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The instant Butters and I carried Murphy over his threshold, Michael stepped out from his gate. His bad knee shuddered despite the cane he used, and he hunched his shoulders.  My stomach dropped as I realized that he was afraid .

 

“Michael, don’t do this!”  I shouted. There was still time to pull a quick ‘step out of the gate for one second, then step back in so I’ve technically fulfilled my word’.  But I knew in my heart of hearts that Michael’s conscience wouldn’t let him take the cheap way out. And damn, did Nicodemus know that too.

 

Nicodemus walked slowly, ceremonially up to where Michael stood on the grey sidewalk, tired and weak.  “There’s still much to become of you,” he promised. There’s no way I should have been able to hear Nicodemus from Michael’s door, but his disarmingly gentle voice carried, making the hairs on the sides of my arms stand up.  He rested a hand on Michael’s shoulder, grinning like a crocodile, or a snake, if snakes smiled with too many pearly-white teeth. Under his feet, Anduriel’s shadow was practically going mad, squirming worse than a toddler trying to hold in a wee-wee.  

 

Michael just gave Nicodemus a small smile.  “And there still may be good to come from you.”

 

Nicodemus snarled, and in his anger, he kicked Michael’s walking stick out from under him.  The former Knight of the Cross stumbled. Nicodemus caught him, dipping Michael like a tango dancer, and before I could say a word, shadows swirled like a dust cloud around them both.  When the air settled, the street was empty, save for a lonely cane and the echo of demonic laughter.

 

---

 

I had to be back at Nicodemus’ headquarters in four hours, but I managed it in two.  I brought Michael’s cane back into the house, leaving it leaning against the refridgerator.  While Butters was patching Murphy up in the dining room, Charity pulled me aside, eyes empty.  She didn’t say anything, which somehow made it worse. I wished she’d hit me. I deserved it.

 

We packed everyone into Michael’s truck.  Murphy, Butters, and the kids that were still at home sat in the back while I rode shotgun with Charity.  We’d taken Amoracchius from Michael’s garden shed, and its sheath was resting across Butters’ lap. I’d told him to give it to Murphy when she woke up.  I had to have faith that it would protect them both if something nasty came knocking at the hospital door.

 

I glanced over to Charity.  “You need to get out of town.  I… I don’t know…” I trailed off.  

 

Charity was glancing in the rearview mirror, checking on the kids.  Her knuckles were white on the wheel. Daniel flashed his mom a tired thumbs up.  “Bring him back, Dresden,” Charity said. “Before the kids realize he’s gone.”

 

My stomach dropped.  Charity hadn’t told them.

 

I wanted to promise her I would.  But I’d promised myself last time that I’d get Shiro back.

 

“Do you know how I can get in touch with Sanya?”

 

She shook her head.  Charity’s strong chin looked tight, as if she were using it to stop her lower lip from shaking.  It wasn’t working. “He probably already knows.”

 

We got Murphy to a hospital and straight into the ER.  Butters went with her, taking Bob. I hoped that they’d be safe enough from the Denarians there, but I’d told them to make a beeline for St. Mary’s once Murph was out of the red.  

 

“I can’t use the sword to help you,” Charity murmured, when we pulled up in front of Mac’s.  She left the engine running.

 

I nodded solemnly.  Nicodemus was probably banking on Charity making the same mistakes Karrin had.  “He’s probably looking for that sweet 2-for-1 broken holy sword deal at Walmart,” I said.

 

Charity sighed.  “It’s always like this with you.  The worse the situation, the worse the humour.”

 

“I wouldn’t want you to risk your life.”  I was dead serious this time.

 

Michael wouldn’t either , went unsaid, but not unheard.

 

“I’m taking the kids out of town.  When you find him,” she said, “I want you to call me.”  She passed over a small slip of paper with her cellphone number on it.  Good. She didn’t tell me where she was going. That way, there would be no way for me to tell Nicodemus where she’d gone.  If things went wrong.

 

I got out.  If Charity were alone, she would have driven me straight to the Denarians’ HQ to beat the shit out of Nick and the Nickleheads, but her kids’ safety took precedence.

 

As she rolled up the window, I called out to her, “Godspeed.”  I raised a hand, and the Carpenters were gone. From the back of the truck, Maggie’s face peered out at me.  My heart eased slightly, knowing that Charity would protect her with everything she had.

 

---

 

I exited Mac’s an hour later, only a little drunk.  I’d allowed myself to cry a little in one of the bathroom stalls, cursing Nicodemus to all hell.

 

Mab would do the unspeakable if I attacked Nicodemus now.  But he was already doing the unspeakable to Michael. This left me with only one option: I had to get Michael out without harming Nick.  Or the Holy-Grail-heist plan.

 

This wasn’t going to be easy, I thought as I hailed a taxi.  But time was running out. Nicodemus had wanted me back in four hours to continue preparing.  That meant he wanted to… finish with Michael by then. I tried not to vomit on the car’s dark leather seats.

 

“Stop here,” I commanded a few minutes later, in a voice harsher than I’d intended.  I leapt out of the car and threw the driver some cash. I hadn’t wanted to expose him to any of Nick’s inevitable wrath, so it took me a few minutes and several blocks to get to headquarters at a dead sprint.

 

“Hurry,” I growled aloud.  And then I was in the dark warehouse, surrounded by Nicodemus’ goons.

 

Six of them blocked my way.  I didn’t have time to deal with them, so I drew on the power of the Winter Mantle and vaulted over them easily in a high arc which brought me into the center of our warehouse..

 

They would be in the side-building, on the upper floor, where Nicodemus and Dierdre’s sleeping quarters were.  I dashed across the open warehouse floor.

 

“Harry?” Hannah Ascher said incredulously as I whizzed towards the steel structure that served as our stairway to the upper levels.  

 

I ignored her and shoved Binder out of the way, taking the stairs two at a time.  “Out of my way!” I barked.

 

My heavy shoes clattered on the steel walkway as I took a running start at the door to Nicodemus’ room.  Before I could reach it, something wrapped around my ankles and sent me into a twenty-mile-an-hour tumble.  I rolled with it, and managed to come out standing just in time to see Deirdre swoop down from the ceiling, hair shooting towards me.

 

Forzare !” I shouted, a manic grin on my face.

 

A coil of her blade-hair swung in a circle, tangling with the rest of her deadly halo and rendering her attack effectively useless.  I threw myself behind her, but not before memorizing the look of confusion on Deirdre’s face as she was faced with an unexpectedly precise spell.

 

I froze the lock on the door and slammed it open with a boot.  “Nicodemus!” I roared.

 

The room was pitch black, save for a tiny sliver of light that dripped down from the ceiling from a small hole in the roof.  Lying on a heap of miscellaneous construction materials was an unconscious Michael, his body framed in the dregs of light as if he were spotlighted.  From this angle, he looked unharmed. I prayed that we’d arrived on time.

 

Dresden ,” came a voice from all around us.  The blackness pressed in closer, and I could swear it ran a finger down the back of my neck.  

 

“Give Michael back,” I snarled, trying not to sound as afraid as I was.  “You’ve destroyed Fidelacchius,” I said, “What else could you want?” My voice broke at the end.  I just wanted my friend back. Nicodemus didn’t deign to respond. My voice grew desperate. “Please, I’ll do anything,” I whispered, falling to my knees, “I’d take up Lasciel’s coin-”

 

Nicodemus faded into existence only two feet away from where I was kneeling hopelessly on the cold cement floor.  I looked up, not even attempting to brush the hair out of my face. He was smiling as he strode towards me, bouncing a coin in his hand.  Even in the dim, I could tell his movements were limber, relaxed, as if he’d taken a refreshing nap and a spa treatment to boot. With a shudder, I remembered that the Denarians drew power from hopelessness and pain.   Michael…

 

“Well, Dresden,” Nicodemus purred.  “So glad that you’ve finally come around.”

 

“Just,” I let out a sob.  God, how it pained me to stoop to this. “Please.  Swear you’ll give Michael to me, and I’ll do anything.  Of my own free will.”

 

I could feel Nicodemus itching to get his hands on my fresh, de-fallen-ified soul.  His fingers twitched hungrily, resembling tortured spiders. Chuckling darkly, as if knowing something I didn’t, Nicodemus tilted his head to the side in agreement, letting out a low chuckle.  “Gladly.”

 

“Swear it,” I choked, looking past him.  

 

“I swear that I shall give you Michael Carpenter in exchange for your eternal soul.”  His voice savoured the words, as if my soul would be delicious as well. “Anything else?” he asked, smugly.

 

“Just one thing,” I mumbled, getting to my feet.

 

“Yes?”

 

I couldn’t keep the smile off my face any longer.  It would’ve killed me. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” I began, holding my arms out triumphantly and taking a mock-bow, “my family,” I continued, “but most of all, I’d like to thank you, Nicodemus, my audience.  Because while you’ve been drawn in by my D-rate acting- God, man, I wasn’t even pretend-crying and you were still fooled- I think you’ve failed to notice that the one thing I’d take up a coin for has disappeared.

 

“Michael’s gone,” I snarled, “bitch.”

 

At my sudden revelation, Nicodemus had frozen, as had his shadow.  He spun around to stare, astonished, at the small circle of light where Michael’s body had lain.  There was only a pile of rope covered with plastic IKEA tarp. His head snapped back to me, and his shadow exploded across the floor.  

 

If this were a heist movie, this is the part where I’d explain how I stole the crown jewels and blow the audience's mind.  Except Michael was the crown jewel, and the only audience I had was Nicodemus. But OK. Let’s rewind:

 

From the moment Michael had been taken, I’d known I couldn’t free him on my own.  I’d need someone with about as much punching-power as Nick himself, but someone with enough control so that they wouldn’t blow the Grail heist by accidentally setting the warehouse on fire or something.  At first I thought of Kinkaid, but after about three messages left on voicemail and an answering machine that kept saying ‘I’m on the beach right now, please call again in two weeks’, I realized that he might not be in Chicago.  Then, there was the secondary problem: If I brought someone in to save Michael, then they would be a potential threat to the operation just by knowing about the warehouse, just like Butters. Nicodemus would kill that person himself this time, I was sure.  Unless…

 

And then I’d had a brilliant idea.  

 

Enter: Molly Carpenter.  That was the real reason I’d gone to Mac’s, to meet up with her.  She has the magical juice and subtlety I needed, and Hells Bells, this was her dad .  She couldn’t stay out of this one.  But best of all, Nicodemus couldn’t touch a hair on Molly’s Winter-Lady-head without breaking his deal with Mab and losing the skills of yours truly.  Of course, the non-aggression went both ways, as Mab wouldn’t allow Molly to break her promise to Nick either.

 

Haha Nick, fuck you.  

 

Before exiting Molly had veiled herself, taken the cab with me, and snuck into the warehouse.  The trick where I’d seemed to Forzare Deirdre was particularly clever: Molly had been whispering her own spell to take care of the fallen’s luscious locks.  Then, when we were inside Nick’s room, Molly had locked Deirdre out, and I’d drawn the Big Bad himself straight to me with my promise of taking a coin, all while Molly stole away with her father.  I suppose she left some sort of veil behind too, because Anduriel’s shadow didn’t pick up on Michael’s disappearance. The fallen wasn’t expecting it either, which helped.

 

Haha Anduriel, fuck you too.  

 

The plan went as smoothly as it could have.  We just had to hope that Nicodemus had left Michael alive.  

 

Now.  Back to our regularly scheduled programming.  Earlier, I said it was already dark, because it was.  But when Anduriel covered everything, somehow the word ‘black’ doesn’t cover just how dark it really was.  I stumbled backwards towards where I hoped the door was, shriek-giggling, “You can’t kill me, or Mab will ram an icicle up your asses.”

 

Dresden ,” Nicodemus began.  I could hear the angry air between his teeth.

 

I didn’t give him a chance to finish.  By touch, I’d managed to feel out the door and I swung my back into it.  No way in hell was I taking my eyes off Nick for an instant. The doors smacked into Deirdre, sending her small frame flying.  I leapt off the walkway, and thirty feet towards almost-certain-but-not-quite death. Shielding my fall, I tucked into a roll and came up running, flipping a hand gesture to anyone who was watching.



---

I managed to escape.  It took ten minutes of hiding, dodging, overpaying a taxi-driver and praying that Molly had added in those nifty scent-veils to her mix so that the Genosqua couldn’t track her down, but I finally dragged my way back to Michael’s place.  Molly had draped her dad over the couch.

 

Apart from some of his muscles, which had seized up, resulting in clenched fists and his bad leg hugged close to his chest, he looked angelic, which scared me.  There wasn’t a scratch on him, and I could only picture what they’d done to Shiro’s body. What if they’d done something like that to his head? Broken bones, we could fix, but I doubted if even Molly could mend mental damage that bad, even if she didn’t go mad from looking at what they’d done to her dad first.  

 

My voice was shaky as I asked, “Is he…?”

 

“Yeah… he’s alive,” Molly choked.

 

I let out a shaky breath of relief, although my insides were icy with dread.

 

“Why…”  Molly started, “Why is he OK?  This doesn’t make sense…” She was shivering and rubbing her shoulders.  

 

For two of the most powerful entities in Winter’s employ, we sure felt real cold.  

 

“Look,” I said, voice shaking, “I’ll go make us some coffee or something and you can try and wake hi-”

 

Molly screamed.  I leapt back, sure I’d see shadows pouring in through the windows, blades thrashing and flashing through the walls.  Then I looked down. Michael was clenching Molly’s forearm, his eyes wide and manic as if he’d just woken from a horrible nightmare.

 

“Molly?  Molly, Molly, you’re alive- thank God you’re alive-” his voice was hoarse.  I winced, trying not to imagine how much Michael must have screamed to sound so raspy.  Michael buried his nose in his daughter’s long hair, letting out a dry sob. “I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered.  Wet, his cheeks shone. I felt myself become hot, intruding on a private moment.

 

“Dad,” Molly replied, her voice full of shaky tears and anxiety.  She’d probably never seen Michael cry. “What’d they do to you?”

 

Michael froze where he was lying on the couch, eyes wide like an animal’s, breath as if he’d run a hundred miles.  Molly winced as his hand clenched tighter around her arm. Then the moment was over. Michael rolled himself off the couch and, not realizing how weak he was, crumpled to the floor.  His daughter helped him up, and I saw a pink bruise beginning to form on her arm. Was Michael really so strong?

 

“Here, I’ll go get your thing,” I said vaguely.  My head was screaming that I was missing something, but for the life of me, I had no idea what.  Granted, the mental stress I assumed Nicodemus had put my friend through was terrible, but not as bad as it could have been.  Michael was still sane. Shiro’s physical trauma had been worse, which begged the question: why hadn’t Nicodemus gone the traditional torture route? Especially since he had less time to work with, only four hours instead of twenty four.  I entered the kitchen, hoping to find the… huh. What was I looking for, again? Gritting my teeth, I returned to the living room.

 

“Uhm, what was I going in to get?” I asked Molly.  She shrugged.

 

Michael was sitting in an armchair, hands deep in his pockets.  His head was tilted back, staring at the ceiling, and he was mumbling quietly.

 

“Nicodemus… showed me things.  In the shadows. Terrible things that I couldn’t stop-” he bit his lip angrily.  “Next time, I’ll put an end to things before anyone gets hurt.”

 

Molly and I exchanged looks.  Michael’s voice was tired and soft, but his words were hard, full of pain and… anger.  

 

“Harry,” he breathed, raising his head to look at me, “Where’s everyone else?  Charity, and the kids, Waldo and Karrin- I need to make sure they’re safe.”

 

I cracked a small smile.  There was the Michael I knew: always looking out for everyone but himself.  “It’s alright, they’re safe. Butters and Murphy are getting patched up, and I told Charity to take everyone somewhere safe for a few days, just in case.”

 

Michael twitched.  His whole body shuddered, as if he’d come down with the flu.  “I need to see them,” he rasped.

 

“I don’t know where they are.  Safer that way,” I supplied, voice returning to seriousness.

 

Michael gritted his teeth angrily, an alien expression on his good face.  His fingers twitched in his pockets.

 

Glanced at me briefly, he asked, “Where’s Amoracchius?  I need to be there to protect them from his goons… protect them from-” his eyes glazed over then, obviously recalling the horrific illusion Nicodemus had forced him to watch that was making him so jittery.  

 

I opened my mouth to say that the sword was with Butters and Murph when there was a knock at the door.  All three of us froze. Then the knock came again, in a playful ta-tatata-ta pattern.  We relaxed.  Nicodemus would never stoop so low as that.

 

“I’ll get it,” Michael said, pushing himself out of his armchair with ease.

 

In that instant, two things happened.  

 

One: I remembered that what I’d been meaning to get from the kitchen had been Michael’s cane.  

 

Two:  Michael had obviously also forgotten about his cane because he was walking without it anyway, movements loose and graceful, as if he’d never been injured at all.

 

I suddenly got a really, really bad feeling.

 

Michael opened the door, revealing Sanya, the last remaining Knight of the Cross, standing in the doorway.  One hand rested on the pommel of Esperacchius, while the other was curled around the grip of an assault rifle.

 

“Sanya.”

 

The Russian bowed his head.  “Michael,” he began in his deep voice, “I arrived late, but not too late, I hope.”

 

Michael glanced nervously back at Molly, who was sitting bolt upright on the couch, having noticed what I had.  “What I did was to protect my family,” he said. I never thought I’d hear shame in Michael’s voice, and it was heartbreak to discover how it sounded.

 

And then something clicked.  I let out a tiny moan of despair.  “Oh Michael...” I began, never intending to finish.

 

Molly looked at me.  “What?”

 

I couldn’t look at her.  “Michael has one of the coins,” I said.  I heard Molly’s sharp intake of breath, just as I saw Michael flinch in shame at my revelation.  “That’s how he’s walking so well without the cane,” I continued, hollowly, “Nicodemus made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”  I thought about what lifelike illusions Nicodemus could have conjured up of Maggie if I had been in Michael’s position. I cursed silently; I’d been in his position when I’d broken my back, only I’d had had the option of choosing Mab as the lesser of two evils.  Hell’s Bells, since he didn’t have a wizard’s Sight, Michael might never have realized that Nicodemus’ tricks were illusions.  He could have killed Michael’s kids in front of him, one by one. Stars and Stones, I would have taken the coin too, if I could save my child.  

 

“An offer no father could refuse,” I finished quietly.

 

“He needs my help,” Sanya said, looking back to Michael.  His eyebrows pleaded with the former Knight. “You still can save yourself.  Give up the coin.”

 

Michael’s lips parted, then he reached into his left pocket and drew out a small, blackened disc of silver.  A sigil was engraved on the top. “I…” he began, clearly tearing himself apart to make the right choice.

 

His fingers closed over the coin, and he slid it back into his pocket.  “I will not,” Michael finished. “I cannot let what Nicodemus showed me come to pass.”  There was steel in his voice now. He had made his choice.

 

Sanya nodded somberly, as if privy to the exact visions Michael had been forced to watch.  “And I cannot let your family see you like this. You will put them in even greater peril, especially with one of the Fallen guiding your sword.”  Then, without warning, he swung Esperacchius at Michael’s belly.

 

Molly screamed in alarm, but Michael had already ducked easily out of the way, sidestepping Sanya with a fierce fire burning in his eyes.  

 

Teeth bared, Michael rasped, “Don’t you remember who taught you how to fight?”  

 

Sanya whirled, sword flashing for another blow, aimed at Michael’s knee.  “ Da , I remember.”  There were tears in his eyes.  

 

“Sanya!  Stop! You’ll hurt my dad!” Molly shrieked, lunging for him as she reached for her power.

 

I needed to get them all away from each other before anyone got seriously hurt.  Sending a blast of force towards the Knights, I ran to tackle Molly.

 

“Sanya’s not going for killing blows!” I shouted at her,  “He’s trying to save him!”

 

The two were in the yard now, Michael easily evading Sanya’s every blow.

 

“I don’t want to fight you, Sanya,” he said, raising both hands.  “Be reasonable-”

 

Esperacchius nicked Michael across the shoulder, and he let out a long hiss, disproportionate to the size of the wound.  Michael’s eyes darkened to storm clouds, and quick as a blink, he’d kneed the wind from Sanya’s diaphragm and tossed the Knight sprawling on his neatly-mown lawn.

 

“I need to find the rest of my family,” Michael said, starting to walk away before Sanya regained his feet.

 

I relinquished my grip on Molly’s shoulders.  “Wait!” I shouted, “This isn’t the only way of keeping your family safe!  I can help you! For crying out loud, you have angels guarding them- isn’t that enough?” My voice cracked.  I couldn’t lose him, not again.

 

“You don’t understand, Harry.”  

 

Michael Carpenter walked out of his front gate.

 

By the time I choked out, “No, Michael, I’m one of the only people who does understand,” he had already faded into the night.