and screaming, hammered against the double-barred door and Eb's magical reinforcement. I'd been exhausted, hurt badly: he hadn't been easy to capture. I’d had a dislocated shoulder to take care of, a spinning head and trickle of blood from one ear courtesy of a well-timed slap, and an aching place in my chest from when he’d tried to feed from me.

He’d pinned me to the ground, his eyes glowing, his body shining, swaying, sensuous. Every single one of my nerve endings had suddenly blazed on, gasping, wanting to get closer, my stomach and hips had turned to liquid, my cock had been harder than rock, my ass and balls had throbbed, my nipples had sparked where they rubbed against my shirt, every bit of my skin had been on fire-- Mab’s icy power had screamed at the back of my brain, because I’d known what he was doing to me, had known I didn’t want it, but hadn’t been able to remember why that should have mattered.

…Even at the time, part of me had noted what a good strategy it was. We’d attacked him on two fronts, and he’d managed to get me down. So why not feed from me, erasing that threat, and gain more strength to fight Eb? It was logical, really, for mindless Hunger. After, I’d just felt sick. When I’d felt anything.

Eb’d been injured too: nasty scratches all down his face, his throat, his chest. Most of them from when he’d pulled Thomas off me. I’d known, on an intellectual level, that we'd been lucky to find Thomas before the Wardens had-- he’d been growing so bold, so careless, getting closer and closer to human settlements as the little demons he’d been hunting grew scarcer-- but I hadn’t felt so lucky at the time. Mostly I’d just been numb and hollow inside. Thomas hadn’t been the only one who’d fought hard, been worn down; we’d brought in my brother, with the same brutal tactics we’d have used on any of the feral Whites, only skipping the very last step where the head came off the shoulders. No mercy; nothing afforded for family. It had been the only way, but something inside me had snapped off, fallen apart, and I’d just wanted to sleep for a hundred years.

And now... he was his usual handsome self, in a mismatched flannel top and wide-legged pants, smiling down at me like we'd seen each other at Mac's just the other day. I felt my shoulders tensing, readied a shield before I realized what I was doing. He was my brother. He was also a very, very strong White Court vampire who'd nearly taken down two high-powered wizards before he'd been contained. Nearly taken down me. Eb thumped me on the shoulder reassuringly.

"That's gratitude for you," Thomas went on. "I used to buy him the good kibble, you know." His easy smile cracked around the corners, his eyes shuttering, just a bit. "Heya, Harry."

"You look better."

"I'm better."

"That's good." I nodded.

"Hallmark moment," Eb grunted, patting my shoulder again. "Riveting. But I have to go see about the sheep." He gave me look, quickly, but I saw it: asking if I was okay to stay with Thomas by myself, if I’d rather he stuck around. I jerked my head, a short nod. He was still my brother.

"Do you want me to--" Thomas started.

"--I want you to sit down and rest," Eb said sharply. He glared from under his bushy eyebrows. "That young man up there overworked himself and actually caught a damn cold. He doesn't get to help with the sheep, Harry."

"Yes, sir," I said, realized that Thomas had echoed me.

"Come on, Harry," Thomas sighed. "As long as he's treating me like a pregnant daughter, come pour me a drink and fluff my pillow."

I trailed him into the house, noticing that he was walking a little slowly, that, seen from up close, there were dark circles under his eyes and a distinct red-puffiness around his elegant nose. Neither of us were the type to get sick, and somehow I didn't think he'd actually overdone it with farm work.

"Do you have anything. To. Eat?" I got out awkwardly.

Thomas sprawled on Eb's couch, a big log-frame thing that could seat five-- or one and one dramatic White Court vampire. His pants spread out around him to perfect the scene. They were those Japanese ones that look like a skirt-- hakama, my brain supplied after a pause, pulling up a memory of Molly scowling over a pile of clothing, comparing it to the cover of a DVD. ...Molly. I shoved that emotional knot away with the ease of four years of practice, and focused on Thomas again. "Yes," he said dryly. "Cheese and bread. But someone has to go get them for me. I'm sick." I scowled at him. He waved at me. "On the kitchen table. Go. Procure."

I shook my head and headed into the kitchen-- there were breakfast leftovers, and I grabbed a plate on my way around the table, palming a piece of cheese for myself.

"I'm not fluffing your pillow," I said, shoving the plate at Thomas.

"You're no gentleman, Harry." He took a delicate nibble of bread. "...I've been eating. There are a lot of Things out there. They aren't human. I'd never considered it Before-- I wouldn't have. No White Court vampire would." He made a face. "It's not like feeding on a human. It's a fight. Demon against demon. It's not pretty, and-- I mean, it's food the way energy bars are food. Tastes like cardboard, just enough to keep you going, and I got a little overambitious last time out. But I haven't hurt anyone," he finished strongly. "Not since.” His eyes flickered to me, flooded with shame, looked down. His back tensed. Guess he remembered, then. I hadn’t been sure he would. I’d hoped he wouldn’t. I’d hoped I wouldn’t. “How's your shoulder?"

"It's fine. It's been seven months since then," I reminded him.

He shifted uncomfortably. "I was out of it for a while. I'm not entirely sure what time it is out there. Autumn, I know, but...."

"Almost my birthday."

"Hey. Happy birthday, Harry. You get an invalid."

"Shut up, Thomas." I stole some bread off his plate and flopped down in a chair across from the vampire fainting couch. "I swear. Sometimes I don't know if I've got a slobby big brother or an emo little sister."

"Ouch, Harry."

"In her consumptive goth phase. Reading lots of Emily Dickinson. I'll help you paint your room black, don't worry. We'll need two coats to cover up the pink--"

"--Wizard McCoy knows we're brothers."

"I know, Captain Non-sequitur. I told him."

"He's our mom's father. Isn't he?"

"Yeah."

"It's sort of like having an actual family. The type that isn't plotting to kill me. Hah." Thomas' laugh was phlegmy and wet, and he dragged a handkerchief out of a pocket in his huge pants and blew his nose. "Ew, Harry, I'm disgusting, don't--"

Too late. I'd swooped over and descended on him in a big manly hug, gripping him tight, my fisted hands pressed against his back. He sneezed into my hair and laughed again, thumping me on the side, and if I hung on for a long time and sniffed a little, he didn't mention it.


Chapter Text

I could feel at least half a hundred pairs of eyes on me as I came through the door into the cafeteria, almost every one of the more than fifty faces looking up-- maybe because I was new, maybe because of the scuffle with Hank. The cafeteria was big and open, very institutional, rows of long folding tables lined up, a scattering of people at almost all of them, a wide pathway down the center of the room. Off to the side I could see a set-up not unlike how my old high school cafeteria had been run, with a row of cut-out windows in the wall-- all but one boarded up with rough-formed planks of wood-- and a counter bolted into the wall beneath them. Hank-the-violently-unsocial stomped over to stand by the open window and the door in the wall next to it, little beady eyes tracking our movements. Jeff held up two fingers at him; he kept them in the air until Hank grudgingly pulled out his keys and opened the door, reappearing a moment later on the other side of the window.

I hung back while Jeff ordered, and it gave me a chance to take in the crowd discretely. Most of them were taking me in too, not so discretely. There were a few more people than I'd originally estimated; maybe sixty or seventy total, spread out pretty evenly through the room, although there were clusters here and there of big men in thicker clothes. Hunting and security parties, I was willing to bet. Some of them still had snow in their hair; they must have been chased inside by the sudden blizzard, too. I wondered if there had been casualties.

None of the people in outside-clothes were women. There were a few ladies in working clothes, grimed jumpsuits to match their tablemates, or thick, patched jeans, one with a tool belt. But the hunters were all guys, all big. I picked out the other members of Delta team, sans Max, clustered together, sitting with a few more manly looking men and a few young women I guessed to be girlfriends or wives. Another group way across the room, five of them, were pulled closer together, tall and lean-- even by today's standards-- and predatory looking. The women sitting around them were probably wives too, gaunt and suspicious looking, hunched in on themselves, one next to each man. That must be the friendly table.

My eyes skimmed across the hall until they landed on an empty patch, a clear space that had grown up around one guy.

I blinked, and did a surreptitious recount. The Native American at the table-- dressed in a combination of old-modern clothes and new rough fur-- was the only person in the room who wasn't white as milk. Well, it's not like Wisconsin's population was diverse-- the only reason the Fort and the Hamlet and other, smaller Chicagoland outposts were so colorful was because Chicago had been such a grab bag of cultures Before. No reason to think that anything but geography had decided the Fort's demographic. And the obvious suspicion cast his way by the Refugees was probably more based on the fact that he was a wizard-- because, going out on a limb here, I was pretty sure that this was Chief.

Fort Refuge's wizard was older, his face hard and lined, his hair shot with gray. His teeth were stained; one eye was milky with a cataract. He’d had a hard life, probably even before the Darkness. I didn’t recognize him, from Before, but something twigged in me, made me think of some of the oldest Wardens I’d met during the Red War, their scars from injuries healed centuries ago but still speaking to old battles. His good eye flicked up to me, and he grinned widely, giving a cheerful little wave.

A shiver crawled up my spine, and I shook it off with a shoulder-hitch. He had a kind of friendly, paternal cast to his features that should have been comforting, his broad smile looked welcoming, and I couldn’t figure out who he was reminding me of that made my hair stand on end. I didn't remember meeting him, but Council meetings had been huge, Before. And I'd been up in front of them often enough that plenty of wizards who I'd never met knew me on sight.

"Harry?" Jeff was back behind my shoulder, carrying a tray. "Harry, come on. It's soup."

I followed him to a table with the rest of Delta, feeling awkwardly like I was back in high school and sitting at the wrong lunch table, for all that Jeff and the others were giving me encouraging looks. The two men at the table that I didn’t know from the woods were also Delta team, it turned out, the hunting groups were all made of six men, four of whom went out at a time. The women were all wives; something told me that girlfriends didn't stay girlfriends for long here, before things became official, although a few of the men-- Jeff included, and the snoozing Max-- were bachelors. I learned from them that the people in the hall represented just over a third of the Refuge population, and that while food was available from morning to evening, we'd been lucky to catch it hot. Dinner was a thick vegetable soup-- root veggies, turnip and potato-- with a few sad little bits of rabbit for protein. I was starving, though, and it tasted great to me.

About halfway through the meal a young lady came around, stopping by each of Delta team to hand over a little brown foil pack, vacuum sealed, about the size of a deck of cards. She had a basketful-- her lips moved, counting each one she handed out. Only hunter teams got them, I noticed.

"What's our luck today?" Jeff said, picking up his, and grinned at the print stamped into it. "Well, hell. Hank's finally broken into the good stuff." He ripped it open, tipping a little cake into his hand. Around the hall, other hunters were smiling over their foil packs, and I recognized other pieces of food-- freeze dried ice cream, the kind they used to sell as 'astronaut ice cream', squashy little brownies. Some of the hunters huddled in on themselves to eat it-- others broke off pieces for non-hunter friends or their wives.

"MRE dessert," Jeff said with a grin. "I bet they don't have these at your outpost. I'm glad he got these out tonight-- as much of a treat as mashed potatoes are, they're not as impressive."

"We ran out of stockpiled food years ago," I said dubiously. 'We' meaning everywhere else I'd visited so far.

"Here's to good planning," he said jovially, and ripped his pastry in half, taking a bite out of one of the pieces, sighing happily. "Hey, here."

"Uh?"

"Go ahead," Jeff said, shoving the other half of the little cake at me with a broad, friendly smile. I eyed it cautiously: it looked squashed and old.

"What is it?"

"Freeze dried pound cake." He patted the MRE wrapper. "These things don't go bad. It won't kill you."

Well, I'd just happily inhaled a big bowl of turnip soup, so it wasn't like I had anywhere to go but up. I took a big drink water to clear my palate and bit into it gingerly.

...I'd forgotten just how... easy food had been to eat once. Stars, had it been this sweet and finely textured the whole time? Had I just not noticed? I carefully put the little cake down.

"Harry?" Jeff gave me a worried look.

"It's fine. It's good. You know. It's just been almost ten years since the last time I had refined sugar. Or bleached flour.” I eyed it wistfully. "Hydrogenated oils. High fructose corn syrup..."

"It's really the dark ages out there, huh?" Jeff said sympathetically, and I frowned, instantly a little defensive for Mac and Murph and even that-bastard-Marcone.

"No. It's just not like it used to be. I know a guy who can still turn out these amazing steak fries. It's just, there's not much sugar--"

Jeff grinned. "Well, stick around. I think we might bring Hank around to your side and you can start eating real food again. He’s a really good guy, once he gets to know you."

I squirmed, feeling as guilty about the obvious hope in his smile as about the food I was eating. "Jeff, it's not that easy. Really. I can't get too tied down to a settlement. There's some other stuff. I don't think I'm a good fit for Fort Refuge--"

"--or Refuge isn't a good fit for you?" Jeff lifted a shoulder. "It's not how you think it is, Harry. I know what you're probably thinking, what you think you know about militias, but it's different here. It can be--"

Raised voices broke through the light chatter at our table. Hank was standing at the door near the serving line, talking to the lean, angry looking hunting group. They'd braced him in a rough semi-circle, leaning into his space. He was gesturing angrily while they berated him. I felt my shoulders tensing.

"Golf team, again," Jeff said, voice exasperated and a little disgusted. He turned to me and said quietly: "Just because they have the biggest catches they think they--"

Something crashed. And then the shouting started. Jeff whirled back to look, and I craned around him, watching in horror as the confrontation went from argument to brawl in under three seconds. There was a confused noise as half the people in the hall rushed the door, and the other half weaved through them to throw themselves into the fight.

"Hank!" Jeff bellowed as the big man went down under the fists of Golf team, and vaulted out of his seat and into a run, hurrying to join the chaos.

"Crap," I muttered, and paused just long enough for a deep breath before I followed the rest of Delta team, skirting little satellite fights that had started around the main commotion, getting a shield up just in time to bounceb back a plastic plate that someone had thrown like a Frisbee. Bunch of Xena wannabes.

"Jeff-- hey, Jeff!" I tried to wade into the main fight, but an elbow took me right back out of it. I was at the edge of a tight ring of angry fists and flailing limbs and muffled soft, hurting sounds. I gritted my teeth. Fine then. Elbow the wizard in the face. See what happens. "Ventas cyclis!"

The sudden whirlwind wasn't one of my big productions; I didn't actually want to redecorate the cafeteria in an artsy splattered bugs motif. It was tight, as fine and focused as I could make it, shaped to pull people and debris away from the fight instead of ramming anything into it. I started it wide, clearing a space, pushing the tables away, and then tightened it until it was stripping guys out of the fight and scattering them across the concrete floor. Jeff bounced out of the huddle, landing in a dazed heap a few feet away; I couldn't spare him much attention. I had to control the whirlwind, slow it down. The cafeteria was one big echo chamber of anger and fear, and the negative emotions were feeding the spell, pumping a raw, nasty enery power into it that I hadn't expected. I had to reel it in, slow it down, bit by bit, until the howling wind subsided and broke apart in confusion.

What was left of the fight was in about the same state: I was the focus point of a fury of dazed blinking and apprehensive stares. They didn't know who I was-- or what I was capable of-- but I'd just opened up a mini windstorm and tossed half of them around. They would wait and see... at least until someone else made the first move. Jeff pushed himself to his feet where he'd landed, rubbing at one elbow and giving his head a shake, staggering forward. "What the hell?"

I was just drawing in a breath to defend myself-- I'd barely been in Refuge an hour and my patience was already this close to snapping-- when I realized his glare was directed past my shoulder and at the throng of men who'd been at the center of the fight. Oh. Right.

He steadied himself with a hand on my shoulder-- and my windstorm apparently hadn't been enough to pull out the root of the trouble, because with a muffled shout, Hank and Golf team were at it again. Or at least Golf team were at it. They swarmed over Hank, trying to pin and fight him at the same time, punctuated with angry swearing and wordless grunts and the jangling of Hank's keys as they all scrabbled at his belt.

There was a sound behind me, a breathy little chuckle, and I turned when the hair on the back of my neck suddenly leapt upright and stood at attention. Chief waggled his fingers at me, his grin wide--

--Jeff shouted, tackled me to the ground, and something went off like a thunder clap. A second later, Chief hit the floor with a meaty thump, still grinning. I stared at the hole where one of his cheekbones used to be, the remains of his good eye, the blood welling up and spilling over, running down his face into the puddle spreading across the concrete beneath him.

"GAH!" I said, and panted under Jeff's weight, trying to scramble back to my feet and away from Chief's corpse. My ears were still ringing; I hadn't heard a gunshot in years. I managed to get up, possibly fueled more by my need to get away from that than the strength that came with being the Winter Knight-- Jeff made a surprised sound as I took all 200 pounds of him with me-- and whipped around, my shield snapping up in front of us both.

The gun was lying on the floor about a foot away from Hank and Golf team, all still in a tangle.

"Who shot that?" Jeff said, and it was less a question, less a shout, than I was expecting.

No one answered, the members of Golf team staring back flatly, or looking at Chief's body instead of meeting Jeff's gaze, and finally Hank made an angry, hurt sound, elbowing at the men still pinning him down. They fell away from him, standing and stepping out of the way when Jeff pushed through. "Who shot that!" Jeff said again, louder this time, although I don't think anyone thought there'd be an answer.

He bent down by Hank and swore. I grimaced; at least we knew for sure who hadn't been the shooter. Hank's hands were a mess, his fingers curled in and already bruising, already swollen. Jeff hissed, looking at Hank's face, the knots darkening on his jaw, one of his eyes swelling shut, and held his hand over the scratches and bruises dotting Hank's thick neck. Fingermarks, an outstretched hand.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Jeff jerked his head around to glare some more at Golf team, mostly angry, a little stunned. One member of Golf team-- tall and lean like all of them, an ill-fitting army-green jacket hanging loose on his shoulders, most of his head hidden by a worn plaid musher's hat left over from Before-- jutted his chin up in response.

The others fell in line behind him; the Golf team Rifle-holder, I was willing to bet, and it was starting to look like a good ol' fashioned standoff when one of the doors to the cafeteria slammed open with a clang. A big man dressed in worn winter camouflage stomped in, fresh snow on his knit hat; a thin, short woman followed, grey shot through her up-swept hair, her face and lips pale. They both looked angry, and it didn't get any better when they saw Chief stretched out on the ground, a pool of blood surrounding him, and Jeff still kneeling on the floor by Hank.

"Brody!" To my surprise, it was the woman who spoke. The ubermale motif the whole place seemed to be decorated with had already sunk into my expectations. She stalked forward, practical boots loud on the concrete, and the rest of the hall was quiet. "What is going on here?"

The Golf team leader shuffled back a step. Brody, then. "Just a misunderstanding, Mrs. Smith," he said. "Nothing serious. Just got a bit out of hand."

"A bit out of hand?" I said, incredulous, and every eye turned to me. "Just friendly fire? Boys will be boys, you know how they are? It's all fun and games until someone loses their life?"

"Who are you?" It was the man this time, and I looked him up and down as he walked closer, his eyes narrowing, Mrs. Smith taking a step back. He was older than I'd been expecting, some hard lines in his face and his hair gone grey where it peeked out from beneath his hat, but strong enough for it to show even under his white and grey cameo snowsuit.

"Harry Dresden," I snapped, "and you?"

"Jacob Wight," he said, and did his best to stare me down without staring me down. I held his gaze long enough for the world to tip: about two seconds, which is a lot longer than it sounds, when you're looking someone in the eye. Go try it. I looked away just before the soulgaze could start-- it might have made my point, but I’d learned a long time ago about trying to intimidate others with soulgazes. You never knew what you’d run into, or who, and I was tired. I’d seen a lot today; I wasn’t ready for more. Wight pursed his lips, just a little. I guess I wasn’t the first wizard he’d run into. "I see. And what’s your business here, wizard?"

"Harry's looking into the raids, sir," Jeff said, standing now, supporting Hank. "We found him out in the woods. He helped us get back when the storm hit."

"Whose gun is this?" Mrs. Smith snapped, back on topic. Her lips were pinched white and she bent and picked up the revolver, expertly checking the round.

"Mine," Hank grunted, a little bit of a slur where one side of his jaw didn't want to open as wide as the other. "They got it off me."

Mrs. Smith and Wight took in the state of him, his beaten face and hands, the purple and black mottling already darker than it had been a few minutes ago, and I winced. I wasn't an adept hand at healing magic, don't have the light touch for it, but something told me Refuge didn't have anyone else. That anyone they'd had was now stretched out on the floor in a pool of his own blood.

"Who shot it," Wight asked, his eyes blazing, turning on Brody. "Captain Cavanagh?"

"Don't know, sir," Brody-- Captain Cavanagh-- said. "It just went off, sir."

"It just went off."

"Yes, sir."

"Just went off into someone’s head," I said.

"...Yes," said Mrs. Smith, and looked around at the crowd behind them in the cafeteria. She clapped her hands together sharply. "Everyone, return to your homes, please. Let's have some respect for the dead, thank you. Thank you." The crowd shuffled, but she apparently had clout: slowly, surly, some still gripping little bits of MRE desserts, the people shuffled out. The groups I could recognize as hunters tended to slow as they passed our little tableau-- looked with varying degrees of concern or anger or careful non-expressions at Chief's body, at Jeff and Hank and me, at Golf team, all five huddled of them together in a defensive group. But eventually, with a few more firm, polite requests Mrs Smith had cleared the hall of onlookers. Wight watched as she bustled them off, nodded approvingly.

Now the real fun started.

"You too, Mister Dresden," she said.

...Or maybe not.

"Why don't you help Captain Sommers take Mister Leighton to the medical rooms. We don't need a second death tonight; thank you." She said thank you the way someone reading off a list would say 'next'. That job crossed off, moving down to the next item.

I gaped at her, shocked. "You've got to be joking," I said. "This man was just killed."

“This is an internal matter,” Wight said, taking a step forward, resting his hand on Mrs. Smith’s arm. “Tensions are high here, wizard. Our men are under a great deal of pressure. Something got out of hand. We’ll investigate matters.”

Mrs. Smith looked up at him and her tone was a bit muted when she spoke again. "An accident," she said. "A tragic one, and a serious waste of resources."

"You can't just--" I gestured wildly, sweeping up the empty cafeteria, the fortified cement building, Golf team, Chief's body.

"Mister Dresden," Mrs. Smith said. "I understand that you are a new guest in our home, and perhaps things are different outside these walls. But kindly remember that, as a guest, you will be subject to the same authority as we all are, and are expected to bide by our rules. Please do not make us revoke our welcome."

I stared at her. Looked down at Chief's body.

Wight stepped forward again protectively, winding up a little in front of Mrs. Smith, scowling at me. “Mister Dresden. She asked nicely. I won’t. Out.”

"Come on, Harry," Jeff said, grunting under Hank's weight. The big guy's eyes were glazed over, and he was leaning heavily on Jeff. They'd hit his head; I wondered how badly. Wondered if anyone cared. I took his other arm and ducked under it, draping it across my shoulders to take some of his weight, and together Jeff and I maneuvered him out of the cafeteria and down the hall. Hank was a dead weight, and I put my concentration into taking most of the load away from Jeff.

Jeff shot me a surprised look over Hank's slumping head. "Stronger than I look," I grunted.

"It'll be okay, Harry," he said, his big face furrowed up, radiating sincerity. "Golf team are assholes. Everyone knows that. They won't just get a slap on the wrist. This is a big deal."

"Yeah," I said. "They wasted a resource; that bullet can never be used again."

Jeff winced, just a little. "It's a big deal," he repeated. "No one really liked Chief, but that doesn't mean it's okay that he's dead. And yeah, bullets are scarce. No one wins here. And they attacked Hank-- he was just doing his job."

"Why did sleeping beast here even have a gun?"

"Food." It was grunted right in my ear, and I jerked in surprise. I'd thought Hank was out for the count, mentally, even if his eyes were half open, but apparently he'd been following along. "Count it."

"Some stuff was going missing from the kitchen," Jeff said. "Mostly food. MRE kits, some meat."

I nodded grimly. Food was serious these days, for everyone. There weren't grocery stores and all night supermarkets a few corners away. The days of phoning for a pizza or stopping on the way home to pick up some Chinese were long gone. There was almost nothing left to drive, never mind anything to drive through; my stomach gave a mournful pang for the lost glory of Burger King. Kids today weren't told to eat their vegetables because there were starving children somewhere who would be grateful for that yummy broccoli; they knew as well as anyone did that tomorrow they could be on the other side of that argument, and to eat what they could when they got the chance.

"Didn't find out who?"

"No."

We stopped at the fingerstick room that Jeff had led me out of, a little over an hour and a year ago, and the thin doctor in his worn pants met us at the door. I helped get Hank up onto a gurney and once it became apparent that all I was was in the way, I left and used my anger to keep people away from me while I stomped down the halls until I found a door that opened up onto the outside.

It was still snowing, a flurry of hard little flakes that made the whole world white and the tops of buildings almost impossible to tell apart from the sky, and bitingly cold. At least, I knew it was cold, abstractly: the wind howling and cutting between the little cement blocks of buildings lined up orderly throughout the yard, the way the snowflakes were more ice than snow, the distant tingles I could feel of the freezing temperatures meeting my skin and finding out an older, colder Winter had already moved in.

I hunched my shoulders, drawing my chin down to tuck under the collar of my winter coat, buried my hands in my pockets-- and through the hole cut out of the bottom of the pocket, in the case of the right side, to curl reassuringly around my blasting rod-- and did my best to make my body a statue while my mind raced.

I didn't know how to do this anymore. How to be with people.

I met people all the time, sure. Or at least I had, before last March. I traveled when I could, when Mab and the rest of Winter didn't keep me busy, cutting through the Nevernever with my mother's voice in my ear and my growing instincts for the way the realms crossed and joined to guide me, found settlements, touched base, caught up on and brought news from stronghold to stronghold.

I’d spent a lot of time returning to Chicago, of course: it had been my home for most of my adult life. Almost all my friends, Hell's bell, my family were there. Even Eb had mostly moved away from his fortified farm, spending most of his time being the wall to Mac's cornerstone in the Hamlet. Murph traveled all the time, sure, but she started and finished in Chicago. Michael's monastery was only a day and a half journey from Marcone's Fort on a good day, walking and without using the Ways, and-- Marcone's Fort. The Fort, in most of its inhabitants’ minds, even if the name wasn't particularly unique. In mine, too, except ...I put those thoughts away, unwilling to prod at that break just yet.

But in all that, I’d always been a visitor. An honored guest, an exotic creature from Winter who people liked and befriended but didn’t see entirely as one of their own. And I'd become so used to that, Id forgotten about people. Stupid, selfish, scared people.

It wasn't like they were breaking a law, I reminded myself bitterly. There weren't laws anymore, not really, just the ones people made for themselves, one by one, to keep up some manner of civilization while they hid from the dark. It was fragile and it was rocky in some places, but it was all there was. I knew it drove Murphy crazy, sometimes, saw her jaw set while she talked about what passed as order and justice in some of the settlements she visited, but that's why she was there, and her deputies, to remind people that it wasn't so long ago that they had been fucking citizens of the United States of America, that they were not animals, that it wasn't the right of someone strong to demand all they could of someone weaker, to put their wants--

I realized I was quoting someone, and that while she might hold with the sentiment, Murph probably wouldn't approve of being conflated with him. One of the last times I'd been to see him, there'd been heads on pikes. A well-poisoner and two rapists, my memory supplied a second later, and I thought bitterly that they must have been new arrivals. Everyone who'd called the Fort home knew Baron Marcone's rules.

Stars. I'd been away from people for too long. I was like Harry the Real Boy: looks and feels just like you! ...But don’t expect conversation or companionship.

Chief. I hadn't know him-- even if he'd acted a little like he’d known me. I hadn't liked him: a knee-jerk reaction to the way my back had crawled when he’d waved at me. I have good instincts about people... sometimes. But, I hadn't known him, and these people had. At least for a few months. And he'd helped keep them alive. And now he was dead, and I don't think anyone cared. Not enough to do anything about it. Not in the way you cared about the person who was gone. Maybe they cared that someone had been killed, sure, in an off hand way, at the back of their minds where it didn’t sit right. Cared that ammunition had been wasted on a human. It had been a nasty thing for me to say, and Jeff had borne it with considerable grace, but it didn't make it any less true.

I wasn't enjoying Refuge. Something was going on here. It was poison, sunk into the groundwater.

And I hadn't even seen the bodies yet. Well, the ones Murph had sent me out here to see, at any rate.

I wanted to go home.

"Mister Dresden?"

The voice startled me, once it sunk in through my thoughts enough for me to notice, but not as much as the hand that touched my arm the next moment. "Mister Dresden?"

"YAH--es," I said, jumping about a foot. "Yes! Yes." Calm, cool, and collected. That's me.

The woman stepped back, hand up in front of her face, blinking in the swirl of snow, falling harder now than it had been when I'd stepped out. I shook my head, felt a layer of snow fall from me, and winced on the inside. Well done, Harry. That's just what I'd needed to do: highlight my differences right when tensions were high and they were sure to trust me.

"Captain Sommers is looking for you," the woman said. "Mister Leighton is asleep-- Doctor Lowe has done what he can for now, and I think that Captain’s hoping you might be able to look at him. And I can take you to a spare room, if you’d like. It can be yours while you're here." She pulled her shawl tighter around her thin shoulders, and I realized she wasn't dressed to be outside at all, wearing only a worn cotton dress and creased runners and her shawl.

“--You must be freezing,” I said, a moment delayed, giving my head a jerk to try and jump start it. “You’re not just out here for me, are you?”

“I often go for a walk when I‘m looking for some quiet, or to think. I’m the schoolteacher, here-- Linda.” Which... didn’t answer my question. I’ve hung out with the Sidhe long enough to know when someone’s trying to make it sound like they’re replying to you without actually committing to a yes or no-- and I could guess that, in this case, what she’d been too polite to say was ‘yes, you jerk, I’m standing here freezing my fingers off because you needed to go find somewhere appropriately subzero to brood’.

“Stars. Let’s get inside.”

I reached over her to pull the door open and she ducked under my arm-- she was a tall lady-- to go through it, brushing the snow from her shoulders, her hair. I kicked off the snow from my boots against the wall and followed her in, reminding myself that freezing my hosts alive wouldn’t do much for my credibility, or my case.

“Do you plan on staying with us long?” she asked, red, chapped hands folded together in front of her while she waited for me, politely, patiently. I got the feeling she did a lot of things that way-- patient, polite.

I laughed, a little dry, mostly mean. “Well, I understand there’s an opening.” ...Which wasn’t her fault. “No, I’m sorry; that was rude. I’m looking into the killings in the area for the Sheriff.”

Linda nodded, more a cue for me to keep going than agreement, her expression immobile, waiting-- but I got the impression she was listening to me, carefully tucking away each word away for later.

“Delta team brought me in after I ran into them out in the woods. I’m not planning on settling down right now, but I appreciate the hospitality.” The rules of Faerie didn’t apply here, but I tread carefully along them anyway. I didn’t know what I was dealing with-- and I couldn’t forget that I was always representing Winter, and my Queen. And I try not to make it a habit to lie to people who are being nice to me.

“I understand you helped Captain Sommers and his team get home safely; the least we can do is repay you with shelter.”

Right, Jeff. “You said Jeff was looking for me?”

“He’s with Mister Leighton,” she gestured down the hall. “I can take you there, if you’d like? And then your room?”

I thought I remembered the way-- Refuge was a maze of underground corridors and missing or faded directions, but I’d pretty much gone straight through all intersections on my way out-- but she’d been friendly so far, and I needed to get to know the people here. And I kind of liked her. “Yeah, that’d be great. Thank you.”

It turned out I wouldn’t have needed her help, but I was still glad for the company in the dark, cool tunnels, my pentacle lit up to provide a bit more light than the few electric lights and distantly spaced lamps and candles could offer, her steps muffled and sure beside me. Delta team was hovering outside the medical room door, drawn together in a little semicircle of earnest faces and murmuring voices, falling to silence as Linda and I approached.

“Harry,” Jeff stepped away from the group, meeting us. “Thanks for coming-- sorry about losing you before, it got a bit hectic.”

I shrugged. “I’ve done the urgent care thing before. The fewer people in the way the better. How’s he doing?”

Jeff’s already worried face flattened out.

“That good, huh?”

Jeff sighed, scratched at the back of his head, worry stamped on his forehead like a postmark. “Doc says he has a concussion. He’s sleeping for now, but we’re going to take turns waking him every couple hours. One of his eyes won’t open-- too swollen, and he’s lost some teeth. His hands are broken. A couple ribs. Looks like his internal organs came through okay, although we’ll be keeping an eye on it. His kidneys took a beating.”

“All of him took a beating,” I said, my face twisting down. Jesus. That had all happened to the big guy in front of me-- in front of half of Refuge. And why? Because tempers were high and some assholes wanted an extra piece of cake? “...I could have a look at him,” I offered, guilt clawing its way into my belly. “I can’t promise I can do much,” I added, hurriedly, at the little floods of hope and optimism that rushed in Delta team’s faces. “It’s not really my area. But I can try.”

Their expressions didn’t change, and I let myself into the medical room with a wince. They really knew nothing about magic here-- and they thought I could work miracles. I was going to disappoint them in more ways than one before the night was out.

Hank was a big lump on a little bed, slack and loose with the deep sleep of the badly injured, well-drugged or unconscious. I rolled a little silver werelight off my fingers and set it to hover above him, lighting him up and letting me get a better look. He was a big guy, cut from the no-neck-thug cloth of bruisers and bouncers and high school football stars everywhere. His muscles looked solid, honest-- the kind you got from physical labor, not the gym. ...Not that there were many options other than physical labor, these days. His hair was a strawberry blond, most of it hidden under the bandages wrapped around his head, but delicate little curls of it all over his arms, thick on his chest where his shirt had been cut away to let the doctor wrap up his ribs.

His hands were bandaged too, wrapped tightly in thin cloth strips-- torn from towels and bedsheets, I was willing to bet. Reusable, if they could be boiled clean. I touched them lightly, barely making contact, my hands hovering a centimeter above them. His fingers were bound together and to flat little sticks, still swollen and misshapen despite the effort, and the bruising traveled far past the end of the bandages, well up his forearms.

I could hear voices-- caught a shadow of movement, or a movement in the shadow, and looked over at the door that led to the second medical room off this one. There were people on the other side, someone’s pacing visible in the little gap of light between the door and the floor, voices getting louder, crosser. I recognized the doctor’s: the sharp, snapping tone from the argument when Delta had brought me to the fort earlier-- Stars, had it only been a few hours ago?-- and other voices, lower, intimidating. It took me a minute to place the loudest of them. Captain Brody Cavanagh. I guess Golf team was getting treatment too. You sure do risk banging your knuckles up, when there’s five of you beating the tar out of one guy.

I grit my teeth, and tried to push my anger away. It wouldn’t help with this. I needed a clear head, a gentle touch.

I was being honest with Delta team: I’m not a healer. My talents don’t lie in that area. But I’d learned and practiced since the Darkness. I could heal a simple broken bone, knit flesh and torn muscle, sooth bruises, bleed off some of the tight, negative energy of nausea and headaches. Hank’s breaks weren’t simple; the worst of his bruises were far deeper, far more tender than I could risk touching. But I’d do what I could.

I got out half an hour later, exhausted and angry. For a combat wizard with as little grace as me, healing someone that badly hurt without doing more damage is like trying to make an ice sculpture with a flame thrower. I was able to drain off some of the pain and feed some healing energy in for his body to work with, knit up the start of a subtle fracture in one arm. Beyond that, I didn’t know how much good I’d done, and if Hank could use his hands again it would be because he was a stubborn bastard and not because of anything I’d managed to do.

Linda smiled encouragingly at me as I stalked into the hall. Had she been standing there the whole time? One of the Delta guys-- Ray, I was pretty sure, unless that was Mitch-- was snoring in a chair next to her. “They had to split off for sleep rotation, and taking over Mister Leighton’s guard shift,” she said when I shot a look around for the rest of the team. “Corporal Pipher took the first shift for checking on Mister Leighton. I can take you to your room, if you’d like, Mister Dresden? It’s been a long day.”

“Sure,” I said, more gruffly than I meant to, and felt guilty as I followed her down more tunnels to a room in the key of dormitory, complete with a bed, newly made, going by the lack of dust or must on the covers, a little table and chair, and a lot of bare concrete. I had a little oil lamp, too, burning cheery on the table. They were trying to court me; there weren’t that many sources of light in here, one candle or lamp in a smaller hallway, a few sluggish electric lights, too, just in the cafeteria and medical rooms and the main halls, so they must be powering a generator somehow, but that didn’t mean they could throw away light like this. This was a bribe.

Somehow the little light wasn’t stacking up against what I felt about how they were handling a teeny tiny thing like murder and assault.

“You look frustrated.”

“Yeah, because I am frustrated. I don't feel like I'm getting much done here. Nobody will tell me anything-- a man is dead, and nobody's talking about it," I snapped, scrubbing at my hair and making a halting attempt to pace in the too-small room.

"There's not much to talk about, with Chief," Linda said quietly, politely turning so that she was facing me as I walked back and forth. "He came in after the first snow. Arrived here about the same time Golf team got back. He doesn't-- he didn't talk much about where he's from. I wish he'd talked more. Told me if there were other survivors at the reservation-- there might be a burial ceremony, something. Someone might be missing him. I don't know."

"He was from around here?" I frowned. Wisconsin had been part of my territory, as the Regional Warden Commander. I hadn’t known every wizard in it, not even close. But the back of my brain was starting to prickle every time I thought about Chief, about how I hadn’t known him, how it felt like I should have. I was missing something.

"He must be-- have been. He said he was Winnebago-- something that sounded like Winnebago. I'm not familiar with the pronunciation, not like I should be," she fretted, hands twisting on each other. "He never said if he was from the Ho Chunk nation headquarters in Black River Falls or from the Winnebago nation across the border. I just assumed-- they seemed the most likely places. He said he wasn’t far from home."

My brow furrowed. "You know more about it than anyone else does."

"I was a teacher, Before. Middle school. I know the local history." She shook her head. "It's horrible, how senseless-- he wasn't such a bad man. I know some people say he was standoffish, but that's not always true. He was friendly to me. I think we must have met, but I don't remember. He talked to me after my husband died, said he knew me. Maybe a field trip to the reservation, back Before, I feel so terrible that I don't remember," she repeated, words low and running over each other like snow rolling over snow before the avalanche really got underway.

"That's going around," I muttered, a little rock in her path.

She squinted at me, and decided that wizard-brand crazy probably wasn't worth trying to figure out. "I'm sorry. I wanted to talk to you about my husband. I heard about what you were telling Captain Sommer’s group about vampires, and Renfields." She was twisting her shawl with her hands-- she let out a breath and dropped it, letting her hand hang firmly at her sides. Her wrists were all bone, poking a few inches past the fabric of her sleeves, showing just how thin she was under the shapeless dress. "I think he's one of those. My husband, I mean."

"I... I don't think that's likely," I said awkwardly.

"But it fits.” Her fingers twitched as she lay out her points: one, two, three. “He was a Golf team hunter-- the sixth, they were an old group, all of them here from the beginning. They haven’t replaced him yet; it’s rare. He was important to a lot of people. They were all trapped outside in the early blizzard--there was a cave they were stuck in, trying to wait it out, they shouldn’t all have been out there but it had been so cold, they wanted to bring home as much as they could before winter-- they said my husband broke his leg in the snow, that they were trying to get him to safety when the vampires came--".

She saw the look on my face and shook her head hard. "No, it's not just that, please listen. We all thought he was dead, but hunting teams have been seeing him-- it's nothing they'll tell me, but they talk and it gets back to me. It’s hard to keep a secret in a place this size. They see him, standing alone in the wilds sometimes, but when they go to check, he's gone. And it's usually right before or after someone finds a new attack site. Maybe he's not the only one, but-- it could be, couldn't it? The vampires could be making him do this."

Her voice seemed to come from behind her, bare and even and filtered through a thick layer of resignation and grief. Her eyes were dry, and I got the sense that she'd gone through all the tears she could spare already.

And here I was, with the shitty job of introducing her to whole new vistas of horrifying crap that could rip apart any closure she'd managed to find. God, I love my job. No wonder I’d gotten out of the business when the world ended. "You might be right. He wouldn't have escaped from the Blacks; if he's still standing, he's probably with them. I'm sorry."

"Mister Dresden, if it's him, if it's not a-- a mistake of identity. Can you cure, a ...Renfield?" her mouth formed strangely around the new-old word, as if she was trying it on to see if she could deal with it, test the fit and the shape.

No. Thrall wasn’t pretty, even at the best of times. And the Black Court were vicious, graceless monsters. They were the type of bastards that took your name but left your face behind. Once they got you... half the reason Renfields are called that, I think, is because it’s easier for us to lump them together, to amputate and save what’s left of their identities for ourselves, to guard their memory from what the Blacks make them into. Shells. Servants. Killers. A mortal extension, a force of will and hunger that could survive in the sunlight and laugh off holy water like a bit of rain. Nothing but brute force intelligence that hunted and obeyed and just happened to look like someone you loved.

If Linda’s husband had been turned like that...

"I'm sorry," I whispered, and she gave me that encouraging little smile again.

"It's all right, Mister Dresden. At least you were brave enough to tell me to my face." Her smile hit an immovable barrier and stopped about halfway up her face, and her eyes were blank with exhaustion when she reached out for my hands. "It's all right. I'm a big girl; you don’t have to protect me from it. I know that people die."

Her hands were cool in mine-- long-fingered, bony, strong. She smiled at me with half her face and I wondered how often she'd been expected to put someone else's reactions first-- someone important. A hunter. A Reverend. A wizard. She was just a schoolteacher, who'd eat after the important people had gotten their extra rations, who'd make sure I wasn't offended before she let herself grieve.

I squeezed her hands. "You don't have to... it's not easy to accept. It's okay to be upset. I'm sorry I can't do more. If it is your husband, I'll make sure it doesn't hurt when we, uh--"

She saved me from my own euphemisms. "I think that's very sweet of you." Her hands slipped out of mine. "Thank you for listening. I should get back to the main hall. I'm dishwashing tonight. If they try to get you on chore duty, go for dishwashing. The hot water feels good on your hands during the winter."

"Thanks," I said, because what else could I? "...’Night, Linda."

"Goodnight, Mister Dresden."


 

I was too tired that night to remember my dreams, except that when I woke up at what was probably two or three am, I thought I was dreaming because I could smell coffee.

There was someone in the room with me, and I flinched the rest of the way awake, blinking at the shaggy silhouette sitting at the little table, my oil lamp burning away behind it, the light muted, somehow, greasy. Him? Him. There was a matte gleam off of something on the table next to him-- an eviscerated foil packet, I realized with a sinking feeling.

"Morning," said Chief, saluting me with his coffee mug.

"Nmmf. You're the one who was stealing the food," I said, squinting at him and trying to figure out why my brain was screaming at me.

"Hnn," he chuckled. "Took it from the thieves. Owed me this one." It was hard to make him out in the weak light, and I just had an impression of harsh, weathered features, teeth just slightly too long, blind eye, bullet hole.

The sad thing was that it wasn't the fact that he had a bullet through his head that bothered me, it was that it hadn't healed. There are lots of supernasties out there who can heal up a bullet wound and keep coming. The list of beings that will keep coming but not bother to patch up their flesh wounds is much shorter.

"Get out," I said, groping for my blasting rod. "Out. You don't belong here."

"I can't have a midnight snack?" he said, his windy voice mild and common-sensical.

"Out of this Fort. You've got something to do with this-- the food shortages, the anger, the darkness." I summoned a werelight, holding it up, gripping my blasting rod. "I'll stop you." The words didn't have weight to them-- I was exhausted and my grasp of up and down and grip-rod was rudimentary at best. Not just exhaustion, I realized-- there was something keeping me half asleep and off balance, making me fight to keep my eyes open.

Part of me was punchy and giggling as I brandished a stick against a guy with a hole in his head, drinking coffee. A much bigger, smarter part of me was scared.

"Stop winter hunger?" Chief sounded amused. "Stop fear and isolation? Are you going to?" He laughed, reedy and whistling, the sound of wind in dead, dry leaves. "They'll eat their own, Knight. Turn on each other and feed. Stew the children in the milk of the mothers and when there's nothing left, they'll eat themselves." His hand waved dismissively. "These people summoned me. They broke the old taboos and took my spirit into them. They invited me in at the Northern gate and I am in them. Coffee?" He held out the mug.

"Who are you?"

He shook his head, wheezing out that asthmatic giggle again. "Oh, Knight. Such a white man who knows white things and carries a big stick. Go home, before it starts. You're no enemy of mine. Go home." He drained the coffee to its dregs and set down the cup.

"Who are you?" My head was getting heavy, my hand wavering on my staff. My concentration faltered, my werelight dwindled out, and the oil lamp started flickering like a bad bulb.

"Can't flirt your way out of this one, champ,” Chief said jovially, and shot me the fingerguns, both hands. Just as the imaginary bullets would have hit me, my light went out.

 

I woke up, flailing for my blasting rod-- it was on the bed beside me, tangled in the blanket. "Fliccum bicus!" The lamp wick lit without a hitch, flickering innocuously. It didn't feel like anything had taken a bite out of my magic.

There was no wrapper left on the table. No mug. But a fresh ring on the wood veneer and the lingering smell of coffee....


Chapter Text

May, 1 year After

 

I’d never gone to college. I’d finished the coursework for my GED on my grandfather’s farm, hunched over the desk in my room, the kitchen table after supper and evening chores, a slow correspondence that had eventually ended in a nice official piece of paper that promised I was just as stupid as any other teenager who’d gone through the public education system. I’d thought about it a few times, in a distant sort of ‘what do you do when you’re done with high school, anyway’ way, but I’d never really felt the urge and Eb didn’t push me. I think he would have helped if I’d asked, but he’d learned pretty fast that the best way to deal with me was to let me work around to what I wanted, most of the time taking the slow and hard route, until I found out he’d been there all along, patiently waiting, making the way a little easier when he could.

When I was nineteen and Eb-- early one morning, no fanfare, just the simple, solid way he did everything for me-- said he’d sent official notice to the Council that I was done with my apprenticeship, college didn’t even cross my mind. “Stop learning, start dying,” he’d said-- I’d hear him say it more than once after, the ring of mantra in it-- but right then, I’d just wanted to go, to learn some different types of lessons. I was restless, a little directionless. I’d lived six years in the same house, walking the same few streets, bound by the same rules with Justin; I’d lived three years with Eb, learned the farm inside and out, made a bit of peace with myself I’d never thought I would have when I was sixteen and facing that big yellow farmhouse for the first time.

So I left. Packed my things-- a few old steamtrunks I left at Eb’s, a dufflebag for the road-- and wandered. And about a year later, I found Chicago, picked up some odd jobs, did my PI apprenticeship with Nick Christian. And then I was self-employed. I had my magic, I had my research and Bob, I had as many books as the library would lend me and my bank account would let me buy. So I didn’t really think of post-secondary education, except as something that wasn’t in my cards, as another piece of paper and some letters I didn’t need after my name, as a slew of cultural experiences promised to me by Hollywood that were midway down the pile of all the mainstream experiences I wasn’t going to get.

...Moving in to a dorm was definitely one of those experience I’d never thought I’d have.

And okay, I wasn’t. Not really. This wasn’t the first week of classes. This sure as hell wasn’t a dormitory. It was a fallen tower, long since abandoned by its former Sidhe lord, grown over with the Winter woods, infested with little minor sprites and fae.

But it sure as hell felt a lot like it, walking up the path and seeing my godmother at work.

Everything was moving in a bustle, dirt and errant spells and little hoards of gnomes and minor pest spirits being swept out of the tower as creature comforts-- padded furniture, shelves, bedding, dishes, thick towels, all things faerie-made, nothing that would last a sunrise in the mortal world-- were carted in, borne on the backs of little and not-so-little Winter fae, criss-crossing groups of instruction and purpose and hurry. I couldn’t follow half of it. And at the center of it all wa Lea, directing and maneuvering and rapping off crisp orders like a suburban matriarch general on an orientation week battlefield. I half expected a minivan behind her; was almost surprised she was in a gown and not a yoga jacket.

She saw me arriving up the path from the Way in Marcone’s Fort’s courtyard, and smiled in a way I’d first seen a few years ago, after my first Wild Hunt, her eyes glowing, her teeth bared in satisfaction and conquest. Mouse whined and tried to hide his bulk behind me, the coward. It didn’t work: if he’s a Shetland pony in the mortal world, he’s a Clydesdale in the Nevernever. I clutched my worn backpack and dufflebag closer to my chest, most of my few remaining belongings stuffed inside, because I didn’t want to misplace them in the commotion, and not because I was terrified.

“Godson,” Lea greeted me, a proud little trill, and reached up to pat my cheek. She rested a cool, smooth hand on my arm, drew me close. “Here you are!”

“Godmother,” I said. “You’ve been busy.”

“As a mother should,” she said, one arm wrapped around me, holding me against her with causal, titanium strength, walking me closer to the long tube of the fallen tower. “On the day of your triumph; when her son is claiming his first hold.”

“Lea,” I said, a little bit of tired warning, and she tapped my arm.

“Hush,” she told me. “I mean no disrespect to your mother, godson. I do not attempt to break that bond.” She managed to time it so we just avoided collision with a fleet of little dewdrop fairies carting a bedside table-- bobbing and weaving dangerously, a nimbus of light and at least six sets of wings with only a vague approximation of direction-- and walked me to my new front door. “You have chosen your location well, child.” She beamed at me and I shuffled, clutching my bags a little tighter.

"Well, you know what they say about real estate," I said. Grumbled. Her smile turned sweet.

"It was the hold of a mighty hunter. He built it in this place because many paths lead nearby. "

"I noticed." She laughed brightly, squeezing my arm, giving me a proud look. I’d Done Good.

"It will be good to see the lands reclaimed," she beamed. ”A good place to make a home. Other knights have chosen much more poorly.”

That panged-- a fight I’d had with Bob, once, about how I wasn’t going to pack up and leave the mortal world. And I still considered Demonreach my Home, the closest thing I had to one, at least, when I wasn’t bunking down at the Fort or at Mac’s place or Eb’s farm, or traveling the Ways to check out farther settlements, see how those regions had survived the Darkness. One of the reasons I’d picked this hamster tube was that it was an easy stroll to a Way that led to Demonreach-- and the island’s omnipresent, overwhelming intelligence and I were buddies, so I didn’t lose my mind trying to access it through the Nevernever. Controlling the territory here meant that things that might otherwise have tromped on through to visit the island were going to think twice.

...It was convenient. It was really convenient. It was too convenient, this place, too tempting. Especially after the slap I’d gotten from the Merlin, once we’d finally re-established communications with Edinburgh. He’d wanted his Wardens back-- except for me, and that had stung too, but not as much as the little power game he was playing to get them.

Because why should Wardens stay with the upstart mortal baron-- even if they’d been given shelter when the sky fell and all of us were shaken to the eyeteeth and barely able to take care of ourselves, even if they wanted to, had made friends, chosen obligations and made new loyalties in the new order-- when said baron had the Winter Knight and a fine Warden (or at least good enough for company) camping out on his couch? Me allying myself with any mortal settlement was excuse enough to put pressure on anyone with two combat spells to rub together to head to Edinburgh.

I wasn’t Langtry’s only crowbar, of course, but I was a convenient one. He wanted everyone back, and wasn’t above applying equal weights of authority, peer pressure, and shame as motivators. Even if they were locals, like Choi from the BC coast, like Listens to Wind up in that settlement he’d adopted in Alberta, like Carlos protecting his survivor’s camp in Arizona. And European models like Luccio-- now that she wasn’t teaming up with Kincaid to keep Ivy from toppling any further over that edge the Archives were all forced to balance on-- why, staying on this side of the pond was just excessive, wasn’t it? She should come back and help the Hellhound, not dither around wiping the noses of a bunch of vanillas and one jumped up mafia Don.

Kincaid had taken Ivy to Edinburgh with the White Council representatives after that tense meeting at the Fort last month. It had been a shock to see her. I’d always thought... well, when you grow up with the Internet in your head, who’d think that having it turn off would be the breaking point? She’d been heartbreaking. Frightening. Attention shorted, eyes and smile blank, language and time blurring at the edges when she reached for them. She’d responded well to Mouse, had known who everyone was. Had looked at me with such sadness. But when she spoke... she wasn’t experiencing the same world we were anymore. And Luccio had stayed behind, with Marcone, and that had pushed the Merlin just far enough to start making his polite, insistent demands, his backhanded insults. Even Eb hadn’t been spared the passive aggressive bullshit. He had the authority to hang on, he’d dug his roots deep in the Ozarks, but it was just selfish of him to putter around on his little farm instead of rallying to the aid of the Old World home in Scotland.

Maybe I wasn’t being fair, it wasn’t like the Merlin was locking the rest of the Wardens up in his back room, I knew they were spreading around and helping in Europe, some crossing over to other continents, traveling between settlements there too-- but I was too angry to be fair. Mac’s little shelter, Marcone’s Fort, I’d been happy moving between them and now I wasn’t supposed to have them anymore. I could visit, you know, if I was on my best behavior and I didn’t push the limits. If I didn’t get too comfortable. There was Demonreach, there would always be Demonreach in the back of my mind, comfortable in a way I could barely understand sometimes, but I was as afraid of getting all strung out on the information overload there as I was of going native in Faerie.

...So here I was, Lea cooing about how happy she was that I was finally settling down, happy as any godparent seeing their kid off to a bright new start, efficiently making sure I had the best of everything I would need-- paying for my books, my tuition, my housing, would send me care packages every month.

“The Hunts will probably still ride by, but it would be rude to enter your home without an invitation. They do not often trouble this area; you have powerful neighbors, my child. But you’ll have a fine view of them, when your Queen or I cannot convince you to join.” She reached up to cluck me under my chin, gave a light, friendly scratch with her nails. …Yeah. That. “This land isn’t as dreadful as you imagine, Harry.”

I followed her eyes to the scenery-- snow-capped trees, ancient and gnarled and wise, holly bushes and vines that had crawled slowly in perpetual Winter to the foot of the fallen tower. In its heyday, this place must have been really something to look at, when it wasn’t a shattered cylinder, laying on its side. Yeah, it would have worked for a Sidhe lord, the steel-gray stone rising taller than the trees, the graceful taper and ornate carved frames of the windows. But that was then. There was a kind of cozy, kid’s clubhouse charm to the tower as it was now, lying in pieces on its side, one of them just the right size for a bachelor Knight to move in. I’d explored; the walls and floors (which were now walls) were solid; all the falling down was done. It was still a little bit of an adventure, walking past the stone stairs, popping through a doorway that had been a passage between floors, pretending you were defying gravity by squinting and wandering along an outer stone wall. It would be a nice place to live, if a little brain-bending. It wouldn’t be much bigger than my old apartment, only two or three times.

“It’s beautiful, godmother. But I’m human. I don’t belong here.”

“Child.” She tutted. “You are more than that. Why drag yourself in the filth? Why hurt, when you need not?”

My shoulders went tense with sudden, hot anger. “That’s what they tell all the kids.”

“They come willingly.” Lea frowned at me. “I have not taken a protege, though your Queen has-- are you jealous, child?” her eyes widened, and she stroked a thumb along my face. “Oh, little one, you are still the most favored.”

“I’m not jealous.” I pulled out of her grip, stalking into the house, stooping to enter through the sideways door. “Those kids the Courts are recruiting, they’re scared and stupid and hurt and they don’t know what Faerie’s going to turn them into.” It must be so tempting for them to have all the hurts healed-- psychic and psychological and physical-- but you can’t be human if you don’t hurt, and sooner or later they’d forget who and what they’d been... and I wasn’t any better off, having a new house danced into place for me like Disney was in charge. If I wasn’t careful, I’d be having the wildlife clean my dishes and make my bed for me in no time. It was so easy it made me itch, so easy that I was afraid that I’d wake up one day and not be myself anymore. That maybe I already had.

Scared, stupid young wizards. Like Molly, in Titania’s court. I still couldn’t think about that without feeling like a failure. Like it was my fault, like I’d given her the idea that faerie magic could heal her and make it all okay, make the whole wrecked world stop bleeding and whimpering in her dreams.

“I don’t understand,” Lea said sweetly, following me in, the tube of my new home actually brightening up as she entered, and in her way I don’t think she actually did. Faerie was what she was; anything else seemed silly, a funny little game or a whimsical joke. Her smile had dimmed, and she drew me close again, cool, flawless skin so comforting when she brushed her hand across my forehead. “Oh, child. Don’t be sad. Show me your wonderful new hold and think of better things, things that don’t hurt.”

“And everything is beautiful,” I gritted out, earning a headtip, a half-knowing smile, as if she knew the reference but didn’t quite get it. “...Nevermind. It’s not going to be forever, Lea.”

People were pulling together: the Fort was still pretty-touch-and-go, but standing on its own. Wagons and the odd SUV and old ATV, fueled by the carefully hoarded, carefully partitioned gas, were still loaded up every few weeks for raids on nearby ruins, but the outside walls were growing, didn’t need to be shored up against ghouls and Black Court vampires and other demons as often as they had been, there was a barn and a little greenhouse and a garden. Hell, they’d managed to find another mostly-intact generator and enough parts from others to repair it, had a bunch of sodium-vapor lamps to set up in the yard. Murphy had some deputies under her, had recruited a few from the old remaining PD members, some from the survivors, went out and saved lives and brought a few people back with her now and then. The little warren of basements grown up around Mac’s tavern was a place of its own now; the Alphas had moved in, and a flood of teenaged changelings chased from other settlements where people didn’t know what to do with a girl whose hair had turned to feathers or a boy who’d grown three feet overnight.

I couldn’t go back, couldn’t stay, not now. Or I’d ruin people’s lives, the hard little bits of light they’d just started to win back from the Darkness. Give it fifty years, maybe I could think about putting down firmer roots in a mortal settlement again. For now, I’d stagger myself between here and Demonreach, be careful with my visits to Mac and Marcone, how long I let them grow before popping back to my hold. I’d make it. I’d use my time. I’d rebuild Demonreach. I’d help Eb at the farm. I’d find Thomas before he went feral and was lost, like the other Raiths left behind were going, before someone else found him. And I wouldn’t let myself forget what a brother was, what family meant.

“It is for now,” Lea said, like it was the same thing as forever, and maybe in Faerie it was. She pulled my head down to kiss my forehead maternally, a burning brush of Winter cold that the Winter inside of me rose to meet, to soothe away, and then she took my hand, patted it, and led me deeper into my hamster tube. Mouse bumped his nose against my knee. “It is your first hold, child,” she told me, bright and proud again. “Look how far you have come. I will show you where I had your little army put your kitchen. You should prepare for your first two challenges. If they come at you hard, if they offer a challenge they should not offer the favored of the Queen, you will come to me, child.”

And if I got homesick I just had to call, and if I needed money for textbooks she’d wire me some right away. I sighed a little and forced a smile onto my face. My godmother was trying, and she did love me, in her way. Guess it was time to begin classes.


Chapter Text

The storm had stopped sometime overnight, as they do, and when I stepped outside the next morning into the main, outdoor compound I squinted and swore gruffly, over-tired eyes watering at the weak sunlight reflected off the snow. Travis, the youngest of the Delta team bow-holders-- little brother of Max, and there was a third, oldest brother in November team, the whole the-liberals-are-destroying-God’s-country thing apparently an old family affair-- and my de facto guide for the morning laughed, a little conspiratorially. I had the sinking suspicion that I’d just been regulated to a Visiting-Uncle-Who-Drinks-And-Smokes-And-Swears-And-It’s-So-Cool role, but decided to embrace the better part of valor on that one, and looked around instead, taking in Fort Refuge.

It didn’t look that different in the light of a new day-- squat, bunkery, little cement buildings and the big cement building-- although I had a new appreciation for the maze of underground tunnels that made the place that much bigger than it looked from the outside-- and the two new wooden buildings, with what was obviously a chicken coop beside the barn that I hadn’t noticed last night. There were crisscrossing paths in the open area, beaten down with the crosshatch prints of snowshoes and a fair bustle of morning activity, obviously-hunters and obviously-not-hunters all with places to be.

I took a long drink of my still-warm cocoa, standing out of the way, and just let the fresh air and the warmth in my belly mix for a minute, eyes closed, breathing in. The smooth ceramic mug from the kitchen-- another bribe, I was pretty sure, only the hunter groups and I had been permitted to leave with carefully rationed bits of food-- reminded me unsettlingly of my not-dream visit from Chief. I forced that down, the icy patter of fear it dragged up from my chest, and focused on the cocoa instead. It was weak, watered down to serve at least four or five more than the little prepackage artificial mix had been designed for, Before, but it was cocoa. It was sweet and chocolate and a little fake-creamy and I had to drink it slowly or it would have been gone in a second.

“Good morning, Mister Dresden,” Mrs. Smith said, her hands tucked neatly in a rough fur muff, a thick synthetic winter jacket covering her to her knees. “How was your first night with us?”

I opened my eyes, blinked a few times at the sun behind her, dingy and pale with winter and Darkness, but so much brighter than the dimly-lit corridors, not at all surprised she was up and about and capable of sneaking up on me on her home turf while I communed with the gods of hot chocolate goodness. I thought on my lamp, on Chief’s bullet wound and breathy laughter. “Illuminating. You’re well-stocked. How long has Refuge been here?”

“We were prepared for the end,” she said, calm, confident. It was an old pride, but strong. “They tell me that you’re a detective. I understand that that may be why you wanted to attempt to help last night.”

Maybe I hadn’t been my friendliest, the night before-- some people would say I have authority issues. They’re more like entitlement issues: nobody’s allowed to have an entitlement complex but me. But that crisp little ‘attempt’ set the tone. It was understandable that I’d want to try, she meant. But of course, I was delusional if I thought I could actually be useful, bless my heart.

“I was,” I said. “Before. Now, mostly, I’m a wizard.”

“I understand that, too. You’re aware that we need a wizard here.” She stopped me before I could start. “You’re very vocally aware that we need a wizard.”

“I’m not available.” It seemed more diplomatic than ‘your wizards seem to get shot an awful lot.’

“We have quite a bit to trade with your settlement, if they’d be willing to make arrangements with us.”

“My obligations are a little more complicated than that.” As entertainingly horrific as it was to imagine-- for a brief second-- no. I didn’t think these people would deal well with the idea of the Faerie Courts. Mrs. Smith accepted the deflection with a curt nod. “I don’t know if you communicate with other wizards, but please keep us in mind.”

“If anyone’s looking for a job, I’ll let them know.”

She met my eyes-- I had to shift my gaze up and to the left. I would have thought she’d done it on purpose, a little bit of quiet one-upmanship, but I think she just had no idea. “You don’t like me, Mister Dresden. And you don’t like Fort Refuge. I suppose you think we’re as lawless as the rest of the world; that we plan to ignore what happened. I assure you, young man, we have a court martial system. Captain Cavanagh and his men will be tried and disciplined, after our own people gather evidence. We have procedures in place.”

“I’m sure you’ll judge your old friend fairly. Outside perspective would just clutter things up.”

Beside me, Travis started to shuffle, getting nervous.

“I’m not the judge,” Mrs. Smith said, letting my accusation roll off her back. “That’s not my place here. I will not be involved in the investigations. Jacob Wight is a distinguished combat veteran; he’s the military commander here. I simply try to continue my husband’s legacy of spiritual guidance.” Spiritual guidance that looked a lot like being in charge about half the time-- the de facto second-in-command unless the manly men or murder were involved, maybe. Minor distinction, I’m sure. Fine. “What sort of detective were you?”

“I dealt with magical crimes.“ Her mouth pursed skeptically, and my irritation got the better of me. With all the things in the world, all the things that people have seen and heard and have to fear every day of their After-lives, some people still manage to convince themselves that things were different Before. That it was only the Darkness that made the nasties crawl out of the fairy tales and horror movies. “See, they were always there. Creatures that murdered people. Stole humans. Missing persons who were something’s snack. Of course, mostly people didn’t believe me. They had it all worked out. Strange how that’s changed.”

Her jaw tightened, and she sucked in a deep breath.

“Missus. Smith,” a soft voice intruded, a tall, thin figure ghosting silently up through the snow.

“Linda!” Mrs. Smith almost snapped, surprised. “What can I do for you?”

Linda looked down, her hands linked together, holding her shawl tight around her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith. I was hoping that I could borrow Mister Dresden for an hour or two, for his expertise. He’s already helped Captain Sommers and Delta. If you wouldn’t mind talking to the children, Mister Dresden?”

Mrs. Smith and I shared a mutually hostile look.

“Of course, Linda. Good idea. I’m sure Mister Dresden has a great deal to offer Refuge.” She fixed us with an only-slightly morally superior smile, hands folding back inside her muff, and Travis crab-walked sideways awkwardly, slowly edging his way behind me. I didn’t blame him; I’d have hidden behind me too.

“It’s a school day?” I said, and immediately felt like an idiot. She’d said she was the school teacher, and I’d accepted it. But somehow, ‘end of the world’ had always sounded a lot like ‘school’s out forever’ to me. That and the North Chicago Fort did it a little differently, and I’d fallen into thinking that everyone did things their way.

“It’s Thursday,” she said kindly. “We have classes every day but Sunday. And then there is Sunday school.”

“Sure. What did you want me to talk about?”

“Some of the basic rules of magic you mentioned to Doctor Lowe would be a good place to start. The hair and blood, especially. They should know what to do, how to keep safe. I’m afraid ‘Stranger danger’ is a bit more complex then it was before.” She said it dryly enough that I almost-- almost didn’t catch the tone. At least someone here had a sense of humor.

I flashed a glare back at Mrs. Smith and followed Linda inside.

I had half a shpiel planned, but it was going to take massive editing to be appropriate for children. How did you G-rate vampires, demons, and soul-sucking, bones-crunching monsters? How did you talk about the seductive, mind-numbing and libido-charging techniques of the Raiths and half the Faerie Courts and another handful of nasties to kids who didn’t have cartoons as a cultural landmark? Pepé Le Pew was not going to do me any good here.

But when Linda led me into the cafeteria, I realized that my problem was a little bigger than that. Just short of a hundred people bigger. Over half of Fort Refuge was sitting in: a few hunters still in their outdoor gear at the back, other men in work clothes and women in dresses and shawls like Linda, a few in coveralls, and almost two dozen kids in front, some nearly sixteen, a handful eightish and under, young enough that they’d been born after the Darkness. Everyone stared at me as I came through the cafeteria doors-- hey, déjà vu-- their expressions running the gauntlet from cautiously interested to eager to flat-out derision.

I switched gears. All right, off the magic-lesson-for-kids train, onto the car marked ‘pretend I was talking to a bunch of young wardens, some who were barely used to magic, plenty of whom had already heard really dubious things about me’. That was familiar.

I turned to Linda. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to keep it as simple as I’d like, with this audience. If your kids get lost, I’d be happy to follow up with you guys privately, maybe set up a demonstration in one of the smaller rooms.”

“Thank you,” she said, her face a little strained, her pleasant, polite smile strapped in place with double-strength duct tape today. “I didn’t realize quite how many people Captain Sommers had told; he was on his team was on way out when we ran into each other, he said he’d been sorry to miss the lesson. He’s very enthusiastic about you. They say that you helped Mister Leighton.”

“...talk about that later,” I said, giving her a tense smile back. “I’ll try to keep it PG.”

She nodded at me, and stepped back, leaving me alone in the spotlight.

“Good morning,” I said. “I’m Harry Dresden. You may remember me from such TV appearances as the Larry Fowler show.” There was some relieved laughter from the crowd, a release of tension as I set the tone. Some glares deepened. The kids looked heartbreakingly confused. The old legends were already being forgotten.

“I have to lay some ground rules for this class. I will take questions, but sometimes when it comes to magic, the best answer I can give you is ‘just because’. I’ll give demonstrations for everything I can. There are things I won’t. I’ll tell you why I can’t or won’t show you, but they aren’t up for debate.” That pretty much meant soulgaze and the nastier parts of thaumaturgy-- no matter what I thought about these people, none of them deserved to wade into my soul, and I didn’t want any more too-intimate memories stamped into my brain.

“I’m going to start with self-defense,” I said, ignoring some of the snide not-quite-whispers as the skeptical chunk of the audience processed that. “So class, welcome to Magic 101: Things you never, ever, ever give to other people...”

I ran over two hours and only got through the most basic basics; some of the older Refuge citizens argued with me every step of the way. The ‘just because’ clause didn’t go over well. I had to use the “I didn’t make the rules” card more often than I wanted to, but I like to think that most of the audience got something out of it, at least: the kids, eating up my warnings, some of the hunters whose teams had run up against vampires and wyldfae and knew things weren’t as simple as they’d once believed.

I timed myself against the growing activity in the kitchen area, and wrapped up just as lunch was called, fresh and hot. Earned a few brownie points by going straight to the back of the forming line, too. I indulged in people-watching to distract myself from my growling stomach. Sean, the member of Delta who wasn’t out on patrol and wasn’t babysitting me was one of two guards-slash-kitchen-crew subbing in for Hank. He looked nervous, a little uncomfortable with the weight of the sidearm at his hip.

Lunch was potato soup, a thin slurry, but it was spiked with a hint of processed cheeselike substance that hit me right in the nostalgia. Rise, rise the phantom of macaroni and cheese, the kind out of a box, and knock three times. I was forcing myself to eat it slowly when Jeff and the rest of Delta came in, shaking off snow. It must have started up againn. They saw me and Travis, and I raised my spoon in greeting, waited while they grabbed some trays and bowls and filled up.

Jeff led the group, sitting down next to me, cutting straight to the chase. “We went a little out of our way to check out one of the attack sites,” he said, his mouth twisting down. I paused mid-bite, wondering if I was going to want to be eating for this. “The bodies were gone. We looked for tracks, but whatever it was either didn’t make them or cleaned up after itself-- or the snow covered them up.”

“Dammit,.” I hissed through my teeth. “Did it look cleaned up? Anything missing?”

A headshake. “I don’t think so. Place looked about as much of a wreck as it did the first time we checked it out-- just under two fresh feet of powder. That storm yesterday didn’t do anyone any favors.”

I sighed, finished the spoonful I had paused, and didn’t bother explaining that the snowfall would have worked almost as well as a river or a rainstorm at clearing away any magical clues that had outlasted sunrise-- sunrises. Delta set up around me, stirring up their soup, sipping at their rations of water. They’d timed it well, a bit of steam was still rising from their bowls.

“If I’m lucky,” I told them, “the missing bodies are a coincidence. Whatever it was, it’s eating its victims. It might just have come back for the leftovers.”

“And if you’re not lucky, it knows you’re looking for it,” Max said helpfully. “Hey, Sean broke out the cheese powder!”

“Yeah.” I took a heaping spoonful of soup, too hungry to let a little bad news or the way it had cooled to lukewarm ruin my appetite. “Thanks for that, Max. Really.”

“We’ll know soon,” Jeff said, his eyes squinted, amused, at Max’s obvious enjoyment at the processed flavoring and my flat sarcasm. “I’ve asked the other patrols, hunting and security, to check the other sites, see if the same thing happened there, try to get tracks off the sites if they can.”

“Hey, thanks. Really.”

“No problem-- hey, Derek caught me on the way in. Said we missed a great lesson,” Jeff said. “Any chance we’ll get a refresher?”

“Derek,” I squinted, pointing my spoon at Max and then Travis, searching my memory. Travis had been chatty all day, but hadn’t really embraced the concept of conversation flow. “Your other brother. November, team, right?”

“You got it,” Max said, grinning. “Well make a local out of you yet. So what’d we miss?”

“Just some basics,” I said, shrugged. “Some stuff we already went over-- hair, blood. I can go over it tonight if you want. You can bring some of the other teams that were out too, if you want.” Never mind losing my shorts; apparently I should have prepped for this case with informational pamphlets and class notes. But I couldn’t justify leaving them ignorant: it had never been my MO, and in the Darkness, that was practically a death sentence.

“That would be great, Harry,” Jeff said, blowing on a spoonful of soup. “I think we were luckier than we realized, running into you.”

The kitchen door opened, and we all looked over as the same young woman from yesterday came out, holding the goodies-basket. “Oh hey,” Max said, pleased. “Sean is really spoiling us. Two rounds today?” he asked the woman as she approached, and she nodded, lips moving as she counted out Delta’s share, handing the five hunters their little brown packages-- and then handed one to me too.

“Ah,” I said, awkward, not ready, and scrambled to catch it before it fell. “Thanks, but--”

“Go on, Harry,” Jeff said, smiling warmly, elbowing me friendly-like. “You deserve it.”

I watched the woman go, moving on to the next table, handing out more packs to the hunters, the little foil-wrapped square of Before heavy in my hands.

“Besides,” Jeff added, “if it makes you feel better, Golf team are on reduced rations until the hearing. It’s coming out of their stock.” His big bear face creased, remembered upset, and he opened his MRE distractedly, before breaking into a smile again. “Ha, thematic. Way to go, Sean. We need to get an inside man in the kitchen more often.” He crunched the crackers in his hand, sprinkling them into his soup, winking at me. “Enjoy it, Harry. You’re really helping us out. We need it.”

I smiled, wan, and tucked my packet of MRE crackers into one of the cargo pockets on my pants. I didn’t have enough soup left to make crumbling them up in the dregs worth it-- and the rock of guilt in my stomach was going to be a little hard to eat around anyway.


 

The other hunting teams trickled in over the rest of the day, took their breaks and went back out for the afternoon, everyone back and checked in by sunset. You didn’t need to be a wizard to know it was smart to be scared of the dark. The reports came in with the hunters, growing into a pile of ‘stop me if you’ve heard this one’: all the nearby raid sites were cleaned out, the bodies gone, half the sites snowed over. The squads spread out farther the next day, checking the sites at the edge of Refuge’s daily reach, but it was more of the same. Some of those sites were a couple months old already; all that was left was the wreckage.

There was one site no one had checked, to the east, about a day away, at the edge of the territory reserved for spring to fall hunts. For one of the hunting teams, checking it out now meant being away from Refuge for two days at least, striking up camp in wild territory for a long winter night, and the odds against anything being left were stacked high. It was one of the oldest sites, found soon after the first big snow at the beginning of September, early in the season when hunters still went that far from home... but, it was beginning to look like the only option left. If it was a bust, I could go looking for survivors, the ones who had talked to Murphy, get some firsthand accounts and see what sites Refuge didn’t know about, and if there was anything left at them. And, I reminded myself darkly, if I just stuck around long enough, there was sure to be a new raid soon enough.

I scowled at the Refugee’s map, spread out on a big table in Commander Wight’s office, a detailed survey of the forest and nearby towns from Before that surrounded their fort, and marked up with rough boarders of settlements and divided into hunting quadrants for After. The unchecked attack site was a pebble on a swath of green, one of the old state forests, and I flicked my mind through my own journeys and growing familiarity with the Nevernever and my mother’s maps, her voice soothing and familiar at the back of my mind, tracking out Ways that opened nearby. A lot of this area had been Winter’s, thousands and thousands of years ago, and there was a patch of the old state that Mab leased not too far away-- if push came to shove, we could go in that way, and hike from there.

We, because Jeff had said he’d talk to the other squad Captains and Commander Wight about swinging the Delta shifts to let them be absent for a few days of rotation, and I’d probably take him up on it. It’d be a little extra work to find a Way safe for me and mortal companions-- mortal Companions with only a rough understanding of what it meant to go between worlds, as Jeff had said-- but I would be happy, frankly, for the company and people who knew the area. And no way was I sitting on my butt behind the fort walls and sending off a group of men-- starting to become a group of friends-- into danger and disappointment without me.

There was a sharp rap at the office door and it opened a second later; Mrs. Smith entered, a pillar of black dress and a stern expression. “...Mister Dresden,” she said. “I was looking for Commander Wight.”

“Not here,” I said helpfully. And a beat later, because I’m not actually a teenager, “Said he was going to the storehouse. Left about fifteen minutes ago.”

“I see,” she said, crossing the room to come stand beside me at the table, looking down at the map and my spread of pebbles. “The attack sites. How is your investigation progressing?”

“Slowly,” I said, “but Delta and the other teams have been a big help.”

“You think you will find the perpetrator?”

“I hope to, yeah.”

She folded her hands neatly in her lap, lips pursing together as she examined the map. “Is this what you do, Mister Dresden?”

“Meaning?”

“I have not seen one of these attacks, but what I have heard of them--” she took a deep breath through her nose. “We have had our sanctuary invaded by demons in the past.”

I nodded, “White Court. It came up.”

She jerked her chin. “Yes. One of the vampire species.”

“...Courts,” I said. I’d gone over the Blacks and Whites in my last lesson-- my third, plus the private lessons I’d ended up giving to the hunters who’d missed the main lessons and wanted recaps in the evenings, and the four-hour marathon sit-down I’d done with Linda and her kids yesterday afternoon. I hadn’t figured out much for Murphy yet, but at least I’d left almost two hundred people a little less in the dark than they’d been before. “I understand she caused some trouble.”

“Don’t play coy, Mister Dresden.” I would have said she snapped, but her voice was colder than that, crisper. She’d had time to deal with that wound, and the scar tissue was numb. “I am sure you are perfectly aware of the events as they occurred.”

“Hear you’ve got one hell of a left shotgun.” And in an effort not to be a total asshole. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“We lost many good men that day,” she said, deflecting easily, smoothing out her dress. “The demon disguised herself as a survivor. She was very charming, very innocent-seeming. We welcomed her through our walls. I welcomed her into my home.”

And right into the arms of her husband, I didn’t say. Even without their cats-paws to do the dirtiest work, the White Court understand power, and how to manipulate it; they’re raised on the political scheming of community groups, on how to turn it to their advantage, whether it’s an inbred demonic family, a hub of international leadership, or a religious flavoured militia in the backwoods. They know who’ll give them the most buck for their bang.

Instead, I just nodded and said: “One of their favorite tricks-- a lot of the things out there do it. Pass themselves off as human, get you to invite them in, and attack from the inside. Some will dress up as human, someone you know, or possess a person, wear a familiar face. Different plays, but the same game.”

“Well,” Mrs. Smith said, briskly. “It worked. We’ve had other... creatures at our gates, although they were not usually so well-disguised. The first year was very hard. And we have lost many hunters, many men on security patrol.”

I nodded, grimly, remembering Delta when they’d found me, the sudden storm, the almost certainty that one of the guys I’d come to know and like would have been an already-forgotten meal in the stomach of a little demon, maybe some bones on the forest floor. It wasn’t fair. It really wasn’t.

“You think we’re callous towards death-- I can see it. But we have met our share of death and suffering, Mister Dresden, and perhaps it has escaped your notice, with your power and your arrogance, but the world is an inhospitable place.”

I let her have her barbs; maybe I could have thrown some of them back, sure. Arrogance. Add in some ignorance, some privilege and bigoted intolerance... but what good would it have done me? I didn’t need my Sight to see the bleeding hole in her side, patched over with routine and power and the way she clung to the rules and ideals Refuge had been built on. Even knowing it was coming, the end of the world wasn’t pretty-- and some bitter, petty part of me imagined that she’d probably been expecting a bit more preferential treatment.

“I’ll set up some wards before I go,” I said instead. “Around your gate. There’s a bit of a threshold here; I can anchor them to that.” My mouth twisted, and I continued, pushed on by honesty. “I’m here to find out information for the Sheriff, first and foremost. But I’m willing to do what I can to help you while I’m here, though I don’t know how much help wards would be for what’s going on now. Whatever this thing is that’s attacking people-- it’s going right over thresholds, it might be able to bust through the wards too, if it’s that powerful. But most things can’t, and the wards will help you know what you’re dealing with, the next time.”

She nodded. “Thank you; your help is appreciated. I am sure your settlement is missing your skills. Do you often leave them to aid the Sheriff?”

“No,” I said, slowly, pretty sure she wasn’t asking just to get to know me better. Something told me that she wasn’t used to taking no for an answer; she wouldn’t let this thing about my settlement go. I hadn’t felt quite so much like a traded commodity since my first few months in Winter and that one run-in with the guys who locked me in their basement. “The Sheriff and her deputies are pretty good at dealing with everything that gets thrown at them. But this case is unusual; I used to help the Sheriff out with strange cases, back when she was a cop. I’m just here to find out what I can, and report back to her. She and her deputies can handle themselves and the stuff out there with them. And they do a lot of work with the acolytes with the nastier stuff.”

The corners of her mouth turned down and her forehead smoothed out, her chin lifting before dropping again. It was quiet, understated, but she probably couldn’t have screamed disapproval any louder. My eyebrows raised. “You know the Swords, then?”

“We know of them.” Her hands folded neatly in front of her, folded again the other way. “And their message. We were visited by one of their witch doctors, many years ago. She was dismissed. We follow the word of God, Mister Dresden. We do not need any false prophets here.”

I digested that. The acolytes of the Swords were respected everywhere I’d been, and, I’d thought, everywhere I hadn’t. Whether or not you believed their message, they did good work; they were good people, picked by the Swords. If one showed up when you were being dragged under by a Näkki, you thanked your lucky stars. And if one showed up and it wasn’t life or death, you welcomed them, took them in for the night, and felt better for the reminder of how to be a good person. It was a lot like Bravo team shooting at Murphy: you didn’t close the door and send them packing.

“You guys don’t play very well with others, do you,” I said, my voice cold. “There’s not a lot of help out there-- you don’t get to call the cops, or the fire department, or an ambulance, or the National fucking Guard anymore. The best you can hope for is someone being around when you need them, and Murph and her people and the acolytes are your best bet. You keep chasing them away--”

“Mister Dresden,” she snapped. “We do not stand for that language here. You are a guest in my house: we are aiding you in your needs. Charity is a virtue, but do not mistake our generosity as an invitation to judge our decisions or our lifestyle. It is the end of times, Mister Dresden. We keep the wolf from our door.”

“And the lamb too,” I said, biting in with the biblical imagery. “So you don’t buy the origin of the swords-- I don’t know if I do either. But I respect good people. Do you know who the ‘false prophet’ was who wielded Amoracchius for decades before the Darkness? He was a good man. A Christian man. Worked extensively with the church. The swords were a church thing, even if some of the wielders aren’t church types.”

“Monsters aren’t the only ones that disguise themselves and poison a place from the inside,” she said coldly. “And we don’t worship saints here.”

My teeth gritted. The world had ended and they were still holding onto stupid old prejudices. Disguising them, behaving nicely, but oh God not the Catholics, they’re almost as bad as atheists. As if Michael, as if the acolytes of the swords were as bad as the monsters who were gutting people in the woods. And the undercurrent of ‘not our type’ and ‘undesirable’ that my new friends laughed off and acted apologetic for-- “I’ve fought demons, Mrs. Smith. I know what scares them. I looked into that swordsman’s soul. It was beautiful. I’m sorry about what he had to see in return. The people you run off are better people than I am. Lots of them could have helped you more than I have. I just happen to kind of look like your kind of guy.”

“Mister Dresden, I won’t have these accusations. The mainstream media hardly painted a favorable picture of us, but--”

“There is no media! There hasn’t been any media in a decade! There’s just people who aren’t good enough for you! I’m powerful, sure. I got lucky in the gene department, I have magic. Most people don’t. Most people are trying to survive, and they have better things to do than try to convert your kids to whatever religion you don’t like today and tax your guns to pay for lesbian immigrants’ abortions--”

She slapped me, sharply, and the sound more than the pain stopped me. I realized how loud I was getting-- how angry, on behalf of Michael and behalf of my friends and a little bit on behalf of myself, angry that they wouldn’t like the parts of me they couldn’t see.

I sucked in a breath, and focused on Mrs. Smith’s face, avoiding her eyes by a few millimeters. With my anger knocked back a few steps I could see that I’d scared her-- Stars, I had a foot and a half on her and I could pull fire out of the air, and she’d just hit me. I could see the uncertainty and the apprehension; she had no idea what I was about to do. Maybe it was just practicality. Maybe there’d been someone who’d made her afraid. Didn’t matter; it was me making her afraid now. They’d taken me in, fed and sheltered me, and I was their guest. My boss has rules about how guests behave-- and unlike my boss, I’m not enough of a bastard to try to squirm out of them via convenient loophole.

Fine. She hated me. I’d barged in, tried to take over, brought a lot of scary new concepts into a place she’d thought was safe. I didn’t respect religion, and frankly religion and her husband’s memory were all that separated her from the quiet women in the cafeteria who were all destined to be someone’s wife and someone’s mother, loyal and a little faceless.

There but for the grace of God.

I let out a long breath. “I’m sorry. This is your house. I’m being a crappy guest. I apologize.” I bowed my head. It was something I didn’t do easily, not even for Mab-- but sometimes it’s the ones who can’t freeze your blood in your veins who need it more.

She squared her jaw, and the fear wasn’t gone when she met my eyes, but it was backed by a steel wall. Nothing I could do or say was going to make her back down now.

I tried anyway, darting my eyes up to her right eyebrow. “Mrs. Smith, ma’am--”

“You speak so freely of men's souls, Mister Dresden,” she said, mouth flat and determined. “But you aren’t God to judge a man’s soul.”

I grimaced, looked back at her eyes-- she was ready for me, jaw set, face pale, and the soulgaze started.

It was dark, not even nighttime dark, or just nighttime dark, but the full, pitch black of the Darkness during those first hard months, when the sky was full of clouds and dust and no stars. She was standing in the middle of a room, an oil lamp held in her hands. It cast just enough light to make shadows, show the shape of the single, windowless room, maybe one of the little cement cabins a few lucky Refugee families got. There was a knock-- maybe on the door, maybe on a wall.

She didn’t respond, and it got louder, more insistent, became a pounding, big powerful impacts that shook the walls, the floor, the roof. She drew a breath through clenched teeth, and waited, and the knocks fell away.

They started again, from somewhere else. A different wall. Outside, there was a sound like something from an old war movie-- bombs away!-- and an explosion, close enough to make the ground rock, a ripple of heat run through the air, not close enough to shake down her shelter. The knocks kept coming, growing louder, stronger, fading, and starting again. There were screams, howls, wolves at the door, voices shouting orders, voices pleading, begging, threatening, promising.

She waited them out, hands tight around her lamp, shadows flickering on her face, until it was silent and dark again. It was quiet a while.

Something knocked.

I blinked and it was over, Mrs. Smith leaning over the table with her face in her hands.

“I’m sorry,” I said uselessly, not even sure what I was apologizing for first-- what she’d seen in my soul, bad enough that people had fainted or wept or screamed after looking at it-- or what I’d seen in hers, the siege she’d been under her whole life, the little barren space she let herself have because she believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that what was outside of it would destroy her. “I’m sorry.”

“Why are you here, Mister Dresden?” she asked, voice ragged. “What do you want with us?”

“I’m here to solve the murders,” I said. “Because my friend asked me to. She was a cop. Before. I used to be a police contractor. Before.”

The door opened-- both of us jumped, Mrs. Smith looking up, her eyes red and wet.

“Mister Dresden, if you’ve finished, Captain Berton’s wife is-- Mrs. Smith, are you all right?” Commander Wight said, hand going to the sidearm at his hip. “What’s he done?”

“It’s nothing, Jacob. I looked in his eyes, like you said you did with Mister Turchin. It wasn’t very pleasant. But I’m all right.”

“You--” he started to growl at me, and she cut him off angrily.

“I wanted to see what kind of man he was. Now I know. Mister Dresden hasn’t done anything except be rude, and I don’t think we’re such fascists that that’s a crime. Now. You have a message for him?”

Wight moved between me and her, taking her arm comfortingly and pulling her a bit more securely behind him, despite her quiet protest. He gave me a venomous glare. “Julie Berton has a message for him. Wants to show him something.” He scowled suspiciously at me.

I looked at them, down at the map on the table, committing everything I could to memory, and swept up my pebbles. “I’ll let you know when I get started on those wards,” I told Mrs. Smith, and left. I needed some fresh air.


 

It was snowing again when I stepped out into the main compound, big flakes like feathers, soft and light. The cold on my face was nice, a sharp change from the damp, settled chill inside the fort, a distraction from Mrs. Smith’s soul, still fresh in my mind’s eye. I brushed the flakes off my hair and face when they landed, so no one would notice that they didn’t melt, and remembered my gloves in my coat pocket a second later. I spared a thought for Murphy, her deputies and the acolytes and everyone else trudging along in the elements, hoped for their sake that it didn’t become another storm, and then for the settlements-- my mind when straight to That Asshole’s Fort, the water collection barrels and those first dry years, how desperate everyone had been for water. I’d spent days carrying buckets to and from trickling rivers far away, slogging through the Ways, my back aching even with the strength Winter gave me. At least something good would come of all this snow.

“Mister Dresden!”

I took me a minute to find the voice-- about four yards to my left, an eleven year old pile of knitting, fur and patched snow pants. One of Linda’s students, jumping up and down outside the door that led back into their schoolroom, a gangly, older classmate beside her. “Jocelyn,” I said, raised a hand and waved.

“Come see!” she said, and pointed, excited, at something on the door.

It was a little bundle of holly sprigs and hawthorn twigs, wrapped up with a thin bit of cloth and hung over the doorway. My heart gave a pang, hard enough my whole body felt it. “Wow,” I managed, after a beat. “Would you look at that. Did you guys do that?”

“We all went out together!” Jocelyn said, pride beaming from her. “With Neil’s dad and Mrs. Linda cut the branches and the bow is from my shirt that I ripped last week.” She jerked her hand back at her classmate as she said it-- that would be Neil, then. One of the twins. Neil and... Nick. I was pretty sure. Not identical, but close enough that I couldn’t tell them apart after only sitting down with the kids once.

“That’s. Really great, guys,” I said, my throat sticking.

“We have stuff for more too! We’re going to make them and put them up at the gates, and in the spring Mrs. Linda says we can find more things you said were good, and Mrs. Linda said we can all make some for our rooms if our parents don’t mind.”

The classroom door opened, and Linda’s quietly amused face looked out. “Jocelyn,” she said, dryly, but fond. “I’m sure Mister Dresden would still be able to hear you if you spoke without shouting. Why don’t you both come in now; you’ve hung it excellently, well done.”

She held the door open and the kids filed in, Jocelyn whispering excitedly at Neil-- I could tell she was whispering because she was hissing and leaning in, not because it was any harder to hear than her shout. Linda looked after them, and back at me, “They’ve take your lesson to heart; thank you, for all your help.” Her lips twisted, expression wry. “Although Jocelyn’s mother had a few things to say to me this morning about Jocelyn's attempts to determine whether her baby sister was a changeling last night.”

I laughed, wincing. “Making me even more popular with the locals, huh? Maybe we should talk about changelings next lesson-- they don’t really work like that. Not that the right fairy wouldn’t be happy to steal a baby, but... another time,” I said, when Jocelyn’s face peeked back around the door. “Hey, you haven’t seen Julie Berton, have you?”

“Another time,” Linda agreed. “Back to your desk, Jocelyn. Write me a list of everywhere you think needs a charm, and remind everyone to ask their family members who go outside to keep an eye out for rowan trees.” She turned back to me, nodding and drawing the door shut. “Julie’s been helping to repair the southeast gate. You might find her there.”

 

It turned out I didn’t even need to go that far: Julie found me a few minutes later, sporting a pair of snowshoes and a rifle strapped to her back, another pair of snowshoes under her arms. “Mister Dresden! Harry!” she said, hurrying over. “Derek got back about an hour ago-- they’re gone again, but when they were out, they heard some screaming, there’s been another attack, right over the threshold like before!”

My stomach dropped out, and my adrenaline spiked. “Where,” I said, patting at my pockets. I had my blasting rod, my rings and shield bracelet and pentacle, my usual assortment of odds and ends for on-the-fly spells, was there anything I needed from my room? I could leave my staff behind, wouldn’t be doing anything more heavy lifting than gathering evidence....

“About an hour west of here,” she said, holding out the second pair of snowshoes. “I’ve got directions, I know where it is. I can take you there.”

“Are you sure? I know you’re busy with repair work--”

“There’s always repair work,” she said. “It will be good practice for the other carpenters.”

“Keep them on their toes?” I suggested, taking the snowshoes and hopping awkwardly as I jammed the first one on. “Would have thought the boomstick would take care of that for you.” She was the first woman I’d seen with a firearm in Refuge. One of the few women I’d seen in work clothes and not a dress.

She chuckled. Julie was a tall woman, hovering around five eleven, the hang of her faded coveralls suggesting that her full curves had been fuller back when there was more food. She reached up and patted the butt of the pump action shotgun like an old friend. “What, this old thing? I had to part with most of the collection for the hunting effort, but they get Granddad’s Mossberg when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. Lousy for game anyway.”

“You still have ammo?” I wondered as I leaned over to strap into the snowshoes.

“Sure. Stockpiled plenty, and like I said, you can’t hunt with this thing, not like a rifle. After I used up the birdshot I had, I haven’t really touched the slugs. You know, Derek used to give me boxes of shells in my stocking for Christmas, with cute little notes about the zombie invasion. ...Wish that was as funny any more.”

“For what it’s worth, zombies aren’t like they show in the movies. They aren’t contagious. A wizard has to raise them and control them--they go down when the guy powering them does.” I’d seen Julie with her husband Derek-- of the ‘older brother to Max and Travis’ Dereks-- in one of my classes, but not all of them, and I hadn’t brought up zombies, anyway. That was a little beyond the Magic 101, 102 stuff.

“After hearing Derek talk about vampires?” She shook her head, brown braid swinging where it hung out from under her knit hat. “Not surprised that zombies are real, but at least it sounds like there’s a way to handle them. Never really liked those movies. That’s good news to me, Mister Dresden. Ready to go?”

I shifted my weight back and forth, testing the straps on my snowshoes. “Yeah. Keep your eyes open, and I will too. If something attacks, shoot first and ask questions later.”

“Preaching to the choir, Mister Dresden.”

 

Julie navigated like a pro, reading off of a faded, marked up map and consulting her battered little compass every quarter mile or so. I stomped along beside her, feeling awkward on my borrowed snowshoes, only half aware of where we were going, a spot in the woods between two of the closer westward pebbles on the map.

"I'll have to report back to the Wardens and the Sheriff when I'm done."

"Of course," she said, crunching past a snowdrift.

"I might not come back."

"But you might, too." She gave me a smile, warm and hopeful. Crap. Apparently 'Chivalrous Sucker' was still written on my back.

"I can visit. That's all I can do for anyone. I'm ...sort of otherwise obligated."

"It'd be nice to see you," she said matter-of-factly. "It's nice to have a new face around here. And Derek and his brothers really like you," she added. "And Jeff, and most of the other hunter teams, I think, and I haven’t seen Linda take to someone so quickly in a long time."

Awkward silence for a while. Julie squinted at the map. "All right. The settlement's this way. The position is a little vague-- we've never had much contact with these people." Or any people, the way I'd heard it, but I wasn't going to quibble the details.

We found a path; completely covered, just a little valley where the snow wasn't propped up by underbrush. It led us to a clearing with a few cabins-- the kind you'd have had to rent from the state park back when we had states-- that had been built up and together with whatever was on hand. It didn't look like a permanent settlement.

"Looks like they have a smokehouse in the back," Julie said, squinting at a solid looking shack, standing by itself behind the main cabins. "I bet this was a hunting camp for that settlement by Little Round Lake. A setup this big... no more than two, three guys."

"If they're used to cramming together, you could get half a dozen here easy," I said, shaking my head. "Even ten if they’re taking shifts. You guys have a lot of room in Refuge. Most of the settlements I've been in, people pack in to keep the perimeter small."

"Really? Sounds like a pain." She didn't quite look smug, because it wasn't the time for that, but she was obviously distantly disapproving of people who hadn't seen the end of the world coming years ago.

"Eh. It keeps you warm." I looked around the clearing-- quiet. Undisturbed, the soft snow twinkling a little in the sunlight. The buildings were just snowbanks with windows; whatever Julie's husband had seen when he and his team were out here, the snow had camouflaged it. I was stumbling around in a crime scene. Murph would be appalled.

I shivered and tugged my jacket tighter around me.

"Keep watch," I said, and then remembered to add: "please." I waved at the dark buildings. "I have to go look around in there."

“Better you than me,” Julie said frankly, and took up an easy stance with her back to the cabin, watching the woods.

“Shout if you see anything. I might be able to save you a bullet.” I lifted my blasting rod, and she glanced at it dubiously over her shoulder.

“What’s that do?”

“Magic,” I said helpfully, and started over to the shelter.

I shielded up before I went inside, bracing for an attack as I stepped boldly through the door. I stood there like a jerk with my arm lifted and my face clenched up in a constipated look of determination before I felt secure (or sheepish) enough to cast a light.

The little cabin was all silence and shadows in the blue glow of my pentacle; no motion of a hiding ghost or ghoulie, no soft breathing of something nasty hiding in the corner. There wouldn’t be much room for a ghoulie to hide, anyway, not even something comparatively small like a Redcap-- they’d have to wedge into the single trunk, or under the planks of wood on cinderblocks that passed as a table. I leaned over to shine a light under there anyway. Nothing. And no... pieces of anyone. Considering what Murph had told me about some of the other attacks, I was guiltily relieved that there weren’t any bodies.

There had been chairs; they’d been broken in the fight. There were a few blankets arranged in bedrolls-- most of them supplemented with animal fur. Half a dozen, all together, if my count was right. They’d been kicked apart, stepped on, bloodied-- not too bloody. Nobody had died inside.

Something clattered under my feet; I stooped down, picked up a multi-tool, open to the knife extension. It had been used, but the blood was thin and frozen dry. I couldn’t track off that.

...Bob probably could have made something of it. This was going to be a tough one if I couldn’t find a big, glaring clue. I’d always had him to back me up, give me that extra piece of information. He’d have known how Chief tied into this, too.

I stepped uncomfortably around a fallen curtain, toeing aside the thick, coarse cloth still half-tied to the ceiling, a little pass at privacy in a world without that luxury. Problem was, Bob was in the last place I wanted to be right now.

Bob…

A spirit of intellect who lived in a human skull, he’d been my research partner and lab assistant, when the world had still had cars and electricity and there was a phonebook for me to be in-- listed under ‘Wizard’ in the Ws. He’d also been my oldest friend. My only friend during some parts of my life, when I was young and my mentor had betrayed me and I was alone.

That was what-- who-- he was to me. To the White Council, he was a dangerous artifact, a storehouse of evil knowledge, waiting for the right warlock to unlock him. To Mab, my Queen, he was a pest who’d pissed her off and escaped her anger, going into hiding, staying small and quiet beyond her reach. To John Marcone, he was humanity’s last, best chance of keeping any knowledge left from Before. There were no computers, no printers, not even a Gutenberg Printing Press had been mocked up yet. Paper was scarce, language changed, and literacy wasn’t guaranteed in the future, no matter what people hoped for and told themselves. And Bob could remember more than a fleet of scientists and retain it faster than anyone could write it down.

So Marcone had taken the chance that Mab’s desire for some real estate that he controlled by way of the Accords was greater than her desire to destroy Bob-- and had put Bob’s life and my standing with Mab on the line in a desperate gamble for the best interests of humanity.

He’d known he was risking our friendship, the strong trust that had grown out of our rivalry from Before. He’d hurt me, and he hated himself for it, but he’d done it. Because it was for the greater good. He’d risked Bob’s life, hadn’t even known-- would do it again. I was technically still welcome at the Fort; I could pop in and see Bob anytime. You know, if I could stand ripping open some pretty new wounds, rub in how I’d been betrayed by people I loved-- Stars, not just John but Waldo Butters had been the one who told him about Bob in the first place, Anastasia Luccio had told him what Bob was.

But then there was that nasty little voice that reminded me... if I’d sucked up my pride and gone to Bob in the beginning, this might already be over. I might have had a name, a weakness, a habitat for the killer. Hank might not have been brutalized because everyone was tense and angry about a new wizard and the continuing raids. The men in this settlement might still be alive.

It settled bitter and heavy at the base of my spine, a heavy shame coiling in my guts, the knowledge of how selfish I was being. Mommy, mommy, the mean little humans next door were trying to survive the freaking apocalypse and they hurt my feelings. Kiss it better? ...If I couldn’t get a lead here, I was going back. I was borrowing Bob. I was going to deal with the Baron. It wasn’t like we didn’t have years of hating each other in a functional quasi-allegiance kind of way to fall back on--

Julie screamed outside and I startled out of my thoughts, bashing my elbow into the solid log wall and stumbling for the door. She was coming back around the house when I got out to her, face pale, doing a fast walk, hands clenched around her rifle.

"Stars! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she said tightly, embarrassment and terror struggling for control of her face. "I found the victims."

I looked at the little smokehouse, and my stomach plummeted. "Oh."

"I'll stand guard out here," she said gruffly, and I nodded. Didn't blame her: wished I didn't have to go look either. I readied a shield-- not that I thought I was likely to get attacked, but sometimes it's all you can do-- and followed her tracks. The smokehouse door was open, door facing south to let the sun in. Helps dry the meat, you know. It was a medium sized affair, but it had been stuffed past capacity.

Sometimes you have to focus on the little details. 'There's too much meat in there, it's too much moisture for a shack that size to handle, you'll get a bad smoke', instead of consciously accepting that someone, something, had field-dressed half a dozen human corpses and hung them swinging with their empty stomachs and cracked ribs gaping that it had scalped them but not taken the time to skin them and some had their faces mostly intact but their eyes had been taken and the one in front had had his arms roughly ripped off the skin was in tatters--

Breakfast had been a few hours ago, and we hadn’t stopped for lunch before we’d left, so there was nothing to throw up. I just had to go double over next to a tree until my stomach stopped heaving and I could stand up again. I wanted to take off running-- there was a weakness in border of the Nevernever not half a mile back, I could duck through it and from there to another and another and eventually into Winter and my hold and I could be safe.

Yep. Go running back to Mab to be protected. She'd never forced me to take the perqs that came with my knighthood-- the luxury to not worry about my next meal, to never wonder how I was going to get from point A to point B, to avoid and ignore the worst of the ruins of civilization. All she'd done was offer. And I'd taken her up on it, more and more. Maybe one of these days I'd go and never come back; just vanish into Faerie and try to forget that I was human. Like Molly.

I punched the tree a few times, earning myself some bloody knuckles. I'd been able to do this once. I'd been able to handle death. I'd been able to do something about it.

My stomach lurched again as I approached the smokehouse. I gritted my teeth, riding out the nausea, and if I had to close my eyes when I hauled the first corpse down, dragging it out away from the stink and into the sunlight to examine, I'd like to see you do any better.

Julie came around the house just quietly enough that I didn't hear her until she was too close, and I whipped my blasting rod up before I registered her. She looked at me, then at the glowing runes on the rod. "That thing have a safety?"

"Sort of," I fibbed.

The color had come back to her face, but there was still a tense, drawn look-- you don't recover from seeing something like that in five minutes. You don’t recover in five years, or five decades. You just forget, until you wander down the wrong alley on memory lane, or see or smell something that brings it back.

She jabbed a thumb at the shack. “Want the rest of them out?"

"Yes," I said, feeling like a louse. A grateful, relieved louse that hadn't wanted to do this again. "If you think you can. Thanks."

She nodded stiffly and marched over to the smokehouse. I looked away; I only heard the thumps as she started dragging bodies out onto the grass. Number one didn’t have anything I could ID the killer by or use to track it. I moved on to the next corpse. Smaller than the first. Male. A teenager.

"There's blood under his fingernails but it's dried. No good," I said, because the silence was sickening, because otherwise I was going to start to heave again. "I'm hoping to find some hair. Keeps better."

"I did not know that," Julie said, voice brittle. I looked over-- she had her back to me, her hands on her knees, breathing hard next to the third body. He’d been a big guy; his killer had not been kind to him. I turned back to the body, gave her what little privacy I could offer.

"That's why hair is the go-to for thaumaturgical attacks and binds," I explained, keeping my tone bright and pedantic. "And why if someone nasty ever gets a piece of your hair, you should go and do a full-body shave. It separates you from the hair symbolically."

"That doesn't make much sense."

I swallowed my bile and moved on to the third corpse. "It doesn't make much sense if you try to put it in terms of pure physics. Not that magic doesn't have plenty to do with physics, but it's a different kind of energy than you studied in high school. Your aura, your... self... permeates you. Even your nails, even your hair, even though they're dead. It's as unique as your DNA. And if someone can make a link, a circuit to you using a piece of you, that energy can be conducted. And manipulated."

"Sounds complicated."

"Not really. That's the kind of energy I did study in high school. Ha ha."

She shot me a bleak, tight smile, and stomped back into the smokehouse, returned a few minutes later dragging the fourth corpse, went right back for the fifth. These ones were smaller than her-- women, both. She fluttered a hand over them, closed their legs when she laid them down. A different type of shield; the only thing you could do.

“Julie,” I said, “I can get th--”

She shut me off with a snap of her hand, her back stiffening. These were her demons, and she would face them on her own terms. She left; I moved on to the fourth corpse. My hands shook as I lifted hers to carefully peer under her nails.

"So.” Julie snapped off the word, panting as she dragged the last man out onto the snow. She pinched out a smile, her eyes a little wild. “Gryffindor? Or Ravenclaw?" Her face was green, but she was holding on like a trooper.

"More like... Darth Maul. Apprenticeships are usually one-on-one."

"Ah. Interesting." She made a gagging sound. "Harry. This one has something."

I carefully laid down the leg I'd been examining and went to see what she was talking about: there was something peeking out of the man's tightly clenched fist.

"It's bloody, but it's dried, too." She closed her eyes, sealed her mouth into a tight line as if she was trying to shut it all out-- the sight, the smell. No way to escape the sound of crispy flesh crinkling and splitting, though, as she forced his fist open.

He'd died holding a piece of ragged cloth; blood had drained from his neck as he hung, much of it tracked down his arm. It had saturated the scrap. I didn't want to touch it with my wizard's sense-- looking at it felt like a bruise tastes. There was a horrible knot of energy in there.

"Lifeblood. Huh," I said, voice wavering.

"He was alive? In there?" Julie's arm spasmed; she dropped the corpse’s hand, jerked back, wrapping her arms around herself, grabbed for her gun the next second.

"Yeah. Must have hung him to keep him out of the way before it--" I could taste stomach acid in my throat. "I can. Use that. Glaggh." I turned away, facing fresh air and no death, trying not to show her my stomach heaving. My eyes were hot with the effort when I turned back.

I'd been stockpiling a selection of empty MRE wrappers in my coat pockets to use as baggies: I scooped the piece of cloth into the most intact one, careful not to get the blood on my gloves.

"We should bury them," Julie said. Her voice was strained, and I didn't have to see the moisture in her eyes to know that she was close to the end of her rope. Her eyes flicked up at the sun behind the clouds, still afternoon gold, but noticeably lower on the horizon than when we’d arrived. She wanted to get back before it got dark; I didn’t blame her. So did I.

"That's not enough. Things that are buried-- there are beings-- it's not enough." I shakily got to my feet and stepped back, not even surprised that she didn’t know that, that part of my brain too tired, too raw. "You might not want to watch."

"Can I say a prayer?"

I nodded stiffly, and as she started to murmur, I pointed my blasting rod and shouted "Fuego!"

Fire lanced out, white hot-- as hot as my fear and rage and horror could make it, a tight beam that I swept slowly across the corpses. The snow evaporated and the ground under them started to steam. I kept up the flow of power until there was nothing left but ash and cracked bone.

Julie had wrapped up. Her face was immobile. "So that's what your stick does."

"Rod."

"When you find whatever did this. Are you going to do that to it?" she asked.

"Probably. Fire kills almost everything."

Her hand tightened around the barrel of her rifle. "Good."


Chapter Text

December, 7 months After

The Amoracchius monastery had grown since the last time I’d seen it, the outside walls reinforced, held up with old steel supports from some downed L tracks and hardly recognizable as a former bank, the inside walls opened up into the closest offices and the restaurant that had shared the old brick building, when there had still been leases and landlords and rent to pay. The ovens in the restaurant’s kitchen had apparently survived enough to be converted to burn wood: I could smell herby smoke, fresh bread, some kind of meat. Simple fare, but warm and comforting on a long dark winter’s night when the world had ended.

I was impressed; it hadn’t even been a year, and Michael and his acolytes had managed to really make something of this place. And he had a lot more acolytes these days, too. Jake had let me in with a soft, small smile, and then I hadn’t recognized a single other face until I’d come to Michael and Charity, sitting side by side on a salvaged couch in one of the back rooms, holding hands, their legs touching, their worry and love for each other writ large.

My heart twisted a little, seeing them together. I couldn’t imagine how it weighed on them, knowing that the best, safest places for them in this world right now were apart. That, Before, it would have been less than an hour’s drive to get from Marcone’s big Winnetka estate to this West Loop block. That, now, it was almost three days treacherous hike through a ruined city, past monsters and demons and a hundred hungry things.

And here they were, together at Christmas, pine branches and little candles sparse on the walls around them, winter evergreen and flickering light, and only because I’d sent word that I needed to speak to them both.

“I found Molly,” I said without preamble. “She’s safe.” Then-- before the relief on their faces, before the instant, painful release of tension from their shoulders could be let lose in words-- “She’s in Summer. She was standing in Titania’s retinue at Midwinter.”

Charity understood faster than Michael did; I could see it in the way her cheeks went pale, the way her eyes shuttered. “Titania offered her Summer’s friendship: shelter, care, knowledge. In return for her allegiance, her unswerving loyalty. Michael... she’s not going to be able to get out of it,” I explained, trying to break to Michael what Charity had already figured out. I locked my gaze with the wall behind them so I wouldn’t have to look my old friend in the eye. “Not for a long time.”

“Can we see her?” was the first question.

“Maybe.” Here was the hard part. ...One of the hard parts. “She has to ask first, and when I talked to her she wasn’t in the mood to leave, ever.” Because being in the mortal world hurt. It had been bad enough for those of us who weren’t particularly sensitive wizards-- the shock of the leylines shaking and pulsing, the screams of millions of voices crying out in terror et cetera, we’d all been wrecks for a while. But the sensitives. I knew, Charity had told me, that Molly’s nightmares had never stopped, that she still walked carefully through the world afraid to touch anything that would stab her with a little more stored pain. Lying in bed for hours, not sleeping. It almost made it seem like she’d made the right choice. Almost. Until you remembered that she’d left a family who loved her, who might never see her again, and that nobody was going to come offer them a healing touch and the blessing of Summer to fill in the hole their daughter left.

I tightened my lips. “There are a lot of precedents for mortal subjects of Faerie having military leave. But it’s a loaded thing-- there are a lot of terms and conditions riding on it. And almost all of the times it’s happened before, the mortal fu-- screwed it up.” And that was if she remembered to ask for a day pass before a hundred years had passed in the mortal world, and she wound up visiting her grand-nieces and grand-nephews who only half remembered stories of Great Aunt Molly who disappeared with the fairies.

“And we can’t go to her?” Charity’s voice was tight, brittle with strained patience as she forced herself to process what I was telling them. I could see the muscles in her throat working as she swallowed back harsher, angrier words. Tears, maybe. She’d stolen her daughter back from fairies once, and here I was telling her she couldn’t do it again.

“Maybe,” I said again, my mouth slanting down. A half answer, nothing reassuring. “I’m trying to wrangle you guys an invitation, but that’s not as easy as it used to be.” Before, when powers and territories were old and established. When Summer was slowly, steadily gaining an upper hand. When I wasn’t part of Mab’s court. “In the meantime, I’ve got friends in Summer. They’re doing what they can to look out for her.”

“That’s good,” Michael said, without judgement. “Friends we know?”

“You met Justine once. And I’ve talked to you about Elaine, Fix.” I sighed, tried to explain. “But. Fix is the Summer Knight. He belongs to Titania.” Like I belonged to Mab went unsaid. “She can over-rule him at any time. And Elaine and Justine, they’ve both gone... a little native. For them, Summer is how things are. Rules there are different. The way they look at the world is different.”

I don’t know what happened during the first Wild Hunt, after the Darkness. Faerie had been testing its new reach, driving hard across mortal land. They’d found Justine alone in the ruins of Chateau Raith: she’d been left behind when the Whamps fled for higher ground, had done what she could for the abandoned thralls, but had stayed at the Chateau alone, after. They told her to run. She didn’t. The Erlking offered her a place in his party instead. ‘And she smiled,’ went the stories that were already growing up around it, that first encounter shrouded in epic and titillated whispers and gossip. The next time I’d seen her, she’d been in the Erlking’s hall in full goblin-made armor, the hunt glittering in her eyes. Justine would do her best, but her definition of ‘best’ came from a whole different place than mine did these days.

“Is she in that much danger?” Charity asked quietly.

“...Yes,” I had to admit. They deserved my honesty. They deserved a lot more than that, but it was all I had to give them. “Molly’s got an anti-authoritarian streak a lot like mine. And she doesn’t understand yet that under the whole magic, twinkly free love schtick Summer puts on for tourists, they’re attached to their ranks and authority hard enough to make any historical dictator look wishy-washy. She’s going to run up against someone who doesn’t think her defiance is cute and funny.” I swallowed. People thought-- hell, I’d thought, not so long ago, when I’d barely known what the Courts were-- that Winter was the de facto ‘bad’ court. They had the whole cold, dark bleakness thing going on, and you have to have a good side and a bad side, right? But you could burn to death as easily as you could freeze, and Mab wasn’t the Wicked Witch to Titania’s Glinda. The Courts, like their queens, were old and inhuman, and didn’t accept change without a fight. “I’ve got three binding promises. As much as citizens of Summer can be bound.”

Michael found Charity’s hand, and her knuckles whitened as she squeezed his fingers.

“Fix will do everything in his power to see that she survives physically,” I recited. “Elaine will do everything in her power to see that her magic remains intact. And Justine will do everything in her power to preserve her sanity.”

And it wasn’t much consolation, was it, when Michael and Charity had to accept what kind of world made those kind of promises necessary?

“This isn’t your fault, Harry,” Charity finally said, Michael clutching her hands, both of their heads bowed. Her eyes were red, and she was blinking back tears; she didn’t want me to see them, and I didn’t want to trespass on how much this hurt them. Because no matter what she said--

“Sure,” I said, voice brittle and nasty. “Because when it comes to not running to Faerie to solve your problems, I’m the best role model ever.” I got up, walked stiffly away, ignoring Michael calling after me. I owed my friends so much more than this. But I’d given them all I had.

Molly’s voice was still accusing in my ears from when I’d found her-- why didn’t I understand what a good deal this was, why didn’t everyone treat with Faerie? What was I trying to keep from her, why did I want her to hurt, why couldn’t I just be happy for her? She’d understand, sooner or later. When she changed. When she stopped thinking in mortal, human terms. When love and family and safety and what it meant to be a person with free will and the right to choose for herself became words, bargaining chips. When she had to disappoint someone who loved her, break her old promises and old bonds because someone owned her... she’d understand. I tore open the world outside the monastery, and returned to the hall of my Queen.


Chapter Text

Julie split when we got back to Refuge, the sun just slipping below the horizon, said she’d promised to tell her husband what we found. I didn’t try to stop her. Sometimes talking about it helps. She’d also wanted to tell him that I had a way to track down the killer; I agreed. I didn’t want to take that away from her-- even if my chances were a little slimmer than she was assuming. It was something for her to hold on to, to help push back the things she’d seen. She’d need it.

I shoved it out of my mind, heading back to my borrowed room after I swung by the kitchen to beg off a copper bowl and wooden spoon from Mitch, the Delta team bow-holder on kitchen-guarding duty, and prepared a few things. It took longer than I’d have liked to get ready, to find the various things I needed, but I wasn’t working with a lot of options. I cleared Julie’s optimism from my thoughts, the things we’d seen, the smells-- as much as I could-- and took a deep breath.

"Okay. Let's see who our buddy is," I said to no one. I’d learned a lot during our grisly afternoon; mostly, I knew who the monsters weren’t. Not Black Court, that was the big thing; Black Court wouldn’t have wasted blood like that. It would have made them crazy to do it. Renfields wouldn’t have done it, because it would have pissed off their masters. Rawhead and Bloody Bones liked their meat... raw and bloody. Ghouls wouldn’t take the trouble to cook their kills. Whatever this thing was, I hadn’t run into it before. So, first and foremost, I really needed to find out what I was up against.

I'm not a subtle touch at sympathetic magic. There's a reason I usually turn to a simple tracking spell: putting magic out into the world to find something is easy. Using magic to try to reconstruct the shape of the world out of a tiny fragment of it... not so easy. Unfortunately, the evidence I had to go off of didn't have any psychic resonance with the attacker. It was tied to the victim-- and the echoes of his violent death were embedded into it like the grooves of a record. I could use that-- just not easily.

I knew a potion that would theoretically create an image of the last thing the victim saw. Theoretically, because I'd tried it before, in the Before. It hadn't worked then, and that was when I had a fully stocked lab, a lot more time, and Bob to help me. Now, I just had to hope that I'd gotten better, good enough that I could make it work alone and in a strange environment with some ad hoc substitutions.

It was a pretty simple setup: you needed some blood, sweat, and tears-- a base and four other mystery ingredients that I'd wrangled up some substitutes for, made easier and more difficult by the personal nature of potion making, and a clean handkerchief. I'd already prepped the handkerchief, passing my hand over it and trying to magic-ize (magicify?) it until it crackled with static. Now I was cooking up the potion, heating the pot with a flame spell because I didn't have any other way to make a clean fire inside, hoping that it didn't foul up the whole thing.

The potion started to bubble, and I dropped in the bloody scrap of cloth we'd gotten from the victim; the blood started to bleed into the mix, sluggish trails of red and flakes of rust brown. Life blood, emotionally charged with fear and pain and the trauma of death. All the potion was doing was activating that emotional imprint, priming it.

I held my breath as I picked up the handkerchief, improvising for tongs with two forks, and dropped it into the mix as well.

The potion went clear almost instantly, the red trails streaming into the handkerchief, like someone recording a big dollop of red dye dispersing in water and then running the video backwards. That hadn't happened the last time. I wasn't ready for it-- I grabbed for the pot to get my hanky out, knocked it over instead and swore, leaping up before boiling potion could splash me. The handkerchief lay in a sad, wet wad, dingy-redbrown with the blood it had absorbed.

I swore again. If this hadn't worked, I'd officially screwed myself out of a second chance. I fork-tonged the cloth out of the puddle of potion quickly, and did my best to straighten it out across the table.

Huh.

It had worked.

The lifeblood had soaked into the handkerchief in a swirling, spotty pattern-- like a copy of a copy of a photo, coming slowly into focus like an old Polaroid. It showed the ragged outlines of a face, eyes wide and teeth bared. And I recognized it.

The last time I'd seen this guy, he'd been holding Hank down for Captain Cavanagh to beat the crap out of him. His eyes hadn't been quite this wide and insane; his teeth hadn't been bared in a rictus, stained with something dark that ran red down his chin. But it was him, large as life. If I squinted, the blur at the edge of the picture looked a lot like his hand, gripping a knife.

Sure, Julie. I'd love it if you told everyone in Refuge that I have a way to track the killer. You see, I am a mighty wizard and have it all figured out, and it definitely won't come back to bite me in the ass. Hey, make sure your husband tells all of his hunting team buddies, too, I don't want anyone to miss out on my amazing detective work. PS, please tell everyone that I'm so smart I completely ruled out that it could be a mortal psycho doing the killing.

The running footsteps in the hall outside were quiet, but they gave me enough warning to throw up a shield before the door burst inward, rebounding loudly off the wall.

"I'm glad you're still with us, Mister Dresden," Captain Cavanagh said. He looked... not great, actually, like the news had caught him in the middle of something important: he was still wearing his hat, but his army-green jacket was missing, and his t-shirt didn't cover his arms-- his gaunt, dessicated arms, a gaping wound on one of them hanging open to the bone, the exposed bicep like freezer-burned meat. It was half bandaged, the cotton tail hanging loose, grimy but not bloody-- he hadn’t stopped for anything when he got wind of this.

My eyes flicked around the other five members of Golf team: bandages peeking out of the top of shirts, unbandaged wounds, scratches, waxy-white burns. T-shirts billowed around sunken stomachs, the outline of exposed ribs under the cotton. The man I'd seen on the handkerchief had had a knife-wound on his chest, new-enough looking that he must have got it in this last attack-- he hadn't changed his shirt, and the shreds of cotton had crusted inside the wound. They should have stunk--like gangrene, like decay-- but there was just a slightly sharp, slightly yeasty smell, like baking bread.

Scratch mortal psycho: pencil in Oh My God What Are You. Underline it once or twice for good measure.

"Just leaving," I said. "Going to the Starbucks the next settlement over, you know how they just pop up; anyone want anything? How about it, Cavanagh? You look a Frappuccino kind of guy." I tensed my shield arm, as if the extra flex of muscle would add a little strength to my barrier.

Maybe it did; I hadn't noticed the gun in the second-in-command's hand before, but I did when thunder cracked in the room and something slammed into my shield. The bullet puddled against the barrier of force and pattered to the ground. He shot two more times with the same result before the hammer fell on an empty chamber.

"Looks like we're at an impasse," I said casually, lifting my blasting rod. My staff was in the corner; no way I could get it without breaking our stand off. Hopefully I wouldn’t need it. "Now, we have two options. I CAN parboil you. Or you CAN let me out of this room, file inside, and let me lock you in here."

Cavanagh stared at his second's useless gun, then at me, his expression uncomprehending. "No," he said, voice rasping up painfully from far away. "No. KILL you!"

He threw himself at my shield, hitting it too fast and too strong, a shock of Winter cold flooding into me like feedback. I didn't have time to figure that one out before they were all on me, pounding and clawing at the barrier, fingernails shattering on it, teeth cracking against it. I felt it weaken and fracture even as I tried to shore it up. Whatever was in them so cold that it burned against me.

My shield shattered. They tumbled through, the first two catching a gout of flame in the chest, the third guy taking a force-ring to the jaw, spiralling out of the room before too-strong, too-cold hands clamped over my wrist. Cavanagh was on me fast, a boot to the solar plexus cutting off my next spell half-formed, my words and focus gusting out as I gasped, winded. He ripped away my shield bracelet; someone else slammed my wrist against the wall so that my blasting rod dropped. I felt them claw my rings from my numb fingers, ragged fingernails cutting into my skin.

Two men pinned me to the wall. Cavanagh pulled out a hunting knife.

I slammed my eyes shut and poured my desperation into the last magical focus I had-- my mother's pentacle.

The light burned through my eyelids, searing a map of the blood vessels into my retinas; the men holding me recoiled and I surged forward, keeping the flow of power going, kicking through a sea of blindly grasping arms-- one got a hank of my shirt and ripped it down the back, and fingernails dug into my bared skin. Someone got a grip on me and bit down with more than just teeth, making me scream as they ripped away a chunk of my magic along with a mouthful of meat from my shoulder-- I elbowed them with all the strength my adrenaline could give me and then I was free, bashing my head into the door frame and tumbling out.

"FUEGO, you fuckers!" I shouted, and fire bloomed from my dropped blasting rod, baking the room. There was a woosh as my little oil lamp bribe went up, and I slammed the door behind me.

I'd forgotten about the guy I'd force-ring punched into the hall, but he definitely hadn't forgotten me, greeting me with the butt-end of a friendly pistol to the back of the head. I rolled aside, blinking at the stars and the afterburn in my vision, kicking out at one half-seen knee-- it cracked, a sound like a rotten tree-limb splitting. He shouted something at me, garbled by his dislocated, hanging jaw, and came at me with his bare hands.

I ran.

No chance that the fire spell had taken out the Golfers; not as unfocused and weak as my magic was, even with the helpful contributions of the oil lamp, not with them... like they were. Whatever they were. I pulled my ruined shirt off as I staggered down the hall, jamming it over the hole where I'd been bitten.

I know what the tales of our people as-told-by-Hollywood were-- but a lot fewer things are transmitted by bite than the old stories say. And there were no such thing as Hollywood zombies. I desperately hoped. The wound was numb, the area around it aching. Whatever was in these people, it had come from Winter-- and I used Winter's might to fuel a lot of my magic these days. Too much. I'd rested on it and they'd hit me where it hurt.

Refuge was quiet as I scrambled through the halls-- it was just me, and the pounding combat boots and barked orders of Golf team spreading out to find me. Almost everyone was in their rooms, conserving their little patches of warm, sleeping because that’s all you could do in the dark, most days, the nighttime guards off doing their rounds. I hoped they stayed that way, locked in their rooms and far away. These people barely knew about thresholds; they couldn't handle abominable snow-zombies. It would be a massacre if I tried to get Refugee help.

I'd lead Golf team out into the snow, get them away from the fort, out into the woods, and then lose them in the Nevernever. That was one thing I was pretty sure they couldn't do, open Ways, or the attacks wouldn't have been limited to just this patch of Wisconsin. Small favors.

I stumbled out a side door into the open compound and wrapped the cold around me as I went, skittering and plowing through snowdrifts, uncomfortably aware of how much I was drawing on my Queen's domain to do this, to keep warm on the power of my will and a threadbare undershirt. Stars, I walked around in shorts all the time, I'd brought winter clothes with me just to fit in-- I was so damn stupid, hadn't noticed how much a part of Winter I was becoming.

"There he is!" Cavanagh yelled behind me, and I sped up. I wanted them to follow me, but I needed them to not catch me even more. The man whose knee I’d taken out was with them-- I could see his hobbling, too-fast gait. And there were other dark shapes, men I recognized from other groups, coming up from behind Golf, joining the hunt. One from November-- not Julie’s Derek, and I was fiercely relieved-- two from Lima.

I plowed through the side-exit in the gate that Julie and I had gone through earlier, heard the shout of a sentry and winced, hoping he was far enough away, hoping the hunter-eaters wouldn’t be distracted by him. I found what was left of our path from earlier, Julie’s sure steps, mine scuffing up the snow beside her, followed it a few yards before veering off.

Stars, I missed those snowshoes, my boots already filling with cold and wet--I clenched my will, calling up a surge of my Queen’s power to remind my feet they were Winter’s, that mortal snow and Winter’s domain were not so different, that this cold darkness was Winter’s season, and managed a scampery run across the fresh-fallen surface, only sinking about an inch down with each step. The effort left me lightheaded-- I rubbed the back of my arm across my face without thought, came away with a smear of blood from my nose. Fucking bells. How much had those fuckers taken from me?

Cavanagh barked orders-- military jargon I half recognized. They were trying to flank me, herd me somewhere. Fine. Maybe they'd lead me into a nice, convenient dead end I could close behind them before I made a break for the Nevernever. I gripped my pentacle with my free hand-- my mother's voice, calm, soothing, told me that there was a cave system nearby that would lead to a weak point between worlds, which would lead me to a long, bare plain on the borders of Summer. From there I knew how to get back to Chicago-- just a few hours and I could get to the Hamlet or the Fort, enlist Wardens with warm clothes and armor and swords.

They were steering me straight towards the cave my mother's voice had told me about. I didn't like it. Hopefully they were overconfident-- they didn't know that I knew where I was going. Hopefully they didn't have it booby trapped. And it was the closest known Way I had. The Refugees didn’t know about magic, had barely understood about the Ways at all-- please, please let them not know about this one. I gasped a tight, cold breath, almost tripped over a tree root, and let them herd me to where I wanted to go.

The cave was at the base of a bluff, looming heavy with snow, the entrance barely visible. I had my pentacle up and glowing when I hit it, dumping a little slide of snow and ice from above, plunging into the shadows. The light made me an easy target, but not as easy as I’d be if I cracked open my skull or broke a leg.

It hurt, fuelling the little spell, a nagging ache in my head, ice water running through a fissure in my brain, freezing and cracking it wider. I fed more magic into the pendant and there was an answering throb from my shoulder. My head spun, disoriented-- I skidded on some rotting leaves, clawed at the wall of the cave before I could fall, slid and slithered through a clattering pile. Bones. Human. Stripped bare and cracked open, picked so clean there was nothing left to stink.

My skin crawled, but adrenaline powered me through it, kept my feet going even as I had to awkwardly hop-skip over, yes, that was a human skull. Yes, that too. And that one and that one. Oh, hey, a moose skull for a change of pace. I let it run off of me, ignored the death that surrounded me as best I could-- I had to keep going.

I knew what would happen if I stopped. It made my guts freeze, my bile try to rise up, but I kept running.

Shouts outside, and footsteps, two hunters darting into the cave after me. Too close on my heels. I couldn’t wait for any more to follow.

“Hey there, boys.” I toodled my fingers at them, and they slowed down a little, spreading out to come at me from two sides. Cautious. I bared my teeth in a grin and killed the light, gathered up all of the power I could for a little one-two step.

One. Tear a hole in the fabric of the world, finding the weakness and parting it.

Two. Slap my hand against the wall, willing the vibrations to amplify, to grow and travel up up up through the rock-- to make the cliff face ring like a bell.

The world started to shake, a sheet of ice slamming down over the cave entrance, snow surging, roaring down and locking us in. Yells of panic, from inside and out-- and then the outside ones were cut off.

One of the hunters made a lunge for me, his footsteps loud in the silence after the avalanche, and I stepped back and let myself fall between worlds, the moonlight in the Nevernever showing me his twisted, angry face as he clawed after me-- the next second the door was shut, and he was gone.

I staggered a little-- without bearings, a sense of direction, landmarks-- as the claustrophobic rock walls gave way to a wide, windy, rolling plain that'd never so much as looked at a bluff. The pit I was standing in would be a deep pool when it rained-- I'd prepared myself for a soaking, but it must have dried up since my mother's time. The wind howled and frost crystals glittered in the air-- this was the border of Summer?

There was a figure crouched in the pit with me, curled in on himself, rocking, his broken leg stuck out at an angle.

A ghost. With all the death in that cave, I was almost surprised there weren't more.

His parka and ragged army jacket were stained with blood; he was mumbling to himself.

"We're all hungry, Captain. Leave me here, you can get back. We're all hungry. We can do it if we split the last rations. It'll be fine. Leave me here, you guys can make it back. It'll be all right. We're all hungry. Come on, Captain Cavanagh. Go home and you can send help. We can do it. We're all hungry, Captain. I'm hungry too, we can do it."

I moved closer cautiously, a slow suspicion dawning. Squinting, I could just make out his face in the moonlight. "You. Are you... Linda's husband?"

"Linda?" he looked up sharply, his slit throat gaping open. "Linda. Do you know Linda? She doesn't eat. I have to bring more food home. She doesn't eat." His hands opened to me. "She's pretty the way she is. She doesn't eat. I have to bring more food home."

"But the vampires got you."

"Vampires?" the ghost looked puzzled, and then the word fell out of its head with nothing to rub against. "Linda, have you seen Linda? Has she been eating?"

No vampires. A ghost isn't a whole person-- only the biggest emotions that stay around when the person is gone, the after-image of their trauma burnt into a world that doesn’t care. Vampires meant nothing to him because there hadn't been any out there, in the snow when he’d died: they hadn't scared him, they hadn't killed him. He was looping back around on Linda, and arguing with an imaginary Captain Cavanagh. And everyone was hungry.

"What did Captain Cavanagh say to you?"

"Captain says I'm not carrying my weight." He shook his head so sharply that he skipped the positions between one side and the other, jerky and flickering in that hair-raising way that ghosts do. "Captain says the guys are hungry. We're all hungry."

"...they killed you," I realized. "Your own team." No Black Court vamps. No Renfields. No monsters at all except the ones that had been holed up in that cave-- humans who'd done something terrible and become their own monsters.

I was so stupid. I hadn't recognized it, not even when Chief told Linda what he was, even if she didn't understand; she'd told me, and I should have understood. I could see it, now that my thoughts were there, my best guess, a dramatic reenactment of the situation helped along by the swirling oil-spill reflections of the dark fabric of the Nevernever, shaped around Mister Linda’s grief and confusion, picking up solidity as it captured his attention, struck the one emotional nerve that kept his ghost stuck in this place.

Golf team, waiting in the cave while it snowed. There probably weren't bones, not then, not human bones-- half a dozen hunters, not much food. The image flickered as I tried to watch it, picking out faces-- Golf looked better fed. And... shorter? Sitting around a dying fire. They wouldn't have known when the storm would break, when the fire would go out. How long had they held out before they started eying each other, looking at Linda's husband? He'd had a broken leg-- no use to the team, a hindrance at best. Wasn't like his quality of life would have been great if he'd made it home, like anyone would bat an eyelash if they said any number of wild things had taken down a man who couldn't run. That kind of thing happened these days. The Darkness ate people who weren't lucky, and why let the Darkness hog the buffet? It made a twisted kind of sense.

"They were hungry and they killed you."

The afterimages roiled as the ghost stirred fitfully. A hand with a knife, no face attached, sliced through the shadows. He hadn’t seen which of his friends had slit his throat from behind. "Captain says I'm not carrying my weight," he said, his dull eyes going sharper, anger and insanity rising behind them. He fingered the wound at his neck. "We're all hungry."

Something about cannibalism still gets to me, even after everything I've seen.

There's something that happens to hunters, when they're trapped in the snow so long that they turn to eating a pal. They called it a psychosis once, but that was Before talking, when people really thought science answered everything. What had taken Cavanagh and his men, decayed and eaten away at them and left them hungry no matter how much they ate, it wasn't psychosomatic. I knew what Golf team was now, and they were going to be hard to take down, and they scared me.

I'm not nice, sometimes, when I'm scared. I turned to the only weapon I had, talking low to the ghost. "They're back in the cave, on the other side of the barrier. Can you see them?"

"They come here to eat. Captain says they're hungry. Come on, Captain. We're all hungry, Captain."

"Go talk to them," I said quietly. "Go tell them you're hungry."

He started to blur around the edges.

Memorium,” I said, low in my throat. “Memoratum. Memortius.” I reached out and touched his sleeping fury, his betrayal, his hunger. They'd slit his throat in the dark and they'd eaten him and left his ghost like an empty wrapper behind. Now I was filling him with power again, giving his ghost a little mortal strength and that mortal spark of life and rousing it out of its stupor. I didn’t have much left to give-- had to grit my teeth and drag the power out of myself slowly, conducting it along sparking, fraying lines-- but he was a strong ghost, strong enough to appear to vanilla mortals in Darkness-filtered daylight, if only for a few seconds. He had power over his old shooting buddies already: he’d been a hunter, and hunters had killed him and made his body part of their own, and become something horrible. And with my help, he could even take on the frigid power in Golf team.

He got to his feet, eyes burning, the one leg bending in the wrong place beneath him, and took a few steps away towards the edge of the pit, the weakness between the worlds where I’d come in, mouth opening in a whistling, windy scream--

Then he was gone, the echo of his anger filtering back through the Nevernever.

"Bite that," I said, flipping off the general direction where the trapped Golfers would be meeting a new and improved Mister Linda, and then scrambled in the other direction, heading for Chicago.


Chapter Text

June, three weeks After

 

My pendulum stopped swinging. I gave it a little jiggle, and it swung gently, but only wishful thinking made it feel like there was a real pull from my tracing spell. I wasn’t even working with a full tracking spell, just a sympathetic resonance charm Bob had helped me whip up; the hair I’d been given to work with hadn’t been able to make a connection to a living body. That could mean anything, of course. He could have shaved. Maybe tucked in with some wizards who’d set up some strong wards. Um. Had that patch of scalp singed a little, not fatal.

“This is it,” I said to my little rag-tag party, coming to a stop at the edge of the pile of rubble that had been a midscale restaurant in the Warehouse district. Yeah, that looked totally survivable. My stomach slowly turned over, throat tightening up. I tucked my makeshift pendulum-- a bit of string, a hood ornament I’d snapped off of a Mercedes from one of the street barricades around Marcone’s place-- away in my breast pocket.

Mouse and Mister looked seriously at me-- okay, a little less investment from Mister. Mouse wuffled at my hand. There wasn’t enough wiggleroom for me to get in there and snoop around, definitely not enough for Mouse... a cat, though.

“Bob, Mister, you think you can get in there?”

Mister stretched, clawing the pavement. That was probably a yes. It still worried me. I reached into my backpack, hand on Bob’s currently empty skull. I hadn’t wanted to risk taking him through the Nevernever openly, not with my day job-- and with the Water Beetle either sunk or floating free somewhere on the lake, that was the only way to get from Demonreach to the mainland. Doing a ridealong with Mister, he was at least a little camouflaged. Doing recon had been Bob’s idea-- he wanted to be helpful. I worried, though. Even Mister is mortal. Probably.

Michael was under there, it was all but a certainty. If I lost my cat trying to prove it...

“Guys. Be careful.” Mister yawned and strolled up to the building, padding up some fallen masonry, disappearing into the darkness inside.

Mouse nudged my hand worriedly.

“I know, boy. I don’t like it either.”

This had been a restaurant, three weeks ago. And three weeks ago Michael Carpenter had stopped here, to grab a father-son meal with Matthew, just home for summer break and fresh off the plane, luggage still in the truck, skin still tanned from the California sun, before he gave the kid back to the tender mercies of six siblings.

Two weeks ago, Andi had picked up a ragged bunch of survivors from the restaurant, brought them to her little den near Mac’s tavern, and a few days ago, once they were patched up, could make the trip, most of them moved on to the Fort. Matthew was with them. Michael wasn’t. Matthew hadn’t seen his father since the quake hit and the lights went out-- about half the people in the restaurant had managed to get out of the door, but Michael’s leg was bad, it was crowded, it was dark-- then the roof had come down. Charity had some of Michael’s hair, on the clothes in the duffel she’d thrown together when the meteors hit, but when I’d tried to track them, the link had shorted out.

So I’d run a trace on where he’d been, instead, and the trail just stopped here. Poof. No more Michael.

There was a soft sound from a dark crevice-- I reared back, jerking my blasting rod and shield up, but the hair of Mouse’s ruff laid flat and even. Mister padded back out into the murky evening light, something in his mouth.

I’d expected them to find... hair. A piece of his clothing, something. I just wanted Charity to have a little closure. So we could grieve. So we could be sure. I needed to know that he had a final resting place, that something with his face wasn’t going to show up at the gates of the Fort. That’s all I’d wanted Bob and Mister to find.

They’d come back with a feather. It was almost as long as Mister, a big silver pinion. He dropped it on the pavement, plopped on top of it, held it between two paws, started rubbing his face on it, rumbling out a purr deep enough to be felt back at the Fort.

“Uh.” I looked up; the sun was just a glowing smudge at the horizon, the shadows of the buildings reaching out to cover us. “Bob, get in the skull. We need to find somewhere that locks before the vampires stop hitting the snooze button.”

Mister yowled, sulkily abandoning his new toy, but came over and crouched near the skull, yawning widely. Bob spiralled out of him like the world’s most fabulous hairball, a shower of golden light that wound its way back through the eye sockets of the skull, which turned on the ground a moment later and looked up at me with candle-flame eyes. Mister rubbed against my legs, a quick weave between them, almost knocking me over, and I bent to scratch between his ears, scooping up Bob with one hand and the feather with the other.

“We’re going to need a bigger tracking spell,” Bob said, his voice all puffed up with compensation.

“What? What did you see in there? He wasn’t there?”

“There’s nobody in there,” Bob said. “There’s only a little blood. I didn’t see anybody. Not even rats.” He fidgeted, a little back and forth jostle in my hand. “But something was in there. Something powerful. There’s energy all over everything.”

“Can we track it?”

“The way you can track the shrapnel after a grenade goes off, maybe. It’s working on a different frequency than me, boss. This fish has never even heard of my dating pool.” The skull’s eyelights dimmed as he shrank a little further inside. I cradled him a bit closer, football style against my chest. He wiggled deeper into my grip. Whatever had been there, it had frightened him. “We’re at the center of a blast radius. I didn’t notice until I saw the metaphorical crater because it’s just so big.”

That didn’t sound good. I eyed the sun again, dipping dangerously low. “We’ll hit this in the morning,” I decided, shoving the feather into the breast pocket of my salvaged polo shirt, the pinion sticking out.

There was a sudden hum against my chest, like a whole family of bees had decided to take up residence in my pocket all at once, and I yelped and slapped at myself, feeling like an idiot when all I did was jam my pendulum into my chest, the thin edge of the decal digging into my ribs. I pulled the chain out from under my shirt, the feather still bobbing in my pocket, held it up. It swung gently-- then less gently. I concentrated on breathing evenly, softly, holding my hand perfectly still, watching as the swinging circle started to pick up momentum, building itself into broad, lazy swings. It was close, whatever it was I was suddenly tracing. Mouse hopped to the alert, doing his best pointer dog in the same direction. Mister sat down and started washing himself, but I got the feeling that he was observing closely out of the corner of his eye.

“It’s almost nightfall,” I said, frowning at my dog. “You’re sure?”

Mouse’s tail wagged, and he took a few encouraging steps in the direction of the pendulum’s swing-- it was pulling a little harder, cresting a little higher. I could feel that little tug.

“I hope you’re right,” I said, and we started out into the evening.

It didn’t take us very far, a few blocks north, skittery things in the growing shadows around us making me tense. I eventually looped the string of the pendulum around my neck and bent to scoop up Mister, shifting him to one arm, Bob in the other, let the pendulum lead without me holding it. It was a little like being dragged around on a leash-- while carrying almost thirty pounds of furry dead-weight with one hand-- but at least I felt better about my cat.

It was starting to pull to the side, towards a row of mostly-intact buildings; I skirted the wall until we came to an opening, a bank branch, plate glass windows shattered, lobby looted but structurally sound, inner doors intact. The pendulum was tugging me straight inside, and I looked left, right, and up-- always check the ceiling-- before heading in. I was being pulled right towards the inner door-- I held my breath, and tried it.

It was locked. And guarded by a threshold so strong and bright it was like an electric current. I yanked my hand back, skin buzzing and teeth almost chattering with it, and took a stumbling step backwards.

There was a bustle of motion inside, and before I could get my blasting rod into my hand, a woman opened the door.

“Oh,” she said, face lighting up in recognition-- I’d never met her, but she sure knew me. I saw her shape the words, yelped a protest, but it was too late: “Come in.”

“No!”

She blinked at me. “Are you sure? It’s going to be dark soon.”

“I know! Don’t just invite people inside! Stars!” If my arms hadn’t been full of cat and skull I would have pinwheeled. As it was, I had to settle for jerking my head about. How had she even made it this long?

“Oh, I know.” She nodded quickly. “It’s just, we’ve been expecting you.”

“You’ve been what?” I looked behind me sharply. Mouse huffed reassuringly, wagging his tail. “Lady, I could be anyone.”

“...I’m pretty sure you’re you.” She lifted a brow. Mister leapt from my arms, wound his way once around my shins and tucked his paws under himself primly, sitting down right inside the open door. I lunged for him-- and jerked back up as I almost went across that ringing threshold.

“Is it him?” another voice came from inside. “Harry!” The guy who appeared behind her, he was sort of familiar-- thirty-something, attractive, gym-muscular arms under his t-shirt, longish hair smoothed back. “Harry, hey, you’d better come in. The vampires will be out any time.”

“Who are you.” I clutched Bob, tried to make it look natural.

“Bobby! Bobby Madison? Gowan Commando? She Being Brandy and For Her Thighs Only? No, wait, Brandy was after I met you-- and Thighs. You saved our production from a curse once? Oh my god is that your puppy, he got HUGE.”

“Bobby MADISON?” Bob came to life in my arms. “You formed Good Love productions after Genosa’s production house split apart. I saw your whole i.m. cumming series! You’re amazing!” He turned sulky on a dime. “Harry didn’t take me on the case.”

I stared down at Bob, back up at Bobby. That had been-- that was more than ten years ago. A favor for my brother, not that I had known he was my brother at the time. Well, I found out halfway through. Chaos curse. Porn star sorceresses. The usual. My first and last time on the set of a porno. “Bobby? ...Inari’s boyfriend?” I gaped. “What are you doing here?”

“Long story. Harry, come on. Come in, seriously.”

Mouse butted me in the small of the back, shoving me a few steps forward. Mister was twining around the woman’s ankles, just on the other side of the threshold. As terrifying as this whole Friendly Welcome thing was, the animals weren’t worried-- I stepped across the threshold, a singing note through my whole body, uncomfortable and consuming. If I hadn’t been invited I would have left almost everything behind it. Mouse bounded right in behind me, wagging his tail like he was trying to ventilate the whole room, reuniting with Bobby-- Stars, Mouse hadn’t even had a name then, he’d just been a little pocketful of fluff and pink tongue.

The room inside was cozy, lit with a sampler of grocery store candles, a whole potpourri of smells. The soft light showed me almost twenty people, sitting on the chairs and couches that must have been in the lobby and pulled from the offices.

They all looked up at me, and they all smiled, recognition lighting up. It was welcoming, loving and caring in an honest, open way. It was also really, really creepy.

“Who are you people?” I said, reaching into my coat with my free hand, grasping my blasting rod. “Bob, are they human?”

“They’re... yeah, boss, but, uh...” I clutched him a little closer.

“Harry, it’s a long story.” The voice-- I knew it. I knew it really well. I’d never thought I’d hear it again. I’d been looking for his body. My gut went cold as a figure stood, bracing himself on the couch, the light catching his face.

“Michael,” I breathed, tensing up, shoulders lifting. If it was something wearing his face-- horror seized up my spine, fury and sorrow and something in me screaming at the idea, a repeating no no no no getting higher and higher pitched.

“Everyone sit down,” I barked, backing up hard to a wall, pulling out my blasting rod and holding it in front of me, my knuckles going white to keep my hand from shaking.

“Is something wrong?” Bobby said, nothing but honest, worried concern in his voice. “Harry?” He started to stand--

“--I said sit down!”

I opened my Sight.

The room was brighter seen through different eyes, and I could see everyone in it clearly. They were all human. They were all different, the details worn into them, the way they’d been shaped, the paths their lives had taken, their stories and loves and heartaches drawn and traced onto their skin. They were laid bare before me, and they were all beautiful. Michael was easy to pick out: the only one standing, almost at the center of them all, and the only one glowing gently, the only source of light in the room. My breath caught-- I could feel my eyes go wet, my vision blurring even if my Sight wasn’t, a few tears spilling over, distant and hot on my cheeks. He was so beautiful and I’d come to find his body. We’d soulgazed, once, almost twenty years ago; this wasn’t the same, but it hit me in my heart the same way. He wore his greater age well, had grown stronger and a little weary, but the lines on his face were gentle, generous, kind, his eyes two bright lights. There were faint scars on his skin, old battle wounds that didn’t mar the glow coming from him but accented it instead, giving it depth and color, like stained glass. I had to turn away from him, my chest aching.

I looked at Mouse, lying on the ground near a woman. He was giant, bigger even than he was in the Nevernever, a lion-maned creature the size of a minivan, his paws like the moon, his body sparkling with silver stars hidden deep in the soft curls of his fur. It took me a moment to recognize the woman. There was something different about her: her shadow pooling on the ground, an inky black puddle, her skin pale, almost translucent, a reflection of something she wasn’t but could have been. Something hungry. But she wasn’t that, the shadow wasn’t part of her being, she was strong and striking, a quiet confident beauty. Inari. Near her, Billy-- naked and unashamed, sensual, lips touched with color, and next to him Jake, their business partner, also naked, smiling and offering the sight of his body like a friendly gift.

They all had something in common, though, Billy, Jake, Inari, Michael, everyone else in the room, something new, something given to them or put on them-- glowing handprints, on shoulders and legs and backs, as if someone with radioactive hands had moved and steadied them. And each one of them was wearing an empty scabbard, some thin and solid, for a katana, others broad and leather, to fit a greatsword, some hard and oval, for a rapier-- either way, all of them had one except for Michael. There was a crease across the shoulder where his had been, a weight now lifted.

It was very beautiful and I didn’t know what to do about it but close my eyes and block out the comforting glow, shutting off mortal and wizard sight. You don’t forget what you See, ever. And I’ve seen a lot of terrible, horrible things. And sometimes I got to see things like this. My heart was pounding.

I sagged down the wall, blasting rod falling out of my hands, curling into a ball around Bob.

“Harry. Harry.” Michael was at my side, I could hear his grunt of effort as he used the wall to support himself as he slid down to sit beside me, put an arm around my shoulder.

“Matthew came to Marcone’s fort and he didn’t know where you were and the tracking spell didn’t work and they think you’re dead, Charity and the kids, they sent me to find your body,” I started to babble, and he wrapped me tight in his arms.

“We had to wait here,” he said, his voice pained, aching. “It isn’t safe to leave yet; we couldn’t have made it far, none of us have any way to defend ourselves. Oh Harry, I’m sorry.”

“The restaurant you were in-- it’s crushed, it’s rubble, nothing could have survived. I don’t understand--”

“It’s... it’s a hard story to tell, Harry-- please. Please, I’m sorry, how are they?”

“Uh-- they’re-- they’re okay. Matthew was the only one missing. Of the kids. Charity and Harry both got sick right After-- a lot of people are, it’s hard to find clean water, and it’s a lot of stress on the body, but they’re recovering. Everyone else is okay. Except. Molly. She’s hurting, Michael, the End, it hurt wizards, really bad, and she’s a sensitive--”

“Oh Lord.” It was a prayer more than anything-- I finally mustered up the courage to open my eyes again, and I could see his cheeks shining with tears in the dim light. “Oh Lord, why couldn’t I be with them--” He jammed a hand over his face, took a few hard breaths. “They’re alive. Thank you.” I didn’t know if he was talking to me.

I’m a bad person. I’m not like Michael, like any of the Carpenters-- knowing that this was hard for him too, that whatever hand was guiding him was not doing so without strain... I shouldn’t have felt grateful, relieved, but I clutched at his arm around me, so glad suddenly to have my friend here, alive, human, still mortal and still part of my world, his family’s world. Still ours. There was nothing wearing his face, nothing sharing his head but him.

“What... what happened to you? How did you get out of the restaurant?” I looked around at all the worried faces, everyone leaning toward us but nobody intruding on our little huddle, everyone still sitting like I’d told them too.

“It was--” he took a deep breath. “Can somebody else, please?”

Inari looked around, and when nobody spoke up, she did. “Well. We were all in the restaurant. We,” she gestured to Bobby and Jake, herself, “were in town for a reunion with Arturo-- his plane wasn’t in yet, though, so we were kicking around, having dinner.” I tried to pay attention and not gape about seeing her again, how different she looked. Not that that was bad. Just-- not a kid anymore, she had to be, what thirty now? Confident, filled out solidly into her gangle, her dark hair tied back in a loose tail-- it was startling to see her looking older than Thomas. Whatever she would have been, could have been, she was mortal and whole.

“I’d called the family. But Lara was... busy, and Thomas just wasn’t taking my calls. Justine was going to hook up with us later. But. Oh, Harry, I’m sorry, I’m supposed to be explaining, are they okay?”

“Justine’s okay,” I said uncomfortably. “The wham-- um, the family evacuated before I got back to Chicago.” They’d managed to wrangle helicopters from somewhere. National governments, the military, and the Raiths. “They left the security at home. Justine. To direct any stray ffffamily members--”

“You can say White Court,” Inari said, and it sounded like an old scar pulling tight.

“Them,” I said. “To direct them to the family’s new digs in the Caribbean.” The ones left behind were doing okay, I heard. Mostly. Thrall withdrawal was a terrible thing, and the things in the dark knew they were weak.

“Thomas is--”

“Missing. Presumed sulking,” I said-- I could tell her that, at least. Justine was pretty sure he was alive, wherever in the tricounty area he’d chosen to angst. He’d be okay, I was sure he’d be okay. Handle himself. Safer wherever he was than in the new Raithhold, anyway-- Justine listened at keyholes. She knew what Lara had planned for male whampires who showed up. She’d done the sexy incest patriarchy once. Didn’t feel like doing it again.

She sighed deeply. “That’s... better than dead,” she said bluntly. “Anyway. I’m so sorry. We were in the restaurant, all of us, having dinner. There was a siren outside, a commotion. The tornado sirens, I think. We all-- I think we all thought that whatever was going on, we’d be safer inside. But then the lights went out, just as things began to shake and the tornado came through. ...Then we tried to get out, once the storm was past. But the upper level had fallen, mostly in front of the door. It was a very hard climb. We were getting people out, one at a time... the ceiling gave...”

A deep breath. “The roof came down. There wasn’t. Time. It hurt. There was weight.” She shook her head. “Then the next second there wasn’t, and the air was clean and I was in the darkness. ...There was a light. And a thing. A big... creature.” Inari’s hands shaped a ball in front of her, a giant room-filling sphere. “It was covered with wings, and it had so many eyes, covered and uncovered in feathers instead of blinking. It didn’t blink. It talked to me. Us.” Her eyes went a little distant.

“Then Anduriel, the fallen, reached his hand out
And found a comet, designated by men C/2010 L5.”

The guy on the other side of her, not Bobby, started to talk along with her, and the woman next to him, voices low and steady, repeating it like you’d repeat something you’ve heard a thousand times, like schoolkids saying the pledge.

“And the tail of it struck the Earth and the air was filled with dust
And the seas turned to vapor where it landed
And the cities of men shook on the plains
The Darkness came over the Earth
And Anduriel, the fallen, called his army in the Darkness
And they rose to bring an end to all life.”

They were all doing it now, even Michael murmuring it quietly at my side.

“And God reached down, and cast him into the pit
And his army was cast into the pit.
You will go to the strongholds of men and all places where life finds shelter
And you will tell them: ‘this is not the judgment of God
And God has not abandoned you
The serpent is cast into the pit.
Therefore make no war in the name of God
But offer your hand to your brother and your sister
And all who live are your brother and your sister’
And Anduriel, the fallen, and the fallen who serve him
They will rise from the pit in years to come
And you will wield the Sword that drives them back.
Make a place for the Sword and let it be shelter for the lost
And in the strongholds of men you will find the warriors of God.”

Inari blinked.

“That was really creepy,” I said, with feeling, Bob mumbling an agreement from my lap. He was pulling back again, eyelights dim, not comfortable here-- I patted the skull softly, gave it a reassuring little rub. “Get some rest, Bob. You’ve got to hitch back with Mister in the morning.”

“Got it, boss,” he said with a little sigh, and his eyelights flickered out. If anyone noticed that I was conversing with my lap, they were too polite to say, and Michael just looked understanding and sympathetic, even if Bob was an ungodly familiar.

“I know, it’s kind of off-putting,” Inari said with a wince, running a hand through her hair. “We really need to stop doing that. It’s just-- it doesn’t go away? I mean? It doesn’t leave your head? Worse than a top-forty song. It-- he, they, got into detail after that, and I remember that, too, but that part was different for all of us, different details, different stuff. He told us you’d be here and then you’d bring us the swords.

“He was fairly… blunt about some of it. The phrase ‘don’t be assholes’ was included,” Michael said, giving me a faintly accusatory look. Like I was the only person angels could pick up PG-13 language from or something. Sheesh.

“They told some of us that we had to take Fidelacchius and head south. There’s a landmark, we’ll know it when we get there,” said the lady who’d opened the door for me. Mister was curled in her lap, snoozing, and she pet his back absently, strokes long and gentle.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “Okay. I. I can, uh, get the swords in the morning. Is that all right?”

A general chorus of assent, thankfully not in perfect unison.

“Harry,” Jake said, frowning. “There’s just one thing-- when Michael’s son and everyone who got out of the restaurant made it to Marcone’s place, was there a maintenance guy with them? We though he was trapped inside with us, but he wasn’t here when we all woke up. And the-- the messenger wouldn’t have left him in there, would they?”

“...A maintenance guy.”

“Yeah, he was helping people get out the door, before the aftershock. His name was Jake, too-- I saw it on his namebadge. Weird coincidence.”

I pulled the big silver feather out of my pocket, spinning it between my fingers. They tingled, the pendulum hanging around my neck humming just in case I hadn’t figured it out yet. Helping people out the door. Steadying them when they stumbled, helping them find solid footing in the dark. Handprints all over.

“I... uh, you’re just going to have to take this one on faith, guys. Jake’s fine.”

Michael raised an eyebrow at me, and I shrugged at him. He squeezed my shoulder, hugging me tight.

“I won’t be able to go back and see them until the monastery is built,” he said, voice heavy with a sad certainty. “And I know it may not be safe for them to travel for a while yet. Please tell Charity I love her. The children.”

“I promise.” I squeezed him back, gave him the feather. “It’ll be okay, Michael. ...Which I guess, you don’t need me to tell you.”

He smiled at me, cheeks still a little damp. “Maybe not. But thank you.”


Chapter Text

Dawn broke fast in the Nevernever, though whether that was time folding on itself or just a trick of the bright, unclouded sun I wasn’t sure. Days don’t pass the same way here, with no guarantee time will match from one Way to the next, never mind what was going on in the mortal realm. It’d be enough to drive a guy mad, if he spent too much time trying to figure it out.

I patched myself up as I walked, making my bandage a bit more than a compress I had to hold against my shoulder, twisting myself around painfully to tie awkward knots to hold my old shirt in place, almost wishing I could feel the cold better so the frost in the air and the wind could numb me up a little faster. I wasn’t looking forward to a hike across the Nevernever, shirtless, with a bandage strapped across my shoulder. I didn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. And not having my foci... I looked like a lean cuisine wizard snack: now with fewer calories, reduced fire spells.

I figured I’d be okay, though. The only unknown territory I had to cross was the field ahead, and according to my mother’s records it was mostly uninhabited.

...The thing about the Darkness falling and the meteors that wrecked the mortal world was that it had thrown the politics of the Nevernever out of shape too. Old and established territories were contested now, turned into pitted, dangerous no man’s land, or had changed hands entirely. Going by the battle I could see as I trudged farther across the plain, rising up at the horizon like a trick of the light, this field was in the ‘contested’ category. There wasn’t much by way of cover; the two camps were almost out of sight to either side, distant tents with the battle trampling the ground between them-- giants set up on the wyld side, horsemen and men on foot attacking from along the newly reduced border of Summer.

Stars and stones. It was never easy was it? I scanned the horizon, half-attempting to block the whipping wind and dust with a hand, looking for a break in the encampments that I could walk around, trying to gage how far they stretched. I couldn’t go back through the Way I’d come through: even if I hadn’t caved the exit in, there was Mister Linda’s ghost and the hunters to worry about, and it wouldn’t get me any closer to reinforcements.

If I struck back out across the plain and went the opposite direction of the battle, I’d end up somewhere else in the Nevernever where I’d never been, where my mother’s voice warned me away from, where I’d be weakened and bleeding. Through there, I’d get to an old Tokyo Metro station-- if it was still standing-- and it would be another three hard Ways and a few hours’ walk to get to where I wanted. I didn’t have that kind of time. I needed to get to Chicago, and Luccio, and backup. So I sighed, took a few careful steps away from the edge of the pit-- and froze when something sharp touched my back.

Someone said something in a language I didn’t know, voice deep enough to shake the ground beneath my feet. I put my hands up, and hoped that translated to ‘please don’t stab me’ in their language, and not ‘run me through, I am preparing to attack.’

“...What was that?” I said. “Look, can I turn around?”

“Winter Knight,” said the spear-holder, English gruff and accented and coming from way above my head. The sharp thing against my back jabbed and then pulled back. “Turn slow.”

I did, looking my captor square in the navel. A giant. Crap. Looking up, I saw he was Winter-- had a faint frostbitten cast to the face, hair wild and white as ice. He was in full armor, and the spear he held leveled at my face was stained with gore. The smell and sight of the blood brought back a few fresh memories, my skin crawling.

“Raise your hands higher.”

I did, gritting my teeth at the ache in my shoulder. “I’m not here to mess with your battle. I don’t even know who’s fighting.”

“So you say.” He rumbled off a few commands to his men. “But you were a friend of Wodin in days Before. You do not go further onto this field.”

“Look, I’ll go a different Way, I’m kind of in a hurry--”

Two of them-- which, overkill much?-- stepped out to grab my arms, leaning down to bind my hands behind my back with strong, thick rope, tight enough to pull my shoulders down and make them both ache. I could feel fresh dampness under my bandage, a throb of renewed pain. The rough rope tingled with a spell, a binding that snarled around my magic. One of the giants grabbed my jaw and wedged it open, stuffing a piece of cloth in, tying a second around my face. I gagged on it, struggling uselessly.

“You are our prisoner. We do not hurt you. We will tell your Mistress and her envoy will find you. She knows of battles that are not hers. You do not. We have heard this.”

My reputation apparently preceded me. I didn’t have time for this-- Mab would send someone to get me, sure, I wouldn’t be hurt, but every hour I didn’t get back to Refuge was an hour Golf team and friends had to stew in their hunger, plan new raids on the surviving settlements around them. Or maybe decide that eating out was just too much work and they might as well dine in.

I got my feet under me and twisted half out of one of my captor’s hands-- the captain grabbed me and shook me, making my eyes water. “We do not hurt you. Do not force us.”

They started to march, the captain dragging me along like a disobedient puppy, and I had to jog to match the pace--when I stumbled, he just pulled me along, feet dragging on the ground, shoulders screaming as my weight fell on them.

One of them barked a word, a warning; the tone and the palm up gesture were universal. They stopped, backing into a circle, arguing, scanning their surroundings for something I couldn’t see, tense conversation happening over my head.

A slab of turf erupted next to my captor’s foot, and the ground sprouted a sword-- he threw me away with a grunt, whirling to free his arms and face his new attacker. I felt the ropes pull as I instinctively tried to throw my arms out, and then the ground smacked me upside the head. Blood splashed my face, and a heavy weight knocked the wind out of me as the world went dark, blotted out by giant. Smelly, dead giant. Voices bellowed, old Norse and a mix of other things.

It was over fast. Grunts, shouts, and then silence. Someone hauled the dead giant off of me; a short, broad-shouldered woman, skin bronzy against the silver of her chain mail, hard dark eyes glinting at me from under her helmet. She flipped me over, slit the rope binding my arms, and offered me a hand up. I took it dazedly, pulling at the gag with my other hand, trying to scrape the taste of dirty cloth and dead giant off of my tongue with my teeth. My knight in shining armor-- and tactical vest, worn over her mail, practical if not fashion conscious-- glared up at me. She was taller than Murphy by a handful of inches, still more than a foot shorter than me, but there was a familiar, assessing edge to her gaze that reminded me immediately of my old friend, scowling up at me from under her helmet, her hair and neck protected by a dark scarf looped expertly and tucked into her armor.

“English, you said?” she asked, not to me, and a burly redhead in a wolfskin cape a few steps behind her nodded. He looked familiar-- might just have been because he looked like every stereotype of a viking ever, bristling beard and giant two-handed sword and raw fur and everything. All he was missing was the horns on his helmet. Of course, the rest of the six person squad looked like they’d be just as comfortable pillaging on the shoreline and rowing across the Atlantic as he did, except one guy who I think was Somalian and one of the other two women who was wearing the remainder of a battered green uniform over her set of mail, a worn beret rolled up and jammed under one epaulet. The... commander, I guess, since everyone had fallen in line behind her and shut up, jutted her jaw. “Great. I’m Thura Shieldsplitter. Who are you, and what did the Jötnar want with you?”

“Harry Dresden. They mostly wanted me out of the way.” I blinked, scrubbing giant blood off of my face with my fingers, rubbing at my eyes where the blood was drying, sticking my hair to my skin, clumping my eyelashes together. “Didn’t want me to turn the battle.”

She blinked, and her mouth jerked up at the edges, but she didn’t laugh and she stepped on the smile fast. “Hey, Raudr,” she said, eying me consideringly. “You know so much about him. Does he have the goods?”

The redhead nodded. “Winter Knight,” he grunted.

“Huh. He’s scrawnier than the last one. Explains the wardrobe, though.” She looked me up and down. “Where are you headed, Knight?”

“Chicago,” I said meekly.

“Looks like someone took a bite out of you.” She jerked her chin at my shoulder, and I resisted the urge to cover the bandage with my hand. Mostly because that would really hurt.

“Yeah, he gets that,” said the big guy. I stared. Something fell out of my middle, hit the ground. I would have followed if my knees hadn’t locked at the shock.

“...Hendricks?” My voice was small; the wind almost stole it away.

“If I was wearing glasses, you never would’ve recognized me, would you?”

“Adorable reunion, kids,” Thura waved. “But that’s not going to be the only patrol that swings this way. Hendricks, Berg. Get the scarecrow back to camp, get him a shirt, and get him out of my hair. “

“Yes, Captain,” they said in unison.

“Um.” My eyes flicked from the battle in the distance to Hendricks, large as life and... alive as life. Beard. Wolfskin. “Is this Ragnarok?”

Thura waved her sword at me, eyes flashing. “Not today, it isn’t, and not on my watch. Move, boys.”

 

I tailed Hendricks and the other guy, Berg. Bergfinnr, he introduced himself as-- he was of the stereotypical viking stripe himself, with a blond braid jammed under his helmet and a beard longer than Hendricks’. The battle was still far away, distant screams on the wind and the clang of metal lifting the hair on the back of my neck. I covered it up with my voice.

“So. Shieldsplitter. That from the original Farsi?”

“Pashto,” said Bergfinnr. His accent reminded me a little of Gard’s “She has no family name. She split a shield. She is Captain Shieldsplitter.” That seemed to be that.

“How long has she been... viking? When did she decide to vike?” I tried, and Hendricks chuckled, a familiar bass rumble that fucked with my internal time compass like a magnet, leaving me spinning.

“We are the Einherjar, skinny Knight,” Bergfinnr said, flashing me a smile over his shoulder. “She came to Monoc in ‘82. She fell in battle and joined us in ‘03.”

“Company perq,” Hendricks explained before I could pick just one of the questions that raised.

“Vallhalla is one heck of a Christmas bonus.”

“It’s not bad.” Hendricks nodded, a quick chinjerk to acknowledge that yes, he was dead, life goes on, same as usual. Stars and stones, this was my social life. “The war isn’t a walk in the park, but they aren’t supposed to be.”

“How’d you get tapped, though? Not that you aren’t pulling off the viking-chic and all. Wolf pelt has never looked viking-er.” As far as I knew, Monoc (and every other corporation ever, headed by a god or not) had disbanded when the sky fell. Odin had come out of retirement then, and Hendricks had never been on his payroll even when he was playing the part of genial old security contractor.

“Long story,” Hendricks grunted.

“Sigrun went for him,” Bergfinnr said conspiratorially. “Pulled strings. Rode out to claim him like it was the old days.” He sighed, a little heavy on the swoon, and winked at me. “Adorable.”

Hendricks elbowed him with the dull clatter of chain mail elbow on Kevlar breastplate. “Dresden. What bit you?”

Well, that was a relevant conversational gambit. “I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think... wendigo.”

Bergfinnr didn’t recognize the word. Hendricks did, his big face creasing with gentle puzzlement, a little worry. “...You mean as in a human who had a mental break or--?”

“Actual snow-powered cannibal zombies,” I said grimly. Hendricks gave me a dubious look, beard bristling as his mouth pulled way to one side. “Okay, maybe not the most accurate description, but I didn’t stick around to try to catalog them for my field guide of baddies. Real monsters, but they used to be humans until they ate one of their own people. Maybe it’s a kind of curse or possession, I’m not really familiar with the lore outside of the whole oops-I-ate-Joe-where-did-this-pesky-bloodthirst-come-from thing....”

I was wandering off into safe theoretical ground and avoiding the actual monsters. No good. I forced my mind back to Refuge and Golf team, putting together what I knew, what I could guess from their behavior. “They’re still... mostly human, I think. But I think they keep changing-- getting less and less human all the time. They’re starting to lose control,” I said, remembering the fight with Hank, the way it seemed to come out of nowhere, Cavanagh’s rage when they’d cornered me in my room, the mindless way they’d attacked my shield, ignorant of their own injuries. “They try to look and act the same as they always were, but they’re slipping. One of them took a knife to the chest and didn’t even bother to bandage up. It didn’t rot, it didn’t bleed out. They’re hungry no matter what they eat, and they don’t stop for little things like broken jaws.”

I remembered a snatch of text now, something out of some grimoire of Justin’s I’d been leafing through, a lifetime and a world ago, something about Wendigo being twelve feet tall, and I wondered if it was just a distortion of the Nevernever that had made the Golf team in Mr. Linda’s flashback seem shorter. Golf team, lean and long, had their sleeves, their pant legs been a little short? ...A warning light started blinking at me, somewhere back in my head, but the little thought melted away when I reached for it.

“And they ran you off.” Hendricks’ brows beetled up under his helmet. “That worries me. You’re usually too dumb to run.”

“What are you talking about? I’m fantastic at running. I just usually get cornered.” He kept looking dubious. You walk into one battle with some lycanthropes and you get typecast. Okay, and the hexenwulven just after that. Oh, yeah, and he knew about the demons. Right, and the thing in the Deeps. And the Denarians. And--

“Don’t judge me,” I sulked, and slunk into his shadow to stay out of the wind.

We crunched along, long strides, and soon the grass under our feet wasn’t rimed with frost and the wind had died down to a friendly breeze and sun had warmed the air up to a summery heat-- Darkness summer, I realized; ten years ago I would have thought it was a mild spring day. My bite was thawing around the edges, the skin around it all pins and needles where the stinging Winter chill met sunlight warmth and started to fade, leaving just the normal, everyday pain of having a hunk of meat ripped out of me. I winced.

“A bad bite,” Bergfinnr said, frowning at me. “We will dress it in camp. Clean you up. Not far now.”

Up close, the camp was actually kind of festive-- the tents were a mix of who knows whose army surplus, solid wood-framed colorful A-tents, brush shelters and temporary huts, some tipis and even what I was pretty sure was a wigwam next to a few massive pavilions. There was a full bustle of people--an army to feed an army, even in the afterlife.

Hendricks saw me staring around. "If you knew you were fated to fight at the end of the world, you'd have a real wide recruitment effort too. He doesn’t care where you’re from as long as you leave your old battles behind you and pick up his."

“This man’s army,” I said, eyeing one of the pavilions that looked suspiciously like a circus big top.

He grunted, thumped a hand on my back, gentle around my injured shoulder, and led us into the crowd, Bergfinnr taking point and clearing a path through the bustle. “You’re already engaged, Dresden. Don’t talk yourself into being double-booked. Your ice queen won’t like it.”

“Ladies,” Bergfinnr looked back over his shoulder at us, nodding gravely, his eyes twinkling. “Sometimes they hate the player, not the game.”

A raven was sitting on one of the larger tents, watching a few soldiers cleaning a bunch of fish-- my stomach rumbled, and I wondered where they’d gone for those and if they would feel like sharing.

The bright black eyes turned on me as we got closer, and the raven did a little hop to the right, tipping its head in a startlingly familiar motion, and made a rattly chuckle sound at me.

“H? Or M?” I asked, giving a hesitant wave at the bird.

“Huginn,” Gard said, stepping out from the tent, battle armor glinting in the sun, arms full of cloth and first aid supplies. She nodded at me. “Dresden. So you got yourself taken hostage.”

“I’m a hostage?” I said, straight faced. “I thought I was a USO entertainer.”

She smiled, just a little. “Muninn had eyes on you since you found the wounded ghost. Even if Captain Shieldsplitter and her people hadn’t been in your way, someone would have come.”

“Oh.” I guess, since I’d been dealing so many people recently whose intentions towards me were a sort of benevolent ‘won’t kill him if he isn’t trouble’, that I hadn’t been expecting someone to actually go out of their way. It made me feel more exposed than the strips of bare skin showing through my ragged undershirt. “Hey. Thanks.”

“Sit,” she said, gesturing to a spot near the fire, and I did with relief-- my feet had been hurting, my thighs stiff with the run through the snow, but it wasn’t until I got the weight off them that I really felt how tired and sore I was. There were little packets of something sitting at the outskirts of the coals, crispy leaves, roasting fish and woodsmoke. “I have some bandages, some antiseptic,” she lifted them in her arms, showing me. “I was told you’d need them. And a shirt. I understand that was requested as well.” She handed her load off to Bergfinnr, eyeing my threadbare undershirt, my stained, baggy pants, and what was probably a hairstyle my faerie godmother would have likened to a dandelion. Well, maybe I’d been going for the meth addict look.

“My breasts are beautiful and natural and I don’t have to cover them up. You prudes,” I added, and then “ow, ow,” as Bergfinnr pulled my makeshift bandage off and a strip of my skin tried to go along with it. He dug his fingers into the jar Gard had given him and daubed a stinging herbal paste onto the wound before he started to wrap it up again. I made a manly sound nothing at all like a whimper.

He handed me one of the rags, damp with still-warm water. “Your face,” he said. “Giant blood. It starts to stink, soon. You will not keep your friends.” I blinked-- because I’d forgotten my grisly face paint, and felt the flaky stickiness and needed to clean it off as soon as I remembered. I scrubbed at myself one-handed until Hendricks grunted, knelt down beside me and took the cloth to dab away the the bits I missed.

“The All Father sent me back from the field to meet you. He said you might have something to barter with us for our aid--and that if you said you didn’t need aid you were lying. He said I would know what he meant when you arrived,” Gard said, eying me dubiously.

“Um.” I looked down at my ratty undershirt, soaked boots, dirty cargo pants. “My charm and good company?”

Huginn chuckled again and hopped off of her perch, landing on the ground near where I was sitting with a flurry of loud wingbeats.

“Bad touch!” I squawked as she jammed her beak into my hip, but she was only going for my pocket-- the foil packet peeking out, glinting dully. “...Crackers?”

“Is that from an MRE?” Bergfinnr craned over. “I didn’t think there were any food stores left.”

The light dawned. “These?” I held up the package, the brown foil crinkling. Huginn eyed it, head tilting quickly, right left up down. “They’re from the militia I was staying with. Their supplies aren’t mine to barter with, and they don’t have that much food left.”

“Still, mortal food,” Bergfinnr started, cut off by Gard’s “Militia?” which tangled with Hendrick’s “Where the wendigo was?”

“...I should probably start from the beginning.” They all looked at me; I looked down at my undershirt. “Can I have that shirt?” It was too short at the sleeves, but it didn’t hang off me too hugely, and I might not have needed the warmth, but it was nice to have another thing between me and the world. “Okay. Sheriff Murphy, came looking for me about a week ago...”

They listened to my story very seriously, all seated around the fire, Hendricks at Gard’s side. I could see Gard wanting to ask questions and holding off until I was done, the frown on her face growing deeper and deeper.

“You can’t defeat these flesh-eaters?” She said, as soon as the snap and crack of the fire filled the air instead of my voice.

“Not chewed up like I am.” I reached for my bandage and Bergfinnr batted my hand away before I could touch it. “I don’t know how much of me they got-- they took more than just skin.”

“A raid, then?” She looked over at Hendricks. “Claim the food and slay the monsters?”

“You’d have to clear it with the captain,” he grunted. “I’m not going AWOL on her watch. They’d change her name to Skullsplitter.”

“Guys,” I said, my heart dropping into my stomach with the thought that I’d just found a little more bloodshed to bring down on Refuge. “The people at Refuge have guns still. They’ll fight you for their food. They’ll lose, of course-- they’re starving and they don’t understand the supernatural world, not really. But where’s the honor in that?”

“...Dresden. I was going to ask them if they wanted our help.” Hendricks shared a grim look with Gard. “And if we don’t go, from what you tell me, there won’t be anyone left to fight. Sooner or later.”

“If they give you the food, you’ll save them,” I asked, eyes narrowing.

Hendricks nodded. “And get them to safety. Winter’s already got a toehold in their fort; it won’t be safe for them for long, if it even is now. We can get them somewhere, safe passage--”

“The Fort,” I said immediately. “Nobody else could possibly feed that many without notice. Protect them if anything follows them. But if they say no, if they won’t give up their food or don’t want outside help--”

“Then we’ll return when only the monsters are left,” Gard said. Cold. Practical. But that was the shape of the world, these days.

I scowled. I wanted there to be a better solution. But life just isn’t fair that way. And this was probably a better chance than I could have offered Refuge otherwise, even with Luccio and the handful of other Fort Wardens at my back.

I picked up the packet of crackers that Huginn had dropped, peeling it open and pouring the broken pieces onto the ground. The raven hopped to the pile, gulping up a shard of cracker, and then looked at me.

“Just so you know, going in, there’s not enough food for an army.”

“We’re dead,” Hendricks said. “The rules are different. It’s mortal food. That’s a big thing.”

I remembered summoning fairies with milk and honey and raising an army with pizza. I remembered pizza-- and my stomach growled again, the smell of the cooking fish deepening my hunger.

Hendricks stood. “Sorry. Business meetings; I get carried away.” He pulled a fish from the coals, setting it in its leaf wrap in front of me. “Have something to eat, as our guest. It’s not food of the earth--”

“It’ll do.” I pulled at the leaves, exposing the fish and a burst of steam, shaking out the burn in my fingers and cooling them with a brush of Winter-- a habit I barely even thought about, but it left my shoulder throbbing. I could eat in the Nevernever without being bound here; another advantage the Knight gig gave me. My stomach rumbled again, and I was thankful in a gnawing, hungry, slightly fervent way that Hendricks believed in being a good host-- that I could eat their food without obliging myself and Winter in return. “Thanks.”

“We’ll leave in an hour, once I’ve told your squad that I’ve stolen you,” Gard said, standing to join Hendricks. “Drink first, and eat. You and I need our wits together, Raudr.”

“You, me, and the wizard. Here’s to the old days.”

“These are new days,” she said philosophically. “These beasts Dresden has met. Vindǫld, vargǫld.”

“Not so much of a wind age that the fire giants are moving,” Hendricks said, and it had the flavor of a familiar, fond argument. “Not such a wolf age that the All Father isn’t in peace talks. Who says poets get everything right?”

Gard gave me a conspiratorial look. “He is an optimist.”

“Hidebound traditionalist,” Hendricks accused her with a warm smile.

She smiled at him, eyes bright, and reached up to stroke her thumb down his fuzzy cheek. Bergfinnr was tactful enough to hide his smirk in his fist.

“Um?”

“They argue, is it Ragnarok or not? Is the fate of the gods really fated? Will the earth be born again in fire and water or are we stuck with each other a while? Couples should have something to fight about,” he said, with a sage nod. “It keeps the relationship fresh.”

“...They showed a lot of MTV and Dr. Phil in Midgard, didn’t they?”

He smiled, showed his teeth. “I listen at the fire to the stories of the passing ages.”

“Sure.” We both took a second to studiously ignore the suspiciously kiss-like resolution of the philosophical debate. I distracted myself with eating, fingers and mouth burning reassuringly at the hot meat, drinking from the flask that Bergfinnr offered. That left a different kind of burn, pumping fire and strength into the tips of my fingers. Gard left a little while after that, to borrow Hendricks from his captain.

Then we set out to fight monsters.


Chapter Text

May, 2 weeks After

Winter shuddered and I felt it in my bones, came back to myself.

I blinked, owlish, body creaking as I uncurled, pushed my way past the curtain of Mab’s skirts and stumbled to my feet. I rubbed at my face; it was wet, my eyes gritty. Looked around her throne room, tried to remember how I’d gotten there. I’d been on Demonreach, with Mouse, Mister, Bob. Watched the sun go down. Had a stupid fight with Bob. Mab had sent a messenger to come get me--

My heart sped up, my breathing. I could remember fear: overwhelming, shapeless, soundless, echoing through all of Winter, carried over from the mortal realm. My panic, the strength of my Queen--

“Slowly, child,” she said, rested a hand on my arm. I stared up at her, looking down at me from her throne, her eyes clear, holding steady to an icy transparency, her perfect, beautiful face drawn up in a human mien of concern.

I shivered, a whine pushing its way past the tightness in my chest, my teeth chattering at something that wasn’t cold-- she drew me up onto her lap, held me close while I gasped and sobbed through a misery I didn’t understand. Mouse butted my hand with his head, lay down in front of Mab’s throne until I cried myself out.

Mab dried my cheeks with her skirts when I was done, kissed me on the forehead and steadied me as I slid off her lap. Mouse stood up, leaning his warm weight against me. “Go, my Knight,” Mab said, voice gentle, and that alone turned my guts to ice. Whatever had happened.... “Return to your mortal city, it weighs on you so. If I must gather my power again, I will summon you to me.”

Arctis Tor was dark and silent, my footsteps echoing, a few low werelights flickering in shadowed corners. Maeve opened the door to her chambers as Mouse and I passed, her face pale and drawn, looked out with wide, tired eyes. She drew back without speaking, closed her door firmly. I didn’t see anyone else until we stepped out of Mab’s stronghold-- I was surprised to find it day, or at least what passed as day in the Nevernever, time drifting here on its own twisting path-- and Toot-toot appeared.

“Za lord!” His little face was relieved, his silvery dragonfly wings blurring in a sudden burst of speed. He settled on my shoulder, clutched at my ear in a way he was really getting too big for now, but I wasn’t going to stop him.

“Toot,” I said, my throat dry. I swallowed, tried again. “Toot, what’s going on? Can we get to Chicago?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, and I heard the buzz of his wings, anxious. “But some of the Ways are blocked now and some of them aren’t safe.”

“Blocked? What do you mean blocked?”

“So much fell down.” The air from his wings battered against my ear-- short little spurts of activity. He wedged himself a little closer against my head. “The forests and the tall houses. The stars fell on everything and it all shook and everyone’s all stirred up.”

The information bounced off my brain. It just didn’t make sense. So some of the buildings in downtown had gone down. Some forest fires, I could see that. Toot didn’t really have the greatest grasp on human behavior, what was normal and what wasn’t.

And... if it was anything nearly as bad as that, fires, a couple downed buildings, it wouldn’t just be mortal Chicagoans getting agitated. Even the more harmless types of fae and other supernatural critters had a hard time resisting the urge to play tricks when things were already riled up, not to mention what the nastier monsters might do. People would need my help. Stars and stones, it had even been night when--

--when I’d left. Prime conditions for trouble.

And here I was on this side of the mortal realm, with no idea where anyone was or what was going on. I considered things for a moment: I didn’t have my staff. My blasting rod was tucked inside my jacket only by luck and habit; Stars, I only had my jacket by luck. I’d left Demonreach without a chance to prepare-- left Mister and Bob there. But I didn’t know what I’d be walking into, what tools I’d need. It might be nothing... or it might be important, and the faster I found out, the better. And with trouble brewing, SI was probably my best shot at getting information. Hell, even with Murphy off the force, she seemed to spend more time knowing what was going on with all the SI cases better than anyone else. They could probably get me to her. I knew where I had to go.

“Toot?” I said, and felt him tug on my hair, pulling it over himself.

“Yes, Za lord?”

“Let’s get to Summer,” I said, and reached up to give him a reassuring pat. “I need to speak with the Erlking.”

 

I was lucky. The Erlking-- almost as strangely quieted as Maeve had been, his usual booming voice almost as soft as Mab’s-- was willing to honor the cease fire and sort-of-allies-at-least-not-adversaries accordance he and I had hashed out over the past few years, and the Way from his hall into the main precinct downtown was still open.

I didn’t know how much time had passed in the mortal realm when the Ways started opening again. It had only been a few hours in Winter; later, I’d learn the whole Nevernever, at least those parts I knew, had slowed down, drawn in on itself like a turtle tucked safe inside its shell.

I stepped out of the Nevernever into the police station-- into a darkened hallway, Mouse a silent, looming dog-spectre behind me. I called light into my mother’s pentacle and peered around. It was empty, weirdly empty, and the air was smoky, dusty. I started to get a sense of how wrong things were when I looked into a conference room and saw that the windows were blown out, the blinds rattling softly in the wind. The glass had burst inward. I remembered the wave of pressure that had spread over Demonreach. It must not have been too long here, then, if they hadn’t had a chance to patch it up yet.

“Freeze,” someone barked. I did, throwing my hands up and staring over my shoulder. Mouse sat down immediately-- Murphy wasn’t a supernatural threat, even if she did have a gun on me. Well, it wasn’t the first time.

“Murphy!” I let out a sigh of relief. “Murph, sorry, I just got back--”

“Sure, you and the last two guys. Gonna need you to bleed for me.” There were dark circles under Murphy’s eyes, but her hands were solid on her pistol, keeping it trained on my chest, her gaze flicking to Mouse to let me know she knew he was there, that she knew she could take us both.

“Murph, what’s wrong?”

“‘Lisa Kowalski’ was what was wrong. Good thing the doppelganger got her badge wrong. Fairies seem to be pretty crappy about typesetting. ‘Abe Donovan’ was a little more convincing. Got one of the homicide guys and stuffed the corpse in a broom closet. Forgot to wash out his mouth, though. So how about you bleed for me, and if it doesn’t turn into goo or move on its own, I don’t pump iron coated rounds into your chest?” The light from my pentacle was thrown back at me in splotches, reflecting off the badge pinned to her shirt. Whatever this was-- was it that bad that she’d been drafted back into the force?

Something tightened up in my lungs, winding up too far one way. I had to hold onto it. If it snapped, I was going to start feeling a little hysterical. “Okay. Gonna reach down. Don’t shoot.”

“Nice and slow, buddy.”

I reached down, picking up one of the shards of glass, squirming my arm down into my t-shirt so that I could use it as a makeshift padding after. I dug the piece of glass into my right palm, trying to find the angle it would cut at. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, and I wound up slicing the fingers of my hand first. “Crap! Ow! Don’t shoot!” I jerked my arm out of the sleeve again, holding my fingers out way in front of us and letting the blood drip.

Murphy watched it like a hawk for a good long time.

“...Harry?”

I gave a jerky nod, clamping down on the tight thing in my chest, willing myself to keep it together.

“And you’re sure about Mouse?”

“He was with me the whole time.”

Her shoulders slumped, the hands that had been so steady on her pistol shaking. I pretended not to see. “Harry. Oh God. You’re back.”

“I’m sorry, Murph. Mab called me back. I couldn’t leave until now. I’m so sorry. What happened?” Mouse licked at my fingers, and I balled my hand into an awkward fist, trying to stop the bleeding, freezing the stuff on the floor dry with some muttered words.

She scrubbed a hand over her face. “We held out for a good long time. But most of the guys had families. They wanted to try to get them somewhere safe, get them to one of the shelters. I stayed. I’d just gotten the booby-traps outside like I wanted them, anyway.”

“Murph, I-- this is the first place I came. What happened to Chicago?”

She stared at me, gave a little high-pitched laugh of disbelief. “Of course, Harry. You would. You came right here. You don’t know. You’re going to make me tell you.” Her shoulders heaved, and she flapped a hand. “Look. Come here.”

She strode quickly past me-- shouldered me out of the way, her arm digging into my ribs in a contact too long to be accidental-- went into the conference room and pulled up the blinds.

Chicago had fallen down.

Like Toot said. So much of it. Fallen down. Buildings had folded in on themselves, burned, shifted to one side and sagged like wet cardboard. The sky outside was a dingy, dusty grey-red like on a cloudy night, the sun trying to glare through and failing. There were cars on the streets, but not moving. Some were pileups. Others had been left where they stood, right in the middle of the road. Most were beaten up in some way, giant dings on the roofs, the hoods dented in, the windows smashed. The traffic lights at the nearest intersection were dark.

Mouse let out a low, pained whine, almost a groan, and I balled my not-bleeding hand in his fur, grabbed at the first thought that I could put words to.

“How long has the power been out?”

“Here? Or in general?”

Something started whining in my ears, picking up speed and frequency like a mosquito coming in for a landing. “How far did this--?” I made a vague gesture.

Another painful laugh from Murphy-- then I saw her face draw in and compose itself as she forced herself into a kind of a cop-standard-issue debriefing posture. “They had to shut down LaSalle after the EMP bursts and the quakes-- it was that or risk a meltdown. They got all the nuke sites shut down on the east coast. But the rest of the grid was pretty threadbare already. The blackouts started in New York, but they rolled down. Brownouts, the first few days. Then the power stopped and didn’t come back. We’d figured out by then that the radios weren’t coming back. We lost our last contact with Indiana last Tuesday. Ten days ago.”

“The whole East Coast?”

“Harry. Don’t make me tell you this.” She shut her eyes, sagging against the door. “Not the east coast. Not the US. The news reports-- when we had news reports-- nowhere didn’t get it. Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia. The sky fell, Harry. Meteors came and blew out half the electronics and planes fell out of the air. Cities burned. There were earthquakes. The death toll was into the millions when there were still news channels to broadcast it on. Do you get it? The world ended.”

In the light of my pentacle, her cheeks glistened wetly. “The quakes shook down to Undertown, chased things up here. And everything down there has figured out that it’s staying dark out here now. The shellycobbs came out. They were feeding on the bodies. Like roaches.” She shuddered convulsively, and hammered a fisted hand on the wall behind her, face contorting in anger. “There’s other things. The shapestealers. Things that don’t bother to pretend to be human. Things that crawl into people and turn them into puppets. Those cat things, they go in packs, and the things with no eyes. They’ve got the subways, all of the Red line and about half of the Blue. The Black Court has the other half-- there were so many of them down there. People didn’t know, Harry, how could they know? They weren’t ready. I see my friends out there sometimes, trying to break in here, those fucking Renfields. And I’m running out of bullets to shoot them with.”

“Murphy,” I said, horrified. “It can’t be-- they’ve got to be rebuilding. There’s got to be--”

“No!” she barked, her voice rough and choked. “Harry, you weren’t here. Don’t tell me the cavalry’s coming over the hill.”

“It can’t be gone,” I whispered, going out to stare at the wrecked city again.

“Shut up. Asshole.” I heard her footsteps behind me and then her arms were around my chest, her badge digging into my back, a tight hug that I sunk into, going to my knees in front of the window. My chest was spasming but I wasn’t crying, exactly, just trying to breathe as my lungs tightened and forced the air out like I’d taken a kick to the solar plexus. Mouse wedged between me and the window, a big furry wall that hid the city for a while, giving a bass whine low in his chest, nosing my hand.

It wasn’t safe to stay at the window, exposed, not in daytime with the dingy not-light all that separated it from the night. Eventually Murph pulled me up, took me to an interior room, safer, well barricaded, and we waited out the day.

She fed me with granola bars from a broken open vending machine; anything in the dead refrigerators had been eaten days ago, first, or thrown out if it was too late. Mouse got some peanuts and the last packet of jerky. There wasn’t much water; they’d run some sinks full, and Murph had scoured the vending machines for bottles of water, stockpiled them. It was starting to run out, but she made me drink-- “If you fall over from dehydration, I’m not carrying you to safety”-- and I split the bottle with Mouse over the day.

Murph had a night routine-- check the barricades on the windows. Check the locks on the doors to rooms with windows she hadn’t been able to secure. She found me some body armor that mostly fit and wasn’t too banged up, and we ghosted through the dark hallways, my pentacle flickering in and out as Murphy told me to switch it on or cut the light in turns. She gave me a sidearm, showed me the few bullets that she’d improvised iron tips for-- “aim’s all messed up because they’re not balanced, but they’ll hurt a fae”-- and gave me a clip of standard ammunition, a good chunk of what she had left.

As twilight started to fall-- the light getting muddier and muddier-- Mouse and I pulled together a bed of chair cushions, stolen from the lobby. Murphy’d staked out the couch from some captain’s office, moved it into a room with no windows and heavy doors, and she curled up on it under salvaged police issue jackets.

The day had been quiet, jarringly quiet-- no L rattling by, no cars, no hum of air conditioning. The few sounds that we had heard-- metal clangs, barely-there scuffs, a scream, once-- had been all the worse for it. I’d thought my old apartment was pretty hermetic, but I was starting to fray around the edges at how quiet the city was. The night, though...

Things were hunting in the city, pitch-dark, the thin slice of moon barely a shadow behind the clouds, not enough to trickle into the room we’d holed up in, a circle drawn around us. The monsters screamed, battered at the doors that Murphy had barricaded, the entrances she’d boarded up. I wrapped a jacket around my head, scootching my makeshift bed closer to the foot of Murphy’s couch. Mouse curled up with his chest over my legs, putting my feet to sleep comfortingly. His big deep sighs reassured me that at least one of the three of us was getting some rest.

“I’m running out of water, and nobody’s left in this part of town.” Murphy said, after a few hours of both of us failing to sleep. “I’m going to have to go to a shelter soon.”

“Where’s the nearest?”

“There’s only one close enough that I’m sure is still secure. ...They were... tempting targets.” Her voice was tired and lifeless. “No one knew what to look for, a lot of things got inside, pretending they were human. We helped when we could.”

I swallowed and tried not to think about it, hunched up a little tighter on my cushions. “Where?”

It came out through gritted teeth in the dark, slow and angry. “Marcone’s place.”

 

We packed up the next day, prepared sacks of what was left of Murphy’s food and water and ammunition, salvaged clothing, flashlights, and first aid kits from the different floors and offices and lockers. It was hard, paring down what we had into bags we could carry easily on our backs, and still move quickly and freely while carrying them. We loaded up Murphy’s saddle bags for her bike, dragged into the main lobby, and improvised a second set for Mouse.

That night was worse than my first. There were a series of small, popping explosions about two hours after it went all the way dark, flash and bang that seemed so much louder than they probably were for their strange, human quality in a night full to the brim with inhuman sounds. Murphy swore, leapt off her couch and rolled into a crouch, her pistol out and ready. I scrambled gracelessly off my cushions and gripped my blasting rod in one hand, my borrowed sidearm in the other. Mouse didn’t bother getting off our bed, just crouched low, waiting.

“One of my booby-traps,” Murphy grunted. “They tried to force the west entrance. Might have someone with a brain with them tonight.”

Whatever was out there, they were strong and relentless, pounding on the door, the windows. Splashes of light, fire-orange and angry, were visible intermittently under the door, screams that sounded painfully human ringing in the streets just outside the station. We stayed in our room, inside our circle, guarding the door, our senses straining in the dark, trying to know if they’d broken in. I kept my hand on Mouse all night, gauging the threat by the way his fur bunched and flattened, the low base rumble I could feel but not hear.

By morning-- a slow arrival, the howls and pounding gradually trickling off-- I was exhausted, muscles aching from being tensed and still for hours, my eyes dry and burning. Murphy was pale, her eyes dark smudges, her jaw in perpetual clench. Her hands were shaking-- she chased it off with an energy drink, sipping a little bit of water after to fend off the dehydration.

“We have to get there today,” she said shortly, passing me the water bottle. “No camping out there tonight.”

“We could take a shortcut--” I tried to remember if there were any convenient Ways nearby, somewhere where nothing could have fallen over them, somewhere we wouldn’t have to go into the dark.

“With my bike?”

“Erm.”

“Thought so.”

I frowned, trying to think it through. The Nevernever connected to the mortal realm everywhere, but the Ways to cross through it, the paths and points in and out that were safe enough to travel, and, more importantly, you knew where you were going when you did... well. They got the capital-W treatment for a reason. They were special-- and those that were safe, or safe enough to travel, tended to be pretty heavily guarded. My mother had had a way with them-- haha groan, I know-- a rare understanding of how the Nevernever folded on itself and where it hit the mortal realm, and how to get safely from one place to the next. She’d passed a map on to me, and I’d used it to learn every Way I could throughout the city. There were a few Ways that I knew of around Marcone’s big Chicagoland estate, one about half a mile away, one that opened up right into his front yard-- but the first and only time I’d stumbled into that one, Gard had had it locked up good and tight with some bone shatteringly strong wards, and regardless, both of them went through Winter.

And as kind as Mab had been when--
--when I’d needed it, somehow I didn’t think she’d take too kindly to me granting a giant contraption of cold iron safe passage through her realm.

“How bad are the roads?”

Murphy sighed, scrubbed at her hair. It was greasy, lank, full of the dust that hung in the air, that I could taste inside my mouth no matter what I did. I probably didn’t look much better. “Bad. People tried at first, to clear them. A lot of the newer cars died when the meteors went through the atmosphere, those EMPs, and there were hundreds of accidents in the city alone. But it didn’t stay a priority. Some of the roads are gone, smashed up. Some are just crowded, more debris than road. And the things out there know where people go-- they have a lot of the main routes under watch.”

“Winnetka isn’t that far...” I said, desperately hoping. If it was three weeks ago, it would have been an eight, ten hour walk. Now... Mouse slid his hand under my head, and I rubbed at his ears.

“Let’s hope so,” Murphy said, pulling on her old motorcycle jacket. “And let’s stop burning daylight. Get moving.”

It wasn’t an easy trip, even making some of it on motorcycle. I couldn’t have gotten a car through a lot of these streets-- building collapse or freeway sag had blocked the roads, and there were sporadic snarls of cars that Murph navigated through carefully. It was only by the grace of luck and one of Winter’s trolls that we made it across the river without contest. Half of Lake Shore Drive was still under water; the rest under mud and debris, and all of it was impassable. Half of Clark Street was washed out, half of State a death zone, a pile of bodies from a week before still attracting scavengers. We saw people walking around-- a woman with her chest hanging open, a little boy, still in his pajamas, missing the bottom half of his face-- propelled by something that had crawled inside, compelling the dead muscles and kept them going. We stayed out of sight, ducking behind whatever we could while they shuffled past. Murph was good-- she knew a lot of what was passable in the city and what wasn’t, found the clear stretches of road to coast her bike down. I hung onto her back, reviving my matchstick impression-- ‘Just the once, Harry, you don’t get to break my last piece of technology on me’-- until we had to stop and haul the bike over a barrier.

The first time something exploded out of an abandoned car was almost the last. Murph had just slowly woven her way around the remains of the blown-out front tires and the driver’s door, hanging on one hinge, and I was still a few feet behind her, Mouse picking up the rear. The Black Court vamp caught us all by surprise, using the shadows from the mostly-intact L track above and the dingy not-light as cover, flinging itself at Murphy’s back.

It had her on the ground before I could blink, her bike skidding out, flipped her over, smashed her head into the road-- her helmet shattered, taking the blow, and she got both her fists up in a double punch, catching the Blamp in the neck. It reeled for a moment, hissed angrily when it brushed against her badge-- but a vampire is a lot stronger than a mortal, even Murphy, and it smacked her across the face hard enough that her whole body jerked and went limp.

Arctis,” I snapped, and instantly all the heat around the Blamp sucked away, all the water around it froze, coating its skin in a thin, solid layer of ice-- her, I cataloged, taking in the flapping, shapeless breasts underneath the ratty tanktop. At least it had been a her, before the demon had gotten inside, sucked her dry. She locked up-- I blinked. I hadn’t been expecting that much of a response to the spell, just for it to put a barrier in her way, chill her physical body if not her demon and make her muscle response-time slower. But her face was frozen-- literally-- in an expression of rage, her fangs bared, one hand tight around Murphy’s neck, the other raised for a killing blow, and she was stuck that way.

Mouse figured it out faster than I did, launching himself through the air and knocking the vampire down. She shattered when he hit her, again when her pieces hit the pavement, dead flesh and muscle and bone frozen through.

“...ew,” I said.

Murphy gasped, choked and gurgly, smacked at the ground, struggling with the hand still locked tight around her throat. The arm had broken away, but the hand had stayed, fingers digging into her flesh. Her lips were turning blue, but it didn’t take anything away from her glare.

“Shit,” I said, “crap, sorry, Murphy,” and scrambled over to her. I grabbed what was left of the wrist and squeezed, applying a touch of the strength Winter gave me-- and gagged manfully when the bones crumbled in my grip.

“Stop retching, Dresden, you big girl,” Murphy gasped, her voice rough and throaty, coughing as she sat up, She staggered to her feet and braced her hands on her knees, forcing air back into her lungs. Mouse huffed a breath, just loud enough to get our attention, and sidestepped away from the blampire’s head, still mostly intact. Murph’s face hardened, eyes going cold, and she strode forward to kick the head in like a FIFA star in a shootout.

I heaved again, and she left me to it while she looked her bike over, checking the damage. She sighed. “The finish took a beating. But nothing’s busted; it’ll run just fine. I’ll see if I can get a wrench from somewhere later, tighten these nuts.” She patted the front wheel and righted the motorcycle, mouth slanting down as she looked at the mess of plastic on the road that use to be her helmet.

The cuts on her throat were a little bloody, the dust that was everywhere sticking to them, her skin already going dark and purple across her whole neck. She let me fish out the antiseptic from one of the first aid kits, dabbed at the cuts herself, wrapping a bandage around her neck like a scarf. “That’ll have to do,” she said, coughed a few times and pulled on her spare helmet. “Let’s go. Long trip left.”

 

We were more careful after that, skirted around the darkest shadows, kept our eyes peeled, peering into corners, down alleys. I leapt about a foot when something with claws swiped at me from a sewer grate-- fuegoing it to cinders before I had time to classify what kind of nasty it had been-- but between Mouse, my magic, and Murphy’s sidearm and experience, we avoided more bloodshed, stopping only once to dig out some sticky vending machine puffed wheat squares, splitting a water bottle between the three of us.

The sun was sinking slowly, the dingy dark getting muddier, murkier, and we pressed on.

We wound into Marcone’s upscale North Chicagoland neighborhood, and the change was a little startling. There was more destruction here-- with purpose, I realized. Abandoned cars shoved into quarantine zones; rubble piled over sewer grates and storm drains. Three and a half blocks around his estate were cleared like that-- no hiding places, nowhere for things to run-- or to come out of. That was the first thing I noticed.

The second thing took longer; it didn’t even really twig until we were in sight of his estate. Which was barricaded like a fortress. I’d climbed those walls once to sneak inside. The barbed wire and glint of broken glass studding the old stone, and the height afforded by stacking rubble on them from the inside said that I wouldn’t be trying that one again. There was a dingier quality to the light here, a sort of heavy feeling to the air-- that was what took a while to filter in. The change from Darkness to full-on sleepy twilight was gradual, but pretty drastic once my brain caught up to my senses.

Murphy was blinking, her eyes looking heavy. “Hey, Dresden,” she said, and the murk swallowed up the sound.

“This isn’t normal,” I said, maybe a little unnecessarily, my own voice almost disappearing into the gloom before I finished speaking.

She frowned. And then pulled out her sidearm, ejecting the magazine in it, loading her magazine of iron rounds. She put two fingers over her lips, a clear command to silence, and started circling towards the main gate of the estate. We passed an improvised watchtower-- the guard in it didn’t see us, leaning heavily on her rifle, eyes fixed on something around the corner I didn’t see. The sense of unease I hadn’t managed to break since I first arrived in Chicago after... After, I mentally capitalized... started to swell under the fog of... of something. Not smoke, that I could smell. Not the dust that was everywhere. Something thick and a bit chilly, though, glimmering with little staticky sparks that felt good where they brushed my skin, refreshing like cool sheets and a soft bed after a long, hot day.

Feeling good for no reason is pretty much never a good sign with the supernatural.

Mouse growled and bumped me in the leg.

“What, boy?” I said, a little dopily.

He gave a doggy sigh, and took off at full speed in the other direction. “Hey...”

“Dresden,” Murphy hissed, drawing my attention to the scene just around the corner.

There were lights dancing in the murk near the main gate, back and forth, teasing, brushing the boundary of the wall but never quite going inside. Shadows moved in the mist, just the suggestions of threatening shapes, gone whenever I looked at them directly. In the middle of that, clinging to Marcone’s big wrought-iron gate, was a woman, screaming at the people inside.

“They’re getting closer! Please!”

The guards were watching her in their little rubble towers, almost swaying toward her, almost visibly fighting with themselves. She reached out to someone just inside the barred gate. “Please, I don’t want to die....” she sobbed.

The sound of Murphy’s sidearm cocking cut through the murk. The woman turned to us-- to me, opening her hands.

“Help me!”

She was about twenty, I thought, and she was beautiful. More than beautiful. Idyllic. Sunblond hair and warm blue eyes red with crying, cheeks that would dimple when she smiled, stained with teartracks and grime now. Her jogging suit was torn, showing scratches on her arms, clawmarks, and I took a few steps forward on instinct. Everything about her hit every button in my head, chivalrous and chauvinist, that told me to protect her, save her from the monsters that surrounded her, the wisps that would lead her to her death.

Her hands beckoned. I could save her. I could save something wonderful--

A figure ran out of the mist behind her, and grabbed her by the seat of her velour tracksuit. Fabric tore and Mouse bounded clear, shaking the rags like he was trying to kill them-- I blinked, not understanding as they melted away to nothing in his jaws.

“Bad dog,” the woman snarled, and raised her hands. As she turned to face him, with her back to us, I couldn’t see skin-- fur. Red fur. Murphy gasped and I pulled back a little as a tail uncoiled from her ruined pants... then another. And another.

“Oh shit,” Murphy said, just as she threw her spell, just as Mouse barked.

I’ve only ever heard him do that once before. He’s not a barker. The sound rang through the air, shook the mist apart, scattered the looming shadows, rammed into the woman’s spell and reduced it to nothing. The sentries jerked awake, and there was a sudden sense of motion from inside the estate.

The woman’s expression moved fluidly from rage to resignation and disgust. “A temple dog. Who in this day and age has an actual temple dog? Honestly.” Her tails fanned out behind her like peacock feathers-- I counted quickly up to seven-eight-nine-- and she squared her shoulders and dropped into a crouch. Mouse skirted her, bounding up to stand defiantly next to me.

“You’re the one who took out the State Street shelter, aren’t you?” Murphy said. I looked beside me: Murphy was bowstring taut, eyes narrowed to angry slits. Her pistol was out and pointed at the ground; Murph believes in not pointing at something you don’t intend to shoot, and she’d seen the woman touching iron-- and regular bullets wouldn’t do much here. The sentries on the wall seemed to know it too; they were sighting at her, but no shots yet.

The woman narrowed her eyes, a bit of pride creeping in her tone. "The lines of power shook. The old compacts are broken. I didn't have the luxury of eating prettily, policewoman."

“Not pretty. That’s an interesting way to describe what you did to those people.” Murphy’s hands tightened on her pistol. “So many dead and all you took was the livers. Now that’s just wasteful,” she added, her voice sharp as a knife.

“You need to eat, too.” She drew herself up straight, the wisps coming down to hover behind her. They were listening to her, I realized; a part of her act when she needed them, a weapon when the pantomime failed.

“What are those things?” Murphy asked, jutting her chin at the lights. “Foxfire?”

“No. European imports. Will’o wisps.” I scowled. “Bad news. They lure people into danger.”

She nodded; had heard of them in some old story that Disney hadn’t bothered to animate.

Will’o wisps; they’re not much to look at, compared to hobs or vampires. But they’re malevolent little spirits, great at hypnosis and glamour, single-minded and vicious. They could get you lost in your own backyard, and there’s nothing they like better than finding a nice convenient cliff to walk people off, a trap to lead them into, somewhere where you’ll die frightened and alone. They feed on emotion, like the Whampires, but without the panache and designer clothing and the smarts to know you keep your food source alive.

You don’t see them much anymore, so they don’t register as a threat. Me, though, I have some personal experience. I was younger then, a lot younger. They almost got me. I haven’t forgotten.

Murphy turned her attention back to the woman. “Your little lite-brite pals, they lured them outside for you, didn’t they? Got them lost? Then you got tired of waiting for them one by one and pulled your sobbing at the door thing.”

“The wisps are good at what they do.” A shrug. “So am I.”

“The wisps.” Murphy looked at me. “They aren’t iron-proof like her, are they?”

“No.”

“Fantastic.” She lifted her pistol, and shot the wisp nearest the woman’s face. There was a light, a sound like a distant scream, and a shower of ectoplasm.

“All right, then.” The woman lunged.

I was ready for her, hit her offensive with a strong defensive forzare! ...And stumbled back at the impact, my ears ringing. She was strong: it hadn’t just been her body she’d been throwing around, there was old power behind her, too, and she knew how to use it. I didn’t know how many of those hits I could take, even with Winter backing me up.

“Winter!” she said, surprised, shaking her head like she was throwing off water.

“That’s Sir Winter’s Hired Help to you, lady.” I grit my teeth in a sarcastic smile, partly because it would piss her off, partly because if I could keep her talking, it would give my joints a chance to recover from her lunge.

“I heard there was a new Knight.” She prowled around us in a circle, eyes flicking between me, Mouse, and Murphy. “That will teach me not to give a damn what you Court types are doing.”

She darted in again without warning, lightning fast, flinging a spell as she went-- I blocked the spell with a tangled rush of power to my shield, the curse ricocheting hard and setting a dead shrub two houses away on fire. She did something and came through my shield, slipping through cracks I didn’t know were there-- and caught a stomach full of Mouse, springing at her like a furry battering ram. They went sprawling; her fingers clawed across his face, he savaged her shoulder, then they were apart and getting their distance again. Mouse bounded back in front of me, standing bravely out front. The deep scratches on his muzzle were welling with blood. I focused my power, pushing away the knot of upset and terror and grief from these last few days, honing my stress into an icy, burning point. She’d hurt my dog.

I threw the spell like a spear-- she held up her hand and stopped it. Mostly. I saw her shoulder jerk, the effort go through her body, tails curving around her as if she was shoving back with every limb. Then she threw it back. Her aim was bad; it froze a wide swathe of someone’s lawn, the grass and artful little flower planters freezing and shattering.

It was a stop and start battle, a fight as told with a stutter. Sudden rushes-- I’d fling a spell, she’d fling a spell, she and Mouse would lunge and dance around each other-- then a long angry silence, punctuated with the thunderbang of Murphy calmly taking out another wisp and then bolting for new cover when the fox threw an absentminded curse that rotted bricks away or set fire to old masonry. The fox had given the wisps up-- they were hovering almost drunkenly, starting to straggle away with as much fear as the little balls of malice could actually muster up.

The scratches on the fox’s arm hadn’t been for show; she was favoring it more and more with every jarring spat with Mouse, every spell of mine she caught and threw back. My head was ringing with the rush of power, the sheer force I had to sustain to keep her from murdering us. I’ve always thought I was kind of a bulldozer when it came to magic-- no grace, plenty of horsepower-- but she was hitting me with brutal strength and deadly finesse that made me look like a Tonka Toy. She barked out a word and my teeth rattled with the strain of blocking her spell, hot and pressurized-- it burst on the concrete between us, leaving a deep hole, raining chunks of gravel on me.

I flung up my shield, twisting the spell halfway, stomping my foot-- “terra invalesco” borrowing a little strength from the ground beneath me-- and turning my shield into a trampoline, sending the gravel chunks back her way, with a little extra push. They rained off her own shield-- and a few made it through, surprising me, the impact enough to make her stagger, a chunk the size of my fist glancing off her chin, leaving her shaking her head dazedly.

She snarled at me, teeth sharp in her human-looking mouth, her eyes flashing gold. “I’m surprised your Queen let you wander so far from home, Winter wizard. I’d heard rumours she’d grown fickle. Has she sent you away to look for a new Knight already?” When that failed to get a response, she went on. “Is she so naive she thinks this chaos is only a mortal problem? That her realm will be untouched by the broken pacts, the shifts of power? She can send her Knight off to harass the Wyld instead of leashing you at home like a good guard dog?”

Mouse answered for me, a huff and low grumble in his throat, drawing her attention. They stared at each other and the woman bared her teeth, tossed her head. I could see a scratch on her chin, something like blood glistening.

“Ridiculous,” she said, not to me, “And leave my den? Without the strength to resist the Courts? No!”

He growled. She darted to one side, giving a wheezy battlecry that made my hair stand on end, and whipped a strand of power down on me. It slapped my shield and stung through the bones in my arm. I could feel my fingers going numb.

“This isn’t your territory, Winter! You control the Ways I walked, your Court trapped me here-- you won’t force me further to ground!”

Mouse huffed and I said “My territory? Lady, I’m in the phonebook!” I gathered up a little softball of dumb kinetic force in my left hand, building it slowly, trying not to burn myself out with the effort of keeping up.

“You’re both children! I’ve been living in this city since before you were born!”

“Oh, you’re a local serial killer,” Murphy said, ejecting her iron-tipped magazine, slotting the regular one back in. The Wisps were gone; exploded or fled. “That makes it all better.”

“Stay out of this, policewoman!” the woman hissed, lashing out with another whipcrack of power at Murphy. Murphy dived to one side, tucking into a roll and was back up onto her feet the next second. I let my shield tighten in, the kinetic force slicing the air between us and leaving a crumbled strip on the pavement. I couldn’t take another one of those; Murph could see me failing, was trying to make sure I didn’t take any more hits than I had to.

I dropped my shield for long enough to throw my softball-- at the ground at the fox-woman’s feet, beneath her shield, spraying pavement up at her. It caught her by surprise, and she leapt gracefully away-- but landed badly, about two meters to her left, as she caught her foot wrong. Of all the dumb luck--

Mouse pushed out in front of us and started to-- I guess talk to her again, rumbling not-quite-barks, body language I was probably missing half of. He sounded angry.

“Careful boy,” I warned him. She looked like she was wearing down-- but I wasn’t ready to believe it. She was too smart, too practiced to blow it all on one frontal assault.

The woman, whatever local variant of demon she was, she wasn’t a garden-varietal monster. She wasn’t one of the swarming things in the subways, more malevolence and stomach than brains. She was old. And smart. And powerful. I wasn’t an expert on any of the Asian demons, but even I knew those tails took a hundred years to grow, each. She obviously hadn’t wasted any of that time goofing off.

Her super-damsel glamour was wearing down, her back slumping as if walking upright wasn’t coming so easily anymore. Her cornfield-blond hairline was turning red and starting to blend into her face, down to the eyebrows, down to the cheeks. Her fingernails had gone black and pointy, dainty little claws on hands that were trying to go paw-shaped on her.

Mouse concluded his little monologue with a huff, and squared himself back, ready for another charge. His ruff was all on end, stained with his blood and hers, the muscles in his legs tense, his teeth bared in a snarl. He has a lot of teeth.

She looked at him, eyes narrow, then up at me. “Is the dog right, Winter?” she said, panting, the red fur spreading down past the scrape on her jaw. “You can get me through Mab’s lands?”

Mouse huffed defiantly at her, not standing down.

...Mouse is smarter than me. “I can bargain for her. As long as you’re not eating livers on the way,” I said, lifting my chin, trying not to collapse. My arms were tingling with the aftershocks of her attacks, my legs weak with the power I’d been channeling.

“Shut up.” She waved her arm at me, too long, the wrist and elbow at odd angles. “My mother. She’s in Utah. My sister’s in Bahrain. My paths are all battlefields now, the Courts trying to claim new land. No place for one of the Wyld. Let me find my family and I’ll leave this place and never come back.”

Mouse grumbled low in his throat and relaxed just a little, the hair on his back lowering maybe a centimeter.

“Swear on your power,” Murphy said. She was tired, too, but her anger was still running hot. She was incandescent with rage.

“I swear on my powers, policewoman. I swear on my tails.” She sagged, losing the last shred of human shape, slumping down into a fox the size of a mountain lion, fur grimy with the dust that covered everything. Her tails lashed unsteadily.

Okay. I hadn’t planned all the way through this. My brain ticked for a second. “Murph. I need to see one of those honey buns from the vending machines.”

Mouse wuffed, mostly air, and trotted to Murphy’s bike, coming back with his saddlebags in his mouth. Glad someone remembered where we’d packed what. He kept his eyes on the fox at every step, hackles still high.

“...You certainly pick an interesting token of passage, Knight,” the fox said, sitting down gingerly, one leg not tucking as primly under her as the others.

“Just give me a second, okay?” I said, turning away, my side to her-- not quite ready to turn my back on her, despite our agreement. I held up the honey bun and murmured a name over it, not as long and fluid and beautiful as his real one, but fae of all shapes and sizes have good hearing, and the fox’s ears were giant. Toot had answered to the less formal summons before, so I murmured again, and waited.

“All the time you like,” she said, lifting her nose. “Any other demands?”

“You could stop eating people,” Murphy said, her arms crossed. Her face was still rigid, and I got the sense that she’d crossed her arms just so she wouldn’t be tempted to go to her useless sidearm. “There weren’t enough bodies lying around? You had to kill everyone who was left?”

The fox’s tails bristled. “Feed on corpses again! Like a brainless animal!”

“Better than feeding on people,” Murphy snapped.

“I have no obligation to you, policewoman.”

“No. But I have a long shitlist with plenty of room on it.”

“You’re going to follow me? To Utah?”

“To Bahrain, if that’s where you are when I get around to you.”

“Um, Murph-?” I said quietly, and she gave me a grunt that elegantly told me to shut up and do my job, goddammit Dresden, all in one syllable. I pushed a little more power into my voice, whispering for Toot’s again urgently.

“You’re a feisty one,” the fox said lightly, mocking tone belying her injuries, the deeper red staining her fur where we’d hammered at her.

“Famous last words.”

“You could stand to be more polite.”

Mouse growled at her.

“...Fair enough, dog. Fair enough. But my business isn’t hers.” She locked eyes with Murphy, her own gold and blazing out of her long face.

“I’m a cop. If you start murdering people in my jurisdiction again, I will make it my business so fast it will make your head spin.”

“And your jurisdiction is?”

“Anywhere that people are still alive,” Murphy said tightly.

The fox dipped her head. “You talk a big game. But you’re a big woman, on the inside, aren’t you?”

Murphy bristled.

A little lavender light-- less menacing than the wisps, much faster and brighter-- zipped towards us, and Toot buzzed to a stop next to my shoulder, hovering in the air.

“Za lord!”

I tried to hide my relief. Murphy had been ready to go to war with the fox demon-- I don’t know what she’d seen, what she knew, what she would have done. I know she would have maimed me if I tried to stop her. And the fox was reacting to her like a credible threat... I had to get the fox out of Chicago before she tried to deal with said threat and the fight started again, worse, bloodier. “Toot. I need you to escort this… lady through Winter. You’re my emissary; tell anyone who bothers her that she has my protection. She is not to harm anyone in Winter.” I scowled at the fox when I said that last bit, Mouse giving a grumbly whuff, and she dipped her head in agreement.

Toot looked at her. At me. “My liver is tiny!” he said, wagging a finger at her. “And he’ll be mad if you eat me!” I offered him the bun with an apologetic look, and he clutched it stickily to his chest.

He’ll be mad,” the fox said, and almost sounded amused. “You couldn’t escort me if I ate you. Don’t worry.”

“So. You can go now.” Before Murphy tried to murder her barehanded, judging by the look on her face. “The entrance is half a mile westwards--” I spared a glance at Toot, and he nodded firmly. It was clear and passable. “I can even get the door for you.”

“Ha! Like a gentleman,” the fox said, dropping her jaw in a needle-toothed grin. “I’ll see myself out, thank you. Come on, dewdrop warrior. Before Wyatt Earp decides to make a coat out of me.”

“This way,” Toot said officiously, buzzing over-- just out of biting range, though, I noticed. He looked like a traffic sign, the honeybun a fat circle with his legs and head showing top and bottom. “This way. We’re walking... and flying... and walking...”

The fox got to her feet and followed him into the Darkness-- and now it was really getting to be twilight, the light going red and the circle of the sun low in the clouds, the soft-edged shadows longer and darker. She paused, mid-stride, one paw lifted, and looked back over her shoulder at Murphy for a minute. Then she was gone.

“Thanks,” I said, awkwardly to Murphy. Because she would have been annoyed if I asked her not to incite wars again... or got all gushy about how apparently even demons were a little scared of her. The fox had listened to her when she talked. Murphy had... claimed Chicago as her territory. More than Chicago. And it hadn’t been sure she was bullshitting. I wasn’t sure either. I wondered what I would See, if I looked at her right now.

Instead, I turned to Mouse, who’d kept me from walking straight into the fox’s trap, and then put a lot of brute force and a little diplomacy into the effort of Not Letting Harry Get Himself Killed. And who doesn’t go monosyllabic when I try to thank him. “You’re a good dog, Mouse. Good dog.” I leaned down and scratched his ears carefully, avoiding the raw spots, running my fingers through his fur. Winter makes me a heavy hitter. But without him running interference...

He panted happily, resting his head reassuringly into my hands. I spent a few minutes checking him over, making sure none of the bites or cuts were deep or dangerous, cataloging them so I could go back in and clean them up just as soon as we were safe.

The gate opened behind us with a squeal.

“I’d require you to prove your identities, but I think only you in the entire world handles trouble exactly that way, Mister Dresden. And Sergeant Murphy... I don’t think there’s anything out there quite stupid enough to try to impersonate you. Please, do come in,” said John Marcone.

 

Four guards met us on the way in, separating us from Marcone (and Hendricks, standing like a brick shadow behind him). Despite what he’d said, we both got a magic-wanding down by--

“Wizard... Choi?” A Warden. I knew him, barely, a face from council meetings and warden briefings and training sessions. He wasn’t part of my region, worked out of Vancouver; I’d only seen him once or twice, but he was a smart guy. Good with veils and glamours, if I was remembering right. Had survived the Red War, and was old enough to remember the first and second World Wars as something other than history lessons. I spared a second to check on Murphy-- she’d passed muster and been given over to some medics, Hendricks and Marcone nearby, and I relaxed a little, turned back to Choi. “What are you doing here?”

The question caught him a little funny, and he looked at me with a strange defensiveness in his eyes. “I am under the North American regional commands, too, Wizard Dresden. I was contacted as a favor by Warden Mackenzie.” I nodded-- Mackenzie was one of mine, lived up in Hamilton, Ontario. “Your Paranet contacted him about a practitioner who wanted to talk about her visions. He was busy with a similar case, but knew I would be crossing through on my way from Edinburgh.” And I’d been out of range, I didn’t add, camping out on Demonreach, a little twinge of guilt under my exhaustion. I kept myself available to the Wardens and the Paranet, they could all reach me if they needed to... apparently they hadn’t needed to. “I got here just before the Ways closed. Baron Marcone offered me shelter.” I’m not with the upstart Baron, his eyes screamed. And something else.

“Are you okay? The-- the woman at the gate, she had this place locked down.”

“She caught me off guard.” Choi holstered his crystal with an angry motion. “I was doing my best. None of us have been on our game since--” he stopped, and my stomach clenched up, my brain screaming, trying to keep me from remembering how the terror and pressure of the wounded earth had crawled inside me, torn me down. I jerked my head in a nod; he did too, and looked away. “...She wasn’t even one of ours,” he added a second later, one hand backslapping at the air angrily.

Sometimes I have to remember that other wizards are a lot older than me. And that maybe North America in general in the late eighteen-ninetiesish wasn’t a friendly place for the kid of immigrant railroad workers, that maybe all the decades since then hadn’t been great either. The world had ended, of course people were being assholes to each other, looking for an outsider to blame, because that’s what fear does...

I gave what was supposed to be a bright smile and was a wan little grimace. “She wasn’t Canadian? I could have sworn.”

He relaxed a little. “Well. Obviously Canadian. But Albertan. You can tell by the bad attitude. And the boots.”

I tipped my head in a friendly nod-- we were good-- and he nodded back. He waved me all the way inside, and I stepped into the estate. Mouse made sure to give him a friendly headbump on the way-- Choi smiled, ruffling his ear. Then we went inside to see what Marcone had made of the apocalypse.

...a lot, apparently.

The acres of green lawn, once a great way for a security guard in the house to spot anyone trying to get in-- spot them like a fly on a platter-- had cluttered up solid. A whole sporting good’s store worth of tents scattered the lawn, and there were dozens of people moving among them, many more shadows crossing back and forth in the big estate house. Night was falling, but firepits had been dug, fires crackling merrily away, little blooms of light in the evening-- fueled with the trees in the back, no doubt. No point in muffling sound now, and all that the thickest trees would do would be provide shelter for things that made it past the gates. There were tarps stretched out on big wooden structures for no reason I could identify, forming wide dips of plastic sheeting. All they would do at that rate was collect rain--

Oh. Right. Piles of asphalt, even downed cars, had been shifted inside somehow, and people were moving them, mostly with their bare hands-- everyone was working, building the walls higher. They’d found a generator somewhere, and what looked like some working SUVs and gardening vehicles were parked under a tarp up against the west side of the main house. This wasn’t a home, anymore, if it had ever been more than a building Marcone kept up with his facade. This was a defensible location; this place was built for the siege it was under. This was a fort, struck up in a ruined city.

“Mister Dresden, you’re being almost tactful,” Marcone murmured, and I turned to see him leaning-- without Hendricks-- just inside the gate. “For that alone I’ll spare you the hero’s welcome.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “Were you going to burn me at the stake?”

He shook his head. “I was speaking literally. Quite a lot of our little fort woke up in time to see you and Sergeant Murphy save us. No one of us is left alive in this city who does not now understand what a threat the supernatural is, does not know that a far wider world existed alongside our own. With the help of the Wardens--” he looked a little less sour when he said the word, for all he’d barely shown his distaste for us before “--we held off the vampires, put up barriers against the fae. The sorceress-- the fox-- overwhelmed us entirely. We couldn’t have held out much longer.”

“Oh.” Sarcasm reared its head. “You’re welcome, and the correct phrase is ‘thank you’, Miss Manners.”

“You don’t quite understand how grateful to you I am,” Marcone said, meeting my eyes like only he and a few other people can.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with this brutal earnestness. Marcone usually put what he was feeling four or five layers deep, but today he was wearing his exhaustion and relief on his sleeve-- and in the dark bags under his eyes, the gauntness around his cheekbones, and the new bloom of gray spreading out from his temples. He looked ragged, as bad as I’d ever seen him, as bad as when the Denarians had had him. His BDUs were stained, his shirt muddy, his hands raw and scraped-- he’d been moving rock right along with everyone else. Something had tried to kill everyone, and he’d been helpless, and I’d saved him. He was grateful. He wouldn’t let me pull shit, but he was grateful.

“Where’s Murphy?”

“Very grudgingly receiving medical treatment. ...Did you know, I tried to speak with her. She won’t acknowledge me. It was almost enough to make me think I’d misjudged, that she wasn’t herself-- but she will speak to Mister Hendricks very readily.” He spread his hands, tired eyes pale, lines around them deepening at the harshness of the humour. “It’s a bit like being in kindergarten suddenly. But I think she’s earned the right, and Mister Hendricks doesn’t seem to mind his new role as arbitrator. He is guarding her from the brunt of the public attention.”

“Meaning?” I said, eyes narrowing. Marcone sighed, shook his head.

“We’re not actually going to imprison and torture you, Mister Dresden. The news of your heroic stand is already spreading. You and Murphy-- and your dog--” he dipped his head at Mouse, “--are going to be extremely popular here.

“Murphy did a lot out there,” I said, suddenly bizarrely defensive. To outside eyes, it might have seemed like Murphy wrote a check that I had to cash, especially since it didn’t look like she’d taken out a serious threat ...and if the idea got around that I was the comic relief knight to her sassy princess she’d never forgive me.

“Dresden.” Marcone held up his hands. “Think. Your brain, I realize that it’s difficult, but use it. Most of us are mortal-- ‘vanilla,’ one of the young Wardens put it.” Oops. One of my regional trainees, I was willing to bet, picking up my slightly tasteless lingo. “Do you think Murphy said anything to that woman, threatened her with anything that we weren’t feeling? She’s a hero. And so are you, but as a wizard. Not one of ours. Not a police officer, still with her badge. They remember what SI did for the city, just after. Some of her colleagues are here. They saw her stand up to something they didn’t know existed, two weeks ago. ...She’s just cast herself as a very important symbol, I’m afraid.”

“She’s not even a cop anymore. You know that.”

“She isn’t CPD; but then at this point nobody is.” I winced at his bluntness. “She’s wearing a badge. She’s protecting us.” He spread his hands, a calm boardroom gesture that didn’t fit his ragged hands. “She’s the law.”

My mouth pulled way down on one side. “So before I accuse you of thinking she’s a threat to your regime, and you call me stupid again, how do you feel about that?”

It took him by surprise-- his eyes creased, a smile flashing across his face. “Hah. Yes. I have been a little impatient.”

A little. He’d insulted me baldly before, but he would usually spread it out, pad it with pleasantries. Three or four good solid undeniable digs a year, that had been his pattern. He didn’t usually come back at my bad nature with his own bad nature. ...I guess the end of the world can wear a lot of the polish off. Still. “Answer the question, John.”

“Certainly, Harry,” he said, rising gamely to my rudeness. “I’m relieved.”

“Come again?”

He nodded to the Fort. “People were reluctant to trust me, at first. They knew very well what I represented. But the days wore on, started to become weeks, and I was organized. I knew what we faced. I was able to bargain with the Wardens. These people-- they’ve given themselves into my protection, and they listen to what I say. That’s dangerous.”

“Because you’re a criminal asshole.”

“I am. And something of a tyrant already.” He looked away, for just a second, and brought his gaze back, meeting mine with familiar steel determination. Bland, aware of himself. What he did, what he was. “We had to put laws in place, rules. About food rationing, about fighting. I’ve had people executed. Some of them were my own. They behaved... badly.” His jaw ground out, bitter at that. “The end of the world has made people rather tense. We can’t afford panic. The alternative has been dictatorship.”

“See, that sounds like your bag.”

“Harry. You know me. More deeply than almost anyone, for more reasons than one. I’m using tactics developed to keep criminals in line on starving, terrified civilians. How do you think that feels?” He found my eyes again-- and as much as he was pushing me, goading me, because that’s what we did, him and me, there was the other thing. I’d saved him. I’d come back to be a problem for him. Like the old days.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were happy to see me.”

Maybe I was glad to see him too, unchanged and unbroken by tiny little setbacks like the apocalypse.

“Don’t act like you completely hate this gig,” I told him. “I think you don’t like it. But it feels good, because you think things work better when you’re in control. And you’re fighting the idea that you can rebuild things better, more logically, with a little more iron fist and a little less velvet glove, as long as the ends justify the means.”

His eyes widened. He really doesn’t think I can brain, most days, but he was right. I knew him.

He started slowly. “...I needed you in Chicago. You didn’t play by my rules, you wouldn’t be bought, and you would defy logic and appear where you shouldn’t and couldn’t be. I needed Murphy, angry and working for the civilians, not for perquisites and bribes. I need you now, in what remains. And here you are. She... is a reminder to people that they are not helpless. That I’m not the last word of the law. That we had a police system, a justice system, a civilization. And she hates me so much that she won’t even speak to me. Everything she’s said to me has literally been via a third party, prefaced with ‘tell your boss that’ or ‘tell Marcone I said’. And you, of course, insult me publicly to my face, representing a power and authority that can and has overruled me. It will make tyranny difficult for me.”

“Good.”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“You realize now that if you give me permission to be a jerk to you, I’ll stop just to spite you.”

“Harry. I’m absolutely certain you’ll have found a new way to infuriate me within the week,” he said, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was happy about it.

“Within the day,” I promised. “And stop calling me Harry, John.”

“Where would I be, I wonder, without you to keep me honest, Mister Dresden?” He folded his smile away and schooled his face back into impassivity. “You’re welcome in my estate, of course. The food rations are tight, but we’ll make room for you. There’s water here, and you and your companion will want to see the medics.” Again, a nod at Mouse, who huffed politely at him.

“I’ll just pull up a tent, then?” I could stay the night-- I could. My knees went soft. Murph and I, we’d made it. We’d gotten here, where there was safety, a chance to rest, to know that, for a few hours, we weren’t the only things between ourselves and the darkness. But in the morning... my guilt rose up, clawed at me. Mister. Bob. They were still on Demonreach. They were okay. They had to be okay. Mister was better at looking after himself than I was, even for two weeks. And Bob and I had had that stupid fight... I had to go back. Because he’d think I wasn’t going to, ever.

It helped a little that I knew he and Mister had been together. They could look out for each other, in their own weird way. And at first light, I’d go, take the Ways to Demonreach, move fast. ...And then come back here. As much as hiding sounded like a great idea, there was too much for me to do to hide on my island. A little kinetic magic would go a long way with some of the building they were doing. An extra pair of hands, too.

Marcone let me have my processing time, rambling genially. “Or find a room to share in the house. We’re stacked three and four deep, I’m afraid. But there’s always the stables-- they were the garages, but the livestock we managed to get are a much higher priority at present. They smell, but they’re warm, and less crowded, until the raiding party gets back from Southern Illinois. There was a farm there intact at last report. We’re hoping for a trade...”

Livestock. Huh. Well, I guess it made sense-- get them before somebody or something else did, and all these people would need some kind of almost-sustainable food source-- but already? How had he done that within a week and a half, two weeks, the nasties clamouring in, the roads like they were?

How quickly had he reacted to this? One of the old Ordo had been having visions--

“Where’s Gard?” I asked suddenly.

“Gone. My contract with Monoc is null and void; standard end of the world clause. She returned to the All Father the night the meteors struck.” He wasn’t sticking with the Vadderung alias, I noticed, wasn’t hiding the idea that he’d not so long ago contracted an actual god behind someone else’s language.

“She warned you, didn’t she?”

“As much as she was allowed.” He tipped his chin, drew a sharp breath through his nose, the silver at his temples catching the firelight. “I didn’t fully understand.” He’d still gotten things in place with breakneck speed. How many people would have died if he wasn’t such a calculating bastard?

I wouldn’t let myself get too lovey dovey. He was still a scumbag, and he still needed someone to keep an eye on him.

It’s just. This was the first time since I’d found out what had happened that I’d let myself hope, even a little.

Still a scumbag.

 

I found Murphy by the biggest fire a few hours later, talking with a handful of SI guys, other once-cops. She looked up and saw me, waved me and Mouse down to sit with them, the firelight deepening the circles under her eyes, softening the dust and bruises on her skin, making her hair shine. I sat next to her on a salvaged camp chair, Mouse flopping to the ground behind me, and tried to stay out of the way while she caught up with her old colleagues-- names, people I’d never known or barely known, if they made it, their families, where they were now or last anyone had heard from them.

I’d been doing a lot of that myself. Had found a few people I’d been worried about-- hadn’t found some others, a new knot growing in my heart where I’d pushed away those fears when Murph and I had trekked across the city, not knowing who, if anyone, was left. Some faces both Murph and I knew. Charity and all the kids but Matthew were here, but Molly was in a bad way, barely coherent, curled up under a single sheet, shocky like she had been since the stars fell, and Michael was missing too. They had been together, Matthew and Michael, no contact since a call from Michael saying he’d picked Matthew up at the airport and quick hello to Charity before they’d headed off for a father-son dinner, about an hour before it started. No one knew if they were still together, if they were still alive. There was no sign of Billy and the Alphas, or Mac, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d counted on him to be around somehow, reticent and strong in the background, until he wasn’t.

When the campfire broke up, everyone drifting back to their tents or sardine-can rooms or to sleep with the animals, Murphy stayed, looking up at where the stars should be. I stayed with her.

“Butters made it here,” I offered.

She nodded. “I heard. I’m glad.”

“You okay?”

She nodded again.

“So. You’re not talking to Marcone?” I asked, like the master of subtlety I am.

She sighed and slumped in her chair. “It’s a coping mechanism, Dresden.”

“Um.”

“I’ve made myself a lot of promises over the years,” she said, staring out at dark, low sky. “‘Not Marcone’ was a big one. Who will I work for if I lose SI? Not Marcone. And I didn’t: I beat down doors until I found someone else who’d ignore the black marks they splashed all over my record. Who do I ask for help when something starts dragging kids off the streets, but returns their bodies two days before they were even gone? Not Marcone. And I didn’t: I picked a different ally and we put a stop to it. Who has the manpower to help us through this supernatural crisis and the next and the next one? Not Marcone. …I could deal with him. As long as it was on even footing, as long as I wasn’t in his debt. As long as he didn’t have me in his goddamn pocket like half the officers on the force. And now I’m here.”

“Murph, it’s not like before. It’s different this time. It’s not like you had a choice--”

“There’s always a choice,” she cut me off, not sharply, despite the way one of her hands cut at the air. She sighed. “It’s just that this was the only non-stupid choice. I know the rules have changed.” She looked at me, expression half in shadow from the fire. “But I don’t want to look him in the face and see him knowing I’m dependent on him. I don’t want to think about it at all. So yeah. Not talking to him.”

“He’s okay with that.”

“Of course he is, the rat bastard.” She huffed out an angry breath. “Probably thinks it’s funny that I’m acting like a sulky ten year old.”

“We saved his life today. It’s not like we owe him anything.”

She shook her head. “I saved his life because it’s my job. All these people are my job, Harry. That doesn’t change, I’m not going to pretend I did something different, something extra just because--” she waved a hand, bucked her shoulders in a hard shrug, her chin jerking up towards the starless sky. “This. You don’t get to make it something special, Harry, neither does he, neither does anyone else. It’s the same thing I’ve always done. If that asshole thinks he’s going to go put me on a fucking pedestal for doing my job. Fuck him,” she said, anything else bitten off. She reached out and punched me in the shoulder-- left her hand there to rest on my arm after. I covered her hand with mine for a minute, small and warm, and then we pulled away. For a while, there was quiet.

I started to notice, after a bit, that we were one of the only big fires left-- the rest around us were banked or out, plumes of smoke and glowing embers, only the ones at the perimeter still blazing. Murphy noticed too-- she grunted, a perfectly enunciated ‘let’s get to bed, who knows what tomorrow’s going to look like’, and started to bank the fire.

“Where are you sleeping?” I asked, Mouse already snuffling gently at some doggy dreams.

“Got some space on a floor, in the room Butters and some of the guys from the station are staying in. You?”

“Mouse staked out a spot in the stables earlier. I figure it’s as good as anything.”

“Heh. Sleep in a room with six guys, or sleep with cows. Hard one.”

“Hey!”

“Sorry,” she said, not sounding too sorry.

We didn’t move, just watched nothing for a little while longer. I looked around, the low fires and the guard walls, back at the big estate. There were a few lights on, here and there, a couple of candles, one window a few stories up lit up with electric light. Someone looked out, too far away and too dark to make out features, lit from behind, but the profile was familiar, the line of the shoulders, the straight back.

"I could go sleep on Marcone's floor. If he doesn't mind the snoring."

"You don't snore."

"He doesn't know that."

She snorted in grim amusement, finally pushed herself up from her chair and stretched, back popping. “Throw in some annoying talking in your sleep, just for me.” She rested her hand on my shoulder, gave it a squeeze. “Catch up with you in the morning?”

“Sure.”

In the dark, with the tents and the low fires, Marcone’s little clubhouse was almost just a big happy campground, the kind my dad and I had stayed in sometimes when I was little-- only the hollow in my stomach and the tired, worn out part of my brain and the bruises from the fight with the fox to remind me that we weren’t doing this for fun.

“...What are we going to do, Murph?”

“I don’t know. I’m not going to stay here, though.” Her voice was low in the darkness, stronger than mine and just the right shade of gentle steel. “There are a lot more nasties like that fox out there. I’m not going to bunker down in the Magical World of Mafia and let everyone else fend for themselves. A few weeks to get some new supplies, maybe some weapons that don’t need ammo, some holy water. Then I think I’ll head southwest; I heard the roads were a little better.”

“Murph, you could get killed out there,” I objected.

“Fuck’s sake, Dresden, you’re a cock,” she said, without malice. “That’s always been a job hazard. Knew it when I signed up.”

“...Murph--”

“Do I tell you how to do your job?”

“Please don’t die out there,” I whispered. “You’re my best friend.”

“...yeah, you too.” She stepped tighter against me, tugging me into hug. I stood up and leaned into her, stooping to squeeze her hard to me, trying not to talk, not to be unreasonable about how afraid I was for her. She thumped my back. “Get some sleep, Harry. Tomorrow’s a big new day. It’s not the end of the world.”

“Ha ha.”

And that was the first time I heard that joke, but it wouldn’t be the last.


Chapter Text

We walked away from the battlefield back towards the new boundary of Summer. Between Hendricks and Gard we probably could have made it back across the edge of the battle, but the Way I’d come in was sealed pretty well, and there was an angry ghost in there, or a couple of pissed off wendigo; either way, not the best option. Gard knew a shortcut, though, a path down a gorge even my mother hadn’t tracked through.

It had been warm and humid that close to Summer; it was a bit of a shock when we came out into the cold and snow and wind half a mile west of Fort Refuge. The sweat clustering on my face and clinging to my hair went solid, frozen all at once. Hendricks and Gard did a mild squirm that suggested that they’d noticed-- nothing like having your leg hair freeze. Not that I’d know or anything.

“They’re shoot-first and ask-questions-never types,” I warned, eyeing the ball of sun behind the cloud cover-- dark, promising more snow, clouds moving fast across the sky, pushed along by the icy north wind-- trying to guess the time of day, hoping it was still the same day it’d been when I left. Morning. Early. Breakfast was probably still hot in the Refuge cafeteria. “We should come in slow.”

“We will go in shielded,” Gard said crisply, and strode ahead.

I scurried up, thinking maybe if I was leading this party-- who was I kidding? If I was the one who knew where we were going-- I should be in front. Hendricks brought up the rear, conspicuously silent; I shot a look over my shoulder. His face was blank and serene. I glared at him, suspicions confirmed, did my best to tell him with my scowl and a raised middle finger that I bet Gard did all the navigating where they were concerned and he could go ahead and laugh at me all he wanted so there, and then put my effort into keeping up with her. It shouldn’t have been so hard. I have longer legs, dammit.

Refuge found us before we found it, Lima team emerging from the woods a hundred feet later, spreading out in a semi-circle in front of us, rifle and bows aimed and ready. I put my hands up-- grimaced, damn shoulder-- and could see Gard following suit beside me. ...Somehow it didn’t look anything like surrender when she did it.

“Hey guys,” I started, and didn’t get any further.

“Wizard,” Captain Spenser said, his voice flat, his eyes cold where they showed just over his tightly-wrapped scarf. I grimaced. So much for ‘Harry, why don’t you settle down here, Harry. Take a load off, Harry, have some extra cake, Harry.’ “Decided to come back, huh? Bring some friends? Too much of a fair fight otherwise?”

I looked at the group, the Corporal Bow-holders glaring at me from under their scarves. Two of them looked extra exhausted-- my brain scrambled at the hunter team rotation schedule I’d only just been starting to pick up by way of general diffusion, and concluded they were probably supposed to be on their down-time shift. So they were cold, scared, angry, and overworked. Great. Well, I guess their pals had to make a show of recuperating back at Refuge. Or. Pal, singular. Had a Lima been one of the hunters that followed me into that cave? “What can I say: I have a thing for getting brutally attacked by surprise. I couldn’t stay away.”

Spenser scowled at me, not sure what to do with that answer. “Yeah, right. How about you come give your sob story to Mrs. Smith? Your friends, too.”

It’s happened to me so often that I’m almost numb to people blaming me for everything that goes wrong in their vicinity. It was just kind of a relief that the settlement was still around to persecute me unfairly: if they were blaming me, nobody got snacked on last night while I was missing. Maybe there was a chance that we could get the people in charge to understand what was happening, quietly take out the threat...

Ha ha ha, I’m sure they were on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear what I had to say.

“I’m defenseless. You know you’ve got all my weapons.” I wiggled my wrists, fluttered my fingers. One of the bows creaked, the corporal pulling the string tauter. I stopped. “No rings, no bracelet,” I said quickly. I’d gone over foci in my lessons. Hell, I’d even let them take turns throwing snowballs at my shield. The kids had loved it. “And I don’t know where you think I’d be hiding my rod and staff.”

“We got all the weapons you told us about,” Captain Spenser said grimly.

“Sorry. Forgot to show off my Attack Undershirt and Shorts of Plus Five Defense.”

Spenser eyed me, trying to figure out my joke-- turned his attention to Gard’s axe and Hendricks’ greatsword, looked down at his own rifle and apparently decided he was angry enough to have a lot more faith in gunpowder and lead than he should have, faced with over six feet of combined battle edges. “Start walking. In front of us. Your Renn Faire friends can keep their hands off of their swords. I doubt those breastplates stop rifle bullets.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, with all the Kevlar I’d seen in the einherjar camp, plus whatever Gard was doing to shield us. I wasn’t going to tell Lima that, though. If they got trigger happy I wanted them to shoot for the chest, not the head. But mostly, I didn’t want them to shoot at all, so I kept my hands up and walked in front of them, starting the long, thigh-straining walk to Refuge.

There was a crowd waiting for us, just inside the gate, all the available rifles in Refuge apparently aimed at us. ...Or not quite all. Julie was strapped up, but her rifle hung at her back, and she lifted her chin at me when she came in, a nod of reassurance before she was politely escorted inside with the few other civilians who’d come out to watch, leaving Mrs. Smith, Commander Wight, and about half of the hunter teams and all of their guns. I didn’t see much of Delta, but Jeff was standing like the other captains; his rifle was dipped, aimed at the ground. Some of the other captains-- Julie’s Derek from November, the jarringly young Ackroyd from Beta, those who were friends of Hank, who’d had friction with Golf-- were sighting us down, but didn’t look eager to shoot.

Mrs. Smith was waiting with her hands jammed into the pockets of her coat, her fancy muff from before nowhere to be seen. A nasty part of me noted it wasn’t the right costume for the scene. Commander Wight was beside her, Captain Cavanagh off to one side of them. Cavanagh looked like he hadn’t slept. Or eaten. Ever. His face had drawn in, sallow and hungry and angry. It wasn’t just my imagination that he was almost at my eye level, and he hadn’t been when we first met. The thing inside him was stretching out, growing.

As I got closer, I thought I could smell him-- the smell of starvation, nerve janglingly innocuous. I glanced over at Gard. Her face was peaceful; she was prepared to treat, not fight. Hendricks stepped up to my right side, nudged forward by a rifle butt, and he looked similarly philosophical about the whole thing.

“Mister Dresden, it will perhaps not surprise you to know that many of these men wanted you shot on sight,” Mrs. Smith greeted me.

“Mrs. Smith.” I nodded, a slow, shallow movement. “I can’t say it shocks me, no.”

“We killed one of yours. And we did not react as quickly as you would have liked. You took punishment into your own hands,” she said soberly. “And now you’ve brought... who are these people? Because there hasn’t been enough killing.” She met my eyes-- reminding me that she could, that she wasn’t afraid. For a brief second, she reminded me of someone else-- this guy I knew, the way he was years ago, still rough around his polished edges. She wasn’t as calm, as freakishly placid as Marcone was on most days. But I’d seen him stupid with rage, when the wolves were very literally at the door and he was new to the whole supernatural thing. There was something in this woman, steel under the surface, an anger she was trying not to show that rang the old bells hard. “Am I wrong, Mister Dresden?”

“Chief wasn’t one of mine. I thought he was a wizard too, but I was wrong. We’re not all-knowing. We just have great hindsight,” I said, speaking slowly. “If I’d known what he was when I first saw him, Hank Leighton might not be in the hospital right now.”

“He’s lying. He was working with Chief, spreading dissent. Look at these people. They’re still with him. He’s controlling them--” Cavanagh started, low and a little wild-eyed, words running together, but Mrs. Smith cut him off.

“Please. I want to hear what he has to say. What was Chief, Mister Dresden?”

“Do you know what a wendigo is?”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Are you going to listen to anything he says?” Cavanagh snapped. “He killed my man, and Spenser’s! Who knows what else he’s done, what lies he’s told us!” His temper was wearing thin; I could see it fray visibly as the angry monster inside him tried to take control, imagined I could see it pushing out at his skin, stretching him taller, hollowing his belly a little bit more.

“Brody,” Commander Wight rebuked him. “Let her talk. You know we don’t want a fight with one of his kind.”

“He’s leading her, controlling her, you don’t know what he can do. Shoot him. I lost a good man, one may not make it out of surgery, Spenser lost one of his own team and one is too badly burned to go out. You saw what he did to us--”

“Why were you in his room in the middle of the night?” another voice interjected. “Why were there spent casings on the floor? Why did he leave so fast he didn’t even grab his coat?”

“Captain Sommers! You’re just gunning for that insubordination charge, aren’t you?” Wight snapped, and Jeff shut his jaw with a click, fuming.

I felt the anger rising up, riding on the dark clouds, the wind blowing in, settling into my muscles, making me as twitchy as everyone else. That stagnant Winter power, maybe, or just human rage and fear, the same dark mix that had spread through the cafeteria when that first angry brawl had broken out, spread so fast past Golf and Hank to everyone else.

I forced myself calm, hoping the crowd might follow my lead. “Please. We’ll submit to a trial-- I will. Hendricks and Gard didn’t do anything. They’re here to help me protect you people. It’s okay, Captain Sommers, you don’t have to--” I started quickly. “It’s okay. We’ve got evidence, we’ll do this the right way, the slow way.”

“Don’t let him in. Don’t let him manipulate you!” Cavanagh foamed, words tearing out of him, strangled, coming from his throat. “Shoot him now, kill them before they can get in your head!”

Some of the rifle-holders were starting to look strained, fingers sneaking towards triggers. Wight was giving me a grim look, face unreadable. I didn’t have time for him and his ‘murderous boys will be murderous boys’ bullshit.

“Mrs. Smith. Please, I came back so that I could stop the bloodshed, take down the monsters,” I pleaded.

Her eyes were cold and hard; they stared into mine. “You’re a monster yourself, Mister Dresden.” The moment stretched out. “But you’re not a liar.”

“No!” Cavanagh howled, echoing like the wind that whipped up around us, making everyone flinch. The sky was going dark fast, that winter storm rolling across the valley, gaining strength. “Kill him! Just kill him!”

“Captain Cavanagh, shut up!” Wight roared, turning on him, eyes blazing. Anger was spreading like blood in shark infested waters, and I readied a spell, the best I could, something to turn bullets because Gard’s shield was on us, not the crowd, and if somebody died out here there’d be no turning back--

And then, deep inside Fort Refuge, the screams started.

People came pouring out of the main compound, the civilians, piling up against the guards as they struggled to understand, started to stumble out of the way, pushed back by the fear and tide of their own people.

“Guns down! Bodies on the range, guns down!” Jeff bellowed, and Commander Wight repeated the bellow for the benefit of those near him.

“Fight in the cafeteria!” a woman screamed-- Julie’s sister, I realized, recognizing her features more than I remembered meeting her, where was Julie? “They’re killing him!”

Mrs. Smith turned to me, and her pale face had gone paler, but she wasn’t cracking, wasn’t giving into the infectious panic. “Are you really here to save us, Mister Dresden?”

“I brought these people to help. They’re Odin’s people. They’re not angels. But they’re honest.”

Gard nodded, stepping forward. “For the remainder of your military’s food, we will protect you and give you safe passage. But this is not a thing we can do for nothing but gratitude.”

“There’s little enough left. It’s yours.” Mrs. Smith said, as sure and urgent as a general on a battlefield. “Go, please.”

“I’m coming with you,” Jeff said, muscling his way through the crowd, his face locked in worry, a muscle in his jaw twitching. “Travis is in the cafeteria. He’s got the key today.” His eyes widened, white all the way around as he looked past me. “--oh Lord!”

Cavanagh had lost his last grip on his control, had howled, jumped at the nearest body-- Mrs. Smith. He grabbed her by the throat, held her up to his new height, snarling, the thin dry skin on his face ripping at the corners of his mouth as his jaw opened impossibly wide, his teeth showing chipped to jagged points--

Ha!” I yelled, releasing my will, my held magic, twisting my improvised bullet-turning spell into a slightly different shape at the last second-- I let it ride muscle memory, long hours in the dojo under Murphy’s tutelage, not using a word but the explosion of breath she’d taught me, to force air out of my lungs before my opponent could hit me. It was the same idea now; I was just striking with a focused burst of energy, not my hands.

Cavanagh howled again: Murphy had drilled me good. His hands flew open as I jarred his wrists and when I swung a punch against the air-- “Ha!” the second burst of energy caught him at the solar plexus. I could feel the wound in my shoulder start to bleed again, a migraine blooming in my temple, but I didn’t have to throw another punch-- Cavanagh was gone, fleeing into the whirls of snow, lost in the wind and the white drifts. The storm was here and it was going to be a big one, a blizzard to rival the night I’d arrived.

Wight and another guy, Julie’s husband, Derek, were already with Mrs. Smith. She let them help her to her feet but then shook them off, lifting her chin, clearing her throat like she wasn’t going to let a little thing like a squashed trachea get in her way. “We’ll need to evacuate. Start a head count, organize people to help those trapped inside. Groups of at least three, weapons in every group. Golf has been compromised, Lima and November may have been as well. Captain Berton, Captain Spenser, you know your men; your judgement is paramount. Advise the groups. Avoid, do not engage.” She coughed, waved off Wight when he tried to take her arm. “Jacob, there’s no time now.”

Commander Wight nodded, eyes wide, but he moved, calling people into groups, voice booming, a path beginning to clear to the entrance-- Hendricks started to barge through the crowd; Gard, Jeff and I followed in his wake.

Hendricks and Gard swept into the compound like the trained professionals they were, eyes on each other’s backs and aware of every doorway. Hendricks jerked his head at me. “Dresden? You and the captain here know the place best.” He tipped his head at Jeff, who barely noticed.

“Cafeteria,” I said grimly. I nodded at Jeff. “We can take you there.” Not hard to find, anyway. It was the direction people were running away from.

“What’s a wendigo, Harry?” Jeff asked, hurrying along with us, helping me cut through the crowd that Hendricks and Gard were wading through like water. “Cavanagh, he-- how do we kill them?”
The first part would have to wait. “Uh. Fire kills everything. Gun, maybe, you get the heart or completely destroy the head--” dammit, why didn’t I know this? Stars, if I’d just swallowed my pride and gone to the Fort, Bob could have told me, if Choi were still around he might even have fought them before, up in his northern command, some of the young wardens had been his trainees, they probably knew-- but there was no time for self recrimination. “Just damaging them won’t do anything, they don’t get hurt, they keep coming. So if it’s fire it has to be a consuming fire, a little third degree burn won’t do it. If it’s the head, it has to be all the way gone.”

“Decapitation will probably work,” Gard said, her voice easy for all that we were almost sprinting.

“Is she a viking?” Jeff blurted. Hah. Stupid panic questions, I know them, Horatio...

“I am a Valkyrie. I choose the slain to be taken to Valhalla.” I started to slow; we were approaching the cafeteria. Gard took her axe off of her back in one fluid motion. “Don’t worry, little man. I choose who I slay, too.”

“Here!” I waved at the cafeteria doors.

Gard screamed, her battle cry like the ring of swords, and hit them shoulder first, at speed. The bar lock shrieked and died, the big metal doors flinging wide and smashing into the walls, shattering the doorstops.

It had been bolted. Someone had locked it as they were running, trapping whatever it was inside-- but not just trapping the attackers. There were a few survivors, clustered behind a table barricade at the back of the big room. There were a lot more non-survivors, lying on the floor in dark puddles of blood, and a few others crouched over them, ripping skin from bone with clawed hands--

The wives of Golf team.

At least one of the fallen was wendigo, the second in command of Golf team pinned to the ground under his wife, his limbs carved off like a Thanksgiving turkey. He was still alive, torso writhing like a hooked worm as he hissed in rage and pain, muscle and bone showing pale and dry where they’d been opened up to the world, only a little blood pooling around him, old and coffee brown. She was gnawing on his leg, mouth dirty with his thick, clotted blood. Another Golfer was ignoring his superior officer’s plight, eating ravenously from the dead not ten feet away.

Jeff gagged and fell back. I froze in the doorway. The smell hit me a second later, almost knocked me down. And Hendricks and Gard swept in like the wrath of their boss.

The wife left her limbless husband and hurled herself at Gard, her face twisting and stretched out with rage-- Gard’s axe whistled through the air, biting into her at the join of her neck and shoulder, burying itself deep in her torso. She went limp, and Gard lowered her axe, taking a moment to step on the body and pull the blade free, unconcerned by the bloodstained figures coming at her because she knew Hendricks was there, lopping the head off one, ramming his greatsword through the chest of the next.

Gard got her axe free, and raised it again-- it rang on the concrete, left a deep gash as she put the limbless Golfer out of his misery. The last three didn’t rush-- the wives skittered just out of the reach of the axe, of Hendricks’ sword, taunting, waiting for their opening. A synapse fired in the last Golfer’s brain; he remembered he was holding a firearm and shot Gard in the chest. Guess I was right about the Kevlar. She wasn’t amused, and he’d left his extended arm within axe-reach. The gun and the hand holding it hit the floor, and he scuttled back too, trying to get behind Gard. She and Hendricks went back-to-back, waiting for the first rush.

“Survivors,” I said, pulling at Jeff’s arm. He was frozen-- hadn’t been ready to see something like this, hadn’t really understood what had happened to his fellow Refugees. “Come on, Jeff. Come on!”

We stumbled together to the table barricade-- half a dozen people were crouched there, and one man was lying across the floor. Travis was panting shallowly, lying very still. A jagged shard of bone had ripped through the skin of his forearm, white under the blood.

“What happened?” Jeff whispered, breathing shallowly through his mouth, trying to block out the stink. A wendigo screamed a gusty wail and died outside of the thin shelter of the folding tables. One of the wives must have gotten the gun, though, because two more shots thundered through the room. I made myself ignore it. I was in no shape to help. Gard and Hendricks were pros. They’d handle it.

“Corporal Flynn went after Travis,” one of the women said, her voice low, shaking. “Just like they did with Hank. He broke the poor boy’s arm to get the key, and he held it up, and Mrs. Flynn... she just went crazy, she jumped on him, she tore his arm off--” her voice faded out. “They all. They just. They’re monsters,” she said, tears tracking down her face. “They ignored us because they had enough to e-eat, but they killed anyone who got close to …what they were eating, we couldn’t make it to the door. Oh God, Captain Sommers, who are these people?”

Jeff gave her his best reassuring look. It wasn’t any better than mine, but at least he was a familiar face. “Well. You know Harry, here, he came back as soon as he had help. His friends are... um... a Valkyrie... and a viking?”

I nodded, locking my own reassuring look in place. No matter what it looked like, it was better than how I was feeling. “The big guy is Nathan Hendricks. He’s one of Odin’s warriors, from Midgard. Like the comics? Did you ever read--? No? That’s okay. And that’s Sigrun. She’s a Valkyrie. Like the ones who yodel and bring dead warriors back to Valhalla. Except she doesn’t yodel. They’re friends of mine. Now, they’re going to clear out the room, and then they’ll clear a path to the infirmary, and we’ll get Travis here patched up, then we’re all going to go to another settlement, okay? It’s in Illinois, but Sigrun knows a shortcut.”

Illinois made sense to them. Medical care made sense to them. I saw them latch onto those pieces and push aside monsters and Odin and Valhalla, leaving them somewhere to pick up when they were ready for it, if they ever were.

“Captain?” Travis said, voice alarmingly watery. There was blood in his lungs, they must have cracked a rib right in.

“Travis. I’m here, shorty.” Jeff was leaking at the eyes, fear and shock still writ large on his face. He tried to smile, even though Travis’ eyes were shut.

“Gotta leave me.” He coughed, blood foaming up at his lips, and the pain that shot across his face was terrible. Jeff shook his head, not willing to believe it.

“Battlefield martyrs,” I sighed, with more conviction than I felt, putting on a bit of a show for the survivors. Hey look at me, I can make jokes. It’ll all be okay, the rodeo clown says so. “Let me.” I tuned out the sounds of the slaughter, and reached over to pass my hands over Travis’ chest, letting my mind clear, directing it down past my hand into the workings of Travis’ body.

“Stupid luck,” I said, talking to drown out the ache that started up again, spreading from my shoulder, into my temples, down my spine. “They’re clean fractures, not a bunch of little tiny ones like Hank’s. Give me a second.” My shoulder screamed, the discordant buzz of Winter against my own Will trying to break my concentration. I ignored it, because I didn’t have time for it. I started to murmur, reaching into his skin with my magic-- a battlefield healing trick I’d picked up and practiced. Come on. Easy as pie, Harry. Arm bone’s connected to the... hand bone. And not cracked and jammed up through the skin. Far away, someone was gasping in pain. Oh, wait, that was me. Nope, no time. The bone had to knit, go whole and smooth, strong all the way though. No little fractures that would buckle and snap, nothing left that could leak poison out into my healing, into Travis’ body.

“Rib bone’s connected to the...rib bone...” I sang to myself, drawing the bones of his ribcage back together, bruised but whole, forcing the puncture in his lung to close up. Then I went back to heal the skin of his arm and knit the ripped muscle and blood vessels and lymphatic vessels and nerves and and-- the world went grey and someone hit me on the side of the head with a slab of concrete.

“Ow,” I said quietly into the greyness, and someone was saying, “Harry, Harry, his arm, the bone just went back together, just like that Harry, it’s a miracle, Harry, are you okay?” and then a big deep voice said “He gets like this sometimes,” and someone picked me up and propped me against the wall.

“Move. Clear. Give me room. Dresden...” Gard said.

“Naah?”

Gard forced my mouth open, and poured pure adrenaline down my throat. My eyes bulged open, a surge of honeyed energy flooding my veins-- mead. I sat up, then reeled, the world spinning around me. Hendricks steadied me. Gard stooped next to Travis, lifting his head, tipped her flask against his lips. He stiffened and rolled over, convulsing, heaving himself up onto his knees-- he coughed again and again, wet and nasty, black clotted blood spattering the floor, puddling as his lungs emptied out the liquid he’d been drowning in.

“What. How?” he looked up, eyes flicking between me and Gard, then to Jeff, expression pleading for an explanation.

“Travis,” Jeff said urgently. “Where’s the storage key?” He looked up at Gard, like he was afraid she’d take his corporal’s life back somehow if they didn’t pay the danegeld right then.

“Flynn got it. And then... Mrs. Flynn had it.” He swallowed; his hands shook. “It’s somewhere in there.” He indicated the carnage with a swing of his uninjured arm, not actually looking at what he was pointing at. “Mister Leighton still has the other one, though. In the infirmary.”

“Then we’ll get everyone to the infirmary. What happened to you, Harry?”

“Running a little low on magic. It’s hard without my foci. And I’m not a great healer.”

“You put his bone back together.” Jeff shook his head. “All right. Mister Hendricks, Miss, uh, Sigrun-- there are a lot of low visibility corners between here and the infirmary. We’re going to need to work together.”

“I’m worried,” Hendricks said, a rumble. “We just took down seven hostiles. We only accounted for two of eight that Harry actually saw in action. He took down two. That means four left that he knows of-- and five we just ran into he didn’t know about. This is bigger than just your hunter teams. It’s spread.”

“We don’t know how many there are,” I realized-- I’d known that, when I first saw the wives, but I hadn’t integrated it, hadn’t thought what that meant for us.

“And the generator’s not looking good,” Jeff said, looking up at the wan electric lights, their regular flicker starting to speed up. “If it goes out, we’ll be fighting in the dark in about half the halls.”

“I can make a light,” Gard said. “But it would draw their attention and I don’t want that. If you surprise them while they eat, they fight stupid. Give them a chance to think, corner them, and they start to find their brains again, try to take you at the back.” She huffed a breath through her nose. “Winter is drawing in. I don’t know if your wendigo are bringing the snow or if it is guiding them, but darkness is falling.”

I remembered a wheezy, windy laugh, the smell of coffee. “Maybe it’s not them bringing the snow.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Gard hauled herself to her feet with a rattle of mail. “It is here. Captain Sommers; we have to move quickly. Guide us; we will clear the path if you can provide cover. Dresden, you go at the rear. Don’t be stupid. You, can you use a gun?” she pointed at the woman who’d been taking care of Travis. She nodded. “Good. Then--”

Max burst through the door, took one look at Gard, her dinged armor and bloodied axe. “Freeze, lady!”

“Max, don’t shoot! The vikings are with us!” Jeff said, popping up. Max lowered his rifle, coming in quick, casting a look back into the hall.

“Golf team lost it,” he spat, looking away from the bodies, the carnage and blood all over the cafeteria floor. “And the Doc-- and one of the kids from Beta, and two of the plumbers, and Larson from security. They’re murdering people.”

“Yeah. We know. Cavanagh tried to take a bite out of Mrs. Smith outside. Harry chased him off.” Jeff helped Travis get unsteadily to his feet. Max’s eyes lit up in relief-- he circled in behind the tables, squeezing his little brother’s shoulder, gave him a careful one-armed hug. Jeff managed a smile for that. “Golf, the others. They’re some kind of. What did you say?” he asked me.

“Wendigo. It’s, um. Sort of a Native American curse.” I went for the simplest summary, not sure how accurate it was.

“Shit, did they take a dump on a burial ground or something?” Max swore. Hendricks’ brows drew in angrily.

“They ate one of their team members.” I said bluntly. “Linda’s husband. And now they’re monsters. And they want to eat people. And it spread.”

“Doug Forrester,” Jeff said, closed his eyes. “They said vampires got him.”

Max nodded, face grim. “We figured it out-- the eating.” He stopped, swallowed. Started again. “When Doc Lowe went after Hank with a scalpel. Those two guys who were supposed to be so badly hurt, they vanished. Guess that broken jaw Golf was howling about wasn’t actually an issue.”

“Wait, wait, Hank, is he okay?” Jeff said, angrily, waving away the gossip.

“Yeah. Julie was visiting too. Julie had her Mossberg.” He shook his head. “Doc took a shell in the face and kept coming. He was missing half his face. Like out of a horror movie. But then she got him in the chest and he dropped. She’s holding down the infirmary now, and a few of us are looking for survivors. We don’t know-- we thought maybe if they bit people. But no one got bit, we’ve been trying to spread the word.”

“Doesn’t spread by bites.” I shook my head sharply, and he sighed, relieved, shoulders slumping a little.

“Julie said zombies didn’t work like that,” he said, and I grunted. I don’t have Murphy’s eloquence, so I don’t think it said anything.

Jeff nodded, filing everything away, nostrils going white as he forced himself to breathe evenly. “Good. We need to get these people to the infirmary,” he looked down at the six survivors, still crouched low behind the tables, quiet while we talked about monsters and how some of their friends wanted to eat them. This place is a--” he stiffened. “Sunday School. Jesus Christ, Max, tell me the kids weren’t in here.”

“No! Oh Thank God, no! They were first into the infirmary once we got it secured. Kate brought them to a room down the hall when things started getting heated because she was afraid Golf would start another fight.” He jerked his gaze back from the blood, the bodies and body parts, held a hand up to his mouth and nose, eyes going glassy, the smell hitting him now that he’d had a chance to stop and think.

“Kate? Where’s Linda?”

“I don’t know. She was trying to clean up the mess in Harry’s old room before breakfast and she found something. Whatever it was, she didn’t take it well. Ran off crying. Nobody’s seen her since.” Max’s face wrinkled up. “If she was alone, somewhere, and they found her, Jeff...”

My heart lurched. I knew it was horrible, selfish of me-- lots of people were dying. Lots of people had died, said the blood and viscera soaking the floor. But Linda had been my friend. She’d been through so much already. “I’ll go look for her.”

“You can barely walk, Dresden, don’t be an idiot,” Hendricks said patiently.

“I can walk,” I snapped, transferring my weight to my own feet and not the wall, only holding onto Hendricks’ arm a little as I found my balance. “Your wonderbooze did its thing. Give me a gun and let me go after her. If one of the other guys finds her first, that’s just great-- but she found something in my room. Maybe it’s one of my foci, maybe it’s something that will make me actually useful. Besides, I think she’s outside, and you know I handle the cold best.”

“You’re going to regret this in the morning,” Gard muttered. “But you do fight best when you are about to die. Let him go, Nathan, let him be stupid. He survives, and he’ll have strength enough to run.”

“If we hear gunshots we’ll come find you,” Max said, much more willing to accept stupid heroics than the people who knew me. “Thanks, Harry.”

“He can use this. Couple rounds left,” Travis said, reaching across his torso to grab his sidearm. My crappy patch job meant he’d be able to use his right arm like nothing had happened-- in six to eight months. I’d done better, much better, without passing out before. Hendricks was right; I was in no shape for this.

But Delta team and their friends were looking for all survivors, and I couldn’t ask them to ignore the rest and track down just one. And if Linda was out there, with one of my force rings, with my blasting rod-- I really would be more useful to the effort.

Which was all just justification for Harry’s stupid chivalry, with a side of stupid guilt, and a little serving of really stupid selfishness. Her husband’s ghost had been worried about her. The only thing I could give him in exchange for using him like a guided missile was to find his wife and make sure she got out all right. And she was my friend.

“Stick to the light, and be careful. Okay? Damn.” Hendricks sighed as I took the pistol from Travis. “You don’t get smarter, do you?” I ignored that, checking the gun-- must have been somebody’s collector piece Before. A revolver, four rounds left, and if there was any ammo left in Flynndigo’s sidearm I was betting it was the wrong caliber. Oh, well. Only one of the top ten stupidest things I’d ever done, anyway.

I went quietly out into the compound, the lights flickering overhead, hugging the corridor walls. I found the nearest door to the outside without running into any wendigo-- I had to step over bodies, though, heart falling as I recognized people I knew, people who’d attended my classes. I’d only known them as ‘the guy who asked a bunch of questions based on D&D’ or ‘the lady who argued about potion making’. Gone, now, some chewed on, chewed up, some just casually murdered because they’d interrupted something eating. The halls of Fort Refuge smelled like fear and dead meat. It clung to the inside of my mouth, my nose. I was almost getting used to it-- and that made me gag, choke into my fist, my eyes watering as I tried to keep from making noise.

The sky was dark when I got outside, nearly pitch through the swirling white of the snow. My confidence started to falter. Yeah, Linda usually went outside when she wanted to be alone, but in this? Would she have gone back in, would she have known there was something wrong, coming through a back door, a side door, before things had gotten really bloody?

I let the snow pile up on me. It was good camouflage. ...It would be good camouflage for the wendigo, too, and they didn’t mind the cold either. I started looking really hard at snowbanks, eyes going left and right as I circled around the snow-covered buildings, could barely see a foot in front of me anyway. The wind was kicking up to a scream-- they probably wouldn’t hear it inside if I did have to shoot at something. ...Hendricks was really, really right about me.

The smokehouse was gaping open-- the door slapped in the wind, frosted over with ice and snow, the broken padlock clanking, making me jump behind a drift and aim with shaking hands until I realized that the door was all that was moving. The meat was gone, and the snowball I tossed inside went un-reacted to. I backed up, flicking glances over my good shoulder until I was against a concrete wall, and then I slowly went around it, never turning my back on the flapping door. It didn’t look like anything fresh was hanging inside, and I didn’t get close enough to find out.

The chicken coops were open and empty, too, just sad scattered feathers and a few bloody handprints on the wood frame. The break-in was old. Snow was piling up in the doorway, spilling onto the floor inside-- this had happened before Flynn snapped in the cafeteria, before I even showed up with Gard and Hendricks. The wendigo were confused-- they didn’t know what they were. Hell, I barely knew. They were hungry. They’d gone for the food, sneaking out to gorge themselves-- like Golf’s obsession with the MREs, even though that wasn’t what the monsters in them wanted. Old habits, worn into them by a lifetime, treating their new hunger like the kind they were used to. They’d eaten whole months worth of food supplies, and it wasn’t enough. Always hungry.

“Linda!” I bellowed into the wind, and it threw it back in my face, snowflakes stinging.

A white shape stirred, curled up tight against the lee side of the chicken coops. “Mister Dresden? You came back.” Linda’s voice was threadbare, almost lost in the wind.

I let out a long breath, relief flooding through me like Gard’s mead. “Yeah. Yeah. I know what Golf said. But they were lying.”

“Yes. I figured that out.” She sounded strained, like she was on the verge of crying-- it hurt to hear.

“It-- it’s gone kind of bad inside. But it’s going to be okay. There’s a settlement to the south, they’ll take you guys in for a while. We just have to go. Are you okay?” I couldn’t see if she was wearing a coat. She must have come out just before the attacks, she couldn’t have been out in this for long even if she was dressed right. “Stars, you must be freezing-- people are kind of gathering out front, we’ll get you someplace warmer soon.”

“Did you find my husband, Mister Dresden?” She curled back in on herself. “Is he a monster?”

“...He’s not a Renfield. His ghost is still there. Ghosts are real. That’s what the hunting teams have been seeing, when they go near where he was killed.” I looked left and right, took a few careful steps through the snow towards her.

“I’m glad.” Her voice choked, and she balled up tight on herself, against the cold, the storm. “I’m glad. Mister Dresden, do you think I’m a coward?” she said, almost having to yell it into the whirling snow.

I stilled, shouted back. “What? No. What are you talking about?”

“I found the picture in your room, on the handkerchief. It fell behind your table. Julie Berton said you were going to use magic to make a picture of the attackers. But it was Corporal Flynn. He didn’t used to be that sort of man, Mister Dresden. He’d never have hurt Hank the way he did. He wasn’t nice, but he wasn’t a monster. He wouldn’t have murdered people. But now he does, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” I said, heart falling a little. She hadn’t found a focal. She’d found the blood image. It must have been a shock to see her husband’s teammates like that. She must have thought that her husband was like them. Or--

“I’m not stupid, I was just afraid. I minored in psychology, Mister Dresden,” Linda said, anger in her voice, anger at herself. “Weetigo doesn’t sound a damn thing like Winnebago, but I was too scared to believe my own ears.”

Oh Stars. I took another step towards her.

Cavanagh came out of the whirling snow, mouth gaping open, hands clawed. I swore, going down backwards, sprawling in a drift-- his hand slashed past where my face had been, and he loomed up over me.

“Captain Cavanagh, is that you?” Linda’s voice was suddenly loud, almost strident.

“Linda. It’s all right.” The words were mocking and wrong coming out of that stretched out face, the skin cracking and showing muscle, the splits at his mouth grown into long tears, cracks spiraling out from around his eyes. “Mister Dresden’s done something terrible and I have to kill him. Then we’ll go inside, and get you something hot to drink.”

“Linda, don’t go with him!” I dodged a lunge, rolled through the snow and scrambled to my hands and knees.

Linda didn’t seem to be listening to either of us. “You lied to me, Captain Cavanagh. You told me you did everything to save Doug that you could. You told me how sorry you were that he was dead.” She was trying to stay calm but I could hear the anger swelling in her voice.

“We did, Linda. We did everything we could, it was those damn vampires--”

“How long did you wait before you decided he had to die? How far away were you from home? Did you even try to get back? How hungry were you, really? You were only gone three days.”

“Linda!” he turned to her, prowling closer; I’d almost been forgotten. I rose slowly to my feet, not so fast that I’d catch his attention, braced for an attack. “That’s a terrible thing to say. Doug was a good friend of mine.”

“You’re a cannibal, Brody Cavanagh. You’re a wendigo. You ate my husband and you turned into a monster.” She took a ragged breath, her voice cut off-- came back forced out through anger and sudden tears. “You killed him and you told us all that vampires took him-- and I believed you. I felt so horrible. So useless, so helpless that I’d just let the darkness steal him away. I didn’t think I deserved to eat anymore, that I deserved to keep trying. I didn’t want to. I didn’t even mind when you started taking my servings of food, did you think I didn’t notice? I didn’t care anymore. I haven’t cared for so long. I haven’t eaten in so long--” her voice fell apart, came back as a broken snarl. “And I’ve been so hungry, Captain.”

He was in arm’s reach of her and I shouted a warning as he pulled the hunting knife from his belt-- scrambled towards them, fumbled at the ground, looking for the revolver in the snow. I’d dropped it when I fell, like an asshole, and it was lost in the drifts somewhere. I couldn’t let this happen this way.

Linda uncurled all at once, unfolded, her hand shooting out to grab Cavanagh’s wrist, shake the knife free. She grabbed it from the snow and stood up, all the way up, towering over him, her sleeves far too short on long, long arms, her dress barely reaching her knees. Her hair had fallen out in clumps, a silvery-white down taking its place. That happens to starving people, if they survive long enough, but not overnight. I guess it happens to other things, too.

The tears frozen on her cheeks looked like they’d been nearly the last moisture in her. She wasn’t crying when she took him off at the knee, stooping to whip the knife across the tendons in the back.

“You dressed those corpses like animals,” she said, dry, cracking lips pulling back from too-long teeth. “Doug taught me to dress a deer once. I’m going to see if I remember how.”

Her eyes lifted to me, huddled in the snow, trying not to move. I didn’t have a gun, I barely had my magic.... Linda’s voice was almost gentle again, almost sounded like the quiet woman who’d looked out for me, those first few days, before everything went to hell. “I’m sorry, Mister Dresden. I don’t think I should come inside with you. You had better go.”

Cavanagh drove a clawed hand into her stomach, and she knocked him back with a lazy, longarmed backhand, barely noticing the wound. He fell and started to scramble away but she caught his leg, the one she’d cut into, and lifted the knife again, driving it across, twisting with her other hand until his knee cracked and popped open.

I finally tore my eyes away from them, scrambling for the nearest door into the compound. I’d gone numb inside, and it wasn’t from the cold. No more detours. I was going to find my foci, and then Gard and Hendricks and I would take the survivors, and get somewhere safe. And maybe eventually the knot of ice that had formed in my throat would thaw, and I’d be able to think about my friend who’d died in front of me-- and still had enough of her kindness left to politely tell me to run from what she’d become.

 

I clawed my way back into a silent Refuge and started running as soon as I got my bearings-- the lights were almost gone, snow or Winter killing the generator, but the oil lamps, still burning here and there, gave me just enough light not to bounce off the walls or trip over the dead or slip in the pools of blood and insides as I pounded down the halls. My shield bracelet and force rings were probably a loss, long gone since Golf team had torn them from me... that hurt, it hurt bad. I didn't have enough remnants of Before that I could let them go so easily. But maybe they'd left my staff in my room, maybe they'd been so angry, so stupid with it they'd forgotten my blasting rod, left it behind after the fireball, couldn’t get to it after attention and questions were stirred up. If I had those, I could focus my magic, my horror, into something controlled, something constructive. Something destructive, my brain said with a terrified little giggle and I had to clamp down on it before it could become full grown hysterics.

There was a lit candle in a squat holder with a handle on the table, sitting almost in the center of the badly burned ring where my oil lamp had been. It flickered, the wax melted almost all the way down, the flame low, but it was enough to let me see the trashed mess of my bed, the posts maybe a little crispy, the way the sheets had been singed at the edges and their remains stripped, the mattress torn open. My blasting rod was still on the ground, intact, a charred swath on the concrete floor around it. I skidded in and reached for it, calling it into my hand with a gust of wind, and looked around wildly for my staff.

Chief was sitting at the table, sipping a cup of hot cocoa. The scent of it, sweet and chemical, tangled with the blood outside and made my stomach twist into a confused, displaced knot.

"I know who you are."

He put down the mug-- it said something about ‘knock’ and ‘opened’ in faded, overly-ornate script, must have come from the cafeteria-- and gave me a little golf clap. "Good job, Knight. You can see through the skin if you squint long enough. I was starting to wonder."

"I wondered where you'd gotten off to, why I hadn't seen you near my hold. You were here."

"What can I say? There are a few solid old rituals left, and Cavanagh and his friends did one of the big ones. They called me here. Summoned, practically." He laughed, reedy, breathy, almost a death rattle.

“Nice skinsuit. Very tribal glam.”

He gave me a mildly hurt look. “It’s mine, sparky. One of mine. I’ve had a few, taken a few... this one isn’t the last face I wore, but it worked for our friends here. They invited me; I tried to dress for the occasion.”

"Invited you. Yeah.” In the cave, those original five had called him without knowing it. It was a terrible kind of blood magic, the kind you didn’t even have to be a wizard to do. “So you strolled on in and started turning people."

He snorted, shook his head. "Too much work, sport. I'm not the kind that recruits. I'm the kind that eats. They turn themselves. When they choose their own life over another's and fill themselves up on meat poisoned with Hunger and hate. Brought others, ones they trusted to their hunts, and their friends ate too. They do all the work. I just watch. They’ll wander down my throat in the end."

"Oh yeah? You’re Mister Laissez-Monster? Explain the wives. Explain the doctor."

"New one on me, kid." He shrugged, took another sip, getting a cocoa mustache across his stubbly upper lip. "The First People generally knew better than to let Weetigo into their villages. They kept abreast of the stories. Knew the signs. Never saw it like this, where the hungry ones hung around for months as if it was all normal-- thought they'd catch wise when Cavanagh and his men started growing, started bullying people for food. His wife, his men's wives, the doctor. But they didn't say a word. Gave up their meals, sat there and stewed in their hunger and hate until their bodies ate themselves hollow, and the Hunger slipped into them too."

"And it spread. Like. Reverse vampirism."

He rolled his eyes, the gesture familiar and unsettling. "Stop stretching, Knight. Or can't you understand a new idea if it doesn’t come from Europe? They aren't vampires, they aren't a thing like vampires. They're Weetigo. They just came to it a little different. I admit, it's a first. White people, am I right? You can’t even starve without being the center of attention." He bared his teeth in another grin, chuckling to himself. “Doesn’t matter. Hunter or hunted, the Hunger will eat them until they’re gone and it wears their skin. One way or another, they’re already mine.”

I pointed my blasting rod at him. "I don't know if I can take you down. I can try, though. There are still survivors."

"...kid, they're not vampires. They won't go away if you kill me." He gave a gusty sigh. "You don't know the stories? You've only lived on this continent your whole life. Thought you would have brushed up. Didn't you tangle with Naagloshii before you came to the Winter Queen, or did you decide you only needed to know about your neighbors to the South? If you kill Weetigo-- not one of those little saps out there, bellies full of Hunger, hearts turned to ice, I mean me-- you become Weetigo. That what you want?"

His eyes locked on mine and I couldn't look away before he hammered the truth into me. The howl of the wind across northern plains where the nights stretched out almost forever, where the food was scarce and far away, where the land was too big to conquer and too angry to control. Winter Hunger, he'd called himself. Hunger and despair and fear and the knowledge that you were alone in a wide, bitter night, and the snow would cover your body where it fell unless you gave up your last humanity to feed your starving belly one more time. An echo of the scream of the last wizard who’d tried to save their village, revenge themself on the whole snowy world for stealing someone they cared for. They’d dueled Weetigo and won, only to have the terrible Hunger pour into them in their moment of victory, fill them and eat them clean, because as long as there was winter and snow there would be death and hunger and only the face of it changed-- the bones of them were still in Weetigo, the shadow of a powerful wizard, stupid and brave and rule-bucking, a smartass, a problem. She’d been so much like me...

I felt my knees hit the floor. I was shivering, gasping, gooseflesh across my whole body, cold for the first time since I'd sworn myself to my Queen.

"Didn't think so,” Chief said clinically. “Go save the living, if it means so much to you. I'm not going to stop you, tough guy." He slurped the dregs out of his cup, eyed it for more.

"Why--?"

"I'm not political. I'm hungry. And you’ve been a good neighbor." He looked up. "Behind you, slick."

I didn't parse the warning well enough, but when I felt a hand land on my ankle I kicked and rolled aside, hitting up against the wall. Cavanagh flailed after me, his fingers clawed, nails gone, torn and bloody. His jaw was red and wet, and he'd lost his other leg somewhere. He didn't seem to notice, crabbing in on his bloody hands, showing me his teeth and then looking up at Chief.

"You. You started this," he growled, balancing on one hand and pointing accusingly with the other.

Another eyeroll from Chief, taking the bloody, nasty apparition a lot better than I was. "Sure, Captain. If it makes you feel better."

Cavanagh had forgotten me again-- he surged inside, skittering on his hands, and clawed at Chief's legs, catching at his loose pants. "I killed you!"

The tattered clothes ripped away like he was pulling a sheet off a dusty old piano; skin and cloth slipped and slid off a form too big and angular for them, pooling at the feet of Weetigo. A dank smell rose from the pile, the reek of decay disguised under a blanket of flesh for months.

I called it Danny the Wonder Wendigo because cutesy names are how I deal with living next to a thing that stands twenty feet tall and looks like the unhappy marriage of a dead caribou and a cadaver that died on the rack. The name rang mocking and sick in my head as I watched Weetigo pick up Cavanagh lightly with one hand, plunge its clawed hand into his chest, and open his ribs like it was cracking a crabshell. Cavanagh screamed in raw, human pain.

"Looks like you're not carrying your weight, Captain," it chuckled, ragged nails curling around something in his chest, slicing into it. I wasn't looking close.

The angry life went out of Cavanagh's eyes, a last stinking breath sighing out of his exposed lungs.

Weetigo upended the corpse, holding it by the flapping pants, empty legs, and shook it a few times. My rings pattered out of his pockets, my shield bracelet slipping out with a last hard shake. The creature kicked them over with a bony foot. "There you go, champ. You may want to clear out. We can trade stories later: you know what they say about those. Over tea, very neighborly. But you look like you have a sensitive disposition." It smiled with its so many sharp yellow teeth, bulging eyes wild. "You won't want to watch me eat."

I clawed my weapons off the ground, called my staff from the corner, and staggered to my feet and into the hall, not looking back, trying to close out the wet, tearing sounds behind me.

Running.

What can I say? I'm good at it.


 

I ran, and then I slowed to a walk, ears buzzing, vision blurring-- Refuge was quiet. The smell of slaughter was still thick and nasty in the air, that yeasty starving scent rising up innocently over the shit and blood and those wet red parts of people that were never supposed to meet the outside world, but the angry buzzing that had infected people with sudden rage and stupid was starting to fade. It felt empty. All I passed were corpses, doors that had been broken down. The generator was completely gone. Most of the halls were dark, only a few candles and still-burning lamps lighting the way.

When I got to the infirmary, panting, aching, eyes wet and almost shaking with anger and upset and grief I wouldn’t put a name too, there were two wendigo trying to break down the door-- one the Lima who’d been burned by the fireball in my room, the other the Golfer whose jaw I’d broken. They barely looked human anymore, gaunt ten-foot shapes with that silver hair starting to show. They died surprised in white hot fire-- it hurt to summon, to jam all my rage and sorrow down that raw connection and turn it into flame, but it hurt them a whole lot worse. They went down in piles of ash near the burnt shell of the doctor-- he’d been doused in lamp oil and he’d burned like tinder, only his stethoscope half surviving to ID him.

I’d told Julie that fire kills almost anything. Obviously, she’d taken it to heart.

“Anyone in there?” I yelled.

The door cracked, a shotgun barrel coming out first, and then cracked a little wider, a shadowed glimpse of Julie’s worried face peeking out. “Harry! You’re okay! Your viking pals are out killing whatsits. We were waiting for them to get back before we headed outside. Most of Delta and everyone from November who’s not a zombie is out there protecting the civvies!” She opened the door and yanked me in, slammed the door behind me. Everyone looked up, half-illuminated by a handful of candles spread out among them-- they’d packed in almost three dozen people, almost twenty of them kids; one of them was Hank Leighton, unsteady on his feet, his face a mottled mess of yellow bruises, but alive and almost big enough to count twice. It was standing room only in spots, but this was the one place they’d secured where there weren’t corpses littering the floor. “Oh, jeeze. You look like crap. Are you okay?” She gave me a worried look. “They told me you were going out alone to look for Linda.”

“She’s dead,” I said, my voice flat-- it burned in my throat like bile. It wasn’t quite a lie. The woman Julie was hoping to see again, she wasn’t ever coming back. She was just a stretched-out ball of rage and Hunger now, and that was if she’d survived the run-in with Cavanagh. She’d been bigger than him, the thing in her had gestated for a long time and been born huge and angry, but he’d been a killer for longer, and he was meaner. He’d been the one I’d seen again, and I didn’t know if that meant he’d won.

Julie’s face folded up in pain, there and gone. “Oh. I was hoping-- it’s not fair. They killed her husband.”

“Yeah.”

Steel rang against the door. “Julie Berton!” Gard said, and Julie went through the same rifle-first-welcoming-smile-second routine to establish that Gard was really who she sounded like, too. Gard shoved into the room, mail clanging, glinting in the dim, flickering candlelight. She was covered in gore, most of the color washed away by the shadows. I was glad. Without the red, the clotted brown, I could almost imagine it was mud.

“Dresden,” she nodded at me. “You have your toys.” I hefted my staff an inch or two off the ground in agreement. “Your friend?”

I shook my head so sharply I thought I’d sprain something. “Are we ready to go?”

“Yes.” She waved behind her, a few white-faced people. “We must gather the winter clothes that we can, but quickly. Some of our enemies have escaped into the snow.” The curl of her lip clearly said what she felt about monsters that wouldn’t stick around to fight. “They may return and the children should be gone.”

One of the kids made a sound at that, a wet snuffle. I looked-- Jocelyn. Of course. My face twisted up. I tried to turn it into a smile, gentle and reassuring, but she just sniffed again, and I got rid of it before I made things worse.

The mead was already wearing off-- even the gift of a god only goes so far when you’re in a constant state of last ditch survival tactics. We’d driven off the monsters or killed them, saved everyone we could-- now the hard work started. Moving... how many survivors? A hundred, a hundred and twenty? And all the kids? Hundreds of miles over land in snow and cold, the days still getting shorter, maybe a week’s walk through the Ways that were anything like safe enough, with Gard and Hendricks and I providing cover. What were we going to feed them all?

“We could clean this place up,” Kate said quietly. She’d moved over to comfort Jocelyn; the younger kids were swarmed around her, a tight little huddle of grief and wet noses. “We don’t have to go.”

Julie gave her sister-in-law a little headshake. “Kate, the zombies have keys. They were Hunters. They’ve got access to everywhere here.” And she didn’t know about Winter, didn’t know how it had sunk its teeth into the ground water here, the bones of the earth. Didn’t know about the blood and bodies and... everything. I could really have used some more of that mead.

“They raided the smokehouse and took out the livestock,” I said, feeling like a heel, as if it was my fault the food was gone. Which, in a way....

“Mrs. Smith is waiting with Nathan outside. We shouldn’t leave them in the cold too long. Children, you have to follow me,” Gard said soberly. She was trying to be nice, I could tell, but you got the feeling she didn’t deal with kids much. Or panicky civilians, since she’d left that contracting job.

Julie nodded, gesturing with her rifle. “Okay, people. Let’s get moving. Nice and slow and steady, nobody rush. Help each other if you’re hurt.”

Gard turned to me. “Dresden, take the rear. Tell me if you lose too much power to be useful.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

We were a silent little herd, moving through the even more silent Fort. Gard went first, breaking a rune with a sharp snap and holding it out; it lit up like a glow stick, pale and ghostly as it shone in the darkness, showing the way. Hopefully if there was anything lurking, it would go for her, not the quiet mass of people behind her. The young. The wounded. Hank was walking stiffly, trying not to lean too hard on the couple who’d offered him their shoulders. I took the cue from her, willing light into my pentacle, another beacon to distract anything that wanted a bite.

It was nervous in there, twitchy. Supposedly the monsters were gone. Supposedly. But my hindbrain knew all about the types of monsters that lurked in the dark, helpfully supplied all kinds of things waiting in the shadows as we passed, teeth showing, blank, gaping faces and long limbs. We had to stop at a few rooms for winter coats, and that was bad, a tense waiting-- but it was worse when we stopped near the dead who weren’t too brutalized, one of the adults murmuring a prayer or just an apology over the bodies as they took the extra layers of clothing that their friends wouldn’t need anymore.

We stopped at my room and I hesitated at the door, my back going rigid, my mind screaming-- I really didn’t want to see what was in there. “Harry?” Julie whispered. “Don’t you want your coat?”

The door was open a crack, the flicker from the sputtering candle inside just enough to see by. Was there something on the ground? Gleaming white bone? A reaching hand?

Gard peered over her shoulder at me, the huddled crowd of Refuges between us. Julie frowned, looking at my face-- leveled her rifle and tapped the door with her foot, letting it swing open slowly.

Nothing. Just the mess of my bed. Some bloody clothes on the ground.

My coat was hanging on the back of the chair, pushed in neatly under the table. Julie let the door open all the way, looked left, right-- darted in and grabbed it, then closed the door firmly when she was back.

“Thanks,” I managed, when she passed it to me, struggled into it. “Let’s keep going.”

 

We came out the front door; the survivors out there had kept busy, digging out a trench in the snow, shoring up a windbreak to keep the worst of it from them, Hendricks looming up big and red behind it when he saw us coming. The Refugees’ eyes were all on us as we stepped out, our party glowing at the head and tail. I saw them all doing headcounts, looking for friends, family. Parents reaching for their children. ...Some of the children in our group scanning the crowd, looking for parents who weren’t there to reach out.

“There is no-one else alive,” Gard said soberly, and there was a ripple of pain through the crowd, heads bowing, eyes hidden. The occasional stifled weeping.

There were about fifty ragged survivors behind the windbreak, including Mrs. Smith and Commander Wight, most shivering and shocky looking, clustered behind Hendricks. Plus the forty that Gard and I had... I forced myself to count heads as dispassionately as I could. About half of Refuge’s population. I broke the hunter teams down-- only Derek and one other from November, two from Beta, three from Lima, Ray, Jeff and Max from Delta, Travis in our group, was that, no, there were Sean and Mitch, and I was selfishly glad-- stopped trying to match children to parents before my will gave out.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Mrs. Smith said, stepping out to meet her. Her eyes were red, her face drawn like she’d aged years in the last hour. “Your Mister Hendricks helped drive off two of our former citizens. We owe you our lives.” I think she was talking to the Refugees, more than to Gard. But maybe I was just projecting, maybe I was the only one who felt like I’d failed and let this massacre happen. “I understand we’ll be walking in... the other world, for some time, and we won’t be allowed to eat anything we find there. How will we prepare for that journey?”

“We will break in places I know in the mortal world and scavenge food. And all of you will take Odin’s mead. Even the children. It will give you strength. And if you are not wizard’s blood, it will make you forget the Ways you travel.”

Mrs. Smith tightened her lips. “A security measure. I understand.”

Gard bowed her head. “I thank you for your understanding.”

“Mister Leighton?” Mrs. Smith said, and Hank lifted his head, bruises dark around his eyes, doing his best to stand up straight and presentable, shifting his weight off the couple helping to hold him up. “You still have the key to storage, I’m told. I’d like you to give it to this lady.”

After a second of bustle-- Hank gesturing with his wrapped hands so that one of his helpers could get into his cargo pockets-- he stepped forward, sluggishly, on his own steam, offering the padlock key in one bandaged palm.

Gard bowed to him too, and took it, fastening it to her belt. “Drink this,” she said, and offered him her flask. He did, just a sip-- his back stiffened and he huffed out a breath, but he wasn’t walking so painfully when he shuffled back. She went to the crowd, one by one, under Mrs. Smith’s watchful eye; everyone got a sip, except for me and Travis, already dosed up. No, it didn’t seem like there was room enough in that thing for that much mead. No, I wasn’t asking.

Commander Wight was second to last-- then Mrs. Smith, who hesitated a long second. “I’m not comfortable with forgetting.”

“Angela, the things you could see in there--” Wight started, the mead loosening his lips and denting his formality for a second while that first rush wore off. She shook her head sharply, and he shut his mouth uncertainly.

“If you don’t drink you’ll go without the strength of it.” Gard paused. “But you will be able to stay awake, once the march is over. The others will sleep for several days. Will you swear not to speak of the Ways we follow, or try to trace them yourself?”

“I swear it.” Mrs. Smith lifted her head, the blowing snow wiping around her face, her hair loosed from her bun, and Gard put away her flask. I don’t think I was imagining the faint approval in her expression.

“Then let us go. There is half a mile to the first point, then we will walk a little while near the cliffs. And then we will leave this state entirely. It will be a long journey, in strange places. You’re ready?”

“Yes.” Mrs. Smith’s voice didn’t waver. It looked like ‘Jacob Wight is a distinguished combat veteran’ just wasn’t measuring up against the reality that her people needed some hard decisions made, right now. The world outside was terrifying and brutal and she was going to face it head-on because otherwise people would die. I had to respect that. We’d never see eye-to-eye, I don’t think, but I had to respect that.

Gard gave her a smile, nothing faint about the approval this time. “Then follow me.” She turned into the whipping wind, rune-light still shining, a little lighthouse against the dark sky, the blowing snow, and Mrs. Smith followed. The Refugees trickling after her in an irregular line, one by one, then in groups, bracing against the wind and snow, and we all played a game of follow the leader.

Hendricks took the rear this time, shooing me up to keep an eye on the middle of the procession. We retraced some of the path Gard had brought me back by-- though we turned away before we were in sight of the battle, going way out of our way to a break that would lead us back into the mortal realm and near, but not into, the cave I’d covered up. This whole area of Wisconsin had been Winter’s stomping grounds once, a few patches wyld in that way that made little sense in the Nevernever and mapped out even more nonsensically in the mortal realm; lots of boltholes into Faerie.

We were just barely in eyeshot of the cliffs-- I could see where I’d pulled the snow and rock down, but only because I knew what to look for. I thought I saw movement: I shifted the tired, newly-orphaned three year old off my back and handed him over to Kate, gave Hendricks a wave to let him know I was stepping out, and started to sneak off in that direction, my hand tight on my blasting rod. My skin crawled as I slowly lost sight of the group, and I started to think really uneasy things about ambush.

Taking cover behind a tree, I squinted at the figures in the whirling snow, sheltering my eyes until I could pick out the details.

Doug Forrester-- his ghost, anyway-- was still standing on a badly broken leg, flickering in and out of focus in the wind, the blowing wet, but he didn’t look the worse for having been used as an improvised explosive. Linda had lost an arm, probably in the fight with Cavanagh. One sleeve of her cotton dress was stained and ragged, flapping empty in the wind, but she held her shawl primly around her with her other hand, and her voice was soft, reassuring tones carried to me with the snow, too far away for me to make out words.

Linda’s husband looked up into her face, all the way up, and smiled at her. He was fading as I watched. She waited a little while until he was gone, his spirit at peace-- the people who’d murdered him were dead and his wife was taking care of herself, what more could he ask for?-- and then spread her shawl out tenderly on the fallen rocks that covered the cave, tucking it one-handed into the crevices in the stone. Satisfied, she turned away, drifting north.

It was a horrible kind of closure. I don’t know what it says about me that I’m glad they had it.

I should have tried to take her down; she’d kill, if she could, to feed her hunger, until she fell apart or the winter swallowed her up. She was dangerous now. But I didn’t follow her. I backed away until I couldn’t see where she’d been, couldn’t make out the shawl stretched over the makeshift grave where the snow would bury it until spring, and then ran to catch up with the main group.

 


It was a long walk through the Nevernever, a week in mortal time at least, and I thought longingly on the path I’d taken to get to Refuge, when Murphy had first asked me to look into the raids. But I couldn’t take ninety confused mortals-- some injured, a quarter of them children-- through deep Winter. I could barely take myself through deep Winter, as worn as I was and with a chunk taken out of me, and I couldn’t justify leaving the Refugees now, not without seeing them through to the end. So Gard kept the lead-- the Refugees had made a deal with her, after all, I was just along for the ride-- and we followed her paths, her routes. I knew most of them, but one or two caught me by surprise; I wasn’t used to going the long way.

Something told me-- the way the scenery blurred when we were in the Nevernever, the hazy, slowed movements of the Refugees, how their speech was rare and deliberate, the way time skipped and jumped along, already so discordant and fragmented this side of the mortal realm, how there were almost no landmarks to distinguish place from place in the soft, pastel bleed of the Ways-- that without some interference and a watchful god, it would have been a much longer walk.

No one slept. Odin’s hand was guiding us there, too, it seemed. I could see it hitting Mrs. Smith the hardest: her jaw locked and never seemed to unclench, her steps dragged after the long stretches between breaks into the mortal world for food and refueling on clarity and sudden bursts of conversation, brains sharpening like each break was a bright new morning, drawing strength from unblurred time and fresh earthly air. The lines in her face got deeper; I could almost see the grey in her hair going lighter, spreading. But she kept at it, trudged along with the rest of us, always up at the front with Gard, her people trailing behind her. Hendricks and I took turns at the rear, the middle, drawing together sometimes when the paths were wide enough that our pilgrimage was more of a herd migration.

I did what I could to help. Kept people on the paths, carried the youngest children in turns, up on my back where it didn’t tear my shoulder open, drew Winter’s power around us when we crossed into Mab’s land, offering protection. The group was an oddity-- ninety mortals, a Valkyrie, an Einherjar, the mortal wizard Winter Knight-- and we attracted attention. Some of the eyes that followed us were cautiously curious, some more malevolently so. Hendricks and I turned away the hungry things, the tricksters, the things dressed up pretty, promising shelter, sustenance, riches beyond imagination. Two of my guard warned us about the tollman on one of our Ways, buzzing back down the path on their little dragonfly wings to keep us from the fae waiting to exact blood payment for passage through the stretch of Nevernever it had claimed, and we took an unplanned detour, walking close enough to the border of Summer to make me sweat. If anything saw us, decided it was a good time to issue a challenge to Mab, to play politics and draw a reaction out of me by harming mortals I had no official claim over, and with my magic still recovering from the wendigo’s bite...

I saw Justine between the rich silver trunks and jeweled leaves of the Summer trees, riding her ursine-suid mount, a party of goblins coursing around her. She let us pass without instance, raising a hand in greeting and blowing me a cheeky kiss. I swallowed my thanks-- that she was feeling human, that she was feeling generous-- and waved back, giving her a playful wink, a promise for a visit another time.

Hendricks drew up beside me, remarkably silently for a linebacker in chain mail. “Neighborly of her,” he said.

I grimaced at his word choice, startled a little despite being sharply aware of the goblin hunting party following along beside us, just on the other side of the trees. My skin twitched, synapses firing with little pins and needles bursts like they had anytime someone spoke while we trekked through the Nevernever, and I twisted my lips, a little wry, but if she was listening, I thought she’d appreciate the joke. “Justine? We’re practically family. It’s safer for me that way.”

He grunted. “We’ve met.”

I looked at him, curious, and he dropped back to herd some droopy-eyed Refugees closer to the middle of the path.

 

He found me again in the mortal realm, our next break, somewhere crisp and cool and at a high altitude but with dead yellowed grass covered in frost instead of feet of snow. It was loud out here, as if everyone had been storing up their noise and it was coming out in a confused babble all at once, all the Refugees talking, sounding like’d they’d just woken up from a drugged sleep and still weren’t quite straight yet. Hendricks was sans his wolfskin cloak; I looked around until I saw Mrs. Smith wrapped up in it, passed out against a thin, leafless aspen. It wouldn’t be much sleep, but it was better than nothing.

“Almost there,” Hendricks grunted, sitting down beside me where I’d claimed a bit of rock as a quiet place, a few steps off from the stammer and over-loud confusion of the Refugees waking to the mortal world again. “Last stop.”

“Are we walking them to the door?” I said, trying to fight down the whiny five year old in my head who Wasn’t Talking to John.

Hendricks shook his head, sipped from his own flask of something-- didn’t make his eyes widen or his nostrils flare, so I was betting it wasn’t the good stuff. “We can only drop them within eyeshot. The living aren’t supposed to see the dead-- old rule, I hear. An interim thing until the Accords get sorted out again. Give it a few centuries.”

“...so, don’t know if you noticed, but all these people...” I indicated them with a tiny handwave, milling around, staggery and loose-limbed and hyper-energetic like puppies who’d chewed up the good stash, talking so loudly they surprised themselves.

“We made a deal with them, and most of them won’t remember.”

“And her?” I lifted a chin at the woman sleeping the sleep of the too-tired-to-be-dead in his cloak.

“She’s given her word. Yeah, it’s not an ideal situation. But she’s the type Odin bends the rules for.”

“Really? She’s not much of a fighter. I hear she can use a shotgun okay, but--”

A shrug. “You met Thura. She wasn’t with the PDPA when she got tapped for Monoc.”

“Meaning?” I scrabbled for my broken high school history.

“Meaning she couldn’t drive and she’d never held a gun when Odin offered her the job. She ran a tight ship, she kept people alive in wartime. The All Father likes a natural leader-- says you can train someone to fight a lot faster than you can train them to keep a hundred people fed and organized in hostile territory. He looks outside the box of ammunition these days.”

“Seriously. This is all a recruitment strategy? Really?” I gave him a faintly appalled look.

“I don’t think a job offer’s going to be on the table any time soon. I’m just saying. Odin has a type. More than one, but he’s an equal opportunity...”

“Lech?”

“Admirer.”

“...Wow, don’t tell her that.” I made a face. “She wouldn’t take that well at all.”

He gave a rumbling chuckle. “I gathered.”

We sat in silence a while, heat coming off his body and his breath puffing out slowly, white mist in the air. Mine didn’t. I saw him watching my mouth, my face, blow a soft, gusting breath and watch that for a while. He’d noticed. I wondered if anyone else from the Fort had; no one had brought it up. Being a Mysterious Visitor of Magic and Arcane Knowledge had its benefits.

“So,” Hendricks said, cocked an eyebrow and took another drink from his flask, handed it off to me. I sipped carefully-- just water. Cool, bright tasting water. I sipped again, handed it back with a ‘Thanks’. He rubbed at his beard. “How’s Winter?”

“Cold. Seasonal. How’s the war?”

“Semi-eternal. Going well.” He sighed deeply. “How is he?”

I didn’t pretend like I didn’t know who he meant. Marcone. John.

I bit off my knee-jerk reaction, didn’t spit out angry, hateful words about how the asshole was scum, the worst of the worst, a lying bastard I’d said I-- trusted, who’d thrown one of my best friends to the wolves a few hours later, had risked Bob’s very existence on Mab’s whim, who couldn’t even say he hadn’t thought about it because he’d done everything with that careful fucking deliberate planning he lived with every moment of his god-damned tyrannical life.

But he wasn’t actually omniscient. He hadn’t known, not really, hadn’t know that Bob was more than just the things he knew, more than Luccio’s fear and Butter’s memories, hadn’t known because he couldn’t ask me because I wasn’t a Warden, not really, and I wasn’t one of his people, not really, I was Winter’s. And Winter had been good to me, Mab had been good to me and kept me safe, gave me freedom to operate as I saw fit, didn’t ask things of me I couldn’t give, but it didn’t mean I was willing to give up all those parts of myself that were mortal and human, that thought like a mortal and loved--

“We had a fight,” I said abruptly, defensively, wanting Hendricks to know where the anger was going to come from. “I haven’t been back in a while.”

Hendricks nodded and didn’t look exceptionally surprised. “How long?”

“Last spring.”

I made myself think about Hendricks, staring out over the chilly field, the gentle curve of the land, the high frostbitten sky. Forced myself to think back Before, the first time I’d met him, intimidating me into the back of John’s Caddy. The fire he’d taken from the FBI-turned-hexenvigilantes. How he’d always been there, watching John’s back; when the Denarians had played kidnapper and I’d gotten my first glimpse at the brain and loyalty underneath the muscles and following-orders schtick.

I thought about about the Fort, when he’d been alive, just finally finding its feet for real, shaking off the constant uncertainty, the back-brain fear that the next day would be the one when the army of ghouls poured out of the Nevernever at the gates, the one when something wearing a friend’s face would be let inside and tear everyone down. I thought about how important he’d been-- how the whole Fort had shuddered at his death, the shock of it, the absence in the landscape in the days after, the way even voices had seemed to bruise. I thought about John, that night, those following days. How he’d cried and had let me see it, raw and human in a way I’d never met before. The open wound he’d walked around with, his baron-face and duty to his people slapped over the bleeding like a bad band-aid.

I realized there wasn’t going to be anger after all, just resignation and a pang a little like homesickness. “So how he’s doing now? I don’t know. Good, maybe. He was doing pretty good last time I saw him. The Fort’s grown a lot. Luccio’s been looking out for him, making sure he sleeps, that people leave him alone sometimes. You know, keeping up the tradition.” Like you did, but I didn’t have to say it.

I didn’t have to say a lot of things, apparently, because his gaze found my face, his forehead pulling down and making his beady eyes look even smaller.

“What?” I said, defensive again.

His face smoothed out, eyebrows arching up. “He really hurt you, huh?”

I jutted my jaw a little. “I’m fine. It’s fine. We fight all the time. He’s.” A scumbag. No; not when I was angry. “...an asshole. It’s practically his fucking trademark.”

“No,” Hendricks said, shaking his head, his beard bristling a little as his lips pursed and he thought, “I don’t mean your bitchy little mating dances.” I squawked. “You haven’t let him rattle your cage this hard since the hexenwulf thing. You’re hurt.”

“...He thought it was the right decision.”

Hendricks closed his eyes. “Shit,” he said, and let out a long exhale, weariness tracking over his face, showing the lines around his eyes that I’d thought death had soothed out.

“What?” I said again, this time a little less defensive.

“He always thinks it’s the right decision. He’s John.”

I couldn’t help it, I almost smiled.

Hendricks opened his eyes, face relaxing a little, shook his head. “I hope Luccio’s good at damage control. You haven’t had to live with him when something goes really wrong. You think he’s an asshole now? Try it when he’s decided he’s going to fix every problem in the world to make up for it, all at the same time, right now if not sooner, and everybody else had better keep up or ship out.”

“They’re taking care of him,” I promised, because I was sure of that, at least.

“I should be there.”

My heart went out to the big guy. “Hendricks-- it’s not like you’re working with a lot of vacation time, these days. You didn’t choose to go.” I reached over, squeezed his shoulder awkwardly. It was a lot of shoulder. “Everyone misses you. You won’t be forgotten.”

“...I’d feel a little better if I could drop him a postcard and tell him I was doing all right, but rules are rules.” He shrugged massively. “You’d have to have a lot less common sense than I do to try bending those.”

I frowned, not sure if I’d somehow just been insulted-- opened my mouth to ask him just what he was saying there, and was cut off by Jeff calling my name.

“Harry!” He waved from the edge of the crowd, all huddled together now, still a little stumbly. Mrs. Smith woke with a start, pressing her hand to her head a moment latter, eyes squeezed shut. “There’s rabbit!”

There wasn’t much time to talk then-- we had to eat fast, Gard and Hendricks and me keeping an eye on portions, the only ones not exhausted or a little too drugged enough to keep track of it. As soon as the last portion was done-- and nobody was eating slow to savor the moment-- we were on the march again.

It was Winter this time, a little path that joined up with the old familiar one that had a break into the mortal world about a half mile away from the Fort. I started walking faster, my feet picking up, some back-brain excitement at almost being home, even if it wasn’t like it had been. What’s that thing they say about horses? The people nearest me felt my added energy even if they didn’t know where the hell we were going; the result was that there was a sort of enthusiastic shamble, and when Gard opened the Way the Refugees all tumbled out on top of each other, massed up and staring around.

Gard cut through the herd, pulling out men and women-- Julie, Jeff, and Max among them, others I didn’t know as well-- who looked a little more alert and experienced. She brought them up to the front with Wight and Mrs. Smith, and then turned them over to Hendricks and me, looping back to keep the more dazed Refugees from wandering too far.

Hendricks mapped it out like he’d just strolled out for milk that morning, instead of being gone for three years: “The Fort is about ten blocks from here, a straight walk down this street-- those are the guard towers you can see. Stay on this street, it’s the best patrolled and protected, unless something has changed?” He looked at me, and I shook my head.

He nodded and went on. “Don’t take food, drink, or shelter until you’re inside. Not that I think the outer houses have been taken over, but it’s good hygiene. Marcone will take you in. There will be some security procedures, and you’ll be allowed to sleep.” He waited for that to sink in, patient as a preschool instructor, looking for comprehension on each face. “You’re all going to be team leaders, with groups of ten. Keep an eye on them, and make sure everyone gets in the door. Then your job is done. Right?”

Nods, mumbled affirmatives.

“Mrs. Smith,” he said, dipping his head to her. “You’re the one he’s going to debrief. I’m sorry. He’s not a sadist, he’ll make it short, but you have to stay awake a little longer.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage,” she said, her voice soft and gravelly with exhaustion. “What am I allowed to say? You were quite clear about the Ways. Is there anything else?”

“A few details, yes. Sigrun will fill you in. All specific details, no gray areas or judgment calls. I promise.” I wondered if she knew how rare that was-- while they aren’t as bad as the fae, even gods can be assholes about fine print.

“Much appreciated, thank you,” she said, mustering a chin lift and a polite smile.

“Questions about terrain, ask Dresden here. He’s got the latest information. Anything? No? Okay. Come with me, and I’ll assign you your teams.”

Well, I felt useful. I hung back and watched sheepdog-Hendricks sliding through the flock, dividing it into a handful of groups, making them acknowledge and count off for their new team leaders. They started off, one at a time, Mrs. Smith and Julie Berton heading the first group-- Mrs. Smith had turned down a rifle and was walking slowly but deliberately, ready for the last haul to safety.

Hendricks and Gard fell back to my position, keeping a supervising eye on them.

“They’ll be all right,” Gard concluded, and Hendricks tipped his head in agreement.

“They’d pushed safe territory another three blocks west when I was here last. From when you were here, I mean,” I said, with a little handflip at Hendricks. “And they closed the new outer wall and opened it up for habitation, were putting in some new stables, extending the sheep pasture.” It hadn’t been long before John and I had our falling out-- they’d still been excited, people still claiming corners of land and making plans for bigger better things when I strolled into the Fort the last time. A jolt of sour homesickness went through my stomach.

I looked over, saw Hendricks looking at the guard towers, face blank, and felt like an asshole. At least I could go back, if I wanted to.

“I am sorry I cannot see it,” Gard said somberly. “Nathan, we must go back; this is only half done. There is the food to bring still.”

“Yeah,” he said, gusting out a sigh. “Can we drop you off anywhere, Dresden?”

“Nah. I’ll manage. This Way--” I jerked my thumb at empty air where we’d come out of “--joins up with another path that’ll take me where I need to go.” Eventually. Not as quickly as the route I’d have liked to take-- but nowhere near as risky when I wasn’t in peak performance condition. I hadn’t made it this close to go get myself killed a few miles from the end. I know, right? Common sense? Don’t tell anyone.

“It has been good to see you again, Wizard,” Gard said, and smiled a little. She held out her arm-- I did too, a little confused, and she gripped my forearm tightly.

“What the lady said.” Hendricks held out his arm too, but when I warrior-grabbed him, he used the leverage to pull me into a hug, his arm looped around my back without even the pretense of a manly backpat to make it safe and disaffected. “See you around. Don’t get captured next time.”

I hugged him back, not that I think he felt it through the Kevlar. “Take care of yourself.”

He squeezed tight for a second-- just long enough to crush my ribs and make my heart ache, and pulled away, giving my good shoulder a squeeze.

I watched them go, strike off northward to a Way that would take them back to their battlefield, and reopened the one to Winter with a murmured Aparturum. I looked behind me at the guard towers, the outer Fort wall, the smudges of a few guards I was imagining I might recognize, Mab’s magic blowing out at me through the tear in the world, cool and sharp.

Like the lady said, I was only half done. I had to report to Murphy, find my own shelter to crash in. I was tired, too, and I’d already had about all of this winter I could handle. And... I just wanted to go home. I tucked that thought away, let it sink under the thick layer of stale fear and cooled down rage that the past week had left all over my brain.

“Hey!” I shouted, “hey, Hendricks!”

They stopped, turned to look at me, still close enough that I could see Hendricks’ raised shoulders, the question in his expression. “When I go back!” Because... I’d go back. When I’d given things time to settle. When I wasn’t so tired. “I’ll say ‘hi’ for you!”

I stepped back into Winter and closed the door behind me.

 


I came out of the Ways into what used to be a Chicago alley after a few long hours, already resenting the extra time. The path I would have taken before wasn’t safe, not without an easy supply of will, not without the ability to blast away anything that challenged me. The damage from the wendigo’s bite wasn’t as bad I’d thought-- nowhere near as bad as the time the Nightmare had taken a chunk out of me, Before-- but it had torn deep, fueled by Winter cold, and shorted and fried the connection between my power and Winter power. I was starting to get stronger, the long hike with the Refugees a good respite, but there was still a raw ache when I used magic. I could feel the interference, like air in the line.

It would heal completely, given another week or two, a month at the outside. But right now... right now I was tired. I was hurting. I wasn’t going to go strolling through shark infested Ways, bleeding.

But I was here now, less than a block from the Hamlet. It looked less like a busy urban street every time I came through, as more and more of the asphalt and concrete were ripped up to build up the most intact buildings, and the lanes and parking lots were cleared bare and ploughed up. This chunk of Wells Street was a long farmer’s row, now, under the feet of snow, and the mass of leafless vines climbing the ruined building on the other side of the old street promised another round of Mac’s concord wine this year, a summer sweet with berries.

It was so much more patchwork than Fort Refuge. No fences; a dedicated, less obvious patrol around a rougher border. The greenhouses cobbled together out of autoglass, patching in south-facing storefronts, because more of that had been left intact when the looting was done, way back when the Darkness had just settled in. The livable buildings were all different colors with salvaged brick and stone and pieces of street; you could tell which ones they were, because they all had shutters you could bolt. Brightly painted shutters, actually; that was new. And the solid doors at street level were decorated, too, painted and hung with pine branches and wreathes. ...It was December now, wasn’t it?

Old guilt flared, at how long I hadn’t been back, so long even Mac had commented. And over the guilt, a homesickness. This place was a little wilder, a little more transient than the Fort or Eb’s farm; about half the population at any time was on their way to somewhere else-- but the mainstays, the people who did call this home, they were like family. Some weren’t even like family: Thomas lived here now, Ebenezar had put down tentative roots.

The border patrol had been watching me as I got firmly into Hamlet territory; one of them met me now, a big burly timber wolf padding out into the snow to give me a piercing look. It wore a loose, ragged scarf of cloth or soft leather around its thick neck, and its dark, bushy tail lashed behind it with big snow-stirring strokes.

“...Ruins the image when you wag, Billy.”

The wolf barked happily, and as its form jerked and flowed, the bark turned into a laugh-- a big barrel laugh, Stars, where had Billy been finding Wheaties to eat? He was bigger than I remembered, still more than a head shorter than me but broader, although maybe it was the mountain-man fuzz he was sporting that gave him the illusion of even more bulk. He’d given up and accepted the beard, and the hair on his chest had always been pretty thick.

He lifted his arms and tugged the scarf-collar down from his neck until it would pass as a loincloth. “Harry!” It still sounded a little like a bark. The Alphas spent a lot more time on four legs than two these days, and sometimes it showed. “Sheriff said you’d be coming in. Hey, how bad are you hurt? You’re carrying that arm funny.”

“Not bad. I could probably use a bandage change, though.” I patted the sad shreds of cotton carefully.

“No problem. First aid, Paul can help. He’s on-duty.” He crossed the snow in a few long bounds, apparently not feeling the cold on his bare feet and bare... everything, to smack me on the good shoulder. “Hey, it’s good to see you, man! It’s been forever! You missed the kids! I’m a dad again, Harry!”

Oh crap. And then the guilt was mighty indeed, a figurative bowling ball in my gut. I’d visited in June, sort of; had I been so deep in my own head and hurt I didn’t even notice that Georgia was pregnant? Of course I had. “Billy, that’s great. I want to meet them.”

“It’s okay, they’re still in the cute toddly phase. Don’t tell Georgia, but I like them better when they’re fuzzy.”

Huh. I hadn’t thought-- this generation must have been born while everyone was wolfed up. Now the kids would grow up wolfy until they were old enough to learn the spell that would switch their forms. ...Good thing there was a faster maturation period, there.

“Mouse is the best babysitter,” Billy was saying as he guided me along. “Says he had experience with you, hah. Oh hey, we’re running a new Traveller campaign, house rules, pirates of the lost solar system, if you want to-- Harry, what’s wrong?”

I slapped back on a smile, but it was hard to hide my exhaustion from someone who spoke several fluent dialects of body language. “Case went bad.”

He nodded, and his voice notched down a few decibels, switching gears from happy enthusiasm to soothing. “We’ll get you in. Get you fed. Sheriff's not going anywhere fast, she won’t need to debrief you tonight.” He swung open the solid oak door at Mac’s place--that had survived the Apocalypse just fine-- and guided me down the cozy hub of the growing basement-town. Bread had been baked recently-- there was a universal luxury for you-- and meat was roasting. Goose, by the look of it, as I came down into the re-purposed pub, now complete with a massive fireplace and spits for meat of any size that a pack of super-smart wolves could bring home.

The whole place smelt of smoke, of food, of herbs and wet dog and people. Homey. Warm. Safe. My chest panged, and Billy thumped my good shoulder reassuringly. Damn werewolves; can’t keep anything a secret from them.

Not everyone there was human--a big chunk were changelings, about a quarter of those visibly so. Many of them were very young, newborns to the Darkness; but some were older, those whose differences had become heightened by fear of what was in the shadows once the world had become darker. Others had the full body tattoos that said that, once, they’d been young Fellowship; human, now, but they remembered being a gasp away from becoming Red Court. A lot of people here, for one reason or another, made mortals uncomfortable.

I looked for familiar faces in the fire-lit room, unnoticed, just one more body in the hub. A far cry from the stares I’d gotten every time I’d entered a room at Fort Refuge. Most of the Alphas were on two legs, in loin cloths, some with loose shirts thrown on over as a sop to modesty. Marcy was in deep conversation with Murphy -- not wearing a loose shirt, but unselfconscious enough about it that you stopped noticing that she was half naked pretty quickly. Eb was in a chair by the fire, Mac’s big old recliner, dragged out from the back for their use-- he was whittling something. Billy’s eldest, a round-faced thirteen-year old ball of gangle and patched cotton dress named Karen, was in one corner with her hands full of her three new siblings-- still prickly with puppy fuzz, ears and paws too big-- who were trying their hardest to wander underfoot. Mouse was helping her supervise, occasionally scooping a cub back with one massive paw, licking them into submission once they were safe. A wretched hive of scum and villainy, obviously.

Thomas was behind the bar, wrist deep in the night’s dinner, his hair long enough now to be piled in a braid on his head to keep it out of the way-- Stars, it had been more than a year since I’d been here and aware, hadn’t it?

Unlike the rest of the crowd, Thomas’ eyes flicked up to the newcomer, ever on-alert, protecting his community, for all that he’d cultivated his apple-cheeked, domestic vibe; they widened when he saw me. “Michihiko,” he said, jerking his head at a young woman with a white mop-top more like feathers than hair. “Take over.” He plunged his hands into a bucket of wash water and took a towel with him, drying his hands as he hurried up to me, worry writ large on his handsome features. “Harry, Empty Night, what happened?”

His voice was loud, and he drew attention naturally anyway; the various faces I knew and many I didn’t looked up to find me. Murphy made to rise, hand going to her sidearm, and I shook my head quickly. No danger. She settled back in her seat, eyes sharp, watching. Mouse gathered the babies back up and snuffled at Karen, leaving them in her care as he casually headed over. I think his slow pace calmed Murphy more than my own reassurance.

Thomas stopped himself just before he gathered me up in his arms for a better look-- little brother I might be, but I was still better than half a foot taller than him, and a grown man, thank you very much. His concern was palpable, mixed with a little dose of anger, something twitchy he was closing down on and I didn’t really understand. “Something took a piece out of me,” I explained, waved a hand, trying to brush down his upset like grooming a startled horse. “It’s happened before. It’s not a big deal--”

“--It was a White, wasn’t it?” His hand hovered over my makeshift bandage. “One of my cousins was loose up in Wisconsin, last I heard. Oh, Harry, it took a piece out of you--”

“It wasn’t White, Thomas. Entirely different white-haired hungry demon. A wendigo.” I screwed on a wry smile, but it faded as Thomas went pale. You wouldn’t have been able to tell, Before, but these days he sported a healthy flush around his cheeks as his demon subtly responded to the evolving nature of what people found appealing.

“...the family thought the wind-walkers had died out,” he said, voice low and shaky. “They’re really out there?”

“They’re not-- it’s not the kind of thing that can die,” I said awkwardly, grabbing the hand that was still hovering over my bandage, surprised at the way it shook. “But. Um. The people that turned wendigo. We took care of them.” And the Manitou, the face of the frozen wastes... thought I was a good neighbor.

“Oh Harry,” he said, voice rising, pulling free from my grip only so he could throw his arms around me and squeeze tight. “Oh Harry.”

“It’s-- it’s okay, Thomas, it’s okay.” I patted helplessly at his back. Mouse had joined us; I looked at him for support.

“It’s not okay. Wendigo terrifies the houses, I grew up hearing nightmare stories about them. They’re immune to us. They feed on us, they think we’re tasty with all the eating we’ve done.”

“They’re not coming south, Thomas. The, the Manitou, Weetigo, he’s up north. And the infected-- Eb could take them down. It’s okay, you’re safe.” Mouse snuffed my leg, leaning reassuringly against Thomas’ thighs.

“You’re not! You were up there and they tried to eat you!”

I squeezed him back. “Thomas. It’s okay. It’s over. Promise.”

“Harry,” he said, arms suddenly holding tighter, enough to make me squeak, his hands gripping at my back. “They could have-- you’d have been gone.” I grimaced, guilt flooding in, and quietly promised myself I’d never tell him that, if Danny hadn’t been feeling neighborly enough to let me in on some of the details of Weetigo succession, I could have been worse than that. “Don’t scare me like that, little brother,” he said, just for us, worried-angry-shaky in that way people get when someone they love does something dangerous and stupid.

Then he pulled away, taking a short, fast breath through his nose. “Right. Let’s go, people,” he clapped his hands. “Sasha, Terry.” Two identical round faces looked over from the cushions by the fire, piled in a semi-circle around Eb and Mac’s recliner. “Go clear the washing room-- the private one. And find Paul or Ieti or Angelia, let them know we have a patient for delayed treatment for...” he shot me a look.

I sighed, “Human bite,” and he nodded, mouth flattening out. He shooed the two children, tiny things save for their wide faces, maybe seven or eight, before rounding back on me.

“Look at you; you’re exhausted. When’s the last time you ate? Slept? We’ll get you a bed, after you’ve washed, but you need to eat too, Harry, I know how you take care of yourself.” His hand closed around my elbow and he led me over to the fire, pushing me down on a cushion by Eb. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” Mouse settled down beside me, resting his heavy head in my lap. Guess I was staying put, then.

“Let him fuss, Hoss,” Eb said. I looked up, and he was peering down at me, his face creased with worry, his hands still, the knife and whittled piece of wood resting in his lap. “It will do you both some good.” He sighed, reached down to touch my head briefly, and I leaned against the chair. “You’re rubbed raw, son. What kind of trouble did you walk into?”

I didn’t answer, and I don’t think he was really expecting me to. He shifted so I was leaning against one of his legs, and I rubbed Mouse’s ears and listened to the scrape of Eb’s knife against the piece of wood and watched Thomas as he bustled back over to the bar. I could see him pointing, listing things off to Michihiko and a teenage boy who came out of the back to join her, all awkward ears and elbows and already taller than I was. Mac followed on his heels a minute later. He surveyed the scene-- Thomas’s fussing, me on my cushion, traded a look with Eb-- and ducked down behind the bar to come up with a small winter apple and a piece of dried meat. He handed them off to Thomas, and they made their way over to me.

Thomas hovered while I ate, tutted over the state of my clothes, how thin I was, how dark the circles under my eyes were. Mister appeared out of whatever corner perch he'd claimed, tucking in against my side to shake the floorboards with his purr. One of Thomas' little changeling runners-- Sasha or Terry, I had no idea-- returned with a blanket, and he tucked it around my shoulders.

Mac grunted at me, half-leaning half-siting on his big chair’s armrest next to Eb, and I saw mostly worry and only a little bit of kind amusement in his squinty eyes. Stars, I didn’t call, I didn’t write-- and then I showed up and dumped my load of trouble on their floor. But they were good people, and I took from them selfishly, soaking up the warmth of the fire, the food, the gentle touches. I finished eating, and Thomas got me back to my feet, leading me from the common hub through the rabbit warren of connected basements to a small room, quiet and dark, to wash up.

I let him pour me into a bath-- a real bath in a big old tub, fed with buckets of steaming water from the fire-- and Thomas fussed until he was sure I wasn’t going to drown. Even after, I could hear him pacing for a while outside the privacy curtain, in time to Mouse’s tail thumpthumpthumping against the side of the tub. I stayed in until my fingers were pruny, half asleep in the hot-gone-lukewarm water, a tiny candle the only light.

When it finally cooled down, I slogged out and shook off. Someone had been waiting for me to stir; they handed a cloth around the curtain, it would work as a towel, and then a big blousey nightshirt, about three feet too wide and a foot too short. Thomas’. Still taking care of me, even if his fashion sense and mine didn’t always match up. Good thing I have long legs. Mouse snuffed at my knees, tickling, slobbering, and I glared-- he panted back until I scratched his ears and dropped down to wrap his big head in a hug.

“I missed you out there, boy,” I told him, choked down the wounded-animal sound that tried to crawl out of my throat, and hung on to him while he licked at my ear.

No one was outside the curtain when I finally came out, scrubbing the towel-cloth at my hair, but there was a pair of thick slipper-like socks waiting on the chair, wrapped around a warm stone. One of their medics-- a big Samoan guy who’d been a paramedic, two full sleeves of tattoos-- caught me when I left the room, his eyes and voice and movements gentle, and I winced, wondering how badly Thomas had bullied him, or if I really just looked that awful.

He re-bandaged me, using a stinging, alcoholic antiseptic on the bite. It was healing well, for being roughly self-bandaged on the run before someone got a look at it and bandaged it properly, and then being ignored for a week, but it wasn’t pretty. He told me to keep an eye out for infection: my attacker had been eating like a wild animal, he might have had bacteria in his mouth like a wild animal, he said. The comparison was actually a little comforting. ‘Wild dog bites man’ doesn’t jar the brain like ‘possessed human bites man’ does.

After, freshly bandaged and scrubbed, I’d thought the heat and clean water had chased off the worst of it, so I sat down in a quiet corner with Murphy to report over beer, a few pieces of greasy, delicious goose, and thin slices of bread (and honest-to-God, butter, from the sheep, and there’d be more in the spring since the Damnsheep had apparently knocked up the entire stock of ewes). Mouse curled around my chair like a big shaggy bulwark against the encroaching universe, and I started to talk to her about it.

“You know how you just wanted a name...?”

“You charged up there and wound up killing it,” she sighed, shaking her head. “I figured. It’s okay. Just walk me through what happened, and I’ll get some training in place for my deputies so we can handle it if it happens again.”

I nodded and described my arrival, my meeting with Delta team, my stay in Fort Refuge. I was doing well, got through Chief’s death with only my gut turning to ice, then I got to meeting Linda and my throat locked down; I couldn’t get another word out. It wasn’t a magical bind. That would have been easier, in some ways.

“Harry?” she said, warily, pushing carefully like only old friends can.

“...the case went bad, Murph,” I said, strangled, staring at my plate. She scooted her chair around next to me, her small hand strong on my shoulder; I folded down across the table and she rubbed calming circles on my back as I cried.


Chapter Text

May, that night

 

I try not to think about those last days if I can help it.

That night, it had been nice. It had been good weather for May, the sky big and blue during the day, the sun gold and warm enough to take the teeth out of the winds off the lake. I’d been working on Demonreach, clearing space around the old lighthouse, patching up the worst holes in the roof of the little keeper’s cottage, the boathouses, rebuilding the walls, camping out in a sleeping bag. It was easy to lose track of myself out here, to get lost in the constant, unbroken stream of information from the island, the millions of little and hundreds of bigger lives that called it home, the rocks and plants and water, to lose the mental boundaries of myself, the sensation of time passing in units other than heartbeats, in daylight, erosion and centuries. I was glad for Mouse and Bob’s company, the occasional touches and chatter that kept me grounded.

“You could just live in Winter, boss,” Bob reminded me that night, me on the pier drinking my way through a bottle or three of Mac’s finest, breathing in the sunset, the rustling wind in all the May flowers, the crickets, the heat escaping from the rocks and water. Mouse draped across the pier beside me like a living bear rug, gnawing away on a rawhide-- one of the last, and I was almost out of groceries. We were due for a trip to the mainland in the morning. I’d drop by to pick up Molly’s homework, see how her research project was going, maybe see if Murphy was home to visit or grab a bite and catch up...

“Right, Bob,” I said, snorting, pulled out the old stand-by conversation like a folded letter, ink faded, creases almost tears. “And what am I going to do with you? Leave you here? Stick you in a hole in the ground and come visit whenever I’m feeling lonely?”

“Which is different from your old lab how, boss?”

But he was joking, and it had been enough years that the pang of losing my old apartment, my old lab and all my stuff didn’t sting quite like it used to, so I reached down gave him a noogie. “If you don’t like Demonreach, I could ask Thomas if we could move back onto the Water Beetle again.” You haven’t seen pitiful until you’ve seen a seasick skull.

Bob sputtered. “I see you’re taking up torture as a hobby now. I’d prefer it risk aware and consensual myself, but do you want me to add ‘pulling the legs off of flies’ to your online dating profile? There’s a whole S&M market you could break into-- although they keep you pretty busy in faerie, huh?” He leered, and I sighed.

I’d dropped a few habits in Winter, like serial monogamy, and picked up a few more, like following through when I thought someone was attractive and they returned the sentiment and wanted to let me know, regardless of sex, gender, or species. What can I say. Death, Winter, and an initial self-perception of ‘woe, woe is me, I’ve sold myself to the not really Dark side so I guess I’ll just spiral into a cycle of sex and debauchery now’ can change a few things. “For the last time, Bob. I’m not writing it all down for you.”

“I’m not asking for your memoirs,” he protested. “Just a little bedtime story now and then! Dear Penthouse,” he started, “you’ll never believe what happened to me. It all started when-- now you go, Harry.”

Mouse sighed and flomped his head down on Bob, covered the skull in his jowl and fur, pulling his rawhide over with a paw, undeterred by Bob’s sudden screech.

“Call off your hound! He’s drooling on me! Harry, uncle! I never thought you’d stoop to doggy breath!”

“You don’t have a sense of smell, Bob.”

“I have my dignity! I am not an animal.”

“Maybe Mouse doesn’t want to live in Faerie either,” I said, and Mouse gave a sigh that sounded like agreement. “See?”

“I wasn’t serious about that anyway,” he sulked, under his blanket of dog face.

“Then why are you pushing me, Bob?” I frowned. It was an old argument, sure. Nothing serious, just something one of us pulled out from time to time to fill space. But something was different about his tone now, the unexpected defensiveness. It pulled at my nerves like a loose thread, made the back of my neck prickle. “None of us want to go. Why bring it up?”

There was a suspicious silence from Bob, and even Mouse pulled off after a moment, tipping his head like a fuzzy silent film star.

“I was just checking,” he finally said sullenly.

Something in his voice made my back stiffen. I put my beer bottle down, twisted to get a better look at him. “Checking what, exactly. Because it sure wasn’t if I wanted to pack up on the human race and move to Faerie.” I blinked, felt my face freezing up like the little spark of Mab’s power in the back of my head. “...Is that what you were checking on? Really, Bob. That’s what you think? That I’m just going to up and go Lloyd Slate on you?”

“So I want a little warning when you finally go Team Winter all the way. Sue me,” he said defensively. “I’d maybe like it if you had a plan in place. You know. ‘Dear bodacious blond wizard slash model, in the event that I don’t come back from Winter, please look after my skull.’”

“A plan,” I snapped, flung my arms out, gestured at the lighthouse and out buildings. “You think this isn’t a plan? I’m just taking up carpentry as a hobby? Hell’s bells, are you that eager to get rid of me, Bob? Sorry I don’t have the right parts to keep your attention.” I cupped my hands in front of my chest, jiggling imaginary breasts.

“Knights always turn. Even Mr. Won’t You Be My Neighbor Reuel lived in Summer. You think he stayed in that apartment building full time? You’ll leave. I’m okay with that. I just want somewhere to go.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“Boss...” Bob turned slowly on the dock, the skull spinning creepily in place. “If she calls you, you can’t say no.”

“But I’ll come back!”

“When she lets you.”

“What do you want me to do!” I ran a hand through my hair, pushed up to my feet to pace out some angry energy, grabbed my beer and drained it on the way up.

“...I want you to think about finding someone who can take over. That’s all. Joint custody, if you want. Maybe the cupcake-- maybenotthecupcake,” he said quickly as I whirled on him, beer bottle clenched like a weapon in my fist. “Maybe someone from the Paranet. Hey, girls girls girls, it would make you really popular--”

Rage boiled up into my throat and choked me. I’d known I’d lose people when I took the Knight gig. Knew it was coming, eventually, and I’d been lucky so far. The other shoe was going to drop sometime. I’d known my old life was gone for good. I hadn’t realized it would start with Bob, of all people. That on a nice spring night, he’d tell me that he wanted to start seeing other wizards. It stung deep.

“Boss, don’t be a jerk about this,” he said, voice nervous and defiant. “It’s practical, that’s all. I can still help you out on cases--”

“What cases, Bob? There are no cases. There is no office. There is no lab. What do I need you for anymore, anyway?” I ground out. “After all, I’m going to be so busy sitting on Mab’s lap, why would I need a lab assistant? I won’t be doing anything important.” I threw down the beer bottle-- Demonreach telling me in the back of my mind that it had shattered, I didn’t care-- and picked up his skull with exaggerated care. “Let me find you somewhere nice and away from nasty old me. We’ll start tonight.”

“Boss. Boss, you’re being stupid you’re thinking with your glands don’t do anything hasty boss--”

There was a boathouse nearby, my current camping out spot, and I stormed over there, dropping Bob none-too-gently on my sleeping bag on the floor, and stalked back to finish my case of beer alone. I knew he was still talking, the way I knew everything that was happening on Demonreach, but I tuned him out, let him mix in with the buzz of everything else on the island, deer and bobcat and all the insects and little scurrying rodent types, the plants growing and streams trickling and the shape of the wind over the trees.

It was a beautiful night, for all I felt like noticing it. Crystal clear sky, deep and dark up top, twilight grey where the sun had just disappeared, the early stars shining, competing with the faint glow of the city across the lake, right at the horizon.

Something tracked out of the corner of my eye, gone when I looked-- I’d thought it might be a shooting star, but it was probably a trick of the light. I looked up just in time to catch another one-- and another.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I didn’t know why. I’d seen meteor showers before.

My head went suddenly quiet as Demonreach, the animals and insects, slowed down. The ants didn’t notice, but the flying things did, the bees starting to go in aimless, confused circles, the early bats flooding back to their homes. Bob was yelling, now, panicked, and Mister was bolting in my direction with his fur on end. Mouse was staring at the sky with his ears back. I could feel the island, the genius loci, rumbling, uneasy, a low bass shudder that was picking up, because something was very, very wrong--

”Too early for this this isn’t right Harry there’s something coming Harry Harry we have to get into the Nevernever Harry” yelled Bob in the boathouse, and I could hear it as easily as I could hear the birds waking up and fluttering worriedly in the trees all the way across the island.

“Bob!” I shouted, knowing he couldn’t hear me. “I’m coming!” Mouse huffed and bounded to his feet at the top of the pier. I felt Mister streak into the boathouse, wrapping around Bob’s skull, hissing and spitting at nothing.

“Pardon me, young man, I hate to mention,” said a voice from the water, and I turned. There was a fae bobbing in the lake at the end of the pier, a pleasant expression on its ugly, piggy face. The merrow doffed his red cap at me. “But the Queen needs your attendance right at this moment.” There was tension in his voice, a note of panic under the friendly highland brogue.

“Just a sec. I have to go get--”

“I’m sorry, Knight, but we’ve got no time for that.” He surged out of the water and onto the pier, standing strangely on bowed legs, and wrapped a webbed hand tight around my shoulder. “Right now, and I’m sorry,” he said, and I think he meant it. I couldn’t break his grip before he heaved both of us off the pier-- my last impression of Demonreach was the animals starting to panic, of a wave of ear-popping pressure and strange staticky energy crackling over it, of Mister huddled against Bob, and of Mouse surging across the pier.

Then everything went quiet as we sunk under the water, the merrow’s magic allowing me to breathe and sink like a stone as long as he had a grip on me.

The surface of the water roiled as nearly three hundred pounds of dog cannonballed in, and I reached up and caught Mouse’s collar just before we sunk into different waters, the portal to Winter.


Chapter Text

June dawned soft and damp at the Fort, the sun rising with some honest-to-god birdsong, a little ball of pale gold climbing up from the east. There was a purple wash to the clouds, a bit of extra rose to the lighter grey peeking over the Fort walls, promising clearer skies and actual sunlight as the day lengthened. The grass, what there was of it-- mostly weeds, poking through the spaces between the salvaged cement and sidewalk blocks laid out over the mud in the courtyard, even the apocalypse wasn’t going to keep a good dandelion down-- was still beaded with last night’s gentle rain, the wet weather continuing from the winter, and maybe even a little bit of dew. It soaked my ankles reassuringly, seeped through the old pair of shoes of mine I’d found under John’s bed last week.

Murphy had actually come back to the Fort later than me-- she’d taken Marcy and a handful of deputies and struck off north right away, spreading the info about wendigo killings, the whys and whats and how-to-kills; she’d only gotten in last night, eyes heavy, face lined with the long winter. Luccio had taken her and dumped her into bed after only the briefest debriefing, and now the forge was smoking, the bang-bang-bang of Luccio’s hammer beating out a working rhythm for all of us building the new windmill.

Mouse was helping herd-- we all worked here, even the dogs-- but I knew he was close. I wasn’t worried. I didn’t really have to worry about too many things here. Not that there weren’t things to worry about: John and the food distribution and allocation guys had equations and a handbook as big as my fist; there were always sentries at the gates and doors and in the watchtowers and at the walls; some days you could practically feel the way everything was stacked up against your survival, the elements and all the hungry things and, no matter what you did, time. But as powerful as those jaws were, they didn’t come with teeth, and they weren’t aimed at your face. They were manageable. They were life; noisy, smelly, messy human life. It was nice, in a crowded, busy way.

In a lot of ways, I’d come home. Back to noise, back to less food than I’d like and more bodies than was always comfortable. Back to people. The fact that John had actually apologized to me, actually copped to being wrong for once-- that helped. But I’d have come back anyway. I had come back anyway. I hadn’t been in the right either, not entirely.

Nothing like seeing exactly what I could become if I decided to go all the way Winter to kick a guy back onto the straight and narrow-- give or take half a year to mull it over. Some wounds took longer to heal than others, even if you knew they were on the mend. But Danny’d reminded me of what I wasn’t willing to give up, what I had to keep fighting for, and I was thankful in a quiet, scared way. I hadn’t talked to anyone but Murphy about it, and even she didn’t know what the Weetigo had shown me. I’d have to rip off that bandage sooner or later-- for now I’d just indulge myself in being tired and human and sulky and not a skinsuit for a personified force of isolation and starvation.

“Coming through!” someone bellowed. “Water call!”

I straightened up, licking my parched lips, suddenly realizing, now that someone had mentioned it, how dry and thirsty I was-- good time for it.

The figure hauling the wheelbarrow with the barrel of water in it was a hard one to miss. Six and a half feet tall, half of that again wide, strawberry blond curls that managed to catch the pale early light-- my eyes lit up. “Hank Leighton.” I put on my best southern belle. “As I live and breathe.”

He blinked, coming to a stop, rapping the barrel with his knuckles to call us grunts over to hydrate ourselves, and gave me a long look over the crowd of thirsty people. His face was screwed up in confusion, but it slowly started to clear.

“...Harry Dresden,” he said, the name sounding like it was coming from far away. Another blink. “Huh. Dresden!” He shook his head sharply. “Sorry. Sorry. It was... hey, so you’re some kind of Knight, I hear.”

“Whatever they told you, only the good parts are true,” I said, offering a cautious smile. Looked like the Refugees had forgotten a lot more than the Ways between here and there. I could almost see the memories dredging up, Hank’s sudden frown, the way he jerked his head, once, the twitch of his hands.

“Yeah. Sure.” He snorted, and shouldered into the sea of people to fill me up a plastic cup of water, pull me off to one side. I tied not to stare at his hands. They looked good. A little swollen, maybe, fingers not all perfectly straight, but. Good. “How are you doing? Jeff was going to ask about you when we got here, but it sort of...”

“Yeah. It’s okay. The drink of the gods packs a punch.”

“Still, I can’t believe I forgot.” He frowned, shook his head. “I’ve picked up a lot here. You got us a really good deal. Most of our memories intact, nobody promised anybody any kids, none of us had to stay behind....” The look he gave me was almost accusatory, mostly considering, a little worried-thankful. He’d learned at the Fort, knew what kind of debt I could demand he and the rest of the Refugees pay up on. “You pulled some strings.”

“Ran into some old friends,” I said, shrugged and took a sip of water, trying not to gulp it all down in one go. It was an old cup, salvaged from somewhere, because I was willing to bet John hadn’t had a collection of pale pink plastic glasses with the Disney Princesses on the sides before the world ended. Maybe from the second estate, the one to the west that had been undergoing a slow reclamation for the past few years, and apparently a fast and bloodless takeover in the year I’d been gone. “They were willing to help. ...You probably don’t remember them.”

His eyes squinched, I could see the effort it took, the fog pushing aside. “I’ve heard about you, too. The Winter Knight. That’s you. They said you were here.” His forehead creased, and I didn’t envy him the mental effort of connecting things he knew and things he knew that he knew through the haze of Gard’s mead.

“I’ve been away for a while.”

He gave me a look, less subtly disapproving and more overtly exasperated than the other redheaded giant who used to live in these parts. ...I had to figure out how to break it to John, soon. “Yeah. I could tell, by the way you weren’t here.”

“It was a little longer than that. But hey. Here I am.” I looked around, wanting to see other familiar faces-- I thought I’d have seen more, but with them not remembering me and as hectic as my reunion with the Fort had been this past week-and-some, my time split this way and that by old friends and trying to help where ever I could and only a little monopolized by John, it was more than possible I could have slipped past people who were just acquaintances. “How are you guys? Settling in?”

He paused. “Eh. Mostly. Some people took off as soon as the snow cleared a little, to see if any of the militias down South were still holding on. Not everyone was comfortable here.”

I tried not to judge. Heck, it wasn’t like Murphy loved being here, either. Living in the hold of guy who’d admit to being a tyrant in casual conversation was probably kind of a shock, even if the different, well, lifestyle and expectations weren’t enough of a strain on routines that had been dug in deep. “Wight,” I guessed.

“Him and a group, most of Lima, some of the maintenance and carpentry guys.” Hank nodded. “Julie Berton got recruited by a deputy who came through this winter, she’ll be leaving with Sheriff Murphy for training soon. And Kate Berton, her sister in law? She’s with the acolytes of Ammorachius now, Travis went with her to live with them.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Mrs. Smith went with her too. Said she wanted to keep an eye on her, but mostly I think...” He shrugged again. “She liked it here, Mrs. Smith. Got along with Baron Marcone really well. But she was getting cabin fever by the end.” His mouth pursed seriously. “That’s not like her. She was always a homebody, she and the Reverend never travelled. Maybe she got tired of it.”

I blinked, thought of Mrs. Smith in a way I hadn’t for the last six months, because I’d been tired and hurt and an asshole like that, not because I had the benefit of some Asgardian alcohol. I saw that lonely, small place she’d lived in behind my eyes-- another glimpse of someone’s soul that I couldn’t forget, a memory that wouldn’t fade, there the minute my mind touched it-- and wondered what it looked like now that she’d faced the unknown and come out herself on the other side. Not that I’d ever know of course, one time only deal and all, but I could hope she’d found some peace.

“And you’re okay? How’s Jeff? Delta?”

“Good and good. They all stayed, except Travis-- and Sean. He used to be a home brewer, Before, and he got sort of a job offer from this guy in downtown Chicago--”

“Mac,” I said, pleased. “I hope he gives him back when he’s done. The Fort could use a brewer.” And something like Mac’s recipes, without the hike to get to the Hamlet every night, my taste buds chimed in enthusiastically.

“Yeah,” Hank said, “you know this area pretty well.” He eyed me speculatively and I took another drink because I was thirsty and not because it would let me hide my face a little.

I looked away, wiped at my mouth. “I lived in Chicago, Before. Now I check in sometimes, visit a bit. Can’t stay too long, but make sure every one’s doing okay, that sort of thing.”

“Uhuh,” he said, one eyebrow climbing higher than the other. “‘A bit’ kind of like two weeks? And counting?”

I blinked at him-- had it really been that long? It had been more than a week sure, but... I counted back, and yeah. Give it another two days. “...I had a lot of catching up to do,” I said and sulked at my-- I mean sipped at my water.

That eyebrow bobbed. “So I’ve heard. You want some more?” He tipped his chin at my glass-- Jasmine smiled back at him, I blinked, and held it out. Seconds. I still wasn’t used to that in human settlements. I’d gotten so used to turning back gifts-- because you had to be nice to the visiting Winter Knight even if the visiting Winter Knight actually felt kind of crappy about eating as much as three normal people. But there was enough water for everyone, and would be, and the reservoirs in the city were full of clean meltwater.

“Please.” We’d started early, before the grey morning had begun to creep across the sky and the humidity got a chance to really settle in-- at least, any more than it could after it had showered through most of the evening and night. It was still strange, all the rain, the heavy snow through the winter, the wet air after seven years of stale drought that had only ever been broken by a few spring showers and icy winter snowfall more like frost than proper snow. But it was killer to work through some days, and the heavier the lifting involved, the earlier it was started. Luccio had started when we had, the forge she shared with Charity and Matthew glowing hot across the yard, her hammer banging out time for everyone.

“So how long are you going to be hanging around?” Hank asked, conversational, handing me back a full glass.

“I can’t stay long,” I said, and realized that that wasn’t true. That was what the bang-bang-bang of Luccio’s hammer meant. It meant that I was human now and I’d jumped through the right hoops and the Merlin had agreed not to use me as a lever to pry my friends out of their lives here. “Er. I mean. Um.” I was thrown off balance as I suddenly had to recalculate. The hammering in the background had stopped, and I looked around, trying to clear my head-- Luccio and Charity were having their own break, standing in the muted sunlight and letting the fresh air wash over them. Luccio saw me watching, waved, gave me an encouraging smile.

“...maybe a while,” I said. “Not just here. I have friends at the Hamlet, too, Mac’s Hamlet in the city, places to visit. But I’ll be back, you know.”

“Good,” Hank said decisively, and thumped me-- gently, with measured strength-- on the back.

“Is there enough water in there for two extras?” I tipped my head at the two blacksmiths.

“There’s enough for everyone,” he said seriously, as if he had the numbers to prove it. He probably did. Probably double-checked them. He refilled Jasmine for me and handed me a Hamburgler tumbler too, also full.

“I’ll bring these right back, big guy,” I told him, lifting Jasmine in a semi-salute, careful not to slop any of the water as I crossed the uneven courtyard to the forge. “All right,” I said as I got closer, “I’ve got a princess and a burger thief. Who’s who?”

Charity gave me a long-suffering look and took the nearest one-- Jasmine, but I don’t think she cared. She tipped it up and gave herself one big gulp, then made herself sip, visibly relaxing and enjoying the water. Luccio followed suit, her face pink, sweat on her brow. It made the grey in her hair stand out, the little lines around her eyes and mouth, her body slowly changing with the subtle, constant pressure of her soul knowing her skin was the wrong shape. She’d aged gracefully the first time, but she had aged-- she’d earned it, she’d had a long life and something to show for it. It had been stolen away from her, and now she was taking it back.

She was taller than she used to be, too. I’d noticed before-- almost as soon as I’d really sat down and talked with her, after John and I had made up. It wasn’t a surprise. Her original body had been tall and lean. My gut still went a little cold-- Hank across the yard, Refuge fresh in my mind like it hadn’t been for a while. I forced myself to smile, not to stare at her wrists, wonder how far past the sleeves of her old shirts they might show. It wasn’t the same. “Early morning?” I asked instead.

She drained the last of her water and pressed Hamburgler to her cheek for the faint coolness still in the plastic, slanted a smile at me. “I was awake-- and I had a deal to honor. Would you like to see how it’s coming?”

“Yeah. Er. After I take the glasses back to Hank.”

I’d be lying if I’d said forgotten. I’d packed Murphy’s promise of a Warden’s sword in exchange for my work at Refuge away tight, had only taken it out to look at a few times, careful and gentle so the edges wouldn’t rip when I touched it. It had been something to hope for, something to keep next to the ache of old anger in my chest through the winter until the melt came. Murphy’d been right, last November, when she’d insisted on paying me. Mab had power over me, over what I did-- I’d given her power over what I did, and not without pay off. I couldn’t begrudge her that, but it meant I was bound by the same rules of exchange that bound the fae, and which set the groundwork for a lot of give and take and trade negotiation these days. I couldn’t do Murph a favor without getting something in return-- the sword. But Murphy had done the heavy lifting with Luccio, she’d been the go-between carrying the debt to me, and she had to seal both ends of the deal. So I hadn’t said anything when I’d arrived back at the Fort; Murphy obviously had, though. I didn’t really expect anything less-- from Murphy or Ana. It didn’t pay to leave debts standing.

Charity patted my arm, took Luccio’s glass from her. “I’ll take these back, Harry, but drop by later, we’ve hardly seen you.” We meaning the seven of the Carpenter clan that called the Fort home and whatever collection of strays Charity had collected recently. ...I joke, but she does good work. She’s helped a lot of kids get through some dark nights. I could have used someone like her when I was younger, and all the major cities were still standing then. Hell, I can still use someone like her now.

Luccio opened the door to the forge for me, and a cloud of hot air billowed out, the smell of hot iron and the less familiar, brighter smell of silver. I stepped inside, ducking under the lintel, blinking in the dark. Most of the light came from the fire, although the forge rated an electrical light, enough to show the tools hanging on the wall, the anvils and stacks of wood and coal, the trough of water and the sinks salvaged from Charity’s old set up in the Carpenter’s garage, the work gloves and safety wear hanging on hooks by the door.

“Here.”

I looked down at the silver bar, beaten out into a rough flat, swallowed hard enough she could probably hear it, my ears going loud because this was really big and right in front of me and I was nervous and a Big Girl. “I don’t actually know how to use these all that well. I mean, a little, but I haven’t kept up with the skills. The Sword of Winter is more like a technicality.”

“...That is a very diplomatic way to say euphemism, Harry. Well done.” I spluttered and she smiled, just a little, punched me on the shoulder. “It will be a short sword. Easy to hide, best for close, desperate combat.”

“Ouch. Appropriate. But ouch.”

“Murphy has sparred with you. I asked her about your fighting style.” Luccio gave me an apologetic look. “You need a sword you will use, not a sword you like to think you will use.”

“Be gentle with me. I pulled my ego the other day. It can’t take this kind of heavy lifting.”

“You’re a sweet, fragile flower of manhood,” Luccio agreed. “When Murphy arrived and told me that you had agreed to help us, she mentioned that you did so on the condition that I put my cloak across mud puddles for you, so as to not dirty your dear shoes.”

“If you weren’t making me a sword right now, I’d have to pout at you,” I warned her. “But I guess I’ll bask in the healing glow of the Merlin not treating me like a leper. ...Murph was right about that, wasn’t she? I’m okay to be in polite company again? He’s laying off trying to get everyone to join his special club in Edinburgh?”

A serious nod, her mouth pulling down at the corners. “We have lost too many young people to the Courts in the years between. He cannot alienate our only friendly voices there, or drive off the wizards who remain loyal. An invitation of friendship has been extended to Miss Mallory as well, and Wizard Carpenter.”

“...what did she say? Molly?”

Luccio pursed her lips. “She is young. I do not hold her words against her.”

That bad. I winced.

“It isn’t hopeless, Harry. It will be difficult... it will be difficult for you,” she said. “Mab does not share lightly. But it is not hopeless, if you are careful.”

“I know. There are going to have to be some boundaries.” I nodded. “I’m working on an oath. Something that will hopefully satisfy Mab and the Merlin. Something about... not raising the sword of Winter except at the Queen’s bidding. Something something. Shalt and hast et cetera.” And that wasn’t just talking about duels at dawn, either. Swords are symbols, and my big old seal of office meant I got preferential treatment in Faerie, because I could whip out my rank any time. With a magical chastity belt on... some of the Ways I’d been able to go through unchallenged were going to be a lot less friendly. Some of the favors I’d gotten because I was a conduit for Mab would dry up. I’d have a lot less to eat. Have to start wearing coats again, make a real effort to put away the Winter chill, to stop letting things be easy instead of human.

But I’d be cold and starving with my friends, and frankly, it’s not like I haven’t dealt with cold and hungry before.

Luccio frowned. “...Put in a self defense clause.” A pause. “And defense of others. In fact, don’t make any oaths until you’ve run the rough drafts by Bob and the Baron, or Neillson-- he was a lawyer, Before.”

“Doesn’t that kind of take the romance out of an oath?” I’d been expecting grand sacrifice, a moment of decision, not... legalese.

“Tragedies are romantic, Harry. We want you alive.” She gave me a look shot full of-- well, care, meaning cautious and meaning friendly and concerned about my general well-being.

“...Do my best, Ana.” I dipped my head, a little embarrassed. “Hey, uh, got to go back, get that new windmill up.”

She sighed, gave me a slightly exasperated look, and gripped me firmly by the collar to pull me down into an almost paternal forehead kiss. It was the most physical contact we’d had since... Before, before, and it felt honest and comforting; a promise of friendship, of carrying arms together. “Then go on, but don’t be a stranger.”

I waved at her as I headed back out to flex some magical and some human muscle-- the support structure for the new windmill was almost done, and if the wind kept up like it had been for the past couple years and the gearheads had adapted their salvaged generator as well as they swore, it would take a lot of the strain off the dwindling fuel resources. When the gas ran out we’d still have electricity until they had enough plants to turn them into fuel again, the lights would stay on and the Fort would adapt with it, growing, changing, surviving. People survived. And I was one of them. I’d survive right along with them.

I wasn’t ten steps out of the forge before someone was bellowing ‘Harry!’, and Jeff was coming up at a run, grinning to see me. There was something like sunlight dawning high and warm, and it was almost summer and we were turning towards it, and there was so much to do and hands to do it with.


Chapter Text



This is an image of Thura Shieldsplitter. She is an Afghani woman wearing her hijabi, combat boots, and viking-style armor under a tactical vest. She has her helmet under one arm, and an assault rifle strapped across her back. She is hardcore BAMF.