"Cross into the Nevernever from where you’re standing?" Nicodemus asked. "You'd be better off asking the Russian to put a bullet through your head for you. I know what lives on the other side."
There was every chance that the Denarian was telling the truth. He and his minions had chosen to build a greater circle within the lighthouse to contain the Archive precisely because it was a source of intense dark energy. And I remembered the heavy, dark purple ley line from Luccio's map; if I Listened closely for it, I could almost hear the rush of its presence, the nearly subsonic rumble of vast quantities of fluid energy in motion. It was like standing next to a waterfall, or a narrow ocean channel while the tides were changing.
It could connect to some nasty portions of the Nevernever. On the other hand, there was every chance that Nicodemus was bluffing, too.
"How do I know that you won't kill me the minute you get what you want?" I called back, keeping the conversation going while I waited on an alternative with slightly better odds.
Namely, the Chooser of the Slain: I'd arranged for her to arrive in a flying chariot to lift her client from the battlefield. And if she just so happened to rescue the rest of us as price for our assistance? All the better. Michael, Sanya and I had freed Marcone and Ivy-- it was like the opening to a bad joke, the two Swordsmen, the Wizard, the mob boss, and the all-knowing little girl-- and all that remained was to get the hell off the haunted island before our opponents regrouped.
They were bigger than us, and badder than us, and all we had was determination and preparation.
Unfortunately, the longer we waited-- the longer I stretched out the banter with Nicodemus-- the more it looked as though that wasn't going to be enough. Something must have shielded the magic Gard's passenger was supposed to be using to track us, or maybe something else had stopped Marcone's personal Valkyrie from carrying out her mission; but either way, we were stuck there on our own.
Better to take a chance on a bluff than invite certain death. I set my jaw and turned in one smooth motion, calling "Apartum!" at the top of my lungs as I drew a rent in the air with my staff.
"Plan B, guys!" I chivied my little group. "Time to go!"
"Really, Harry," Nicodemus said, narrowing his eyes at me. "Did you honestly think I'd fall for that?"
"Does it look like I'm bluffing?" I replied, voice equally dry, then cast a glance over my shoulder at the Knights. "Michael? Sanya?"
"Are you certain, Harry?" Michael replied, forehead creasing with worry.
"No, but it's better than what we'll get if we stay here," I said grimly, then turned to thrust Ivy's slight form into Marcone's arms. She was only semi-conscious after her long, torturous stay in the Denarians' care, and Marcone was bloodied, bruised, and half frozen from same; they were the whole reason we were there in the first place, and the rest of us could at least attempt to defend ourselves. Marcone staggered, but closed his arms around her, firming his jaw-- and I snagged him by the shoulder as I let go of the girl, pushing him in the direction of the portal.
Marcone's not exactly a lightweight, but I have the reach on him, and I was in much better physical condition at that particular moment. He stumbled and fell right over the threshold, taking the Archive with him to the dubious refuge of whatever location happened to correspond in the Nevernever.
Nicodemus' face set in ugly, angry lines. Ordinarily, he's a decently handsome guy as bad guys go: medium height, medium build, dark hair, dark eyes, a little silver around the edges the only hint that he's been alive for more than two thousand years. I wouldn't say he was quite in Marcone's league-- at least on a mortal level, when the Baron was dressed as befitted his station and not trying to stand under three days' worth of torture, and not that I ever planned on letting the scumbag know that I sometimes thought of him in terms right out of one of Bob's bodice rippers-- but if it weren't for the creep factor of the independently animated shadow, he would probably turn heads. Fury's no respecter of complexions, though. He was peeved at me for stealing two of his toys, and it showed.
"That is enough," he said, eyes glinting with the sullen red of Hellfire as he focused his full attention on me, ignoring Michael and Sanya and the portal entirely. "I tire of this game."
"So do I," I said, and readied myself to throw one last distraction spell while the Knights followed the others out of Nicodemus' reach.
That, of course, was when the cavalry finally-- finally!-- arrived, the thunderous strains of Wagner echoing over the island as the helicopter carrying Gard, Luccio, and the rest of the rescue crew approached.
There weren't enough profane words to express the dismay that shot through my soul just then. What was I going to tell them when they arrived to rescue a man I'd just sent Nicodemus alone knew where?
Nicodemus' lips thinned as he gestured to the other Denarians with him, and they turned to deal with the incoming threat. I swallowed and glanced involuntarily toward the slowly closing portal.
Half a second later, a sturdy work boot slammed into my ass, and I found out what was on the other side first hand. At least the Fist of God hadn't taken his calling literally, there-- but I was never, ever going to forgive him for the gesture regardless, however it was delivered. "Michael!" I yelled, struggling up to my knees and glancing back the way I'd come.
I caught a narrow image of Michael and Sanya, back to back, swords incandescent as they fended off their foes... but then the portal closed, my last glimpse one of the fierce smile on my good friend's face. Charity was going to kill me; I'd just left her husband in very, very, very hostile territory. If I was the kind of man who prayed to God, I would have done it then. I hoped Gard got to him in time.
"Damn it," I said wearily, slumping over, one hand pressing my staff into the ground and the other rubbing my forehead. I couldn't just go back. So what was I supposed to do next?
...Well, I decided after a moment, figuring out where I was and what had happened to two vulnerable civilians was probably my first priority. The environment itself apparently wasn't lethal, a point in favor of my somewhat premature logic; but the longer I knelt there, the creepier it felt, a sensation like eyes on the back of my head crawling over my whole body. I shuddered, then climbed to my feet, looking around for some clue as to whose territory I'd just invaded.
The place was indoors, it looked like; a dim, enclosed space, like the inside of cave with a few lamps hung around corners to illuminate smooth walls. The walls themselves had a bluish grey metallic sort of texture to them, and arched, almost gothic lines; staircases swept up from one side of the room, and across from them, a wide ring of the same substance as the walls rose free-standing, balanced on end atop a platform. It wasn't anything I recognized-- though I was getting distinct Emperor's Throne Room vibes out of the entire setting.
Was I-- no, were we-- trespassing in some Sith Lord equivalent's palace? Stars and stones, I hoped not. Maybe Nicodemus hadn't been exaggerating when he'd hinted about what lived there, after all.
I swallowed, then lifted my gloved hand-- still stained with a few drops of Marcone's blood from when I'd shoved him in ahead of me-- and quietly called up a finding spell. I didn't have anything to draw a circle with, nor any tool to serve as a dowsing rod, but in close physical proximity, with so much emotion swirling around our encounter, in a place of magic? I hardly needed the props.
I felt a tingle on the palm of my hand, under the glove where Lasciel's signature had once been burned into my skin, and a subtle tug toward one of the staircases and a door beyond it. I took a deep breath and followed the cue, entering a series of crisscrossing corridors. It was probably too little, too late to hope not to attract the attention of any other residents that might be around, but I kept my footsteps quiet all the same, drawing my best approximation of a veil around me as I moved.
The feeling of eyes on me worsened the further I went. Many eyes-- but one intelligence, somehow. It felt like a Shelob onslaught of eyes, in fact, crouched out of sight in the middle of some enormous, oversized web, just waiting for me tangle myself up enough to be sucked dry. If Ivy had been awake and healthy, I'd have matched her up against the inchoate horror I was feeling without more than a swift pang in my chivalry; but she wasn't, and Marcone was without his usual safeguards.
I sped up, walking more swiftly as I followed the tug on my palm. "Marcone," I called in low tones, choosing breaking the silence as a lesser evil than walking right by them somewhere in the maze of walls. "Ivy? John! If you're there, say something."
"Dresden?" Marcone's voice came from somewhere nearby, his tone as cool as it ever was.
I let my spine slope for a second in relief. So far, one point in the Dresden column; zero to those pesky Nickleheads. "Here," I replied, and headed for another doorway opening into the corridor I was using.
I poked my head in slowly, not interested in startling the man; he might not be armed, hell we might not even be in a sector of the Nevernever where gunpowder would ignite for all I knew, but it was still never a good idea to startle a man with an active sense of paranoia. The sight that met my eyes made my heart clench with unaccustomed sympathy, though, and I quickly moved the rest of the way into the room, shrugging off my coat as I went.
The Denarians had stripped Ivy of her clothes and her hair; fortunately, she still wasn't conscious enough to really feel their loss yet. Marcone had picked a defensible corner to huddle in, then slid to the floor, pulled Sanya's cloak off his shoulders, and added it to the one already wrapped around Ivy in a second layer, leaving her curled warm in his lap with no care for his own condition.
It wasn't exactly cold where we were. But it wasn't warm, either. And he'd been frozen to the bone for several days already. I crouched and gathered the little girl into my own arms, letting my staff drop to the floor for a moment; then I stood and held the coat out in Marcone's direction. He released Ivy to my care easily enough, but glared at the heavy leather duster, green eyes ringed with bruises flatter than usual with weariness and mistrust.
"Look, I'm not sure where we are; but staying here's not a good idea. And you're still cold," I pointed out. "I know it's not your style, but you can give it back as soon as we're back in Chicago." I'd probably need its spell-stitched armor, then, to fend off Gard's wrath; but until then, he could definitely use the protection more. I still had my shield bracelet, after all.
He finally took it with ill grace, then spent several seconds pulling himself back up to his feet; I wasn't dumb enough to offer him a hand with that. Then he shrugged into the coat, and nodded, stiffening his spine into an approximation of his usual imperturbability. "Lead on, Mr. Dresden," he said.
Ivy stirred against me, and I sighed. "It would help if I knew where I was leading us to," I admitted. "I'm not sure what I was expecting to find here, but I don't know these Ways; I'm not sure where to try tearing us an exit. We could be five steps away on the island, or half way around the world in some other place of power by now. I just don't know."
Marcone frowned at that, then nodded. "If we're anywhere within reach of a telephone, I can arrange our exit. And if we're not, and if your wizardry can't handle it, a step back will solve that problem."
"Unless it's a pit of lava. Or the top of a waterfall. Or the heart of Three Mile Island...." I grimaced. I'd been lucky all the times I'd needed a quick exit from a sticky situation in the past, but luck had to run out sometime, and the odds were pretty poor from where we were standing. Ley lines that heavy and dark, on our side of the veil between worlds, generally popped up in some pretty dangerous places. I didn't know what it meant that it felt like a haunted cathedral on the side that wasn't ours, and the longer we were there the less I wanted to find out.
His frown deepened about half a degree, but he didn't otherwise react. "It can't be worse than the Raith Deeps," he said dryly, reminding me of the last time he'd ridden to my rescue.
Yeah. We kind of made a habit of that kind of situation, didn't we? I made a note to look into that as soon as we were safe again. Ostensibly, Mab was behind my having taken on that particular commission, but I knew I would probably have gone to the rescue even without her insistence-- and it said something, that people in a position with power over me counted on that inclination to get me to do their dirty work.
"Point," I admitted, then gestured to the corridor. "Let's try it out here, then; the symbolism of a space people normally travel through might improve our chances on the other side."
"That logic seems as sound as any," he shrugged, carefully.
I stepped up close to him, the better to keep all three of us together on the other side, and tore the air open a second time.
Light poured in; we glanced at each other, then-- stepped out into a closet.
Literally, it was a closet. A tight space just big enough for a few skinny people to stand side by side, with the seam of a door on one lengthwise wall and a flat panel with a confusing array of blinking dots on the other. There were lights in the ceiling, and just as heavy a feeling of observation-- but curious, somehow, rather than ominous? I blinked, confused, holding Ivy more tightly in my arms.
"Harry, what?" Marcone frowned, reaching out toward the seam of the door.
It slid open at his touch... revealing a quartet of equally confused-looking people in a mix of uniforms and leather gear, the soldiers in all black with shoulder patches, name tags, and very visible guns strapped to their persons. The man and woman in the leathers were no less well armed, and their expressions were a lot warier. "Where the hell are we?" I blurted.
"I think the question is, who the hell are you?" one of them replied, the tallest of the bunch, a guy of indeterminate ethnicity with dreadlocks, more facial hair than I'd ever been able to grow, and a very, very large pistol at his hip. I felt envious, just looking at the thing-- and inadequate in other ways as well; he was very nearly as tall as I was, and at least twice as muscular. I didn't even have my coat on to broaden my shoulders-- and from his point of view, I probably did look fairly inauspicious, even before taking into account the abused little girl and bloody mob boss keeping me company.
At least they spoke English. "Harry Dresden," I said. "You can look me up in the Chicago phone book if you need more than that. Provided we're still even in Chicago?"
"Chicago?" one of the big guy's companions replied, a man with spiky hair and sea-colored eyes I had to work hard to avoid without coming off as evasive. "Ah, no; sorry. Were you expecting to be?"
"Hoping is perhaps a more accurate term, Mr....?" Marcone asked, joining the conversation.
"Sheppard. Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," the man replied, narrowing his eyes at him. "And you are?"
"Lost," Marcone replied succinctly, neatly dodging the question. "Is there a telephone I might borrow, then?"
Sheppard traded glances with the third man on their team, a slightly shorter, stockier guy with blue eyes and a maple leaf on his shoulder. The Canadian turned back to them with a wary, curious expression. "Not out here," he said. "And frankly, I find the fact that you asked for one concerning. Are you with the Trust? I thought the SGC had finally stamped you guys out. Or is it the Lucian Alliance this time? Did you smuggle yourselves here on the Odyssey? You really shouldn't have tried to exit the transporter system near the core power room, if you really wanted to stay out of sight, you know."
Trust? SGC? Lucians? I had no idea what the guy was talking about.
Odyssey, though? And transporter? Between the journey imagery and the technological implications, another shiver went up my spine, and that feeling of curiosity in the back of my mind took on another cast entirely. Could it be an A.I.? Had someone been stupid enough to give it the ability to breach the Third Law? Scarier yet-- if it was some kind of actual, break down your electrons and fling them elsewhere Star Trek style transporter, why hadn't I blown it out just by standing on it?
No way were our interrogators the original residents, in any event. Someone had left that skin-crawling impression on the other side and made Nicodemus cautious, and it certainly wasn't a mixed bunch of soldiers and civilians carrying pistols and boxy little submachine guns like the one Kincaid had bought for Murphy.
That would have been a really, really fine time for Ivy to wake up; the font of all knowledge is allowed to use what it knows in its own defense, if not to interfere in the lives of others. I wasn't going to be that fortunate, though.
I passed Ivy back to Marcone, then edged forward, planting myself halfway in front of both of them, and glared at the Canadian. "My name, as I said, is Harry Dresden; I work for no one but myself. If you have an infirmary here, my friends are wounded-- and I would really, cherry on top appreciate it if you could give us a way to let our families know we're all right." Families, in all three of our cases, being more metaphorical than literal-- but no less important, for all that.
Blue eyes frowned, then exchanged another, more guarded glance with Sheppard.
"That... could be a problem," Sheppard replied, slowly. "One we'll have to discuss later. After you've laid down any weapons you might be carrying, and we've taken you all to the infirmary."
I couldn't see a way around that. But I was too tired to kick up a fuss about what were really pretty reasonable conditions, and I wasn't about to try my luck with the Nevernever again either, not knowing what else might be lurking in the cathedral-like space we'd left behind.
"On the condition that you don't separate us," Marcone agreed after a moment, reaching out to brace a hand on my shoulder. I knew the gesture probably looked more possessive than just a means of keeping himself from toppling over, and I would normally have brushed him off instantly; but I had a pretty good idea why he'd chosen to do it, just then, and it was a smart, conservative move, if we could sustain it.
"I think we can handle that," Sheppard conceded after a moment's consideration.
And that was how Johnny Marcone and I ended up setting up house in the lost city of Atlantis: with a pocket full of cursed change; a traumatized and entirely too brilliant daughter figure who knew more about the city-- and its tight, out of the way spaces-- than anyone else currently corporeal; and no way home for several very long-- and eventful-- months.
(It is, incidentally, an island. Once inhabited by very powerful and capricious beings. But luckily for us, Nicodemus' knowledge proved to be just a little out of date.)