I always liked to think of myself as an authority on weird shit. You name it, I’d seen it, heard it, met it, killed it, stepped in its doo, or gotten impregnated by it. And God, didn’t I just wish I were kidding.
But even I had to admit the skeletons guarding the doors of an old warehouse in the industrial district were a new one.
There’d been a few strange goings-on – okay, stranger than usual goings-on – in Chicago over the past forty-eight hours. The previous day, I’d killed something that turned out to be an ancient Greek monster. Before it died, it said something about “the half-bloods” being what it was after. I did some asking around, got a general direction, and wound up at the aforementioned warehouse being guarded by some flesh-challenged folks.
Weird shit like that, in my experience, needed checking out. I considered a plan of attack. Even if I could get past the skeletons, the ground floor was probably a bad idea, since whoever or whatever was inside appeared to be expecting trouble. However, there was an exterior stair leading up to another entrance, probably to a catwalk, and it was out of the skeletons’ lines of sight – or, at least, I hoped it was. It seemed like as good a chance as any to reconnoiter, so I veiled myself and carefully made my way to the warehouse.
I added a layer of veiling to dampen sound as I climbed the staircase. No curious skeletons appeared, which I took as a good sign. Dealing with the door’s lock was a matter of a few seconds (the traits of a good detective and a good burglar often overlap), and then I was inside.
Nothing attacked me the second I got through the door, which I took as another good sign. I could hear voices, and when I got to the edge of the catwalk, I saw who was talking.
They were kids. Two boys and a girl, none of them looking like they were out of their teens. The girl, who was rocking some hippie-ish fashions and auburn braids, knelt in the middle of a magic circle, but not any type I’d personally come into contact with. Greek lettering was chalked on the inside edge of the circle, and as I turned up my hearing and Listened, I thought the language she was chanting in must be Greek, too.
Off to one side was a tall, blond, surfer-looking dude. He looked like he might be the oldest of the group, but I still wouldn’t have put him at over eighteen. Curiously, he was carrying a bow and arrows, which is not a usual thing in my experience. Something about him reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t quite place it. Mainly, he brought to mind sunny days and vacations in warm places. I instinctively liked him.
Off to the other side, pacing like a caged lion, was a boy who looked about as opposite to Sunny Jim as he could get. He was shorter and slimmer, and he was dressed in all black. His hair, also black, was tied back into a messy ponytail. And he was carrying a sword.
Goths were common in Chicago. Goths carrying swords were . . . actually a bit more common in Chicago than you’d think.
But the sword Goth Boy was carrying made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It was a Greek-style short sword with a leaf-shaped blade, and it was pure black. It almost looked like it was made of solid darkness.
All three of the kids on the ground floor oozed power. If I wasn’t mistaken, though, Goth Boy was the most powerful of them.
The girl said something in another language that had to be a swear. “I’m not getting anything!” she cried in frustration. “It’s like there’s too much interference. Chicago’s such a mess of ley lines and magical confluences . . . I can’t get a clear read on where it could be.” She had a musical Southern accent.
Sunny Jim crouched down outside the circle. “It’s okay, Lou. You tracked it this far; I know we’ll find it.”
“We don’t have a lot of time.” Goth Boy’s voice was about what I’d have expected: low, intense and a little gravelly. “If we stay here too long . . .” The concerned look he threw Sunny Jim was not what I’d have expected.
Sunny Jim waved his concern away. “We’ve still got about a week before things get bad for me.”
Goth Boy didn’t look mollified. He kept staring into the shadows as if he could see something in them that I couldn’t. And I suspected that that assessment was right on the money.
“This isn’t a good place,” he muttered. “Lots of death. Restless spirits.”
Lou was re-drawing part of her circle. “Probably leftovers from the Chicago Mob. I hear they’re rough customers.”
“Anything from our sentries?” Sunny Jim asked.
Goth Boy shook his head. “They haven’t picked up on anything, but if we’re being hunted by empousai, they know how to work the Mist.” He said the word with a capital letter. “We might not get much of a warning, if any.”
So, Goth Boy was responsible for the skeletons, and he could sense death and restless spirits. Lou was trying to find something with magical means, and from the sounds of it, Sunny Jim was on a tight schedule with some not-good consequences.
Goth Boy suddenly stiffened. He said something in what sounded like Greek to the other two, and then he walked straight into a shadow . . . where he disappeared.
I was in the process of figuring that out when I heard a quiet sound behind me, and something very cold rested on my right shoulder.
“Sudden moves would be bad for your health,” said Goth Boy’s voice. “Will! Lou Ellen! I found our spy!”
It’s not that I could cast the greatest veils, but I’d gotten pretty competent with them thanks to teaching Molly. This kid managed to see straight through it and then teleport right behind me. The cold thing I felt was his sword, which was radiating a kind of hungry power. My coat had spells on it that could stop bullets and monster claws, but I wasn’t willing to bet my life that it could stop that sword.
In other words, he had me, and he had me good. I lifted my hands in surrender, letting go of my staff, and dropped the veil.
“Hi,” I said. As an opening gambit, I hoped it was pretty safe.
Goth Boy didn’t seem charmed. “Stand up and turn around, and don’t try anything.”
The sword moved off my shoulder, and I carefully pushed myself to my feet and turned around, keeping my hands in view at all times.
I got a good look at Goth Boy for the first time. He wasn’t very tall, maybe five-seven, five-eight tops, and slim, but the way he held himself and that black sword said this was far from his first rodeo. He was a good-looking kid, too, almost pretty, but in a cold way, like a stone statue. And for some reason, he reminded me strongly of Thomas.
“I’ve got an arrow on him,” Sunny Jim yelled up from the floor. I wasn’t sure I liked him so much anymore.
“How’d he get in without us noticing?” Lou Ellen asked.
Goth Boy glanced at my wizard’s staff. “He’s very tall, white, dark hair . . .” He looked me up and down, and I had a feeling it wasn’t just with his eyes. “Mortal, but feels . . . different, somehow. Has some kind of magical staff.” His gaze became even more penetrating. “He’s been in the Underworld. Maybe spent some time on the shady side of dead. Who are you? Why are you here?” The last two questions were directed to me.
I figured the best defense was a good offense. “I could ask you the same,” I said. “Chicago happens to be my town. You people have been causing ripples, and it’s messing with my schedule.”
Goth Boy gave me an incredulous look. “What, are you Chicago’s resident wizard or something?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
It didn’t look like Goth Boy knew what to do with me any more than I knew what to do with him. Fortunately, before things could get too tense, we were interrupted by monsters.
Goth Boy got the message a few seconds early. His eyes widened, and he shouted, “Empousai!” before disappearing into a shadow. Literally.
“Neat trick,” I muttered. And then things started going bang downstairs.
One of the warehouse doors ripped free of the entrance, and monsters like the one I’d killed the other day came flooding in. And they were, let me tell you, bizarre. They looked like women from the waist up, only with flaming hair, red eyes and vampire fangs. From the waist down, things got stranger. Each had one donkey’s leg and one mechanical bronze leg.
Sunny Jim – Will, I assumed – started shooting arrows into them, and Goth Boy attacked with his black sword. The kid was good. I’ve seen some great swordsmen in my time, and he was up there, going through the monsters like butter. Lou Ellen, the girl, looked like she was gearing up to cast a spell or two.
So, on one side, three mysterious, powerful kids with paranormal abilities. On the other side, weird-ass monsters. The fact that Goth Boy hadn’t summarily executed me when he caught me spying on them made me think the kids were all right.
There was a boom from my side of the warehouse, and I had a feeling it didn’t herald anything good. I cast my lot in with the kids and leaped over the railing.
I hit the ground just as the door on the close side of the warehouse came free. I shouted, “Forzare!” and sent a wave of pure force at it, blasting it back into the monster women. It wouldn’t slow them down for long, but it gave me a chance to get my bearings.
“What the hell are these things?” I yelled above the chaos.
“Empousai!” yelled Will. “Ancient Greek vampires! Don’t listen to them!”
“Got that covered,” called Lou Ellen. She threw something in the air, shouted a word, and the sound of static filled the warehouse. “That should counteract charmspeak. Don’t look ‘em in the eye, either!”
Useful information. Between Will’s arrows and Goth Boy’s sword, and something Lou Ellen had done to make the empousai wander around like they were confused, one side of the warehouse looked secure.
On the other side, my little stopgap measure was giving way to a horde of pissed-off demon women. They could move fast, but their mismatched legs gave me an idea.
“Arctis!” I shouted, and laid down a coating of ice on the warehouse floor under them. The empousai did not like that. They screeched, slid, fell down and bowled into each other. One got up and felt her head.
“My hair!” she cried. The ice had put it out.
“My bad,” I admitted, and then hit her with enough force to throw her straight through the warehouse wall.
“I think I like this guy!” said Will from behind me. There was a thwip-zip, and an arrow went straight through another empousai – hey, what’s the singular, anyway? I don’t know Greek. Another demon lady’s head. She exploded into dust.
“Infriga!” I frosted over two demons who were getting too close. “Forzare!” They burst into flurries.
There was a rumble that shook the ground. I glanced back over my shoulder. Goth Boy and Lou Ellen, with a bronze dagger, were finishing off the empousai on their side, which were tangled in skeletons that had broken through the ground.
I looked a little too long. Will shouted a warning, and I turned around just as one of the demons made a huge leap over her sisters, baring her claws and teeth. Instinctively, I raised my left arm and barely caught her first blow, which hit so hard I knew she’d probably broken something in there. I activated my shield bracelet, throwing her back, and then hit her as hard as I could with my staff. It only pissed her off, but it gave me the time I needed to freeze her.
Will had run out of arrows, but he pulled a couple of bronze throwing knives from his belt and took out two more of the vampires. I discharged the full force of one of my kinetic-energy collectors, blowing another few empousai back through the wall and blasting apart the one I’d frozen. Unfortunately, in the summer heat, my ice coating on the ground was quickly melting.
It didn’t matter. The ground heaved and buckled, and more skeletons grabbed hold of the vampires’ legs. Lou Ellen chanted from beside me, and the last few started looking dazed and confused, as if they didn’t know where they were. One of the empousai snarled, burst into flames and was gone. Where, I didn’t know.
The rest of the demons either followed the one that flamed out or got dispatched quickly enough with the kids’ blades. It was over, leaving a mostly-wrecked warehouse as witness to the fight.
Lou Ellen was staring at me with wide eyes. “Wow. What was all of that? Are you a child of Hecate? Can I see your staff?”
“Hold that thought, Lou,” said Will. He darted past me and barely caught Goth Boy as he collapsed. Will lowered himself to the floor, cradling Goth Boy against him, and glanced over at Lou Ellen. “My bag.”
Lou Ellen shook herself, located Will’s bag and took it over to him. I knelt down by the boys.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
Will touched the other boy’s forehead and the base of his throat, then took one of his hands and examined it. “He overextended himself using his powers, as usual. No major injuries, he’s not actively fading, which is good, but his body temperature’s a little lower than usual, and . . .” He glanced at Goth Boy’s feet, which were literally leaking darkness. A few small cracks appeared in the floor. “He’s expelling darkness. He’ll be fine if he’s not stupid, and gods, what are the odds of that.” Will shook his head, but there was an affectionate little smile on his face.
“I’ll have you to know I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Explaining will take time,” said Will. “Hopefully, we’ll have some.”
Lou Ellen had brought the bag over. She pulled a water bottle full of some kind of iridescent liquid from it, unscrewed the cap and handed it to Will.
“Time to wake up, Nico,” said Will. “Come on, boyfriend. I’ll start with the gooey nicknames if you don’t. Snuggums.”
“Stop that,” rasped Goth Boy, aka Nico. He opened one eye.
“Drink.” Will lifted Nico’s head and shoulders a little and pressed the water bottle to his mouth. Nico took a few obedient swallows. Will turned his attention to a long, shallow cut across Nico’s forehead. “Salve, Lou.” Lou Ellen fished a little pot out of Will’s bag, and he started applying the salve in it to the wound.
Nico opened both eyes and wrinkled his nose. “Stop mother-henning. It’s just a scratch.”
“I’ll stop mother-henning when you start taking care of yourself. You have no idea where those empousai claws have been.”
“Whatever.” Nico pushed himself up to a sitting position, looked woozy, and leaned into Will. Their foreheads touched gently.
Body language doesn’t lie. The two of them were in love. I glanced over at Lou Ellen, who surreptitiously pointed at them and mouthed, “They’re so cute.”
“So!” I said. “Back to where Goth Boy here and I were when all this happened: Who are you kids, what are you doing in my city, and why do you have Ancient Greek vampires all up in your business?”
“Do not call me ‘Goth Boy,’” Nico growled. Will and Lou Ellen smothered grins.
“I suppose introductions are in order,” said Lou Ellen. She held out a hand to me, and I shook it. I felt the buzz of magical power in her, but it was different, like her magic was on a different frequency than mine. “I’m Lou Ellen Castillo. Pleased to meet you. Can I pick your brain about the kind of magic you were doing there? Because that was really impressive!”
“Easy, girl,” said Will. He offered me his hand. “Will Solace.” I shook his hand and, again, felt that odd buzz of power. Will frowned and looked down at my left hand. “You have a cracked ulna in your left wrist. Also a lot of old injuries. Have you actually broken all your ribs?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised at all.” I pushed up my coat sleeve, and sure enough, my wrist was swollen and turning purple. “Damn. I thought I felt something break. Don’t suppose you’ve got something in your bag that’ll fix that?”
“Not in my bag, but . . .” Will took my left hand in his. “May I?”
There was something about him that made me automatically trust him. I felt, on a gut level, that he was exactly as open and friendly as he appeared. “Sure.”
Will gently pressed his right hand against the injury. His skin felt fever hot. He closed his eyes, and then he began to sing in what I guessed was Ancient Greek.
There was barely a melody to his song, but it was eerily beautiful. The heat from Will’s hand sank into my wrist, and the pain – not that much of it made it through the Winter Knight’s mantle – faded away. In a few minutes, Will took his hands away, and there was no sign the injury had ever been there.
“That is one handy talent,” I said. “Thanks.”
Nico handed Will a canteen, and then he moved slightly in front of his boyfriend and stuck out his hand. “Nico di Angelo. Who are you?”
“Charmed, I’m sure.” I gave Nico’s hand a shake. The kid had a good grip, his hand was hard with calluses, and the buzz of power I got from him was more like a sub-audible roar. I also got the impression that I would really regret it if he thought I was threatening Will in any way, shape or form. “I’m Harry Dresden, White Council wizard, Warden, and Winter Knight.”
All three of them sat up and stared at me. “What was that last one?” Will asked.
Strange reaction, and possibly sinister. “I’m the Winter Knight. Queen Mab’s personal errand boy. Why?”
The three of them looked at each other. Lou Ellen pointed at me. “I-I just never expect things to be this easy.”
“We can’t make any assumptions,” said Nico.
“No, but it does make sense,” said Will. “ ‘Find help in a winter night’ at the height of summer? I think we need to check this out.”
I made a T sign with my hands. “Time out. Explanations would be nice.”
Something crashed down nearby, making us all flinch. “Maybe somewhere a little more stable,” Will suggested.
“Yeah, this wouldn’t be the first building I’ve brought down in my time.” I stood up. “I’ve got a safe place, if you’ll trust me.”
Lou Ellen and Will seemed to be on board, but Nico was obviously wary as the collected their things – Will did his best to retrieve every arrow he’d shot and his throwing knives – and left the warehouse with me.
I’d gotten a new car. It wasn’t as sexy as my late, beloved Blue Beetle, but very few cars can be. It was still a vintage VW bug, which was the best car for a wizard like me, but cherry red. I called it the Lady Beetle. I put the boys in the back and Lou Ellen in shotgun; I was always chivalrous that way.
“So, what’s with all the powers?” I asked. I liked to think of myself as tactful and subtle.
“Oh, I’m a daughter of Hecate,” said Lou Ellen.
Hecate, Greek goddess of magic. That part made sense; the rest of it didn’t. “That a coven or something?”
Will chuckled from the back. “I think you’re going to have to start a little further back, Lou.”
Nico, meanwhile hadn’t changed expression or taken his eyes off me since we got in the car. It was fairly unnerving.
“No, I mean my mother is the goddess Hecate,” Lou Ellen explained. “My dad’s a witch, he conjured her, they, um, got along pretty well, and now there’s me.”
I heard a mental record scratch. Was she saying . . ?
“Are you saying you’re the literal daughter of a literal Greek goddess?” I asked.
Lou Ellen grinned. “Now you’re gettin’ it!”
I looked at the boys in the back. Will was smiling, too. Nico continued to glower.
“We’re all Greek demigods,” Will said. “My father is Apollo. Nico’s is Hades.”
“Damn,” I muttered. “Just when you think you’ve heard it all.”
“Hey, you’re something new for us, too,” said Will. “Speaking of which, what’s with all the powers?”
I definitely liked him.
“Well, like I said, I’m a wizard. My mother was a wizard, my dad was a stage magician. Your basic Muggle.”
Will turned to Nico. “I have the strangest feeling this guy’s a big geek.”
“Makes two of you,” said Nico without changing expressions or taking his eyes off me.
“If you’re not careful, your face will freeze like that, Mr. Personality,” I warned him.
“It already did,” giggled Lou Ellen. I high-fived her. Will burst into a full-bellied laugh.
That’s when it hit me who this guy reminded me of: Uriel Archangel. Maybe it was just because Will’s father was the sun god, but there was a light about the kid that reminded me of Mr. Sunshine. About a zillion times less powerful, of course, but it’s a little hard to beat an archangel for power, even if you’re a demigod.
Nico took his eyes off of me long enough to roll them. “What exactly is a Winter Knight?”
“It has to do with the Fey courts, right?” asked Lou Ellen before I could get a word in. “My dad has had some dealings with the Fey, mostly from the Summer Court side.”
“Yep.” I still didn’t like being a part of the Winter Court, though I understood what they existed for. “I got drafted as the Winter Queen’s muscle a few years ago when she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. In fact, the last job I went on for her put me in contact with Nico’s dad.”
That got Goth Boy’s attention. “You met Hades?”
“Yeah. I, uh, kind of stole some stuff from him.”
Nico’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t steal from my father and walk away.”
“I wouldn’t have if the whole thing hadn’t been his idea of an audition to see if I could be trusted with the stuff I stole,” I said. “Seriously, you can ask him next time you see him. He was very polite when we met. Him and his dog Spot.”
That actually made Nico laugh for a second before he caught himself. “All right, now I believe you.”
Will looked at him quizzically. “Because of Cerberus?”
“Will, think of his name in Ancient Greek for a second,” said Nico.
“Cerberus . . . Kerberos . . . ‘spotted’? Your dad named his dog Spot?” Will let out another of his sunny laughs. “Just when you think you’ve got the gods figured out. Spot!”
“Just out of curiosity, what did you steal?” Lou Ellen asked.
“A bunch of artifacts having to do with the Crucifixion.” I pulled into my apartment’s parking garage. “Also, some diamonds.”
Lou Ellen froze in the act of taking off her seatbelt. “THE Crucifixion? That was real?”
Nico gave a dry chuckle from the back. “You didn’t think our parents were the only gods out there, did you, Lou? My dad handles treasures and articles of power for literally hundreds of gods.”
I led the kids down to the apartment Molly and I supposedly shared. Truth was, she and I were rarely in the same place, thanks to the fact that she was still cleaning up Maeve’s backlog. At the moment, she was on Europa. As in, Jupiter’s moon.
“Be my guests,” I said, letting them in. “My roommate’s out of town and not due back anytime soon. You guys hungry?”
Of course they were, being teenagers. Lou Ellen asked where my bathroom was, and the boys set down their packs and flopped on the couch. I picked up the phone and dialed up Pizza Spress.
“Yeah, I’d like an extra-large . . .” I remembered my guests were teenagers. “Make that two extra-large . . .” Two of them were teenage boys. “No, three extra-large pizzas. One cheese, one pepperoni, one supreme combo.” I confirmed my address, and they said the pizzas would be there in less than an hour.
After that, I put in one more call. Charity Carpenter picked up the phone.
“Hey, Charity, it’s Harry.”
She didn’t waste words. “What’s happened?”
I’d say it was unfair of her to make assumptions like that, but Charity had known me for a long time, and it was totally fair of her to make an assumption like that.
“Teenage Ancient Greek demigods,” I said. “I sh-kid you not.” (Charity was not a fan of swearing, and the woman scared me.) “There are three in town looking for a MacGuffin of some kind. Got jumped by some Ancient Greek monsters. I’ve got ‘em at my apartment right now. Is there any chance you guys could keep Maggie overnight while this plays out?”
There was silence on the other end for a long moment. Then Charity sighed deeply. “I just need to stop asking myself what’s going to happen next. Of course we can keep Maggie. Can you get over here long enough to read to her tonight?”
“I’ll try my best. If not, I’ll call and talk to her before bed. Thanks, Charity.”
“You’re very welcome. And, Harry? Take care of yourself.”
When I got off the phone, Nico was staring at me again. I decided to let him work through whatever was going on in that head of his in his own time and fetched some Cokes out of the fridge.
“I’ve got Coke, water, OJ and some weird teas I can steal from my roommate,” I announced.
“Coke would be great,” said Will.
Lou Ellen, who’d just exited the bathroom, wanted a Coke, too. Nico continued to eyeball me, but flawlessly caught the can I tossed at him.
“Why were you casting in Italian?” he asked abruptly.
I shrugged, deciding it couldn't hurt to talk. “I cast in Spanish, Italian and Canis Latinicus.”
Nico’s scowl turned into an expression of thorough confusion. “. . . dog Latin?”
“Yeah, pretty much whatever pops into my head when I need a new spell. It’s part of being a wizard. Always cast in a language you don’t speak, or at least don’t speak well.” I tapped my head. “It adds a layer of protection to your mind. It’s a thing. My ex-apprentice casts in Japanese. I know another guy who casts in Ancient Egyptian. I’m certain there’s at least one who casts in Ancient Greek.” I opened a Coke for myself. “So, demigods. I think I’m going to need someone to bring me up to speed on this.”
Will looked like he was about to speak, but Nico said something to him in rapid Italian. Will answered in the same language, not looking happy. They had what sounded like a brief argument, and then Will switched back to English.
“Nico, we need help right now,” he said. “Harry helped us out big time in that warehouse brawl.”
Nico looked back up at me. “No offense, Mr. Dresden, but we have to be very careful who we trust on this quest. Will, you trust everybody, and Lou is . . . Lou.” Both boys looked back toward the couch, where Lou Ellen appeared to be trying to keep something from escaping her bag. “I’m not taking chances with either of your lives.”
I leaned on the counter. “If it comes to that, Shadow Boy, I’ve got three powerful new kids in my town attracting monsters, and I have no idea what to make of them.”
“Don’t call me Shadow Boy,” Nico snapped. Will did his heroic best not to smile.
“And honestly? You’re the one that concerns me the most,” I told Nico. “You’ve got a lot of power, kid, and it comes from a dark place. I respect your dad, but he scared the hell out of me when I met him. I’ve got the feeling I haven’t seen a tenth of what you’re capable of, and like I said, Chicago’s my city. I like to keep the collateral damage to a minimum when bad stuff comes to town.”
Will no longer looked amused. In fact, he looked like he was ready to put a throwing knife through my eye, but Nico set a hand on his shoulder. “So, I don’t trust you, and you don’t trust me. Where does that leave us?”
“Well, we know he can’t hurt us while we’re guests in his home,” said Lou Ellen, making all three of us guys jump. She’d managed to approach while Nico, Will and I were having our little face-off. “He’s part of a Fae court. He has to abide by their rules of hospitality. If he breaks ‘em, it’s like if one of us broke an oath we swore on the River Styx. Am I right, Mr. Dresden?”
I didn’t know about the River Styx, but I knew about the power of broken oaths in my world. “Something like that, yeah. And Nico, there’s a way you and I can figure out if we trust each other. You might not like it, but you’ll know the truth about me, and I’ll know the truth about you. It’s called a soulgaze. All you have to do is meet my eyes.”
“Could it hurt him?” Will asked.
I shook my head. “No. It might not be too pleasant – someone once fainted after soulgazing me – but it won’t do him any harm.”
Will looked down at his boyfriend. “It’s your call.”
Nico nodded. Then he met my eyes.
I had a moment to realize that what I’d taken for gray eyes were, in fact, totally without color, as if they’d been inked by an artist in black and white. Then I fell into the soulgaze.