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Dirty Dancing

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We ended up in a strip of greenery between the Lakefront Trail and the harbour walkway, not very far from where Marcone and I had spent the night. I felt my face grow hot again. Really? I thought. Really, Harry? Get a grip.

As locations for delicate spellwork went, it wasn't ideal. But with the little trees to the east and the big trees to the west, it at least wasn't quite out in plain sight. I set my things down and picked the most level patch of ground I could find. Then I flicked open my little pen knife and started cutting a large circle into the ground. This was the easy part, and I used it as a kind of moving mediation, clearing my mind and focussing my attention. If I tried to do this with Marcone on the brain, I'd make a mistake, and I couldn't afford that.

Once I finished the circle, I scored a five-pointed star inside it. Then I took a spool of wire out of my portable thaumaturgy kit. Thaumaturgy is noisy—and occasionally messy—when it goes wrong, and my apartment has been blown up enough times, thank you. So Molly and I went on the occasional field trip, and I'd picked up a fisherman's tackle box to hold what we needed, thus freeing up space in my backpack for more sandwiches. It's totally worth having Molly as an apprentice just for her mom's cooking.

To a casual glance, the inside of the kit looks like a tackle box, too, although there are hardly any hooks. Lots of string, wire, and bright bits of metal, though. Also powders, beads, and stones. I unspooled the wire and pressed it into the grooves I'd just made, where it wouldn't catch the sunlight. The perfect circle is always best, but they're a bitch to freehand. The really important part is joining the ends, which I did, although I didn't make the effort of will necessary to close it yet.

I put the wire away and dug a wad of pipe-cleaners out of the bottom of the kit. Then I sat down cross-legged inside the circle and started to fold them. Pipe-cleaners are awesome, by the way. Cats love them, toddlers love them, they come in a variety of whimsical colours, and they'll hold a shape. Plus they're really cheap. I don't know how I lived so long without pipe-cleaners.

Today, I tried to stick with the greens, browns, and yellows, frequently consulting a much-crumpled piece of paper. I wished Bob were here to double-check, but being a spirit of air and intellect instead of simply an animated skull, he doesn't do that well in daylight.

"Do I recognise that?" Marcone asked me after I'd finished arranging the twisted pipe-cleaners in a circle maybe ten feet across and started making another outside it, dropping smooth stones from one of my duster pockets between its symbols.

"Assuming you somehow read the police reports during werewolf-palooza way back when, probably, yes."

"You think our opponent is that dangerous."

"I think I don't want to take any chances," I said.

Marcone was standing outside the outer circle, even with me and facing the opposite direction. He was, I realised, watching my back.

"I realise it pains you when we're both on the same side, but you're right to take action," Marcone said, voice pitched too low for Hendricks, covering the other side, to hear.

"It's not that. It's—" I made a face. "I'm sure Gard has told you all about the White Council."

"Of course."

Of course.

"Well, they have laws. Break 'em and you're dead. Transforming others is number two."

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Marcone nod. My hands kept bending wires covered in acrylic fuzz. "You are a Warden now, sworn to uphold these laws."

"Regional commander, actually. Not that I do much commanding."

"That blood on your cloak was from such an execution. I was unaware anyone had been practicing black magic in Chicago." There was a tightness to Marcone's voice, like he was pissed off something might have happened in Chicago without his knowing about it.

"Wasn't local; Chicago's off-limits to the Reds. Safe as anyplace," I told him evenly.

"Wouldn't the Council usually handle such matters at their headquarters? One would assume they were sufficiently protected."

"Marcone, if I understood how the Senior Council thought, I'd shoot myself in the head," I said testily.

My hands kept moving. And, for some reason, I kept talking.

"I figure with your inability to restrain your stalkerish impulses, you probably know as much about my childhood as anyone." Well, any vanilla mortal. Actually, I didn't have a clue what the official records said after Justin took me in. God knew what he'd actually signed, although it had been legitimate enough for the school; I supposed he could have just mind-whammied everyone. And had the Council even bothered with the mundane paperwork? Nobody had declared me dead in the fire, at least.

And I had no idea what Gard had been able to dig up on me. Pretty much everyone on the White Council knows who I am and what my story is. I mean, for a while there I was the most interesting thing since sliced bread. I don't care how long you live: people are people, and people love a good scandal. But wizards mostly only talk to other wizards. Gard was...not a member of the Council, anyway. Probably not entirely human.

"The house fire. I noticed it was somewhat thematic."

John motherfucking Marcone, everybody.

"Yeah, well, it helped explain the charred corpse."

Marcone went very, very still. I could feel him standing there, waiting and thinking furiously.

"There were reasons," I went on. "You know. Obviously, or I wouldn't be here. But it was a possibility for a while."

"You said Wizard McCoy was your mentor," Marcone said after a stretched silence, during which I moved on to the third ring of symbols.

"Second mentor."

Justin DuMorne had been my first. He adopted me. He told me I was special, when nobody else thought I was worth spit. He taught me magic, brought me Elaine. I loved him like a father, when it hurt too much to love my real father because he'd died and left me so alone.

When I was sixteen, he tried to kill me. Miraculously, although I'd hardly been more of a candidate for divine intervention back then than I was now, I'd managed to kill him instead.

But the upshot was that my introduction to the wider supernatural world had been with a bag over my head. I could still remember how completely it had blocked the light, the smell of mothballs, like it had been pulled out of a drawer somewhere of others just like it, one more in an endless line. Nothing of importance at all. I didn't even have a face.

I realised my hands were still. Gathering up the leftover pipe-cleaners, I stood to survey my work. More visible than scratching in the dirt would have been, but also more stable, and I had to hope the sorcerer would be in too much of a hurry to notice.

Satisfied, I prepared what I would need for the second part of the trap: a power-blocking ritual. Plan A was for Toot-toot to find the Bird Sorcerer before he could change the next kid and pluck one of his feathers. Bird Sorcerer would almost certainly chase Toot, who would lead him to me. I'd trap Bird Sorcerer somewhere in the overkill circle, which would give me time to work the power-blocking spell. Then we could bundle him off somewhere without fear of magical attack or escape, find out where in the Nevernever he'd stashed the kids, and call the Wardens for a little bloody execution and cake. Hooray.

Plan B was essentially the same as Plan A, except it assumed we couldn't save the seventh kid. In that case, the Alphas and the faeries were supposed to catch the kid-turned-bird and we'd worry about turning him back later. Hence the butterfly nets.

As with most of my plans, it went wrong almost as soon as I'd finished putting it together. I recognised the greasy acridity of the Bird Sorcerer's magic as it boiled up.

"So much for Plan A," I muttered. "Marcone, get out of sight."

I peered through the trees. I could just pick out something circling in the air above Grant Park—flying the circle, scribing it with movement. The smell-taste of the spell intensified, and I clenched my hands into fists. I was too far away; I'd known I would be. Couldn't have people walking all over those painstakingly-shaped symbols. I'd hoped—but Bird Sorcerer had moved too fast, and I had to be out here to nab him. It takes more than just a haphazard drop of blood to activate a greater circle of summoning.

I couldn't see Toot-toot against the blue of the sky, but the black dot changed course abruptly. Coming my way. I adjusted my position along the outermost circle and crouched down, my eyes half-lidded, tracking their progress more with my magical senses than my vision. My gathered will was a pressure on my temples and the back of my neck. I took out my pen-knife again and pricked my finger, careful not to let any of the blood drip yet.

There was another flare of tainted magic, a tenuous web reaching out in all directions. Oh shit, I thought. I probably should have seen that coming.

Birds rose into the air. They came out of the trees that were everywhere in this part of town. They came from their roosts in the odd architectural corners of Chicago's skyscrapers. They came from the streets and sidewalks where they scrounged after the scraps and leavings of humanity. They came from the air above the long lake. Gulls, pigeons, crows, raptors, falcons, songbirds. They took to the air with a sound like a million drums.

And they were all real.

Toot was close enough I could see him swerving wildly to avoid the fastest and nearest birds, already swooping on him. I tried to keep track of Bird Sorcerer, but his energy was everywhere now. Hell's bells, I thought desperately. Come on, Harry. Think.

Birds were closing in on every side, chasing the glowing orb of Toot's faerie light. But Bird Sorcerer wasn't a thrall: he was the one doing the thinking. He'd want to cut Toot off—and so, ipso facto, he'd still be coming straight at me.

I closed my eyes and concentrated on the circle to the exclusion of everything else. Between the darkness behind my eyelids and the noises overhead closing in rapidly, setting aside my fear was hard work, and I distantly felt myself break out in a sweat.

Attuned as I was, I felt it immediately when the spike of intent crossed the circle. I squeezed blood and will out into the form I'd cut into the grass without even having to open my eyes, and as the pentacle came awake, its lines crossing the concentric rings contained inside, they all sprang to life at once, before Bird Sorcerer could make it out the other side. The figure of High Magic hummed, bright and solid to my magical perceptions.

I opened my eyes and recoiled. For a second, all I could see was the corpse of a young woman sprawled across another greater circle of summoning, her blood soaking into a hardwood floor, its scent not quite masked by the lingering traces of incense.

"Harry!"

Something hit me in the shoulder and knocked me the rest of the way down. I didn't go gracefully, one leg bent beneath me at a painful angle. Hands were pushing my head down, and I felt the electric buzz of another wizard.

"Hey!" I objected, flailing mostly with my elbows.

"Ow!" I have sharp elbows. Something slammed into the body above mine. "Owfuck!"

"Grasshopper?" I paused in my struggles.

Molly's chant came out a little squeaky, but her shield stopped the next impact. Molly is much more sensitive than I am, but the brute-force stuff comes a lot harder for her. I'd explained the theory to her and had her try to deflect some pencil erasers, but I'd been holding off really drilling her until winter, when we could use snowballs.

"Shit, Harry, they're freaking out!" Molly gasped.

"What? No, he should be cut off." I managed to lift my head, expecting to see Bird Sorcerer trying to break through the circle, either still as a bird or in his natural form.

What I saw was a foreshortened view of a woman sprawled on the grass. She was small, with short, greying blonde hair, and her face was fixed in a fierce expression, eyes wide open and staring. They were light blue, almost grey. The angle of her head on her neck couldn't have been mistaken for anything natural.

"No," I said softly. "But...no, it wasn't supposed to—"

Molly bit out a sharp cry as something broke through her shield. She tugged at me, but I was frozen in shock.

"Get her out of here!" Marcone growled.

I jerked, practically ripping down the pentacle-circle, spilling all the energy out. There was no flicker from the little figure with the mad eyes. No life, no magic, not even a death curse.

I felt another set of hands close on my arm and haul me upright. My vision went hazy, the sound of wings filling my head, which was empty of all other thought. I was distantly aware of Marcone barking orders, and then I was being shoved inside an SUV. The door slammed shut, and the hellish clamour became abruptly muted and distant.

"Harry. Harry, put your head down." There was a hand on the back of my neck. I acceded to its gentle pressure until my head was down between my knees. The hand stayed where it was, its weight somehow comforting.

"Are you all right?" Molly's anxious voice asked. "Harry? What did you do? Get off her!"

"Miss Carpenter, be quiet." I knew vaguely that that should upset me, but all I could see was the dead woman in the circle.

"Breathe." It was Marcone's voice, I realised. I was hugging myself, wheezing unevenly, just this side of hyperventilation.

"It wasn't supposed to happen like that," I said. "She was just—"

"I know. It happens sometimes. Just try to breathe."

Stars. Breathe. Yes. I squeezed my damp eyes shut and fought to bring my body back under control. I'd had a shock; I hadn't been expecting it. But I had seen people die before. I'd even killed a few. I'd been mad enough, on a level I try not to let influence my actions, to kill Bird Sorcerer—Sorceress. Stars above, I'd known the Council was going to execute her for transforming those kids. It had just managed to hit a couple of my buttons, was all. Throw in a house fire and I'd have really flipped my lid.

I pulled myself together. Gradually, I unclenched a little, and I found I didn't have to fight so hard for air. I felt a faint snuffling at my face and discovered Mouse regarding me with concern. Apparently deciding I needed some more tangible form of reassurance, he licked basically my entire face with one swipe of his gigantic dog tongue. I didn't quite manage a smile at that, but something eased inside me.

Marcone's hand was still on my neck, but he didn't try to keep me down. It lingered there for a beat once I was upright again, then withdrew. Now that my eyes were focussing again, I looked up to find Molly watching me and Marcone with huge eyes. I was sitting between the two of them in the back seat of an SUV, Mouse wedged into the space between the middle row of bucket seats.

I realised a little belatedly that I had just crossed some sort of line with Marcone. Then I remembered what other lines I'd crossed with Marcone and decided to stop thinking about any of it and carry on like everything was normal.

It occurred to me that we were moving. "Hey, where are we going?"

"A building I own. It's not far, and we can park off the street. Unless you had something else in mind."

"Harry? Are you okay?" Molly's gaze was darting back and forth between me and Marcone. She looked almost as close to wigging out as I had been a minute ago.

"Yeah, sorry about that, grasshopper. Setting a bad example." I shook my head. "It's all right. Criminal slimeboss is on our side this time."

Molly sat back; she didn't look very convinced. "If you say so."

"I need to get in touch with Billy and Toot. And Murphy, hell's bells; I left all sorts of—"

"It's been taken care of," Marcone said.

"Dammit, Marcone!" It was good to be back in familiar territory. From the expression on Marcone's face, he knew it, too.

"Mister Hendricks was able to recover your staff and supplies. The body and the rest of it should be cleared by now. Due to the generalised avian disturbance, it's probable no one even witnessed what happened."

"The what now?"

"The birds." Molly crossed her arms, glaring at Marcone. "They lost it about when you closed the circle. Is there a bad guy still out there?"

"For certain values of 'bad guy' and 'out there', but that's not what happened to the birds. I don't know what Bird Sorceress was using to control them like that, but when it cut out all at once, I think it kind of scrambled them. Hopefully they'll go back to normal."

"Or else Chicago becomes Bodega Bay?" Well, so maybe Thomas and Inari aren't the only bad influences on my apprentice.

"Well, we could all move to Undertown." There, that was my cheery thought for the day. "Okay, first step is—"

I was interrupted when a hard turn threw me against Molly.

"Motherfucking Christ," Cujo—of course it was Cujo—swore from the driver's seat. "Sorry," he apologised, I assume to Marcone. "Power steering's out."

Oops? Molly and I exchanged a look, still all piled on top of each other, and simultaneously burst out into gales of slightly-hysterical laughter.

"Hey, what's that on your neck? Did you get, like, noshed by a vampire or something?"

I turned bright red. "Um..."

"Wait, did you actually...?" Molly asked in tones of hushed excitement.

Abruptly, I felt the weight of Marcone's gaze on me, even though I couldn't see him. I sagged back into my own seat, covering my eyes with the back of my hand. "It's nothing," I told them both. I let my hand fall.

"Okay, assuming we're not all about to be arrested, I need to call some people and talk to Toot. If I didn't turn him into bird feed," I said, grimacing.

"Never fear, my lady of pizza!" a small voice erupted from somewhere in Mouse's shaggy coat. "Though I was hounded on every side by the vicious foe, I accomplished my mission!"

I blinked as Toot emerged, brandishing a smallish striped feather. It looked like he was hacking his way through a jungle. He shimmied up Mouse's long ruff and sat atop my dog's head. Mouse twitched an ear but otherwise didn't seem to be at all disturbed by being used as a faerie jungle-gym.

"Although to be fair the protector beast helped a lot," Toot allowed. "Here!"

"Great work, guys." I accepted the feather, rolling the quill between my fingers. "Well, it's nothing local. Don't look so surprised, Marcone. I did actually learn more in my misspent youth than how to burp the alphabet."

"I'll try to contain myself," Marcone said drily. "I believe we have arrived."