My second-least favorite way to wake up is by being shaken awake by my magical parole officer and wannabe executioner.
My least favorite way involves the aforementioned magical parole officer growling at me, "Dresden, wake up. We're in the middle of an apocalypse."
I cracked one eye open. "It's April. We're not due for an apocalypse for another six months. Go away." Then I closed my eyes, rolled over, buried my face in my pillow, tried to go back to sleep.
There was a moment of silence, followed by a puzzled and angry, "What do you mean, we're not due for one for another six months?" As if he'd caught me planning something dire.
I sighed, opening both eyes this time. "Bad shit tends to happen on my birthday, Morgan. That's all." There was a pause while I unscrambled my thoughts. Then I blinked. "Wait. Did you say 'in the middle of an apocalypse'?"
Hey, sue me. I'm not a morning person.
Morgan favored me with a patient "why-am-I-doomed-to-deal-with-idiots?" expression. He didn't answer me. He didn't really have to.
I struggled out of bed. I was already dressed, having gone to bed in shorts and a T-shirt, but...come on. April in Chicago is hardly shorts-and-T-shirt season. I rummaged around in my closet, looking for something that was devastatingly impressive, noir-ish and warm, settling for a dark red knit sweater, dark brown trousers and work boots--roughly what I would wear if I were going to an especially bloody crime scene. Dark red and dark brown hide blood stains very well.
"So," I said as I threw my clothes on. "You gonna tell me what kind of apocalypse we're facing, or should I just guess? For that matter, why come to me in the first place? I know I'm not your favorite person."
Morgan looked as if he'd bitten into a lemon. But, after a moment or two, he answered. "Because...there is nowhere else I can go."
"Really," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. "Nowhere else, huh? What about the other Wardens, huh?Or Ancient Mai? Or her bosses further up on the High Council, for that matter?"
Clenching his jaw, Morgan repeated his words. "There is nowhere else for me to go, Dresden. And had you attended the High Council meeting today as--like every other wizard in the area--you were told to do--or if I had not had a flat tire on my way to the meeting, you and I would not be here, either."
I stared at him, not quite able to believe what I was hearing.
Morgan nodded grimly. "When I said that I had nowhere else to go, I meant it. I have checked on every Warden; I've sought out wizards who are not members of the High Council; I've even used what contacts I have in the Nevernever. As of 8:20 this morning, you and I are the only wizards left on Earth."
I had to swallow several times before I spoke. "Who killed them?"
"They aren't all dead," Morgan replied, though he didn't sound one bit happier about that. Given some of humanity's enemies, I wasn't surprised. Some creatures would have a party if they captured one wizard, let alone most of the wizards on the planet. And they'd use wizard entrails as party favors, too. "Many are simply...missing. Some are dead, though. Ancient Mai--" He looked as if he was about to be violently sick...and given the kinds of horrors that Wardens are supposed to protect ordinary wizards and baseline humans against, that wasn't a good sign.
"What happened to her?" I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to know the answer.
"She was turned inside out." Morgan clenched his fist. "She was still alive after that. All her bones and organs on what was now the outside of her body, and writhing about as if she were in hellish pain and unable to scream--"
I closed my eyes for a moment. I hadn't liked Mai; she'd wanted me executed for killing my Uncle Justin (never mind that the bastard had murdered my father to get control of eleven-year-old me, or that he was doing a damned good job of trying to impale me when I killed him). She'd also threatened to bite my head off and eat me far too often. With a normal human being, that might have been a metaphor. Even a euphemism. But Mai had been a dracoform--a dragon who can shapeshift into human form. When she'd said she wanted to bite my head off, she hadn't been talking me as a target of her bad temper. She'd been talking about me as a Lunchable.
So I couldn't really mourn her. But she hadn't deserved to die like that.
"I'm sorry," I said, feeling awkward; it had been a long time since Morgan and I had been able to speak as friends. "I didn't like her, but I know you respected her a lot and...well. That was a rotten way to go."
He looked faintly surprised that I would actually offer him sympathy. Then he shook his head. "That didn't kill her. I did."
Wardens always carry swords; I think it dates back from the time when swords were the weapon of choice for self-defense. They've probably kept carrying them because more modern weapons tend to have computer chips and moving parts that wizards can fry just by existing. A sword, on the other hand, is pretty basic--long, sharp-edged piece of metal with a point at one end. Not a lot to mess up. And Wardens--who are soldiers as well as executioners--have plenty of reasons to become damned good at using them.
Which wouldn't make things one bit easier for Morgan.
"She wouldn't have wanted to exist that way," I said, trying to be reassuring. "And if you could have fixed what had happened to her, I know you would have. That was...the best you could do."
Morgan said nothing. But I had a feeling that he was growing angrier by the minute, and that pretty soon he was going to take it out on me.
I forestalled him with a question. "So is that the apocalypse? The dead and missing wizards? Or is there something else?"
He turned toward the door and motioned me to follow him.
"What, you can't just tell me?"
"No." And he repeated his "follow me" gesture.
Well, mine is not to reason why. Mine is just to stop evil from happening in my city. Even if that's also what my parole officer wants me to do.
I followed him down the stairs, walked into my living room, glanced out the windows...and froze.
The world was bathed in what looked like a pale blue mist. Skyscrapers were melting--and rotting, as if concrete and steel had suddenly turned into flesh and bone. My Jeep looked like a fungus on wheels. The numerous potholes in the street had become acid baths of poisonous green--or worse, pockets of nothingness that seemed to reach out and pull things like street lamps and stop-and-go-signals into them.
Now, I know my basic physics. Matter is energy, energy matter. You can change matter's and energy's forms, but you can't wipe matter out of existence. You can break a garbage can down to its component parts, even its component atoms, but you can't touch a garbage can to a hole in the street and end up with less than zero garbage cans.
Only, impossibly, that's what was happening.
It offended me. On some visceral level, this was an offense against existence.
And then someone stumbled into view, and for a second--just for a second--I stopped breathing.
He looked like a wax figure of a man that was half-melted. Bluish-white flesh was dripping off of his arms and fingers. His eyes were dribbling out of the edges of their sockets, while his face was runneled with streams of rotting flesh. His lips were almost gone--only the ragged remnants remained. He moved with a dull aimlessness, as if he wasn't going anywhere in particular, just going. Walking and, indeed, breathing, seemed to grow more difficult for him by the second. I wondered for one horrible moment if perhaps his brain was dissolving as well.
And I knew him. Or at least I knew the guy who owned that jacket--God knows I'd seen it enough. It belonged to Sid Kirmani, the partner of my cop friend, Lt. Connie Murphy...who, mercifully, was at a cop conference in Madison. Kirmani called it his lucky jacket. Somehow, I doubted if Kirmani still thought of it as lucky...assuming that he was still able to think, that is.
Then he lost his balance and fell against my door. I could see why, too--his right foot was nothing but skeletal bones. No muscles or nerves to make that work. As he fell, he let out a cry.
"Ez-in, ell! Ay uh..."
And then Kirmani died. I'd rather not describe what happened to the body then. Suffice to say that it happened obscenely fast, and that acid and decay are truly nightmarish competitors.
Leaning against my desk, I mentally filled in the consonants that Kirmani hadn't been able to pronounce anymore.
Dresden, help! Save us!
Kirmani had never believed that I was anything but a con man who was taking advantage of a gullible cop--never mind that that description never suited Murphy--by claiming to be a wizard. But he knew I got results. And when the inexplicable happened, he came to the one guy he knew who dealt in the arcane and the bizarre to give me what might well be my last assignment from the Chicago P.D.
Save us, Dresden.
I knew that if Murphy was here, she'd say the same. Probably while marching out with Morgan and me, and daring us to say otherwise.
"Okay, Kirmani," I whispered. "I'll do it. I don't know how, but I will."
Morgan was pleased that seeing Kirmani had only strengthened my resolve to stop this apocalypse in its tracks and kick whatever had caused it into one of the pools of acid dotting the street. He was not, however, pleased by my insistence that we needed help.
"I've already told you," he said stiffly. "We are the only two wizards in existence."
"No," I corrected him. "We're the only two living wizards in existence."
His mouth clamped shut and he fired a death glare in my direction. "No."
"Bob knows more magic than either of us, Morgan," I said in what I hoped was my sweetest and most reasonable tone. "Hell, he's forgotten more than we know. We're both pretty damned young, as wizards go. You're only what, seven years older than I am?"
"We are not using the Artifact." Don't ask me how Morgan managed to add the capital A at the start of the word. "The spirit bound to it is a practitioner of black magic. I will not use black magic to save the world."
"And what makes you think that I would?" I snapped, crossing my arms over my chest.
His face and voice were stone. "You used black magic to defeat your uncle."
"That's different!" I spluttered. "That...that was self-preservation!"
"Yes. Thank you for making my point." He stalked away from me, gazing out the window at the melting city.
I ran my fingers through my hair, sighed, and tried a different tack. "Morgan. Bob may be cursed, but he's been bound to his skull for at least a thousand years. And he was alive for a good long while before that. He's smart. He's experienced. And he's able to do things, as a spirit, that you and I can't do. You may not like him, but we need him."
Morgan grimaced. "I don't trust him."
"If it makes you feel any better, I don't think he trusts you either."
Blink. "What reason have I given the creature for distrust?"
I counted to twenty, trying not to think about Morgan being a big brother/mentor-type when I was growing up at the Morningway residence. He'd been one of the youngest wizards-in-training that the Council had had and the personal student of Ancient Mai, which had impressed me when I was eleven. He'd been one of the few young wizards I'd known; Uncle Justin had associated mainly with centuries-old or even millennia-old wizards and supernatural creatures that could help him gain power. For all that Morgan had been eighteen when I was eleven, he'd been the closest thing to a peer that I'd had. And he'd been patient about my puppy-like interest and admiration, too. Uncle Justin hadn't liked my being Morgan's friend--he was never a fan of my being loyal to anyone but himself--but he'd put up with it. Being a Warden himself, he could hardly ignore or disregard a young man who, thanks to his teacher, was likely to become one of the most trusted Wardens in the High Council. Plus Morgan revered Wardens, order and magical law. I think Uncle Justin might have quite enjoyed a younger wizard's adoration.
We'd started to drift apart more by the time I was sixteen. Morgan was getting caught up in Warden training by then, of course, and was much busier, but I had known, or had thought I had known, that he would take time for friends. He hadn't. And he continued not to do so until, by the time I killed Justin Morningway, we'd been all but strangers for nine years.
So there was no reason, when the Wardens finally caught me, for Morgan to look at me with an expression of pure betrayal--as if I'd killed Santa Claus.
There was a trial. Bob, as the former property of Justin Morningway and as the present property of Justin's heir and killer, had been taken from my custody, the skull to which he was bound placed in Ancient Mai's physical possession, and ordered to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Morgan had been his questioner.
One wrong word from Bob--and he was hardly in a position to keep himself from saying anything unfavorable--and I would have been beheaded for violating the First Law of Magic: "Thou shalt not use magic to kill."
I didn't think that Bob was ever going to forgive either the Wardens or the High Council for that.
And, looking at Morgan, who was patiently waiting for clarification, I knew that I had no way of explaining this to the man. In his eyes, he'd done his duty, as the law required--and how could anyone find anything wrong with that?
We didn't have time to argue the issue. There was a world to save, and we needed help. And every minute that ticked by meant that more people were suffering as Kirmani had.
So, stepping around Morgan, I pulled open the trap door in my floor, muttered a quick candle-lighting spell--when you're a walking techbane that can fry telephones and computers by existing in their vicinity, you learn to adapt--started down the stairs to the sub-basement, then turned to give Morgan one of my best innocent looks. "Well? Are you coming?"
Bob was less than happy at being summoned from his skull. It had nothing to do with his not wanting to save the world--he didn't object to that in the least. What he objected to was either of us helping the High Council...or what was left of it, anyway.
"Bob, can we focus here?" I said anxiously. "This is kind of important. I'd like there to be a world left tomorrow. And I'd really like it to bear some resemblance to the world that existed yesterday."
"I have no difficulty with helping you save the world, Harry," he said, steepling his pale fingers and looking like supercilious nineteenth-century royalty rather than the ghost of an notorious necromancer. "However, as things stand, I am likely to be of little use. I have some abilities, certainly, but writing in gold letters in the air is not likely to prevent an apocalypse, even if I do so with the best good will in the world."
"So what do you want?" Morgan said, looking as if Bob was something unpleasant that was sticking to his shoe.
Bob sighed. "Ideally? Resurrection. I will settle, however, for restoration of my powers. Or some of my powers, at least. I'm of little use as I am--a ghostly encyclopedia of magic can advise you on possible spells, yes, but the odds of your crushing this apocalypse would be slightly less astronomical if I could help." He shrugged. "I cannot guarantee that I would help you both sufficiently to halt this--event--in its tracks. But I do know that both of you are far too young and too inexperienced to defeat this curse on your own. The choice, Warden Morgan, is yours."
"What if he can't?" I demanded, gazing at Bob. "What if he doesn't know the right spell or something? You'll still help us, right? Because we need you. Badly."
"You don't need to ask him, Dresden," said Morgan, with an air of stating the incredibly obvious. "You're the Artifact's master. Command him to do anything, and he has no choice but to obey."
"That," I snapped, "is precisely why I'm NOT commanding him to do this. If he helps us, he'll be putting his power and existence on the line every bit as much as we will. So whether or not he helps has to be up to him and not me."
Bob's expression softened, his eyes shining with pride. "This," he said to Morgan, "is why I would help him even if he did not own my skull. Do you think that any other wizard would have allowed me to choose? Not in a thousand years have I been so fortunate."
Morgan had the grace to look embarrassed. "I wasn't aware that you cared about such things. The Wardens--we're taught that you're basically memory given a human shape. And...some malice. After all, a fair proportion of your owners have turned evil or gone mad."
I thought Bob might get angry at this. I could tell that Morgan was trying to apologize, but let's face it, it didn't sound like an apology.
Instead, Bob merely looked weary. "I am myself, Warden--good, bad and indifferent. You may not like me, but I am far more than memory and malice." He sighed. "And we are wasting time. Would a show of good faith help?"
Morgan considered this for a moment. "It would, yes."
Bob nodded. "Then, with your permission, Harry--may I have leave to go outside and examine Lieutenant Kirmani's body?"
I motioned him upstairs. "Go ahead."
Bob dissolved into a stream of orange spheres of light and flowed upstairs. Morgan and I followed. Once we were both in my apartment proper again, Bob walked through the wall next to my door and, once outside, bent down, grimaced at the sight of the blue mist, and then squatted down to scrutinize the liquefying and fungoid remains of Kirmani.
"What's it like out there, Bob?" I called.
He stuck his head through the wall to answer. "Unpleasant, as I'm certain the Warden is aware. Doubtless he traveled through the Ways to your apartment, rather than risking life and limb on the city streets."
I felt a sick feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. "What's wrong? I mean, what's wrong with Chicago?"
"An old and exceedingly destructive curse. Omnes corpores aquae sunt."
I tried to translate that into something that made sense and failed miserably. "All the corpses are water?"
Bob's voice took on a pedantic tone. The middle of an apocalypse, and the man was trying to give me lessons in Latin. "The word 'corpores' in this context means 'physical forms.'"
"'All physical forms are...'" I broke off, staring out the window at the melting city. "You mean everyone and everything alive who goes out in that mist is going to end up like Kirmani?"
"Not just living things, Harry," he replied, nodding at the dissolving skyscrapers and what was left of my Jeep. "Anything that has corporeal existence and that is touched by the mist will, inevitably, break down into fluid. Your car and the buildings are likelier to be closer to molten steel and liquid concrete. With humans--and other humanoid creatures, such as lycanthropes--the body will break down into its greatest physical component...water. Vampires--I don't know. As there is little moisture in the bodies of the Black Court, I suspect they may become mere puddles of flesh. Immortal, of course. The Red Court is not nearly so desiccated as the Black. I suspect that they will become pools of blood, as that is the primary fluid in their bodies. Or perhaps their bodies will merely begin to bleed and rot."
He gazed at me anxiously. "And it will spread swiftly once Chicago falls. There is a great deal of magic in this city; as Chicago slides into nonexistence, the spell will be able to feed on much of it. The more magic that the curse can utilize, the more that it will grow. If it is not stopped, it will devour all life on Earth. And from thence the spell may transform into kinds of magical spores, scattering across space, contaminating the Nevernever--I simply don't know."
"How long do we have?" I barely recognized my own voice, it was so quiet.
Bob swallowed. "Twelve hours. After that, more than half of the magic in Chicago will have been devoured and the spell will grow geometrically faster. We must stop it before then, or the three of us will melt to death."
"You can't die." That seemed very important, somehow. "I refuse to let you."
"You have no control over that, Dresden," Morgan said quietly. "He is bound to a skull. If the skull melts, the vessel containing his soul will be annihilated."
"And if that happens," Bob added in a voice etched with anger, "my soul will be annihilated as well. Such are the strictures of my curse. The Council felt that obliterating me from existence was preferable to the risk of freeing me."
"They were wrong," I ground out, clenching my fists until the knuckles turned white. "And anyway, it's not gonna happen, because we're gonna find the bastard that did this and nail his hide to the wall. Does the spell say anything about who killed Kirmani?"
He sighed. "It would be much easier to discern the identity of the killer if his murderer had been a ravening werewolf. Bloody deaths caused by monsters are infinitely more personal than curses that aspire to eliminate all life rather than a single person's. However, I will try." And with that, he pulled his head out of the wall, knelt down next to the body again, and gently brushed his fingers through Kirmani's exposed jawbone.
And upon doing so, he transformed into a dark-haired, dark-eyed yuppie who was a little taller than Murphy. He was flashily dressed and had an arrogant smirk on his face that matched his outfit.
Morgan and I both snarled the same name at the same moment: "Sirota."
Sirota was, or had been, an earthbound demon who specialized in persuading humans to choose to become agents of Hell known as, believe it or not, Hellions. (Just one more thing that convinced me that evil has no style. Seriously, Hellions?) Anyway, Sirota did well for himself for a number of years; he even managed to arrange a treaty between himself and the High Council. Let me repeat that--he had sanction from the ruling powers of the High Council to convince human beings that becoming hellspawn was a good career move.
Anyway, Sirota was doing fine until one of his Hellions fell in love and decided, "Screw this demon business, I want to be a human again." I got involved because his girlfriend Caryn hired me to find a second Hellion that Sirota had sent bloodhounding after the first. Bloodhound Boy ended up dead, indicating that getting in the way of true love is not a wise move. Caryn's boyfriend got a mystical chain back that restored his soul. And Bob, Morgan and I entered into a conspiracy to defraud, convincing Sirota that he'd just murdered the newly ensouled ex-Hellion (instead of ineffectively zapping a ghost who was a master of disguises) and Morgan testifying before the High Council that he'd just seen Sirota violate the treaty with the High Council by using magic with intent to kill a human being. And just like that, Sirota had lost a soul he'd stolen, an employee, a treaty with the wizards, and his standing with Hell.
I hadn't expected him to be jump-happy about any of this, but I'd never thought he'd end the world over it.
There was a bit of wrangling after we realized that Sirota was behind this. I motioned Bob to come in and asked if his "doom box" --a kind of magical bomb--would help. Bob was dubious; "You must remember that what works against a living being will not have nearly the same effect on an earthbound but spiritual one," he said with a sigh. He was in favor of summoning an angel or Sidhe lord or something similarly not quite of this world, fundamentally, to beat Sirota up. Which I thought was a very tempting idea, but...well...how could either an angel or a faerie be worse than whatever Hell itself had thrown at Sirota since before the beginning of time?
Morgan settled the question by marching downstairs, stuffing Bob's skull into a paper bag (oh, the offended sulking THAT led to!), coming back upstairs and shoving the skull bag at me, grabbing hold of my arm and, I swear to God, teleporting into the Nevernever. Bob--who of course was forced to follow his skull--materialized about a second or two after we did, spluttering in rage.
"Really, Warden! You might have warned me. That hurt!"
Morgan regarded him solemnly for a minute or two. "You don't have a body. Therefore, there's nothing that can cause you pain. And we don't have much time. Now come on." He headed off at a jog, and I had to all but run to keep after him. Bob, of course, was compelled to run after me. He still managed to get off a good zinger at Morgan, however.
"If spiritual pain were nonexistent, my punishment would never have existed either, would it?"
Morgan didn't even react. I, on the other hand, reached into the bag and stroked the infinity symbol carved into the top of the skull. "I'm sorry, Bob."
He sighed. "Thank you, Harry. It may sound ridiculous, after so many years, but I'm finding it very difficult to cope with the thought of obliteration. Call it a foolish hope, but for some time I've dreamt of seeing you--after a very, very long life in which you cause great misery to the evil things of the world--safely ensconced in Heaven. And perhaps a peer through the gates to see how Winifred is faring. Just a glimpse of her, after so long...well. I am being foolish, I know."
"You're not going to be wiped out of existence," I said firmly. "And neither is the world."
Bob shook his head. "I will battle Sirota as well, Harry. But we must face the possibility that some problems are simply too big for one person to combat."
"I think I'd rather face the possibility that we're gonna kick Sirota's ass. And then we're gonna save the world." I shrugged as he gave me a laser-beam stare. "Hey, don't you remember what you told me when I was a kid?" I cleared my throat and tried to imitate Bob's tone. "'A wizard's will and power, working in concert, can transform anything from the smallest atom to the entire world. It is merely a question of how determined he or she is to effect this change; if he or she is sufficiently determined, the change may last from the duration of his lifetime to long after his or her death to becoming a permanent part of the world as we know it. And never think, Harry, that a wizard alone is unequal to any task. Magic is a marvelous lever. Applied correctly, it can change the world.'" I concluded by giving him a 'that's what you SAID' look.
A tiny smile curled his lips. "I had no idea you paid such close attention." Then Bob glanced at Morgan. "Where is the Warden going?"
Not much further, as it turned out, for Morgan stopped just as Bob said that. "We're here."
"Where's here?" I said as Bob and I drew closer to him. There wasn't much to look at, just a gray wasteland. Gray and gloomy sky, craggy gray mountains, hard-packed gray sand underfoot. It was the most nothing place I'd ever seen.
"No Man's Land," Morgan said. "It lives up to its name; it belongs to no man, no being and no power, mortal or non-mortal, and never can. It is literally neutral ground. Here we may speak to Sirota--and here he cannot harm us. Now stand back. I must summon him."
"Why you?" I demanded.
"Because as a Warden of the High Council, I know how to summon other powers without angering them. You don't. Now, let me do my job."
He sounded like stress was beginning to push him just a little too far. I stepped back. Bob, however, gave him a reproving glance. "Ere you summon the insane demon in hopes of rational conversation, I urge you to remember--I have shown good faith. Now, will you show it as well?"
I could see the wheels turning. The last thing he wanted to do was weaken Bob's curse. It was, to his mind, an unforgivable compromise with evil. The problem was, we were short on allies. He couldn't really afford to say no. At last he snatched the bag from my hands, pulled a knife from I do not know where and began changing the carvings on the spell into a different spell altogether. It didn't take much--a line here, a curve there--but if I had had any doubt that it was working, Bob's face would have told me otherwise. He looked as if he was caught in the grip of an incredible orgasm. And, considering that magic is the power of life itself and that Bob hadn't felt anything like this for a millennium at least, that was probably pretty accurate.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked, kneeling down beside Morgan and speaking in a soft voice so that Bob couldn't hear. I don't care how old you are, seeing your surrogate father like that is just a bit much.
He paused mid-carving. "Do you want me to make a mistake, Dresden?"
"No! God, no. But--you've always been the strait-laced sheriff-type. I know you don't have any choice right now. But...later..."
"If it comes down to it, it will be easier to stop Hrothbert of Bainbridge than it is to stop this curse," Morgan replied, giving a fantastic imitation of the Great Stone Face. "If that becomes necessary, Dresden, do not interfere."
"What?!" How could he possibly think--
"If the necromancer returns to his old ways, it will cost me everything I have to take him down. Including my life." He gazed at me seriously. "Even if we defeat this curse...you do realize that the masquerade is over? There will be no hiding magic anymore. Without wizards as protectors, the human race is vulnerable to every supernatural predator in existence. Even with two of us, it would be difficult trying to protect even this little corner of the world, finding young wizards, training them, building the Council--or some sort of structure--all over again. I don't know if one person is enough.
"But I do know that if we end up fighting each other, all three of us will all die. And the human race will be finished, save as slaves or food. So if I have to die to prevent the necromancer from doing evil once more, do not interfere. One wizard has to live, Dresden. One wizard has to live."
"Okay," I whispered, knowing that I wouldn't be able to betray Bob and knowing now that I couldn't betray Morgan either. Because he was right. I'd been thinking in terms of the film running backwards and all of the destruction un-happening. But that wasn't going to be. Thanks to one spiteful demon, everything had changed.
Morgan scrutinized my face, apparently found whatever he saw there satisfactory, and then nodded. "Thank you, Harry."
As I fell silent, trying to figure out when he'd last called me "Harry" instead of "Dresden," he resumed his carving, finished it, then handed the skull back to me. "Step aside, please. I have to issue an invitation."
"Want me--I mean, us--to be ready to attack in case Sirota tries to ambush you?"
"He can't attack here. Nor can you. The land itself makes that impossible. Please, Dresden. Step aside."
I did, feeling vaguely disappointed that he'd gone back to calling me by my surname.
The summoning itself was...bland. As every horror fan knows, summoning of demons is supposed to involve flickering torches or candles, an esoteric laboratory or an empty house, a thunderstorm, an ancient scroll crawling with evil, and lots of ghastly shadows to indicate that this really isn't a good idea. I've been a wizard long enough to know that most of that's drivel (aside from the ancient scroll and the flickering candles--trust me, if you're a walking techbane, you start to love non-electric light). And Morgan using chalk to draw a magic circle was no surprise. The tiny smudge piles of wormwood, sulfur and asphodel were. Bob whispered that the items were symbolic: sulfur--that is, brimstone--for Hell; wormwood as an ancient symbol of apocalypse; and asphodel for the Asphodel Meadows of Greek Mythology, where people who weren't exceptionally good or evil ended up.
Basically, Morgan was sending Sirota a scented note saying, "Hey, demon! How come you're causing an apocalypse and killing everything?"
Then Morgan turned to both of us, waved one hand and--just for a second--we were surrounded by silence. That was when Morgan spoke Sirota's real name.
For a moment I was indignant. Then I realized that Bob had been cursed with perfect memory, and if he'd been ordered to remember that name by one of his more evil owners...well, it wasn't the sort of power I would have trusted to, say, Justin Morningway.
Sirota showed up seconds later, just as Morgan had banished the Magical Soundproofing. And oh, did he look insufferably smug. "Just who I was hoping to see," he said, his words fairly dripping with pleasure. "Though not before the three of you entered Hell, so this is a delightful bonus. How do you like your apocalypse?"
"Ours!" I yelped, ignoring a Shut UP, Dresden! glare from Morgan. "You're the one who started it!"
"But you're the motivation. It wouldn't have happened, if not for you." If possible, his smile grew broader. "Hell is praising your names even as we speak."
"I doubt that," said Morgan in a dry tone. "What do you want?"
"I'm a demon. I want everything. What are you offering, wizard?"
"Let me be more specific. What do you want in exchange for stopping the curse?"
He didn't even hesitate. "Fifty-one percent of all human souls--present and future."
Bob, surprisingly, was the first to answer. "No. I refuse to tip the supernatural balance of power permanently toward Hell."
This made Sirota laugh--not a mean laugh, but one of genuine amusement...which was somehow worse. "Oh, I think you will, Necromancer. The warlock is here, and he will play the part that he must play, according to arrangement. I cannot think you will abandon him, even if loyalty means your own destruction. And it will mean both that and your killer's end. I wish I could stay and watch it all."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" I demanded, once I could speak again. "I have no 'arrangement' with you or any demon!"
"No, you didn't," he said in an indifferent tone. "The arrangement was with another. You were merely the target." He scowled as if he had said too much. "And now I must go. Do call me when you wish to make a deal."
And with that, he was gone.
And Morgan was staring at me as if I'd just grown three heads.
"Morgan. You gotta believe me. I've never--"
"What are you playing at, Dresden?" he said in the barest possible whisper, leaning forward until our noses were almost touching. "How do you connect to the curse that will destroy the world? What does Sirota want you to do?"
"I. Don't. KNOW!" I hollered. "I don't know what he's talking about!"
"Do you expect me to take that for granted?"
"It's the truth!"
"How can I know? It's not as if I can peer into your mind--"
"But I can," Bob said quietly.
Both of us stopped and stared at him. Morgan was the first to speak. "What are you talking about, Bainbridge?"
Bob raised a pale eyebrow--probably at having his byname turned into a surname--but nevertheless answered politely. "I can stick my head inside Harry's and see what's wrong with his mind."
"I don't think that looking at my brain will do much good," I said dubiously. "You're not a neurologist."
"I'm aware of that," he said patiently. "But I can choose to look at your brain and bypass its visual appearance, so that I'll be seeing physical representations of your mind that I can understand."
"That sounds difficult."
"I'm much older than you and much more experienced. Though, I confess, I may need the Warden's help." He looked uncomfortable. "But it won't be pleasant, Harry. You know how you dislike it when I walk through you, or you through me. And this will take longer than a moment."
"It could be a delaying tactic," Morgan said. "We are dealing with a demon. They aren't noted for telling the truth."
"Or he might be doing just that, in hopes that we will disregard anything that a demon says." Then Bob frowned. "I'm not pleased by either prospect, but I would prefer to check. Sirota looked entirely too sure of himself to suit me."
"Do it," I said. "If there's something wrong, we need to find out what it is and fix it." I scowled. "I'm not going to be the remote control that Sirota pushes to destroy the world."
Bob nodded, and then stepped back and to the side--probably so that I couldn't see him shove his face into my head, for which I was grateful.
Physically, it felt like ice water rippling through my bones. Nothing Bob or I could do about that, so I just gritted my teeth and put up with it.
Mentally, it felt like my mind was a series of filing cabinets--all marked classified--and Bob was rifling through each one. That was uncomfortable--embarrassing, really. There were quite a few things I didn't want Bob to know, surrogate dad or not.
Then it started to hurt. Every bone in my body ached. And then, as Bob still didn't stop, I became enraged. How dare he keep invading my mind! And how dare Morgan just stand there and let him!
I reached out with my power and attempted to cast my most powerful fire spells at both Morgan and at Bob's skull.
I was fortunate that we were in No Man's Land. Every attack spell I tried to cast fizzed out.
And then Bob was standing in front of me, wearing the most appalled expression I had ever seen. "Oh, Harry. Oh, Harry, I'm sorry. I should have realized--I was surprised when you began to trust him and even confide in him, and forgot old friends--but I thought it only an adolescent phase. It never occurred to me that he would do this."
"Who?" Morgan asked, and he managed to make it sound like a royal command.
"And what are you talking about?" I demanded, far less regally.
Bob looked at both of us with a terrible pity in his eyes. "I am speaking of Justin Morningway. And as for what he did, there is but one word for it. Thrall."
"I don't believe it," Morgan insisted. "To alter an entire mind and not have the target collapse into insanity--"
"Normally, yes," Bob said. "But this was subtle. A memory blocked here. Suspicions dulled there. Liking and trust, and corresponding dislike and distrust, not so much forced on the mind as slowly and carefully cultivated and reinforced, convincing the host mind that the persuasion was its own idea. Many, many small spells, done over more than a decade, all designed to craft a completely loyal heir and--forgive me, Harry--catspaw."
Morgan looked as if he was in shock. "But--Morningway--why would he distrust me? He was a Warden, as I am."
"Because you have always been a Warden dedicated to law," Bob said wearily. "And he was a Dark wizard. Which, I might add, I had nothing to do with. He knew he would need a powerful and completely loyal combat wizard on his side when he engineered the coup against the Council. It might even have worked, if he had not grown careless--and if Sirota had not made a few small...adaptations...to the thrall."
"Adaptations?" I hadn't liked much I'd heard so far, and on a repulsiveness scale of one to ten, a demon messing with my head was definitely an eleven.
Bob scrutinized me a moment before speaking. "You should remember some of your uncle's less orthodox associates."
"I only remember a bunch of old wizards," I said. "They bored me. I didn't pay much attention to them."
"No, that's a memory block," he retorted. "If you focus, you can get around the spell. It won't be pleasant, but you can."
It was harder than it should have been. Like, pushing a boulder uphill hard. And the more I tried, the more my head seemed ready to split open with a headache. Just as I thought my head was about to burst open, I glimpsed a memory of a meeting in Morningway's study, maybe four months after I'd arrived. I'd peeked in, and I'd seen...
Something with a reptilian head and a body covered in hair and scales. Its body had pendulous breasts as hairy and scaly as the rest of it, while the head had what looked like at least ten tongues. Each tongue was saying something different.
I must have made some kind of noise, because I remember Uncle Justin starting toward the door, his eyes blazing. And I remember bolting down the hall. But after that it got blurry. Really blurry, like a long ago dream.
I opened my eyes, and found Bob gazing at me.
"Headache?" he asked.
"Yeah. Bad one."
"It's a protective spell, I'm afraid. One of the lesser ones. It's supposed to break your concentration and keep you from focusing on memories that slip through the cracks. The more powerful ones--well, it's only a theory but I believe that that is where Sirota interfered. Most likely with Morningway's permission."
"What do you think he did?" Okay, I didn't intend that to sound nearly as anxious as it sounded.
"Based on what happened," he said thoughtfully, "I believe that Sirota took steps to ensure that, should you be forced by person or circumstance to confront a memory or emotion for which you were not prepared, you would become incredibly angry. Not the anger of an adult, though. The desperate, helpless rage of a hurt child. A child with the powers of an extremely powerful wizard at his disposal. A rage that would not stop until the source of it was blotted out."
I opened my mouth to protest, remembered how many times I'd been called childish and immature, and slowly closed my mouth again.
Morgan studied me for a moment, then turned to Bob. "Assuming that this is even possible, why would Sirota bother? And why would Morningway want a demon tampering with his creation?"
Bob shrugged. "Who knows? Perhaps he was not given a choice. Perhaps he thought that he could exploit whatever mischief Sirota wrought. I'm rather inclined toward the latter view."
"Why?" I asked. "It looks like Morningway just plain screwed up to me."
"Oh? Think about it, Harry--what would have happened if you had not noticed him wearing your father's ring and had not found your father's magician's box? Is it not likely that the ring would have ended in a goblet or on a plate somewhere--maybe Morgan's goblet or Ancient Mai's plate? They could hardly cast a tracking spell at a party--that would have been gauche. Whoever found it could only hold it up or go from person to person and ask, 'Whose is this?' Would you have reacted to a wizard who was innocent as you did to the one who was guilty? I think you might have."
I thought of it, picturing Mai or Morgan holding up my father's ring and envisioning my own sick, enraged reaction--which would have gotten worse if someone had tried to stop me.
Morningway sure wouldn't have tried to stop it. Hell, he'd probably been counting on it. That was probably why he was taking me to that damned party in the first place--so that I could destroy most of the senior members of the Council and their most loyal supporters. And when everything was over, what would he have done? Killed me? Or would he have considered that a waste of years of effort, and found some way of keeping me alive but under his thumb?
I was to have been a sacrificed pawn or a living puppet, and Morgan was to have been dead.
Glancing over at Morgan, I saw the same realization dawning in his face.
I forced myself to focus on how Sirota could possibly use the thrall spell and the rage to his advantage--and almost instantly came up with an idea I didn't like. So, naturally, I turned to our resident expert in black magic to confirm that it was possible.
"Bob? What would happen if something triggered that rage...and I started attacking the apocalypse spell?"
His pale green eyes narrowed. "The spell eats magic, Harry. The more power we attack it with, the more powerful it becomes. If you were to hit it with all the power you have, holding nothing back...we wouldn't have twelve hours to avert a worldwide apocalypse. We wouldn't have twelve minutes."
"Great," I sighed. "We couldn't have something simple, like a zombie apocalypse. Or get invaded by Terminators. All we'd have to do is get within a hundred feet of the robots and we could fry them just by being wizards. But no. We gotta have a magic-eating spell that's melting the immediate world. And the only three people who can save the world use magic as a default. Joy."
"Isn't there any way to remove the triggers from his mind?" Morgan asked.
Bob rubbed his chin. "Possible. I would need your help in the matter, if I attempted it. Nevertheless, I'd rather not."
"Well, if you don't, I can never go back to Chicago," I pointed out. "In fact, you two can't let me live if you don't remove the triggers, because even if we do stop the apocalypse, I could start it all over again just by getting mad at the wrong person or thing. And Sirota would probably make sure that I did. Not in favor of that plan, Bob."
Biting his lip, Bob gazed at me solemnly. "I don't think you understand how difficult this will be. I would have to remove not only the triggers but the remaining enchantments related to thrall--the ones that didn't shatter when your uncle died. There are multitudes, Harry. Thousands upon thousands of spells blocking this memory, compelling this emotion--" He swallowed. "I can't even guarantee that you'll come out of this marginally sane. Please don't ask me to do this, Harry."
Spells blocking this memory, compelling this emotion. I saw what Bob was afraid of--that dear, dear Uncle Justin had compelled me to care about and trust Bob. He had wanted me to learn black magic from Bob, after all; what better way to be sure that I listened to my teacher?
I didn't believe it. Morningway hadn't liked my being close to and trusting Bob; in fact, he'd told me a number of times that Bob, while quite knowledgeable, wasn't in any way the equal of a living wizard. Certainly not as trustworthy.
I was pretty sure Morningway hadn't forced me to trust Bob. That hadn't been instant; it had taken time. I was also sure that Morningway had considered compelling me to distrust Bob and had decided against it, because Bob would have noticed such a dramatic change. Not that Bob could have done much while owned by Morningway, but he can be stubborn when he wants to be, and (as in the matter of my magical education) quite good at reinterpreting orders. He would have done something about any spell that compelled me to distrust him. And then he'd have dealt with the rest of the thrall as well.
And all this was beside the point. If we wanted to save the world, this had to be done.
"Do it," I said to both of them. I glanced at Bob, who was opening his mouth to argue. "That's an order, Bob. We haven't got time to debate this. And I am not going to be the remote control that Sirota pushes to destroy the world. We're going to fix this, and then we're going to head on back to Chicago and kick some demonic butt."
"I'd rather save the world." That's Morgan for you. The eternal literalist.
"Morgan," I said, giving him a wicked grin, "it's the same thing."
I did wonder if we would have to leave No Man's Land so that Bob and Morgan could cast the thrall -removal spell. Morgan said no--a healing spell wasn't an attack, so there was nothing to bother the land. Since we were pressed for time, we stayed where we were.
I don't actually remember anything happening when they cast the spell. Oh, I felt a tingling sensation of magic against my skin; anyone attuned to it could sense that much. And there were a couple of seconds when I thought my head would burst. But then...nothing. I sat there waiting for them to start for a few minutes, then cautiously opened my eyes. "Any time, guys."
Bob was peering at me worriedly. "It's done, Harry."
And then I became aware of memories stirring in my mind, like a river that had been dammed up for ages and was just starting to flow again. Memories that I needed time to process.
Later, I promised myself. After the world stops ending.
That was the first thing I noticed--the memories.
The second thing I noticed was that Donald Morgan was seriously hot.
Wait, what? Where did that come from?
After a few seconds, I realized what had happened and mentally began to swear at my dead and hopefully damned uncle.
Around the time that I hit puberty, I'd started noticing guys and girls in equal measure. This lasted until I was about sixteen, when the interest in guys in general and in a remarkably sexy twentysomething Warden in particular suddenly switched off. I'd figured it had been a phase I'd going through and thought no more about it.
It made a horrible kind of sense. Morningway had wanted me to give him all my loyalty. He'd had to concede some loyalty to Bob, but there was no way that he'd allow me to remain friends with a strictly law-and-order Warden...much less fall in love with one.
Morgan was a threat, in Morningway's eyes, so Morgan had to die. Preferably at my hand.
And I...had to be controlled. And fanatically loyal to him and only to him. And straight. Because if there was anything he was invested in besides his own power grabs, it was in ensuring that the Morningway line continued.
God damn Justin Morningway and his dynastic ambitions.
I didn't have time to think about my newly re-discovered bisexuality, either. Clearly, I was going to have a lot to think about once the apocalypse was over.
Bob was still gazing at me, his eyes filled with fear.
"It's okay, Bob," I said gently. "Still me here. Just a few more memories. And I'm not crazy. Well. No more than usual."
"How reassuring," he said, crossing his arms over his vest with an imperious air as his eyes gleamed with relief. "Should I interpret that to mean that you will still require me to nag you to take paying jobs even after the apocalypse?"
"Probably," I sighed. Then I turned to Morgan. It was awkward, but I had to say this. "Thanks. Both of you. Especially you, Morgan. You were taking a hell of a chance that me with memories wouldn't be worse than me without. And, well, I know you don't trust me the way Bob does, so I appreciate that. And I owe you."
Morgan looked at me as if a chair had just spoken. But he answered politely, even if his tone was completely confused. "You're welcome."
"So. Don. Can you zap us back to Chicago? Please?"
He blinked for a moment, staring at me. It took me a minute or two to realize that I'd used his first name. It had just...slipped out.
Then, after murmuring a shield charm, he raised his hand and, seconds later, we were back in my apartment, with me tightly hugging to my chest the paper bag containing Bob's skull.
It was a good thing Morgan thought of the shield charm. If he hadn't, we probably would have been dead the minute we landed, for my apartment was a wreck. The windows were gone, the door was gone and about half of my living room had dissolved. The blue mist was everywhere, and I could feel it nibbling away at the magic of the shield charm.
"Jesus," I muttered, staring at the melting ruins of my home. "How long were we gone?"
Bob did some rapid calculations. "About ten hours."
"Ten hours! It took ten hours to turn off the trigger in my head?! But...but that means we've only got two hours left!"
"No." Morgan was back to being the Great Stone Face. "We have about a half hour. Forty-five minutes on the outside. That's how long the shield charm will last. After that--I suppose we'll start melting. I don't dare try to teleport us out of here--we might get out, but we might not. And it would only speed the destruction of the rest of the world."
"There has to be something," I said, trying very hard not to show that I was panicking. "I refuse to believe that there isn't something that would turn this spell off!"
Bob shook his head. "I know of nothing, Harry. I'm sorry."
And of course that was when Sirota popped up again.
If he had looked smug before, he was insufferable now. He looked as if he were basking in the deaths his spell was causing. I wondered if he'd always had the 'omnes corpores' spell in mind when he captured a pocket of childish rage and tied it to the most destructive spells that I knew, or if he'd ever considered another kind of apocalypse. Plague. A meteor hitting Earth. You know, something simple and easy to handle.
"Well?" he drawled. "Are you ready to negotiate yet? You haven't much time before your brains start to melt."
Morgan's reply was insulting, imaginative, flawlessly enunciated and utterly devoid of profanity.
Sirota frowned disapprovingly. "Hardly the correct attitude. You can save a few lives this way, you know."
"And damn ourselves in the process." Bob sniffed and looked down his long nose at Sirota. "I think not."
"Oh?" Sirota leaned closer to Bob--though not touching the shield charm. "Suppose I offered all of you something that you've always craved, and that no one else could give to you? Would you negotiate then?"
"No." Followed by a Morganesque glare.
"Get real." That was me.
Bob snorted. "You have nothing I want."
Sirota laughed. "Oh, I beg to differ. Harry, this is for you." He pulled a blue jewelry box from his pocket; within was what looked like a grain of sand. "A grain of the sands of time. Lovely, isn't it? And you can use it to go back and save your father. Or your mother. Either way. No strings attached, either. Go back, save one of them, live a nice quiet life."
"Until this happens," Morgan said, looking around expressively.
"Well, I don't know that it would happen if you went back, Harry," Sirota said--ignoring Morgan. "Come on, Harry, you get to go back in time, save one of your parents from murder, live a nice quiet happy life with no danger and possibly prevent an apocalypse. What more do you want?"
I couldn't speak. I just stood there, frozen.
Sirota moved on to Morgan. "Warden Morgan--may I call you Donald?"
"As you wish," Sirota murmured, pulling a ruby the size of a hen's egg from his jacket pocket. "This is the Jewel of Law. Hold it, and you can see any lawbreaker; place it in the pommel of your sword, and there is no person and no country you can't rule over. Your law--the law you hold in your heart--will govern over those whom you wish to govern. Things may go a bit mad after this," he added with a shrug, "but they won't fall apart. Because there will be law."
Morgan looked sorely tempted.
"And what temptation have you fashioned for me?" Bob asked in a flat, emotionless tone. "A key to unlock these manacles affixed to my wrists, perhaps?"
"Oh, I think I'll wait to tell you that. At least until they tell me their answers." He turned back to us. "Well? Morgan? Harry? I do hate to rush you, but the clock is ticking."
Morgan took a deep breath. "Some people think that I am too rigid in defense of the law"--and he glanced at me. "Or too zealous." A glance at Bob. "I've never felt that either was a problem."
Sirota smiled broadly.
"But," Morgan continued, "though I do believe that the law is the best way to serve justice, I do not believe that the law always is justice. There have been many unjust laws. And I cannot believe that law which comes from Hell would ever be just. I would end by being a tyrant or worse. Humanity would curse the day I accepted your offer. No."
I felt like cheering.
Sirota said nothing. He merely turned to me with a questioning expression.
"Bite me, Sirota," I said pleasantly. "Not saying it's not tempting, but...look. Say I go back and save Dad from being killed by Morningway. Well, what's to stop Morningway from trying a second time and succeeding then? Or--say everything works out the way you said. Say that Dad lives. Yeah, that means I never meet Uncle Justin--which would not be a hardship--but that would also mean that I never meet Bob or Morgan. I never train to become a wizard. All the people whose lives I've saved so far? They all die. You get your Hellion back. And you still get to be Uncle Justin's ally, which means that you could still have an apocalypse or two in the offing."
I glanced at Bob. "And Dad would be pretty pissed off if I saved him and left my other dad to suffer. Not to mention my friends"--and the guy I'd once been in love with and might be again, though I didn't say that part out loud--"and a whole bunch of other people. He'd say that Bob and he both raised me better than that."
If looks could kill, the one that Sirota gave me would not only have left me dead, but also torn out my entrails and cut my corpse into four pieces.
"And I suppose that leaves me," Bob said. "And since I don't believe that freeing me would actually work--it would unquestionably leave me indebted to Hell, which is not my idea of freedom--you may leave now. Your services are not required."
"Oh, I think you'll want to see what I have here." And Sirota gestured toward...well, nothing...and a woman appeared beside him.
She was stunning, with long, loose, curly black hair and red-rimmed pale eyes that might have been blue, green or gray--I couldn't tell from this distance. She was suntanned in the way of people who work outside most of the time; there's a difference between that and the tan you get from a tanning bed. It was hard to tell how old she was, based on the knowledge and experience in her expression--she might have been a wizard in her thirties who'd gone through a hell of a lot more in a brief period of time than a human ought to, or she might have been a young-looking two-hundred-year-old. She was dressed in a simple hunter green overgown and a saffron-yellow undergown, both of which would have been the hit of any Ren Faire.
And she was angry. Everything said so--her ramrod-stiff bearing, the way her fingers were gripping her skirts (about two inches away from shredding them in sheer fury) and especially the flat, level gaze she was giving Sirota. I've delivered that kind of look. It generally means that I've got the target in my mental gunsights and that I'm only biding my time because I don't want to bother wasting a shot.
Bob stared at her the way men dying of thirst have been said to stare at oases.
"Oh, that was a mistake," I murmured, hoping that Bob wouldn't hear me and also hoping that Morgan would. "Bob loved her more than life itself. I think he still does. And it looks like she feels the same way."
I'd seen Morgan surprised and in shock that day. Now I saw him boggle. "That? That is Winifred? The infamous sorceress who led Hrothbert of Bainbridge astray?"
"Well," I temporized, "her name is Winifred. I'm sure of that."
"Now, Necromancer," Sirota was saying, "it would be a very simple matter to restore you and her to life. I can find you a place to live. A position of power, even, for a time. You'd be safe. I can even arrange it so that you'll never have been cursed at all. Isn't that nice?"
Winifred shook her head, saying something unpronounceable in what I presumed was Welsh. But I didn't need a Babelfish in my ear to tell me that she felt that it definitely was NOT nice at all.
Bob, however, was thinking, "If I were never cursed, I would never have met Harry. Or taught him. If I save my lady, I betray my son."
"You have to choose one or the other," Sirota said, smiling in false sympathy. "You can't have both. Choose fast."
Just as I was beginning to wonder why Sirota was pushing so hard for a quick decision, I felt a brush of the 'omnes corpores' spell against the shield charm. We had minutes to go before death.
Sirota wasn't trying to tempt us--he was trying to distract us. And he was doing a damned good job of it.
And I still had no clue what to do.
Over Sirota's shoulder, I could see Winifred scrawling something in the air in golden letters. Nothing that made sense, though. Just a very simple sum: -1 -(-1) = -1 + 1 = 0
"Double negatives?" Morgan whispered, looking as perplexed as I felt. "What's so important about double negatives?"
I stared at the blue mist. What in the world was Winifred trying to say?
Then I got it, and the sheer audacity of it nearly took my breath away.
"Morgan," I whispered, "I need you to do what I'm going to do almost at the same time as I do it. And Bob, too, I hope. No arguments, please. Just do what I do. I think Winifred just told us how to win."
He hesitated. "What are you planning?"
"Something insane," I admitted."I can't guarantee that it will work. If it doesn't work, the world is still doomed. If it does--you owe me a pizza at whatever pizza place survives."
For a moment, he went very still. "Dresden. Are you saying that if you save the world, you want a date?"
He placed a strong hand on my right shoulder. "I agree. Now save the world. I'll follow in your wake."
I grinned at him, then reached out to Bob using a thin, almost invisible string of magic. Bob could touch magic, even if he couldn't touch me.
His eyes widened as he caught hold of it. Small wonder. It was the first time anyone had been able to touch him in a thousand or more years.
With Bob holding the string and Morgan gripping my shoulder, we were about as connected as we could get.
And very carefully, and with more attention to detail than I'd ever given to any spell, I duplicated Sirota's curse and cast it at the shield charm.
The curse leapt up, devouring the shield charm, seeping through holes in it.
Then it collided with the blue mist.
My curse began feeding on Sirota's curse. And vice versa. And as they met, they began canceling each other out.
It was logical when I thought about it. The problem with Sirota's curse was that you couldn't use different spells against it. It would just eat them and grow stronger. But if you hit Sirota's curse with itself, both curses ate each other's magic, rather than the rest of the magic in the vicinity.
One wizard's duplicate curse might not have been enough. But, as Morgan and Bob saw what I was doing, they copied Sirota's curse as well. Now there were three spells to counter the gigantic citywide one.
And all four were stopping the others in their tracks. The mist was disappearing, and though the world was still partially melted, the melting itself was stopping...and fast.
To say that Sirota was not pleased would be an understatement. He wanted us dead and in the eleventh level of Hell yesterday. (Yes, of course there's an eleventh level of Hell. It's reserved for door-to-door missionaries, creators of computer viruses, scammers and, according to Murphy, who cites a Chicagoan who calls himself the Nostalgia Critic, people who shout "Bloopity bloopity bloopity.")
He moved toward us. I don't know quite what he was planning to do--strangle me, I suspect. Or release his curse inside my brain. Either way.
Two things happened then.
First, Morgan pulled me out of Sirota's reach--to the point where I was leaning against Morgan. Since I was still holding Bob's skull in a bag, that also meant that Bob got pulled somewhat to the right. Almost exactly where I'd been standing mere minutes before, in fact.
Second, Winifred glanced at a half-melted wastebasket next to what had once been my desk. The wastebasket immediately lifted just a couple of inches above the floor, and headed straight for Sirota. Or, to be more precise, Sirota's legs.
He went flying headfirst into the mist where my front door had once been.
After that, it was all over except for the death of Sirota's earthly form.
And the screaming.
It took almost all of the two remaining hours for Sirota's curse to eat itself to death. Even then, in the face of all those who had been killed or maimed, people still wanted to believe that it was some kind of chemical warfare accident that had gone horribly wrong. Morgan, Bob, Winifred and I (oh, yes, once Winifred had found Bob again, all the gods of all the pantheons couldn't have kept her away from the man she loved) had to do a lot of fast talking to people from all over the world who didn't want to believe magic existed and who were very eager to avenge themselves against...well, whatever countries were currently unpopular.
What saved the human race, ironically, were the supernatural predators. As Morgan had predicted, they came out of the woodwork once most of the wizards were gone, trying to prey on a now-vulnerable population. Unfortunately for them, ordinary humans, when given sufficient motive, are really, really good at killing things. After the corpses of a number of wendigos, trolls, gelatinous horrors, werewolves and carnivorous water-horses were photographed and delivered to forensic scientists--not to mention the not-quite-corpses of members of the various vampire courts--people started coming around to the idea that the monsters in the dark were real...and that so was the magic to fight them.
Quite a lot of scientists didn't like that. Still don't, really.
It took about three months before Morgan and I had our pizza date--much to the disgust of Bob, who will never ever believe that a former enforcer for the High Council is the best that his son can do. I have pointed out that the four of us pretty much are the Council these days, but it doesn't seem to make any impression.
As for the date, it was...awkward. We had a lot of issues, after all, and years of confusion and misunderstandings to deal with. Neither the issues nor the misunderstandings faded away because we wanted them to. But we kept at it, snatching personal time when we could in between protecting humanity, hunting for magical kids and trying to train them (teaching is primarily Bob's and Winifred's department) and...well, instituting a breeding program with surrogates. Not at all personal--half the time the women who end up bearing our children live in different states, if not different countries--but necessary. Don and I aren't enough. We have to make sure that there is a next generation of wizards--preferably before one or both of us get killed by one of our numerous enemies.
It's not the kind of life I ever expected to lead--that of a nomadic warrior in a post-apocalyptic world. But I manage.
Oh, and remember what I said at the beginning, about my second-least favorite way to wake up was by being shaken awake by my magical parole officer?