Mike, my mechanic, deserves a sainthood. Or a burning at the stake, because I'm pretty sure some of the miracles he pulls off with my poor little Blue Beetle have to be magic.
Not that I'm anti-magic. The opposite, actually, since it's hard to be when you're a wizard. Which I am. Says it right on my business card: Harry Dresden, Wizard. It says it on my office door, too, and my wanted posters, when the occasion comes.
It happens more than you might think.
“What happened this time, Harry?” Mike asked, taking off his baseball cap so he could scratch his head puzzledly.
I scowled. “It got stabbed. With a sword.”
Mike looked doubtfully at the aerated Beetle. “Lotta holes for that.”
“There were a lot of swords.”
Normally, I try to fix my own car problems, with a little help from my old friends, Duct Tape, Gorilla Glue, and Dumb Luck. This time, though, a ninja had stabbed right through the engine block. Considering I have the electrical skills of a small bomb, I figured me and my wallet would bite the bullet and head to the auto repair shop.
“I'm not gonna be able to get it running for at least a week.” Mike said, slapping the hat back on his head. “More, if it's as busted up as you usually bring it in.”
“Dresden, got a call for you!” One of the mechanics stuck his head out of the office in the corner of the big garage with a phone receiver pressed to his chest.
I waved in acknowledgement and turned to Mike. “Any chance I can actually afford this?”
“Nope, no way.” Mike said cheerfully.
“You always know just what to say.” I said dryly, leaving him behind to head for the office. I don't have a cell phone, because I can be dumb sometimes, but not that dumb. Me and electronics? Not on good terms. I've got a landline at home and in my office, but otherwise, my friends and acquaintances are left calling around town looking for me. Good thing I'm so lovable.
“Hey, stay away from my welding equipment, Harry.” One of the mechanics said, protectively standing in front of said equipment with her arms crossed. “I can't afford new stuff if you break this.” Like I said, duct tape isn't always enough for the disasters me and the Beetle get into. The grease monkeys like to call me a repeat offender.
“Ha, ha.” I said dryly, giving the station a wide berth. I couldn't afford to replace it if my magic went on the fritz either.
Mike followed me as I went towards my phone call, pulling out a pad of paper to scratch expenses on.
“Yello?” I said, taking the phone from the first mechanic's grease-stained hand. He waved to me as he left, joining the crowd of people staring at the holes scattered around the ancient VW. I was pretty sure a light could shine through the car, front to back. It was not the worst injury the Beetle had suffered throughout our years together, but it was one of the more interesting ones.
“Dresden?” Karrin Murphy's voice asked over the line.
Murphy heads up the Special Investigations, or SI, division of the Chicago police, and she's good at it, too. Five foot nothing of blonde fury, she looks like a cheerleader and fights like a black belt. Which, coincidentally, she is.
I once saw her make an ogre cry. An ogre. She's one of my best friends in the entire world.
“Yep, that's me.” I said. “You stalking me now?”
I could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Your brother told me you wrecked that piece of junk car again. Figured I'd check your poor mechanic first.”
I tried to defend myself. “Hey, Mike likes taking care of the Beetle! It's a professional challenge.”
Mike shook his head, but said nothing, using a calculator and a notebook to figure out exactly how much my wallet was going to weep tonight.
“What's up, Murph?” I asked, leaning on the grimy counter.
“I might have a job for you.”
“My favorite phrase. Police or private work?”
“Private. Friend of mine. Can you meet me and I'll take you to her place?”
I pulled the receiver away from my mouth. “Any chance you'll magically be able to fix the Beetle in the next fifteen minutes?”
“Not with your track record, Harry.”
“That's fair.” I put the receiver back up to my ear. Murphy was laughing at me. “Yeah, I'm gonna need a ride.”
“I should have figured, you useless freeloader.” Murphy said. “Be there in twenty.”
She didn't need directions. Like I said, repeat offender.
Mike ripped off an expenses sheet and gave me my copy. I winced.
“So?” I asked Murphy, once she'd made me wait for a sufficiently long time in the freezing Chicago air so that she could turn off her cell phone and her police and car radios. “What's this case you have for me?”
“My old college roommate.” Murphy said. “She called me up with a problem, and it sounds like a Dresden problem to me.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “What kind of problem?”
“She thinks her house is haunted.”
I groaned. “Murph-"
She held up a hand to forestall me. “I know, I know. But Stacy isn't some paranoid nut. She's level-headed, rational. If she thinks something's going on, it probably is.”
“Yeah, all right.” I said, slightly mollified. Murphy doesn't suffer idiots around her. If she was vouching for this girl, she was probably legit. “I hope this friend of yours can pay.”
“Is that all you think about?” Murphy teased.
“That and food.” I said. I grinned, doing my best Neanderthal impression. “Harry poor. Harry hungry.”
“All right, all right, I get the point.” Murphy said. “I'll buy you some Burger King after we talk to Stacy.”
I patted my stomach. “If this friend of yours really can pay, I'm buying. You can even get a milkshake.”
“Generous.” Murphy said with a smile, flicking on her turn signal and turning into a gated community. “And yes, she can afford it. She went into writing after college, published some pretty popular books.”
“Yeah?” I asked, interested. I read a lot of books. It's kind of a necessity when you can't go near a tv without a disaster of explosive proportions. I think the last movie I saw was Star Wars. So I read a lot of cheap paper novels, when I'm not busy running for my life from zombie ninjas or bloodthirsty vampires. “What books?”
Murphy gave me a weird look as we pulled up to a big two-story house covered in greenery and with a sprawling driveway. I mean, it wasn't a mansion or anything, not like the Raith place or some of Chicago’s ridiculously wealthy, but it was definitely bigger than my little apartment. Then again, almost everything is. I've seen bedrooms bigger than my whole place.
“I always forget you're a book guy.” Murphy said. “Her pen name’s S.T. Hawkins.”
“No way!” I said, half laughing already. “Murphy, she writes vampire fiction.”
We stepped out of Murphy’s car, heading up the long gravel driveway towards the house proper.
Murphy brought a hand up to her mouth. “You're kidding.” She was hiding a smile. “I've never read her books.”
“They're about vampires!” I said gleefully. “They're horrible. It makes Thomas wince every time.”
Honestly, I like reading the trashy stories. Turns out, when you spend a majority of your life stabbing, fighting, running from, and solving relationship problems for vampires, you kind of want to wind down with less realistic stuff. I'd actually be kind of concerned if Hawkins’ stuff gave detailed descriptions of how to kill Red or White Court vampires or the like. Partially because my brother is one of those White Court vampires, and partially just because it would be a huge pain in my behind to track down and probably eventually fight one of my favorite authors.
“And yet, I notice you read them.” Murphy said with a smirk, leading me up to the door. “Although, I can't say there's anything I wouldn't do to annoy a sibling.” She knocked as I was snickering, leaving me to try and sober up before the door was opened.
It opened almost immediately after Murphy's knock, showing that Stacy had been waiting anxiously for us.
“Karrin!” She said.
Stacy was Murphy’s age, but they certainly didn't look similar. Stacy had long brown hair, tied up into one of those gravity-defying buns women somehow make, put all the way on top of her head. She had three pencils, a red correcting pen, and a spoon stuck into the mess. She looked harried, wearing a dark pair of jeans either stained with pen ink or else one of those trendy styles I just don't get. There were bags under her eyes, casting a shadow on an otherwise plain beauty.
“Stacy, it's good to see you.” Murphy said, giving her a quick hug. “This is the guy I told you about. Harry Dresden, this is Stacy Hawkins.”
“Nice to meet you.” I said. “Love the books.”
She smiled. “You read them?”
“Sure thing.” I said. “I love the vampire priest who’s sworn to a life of chastity.”
Murphy coughed out a laugh behind her hand. She's met vampires, too, and one word I’d never use to describe most of them, my brother included, is chaste.
“Oh, good.” Stacy said, shaking my hand. She had a firm grip and pencil marks smudged on her hands. “You're the wizard?”
“Yep.” I said. “Full-time wizard, part-time Ghostbuster.”
She laughed. “Funny. Come on in. Try not to hit your head on the doorway, tall guy.”
“That hasn't happened since yesterday.” I said cheerfully, following Murphy and Stacy into the house.
Stacy sat us down in uncomfortable but trendy white armchairs, then bustled around making coffee.
I took a moment to observe the house. Modern, like something out of a catalogue, but it had that homey, lived-in feel that only comes from a life spent in it. The desk in the corner of the living room matched Stacy herself, disorganized and stacked to the brim with papers. A laptop sat in the center of it which I made a mental note to steer clear of, and two more forgotten cups of coffee cooled on its various surfaces. I couldn't see the rest of the house, but nothing so far was exactly screaming “nefarious haunting” at me.
I raised an eyebrow at Murphy.
She rolled her eyes. “Just wait and hear what she has to say, Dresden.”
Stacy reemerged, handing us identical and trendy black coffee cups. “Three creams, right, Karrin? Sorry, Mr. Dresden, I wasn't sure what you’d like.” She sat in a chair across from us.
“This is fine, thanks.” I sat back with the cup of coffee in my hands, my duster brushing the floor from the awkward position the chair had forced me into. “Murphy tells me you think you might be haunted.”
“I know, I know, it's silly.” Stacy’s fingers were almost white from where they'd been gripped around the mug of her own coffee. “But there's things going on here, things I can't explain.”
“Like what?” I asked, leaning forward. I'm no ectomancer, no particular expert in spirits, but a ghost is a supernatural entity, just like fae, vampires, and any of the other nasties I've faced down over the years. It means they can be taken down.
Stacy glanced at Murphy, still a little unsure. Murphy nodded at her encouragingly, just observing.
Stacy took a deep breath. “Marta, my housekeeper, was killed here just a few days ago.”
My eyebrows lifted in surprise, and I looked Murphy’s way as well.
Murphy nodded. “I looked into the police report myself, Harry. The railing was broken, and she fell over the side of the landing. No fault on either side. Officially ruled an accident. ”
“That's the thing.” Stacy said. “I don't think it was. I heard Marta scream, then I heard the wood on the railing break.”
“You think she saw who or whatever it was that killed her.” I surmised. “You think she was pushed.”
“That, or scared into falling.” Stacy said, hands shaking, just a little. “Because it's not just that. I've been feeling things, too. Seeing things.”
“Like what?” Murphy asked, as gently as she could. Years of working in law enforcement have left a little to be desired in the softness department, making questions sound like interrogations and interrogations sound like threats.
Stacy didn't seem to notice, absorbed with staring into her cooling coffee. “Noises at night. It sounds like there's someone talking to me, but they're muffled. Like they're underwater or something.” The pretty, joking face from the front door was gone, pulled into tight, worried lines. “I always feel like I'm being watched. Sometimes I'll see flickers out of the corner of my eyes.”
“Why don't you leave?” I asked, curious. A house is a house, and if whatever was haunting this poor woman had resorted to killing, staying could be fatal as well as spooky.
She folded her arms. “This is my house. I was here first.”
I was surprised. “What do you mean?” Like I said, I'm no ghost aficionado. But the Poltergeist impression usually happens right after the hopeful little family moves into the old house in the middle of nowhere. This didn't feel like that.
“This house is only a year old. I watched it built. This-" The hand with the coffee in it wavered in the air a moment, searching for an explanation that didn't sound insane. “Haunting only started a month ago.”
“Really?” I asked. “Did anyone you know recently die?”
She shook her head. “Unless you're counting Marta, no.”
I frowned. “That's odd. It’s strange for a ghost to suddenly appear somewhere without some kind of significant trauma.”
Murphy's lips were pressed together. With her turned up nose, it made her look adorable. Not that I’d ever tell her that. I prefer everything in my body where it is. “By trauma, you mean death.”
I nodded. “Do you mind if I take a look around the house? Especially where the accident happened?”
“Of course.” Stacy said. She stood up suddenly and set the coffee on a little end table. I drained mine and followed her.
She led us into the foyer of the house that I’d glimpsed from the front door. It was decorated in line with what I’d seen of the house. Modern, mostly in shades of grey, black, and white. There was a doorway leading to the kitchen and another to the small living room and office we'd just been in. There was also a tall, wide staircase.
The banister at the top of the stairs was broken, patched hastily with plywood. Otherwise, the room was unremarkable.
“I've been using the back stairs.” Stacy admitted as we looked up at the site of the poor housekeeper’s demise. She looked embarrassed. “The firemen on scene said it should be safe, but.”
“I wouldn't like it either.” Murphy said. She squinted up at the banister. “Want to go take a look?”
“Always.” I said. I led the way up the stairs, and crouched down to look at the splintered part of the landing. “Nothing weird.” I muttered. Murphy crouched beside me to look as well.
Most of the original railing had already been replaced with the plywood, but what remained was splintered into chunks. I've fallen off a lot of things, and it looked like an accident to me. I looked around once more, spotting a window to the backyard with a blue pool and an expensive barbeque. Still nothing.
I drew in my power, feeling around me for something unusual. My senses stretched throughout the house, probing gently for anything malicious.
I frowned. “I don't feel anything.” I held up a hand at Stacy’s dismayed look. “That doesn't mean there's nothing here. The energy could have dispelled or it could be hidden.” Or that there was nothing there. I hadn't seen anything to indicate foul play, much less anything in my wheelhouse.
But then again, this was a damsel in distress. I'm all soft inside when it comes to those; so sue me. Plus, she was Murphy’s friend, which means neither of us would ever forgive me if this turned out to be real and I ignored it.
“Should we move on?” I asked brightly, standing up and sticking out a hand to help Murphy to her feet. “Where else have you felt this thing?”
Stacy nodded, giving the railing a wide berth as she walked around us to take the lead again. She gestured to several doors in the hallway. “The upstairs office, bedroom, and guest room.”
I raised an eyebrow. That still left one door unaccounted for. “What's in there?” I motioned to it.
“Oh.” Stacy said, blinking. “Just the bathroom.” She opened the door to it to show us.
“And you've never felt it in here?” I asked.
“I guess not.”
“That's strange.” I said. “Don't you think a ghost would haunt the whole house? Maybe it's pee-shy.”
Murphy snorted and elbowed me. “Dresden.” She complained.
I grinned at her and stepped around Stacy into the bathroom. Now that was definitely bigger than my bedroom, not to mention more high tech. I got teary thinking about the kind of hot water pressure she must have had in there.
It was set up like any bathroom I've ever seen; bathtub and shower, the porcelain throne, and a big vanity whose lights flickered when I walked by it.
There were candles scattered in various places around the bathroom -- decorative, not functional, like the ones I used.
My hand hovered over one of the candles. It was thick and orange and tied in a decorative twine bow.
“Where'd you get this?” I asked, brow furrowed. Stacy had been watching me do my wizardly mojo, but she still startled when I spoke.
“Uh, my neighbor at my old place gave it to me. She said it was lucky.” She said, and looked alarmed. “Why, is it dangerous?”
I shook my head, flipping the candle around in my hand. “The opposite, actually. This is a Good Will candle.”
“What's that?” Murphy asked.
I shrugged. “Basically what it sounds like. It gives good will to the person who has it. Luck, protection, stuff like that.” I hadn't seen a Good Will candle in a long time. They take too much effort and time to make just to sell to tourists or suckers, so most people don't bother making them any more.
A Good Will candle isn't too hard to make, if you have a specific person you're thinking about when you're making it. You focus your will on protecting them, get a few rare ingredients, and stew for a few days. Your mind also has to be fairly free of worries, struggle, and darkness, which is why I've never made one.
They also take at least a small amount of magical ability. Not strong magic, but not anything to sneeze at, either.
Murphy gave me a look. She guessed that, too. “Can I get your neighbor's address, just in case?”
“Yeah, of course.” Stacy scrambled in her pockets and emerged with a receipt to write on. She pulled a pen out of the mess of her hair and started scribbling on it.
I examined the candle for a second longer, searching for any subtler feelings of ill-intent woven into the wax. Nothing, just pure, honest good wishes.
Sure would be nice if someone would give something like that to me every once in a while.
“You don't think it was the neighbor, right?” Murphy asked as we drove back out of Stacy’s sprawling driveway.
“I don't think so.” I said. Before we had left, I had advised Stacy to keep the candle in her bedroom, maybe carry it in her purse or something. It wasn't going to keep out any big nasties, or anything, but it seemed to have been working okay deterring whatever was haunting Stacy so far. “But it takes magical talent to make one of those candles, so it's always possible.”
“It's worth checking out, anyway.” Murphy said.
“Do you have any idea what it could be?” Murphy asked. “Do not say vampires. I'm sick of those guys.”
“Vampires.” I said, just to be contrary. “I don't know. It could be a legitimate haunting, but there would have been some sort of spectral energy. It could be something else, or it could be nothing.”
“Amazing.” Murphy said. “How did I get by without you?”
“No one knows.” I said.
Murphy stopped the car, squinting up at an apartment building. “We’re here.”
“Wow, big step up for Stacy.” I observed. The complex definitely wasn't shabby or anything, but it also wasn't the opulent suburban house Stacy lived in now.
“Yeah, well, she was a starving author for a long time until she got successful. It was hard for her to move on from that life.” Murphy said. “It was only about a year ago that she finally made the move to that big neighborhood.”
I folded myself out of Murphy’s car and followed her up to the second level of apartments.
“This is it.” Murphy said, peering at the scrap of receipt paper Stacy had given us. She knocked on the door.
“They've got a threshold and some medium wards.” I leaned over to murmur to Murphy. I could probably bust through them with a little effort, but I’d definitely get my fingers burned and it would give the owner of the house a fair warning that someone was coming. Not bad.
Murphy shot me a wary look and the door swung open to reveal a friendly-faced woman. In terms of height, she was even shorter than Murphy, wearing overalls and a crop top. She had thick-rimmed, giant glasses that glinted in the light.
“Hello-- wow, you're tall.”
“I've never heard that before.” I deadpanned.
Murphy rolled her eyes. “I'm Detective Murphy, Chicago P.D. This is a consultant, Harry Dresden. We'd like to talk to you about an old neighbor of yours.”
“Yeah? Which one?”
“I’m Ameena.” The woman said, face breaking out into a small smile at the name. She stuck out her hand to shake.
Murphy took it, and then me. There was a small tingling in my fingers that let me know she was definitely a minor practitioner, and she took her hand back quickly, shaking it out like she was trying to get rid of a last bit of electricity. “Wow, what does a wizard want with Stacy?”
“There’s something supernatural after her.” I said. “We found your Good Will candle in her house, and it seemed like it was keeping it away.”
“Oh.” Ameena blinked, and stood aside. “Come on in.”
Ameena led us into the small apartment, which was filled with various trinkets and curios, some of which were magic and some of which were just pretty.
“Sit down.” Ameena said. We did. A cat jumped up onto the couch beside us and I started giving it the vigorous ear-scratching it deserved. It flopped down into my lap and I continued to pet it while Ameena settled across from us.
“Why did you give Stacy a Good Will candle?” I asked.
Ameena blushed. “Well, we weren't exactly neighbors. I mean, we were , but we dated for a while, too.”
“Oh.” I said, nodding. That made sense. If the relationship was happy enough, it would certainly be enough juice to give the candle power.
Then again, if the relationship had been bad, that would be enough motive to attack Stacy.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Murphy said, all sweetness and definitely not mentally revising her suspect list, “What happened between you two?”
Ameena shrugged. “I don’t know. We wanted different things, I guess. It was a real amicable breakup.”
“What do you mean by that?” Murphy asked.
“Not sure, I guess.” Ameena shrugged. “She got so busy with her writing, and I run an occult shop. She never really believed in that stuff. We'd fight about it sometimes. When she got all that money from her books, she wanted to move into a better neighborhood. We figured we'd just end it there. Nice and clean.”
That, at least, didn't sound like a housekeeper-murdering revenge spectre. My gut was telling me it wasn’t Ameena. Of course, my gut’s lied to me before. Usually it wants pizza.
“Did you do anything special to the candle you gave Stacy?” I asked. “It seems to be keeping whatever it is away from her, at least for now.”
Ameena looked startled. “She really still has it? I'd have figured she'd throw it away.” She shook her head. “No, it was pretty typical. I sourced all the ingredients at my own shop and everything. It would give protection, but not against anything big.”
“You can't think of anyone who would want to hurt Stacy?” Murphy asked.
Ameena lifted an eyebrow. “Like I said, we don't see each other any more. I'd have no idea.”
Great. Dead end. Murphy and I looked at each other, then stood up in unison.
“Okay, thank you, Ameena.” Murphy said, extending her business card to her. “Please call if you think of anything.”
“I will.” Ameena said, sounding genuine. I gave her my card, too, and we retreated back to the car.
“That was a waste of time.” I grumbled. “We still don't know what's after Stacy, or why the candle is keeping it away.”
Murphy sighed, running a hand through her hair. “It can never be easy, can it?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” I asked.
“Dresden, I’m going to punch you.” Murphy said.
I opened the door to my apartment, toting a few grocery bags and bracing myself for impact. Sure enough, a few seconds later, my shins were assaulted by a furry mass which did its best to knock me over with the force of its greeting.
I leaned down to scratch my cat’s ears. “Hi, Mister.” I said. Mister blinked at me, sniffed at the hair from Ameena’s cat, and sullenly stomped away. “Thomas, you home?”
“In here, little brother.” My brother stuck his head out of the bathroom, toweling his hair. “You got groceries.” He said. The two of us were terminally poor and neither of us knew how to cook, so groceries were kind of a treat.
“New client.” I said. “Paid in advance.”
“Ahh, Murphy got ahold of you.” Thomas ducked back into the bathroom and emerged a second later, hair still wet but somehow giving off an aura that he'd styled it that way on purpose. Lucky jerk.
I put the groceries into my old-fashioned ice box and gave my dog a quick scratch. “Yep.” I said. “Mike said the car’s gonna take at least a week to get back into shape. Though that's a relative term when it comes to the Blue Beetle.”
Thomas stretched, muscles rippling, totally visible because he wasn't wearing a shirt. He was only clad in jeans that were probably too tight to be healthy and the pentacle necklace that matched the one around my neck.
Thomas tends to forget social niceties like clothes when he's in my apartment, but honestly, considering all the other problems I have in my life, getting my vampire brother to put on a shirt is just not the hill I'm willing to die on.
Not that I'm planning on dying on a hill. I'll probably be murdered by a werewolf or something first. Stars and stones, my life is depressing.
“Want me to pick up the Beetle when it's done?” He asked, using a bare foot to rub Mouse’s huge scruff of fur. Mouse flopped over in bliss, huge doggy tongue hanging out of his mouth.
“Ugh, no.” I said. “Everyone there thinks you're my boyfriend because you use that dumbass fake French accent whenever you go there.”
“‘Ah-ree.” Thomas protested, in a dumbass fake French accent.
I shot him a glare, kicking his feet out of the way so that I could move past. My apartment in the boarding house is small, and it definitely wasn't meant for two tall brothers, a horse-sized dog, a monstrous cat, and a spirit trapped inside a skull to live in all at once.
I flopped down on the other side of the couch that Thomas uses as a bed, bracing myself as I saw Mister tensing to leap down from the bookshelf.
The cat landed with a thump that pushed most of the air out of me, and looked disdainfully up at my face as if disappointed in my actions.
“It's your fault the possessed zombie ninjas were stabbing my car and me, anyway.” I said, trying to look as gruff as is technically possible when there’s forty pounds of purring grey fur kneading its claws into your jeans. “I should have made you pay for it.”
“If you'll remember, I got stabbed a few times as well.” Thomas said with no heat, dropping the accent. “How's the new case of yours?”
“Weird.” I said. “The woman thinks she's being haunted, and I’d agree. Except it's a little too perfect.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it's a textbook haunting. It could be ripped out of any one of cheap horror movies.” I frowned. “Something about it seems wrong.”
“Well, with you, it usually is.” Thomas said cheerfully. “Call me if the world is about to end, okay? I have things I’d like to do first.”
“See if I save the world again for you ungrateful losers.” I grumbled. “I get nothing but disrespect.”
I frowned, checking my watch. I'd had to take the L all the way back to Murphy’s friend Stacy’s house, and she wasn't even answering the door. We’d had an appointment.
“Hello?” I called, a creeping feeling starting down the back of my neck. “It's Harry Dresden!”
I was well aware that this is the part where I should run away. Nothing good comes from eerily silent houses.
I've never been too good at doing the smart thing.
Instead, I picked up my staff from where I’d leaned it on the door to knock, and Listened. Listening isn't hard, just a matter of extending your senses, a trick I’ve found useful as a private detective.
I Listened, trying to find out if Stacy was even home or if I was panicking for no reason. Instead, I heard running water. Not the normal kind, like a shower, but like something was overflowing. I sent a quick hope to the skies that I wasn't about to accidentally get myself arrested, murmured a quick spell, and broke the lock on the door.
I took the stairs three at a time towards the source of the water sound, rushing up towards the bathroom.
“Stacy!” I called, readying my will into my shield bracelet and my power into my blasting rod, just in case.
The bathroom door was open a crack when I reached it, and I pushed it the rest of the way with no small amount of trepidation.
There are some things, that once you see them, you never forget.
There's the good things, like seeing your brother slip on a pile of cat puke and scream like a girl. There's the bad things, like watching people be killed by something that's just not quite human. There's even the okay things, like the first time you attend a polka concert.
One of the things I'll never forget is seeing Stacy Hawkins drowning.
The bathtub was full of water, leaking out onto the floor and pooling by my feet. Oddly enough, Stacy was still fully dressed. She was wearing some kind of pantsuit that I'm pretty sure was too expensive for me to even breathe on, much less to be getting wet like that.
Stacy was still struggling, hands flailing wildly as more and more water poured in. But something was holding her down, or more accurately, stopping her from getting up. There was some kind of thin, blue, magical field around the top of the bath, not allowing her to get up to breathe. She was valiantly trying to hold her breath, but her face was red with the effort and she looked scared.
I observed this horrific scene within the span of a second and rushed forwards, stabbing my staff into the water. It met resistance, then broke whatever the barrier was with a loud crack, like ice breaking. Most of the water flew upwards instead, soaking me and the bathroom equally.
I hauled Stacy out of the water and dropped her on the floor. But gently. I leaped forward to try and see what was happening as the rest of the water started to drain, swirling sedately down the drain.
I thought I saw something, a flicker, but then it was gone and the bathroom was eerily silent but for Stacy’s panting.
“What the hell.” Stacy said, staring at the bathtub. “Did my bathtub just try to kill me?”
“It probably was something else trying to kill you using the bathtub as a weapon.” I said.
“Oh.” Stacy said.
The bathroom walls dripped. So did we.
“We should probably get out of here.”
Stacy grabbed a change of clothes and I called Murphy to let her know what had happened and that we were coming over. Stacy handed me a towel and slung one around her neck, and we very gracefully ran away from the house very fast.
I carefully took the keys out of Stacy’s shaking hand and set myself to attempting to drive a vehicle that was outfitted more like a spaceship than a car. Several things sparked as we got in, and I could only hope none of them were vital to driving.
The radio made a sad staticky noise, loudly announced a radio show, and died.
“Of course.” Stacy said, and whacked it viciously. It remained silent, but she hit it a few more times for good measure. I let her.
I knocked on Murphy’s door, hunching into my wet duster and toweling my hair. The wind whipped at me and Stacy the longer we stood there. I tried not to look pathetic.
Murph opened the door, raising an eyebrow at us. “You look pathetic.” Damn it. “Come on in.”
I stepped across Murphy’s threshold, which is comfortingly strong, and basked in the warmth of her heater. With me around, it was likely to die a horrible death, but I could enjoy it while it lasted. Murphy’s place is decorated in a way that speaks more to her lack of initiative to change anything than anything else, all her grandmother’s doilies and pink frills. The only concessions to her own personality were a few photos and the swords above the mantle.
“I’m going to change.” Stacy muttered, and disappeared into Murphy’s bedroom.
I made my best puppy eyes at Murphy. “I don’t suppose you have anything that would fit me?”
She rolled her eyes. “Normally, no. But I just so happen to have your clothes from the last time you were here. I got most of the slime and blood out, but I don’t know how to sew up knife cuts.”
“You’re an angel.”
Murphy punched me in the shoulder. “You’re dripping on my carpet.”
That’s Murphy-speak for glad you’re alive .
I escaped to Murphy’s bathroom, peeling my clothes off and dumping them on the floor. I eyed the bathtub warily. “Don’t make any sudden moves.” I told it.
As I struggled out of my wet jeans, I tried to go over what had happened at Stacy’s house. I’d never seen something like that, but it looked maybe like some sort of shield spell. But there hadn’t been anyone around to cast it, and I’d never heard of anyone who could cast a spell like that without at least seeing what they were casting it on.
I sighed, running my fingers through my wet hair to make it stand up. I knew Murphy would make fun of me for my bedhead, and I hoped it would cheer Stacy up. Not everyone is as used to near-death experiences as I am.
I shrugged on my t-shirt-- Han Shot First -- and considered how easy it had been to break whatever had its talons in Stacy. I guessed whoever it was had been surprised. Which meant that next time we went toe-to-toe, it was going to be a lot harder.
Sigh. Such is the life of Harry Dresden.
I stepped out of the bathroom, hauling my pile of wet clothes. Murphy was already microwaving something that smelled like soup, and Stacy was clutching a glass of wine, her still-wet hair pulled back into a braid.
I dumped my clothes in Murphy’s washer (The slime thing? Not a one time incident), hoped none of Stacy’s clothes that were already in there needed special washing, and started it. And then ran, because Murphy gets mad when I break her stuff.
“Literally what is wrong with your hair?” Murphy asked in dismay, looking up from where she was pouring soup into a bowl.
“What?” I asked, running my hand over my head and undoubtedly making it worse. “You don’t like it?”
“It looks like that thing your cat brought in a while ago.” Murphy said, squinting at my head. “When was the last time you got a haircut?”
“Recently!” I said. “Ish.”
Murphy put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth to retort, but we were interrupted by a very ungraceful snort. Stacy put her hands over her mouth, but she couldn’t stop the laughter from escaping. Murphy grinned, bringing a bowl of microwaved soup to both of us and reaching on her very tip-toes to try and smooth out my hair.
“Need me to duck?” I asked. She flicked my ear and flatted my hair somewhat, shooting me a grateful look nevertheless as she went to sit beside Stacy.
The tension broken, I sat myself at the table as well, resisting the urge to mess up Murphy’s hard work with my hair. I sniffed at the soup. Ah, good old Campbell’s.
“So?” Murphy asked. “What happened?”
I gave her the rundown on what I’d walked in on, summarizing in between slurps of soup.
“And you?” Murphy turned to Stacy. “How did you end up in a bathtub fully clothed?”
Stacy shrugged fatalistically. “No idea. The drain was clogged or something-- I heard it when I passed by. I reached in to see what was happening, and bam. Sucked me in.”
“The protection on the candle must have run out.” I muttered. I hadn’t been sure why it was effective at all, really, and I had warned Stacy as much, but it clearly wasn’t working any more.
Murphy kicked me under the table, clearly sensing my thoughts leaning towards self-blame, and I kicked her back and let it be. I had plenty of things to feel guilty about in my everyday life.
“I don’t think it’s a ghost.” I said. “I’ve never heard of a ghost that’s this strong, or stuck on one person. Most specters are just shadows of people who have died.” I had some contacts I could talk to, but I suspected they’d tell me the same thing.
“So what is it?” Murphy asked.
“So glad we have you.” Murphy groused. “Stace, why don’t you stay here tonight?”
Stacy shook her head. “No way. We’re never going to figure this out if I’m not even there. I might as well move out now.” There was a stubborn tilt to her mouth. “Why don’t you two just stay the night? You can keep an eye out.”
“Seems risky.” I said, raising my eyebrows.
“Sure does.” Stacy said.
“Fine.” I said. “I'll pick up some backup.”
I met Thomas at my office, where he was theoretically answering phones for me and realistically playing paper football and flirting with the girls from the office next door. My brother was stretched lazily on top of my desk rather than sitting in the chair, so I took the desk chair for myself.
“Are you working tonight?” I asked, pointedly pulling a piece of paper out from under him. I pretended not to notice it ripping.
“Am I working, as in, am I not scheduled for a shift today, or did I get fired again?” Thomas asked. “Because in both cases, it's yes.”
“No, I mean- aw, man, you got fired from Taco Bell?” I shook my head. “Me and Murphy could use a little more manpower on this case tonight.”
“Yeah, sure, I can help, little brother.” Thomas said. “What's the job?”
“Protection for Murphy’s author friend. Something’s trying to kill her, and since we don't know what yet, I figured it's better to be safe than sorry.”
“You got it.” Thomas said. “I think I can spare some time out of my busy schedule.”
“Oh, get out of my office.” I grumbled.
Thomas slunk off the desk with supermodel grace and fled for the door. He opened it and shot me a blinding smile. One of the girls from the office next door caught sight of it, and swooned.
“I can't believe I'm still driving you two losers around.” Murphy said, slapping Thomas’ hand away from her radio controls. “When's that crappy car of yours out of the shop?”
I scowled from the backseat. “The Beetle is not crappy.” Sure, it can only generously be called the Blue Beetle any more, and sure, Mike has been telling me to mercy kill it for years now, but the Beetle is not crappy.
“Harry pissed off some princesses and their zombie ninja army stabbed it. And me.” Thomas said.
“ I pissed them off, now?” I growled, leaning forward to flick Thomas’ ear. “If I recall, it was you-"
“Oh, look, we're here.” Murphy said, speeding up a little more than was probably safe until the house was visible from the street.
“Hey, you never told me what this author friend of yours writes.” Thomas realized as we crunched down the gravel driveway once again.
“Oh, I didn't?” I asked innocently. “I think they're called The ShadowBiter Journals.”
“No!” Thomas said, looking agonized. “You know I hate that series and the stupid priest vampire!”
“What?” I asked, pretending to be surprised. “I thought you liked it when the priest had to give up his true love and his lust for blood in order to commit himself to the priesthood?”
“They're horrible!” Thomas said. “Let me out, I'm running home.”
“You wish you could get out of this that easy, Raith.” Murphy said. “Get your butt in that house.”
Thomas obeyed, but only because he's scared of Murphy, like any other mortal being. He flipped me off behind Murphy’s back and I stuck my tongue out at him. We’re very mature.
Stacy met us at the front door and showed us to the guest bedroom Murphy would be sleeping in. It was two air mattresses in the living room for Thomas and me.
“You tricked me into this.” Thomas muttered, trying to look menacing even though he was trying and failing at spreading a fitted sheet across the balloony mattress. It creaked under his weight, and I was rather unoptomistic that the other bed could hold up to my weight or height, but didn’t say anything.
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not like she meant to offend you with her inaccurate vampires.”
“They’re allergic to cheese! Why would they be allergic to cheese!?!”
“You’re allergic to love. ” I pointed out.
“Do you want me to start talking about Harry Potter again?” Thomas threatened.
“Their potion-making is embarrassing!” I said. “Plus, why would you let an eleven year old-”
A pillow hit me in the face, briefly smothering me with soft down, then another one hit Thomas. “If you’re done.” Murphy said, holding a third pillow.
I held my cheek, even though it didn’t hurt at all. “It was a friendly argument.” I said in a wounded voice.
“It sounded like you were bickering like twelve-year olds.” Murphy said. “Come on, we’re ordering pizza.”
Thomas and I sulked a little, then followed Murphy into Stacy’s ridiculously large kitchen.
“Oh, hey.” Stacy said, pressing a very fancy-looking phone to her chest. I took a discreet step back lest I interfere with the pizza-bringing device. “What do you guys want on your pizza?”
“Anything’s fine.” I said. I buy a lot of pizza, but I rarely eat any of it, though that has more to do with a very small faerie informant than pickiness.
“Extra cheese.” Thomas said.
“Got it.” Stacy said. She backed up out of the kitchen, away from me to make her call. Apparently she’d learned from her past mistakes.
“So?” Thomas asked once the three of us were alone, draping himself over one of the barstools like he was posing for a picture in a magazine. “We have a plan here?”
“Don’t get murdered by a ghost?” I said. Both of them glared at me. I thought it was funny. “Okay, okay. I figure we sleep in shifts. We don’t want to tip off the-- whatever--” And you’d be right if you thought it didn’t annoy the hell out of me that we didn’t know what it was yet-- “So we can’t put too obvious a guard on her.”
“Hey, a good plan for once.” Murphy said. I mimed pulling a dagger out of my back, and she laughed. “I’ll take first shift.”
We actually had a good night, which was my first sign that things would go horribly wrong later. We were kind of like little kids at a sleepover, slightly giddy with nerves about whatever was in this house and unneeded adrenaline. We ate pizza on Stacy’s couch and played Uno.
Finally, Stacy’s face cracked with a yawn.
“Must be time to go to bed.” Murphy said. “Good night, boys.”
“Night, Murph.” I said. “Goodnight, Stacy.” Thomas echoed me, and we retreated to our air mattresses in the living room. Neither of us bothered to change into pajamas-- realistically, we were probably going to be fighting something tonight and no one wants to do that in their PJ’s. It’s kind of hard to seem threatening to the bad guys when you’re wearing Star Wars pajama pants. Not that that’s happened to me before.
I kicked off my shoes, though, and made sure my staff was easily accessible.
“Night, Thomas.” I yawned.
“Goodnight, little brother.” Thomas said. “If we all get killed like in the Blair Witch, I’m going to kill you.”
“Witches, not ghosts.” I reminded him. “Good night.”
Murphy woke me up by shaking my shoulder, hard. “Your watch, Dresden.”
“Whmphhh.” I said articulately. “Sleep.”
Murph huffed out a laugh. “Get up.”
I rolled over. “Okay, okay, I’m up.” I still didn’t get up. Murphy punched me in the arm.
I opened my eyes, and blinked. “Are you wearing pink?” To be fair, she wasn’t wearing pajamas either, but she was wearing pink sweatpants and a grey t-shirt from the gym she frequents.
“What do you think?” Murphy asked, and yawned. “All clear so far. I’m going to sleep.”
“Pink.” I agreed. She hit me again, and retreated. I stood up reluctantly, slipping on my sneakers and past my asleep brother. I took up my staff as I walked, unwilling to be caught unaware.
I shook myself a little as I woke up fully, doing a quick perimeter check and magically checking on Stacy. Everything was quiet.
I’d say too quiet, but I could still hear Thomas’ chainsaw snoring. For someone so attractive, he sure does make an ugly noise while he sleeps. I think he may have a deviated septum or something.
I wandered around, careful to keep my steps light and my staff close. I found the kitchen, where Murphy had already put a pot of coffee on. Bless her.
There’s something creepy about a house at night, especially a big one. As little kids, we sleep with the nightlight on for that very reason, and most of us turn on the lights before we enter a room. That’s because somewhere, deep down inside, we know there’s something out there.
Wizards can sense that stuff better than most people. Maybe it’s because of the magic, or maybe because we’ve actually seen the things that goes bump in the night. Either way, when I started getting that there’s a monster in the closet feeling, I listened to it.
I guess more accurately, I Listened. There was Thomas’ motorcycle snoring, the soft sound of Murphy’s breaths as she slept, a drip in the kitchen. I couldn’t hear Stacy. Unless she was an insanely quiet sleeper, that probably wasn’t good.
I took the stairs three at a time until I got to Stacy’s door. I knocked on it with the top of my staff and called her name, not wanting to find out I was wrong by bursting in on poor Stacy while she slept peacefully. Then again, when has my life ever been that easy?
When there was no answer, I slipped inside.
“Stacy?” I asked. Or tried to. I made no noise.
I cursed, which was silent as well. Someone had veiled the room so that we couldn’t hear what was going on. Damn it. We should have had Murphy sleep in the room with her, but we were afraid that would tip our hand.
I stepped further into the room instead of stepping outside and calling for help. Stacy was still inside-- I’ve never been able to resist a damsel in distress.
Although Stacy didn’t exactly look in distress at the moment. She’d clearly rolled out of bed when she’d seen the attacker, who was veiled so heavily all I could see was a dark shadow. The bedclothes were on the floor, half-pulled off. She was currently kneeing the veiled shape in the balls, or what equivilated the balls in a mostly indistinguishable figure.
It stumbled-- Mr. Shadow was definitely alive, and definitely male, and Stacy spotted me, looking relieved. She ducked out of the way, oddly soundless as she thumped to the floor.
“ Forzare!” I said by force of habit, kicking myself when nothing happened. No sound, no spells. Instead, I rushed forward, my kinetic rings first.
Mr. Shadow snarled soundlessly, moving out of the way. He wasn’t quite fast enough, and my rings caught him hard enough that he stumbled backwards. While he was distracted, I motioned for Stacy to run. She scrambled to her feet, but Mr. Shadow recovered himself and used a spell that sent us both crashing to the ground.
Great. I couldn’t use spells, but this guy could, which meant he had an advantage over us.
A wizard’s spells aren’t so much about what we say-- I use an inelegant version of Latin, Ramirez, a Warden, uses Spanish, and I heard there’s a girl somewhere who uses Klingon for her spells. Instead, they’re about the belief we put behind them. A lot of magic relies on belief. Kind of like Tinkerbell.
I used Latin as a focus for my spells, like I used my blasting rod and my staff. I could do magic without them, but, well, with magic like mine, that ends up with an explosion more often than I’d like.
Lucky for me, I'm good at improvising. I tackled the guy. Fear my wizardly ingenuity.
Unfortunately, Mr. Shadow chose that instant to sling another spell at me, and my shield bracelet chose that moment to actually work. The two spells fought each other for a moment, clashing with a shockwave that sent us all flying
Out the window.
This wasn’t the first time I’d fallen out a window, because sometimes life is just like that. I knew the drill. I covered my head with my arm, and extended my shield around myself and Stacy. We fell to the ground, hard, but nothing was broken as far as I could tell.
And the silence veil still hadn’t been lifted. Fantastic.
I staggered to my feet, lifting my staff as I searched for our bad guy. The silence was starting to get to me-- like my ears were stuffed with cotton wool. I should have been able to hear me and Stacy breathing, the crickets in the trees, the water in the pool. Stacy stumbled upright as well, clutching her side, looking around with wide eyes. She mouthed something, but stopped when she realized we still couldn’t hear. I didn’t relax. A silence spell like this wouldn’t work long-distance or if the caster was dead, which meant our shadow was lurking somewhere.
Stacy stuck close to me and my shield, but she glanced towards the doors that led back into the house. I shook my head warningly, and she stayed put, clutching my duster.
I pressed my staff down to the ground and sent out a gentle shockwave. Or at least, it was supposed to be a gentle shockwave, but since I didn’t have any spells to focus it, the ground around us sort of rippled alarmingly and Mr. Shadow fell out of a tree.
It was probably good that there was no sound, because the words that came out of my mouth should not have been heard by a lady. We ducked a fireball (Hey! That was my trick!) and sprawled to the ground. This was just too much falling down. My knees and I protested in silent commiseration.
Mr. Shadow tossed another fireball at us, and Stacy mouthed one of those phrases one shouldn’t use in front of a lady. We ducked out of the way again, and I brought up my shield, but we couldn't hold up forever.
We ducked to the side again, and my foot hit air. Stacy, still clutching me, went down with me, and we both splashed into the pool.
The barrier that had been in Stacy’s bathtub went over us with a snap of energy just as we went underwater. Aw, man. Dying in a suburban pool was definitely not the way I wanted to go out. I swam up to the surface, experimentally prodding at the barrier. Too solid for me to break with my bare hands, and my staff had been lost somewhere en route between ground and water.
I squinted up, my eyes burning through the chlorine, at Mr. Shadow. Stacy was next to me, pounding at the invisible barrier with her hands.
Our ghost was still above us, crouching down to inspect his handiwork, I would guess. I watched him, ignoring the way my chest was starting to feel a little tight. Because I was watching so closely, I could see the telltale blur of someone with superspeed running up behind him.
Mr. Shadow was defeated by his own silence veil, because he never heard Thomas coming.
My brother leapt forward and tackled him. The two went flying across the surface of the pool, an odd rippling as the barrier and the water fought each other. They skimmed the surface, and landed on the other side.
Thomas sneered and though the water blurred my sight, I could see his eyes flattening out into a purer silver. Right, yeah, my brother was going to fight a supernatural bad guy while I uselessly drowned two feet away.
Then there was a sharp report of light, though I still couldn’t hear anything. I recognized that light-- Murphy was up, and she was shooting.
Mr. Shadow did the sensible thing to do when faced with a pissed off Murphy-- he ran.
Murph chased after him, sprinting with surprising speed for someone so little.
Thomas dropped the scary vampire act and skidded to his knees beside the pool. He hit the barrier a few times, but it sprayed him in the face with a mist of water and only wavered under his touch.
Everything was starting to go blurry, and somehow, I didn’t think it was the chlorine any more.
I could hear Thomas letting out a litany of curses above me, which, hey. I could hear him. That seemed important, somehow. Stacy had stopped struggling beside me.
“Empty Night.” Thomas cursed. “Harry!”
Right. Wizard. Not drowning. That was ideal.
Murphy was off chasing our bad guy, which meant he’d taken his silence shield with him. Which meant I could hear. Which meant a spell would work. If I could think of one.
Aw, hell’s bells.
“Forzare!” I shouted, and then I didn’t really think of anything much after that.
I woke up to freezing cold air as I spat chlorinated water all over the pavement. “Ugh.” I groaned. “Ow.”
“Harry.” Thomas said, sounding urgent. I’d be a little more freaked out about the part where my vampire brother had just probably given me CPR on a different day, but for now, I was just pretty happy to be alive. “Harry, it’s Stacy.”
“Wha-” I said, sitting up with a sickening headrush.
“Harry, I can’t help her.” Thomas said, shaking my shoulder anxiously.
“What?” I asked, trying to get my head past cold and ow and towards what Thomas was trying to tell me.
“She’s in love.” Thomas said.
My brain screeched to a halt, then rebooted itself.
When it did, I looked around, spotting a still form in the shape of Stacy lying beside us. Thomas’ face was red and slightly burned, like what had happened when he kissed Justine. And when Inari had tried to kiss (and kill) me.
I cursed and leapt forward, turning Stacy over so she could cough out about a gallon of pool water. I pressed my lips to hers and shared some of my (frankly already scarce) air with her.
I heard footsteps. “Lost him.” Murphy said. I wheezed and pointed at Stacy, and Murphy didn’t even pause a second, just immediately dropped and started to finish the CPR. Stacy took a deep, gasping breath after a moment.
“Ow.” I told Thomas, gracefully dropping like a stone back onto the ground. “That hurt.”
“Really.” Thomas said, much more unsympathetic than I thought he should be. All four of us were soaked, now, and Stacy and I had definitely swallowed more water than was safe. “I saw all the lights exploding, and I figured you were doing something.”
Right. Major spells being slung around are always going to cause an electrical disturbance; even if they couldn’t have been awoken by the noise, they probably would have been by the electronics. The electricity in the house would probably need repairs. Score one for me, I guess.
“Should we get to the hospital?” Murphy asked, slowly helping Stacy sit up.
“Not me.” I groaned, feeling the adrenaline fade rapidly. “Boom.” I avoid hospitals when I can-- that pesky thing about machinery keeping people alive.
“Right.” Murphy said. “Guess we’re going back to mine. I’ll call Butters on the way.”
I shot a thumbs up, coughing.
We arrived at Murphy’s cute little home at the same time as Butters, who pulled into the driveway and turned off his radio, which was blasting polka music.
Butters is a little guy, glasses, and he was still dressed in his medical scrubs. I decided not to mention to Stacy that he was actually a coroner, not a medic.
“Hey, guys.” Butters greeted us, then took in our appearances. It was nearing dawn now, reminding me that I’d spent the better part of a night fighting a shadow. I was tired. “Aww, geez.” Butters said. “Harry, how come you don’t ever call me to just hang out?”
We limped as a group together up to the front door, and I grinned. “Next time, Butters.”
“Come in.” Murphy said distractedly as we stepped over her threshold. Murphy’s house belonged to many generations of Murphys before her, and stepping into the protection provided by the threshold was like stepping into a fortress for me.
“Oh, hi, Thomas.” Butters said as he headed straight for the kitchen table and started to set up his things. “I haven’t seen you since the Dinosaur Incident.”
“The what?” Stacy muttered under her breath to Murphy. She was still a little in shock, I think. She’d been pretty quiet.
Murphy sighed. “You know, I don’t even know.” She pushed Stacy towards Butters’ triage station. “It’s better not to ask.”
I stripped out of my heavy and soaking wet duster for the second time in as many days, wincing as the bruises from our fall out the window made themselves known. Butters was listening to Stacy’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope, so I slumped into one of Murphy’s chairs.
Murphy appeared from somewhere with blankets and passed them out. I buried my face in the violently pink blanket she’d handed over to me, trying to wait my turn without falling asleep.
Thomas peeled back the blanket and started working on the glass cuts on my face.
“You okay?” I asked. Thomas was a fast healer, but True Love (with all capitals) was kind of the kryptonite of White Court vampires. He must have been vamped out recently enough that Stacy’s touch could hurt him when he'd tried to put his lips on hers. It didn’t happen with me, maybe because my love was so long ago. The red blisters on his face were already starting to heal, but he’d probably have to Feed at some point, and I planned on making Butters take a look at him, too. Hey, I’d never had a brother to worry over before. I was just making up for lost time.
“I’m fine.” Thomas shot me an irritated look, slapping a Spongebob band-aid onto my forehead. “What happened when you went after our ghost?” He asked Murphy.
“You guys were fighting a ghost?” Butters asked, doing something with a blood pressure cuff. “Cool.”
“It wasn’t a ghost.” I said. “It was some kind of wizard, or warlock.”
“Ghost wizard.” Thomas said wisely.
Murphy snorted. “I chased him into the woods on your property, Stacy, but he had that thing that made everything quiet. I lost him.” She toweled her hair a little. “He was fast, too. I don’t think he was just a wizard.”
“This keeps getting better and better.” I said, rubbing my forehead before I remembered the band-aids. I had a headache. There was something dancing just out of my reach, taunting me behind two layers of adrenaline crash and exhaustion.
Butters moved on to me, taking a little time after he was done to check on how my burned hand was doing. He made the expected noises about my physio, and stood up. “I think you’re both going to survive.” He said. “Keep warm, and watch out for pneumonia. Call me if you get a cough. Also, avoid drowning again.”
“Aww, you know all the right things to say.” I said.
Butters grinned. Murphy shook his hand. “Thanks for coming, Butters.” She said. “I owe you one.”
Butters waved it off. He was a good guy, really. He said goodbye to the rest of us, and left through the front door, whistling cheerfully.
Stacy stayed put for a moment, hair stuck to her face as she stared into the distance. “I’m sorry I brought you all into this. I didn’t think--”
“It’s fine.” I broke in. I don’t like seeing women upset. “This is what we do.”
“I guess it is.” Stacy said, looking at us with something like wonder.
Thomas grumbled, holding an icepack to the burned part of his face. “Just a question, Stacy, was Ameena the last girlfriend you had?”
“Um, yes?” Stacy said.
“I’d get back together with her, if I was you.” Thomas said darkly. Someone was a little grumpy. I thought it was romantic.
“I’m going to fall asleep.” I announced to the room at large. “So, like, if you have any objections to that, point me towards some kind of flat surface for me to sleep on.”
Murphy laughed. “You can have the guest bed, Thomas can take the couch, and Stacy and I will sleep in my bed.”
I opened my mouth.
“And no cracks about how small I am, or else your giant self is going to sleep on the sofa instead of Thomas.” Murphy said. “Everyone okay with that?”
We nodded with little resistance-- we were all tired, and went to change out of our wet clothes. Ironically, my clothes from yesterday were now dry, so I just changed into my jeans and collapsed into bed. I don’t know what Thomas wore, because approximately 0.000001 seconds after my face hit the pillow, I was asleep.
I slept kind of uneasily that night. I’ve always had strong, symbolic dreams-- I’m not sure if that’s because of my magic or just me-- and that night, they didn’t want me to miss something.
I knew I could figure out what it was that was after Stacy. It was obvious. Probably.
Both times the wizard/ghost had gone after Stacy for real, it had been in indirect ways-- the bathtub, then the pool. It had also attacked her in her bedroom, but he could have killed her without even waking her up, if he’d wanted to. It was confusing.
And then there was the Good Will candle. Why would it have done anything to dissuade a wizard? If I wanted to do something to Stacy, the candle would barely even make me sneeze before Stacy was a burned out pile of ash on the floor.
I frowned in my sleep. How come I couldn’t ever have nice, normal dreams? My stupid subconscious wouldn’t leave me alone. Just like the vampire brother who had moved into my apartment.
And then I woke up and groaned. I was an idiot.
“I’m an idiot.” I announced as I made my way into Murphy’s kitchen at about noon.
“You sure are.” Thomas said, rummaging through the fridge. “Why?”
“I figured out what’s after Stacy.” I said. “A vampire.”
Thomas pulled out a bag of frozen hashbrowns of dubious age, squinting suspiciously at them. “Oh, hey, that makes sense.”
“What does?” Murphy asked. She padded into the kitchen in her bare feet, trailed by Stacy.
“Harry thinks our ghost/wizard is a ghost/wizard/vampire.” Thomas said, pronouncing each of the slashes. He thinks he’s funny.
“Oh, that makes sense.” Murphy said. “Hey, don’t eat those hashbrowns. I think they were there when I moved in.”
“Wait, how does that make sense?” Stacy asked, blinking. “Vampires aren’t real.”
We all looked at Thomas. “Look for potatoes.” He told me.
“Yes, vampires are real.” I said, opening a cabinet to rummage through it. “Not like your books though, unfortunately.”
“ Unfortunately. ” Thomas grumbled under his breath.
“Anyway.” I said. “Certain kinds of vampires are affected by love. That’s why the candle kept him away-- symbols of love can do the trick, too.”
“Oh.” Stacy blushed. “I didn’t-- really?”
“Yes.” Thomas said. “Any luck on the potatoes?”
I squinted into the cabinet. “I found some, but I think they’ve grown enough to develop a culture and holidays now. I don’t think we can eat these under the Geneva Convention.”
Murphy grinned. “There’s frozen breakfast sandwiches in the freezer.” She said. “You losers keep me too busy to go shopping.”
Thomas pulled them out with a sigh. “None of you have any class.”
“No, seriously, you’re telling me that vampires are real?” Stacy said. “I mean, I guess I know that magic is real now, and everything, but vampires?”
“Yeah, I didn’t know vampires could do magic.” Murphy said. Thomas threw some of the sandwiches into the microwave and looked pointedly at me until I retreated. The microwave started humming cheerfully. “I’ve never seen one do it.”
“It’s rare, but possible. Usually, the vampire genes will kill any latent magic ability in the kid from the wizard parent, but sometimes they get characteristics of both. Usually the magic is pretty weak, though.” Thomas said. This was vaguely an uncomfortable subject, especially considering almost every person that knew about our being brothers was gathered into this one room.
“He was experienced, but not that powerful. The most impressive thing was how he held up the shield and the silence veil at the same time.” I added. “I’d like to know how to counteract the silence thing.”
“You should go talk to Bob, then, and Thomas, after you eat, you should probably… you know… eat. ” Murphy said. “I’ll keep an eye on things here.”
“No arguments from me.” I said. “My cat and dog are going to eat me alive if I stay away much longer.”
“Nah, they know better than to eat you.” Thomas said. “Raw wizard would probably make them sick.”
“You think you’re real funny.” I said as he tossed me my breakfast.
Thomas flashed me a supermodel smile. “I do.”
Stacy grinned, sitting down, if somewhat stiffly, at the kitchen table. Her, Thomas handed a sandwich to. What a gentleman. “You guys are all pretty easygoing about this. You really do this all the time?”
Murphy sighed. “Much more often than we should. Although we've never dealt with a ghost-vampire-wizard before.”
“Wizard-pire.” I suggested. “It wasn't actually a ghost.”
“Can't be weirder than the dinosaur.” Thomas said, and turned his brilliant beaming grin on Murphy. “Hey, can we borrow your car?”
Murphy dug her keys out of the pockets of her jacket, which was draped across the back of a chair. “Freeloaders.”
Thomas dropped me off at my apartment while he went off in search of something to satisfy his Hunger-- and I’m not talking Burger King here.
The apartment was clean when I returned, and smelled like pine-- not pine scent, but actual pine needles-- which meant the housekeeping service had been by. They’re not so much cleaners but actual faeries, who take care of my apartment due to a very long and complicated story. It sure made it easier when you had a slob for a roommate, though.
Mister immediately accosted my legs as I stepped in the front door, and then went to his food dish and looked at it pointedly. Mouse greeted me with a nudge of his nose on my hand, and a sad whine as he looked at his food dish.
“Some love.” I grumbled, shaking food into both the cat and dog dishes. I lit some of my candles and then took Mouse for a walk around the block.
When I got back, Mister slunk past me and out into the street. I patted Mouse and headed for my lab, taking a candle down with me so I didn’t trip on the stairs and break my neck. I also swapped out my duster for a flannel robe, because it was cold down there.
“Wake up, Bob!” I called cheerfully.
The eye sockets of the skull sitting on a shelf, surrounded with tasteless romance novels, flickered to life. “You look terrible.” Bob said.
“There was a drowning incident.” I said.
Bob somehow managed to roll his eyes despite neither having a physical presence nor eyes. “A byproduct of your latest case? I noticed I haven’t heard that vampire stomping around upstairs.”
“Thomas is out.” I said. “I need to know about how to stop a silence spell. Hopefully for all of us, not just me.” If I was the only one who could hear me screaming, it wouldn’t be all that helpful. I gave him a quick rundown of the events at Stacy’s place.
“Interesting.” Bob mused. “I might have a potion you could use to boost hearing. That should be enough to cut past the silence veil.”
“That works.” I said. “Walk me through it.”
Bob made me sacrifice some ingredients that were going to cost me an arm and a leg later on, and I set the potion to a low boil, my energy flagging. I yawned as I idly stirred the potion, leaning on one of the workbenches against the wall. “Have you ever heard of a vampire with this kind of magical power?” I asked. “Thomas said some do but it’s usually not this strong.”
“He’s right, boss.” Bob said. “But you’re right, too. It’s strange that he did both spells at once, not to mention the shadow veil you said you saw.” None of us had been able to see his face, yet another layer of magic. “I’d say he’s getting his juice from somewhere, maybe Feeding off a practitioner.”
I winced. “Ouch.”
Bob rolled his glowing eyes again. “Yeah, ouch. By the way, that potion is going to burn.”
I yelped, extinguishing the flame with a small spell and saving the mixture. To be honest, it looked and smelled disgusting. I was going to have a hell of a time convincing anyone to drink it. I poured the mixture into four mismatched sports bottles, labeling each with a line of masking tape and Sharpie. You let someone drink the wrong potion once, and no one ever lets you forget it.
I grabbed a backpack and put all the potions in. I shouldered it and gave Bob a grin. “Thanks for the help. I’ll buy you a book on my way home if I don’t die.”
“I have so much to live for now.” Bob said in a flat tone.
“So ungrateful.” I said, climbing back up the ladder. “I don’t get any respect around here.”
I caught a cab back to Murphy’s house, bringing Mouse along with me. Murphy would have left for work by then, and none of us felt comfortable leaving Stacy alone for long. I’d make a few calls, pass the baton off to Thomas, and head back out. Stacy was asleep, but I had a key. I let myself in, releasing Mouse to run around in the backyard.
I used the phone to call Mike, who told me that the Beetle probably wouldn’t be done for another three days or so. Apparently one of the zombie ninjas’ swords had cut through the brake line.
“Also,” Mike said, “There’s some kinda blue goo in the back. Is this the kind I can hose out or should I get you to come back in?”
“Uh, no, you’re good.” I said. “Don’t speak any German around it, though.”
“I’m charging extra.” Mike said.
“That’s fair.” I said.
After I hung up, I let Mouse in and tried to scrounge some sort of food I wouldn’t burn Murphy’s house down making. Stacy emerged from the bedroom mid-bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I stopped eating guiltily and indicated Mouse. “This is my dog, Mouse. Don’t worry, he’s not a dinosaur.” Though I have my doubts that he’s completely dog.
Stacy’s eyes widened at the large grey mass snoozing on the floor, but she crouched down to pet him. “Thanks for the warning.” She said. “He’s huge.”
“He’s part tank.” I said, returning to my cereal.
Mouse flopped over on his stomach, accepting scritches from Stacy. His tongue lolled out of his mouth. How is it in a room with me and a pretty woman, my dog was the one getting the attention?
Stacy stood up and rummaged through the cabinets, reemerging a second later with the box of cereal and a bowl. She sat down beside me, with the air of someone whose life had just gotten a whole lot weirder. I recognized the look.
“I find,” I said, with great wisdom, “That when the world just gets really freaking weird, sometimes all you can do is eat junk food.”
She grinned, pouring the cereal in, then the milk. I hoped Murphy didn’t mind us eating all of her food. “That’s good advice.” She said, tiredly. She’d gotten Power Ranger band-aids for her own injuries, and they stood out on top of her pale face. The Red Ranger grinned mockingly at me.
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this.” Stacy said, absently rubbing Mouse with a foot while she started to stir her cereal.
I blinked. “Trust me, this is not the worst thing I’ve ever gone through.” I said.
“Dinosaur?” Stacy guessed.
“ Zombie dinosaur.” I said.
Stacy grinned, and dug into her sugary cereal, looking much happier.
I let Thomas in through the front, looking handsomely disheveled and much healthier. He greeted us, and tried to steal out of my bowl. “Get your own, you moocher.” I said, protectively hunching over my almost-soggy cereal so he couldn’t get to it.
“But eating yours would be much more fun.” Thomas said, trying to duck under my arms.
“I hate you.” I said.
“No, you looove me.” Thomas crooned, flicking my ear as he tried to get at the bowl.
“So,” Stacy said, “How long have you two been dating?”
Thomas shamelessly used my agony and despair to steal the last of my cereal.
Worst. Brother. Ever.
I left all the sound potions but one with Thomas and Stacy, just in case, then Mouse and I set back out.
This case was certainly making me rack up the public transportation fees. The bus driver gave me a sympathetic look when I hopped back on. Mouse sat sedately by my feet, politely ignoring the stares of other busgoers.
It was a good thing that Stacy’s house was in such a secluded neighborhood. If she’d been in the suburbs or the city, someone definitely would have called the cops by now.
I went straight around back, surveying the damage. The window in the bedroom was completely shattered, and the lawn furniture was in disarray, some of it broken. The pool was half empty-- probably the breaking of the barrier spell had splashed it out. I’d been a little distracted at the time to notice.
I kept on my guard, trusting Mouse to watch my back. I discounted the small droplets of blood around the edge of the pool. They were small enough that they probably belonged to me and Stacy’s fight with the glass, and the last thing I wanted was to spend a day chasing my own tail around because I put a tracking spell on myself.
I destroyed those little droplets just in case-- just because I couldn’t use it didn’t mean that no one else could, and they would probably have less innocent intentions than a tracking spell. It’s why I try to keep my blood inside my body, where it belongs. Unfortunately, I often fail at that.
Anyone who tells you that being a wizard is glamourous is lying.
That finished, I searched out a trace of our bad guy. There was nothing on the ground, so I reluctantly went into the woods that bordered Stacy’s property, where Murphy had chased the guy.
Mouse trotted along after me as I carefully followed the trail of crushed leaves and disturbed dirt, hoping for something I could use in a tracking spell.
There were smaller footprints I was assuming were Murphy’s, and a bigger set that probably belonged to Mr. Shadow. What confused me, though, was that there kind of looked like a third set for a moment. After they appeared, all the tracks disappeared except Murphy’s.
Hell’s Bells. I groaned in frustration and backtracked, keeping my eyes peeled a little closer. Still, I didn’t find anything until Mouse whuffed, a gentle bark to get my attention rather than his threatening sonic boom.
“What’s up?” I asked. Mouse gave me a I’m a dog, what do you want me to do, stupid human? look and used his muzzle to point at a bit of trampled brush. I crouched down to examine it and found the guy must have tripped-- there was a handprint where he’d caught himself in the dirt. There was also a strand of brownish hair tangled into the leaves around it.
“Good job.” I said, patting Mouse’s head. I collected the hair and looked at the handprints. Too smeary for Murphy to get any prints off of them. I compared the size of my hand to it-- mine was much larger.
“I guess the mystery is afoot.” I said. “A-paw?” I swear Mouse rolled his eyes.
I already had the materials on me to make a tracking spell, so I went back to Stacy’s house to do it, lest someone call the cops on me for lurking in the woods. Not that that’s happened before. Lucky the cops from SI always think it’s funny.
The back door was still open, so I just slipped inside. I shut the door behind me and locked it to make sure Stacy didn’t get robbed on top of having a vampire stalker. That would suck. Stacy had a pretty weak threshold. She hadn’t lived there long, comparatively speaking, and lived alone. It explained why both I and the vampire could get in so easily.
I set up a circle and whipped up a quick tracking spell using the hair-- one of my fortes. The scrying crystal I had in my hand gave an excited jerk and pulled towards the door. Out we go, then. The only problem is that the bus doesn’t follow tracking crystals, and for some reason, cab drivers get a little squirrely about it.
I used Stacy’s phone to call Murphy’s house and ask Stacy if I could borrow her car. She directed me to a set of spare keys and assured me it was fine if my wizard mojo messed with the fancy electronics. I don’t think she understood exactly how much electronics don’t like me. Oh, well. Maybe I could get some kind of frequent flyer miles at Mike’s garage.
Mouse and I went together to where Stacy’s car had been abandoned in the driveway. I didn’t try to use the fancy remote-control key fob to unlock it, just stuck the key in the lock and opened the door. Lucky I did, too, because it have me just a moment’s advantage as the crystal in my hand started to spin crazily.
I threw the door open and it hit the wizard-pire, who at that exact moment ran behind me with superhuman strength. The door whacked him, hard, and he went sprawling to the ground, spitting and snarling. He got to his feet sooner than I’d like.
“Forzare!” I shouted, knocking him against a tree and scrambling for my backpack. Mouse leapt after him, barking.
I downed my hearing potion in one gulp and raced after them. The vampire was already up and trying to attack my dog. Bad idea. I like my dog, and tend to get kind of upset when people try to hurt him. Also, Mouse gets kind of upset.
Currently, Mouse was using his teeth to try and rip out the vampire’s throat. The vampire squealed in fear, then saw me coming at full speed and hurriedly incanted a silencing spell around us. Unluckily for him, I could already feel my potion working, making the blood pounding in my ears seem incredibly loud, the sounds around me building and building until they pushed past the vampire’s shield entirely.
I could hear everything.
I could hear through the shield, which had been my original intention, but I could hear everything else, too. Mouse’s breathing as he growled, the rabbit running through the bush a mile away. Each of my footsteps was so loud it seemed like they were right next to my ears. It was kind of awesome, but distracting.
“Forzare!” I shouted, relishing the vampire’s noise of surprise as he flew backwards. Mouse got to his feet and shook his head, growling lowly. It sounded like a semi truck was right next to me. As usual, I’d overshot the potion. Too strong. I shook my head, wincing, and followed after the vampire.
“Clever, wizard.” He snarled. “But I will have S.T in my grasp soon enough.”
“Did they teach you that line in villain school?” I asked. “‘Cause that one is a little overdone, buddy.”
Mouse leapt for his throat again, and apparently, the wizard-pire decided to cut his losses. He said something, using an incantation language I wasn’t familiar with, and cast something down with his hand.
That something turned out to be a sort of magical flash-bang grenade, providing cover for his exit as well as agonizing pain for me. My hyperactive hearing caught the full brunt of the noise, piercing through my skull unpleasantly.
I screamed, going down on my knees to hold my ears. The magical distraction was still going, ringing and ringing.
Mouse whined from beside me, but it just added to the noise. My nose was bleeding.
“ Ventas servitas!” I shouted, and flung the noise-thing away, where the magical construct dissipated into the air. There was a sudden lack of sound. Completely.
“Aww, stars and stones.” I said. Or tried to say. It sounded like “----- --- ------.” Not fair. How come this guy had so many cool tricks I didn’t have? Also, ow.
“----.” I muttered. I jerked my head towards the car, telling Mouse to head that way. He whimpered. Dogs have pretty sensitive hearing, too, and I can’t imagine that was fun for him, either.
We got in the car, this time checking for errant vampires (they’re everywhere, seriously-- I should start a pest control service). I sulked as we drove back to Murphy’s house, and Mouse pawed at his ears sadly.
“I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL.” I told him, and made a woman in the car next to me stare at me strangely. Whatever. I’ve done and been seen doing much stranger things.
I still had my tracker with the vampire’s blood, but I wasn’t exactly up to another showdown with him at the moment, and I had no backup.
The radio popped, but at least I couldn’t hear it.
You have to go with the small things in this line of work.
“IT’S ME.” I bellowed into Murphy’s house when I got back. I’d accidentally killed Stacy’s car as I pulled into the neighborhood, but it was at least in the driveway. Mostly.
“---h, figured t--- out.” Thomas’ lips said.
“I MAY HAVE RUN INTO A SLIGHT PROBLEM.” I said.
Murphy emerged from the other room. “--- --?” She said.
“YEAH.” I said. “CAN’T HEAR.”
I shook my head. My ears started ringing, which was a good sign, I guessed. Probably meant the effects of the potion were wearing off, along with the side effects.
Murphy rolled her eyes and stomped into the kitchen, coming back a second later with one of those whiteboard things that you hang on the fridge for grocery lists. Stop Shouting!!! was written in purple marker underneath potatoes and ice cream.
“Sorry.” I said. Or hoped I said. I couldn’t hear it. “I ran into the vampire at Stacy’s house, used the potion, he whammied me with a sound spell, and then ran away.”
“-----.” Thomas said. I glared at him. He took the whiteboard, erased Murphy’s message, and wrote something down. Did you get a look at him?
“NOPE.” I said, and lowered my volume again as Murphy and Thomas winced. “We’ve got to go out after him again before the tracking spell wears off.” I showed them my crystal, which was straining out back towards the street.
Murphy gave me a look. I couldn't hear what she said, but from her face, she was saying, do you really think that's a good idea, idiot?
She handed me the whiteboard. You really think that's a good idea, idiot? Ah, my friends are predictable. Or maybe I am.
I shook my head. “No choice. The spell’s not going to last forever.” I paused. “Where’s Stacy?”
Talking to Ameena ;) Thomas wrote. She’s on the phone.
Aww, young love. “We’ll have to leave her here.” I said. “I used one of the potions already-- there’s not enough for all of us. I’ll leave Mouse to protect her.” Mouse looked up at me with a pitiful expression, still pawing at his ears. I knew what he felt like.
Murphy nodded and disappeared, presumably to tell Stacy. She came back a second later with one of her swords. Have I mentioned that Murphy is awesome? Because she is.
She said something I didn’t catch, and I squinted at her. Thomas rolled his eyes and pushed me towards the door.
“STAY.” I told Mouse, pointing towards the floor. Distinctly sulky, Mouse laid down.
Outside, we all squashed into Murphy’s car, and I got into the passenger seat with my crystal. “Onwards.” I said, and pointed. Murphy didn’t even look away from the road to slap the back of my head.
I told them what had happened at Stacy’s house. “The weird thing is, why was he back at Stacy’s in the first place?” I asked. “Go right.”
“That’s not even a road.” Murphy said. I caught about half of it, the ringing in my ears intensifying. That was probably a good thing, I thought. She made the next right, and then followed my directions down a shady alley and onto a one-way street.
“And why did he call her S.T?” I asked. “Why her pen name?”
“---- --- books.” Thomas said from the backseat.
“What?” I asked, turning around.
“Maybe he read her books.” Thomas said. “A rival publishing company or something? We know a lot of White Court vampires have control over entertainment businesses. Like the thing with Arturo.”
“That’s a good theory.” I said. “Left.”
Murphy pulled out into traffic, ignoring cars which I heard the faint beeps of horns from. That I could hear them was heartening.
“Makes sense.” Murphy agreed. “He must have been ------- for Stacy to come back and get the car.”
“We’re almost there.” I said, frowning at my crystal. The spell was weakening, but the sense of the vampire was getting stronger. “Where are we?”
Murphy peered out through the windshield. “Not sure. Looks like you've brought us further away from the city.”
“He'd want to stay away from prying eyes, especially if he's got a magic user captive that he's feeding on.” Thomas said.
We were certainly away from prying eyes. The Carpenters’ house is away from the city and the skyscrapers, too, but that’s suburban, white-picket fences, 2.5 kids and everything. This was not.
This was the part of town where the people with 2.5 kids speed away from in their cute little minivans. Most of the windows were newspapered and several of the houses had suspicious smells and noises coming out of them. This wasn’t a family neighborhood-- this was the kind of place with the houses far apart from each other and neighbors that didn’t look too close at anyone around them and hoped no one looked at them either.
“Great neighborhood you’ve brought us to, Dresden.” Murphy said.
“Well, I do know how to treat a date.” I said. I pointed out the place the spell was trying to lead us to. “Pull up around the block.”
“Ordering me around, too.” Murphy grumbled, but did as I asked. The crystal hummed a protest as we passed, but I ignored it.
“Stop flirting in front of me.” Thomas said, getting out of the car. “It’s creepy and it’s making me Hungry.”
“Ew.” I said.
My ears were still ringing like crazy, but I could hear almost everything now. I hoped not to take the potion again any time soon, at least for the sake of my poor ears. I handed one of the bottles to each of them, but none of us drank yet.
My tracking crystal finally gave up, dying with a little sputter of supernatural light. I tucked it into my pocket. “Hopefully he stays put, because this thing is out of juice.” I said.
“What’s the plan?” Thomas asked, lounging on the car with a grace that could only be supernatural. A girl walking by swooned a little. I didn’t even know people could swoon outside of terrible pirate stories.
I shrugged. “Kick some wizard-pire butt?” I received two eerily similar glares from Thomas and Murphy, and raised my hands. “Okay, okay. I figure we send Thomas in as bait-” My brother plays bait very well; he’s charming, and he heals from a bullet wound with speed. “-Then while he gets a good look at the front and distracts, Murph and I sneak around back and try to rescue his pet magic-user.”
Murphy shook her head. “The wizard-pire knows Thomas-- he saw him at Stacy’s. I’ll be bait.”
I made a face, about to say something about women and danger.
“If you say anything about women and danger, I’ll shoot you.” Murphy said.
“I would never. ” I said. “I have more faith in you than that, Murph, c’mon.”
“Uh-huh.” Murphy said. She pulled a bulletproof vest out of her trunk (I hadn’t seen her put that in, and assumed she had a bulletproof vest in her trunk at all times-- Murphy is awesome) and started unbuttoning the smart blue overshirt she had on. “Turn around, creeps.” She said, even though I saw she had a little black tank top on underneath.
Thomas and I obeyed quickly. When she gave us the all-clear to turn back around, Murphy was re-buttoning her shirt, which was a little snugger than before. I, sadly, have enough experience to recognize the telltale bulk of a bulletproof vest on a woman, as well as of a double-barrelled sawed-off shotgun in a backpack. Murphy had both.
“Aww, all grown up and ready for school.” Thomas said. “You pack extra ammo?”
“Sure did.” Murphy said.
“Have fun.” I said, biting off any of my protestations. Murphy could take care of herself, no matter how little I wanted any of my friends in danger. She shot off a salute and jogged towards the front of the house. Thomas and I went for the back.
I muttered a quick spell to let us through the locked, rickety gate and we stepped through, quiet as we could be. I could hear the doorbell ringing, and a second later, Murphy’s voice, talking. The backyard was small, no patio furniture or anything, and the back door was a somewhat sturdy thing, but we could bust it down if there were no precautions in place.
“There’s no threshold.” I told Thomas in an undertone as we reached the back door. “He must be renting, or hasn’t lived here long.”
“Good.” Thomas said. “Wards?”
I reached out, feeling for the thrum of power that came with magical wards. I frowned. “A few. Give me a couple minutes and I think I can disarm them.” The vampire must have put them up with his purloined energy. They were stronger than I’d like, but he didn’t really know what he was doing-- I could dispel them.
Thomas nodded, pulling out his sword so it would be more accessible. He stood at the ready, keeping an eye out.
I turned around, trusting him to watch my back, and pulled out a pocket knife. I drew a circle in the grass, filling it with will, and sat inside. I closed my eyes.
Murphy’s voice fluttered towards me from the front of the house-- she was saying something about being new to the neighborhood-- and I could hear Thomas’ soft breaths, but I tuned both of them out. I concentrated on dispelling the last of the ringing in my ears from the vampire’s sound attack, and focused on my magic.
The wards thrumming around the house were focused on the entrance and exit. Not pretty, but functional, and explosive. Anything went through there that wasn’t supposed to be-- boom.
It was odd, though, no wards on the inside, nothing that could capture a magic user. I supposed that he could be using thorn manacles-- a deeply unpleasant magic-suppressing cuff I’d encountered more times than I wanted to-- or some kind of binding circle.
I shook those thoughts out of my head and focused on the wards, slowly drawing the power out of them and into my circle. The air around me hummed a little. I knew it would be glowing if my eyes were opened.
I pulled out the last bit of energy from the wards around the house, prodding carefully with my own magic to make sure the wards were completely deactivated. Satisfied, I opened my eyes and let the magic disperse around me. The wards broke with a pop and a fizzle, making Thomas jump. I sagged a little, tired from so much expenditure of magic today.
Murphy’s voice increased in volume and she giggled loudly, probably trying to cover up the noises coming from the backyard.
I rolled my shoulders and broke the circle with the knife. “Should be okay now.” I said.
Thomas held out a hand and gave me a boost to my feet. I wavered a second, but stayed upright. A win.
I used a small unlocking spell and pushed the back door open, my staff at the ready. Thomas went in front of me, cautiously putting in one foot, then the next. “Nice.” He said, when he wasn't immediately blown to smithereens.
I flashed him a grin, then followed at his shoulder. I looked around. Not much to see-- a battered couch and broken TV, soda cans everywhere (Pepsi, so I knew he was evil), and a few candles.
“Murphy’s not going to be able to distract him for much longer.” Thomas whispered. “We should hurry.”
I nodded, giving the living room one last sweep and checking the rest of the downstairs. Nothing, but a magic user definitely lived here-- none of the electronics were plugged in and the light in the bathroom didn’t work. “Upstairs?” I suggested.
Thomas nodded, and we crept towards the stairs. Thomas toggled with the stairway light, but it didn’t even flicker. I willed a little light into my pentacle necklace instead, casting an eerie blue light over us and the hallway. Thomas’ skin looked even paler than usual, the shadows beneath us stretching like grotesque monsters.
Thomas and I split off at the top of the hallway, me right and Thomas left. The first room I checked was empty, a few moldy boxes wilting in a corner. Clearly, he hadn’t expected this to be a permanent hideout-- he hadn’t even bothered to find furniture. Vampires usually had a flare for the dramatic and a taste for the finer things, too, so this definitely wasn’t his permanent residence.
I began to worry that he was keeping his captive somewhere else. “Harry.” Thomas called softly. “Come look at this.”
I shut the door and moved towards my brother. Thomas jerked his head towards the only furnished room we’d seen so far. It looked like a bedroom, with an actual bed and everything. A cute, Home and Gardens bedspread with those little throw pillows. There was a stand-up closet in one corner, and a dressing table, like women have to do their makeup in.
“None of the other rooms had anything in them.” Thomas said. “Just this one.”
“Same for me.” I said, frowning. “This doesn’t add up. If he’s got a prisoner, where are they staying?” I didn’t think there had been a basement or anything, which is a classic place to hide your kidnap victims. I mean, I live in a basement, and even I have to admit that.
Suddenly, what had been the low murmur of Murphy’s voice rose in volume, enough that we could hear her clearly. “Well, anyway, thanks for talking! It’s always good to meet someone in the neighborhood!”
Murphy was bright and bubbly, and sounding the alarm. “Hell’s Bells.” I said, and heard the front door shut, right in Murph’s face, I presumed.
Thomas groaned. “The window?” He guessed.
“No way.” I said. “I’m not going out two windows in two days. One case of defenestration this week is enough.”
“The window.” Thomas said, and pushed me towards it, further into the bedroom. I whined, but let him push me.
Together, we slid open the heavy window sash and half of my long legs were folded up outside it when the door slammed open. “Damn it.” I said, with less feeling than the expletive probably required. Honestly, if something can go wrong with me, it usually does.
“What the hell are you doing here?” The wizard-pire said, face turning red with rage. He wasn’t shadow-veiled this time, and I got a good look at his face.
Good-looking dude, but that’s White Court for you. His eyes were silver at the moment, hair a sort of flat brown. Though he was attractive, he seemed somehow less so than some of the other vampires I’d seen. Lara Raith can give a man heart palpitations at twelve paces. This guy, not as much. Maybe the trade-off for keeping a magical ability was weaker vampire powers.
“Uh.” I said.
“ Jimmy?” Thomas asked, then turned to me. “That dude’s, like, my half-cousin’s cousin, or something.”
“What.” Jimmy the wizard-pire said. “Are you doing in my house.”
“Uh.” I said, and then leapt the rest of the way out the window. My shield bracelet caught me as I hit the ground, cushioning my fall to just sledgehammer pain, rather than face-shattering. Thomas followed me a second later, and I caught him only just in time with my shield. He, unlike me, landed on his feet.
Murphy jogged up to us, scowling. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Talk later, run now.” I panted, scrambling to my feet.
“What-?” Murphy asked, then looked up at where Jimmy was wrapping a neat shadow veil around himself. “How do we always get into these things?” She ran. Smart lady.
All three of us turned tail, booking it as Jimmy freaking leapt out the window after us. He landed like a cat on the grass and rolled so he was on his feet. As we ran down the street to Murphy’s car, a few of the neighbors peered out at us, then promptly shut their doors and windows.
“How is it,” I wheezed as Murphy’s car came in view, “That the one damn wizard-pire we run into is related to you?”
“He’s related to you too, technically.” Thomas said sullenly. “We’re brothers.”
“Oh, don’t try to pin this on me.” I said. “Half-brothers. I don’t think there’s a word for your half-brothers’ half-cousin’s neighbor or whatever.”
“I bet you there’s a word for it.” Murphy said. “Did you find the magic user?”
“Nope.” I said. Behind us, Jimmy the wizard-pire screamed something, and a row of trash cans burst into flames next to us. “It was weird. There’s no way someone’s being held captive in that house.”
Thomas and I switched positions so that I was at the back of the group, my shield bracelet, dripping blue energy, positioned between us and the vampire. It was just in time, too, because the next moment there was a burst of force against my shield, so hard the shield became visible for a moment with a crackling blue.
Normally, we wouldn’t run-- we were hard-boiled detective types after all-- but we were in public, with civilians around, no less. People would get hurt if we went into full-on warfare on the street. Those people may or may not have been us.
We were almost to the car when the wizard-pire snarled and let loose a bolt of energy that instead of hitting the shield crumbled a garden fence between us and Murphy’s vehicle. We were blocked into the alley, more or less.
I shook my bracelet and did what I do best-- stalled him by annoying the hell out of him. “Heya, Jimmy.” I said. “Wanna tell us why you’re after our good friend Stacy? We’d kinda like it if you would leave her alone, wouldn’t we, guys?”
Thomas and Murphy gave me the patented the hell is wrong with you, Dresden look, and nodded dutifully.
“I had to do it. We had to kill her.” Jimmy was starting to look a little deranged. I was starting to think the whole wizard-pire thing wasn’t exactly healthy, mentally-speaking. The magic he was throwing against my shield was sparking like a unstable firework, slinging random magical energies everywhere.
“Why’s that, bud?” I asked. Murphy started to back up-- she was the smallest and most stretchy out of all of us, and if anyone could get over the pile of rubble, she could.
“Because-” Jimmy spat, throwing another line of ineffective magic at my shield. “She killed off my favorite character!”
Murphy, Thomas, and I froze.
“She… what.” Thomas said. “Please tell me--”
“This is about her stupid vampire books? ” Murphy asked. “I quit.”
“Dude,” I said, squeezing the bridge of my nose. “That’s just embarrassing.”
My shield was weakening against the onslaught of furious magic. I shot a worried look at Thomas and Murph. Murphy nodded and started backing away again.
“It is not!” Jimmy said. “He didn’t deserve to die!”
“Just stop, please.” Thomas said. “You’re White Court, man. Have a little dignity.”
Jimmy’s eyes flashed. “How dare you!” He screamed out something, and a snap of what felt like electricity took out my shield.
I cursed, shaking my tingling hand with the bracelet on it. Thomas rushed forward with his sword, and I swung my staff around to assist. Crap. These were not good quarters, one side of the alley on either side of us, the remains of the fence behind us, and the wizard-pire in front of us.
Thomas leapt forward with superhuman strength, but unfortunately, his opponent was superhuman as well. Thomas’ sword nicked the edge of Jimmy’s face, but he was thrown away with a gust of wind that saw him hitting the wall of the alley, dazed.
I cursed. “ Ventas servitas!” For a moment, our two forces of wind clashed with each other, but eventually, my stubbornness won out and he stumbled back a step.
I heard a horn honking and realized I hadn’t seen Murphy in some time. Instinct had me ducking to the side, grabbing the Thomas heap by the wall as I did. Less than a second later, the wall of rubble exploded, and Murphy’s car flew through it.
Poor Jimmy hit Murphy’s front fender with a look of surprise, and flew. It was beautiful, really. He landed in a vampire-shaped pile on the other end of the alley.
“Nice!” I said, shoving Thomas into the backseat and folding myself into the passenger side. “ Drive.”
“No, really? ” Murphy said, revving the motor with vigor. “I was planning on not doing that.” She screeched out of the alley just as I saw Jimmy regaining his feet.
“Freaking vampires.” I muttered. “Can’t keep them down. Uh, no offense, Thomas.”
“What?” Thomas said, looking dazed.
“Don’t worry about it.” I said. “Hey, Murph, if you could drive a little faster--”
“He doesn’t have a car, Harry, what’s he going to do?”
“He’s a vampire. ” I said. “As in, can run extremely fast.”
Murphy cursed. “I’ll head away from the city.” The car sped up alarmingly.
Thomas seemed like he was coming further into awareness. “Empty Night.” He said. “Too late. He’s in the rearview.”
I looked up and cursed. “This guy is determined.” Sure enough, Jimmy was following us on foot, running so fast he might have been a blur were it not for the wild streams of angry magic he was leaving behind in his wake. I unbuckled my seatbelt and rolled down the window, half-standing and aiming at the swiftly-approaching vampire with my blasting rod. “ Fuego.” I said, letting loose a stream of fire.
“Damn it, stop doing magic inside the car!” Murphy said. “It’s messing the systems up.”
“You’re blaming me and not the vampire you rammed?” I said. “Fuego, dammit!” It’s surprisingly hard to aim in a moving vehicle, but I caught part of his arm. And perhaps a row of rosebushes. Oops.
“Look,” Thomas said, shattering the back window so he could aim Murphy’s shotgun out it. “There’s something weird going on. Where’s he keeping his prisoner?”
“I don’t think he is keeping a prisoner.” I said. “That bedroom was built for two. And notice how he said we?” The wind whipped at my face as I stuck my head back out the window, feeling vaguely like Mouse on a long car trip.
“Crap.” Murphy said, not even flinching at the sound of a double-barrelled shotgun going off behind her. “He’s working with the magic user?”
I nodded grimly. “I think so.”
Thomas’ bullets bounced off Jimmy’s shield as Murphy pulled onto a back road, away from traffic and bystanders.
Jimmy couldn’t keep this pace up forever, not even as a White Court vampire, and a magic-using one at that. It was impossible, but in the meantime, he was getting close enough that I could almost touch him. He could do some serious damage before he ran out of stamina.
“This is not working.” I said. “You’re gonna have to find somewhere to stop.”
Thomas cursed, turning back to gesture with his shotgun. “There’s a lake nearby.” He said. “We can stop there.”
Jimmy was lagging a little, but not nearly enough. I didn’t have endless reserves of magic, either, and I was already pretty exhausted.
I cursed. “We’re not going to have a choice, soon. He got the tires.”
Murphy groaned. “Of course.” She jerked the wheel sharply, and we started to travel over a dirt road, bumping alarmingly.
“New plan.” I said. “I stop shooting magic at him, ‘cause I’m tired. I put up a shield. We ambush him in the woods.” I slumped against the seat and instead focused on spreading the influence of my shield bracelet to myself, Murphy, and Thomas.
“I’ll call Mike, have him bring the Beetle out. It should be ready by now, right?” Thomas said.
“Hopefully.” I said.
“Your mechanic will bring your car to a creepy place in the middle of the woods?” Murphy asked, gritting her teeth as the car kept fighting her.
“He’s had to do weirder.” I said, mournfully.
I focused on thinking non-explodey thoughts. In Thomas’ direction, anyway, since he had the cell phone. I wanted Jimmy to explode.
“‘Ello.” Thomas said, using the awful French accent he always insisted on using among the mechanics, because he thought it was funny. He had his cell up to his face as the car bu-bumped with a jolt of wind magic and as a result of driving on mostly-shredded tires. “Is Ah-ree’s car ready yet?”
Thomas paused. “No, we don’t need headlights.”
“Thomas!” I shouted. “Duck!”
Thomas did, and a second later, the back bumper was ripped off, spraying a shower of metal as my shield dropped.
“No, we’re fine.” Thomas told the phone. I climbed into the backseat. “Ow, what are you doing?”
“I need a clearer shot.” I said. “I’m going out the back window. Hold my feet.”
Thomas tossed the phone to Murphy. “Tell them to bring the Beetle here!”
“It’s illegal to use a phone and drive!” Murphy said. “Yes, please, and I’d also like a tow. No, for a different vehicle.”
I dove out the back window. Thomas caught my feet only just in time and I shoved my staff through the shards of glass. “Forzare!” I shouted. The blow, this time, caught Jimmy off guard, and he went tumbling, end-over-end, on the pavement. “That should stall him for a while.” I said.
“They’re coming.” Murphy said, tossing Thomas’ phone back. “Also, the phone exploded.”
“Sorry.” I said. “Here, just stop here.”
We were in one of the rare little outlets of woods in Chicago, or, more accurately, on the edges of Chicago. I could smell a lake somewhere far off, but for the most part, we were isolated as Murphy pulled off the road and into a copse of trees.
We piled out of the Beetle.
“Better take those potions now.” I said, pulling mine out of my backpack. “I’ll try and stop him before he deafens us, this time.”
“I’m glad.” Thomas said, downing his. “Let’s do this.”
“Your mechanic’s really not going to call the cops?” Murphy said thoughtfully as we set up our ambush for Jimmy.
“Nah, he’s good.” I said. “You should use him, he’s very discreet about bullet holes.”
Murphy seemed thoughtful. “That could be useful.”
“You two are so weird.” Thomas said. My potions had kicked in, making our hearing sharper and much more intense. Case in point, we weren’t next to each other. We were positioned in various points around the forest, but it sounded like we were right next to each other.
I could also hear each of the individual legs of a bug crawling on me. Shuddering, I flicked it off. Like before, I could hear absolutely everything, from the crunch of leaves to the rubbing of fabric between Murphy’s vest and her shirt.
“Says the vampire.” I grumbled, because he couldn’t hit me.
“Shush.” Murphy said. “He’s coming.”
Sure enough, I could hear his footsteps, stomping angrily through the forest. He was after us, all right. With a vengeance.
“We sure this is a good idea?” Thomas asked.
“Are we ever?” I asked.
Jimmy’s footsteps were almost unbearably loud now, crunching through leaves and stirring up dust. I had a moment of sympathy for Mouse’s sensitive ears. No wonder he howled whenever I played the guitar. (Although Thomas said it wasn’t the volume, but the skill that bothered him. Lies.)
Even through the effects of the potion, I could feel it when Jimmy wrapped the silence spell around himself. Sound wasn’t gone, but it was definitely muffled.
I stepped out from behind the tree that was hiding all six-something of me. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?” I asked.
“I might say the same about you.” Jimmy said. One thing about me, I do have to appreciate a bad guy who quips back. “Leave me alone.”
“Uh, you’ve tried to kill me, like, three times now.” I said. “Now, I don’t always take that personally-- we’ve all got bad days-- but I don’t like it when you try to kill people I like.”
He scowled at me, then paused. “Wait, where are your friends? Why can you hear me?”
“Now!” I said, just as Jimmy threw another of the sound bomb thingys. This time, I was prepared, blasting it away with a burst of wind before it could even tickle my eardrums. By that time, Murph and Thomas were already on the move, bursting out of the foliage like ninjas.
Murphy fired off shots-- one, two, three-- but didn’t look discouraged when none of them hit their mark. She just holstered her gun and pulled out her sword, advancing steadily. Thomas, meanwhile, flanked him on the other side while I blocked off his front.
“Just give up now.” Murphy said. “We can take you in, nice and peaceful.” Sometimes it’s hard to remember Murphy’s a cop when she’s being all awesome with a sword.
Jimmy scowled. “What, and go to the White Council? Or the White Court ? They’d both kill me, and all for getting my revenge.”
“On an author.” Thomas said. “Who killed a fictional character. ”
Jimmy didn't dignify that with a response. Not that he had any dignity left. Seriously. Murdering people over a book. The Council would probably mercy-kill him. Lara too, maybe-- she’d be embarrassed for the sake of her brand.
“Just give up now, man.” I said. “I don’t really want to fight you.” Mostly because it was embarrassing.
He narrowed his eyes at me. I didn’t like the look in those eyes, something wild and imbalanced in them. Something twitched in the back of my consciousness and I ducked out of the way just as Jimmy threw a burst of raw magic at me, singing my hair on the way by.
I yelped, and I heard Thomas and Murphy hit the ground beside me. The leaves on the ground rustled in a wave that sounded like the deafening roar of an ocean to my oversensitive hearing.
I rolled as soon as I hit the ground, bounding back up and throwing energy right back at him.
He skidded back a few feet, but stayed standing, screeching to a halt. His stolen magic came off of him in unsteady waves.
“You shouldn't have done that.” He glared at me.
Bangbangbang-- Murphy threw three shots into him, still crouched where she'd been thrown. She’d unholstered the gun again, focusing on long range. Two would have hit his chest, and one his head. The shield deflected them, but it was getting wavery and weak from all the pressure put on it.
Perfect-- he was getting tired. A weak point. I love those.
I fired off a weak burst of electricity, then did my best feint right when he tried to bat it back at me. My next shot hit, pow, right in the kisser. Jimmy’s shield dropped and the electricity singed along his face.
There was a lightning flower blooming across the bottom of his jaw, inflamed and angry. His eyes were even angrier.
“Just stop.” I said. “One more shot from that shotgun, and you’re out.”
Jimmy snorted, and jerked his head. The shotgun went flying into the air, and Murphy’s handgun with it. Not missing a beat, they each unsheathed their swords.
I gathered up my will. “Don't do it.” The air was crackling around me. It reminded me of the time I got hit by lightning, a copper taste in the mouth and a sense of something otherworldly.
Pressing my staff forward, I advanced, little by little. I stopped a couple of feet away, wary and too tired to risk breaking fully through his defenses yet.
He lifted up a hand, probably to send a really nasty piece of magic at me.
“Hang on a sec.” I said.
He blinked. “What?”
“Just, like, wait one second.” I said. “Before you murder me, I mean.”
He blinked again. “ Why?”
I grinned. “So she can get behind you.” He spun, but it was too late-- Murphy had already plunged her sword through his shield, and his shoulder. She was aiming to incapacitate, not kill, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to the wizard-pire. He screamed, and she ducked away before he could lash out. She rolled so that she was right beside Thomas, just a little behind me.
His shoulder was bleeding sluggishly, a dark red ooze that wasn’t quite healing itself up with vampire speed. Jimmy dropped to his knees, but he still had his hands up, pointed at us.
The air smelled of ozone, bitter and acrid. His magic was dangerously unstable. He felt like some of the warlocks I’d encountered working for the Wardens. But his body just wasn't built for the magic; it wasn't his. It was eating him alive.
I paused, shield at the ready. “You're sick.” I told him. “This magic is hurting you. Give up, I'll try to help you.”
He laughed, a bad sound. “It's too late for that now. It's too late for everything. She's been feeding me so we can do this. I have to.”
“ Feeding--” I felt sick, even though I'd already started to suspect. “Someone purposely gave you their magic?”
He lifted up his lips-- it wasn’t a smile, but not a snarl either.
The picture was starting to become clear. The house without any restraints, the nice, big bedroom. Oh, yeah, it was painting a picture all right, and it was a gross one.
“I’ll destroy you, and then I’ll take my prize.” He said. He started gathering up energy for some kind of spell-- too much energy. He was drawing it from the air around us, the trees, the Nevernever just out of mortal reach.
“Overly ambitious, much?” I said.
Way overambitious. The air crackled everywhere, buzzing like a broken television. I took a step back, then another and another, until I was in front of Murphy and Thomas.
“Harry?” Murphy asked uncertainly. Even she could feel the wild magic in the air, not meant for us. Not even the fae mess with magic like that-- they understand the balance between the veils of the world, and they have too much experience to test that balance like this.
“Duck.” I hissed, a mere moment before everything exploded.
I ducked over both of them, raising my shield bracelet and holding the end of my coat in my bad hand, covering us all. It was just in time, too, because the world erupted into light and heat and magic.
It was like a nuclear explosion, and I was doing my damned best to hold the door to the shelter closed with duct tape.
Heat rushed over us, and I closed my eyes, feeling the edges of my shield start to fray. I gritted my teeth. I could feel Thomas and Murphy below me, covering their heads and hunkering over. The noise was unbelievable-- only amplified by the potion, it sounded like a million million waves crashing over us and the fireworks at Disneyland all at once.
Can't be much longer. The strain of holding up my shield against the magical onslaught as well as the earlier battles was catching up to me, my defenses starting to weaken and a headache building up around my eyes.
I didn't dare open my eyes, much less my Sight, but I could feel the creatures of the Nevernever poking at the edge of the world, nosing at us like a dog on a bleeding wound.
The noise got louder, roaring and exploding and bursting with light.
And then it stopped.
I slumped over, my shield bracelet flickering out and the resolve in my system with it.
The world smelled like ozone and burning.
Murphy and Thomas both let out surprised swears beneath me, suddenly confronted with 6’ something of dead Harry-shaped weight.
“What just happened?” Murphy asked.
Thomas groaned. “Oh, jeez, he's heavy.”
They rolled me off of them with some effort and I felt Murph’s steady fingers pressed on my neck, checking the pulse. Let's see her deflect a magical onslaught of that size and not get a little dizzy after. “He's fine.” She said.
“Wake up.” Thomas poked me with what I considered to be unnecessary force.
“Harry.” Murphy said, and prodded me.
“No.” I told the ground.
“Wake up.” Thomas said. “A man just exploded.”
I groaned, and opened my eyes. Instant headache. “Was it me?” I asked, kind of hopefully. I could hear my own headache. That's just wrong.
“Nope.” Thomas said, and I sat up regretfully.
“Next time, I'm bringing Bob along for backup.” I muttered. “You two are mean.”
“Bob’s a skull.” Thomas said. “Don’t know how much help he’d be.”
“Technically, we’re all skulls.” I said. “Although I will admit we have a few more parts attached to us.”
“At least Bob has a brain.” Thomas said in an undertone just loud enough for me to hear due to the potion not having worn off yet.
“Not that this isn't a great time for this conversation and everything.” Murph was getting to her feet. “But literally what just happened.”
“I tried to warn him.” I said, not making the brave move to my feet just yet. I looked around the clearing. A twenty foot circle, almost perfect, stretched around us of burned earth. There was no sign of Jimmy the wizard-pire-- dust like we would have been if I hadn't been bracing for it. “His body just wasn't built for that kind of magic. Burned himself up. We’re probably breathing him in right now.”
“Sometimes,” Murphy says, “I really wish you’d be a little more mysterious.”
“I’ll remind you of that.” I said, pointing a dizzy finger at her. “You’re gonna regret that next time a man explodes and I don’t tell you anything.”
Mike himself pulled up in a tow truck that had the Beetle behind it. The headlights were still covered in duct tape, but the holes had mostly been patched and it looked like it would run, at least for a little while.
“Uh, hi.” Mike said.
We were all sitting at the edge of the clearing by the road, trying to get our breath back and bandaging up minor injuries. I’m sure we looked a sight-- covered in ash and glass shards and my hair sticking up like I’d been electrocuted. We’d heard Mike coming three miles away.
Murphy, Thomas, and I all winced. “Too loud.” Thomas said, sticking a finger in his ear and wiggling it around.
“Sorry?” Mike said, a little quieter. “I got the Beetle for ya, Harry. Where’s the other car?”
Murphy gestured with her sword, which to his credit didn’t seem to freak Mike out any. “That way.” She said. “By the patch of scorched earth.”
“Look, you can hook whatever’s left of the car up to a trailer, but we gotta go.” Thomas said. “Emergency. You got the keys?”
“I thought you were French.” Mike dug his keys out of his pocket and tossed them to me.
“Oh.” Thomas said. “I, uh, have a cold.” He forgot to do the French accent until halfway through the sentence.
“It’s a good thing you’re pretty.” I told him, and went to unhook the Beetle. It started up with only a mildly concerning screeching sound. “Let’s go.” I said, leaning out the window (which was still broken from an unrelated incident with a selkie). “Time’s a’wasting.”
“So impatient.” Murphy said, sheathing her sword so that she could get in the car. “Thanks for the tow.” She got into the back, letting Thomas take shotgun (although she still had the literal shotgun).
Mike took off his ballcap so he could scratch his head again, and then slapped it back on. “I’ll bill you.” He said. “Good luck.”
“We’ll need it.” Thomas said. He forgot to use the accent again.
We flew down the road, the Beetle shaking a little with the effort of going so fast. It was possible it shouldn't have been out of the garage yet.
“Why are we going so fast?” Thomas leaned close so he could be heard over the wind rushing through the holes in the car.
“The partner.” I said. “Like Jimmy said-- he's got a wizard working with him. And if he's crazy enough to do this, his partner must be too.”
“You think they could go after Stacy next.” Murphy said.
“I do.” I said, and pressed the gas pedal a little more. The Beetle made a protesting sound, but obliged.
“Great.” Thomas said. “Nothing is ever easy.”
The Beetle screeched up to Murphy’s house to too much silence. The neighborhood was peaceful as always, idyllic. A yappy dog barked somewhere in the distance. But the last fading remnants of the hearing spell was still lingering, and I could hear more sinister sounds coming from Murphy’s place.
Murphy shook her head as we piled out of the car, staring at the silent house. We stood in front, shivering a little in the deceptive silence. “That’s not right, I can hear--”
“Veil.” I said. “Strong one, but I think it’ll fade when we get closer to the house.”
Murphy rolled her eyes. “Of course.”
“Any idea what’ll be behind the veil?” Thomas asked, giving his sword a few experimental swooshes.
“Nope.” I said.
“So like always then.” Murphy said. “Let’s go.”
We stepped through the veil-- I could feel it when we passed through, and not just because of the changing scenery. The magic in the air around us rippled uncomfortably, darkly. If this magic-user wasn’t a warlock already, they were already well on their way to being one. If they’d willingly let a vampire feed off them, they were probably already too far gone.
True to expectations, Murphy’s front yard was a disaster. But it wasn’t as much of a disaster as I was expecting.
The warlock had summoned an army of mud golems, seemingly scraped up from Murphy’s yard. Each of them were tiny, inanimate things about the size of a garden gnome-- up to my knees. They were making a disgusting, determined path for Murphy’s front door.
The Murphy home has a strong threshold, but, like the wards on my apartment after an unfortunate zombie incident last year, no magic can stand up under raw, relentless armies. The golems were making a break for the door, being pushed back, and going straight back again. When one split off, the muddy remains would form into another.
It took me a second to realize that Murphy’s door was open, and there were two-- no, three, counting Mouse-- figures standing in the doorway.
Stacy stood there, grimacing, spraying the things with a garden hose that extended from the back garden. The pressure washer flung the golems away in hordes, but they kept springing back up a moment later.
I blinked. Ameena was behind her, chanting some sort of spell that seemed to be-- maybe strengthening Murphy’s threshold? That was pure love magic, the kind only a happy, peaceful individual can pull off, someone who knows what it’s like to have a threshold. No wonder I couldn’t do it. It seemed this was Ameena’s specialty-- she wasn’t particularly strong, but she was talented.
It was impressive, and probably the reason the house hadn’t yet been reduced to a pile of house-shaped toothpicks. Mouse was crouched low to the ground, growling deeply. His muzzle was spattered with dark mud.
Stacy spotted us at almost exactly the same time the mud golems did.
They turned to us with a nasty slickslick, half of the forces concentrated on the women and half on us.
“Ewww.” Murphy said.
“They’re going to get my jeans dirty.” Thomas complained.
I rolled my eyes. “We'll make a break for the front door and try to regroup. I'll take the front, you two watch my sides.” They nodded and moved into position. “Hey, Murph, are you attached to your hedges?”
“Don't you dare light my hedges on fire, Dresden.” Murphy said.
“Fuego.” I said. “Whoops.”
Large piles of the golems (and the hedges) exploded into mud and fire, scattering ichor everywhere and mud onto all of us. The things were regenerating almost as fast as they’d exploded, so we hoofed it for the front door while there was still a clear path in front of us.
The things climbed back towards us, sucking at our feet and leaping for our faces. Thomas and Murphy each sliced some of the golems in half, and I just batted them away with my staff until we reached the door. We tumbled inside, and I hooked the doorknob and shut the door.
“That door isn’t going to hold for long.” Murphy, mud-splattered, panted. “Everyone okay?”
We all murmured our not-deadness. Stacy spat mud. “I’m fine, thanks to Ameena. She came over to talk, but those things attacked. She said running water disrupts a lot of magic, so?” She’d dropped the hose outside somewhere, but her fingers were still white like she’d been holding onto it very hard.
“Good instincts, Ameena.” I said. “And great job with the threshold, I wouldn’t have thought of that.” I was currently shielding the front door anyway, feeling creepy, tiny constructs hit the door, splat, and reform.
Ameena blushed. “Uh, thanks.” She said. “I’m not actually a wizard. I do kitchen magic, so I’m just glad we didn’t blow up.”
“That was an option? ” Stacy asked.
“Focus.” Thomas said. “Plan?”
“The caster has to be nearby, and if they know we got their partner, they’re going to be kind of pissed off.” I said.
“Awesome.” Thomas said.
“You found the vampire?” Stacy asked hopefully. “Did you find out what he wanted?”
Thomas, Murphy and I glanced at each other. I bit the bullet. “Apparently, he was sad you killed off a character.”
Stacy stared at me. “You’re kidding.”
“That’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Yeah, I know.” Thomas said mournfully.
“More immediate problems.” I said. “Ameena, how long can you hold your threshold magic?”
She shrugged. “Ten minutes?”
Murphy looked grim. “That’s not a lot of time.” She wiped her muddy hands on her pants. “I’ve got another sword above the fireplace, Stacy, if you want a new weapon.” She did, apparently. Stacy hefted the sword in an uncertain but steady hand.
Three more mud golem bodies slammed into the door and then one into the window, making us all jump. It splatted with a disgusting noise and left a trail of mud and debris trailing down the window.
“Ugh.” Murphy said. “My poor house.”
We planned our approach-- I’d find the caster that was making the golems, and hopefully take them out. Ameena, Stacy, and Murphy would fight off the creatures while Thomas and Mouse kept them from escaping the veil and hurting civilians. Not a perfect plan, or even maybe a good one, but when it’s all you have it’s all you have.
I charged up my shield bracelet. It was damaged in an unfortunate flamethrower incident, and it’s been a little unstable ever since. It dripped blue sparks as it powered up, but the glow was distinctly subdued. I frowned, shaking my wrist. It flared up into a normal bright blue again. Stars and Stones. I’d be lucky if I could match Ameena’s ten minutes.
“All good?” Thomas asked.
“Yep.” I said.
Thanks for reading so far! There will probably be one more chapter after this.
I climbed out one of the windows in the second story, sighing. Professional wizard and makes most of his exits through the window. I should put that one on my business card.
The golems were still congregating outside, a mass of muck and dirt. From my bird’s-eye view, I couldn’t see the warlock anywhere, but there was a definite concentration of the creatures by the oak tree in the backyard, by the spot I'd once summoned an ancient evil entity. Come to think of it, I'm kind of rough on Murphy's house. At least I didn't bleed on her doilies.
I heaved myself the rest of the way out of the window and jumped. Murphy’s is one of those old houses, built before tract homes made them each uniform and bland, and her second-story window was significantly closer to the ground than one might expect. I didn't need to shield myself, just jumped and did a roll to absorb the shock and save my knees.
I came up, covered in mud but unscathed. I assumed the girls, the dog, and my brother were well into their parts of the plan already.
The mud golems at the back were already tuned into my presence, turning towards me with definite malice. I blasted them aside. They grew back.
“Hey, little mud monsters, you don’t really want to attack me, right? Wizard, eww.” I said. “Go play fetch or something?”
They did not want to play fetch.
They came at me again, and I blasted them and ducked out of the way, making a slow progress towards the tree. I thought maybe I could see the edge of the sorcerer, a flash of longish blonde hair before the mud things closed in again.
They seemed to be learning, though, because when they reformed from my latest attack, they were bigger. They were linking together, using the mud from the littler bodies to make one big one, which definitely wasn’t fair.
The big mud golem lumbered towards me. I gave it a little taste of fire-- no dice. The fire singed part of the arm off, but it grew back and the creature reached me. It swung a big fist, slow but with a power behind it I really didn’t want to feel firsthand.
I ducked and rolled, bringing up my staff at the last moment to catch the thing in the stomach. It growled in pain, a bubbly, disturbing sound, and swiped for me on instinct. Some of the mud-claws scraped the edge of my chin, and I hissed but got out of the way.
“Okay, fire isn’t working.” I said. “How about the other way? Arctis! ”
The thing stopped. It was frozen. Cautiously, I poked it with my staff. Nada. The ice at the edge of it was crinkling, though, showing stress already. I’d have to hurry before Frosty melted.
I skirted the edge of the mud golem, wary of what lay beyond. As I got closer to the tree, the air got cooler, the wind a little harsher. I could hear the noises of my friends somewhere around me, grunting and shooting and yelling.
Under the canopy of the tree sat a woman. She was young, but lined and drooped enough she could have been in her forties. She’d been fed on for a long time, not gently, and it had taken its toll. There was that same crazy look in her eyes, but she was worn down, too, skin stretched over her bones. She felt sick, like her magic and her energy were leaking out of her. Her skin was pale, blue veins stretched over her face like roots of a tree.
“Howdy.” I said. I was very tired.
Her head snapped up to look at me. Her eyes were bloodshot. Strung-out, like a junkie who hadn't slept in a week.
“Want to give up?” I asked hopefully. Look, I ask enough times, eventually someone’s gonna say yes.
“Where’s Jim?” Her voice was a rasp. “How is he?”
“Jimmy? Uh, crispy?”
“You killed him?” Her voice was quiet but harsh, raspy and a little scary.
“No. He killed himself. The magic consumed him.”
“That’s not true.”
“It’s true.” I said. “He didn't know what he was messing with. He never should have had that power.” I was being very polite, I thought, especially considering what I'd gone through already that day. She didn't seem to think so.
“Then you'll go with him.”
There was a crack I realized a little too late was the sound of a mud golem breaking the ice around it.
I managed to spin in time to avoid getting slammed in the back and instead get slammed right in the face.
There was yet another crack as I was fairly sure my nose broke. Third time this year; keep it up and I was going to start snoring like Thomas. Next Christmas I was buying him some Breathe-Rite strips.
Distracted by pain, free-flying through the air, thoughts about snoring, and more pain, I managed to get my feet under me so I just skidded in the mud instead of falling down.
I ducked. It swung at me. I ducked.
No one said wizards have to be ingenuitive. I used the same ice trick on the golem as before and it worked like a charm.
This time, I strode right up to the wizard and got in her face. “Shut down the army.” I growled.
I've been told I can be kind of scary when I'm mad.
This lady seemed to agree, looking taken-aback. She didn't stop channeling her mud creature spell, or trying to kill Stacy, so I figured she probably wasn't that taken-aback.
“I won't.” She said. “Hawkins has to pay for what she did to me and my love.”
I was exhausted, magically and physically, and I was pretty sure I swallowed part of a mud golem’s arm at some point. I had drowned much too recently for my liking, and been in one too many explosions. My nose hurt a lot, and blood was slowly dripping down off my face and onto my shirt.
Wizards are pretty strict about keeping their bodily fluids from going anywhere except with them. For one, it's gross, and two, lots of nasty spells can be done with them.
Historically, I haven't been so good at the keeping them inside me part, specifically blood. I've left blood trails everywhere from the Chicago Field Museum to ritual altars to the parking lot of an Arby’s to three separate Motel 6’s.
Also, I was very tired, as I mentioned. I went off the first thing that went through my brain.
I sneezed blood on the evil wizard. Straight in the face.
“Did you just… sneeze blood on me?”
“Sorry.” I said nasally, and took the opportunity of her distraction to clock her right in the face.
One punch, and she was down, no fanfare. She lay in a heap on the ground, mud on her clothes. It would almost be embarrassingly easy, except for how dark spots did the tango around my eyes from the simple motion.
There was a pause, like a huge gust of air being let out, and the sounds of battle stopped. There was the strange but very recognizable sound of mud golems being reabsorbed back into the ground.
“Ow.” I said, and squeezed my nose.
Thomas and Mouse tentatively peeked around the treeline. “Did I just hear you save the day with a sneeze?” Thomas looked about as bad as I felt, jeans torn and t-shirt so splattered with mud so as to be unrecognizable. He had slowly healing cuts stretching through holes in the shirt and one long one on his neck.
“No.” I said, holding up a hand to try and stem the bloodflow from my nose. It wasn't the only thing that hurt-- that prize went to my entire body -- but it was the messiest. “It was really cool and heroic.”
“You broke your nose again.” Thomas pointed out. “Is it over?”
Murphy appeared, mud and blood-spattered, and with her sword in hand. Stacy and Ameena trailed after her, looking around cautiously. “Is it over?”
“Yes.” I said.
“Any chance this veil of hers is going to stay up while we make it look less like a bomb went off?” Murphy asked.
“It should wear off in a minute or so.” I said.
“Damn it-” Murphy said, and that was when the veil dropped.
A woman dressed in an almost unbelievably orange tracksuit skidded to a stop on the street, mouth open. Her lips moved, but she didn’t say anything.
Thomas spat an unattractive mixture of blood and mud out onto the ground. “Exploded water line.” He said wisely.
“I didn’t hear anything.” The neighbor said. Her eyes were huge. Someone across the street stepped out with a bag of trash in his hand, then froze in place, staring.
“They call the water line the silent killer.” I said.
“I’ve never… heard that.” The woman said.
“Pretty common saying.” Stacy said. She dropped her sword. “Ow, hand cramp.”
“Okay.” The woman said, backing away. “Yeah, sounds right. Bye!”
“She’s going to call the cops.” Murphy said.
“Definitely.” I agreed.
“I hate you, Dresden.” She said.
“Speaking of police.” I said. “Can you deal with the muggles while I go call the wizard cops?”
“That sounds like my cue to make myself scarce.” Thomas said.
Some mud slid down the side of the house and landed on one of Ameena’s curls.
“Oh, man, I hate you, Dresden.” Murphy said.
“You know,” Carlos Ramirez, bedecked in a grey Warden’s cloak with the hood down, said, “I sometimes feel your life is more interesting than mine.”
I held a pink icepack up to my nose. “Don't sell yourself short, Ramirez. A few short years of practice and you too could be like me.”
Ramirez shuddered. “Madre de Dios, Harry, you know how to get a guy down.” The ruins of the yard around us were being slowly picked apart by very confused police, water company people, and neighbors. Carlos and I stood safely under a veil a ways away.
I say safely, even though Murphy knew where we were and periodically sent glares over at us. Or maybe just at me.
The Beetle was parked half on the lawn and half on the curb, and the first responders made little squelches as they tried to poke around. Stacy and Ameena had very clearly made up-- they were holding hands and making gooey eyes at each other.
I grinned. “Don't I know it.” I gestured at the warlock zip-tied and unconscious on the ground next to us. “I got you a gift anyway.”
“I'm touched.” Ramirez kept a hand on his sword and one eye on her. “How'd you beat her, anyway?”
“Cool wizard tricks.” I said sagely.
“Well, they can't all be undead dinosaurs.” Carlos said.
“Aw, see if I let you ride my T-Rex again.”
Carlos grinned, dark features lighting up. “Keep pressure on that nose and don't get into too much trouble.” He gave me a half salute as he hauled the evil wizard over his shoulder and opened a portal through the air.
I returned it. “I'll call you if I do.”
A laugh as he stepped through. “Please don't!”
Thomas conveniently reappeared as Carlos left and Butters showed up
“Hey.” Butters greeted, and got an eyeful of Murphy's house. “Ouch.”
Murphy rolled her eyes. The mud was starting to crust up on our clothes-- there would be a hell of a fight for the shower and I sensed that I would lose since I have a problem with blowing up water heaters. Butters picked his way across the yard as carefully as he could, nurse shoes sliding in the muck.
Murphy led him towards the house, and he got an eyeful of me. “Ouch.” He said again, wincing sympathetically at me and my icepack. “Again?”
“Yeah.” I said, a little muffled by the icepack. I could actually feel the black eye forming around it into a beautiful shade of purple. “You think the ER will give me a punch card?”
“Then I'd be out of a hobby.” Butters said. Murphy's kitchen table was still cleared off from the last round of medical attention, so we all lined up for our turns.
“More time for polka.” Murphy pointed out.
“That's true.” Butters said cheerfully. “Okay, who wants to go first?”
One Year Later
I tugged at the collar of my suit, feeling out of place. It’d taken Thomas, Molly, and Murphy’s combined efforts to wrestle me into it, and still I looked like an awkward teenager at the prom.
“Stop it.” Thomas said, batting my hands away from my tie. “It’s not going to strangle you.”
“It feels like it.” I said. “Besides, you’re not wearing a tie.”
Thomas smirked. “Yeah, because I can pull it off. You’d just look like you lost part of your suit.” His tux cost more than my whole apartment, now that he’d moved onto a more profitable career-- namely Feeding off bored housewives for money-- a rumpled silk thing.
I opened my mouth to retort, but elbowed him instead. “Shush! Here comes the brides!”
Stacy and Ameena appeared in the reception room to wolf-whistles and applause. They waved and laughed. Murphy came in after them, grinning in a pretty purple number. The brides looked beautiful in their white gowns-- Thomas had definitely gotten sniffly when they’d come out during the ceremony itself, but he’d probably stab me before admitting that.
Murphy caught sight of me and Thomas and handed off her bouquet to someone, jogging over to us as fast as someone in heels could. “Hey, guys.” She said. She grinned. “Harry, you look so uncomfortable.”
“I am.” I said mournfully.
“Well, you look handsome.” She said.
Thomas peered at me. “I didn’t know he could turn that color.” I swatted him, trying to force my blush down to more manly levels. Murphy laughed.
“You came!” The new Stacy Hawkins-Garcia pulled Ameena Hawkins-Garcia over to us by her hand. Ameena let herself be dragged, grinning wildly.
“Good to see you.” Ameena said, waving with her free hand.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” I said.
“You both look beautiful.” Thomas added. Stacy hugged both of us, dragging Ameena along with her since their hands were still linked.
“Oh!” Stacy said. “I have something for you.”
I frowned. “Now, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how a wedding is supposed to go. I already got you a salad spinner.” What’s a salad spinner even for? I had no idea.
Stacy grinned. “Be back. Gotta go find my editor, if she’s not already in the champagne.” She dragged Ameena with her again, apparently forgetting that they were holding hands. They might as well have been superglued together as soon as they’d finished their vows.
They returned only a moment later, Stacy holding something. She handed it over to me. “Advance copy.” It was a book. “The publishing company absolutely loved the concept.”
I looked at the book: S.T Hawkins-Garcia’s The Wizard Files. There was a gruff, tough-looking guy on the front, back turned to us but face positioned just right so you could see the bottom of his sneer. The wind blew dramatically in the background. A dark, gritty street loomed behind him, a storm somewhere in the distance. He bore a striking resemblance to me.
Thomas laughed, crowding my shoulder to get a look at the cover. “This is amazing!” He said. “I’m going to buy this entire series.”
“I’m not a hat guy.” I protested, that pesky blush creeping its way back up my neck.
“I don’t know, this guy is pulling it off.” Murphy said, taking the book so she could look at the blurb on the back cover. “This is amazing, Stacy.”
Stacy grinned. “No more vampire fiction for me.” She said. “You know, it’s a surprisingly dangerous profession.”
“Those pesky vampires.” Thomas said with a straight face.
“Those pesky vampires.” Stacy agreed. “They can be very violent.”
“Wizards, too.” Murphy said.
“And dogs.” Ameena added. “Where'd you get Mouse? We could use an attack dog for the house once I get all moved in.”
“Ancient monastery.” I said. “I don't think dogasaurus rex is available for retail.”
“Eh, we'll get a German Shepard.” Ameena shrugged. “And a couple defensive wards.”
“I can hook you up with some swords.” Murphy said. “Congratulations, guys.”
They grinned a little wider, practically giddy with excitement and happiness. “Thanks.” Stacy said. “Ooh, there's my sister. We've gotta go talk to her, c’mon, babe!”
I read the book that night.
It wasn't bad.
Thank you so much for reading! I appreciated all the comments, bookmarks, and kudos!!