Actions

Work Header

Besieging Omelas

Chapter Text

I've seen people veil buildings, hiding them from view so completely that you'd never know they existed. My late and somewhat lamented parole officer (who was both a stern, austere man who lived his life by an exacting code of honor and a complete and utter dick) had a habit of popping into place so conveniently, at least for him, that I suspected he was capable of teleportation. I can rip a hole in reality and take a stroll in the dimension next door.

But until that May night, I never saw anyone flung from one reality--or universe, if you like that better--into another. And, naturally, it happened right in front of my car.

I was driving home from Winnetka, a yuppie village a little to the north of Chicago, around one in the morning. My client, whom I'd heard of through the Paranet, had been convinced that hostile spirits--possibly human, possibly not--were plaguing her house. When I got there, though, I found that she'd omitted a few details when she asked for help. Like having some very non-magical stepkids who were hostile to their dad's new wife. They'd gotten pretty good at putting their hands on a table and rapping its underside with their knees or feet, and sending pebbles sailing into chimes and against window panes with rubber-bands-turned-slingshots. It didn't help that the stepmother was a serious advocate of ghost photography and kept trying to take pictures of whatever was haunting the house.

When I tried to tell her that the stepbrats were deliberately trying to play on her nerves and were doing a pretty good job of it, she brandished a sheaf of photos in my face. "Look at these images!" she exclaimed, pointing at little grayish-white specks floating in every single picture. "Spirit energy displayed in every one!"

I sighed. "I'd call those 'reflections from the flash of your camera,' with a side order of 'you and your family don't dust very much.'" Which wasn't criticism, just observation. I'm not an obsessive cleaner--though the brownies who keep my apartment spotless certainly are--but I wouldn't claim that dust bunnies are spirits from the vasty deep.

Things never really improved after that. She accused me of being a close-minded skeptic, tossed Hamlet's there-are-more-things-in-heaven-and-earth line at me, informed me that she was going to e-mail some reality show that boasted of impartial paranormal investigations, which struck me as a contradiction in terms, and flounced off. And, naturally, she refused to pay me for my time. Didn't surprise me, really. Paying for someone to confirm that her house was crowded with spirits would make her feel special. Paying for someone to tell her that she'd been fooled by a thirteen-year-old, a twelve-year-old and a nine-year-old, not to mention her own belief, would have made her feel semi-moronic. Which would you rather shell out money for?

After that singularly unsatisfying day, all I cared about was getting home. I had just started driving the Blue Beetle down North Racine Drive when...well, it was as if a great hand had touched the sky and torn a hole in it.

I gaped at the torn and tattered sky. Then I pulled off the road. (Unusually sensible for me, I know. However, the last time I tried driving and staring at something that should not be, I nearly ended up both catatonic and careening into other cars. When you hit me over the head with an unpleasant lesson often enough, I do start to learn.)

I just pulled off in time, too, for suddenly there was a brilliant, blinding light of a color that I couldn't identify if my magic was at stake, followed by a snarl mixed with laughter.

It was one of the most consummately wrong sounds I've ever heard in my life. And I knew in my gut that if I didn't focus on something else right away, I was going to attract some dangerously undesirable attention. So I ducked down in my seat, put my hands over my ears as if I were two, gritted my teeth and struggled to distract myself by trying NOT to think of pink elephants.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the sound stopped. It didn't fade away or dissolve into dying echoes. It just stopped, as if it had been cut off. And the hole in the sky smoothed itself away as if it had never been.

And lying in the street, as if he'd been hurled there, was a man--or something that looked like a man--wearing a brown trenchcoat and covered in blood and some blackish liquid that I didn't recognize. His left arm was splayed at an angle that made me wince. Human bones are not supposed to bend that way.

I've been in enough magical fights that I know what the aftermath looks like. And--despite the fact that I knew nothing about this man and nothing about who his enemies were--I couldn't do the sensible thing. I couldn't go home and call 911; I couldn't pull a fire alarm and let firefighters and paramedics deal with the guy. It was idiotic, and I knew this...but that didn't change anything.

Grumbling, I got out of the Beetle and walked over to the guy. Unfortunately, he was out cold, which prevented me from asking any useful questions. And TV and movies aside, I really didn't feel that I could search an unconscious man for his wallet without a cop materializing to arrest me for mugging, assault and battery, and attempted manslaughter.

So--out of self-preservation, I swear--I picked him up in a fireman's lift and did my best to stuff him into the back seat of the Beetle gently. I managed. More or less.

Once I got him in the car, though, I realized that I couldn't very well take him to the hospital. No doctor, nurse, orderly or cop would believe that a man had just appeared on a street in downtown Chicago. Even the Special Investigations Division--think "X-Files department for Chicago police"--would have a very difficult time accepting that. Odds were that both cops and docs would believe that I'd attacked John Doe here. I couldn't blame them. It was the logical explanation.

And there were too many unanswered questions. The man had serious power; I could feel that much. And the torn sky, the laughing snarl and the obscenely wrong light...yeah, something very strange and very magical had happened tonight. As both Warden of the White Council and Regional Commander of the East, I was obligated to find out what.

As I braked at a stoplight, I glanced over my shoulder at the blond, sharp-faced stranger sprawled--still out cold--across my back seat.

"Yeah," I muttered. "You better be worth all this trouble."

***

Despite my reservations about bringing the stranger to the hospital, I didn't end up driving him to my apartment, either.

I took him to the Illinois Forensic Science Center to see a friend of mine named Waldo Butters.

Butters is an Assistant Medical Examiner at the local morgue. Thanks to his medical training and growing knowledge of the magical world, and my ability to annihilate life support equipment just by existing in its general vicinity, he's become my go-to guy for all things medicinal. Though there are forms of healing that wizards are better at--a man I know named Joseph Listens-to-Wind is quite possibly the finest magical healer in the entire world--I don't have that kind of finesse. And I don't have 24/7 access to Listens-to-Wind, either. I wasn't sure where he was at the moment, but Edinburgh was a good bet. Granted, I could carry the stranger along the Way from Chicago to Edinburgh, but that's dangerous at the best of times, and one conscious wizard plus one who was wounded and unconscious was just asking for trouble from every threat the Nevernever had to offer.

So it had to be the morgue. And Butters.

There aren't many ways to enter a morgue without being noticed, especially when you're nearly seven feet tall and carrying the purported corpse. I ended up shorting out the Forensic Science Center's alarm system, then forcing a side door open by using both magic and my handy-dandy-lockpick-and-burglary-kit. The one that Murphy pretends doesn't exist.

And once I was in, all I had to do was find Butters' office. Which wasn't too difficult, since I've been there a number of times before. But even if I hadn't, I would have known how to find him--just listen for the sound of polka music.

It must have been a slow day at the morgue, because as I approached the area where Butters worked, I could hear his computer going in perfect rhythm to "Pennsylvania Polka." Reports for his boss, no doubt.

"Butters?" I called out. "You might want to save whatever you're doing, log off and then unplug the computer. And turn off your radio or CD player or whatever that is, if you wanna keep the music."

"Harry? Are you bleeding to death?"

"No."

"Then give me a minute."

It took more like five. But at last he shouted, "Okay. You can come in now."

He'd used his time well, shutting off, unplugging and moving every mechanical device that he probably wouldn't need to use in an examination. I wish I could convince the Chicago Police to be that sensible.

He blinked at the sight of the man I was carrying, but stayed professional. "Put him down on one of the tables next door," he said. Next door was Autopsy Room Number Five, where Butters did most of his work. "Don't worry; the room's clean, and so's the table. I can wash off your friend's blood later."

I didn't argue. I just hoped that I hadn't surprised Butters mid-dissection.

I carried the guy into Autopsy Room Number Five and placed him on one of the tables as gently as I could, trying to be careful of his broken arm, but he groaned just the same.

Butters glanced at the man and shook his head, sighing. "That arm's pretty messed up. I'm going to have to cut off that sleeve."

I wondered if he'd be able to. My own leather duster is so powerfully enchanted that anyone trying to cut it off of me would probably end up with a pair of broken shears. I didn't say anything, though. The arm was already starting to swell. Slipping the sleeve from his arm was no longer an option, if it ever had been.

Butters picked up a pair of what looked like giant economy-sized scissors and started cutting. I think he got in two snips, maybe three. Then, abruptly, and quite inconveniently, his patient woke up. I thought I heard him mutter something like, "Oh, shit, what...?" A moment of stillness as he realized that some sharp blades were very close to his arm. Then he reached up and gripped Butters' shirt with his good hand. "What the hell are you doing?" he demanded, in a British accent that was miles away from Masterpiece Theatre.

I give Butters credit. Dealing with a pissed-off wizard is no joke. But he just glanced at the guy clenching his shirt and said, "Hey, if you don't want to keep your left arm, fine. I can wait an hour and cut off a lot more than the sleeve."

The man didn't answer--he was too busy scrutinizing the room. "I'm fairly certain I'm not dead," he said in a thoughtful tone that made me suspect he'd counted the exits and spotted at least twenty possible things in the autopsy room that might be useful weapons. "You're not demons. And if I were dead, there'd be nothing but demons surrounding me--aside from the odd archangel cheerin' them on."

I got a chill when I heard that. I've felt that bleak conviction that everything's going to turn out wrong, and I know first hand that most of my enemies want me dead and damned, preferably in that order. It sounded so familiar.

Butters, however, wasn't impressed. "Yeah? Who are you, the Antichrist or something?"

That provoked a harsh smoker's laugh. "Or something."

Butters gave him the patient look he generally favors me with when I exasperate him. It's been a difficult day already, that look says. Why you gotta make things worse? But all he said aloud was, "You have a name?"

"You don't know who I am?" He smirked at that. "Constantine. John Constantine."

I certainly did not yelp that, nor did I grab for a nearby autopsy table in flailing panic. Yelping and flailing are against the Code Noir that all us poor, tough and resolutely honest private eyes on the mean streets of America are obligated to follow...even if we've just encountered a man who's a comic book character.

He tried twisting around to see me...which, given his position on the table, his broken arm, and his tight grip on Butters' shirt, wasn't easy. "So you have heard of me."

Well, I've read every single issue of Hellblazer, I thought. Does that count?

No, I didn't say that. Telling a guy that I'd just met that I'd read everything about him--even his most private thoughts and worst nightmares--would be downright creepy. Even stalkerish. Not to mention...how would you feel if you found out that your entire life and all of its attendant miseries and humiliations had been created by a writer for the sake of entertaining the public? Vengeful? Homicidal?

Now picture that kind of rage fueling someone who has taken on Heaven and Hell and beaten them both. This is why canon-puncturing anyone with serious power is NOT a good idea.

"Yeah," I croaked, trying to swallow and failing. "Yeah, I've heard of you."

"And you are?"

"Harry Dresden." I just barely managed not to stammer my own name. Two minutes after being introduced, and I was reacting like the ultimate fanboy.

Constantine studied me--or tried to--while Butters finished cutting the left sleeve from his trenchcoat. The expression on his face said that he'd thought that I was a garter snake, not a black mamba, and he wasn't entirely thrilled to discover that I was potentially dangerous. I get that look a lot.

"Wizard," he said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "Now I wonder why I haven't heard of you, mate. Your magic feels strange."

I frowned. His power didn't feel any different from any other wizard's, as far as I could tell. "What do you mean?"

He continued to stare at me with a probing expression. "Hard to explain. Maybe I'll tell you later. Meanwhile, I've got some other questions that strike me as a hell of a lot more pressing. Like, 'What happened?' And the old standby, 'Where am I?'"

"You're in an autopsy room in the Illinois Forensic Science Center, Chicago, Illinois. Already told you who I am. The guy working on your left arm is Waldo Butters, pathologist--he'll be your doctor this evening. As for what happened--beats me. I saw it, and I didn't understand it." And with that, I took a deep, deep breath, and explained what I'd heard and seen before Constantine had appeared.

When I was done, Butters simply shook his head slowly. "Damn. The coolest stuff happens to you, Harry."

"Excuse me? One dinozombie wasn't enough for you?"

"Dinozombie?" Constantine inquired, sounding as if he didn't quite believe he'd heard the word.

"Long story, but yes, a dinozombie is exactly what it sounds like. This particular one was a T-rex." Then I grinned at him. "I'll tell you later. Maybe."

It didn't take long after that for Butters to set Constantine's arm. Problem was, Constantine wasn't very talkative about what had happened in his world to catapult him to ours. He was charming, puzzled and completely uncommunicative. I might have actually believed him--despite knowing that Constantine can be a lying bastard, at least in the comics--if I hadn't recognized the behavior. I've pulled something similar on a number of occasions--generally when I'm not only in a swamp of a case but also ass-deep in alligators. So I recognized the message that Constantine was sending, because I've done my best to send it to a number of cops and friends over the years: I know you want to help, but this is way too much for you. And you have no idea how easily this could get you killed.

I had no idea how patronizing that sounded until I was on the receiving end.

I didn't say anything, mostly because it never does any of my friends any good when they say anything. So I smiled, nodded and plotted what to do. An opportunity was going to present itself, that I knew.

Then Butters asked a significant question. "So. Got someplace to stay while you're in Chicago?"

Constantine smirked. "Don't think I've ever been propositioned in a morgue before."

Butters gave him a half-bewildered, half-irritated look, which I understood. A morgue isn't a hospital. Ergo, there was no room for Constantine to stay in while he healed. Even if wizards from the DC universe healed as fast as they did in mine, he'd still need painkillers, and probably somewhere to sleep off the side effects of the painkillers as well. And an injured, exhausted wizard is frighteningly vulnerable to his enemies. Trust me on this one. I know it all too well.

With Butters nodding accompaniment, I managed to explain most of this to Constantine. I was gratified to see the explanation wipe the smirk off his face. Then I sprang the trap.

"If you want, you can crash at my place. It's not much, but I've got a sofa you can sleep on."

He studied me for a moment, as if wondering what was in it for me. Then he slowly exhaled. "All right."

Mentally, I let myself breathe. I knew what I'd just offered was dangerous--John Constantine being no less a trouble magnet than I was--but something told me that the wisest thing I could do, if not the safest, would be to stick close to him. Whatever had brought Constantine here was infuriated; it would mow down every last person in Chicago to find him.

And damned if I was going to let that happen to my city.

***

Chapter Text

Constantine didn't talk much on the way to my apartment, aside from staring at the Beetle and then giving me a baffled "you have GOT to be kidding" look. When we'd driven a few blocks from the Forensic Center, he spoke at last. "So. Dinozombie?"

I sighed, keeping my eyes on the road. "Some necromancers--students of another necromancer who was responsible for two world wars and who is mercifully dead--came to Chicago looking for a book containing a ritual that would allow each of them to summon and/or become a evil god."

"I'm guessing this wasn't the sort of thing you could do on a Sunday afternoon over beer and chips."

"No. Lots of build-up required. Also lots of zombies required, both as armies and as spiritual sacrifices."

I could feel him staring at me. "Just how many sacrifices are we talking about?"

"About eight million. Roughly the entire population of the city."

There was a long pause. When he spoke again, his tone was dry. "The city's still standing, so I assume that little plan of theirs fell through."

"Yeah. Most of the necromancers ended up dead, thanks to me and my allies. The strongest one escaped, though."

"Still waiting to hear how the dinosaur fits into all this."

I shrugged. "When they started doing the ritual, it created a kind of hurricane of magic. You couldn't get past the outer winds to the eye--where they were--without some undead of your own. Problem--necromancy is against the Fifth Law of Magic."

"Which is what?"

"'Thou shalt not reach beyond the borders of life.' One of seven laws on what not to do with magic. By order of the White Council of Wizards, violators will be beheaded."

"Obviously not in all cases. Unless you were beheaded and then resurrected, which I wouldn't say was impossible."

"I found a loophole," I said, signaling a left. "The Laws were designed to apply to humans, living and dead. Animals aren't covered. Once I realized that, I knew that I had to find either a lot of large and strong animals that could crush whole zombie armies, or one large, strong animal that had been dead for a very long time. Because the older the zombie, the more powerful it is. And then I remembered that I'd seen a dead animal in the Field Museum when I was chasing after one of the necromancers. A skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Sue, she's called. Eleven and a half million years old."

"Now that's the sort of thing that I would do." The approval in his voice was almost palpable. "How'd your pathologist friend find out?"

"He was the drummer."

"The what?"

"The guy who beats a drum in order to simulate a heartbeat," I explained. "In this universe...well, without a drummer, a zombie won't be around for long." Braking to a stop at a red light, I turned and grinned at him. "Butters is a polka nut. You haven't lived till you've seen him wearing a one-man polka-band outfit."

He fell silent at that, and I knew he was picturing me and Butters-the-one-man-band riding on the neck of a zombie Tyrannosaurus Rex past the skyscrapers of Chicago. After waiting a few moments, I spoke.

"So, what's your story? How did you get here?"

"Later," he replied, glancing warily out the window as if we were being followed. "And preferably over beer and a smoke."

***

Even after we got inside my apartment, Constantine wasn't particularly talkative about himself. About every other topic--that was another thing. In fact, the first thing he did, once he crossed my threshold, was tell me that I needed to fix the spells of protection surrounding the building.

"They're strong!" I protested, knowing that I'd half killed myself to strengthen the wards and knowing, too, that Constantine was right and they weren't quite strong enough.

"Strong but brittle," he said dismissively. "They're powerful, yeah. But put pressure on them for any length of time, and they'll break. You need something more resilient that'll bend with a magical attack."

"Well, there's nothing I can do about that," I snapped. "Strength I can manage. Finesse, no."

He flopped down on my couch, once more giving me a probing look. "Either you're the biggest liar in the history of the world--which I highly doubt, because you're not me--or you have no clue how dumb that statement was. Which is it?"

I must have stared at him, because he shook his head, looking thoroughly annoyed. "That's what I thought. No fucking clue. And yet you just finished telling me that you can manage both. Unless bringing a dinosaur to life--or unlife--and making sure that it functions properly and doesn't crash into any buildings along the way counts as 'raw power' rather than 'solid mental control of a spell's target.'"

"Uh..." Damn it, he was right. That spell had involved a lot of self-discipline, both in keeping Sue as a functioning zombie and in maintaining control over her body and mind. Nor was that the only time. When I'd used the spell Intellectus to mind-meld with an island--long story--it had involved a fight of sorts, but I'd also had to control my temper a great deal and not get provoked into a fight I couldn't win. Hell's bells, using that mind-meld took a lot of concentration and focus.

It wasn't the delicate sort of mental magic that my apprentice could do without thinking about it. But--maintaining simultaneous spells? Discipline? Focus? Concentration? That was finesse.

And I didn't quite understand why I'd never seen it until now.

As I was mulling this over, Constantine fired another question at me. "D'you have any connection with faeries, by the way?"

Okay, that came out of left field. I crossed my arms, gave him the fishy eyeball, and demanded, "Why?"

"You remind me of someone." He pulled a pack of Silk Cuts and a lighter from the right-hand pocket of his trenchcoat, put a cigarette between his lips, tossed the pack on my battered and scarred coffee table and finally lit his cigarette. "So, do you?"

I tried not to cough too much. "A little. I...er...have a faerie godmother. I've killed one faerie queen, and I'm friends with another named Lily. Titania, at last count, was trying to kill me. And I'm down to one favor that I owe Mab. I think."

I was gratified to see his eyes widen. Even if I couldn't do anything else, I could still surprise John Constantine.

"Anyway," I added, settling on the hearthrug and stirring the fire with a poker, "you're stalling. Tell me what brought you here. Please. I've got a feeling it's important."

"Dinozombie creation-important?"

"Yes!"

He smoked his cigarette in silence for a few minutes. "I'm used to being dropped in pigshit," he said at last. "Bein' hurled from one universe to another is just one more version of that. But I don't often get surprise allies. 'Specially not someone who knows who I am and who doesn't want to kill me. And that's not even taking into account your weird conviction that you can't do things I bloody well know you can do. Or that peculiar magic of yours."

"What's so peculiar about it?" I asked, bristling.

He sank back against the sofa cushions. "I'd like to know why your magic feels like it's been tainted by Hell--and don't tell me it hasn't, Dresden, I can practically smell the black magic--but still reeks of Heaven. Or why it feels as much like faerie magic as human. So cut the bull--what aren't you telling me?"

I took a deep breath and rubbed the back of my neck. Clearly it was going to be a long night, and I had the feeling that every question I answered would only lead to more questions from him and no answers at all for me. "Okay. How about this? We swap info. I ask you something, you tell me the truth, then it's your turn. And nothing that technically answers the question but needs about fifty more questions in order to make sense. All the info in one go." I spread my hands helplessly. "We can't figure out what's wrong or what we're supposed to do if we're flying blind."

"And if one of us hits a subject we don't want to talk about?" He blew out a puff of smoke. "Could happen, you know."

"Then we say we don't want to talk about it, and table it until we know if we'll have to discuss it or not."

"And you'd trust me not to wiggle out of this deal?" The smirk was back.

"I trust you to want to stay alive and get back to your home universe," I said evenly. "You're a wizard. You know exactly how much can go wrong if you're trying to get out of a bad situation and don't know all the facts. Besides--you've got friends back home, right? Tell me you're not worried about what's happening to them when you're not there. Because I would sure as hell be worried about that."

That earned me a glare. I glanced back, trying not to meet his eyes. One thing I did not want to do was get into a soulgaze right now.

At last he rubbed his chin. "I've never been much for Show and Tell. At least not professionally. But I don't see we've got much choice. All right, Tall, Dark and Snarky. You first."

"Me? You're the one who hasn't answered any questions yet!"

"Yes, I have. You asked me what was peculiar about your magic. I told you. Then I asked what you weren't telling me--and you sidestepped that. Till now."

"You also sidestepped my question," I retorted, crossing my arms over my chest. "I asked what brought you here, and you didn't answer."

"Magic." He gave me a fierce grin. "Now it's your turn."

"Uh-uh. I want clarification first; that was part of the deal, remember. Whose magic sent you here, and why? And what led up to your being sent here?"

He tried to shrug one-shouldered and failed. "Titania has an arrangement with Hell. A very old one. Seven males and seven females--the fairest and the best--sacrificed to Hell every year."

I'd heard something along those lines, though I didn't know if it was true or just one of the legends that spread about the Fae in this universe. I made a mental note to ask a dewdrop faerie I knew called Toot-Toot about this. "Go on."

"Titania doesn't like sacrificing those who have power in Faerie. Undercuts her own support. So apparently she's been interpreting 'the best' as 'innocents.' Kids, Dresden. But not faerie kids, oh no, they're too rare. The mixes. Half-fae, half-not. Or sometimes the mixes' children."

His face was black with rage. For a minute I didn't understand it--Constantine's noted for cynicism, after all, and he's mentioned on occasion that he doesn't like kids--but then I remembered Newcastle. Young Constantine had attempted an exorcism there, and it went horribly wrong. The little girl's soul had been carried off to Hell. Constantine had freed her eventually, but it had taken decades. And she had suffered needlessly--because of him.

That's not the kind of thing you get over. Ever. I knew that. A mob boss of my acquaintance had been an ordinary hitman until a little girl had been hit by a bullet meant for him, sending her into a perpetual coma. Amanda had been the impetus that drove him to take over the city...because only the boss of the city could ensure that turf wars didn't break out and that innocents weren't harmed. There hadn't been more Amandas harmed in battles between rival mob families since his takeover, either, for he'd made certain that his way of doing things was far more profitable for everyone under his command--which was just about every Mafia family in the tri-state area--than the old, violent style of crime.

I had a feeling that John Marcone would understand John Constantine a lot better than I did.

"I thought that there had to be some assent involved," I said at last, after a pause that went on far too long. "That those chosen had to agree to sacrifice themselves, or something like that."

He gave me a "what HAVE you been smoking, Dresden?" look. "Free will's the prerogative of mortals."

"Changelings--mixes, I mean--are mortals." I had reason to know this. I owed my life to a girl who was half-troll. She'd died saving me.

"Yeah, but--" He took a long drag on his cigarette, and then exhaled slowly. "The faerie blood gives them dual citizenship. They belong to both the faerie world and the mortal one."

"Which gives Titania"--or Mab, I mentally added, for I had no doubt that the Queen of Winter would be just as merciless as the Queen of Summer--"absolute authority over them until they choose where they belong. And children can't choose; they have to be adults to make that kind of decision."

"Right. But once they're put in a place outside of time--"

I felt as if there was a frog stuck in my throat. I had to swallow several times before I could speak. "They don't age. And because of that, their moment of decision never comes."

He nodded grimly. "They never have the option to say, 'Fuck this shit, I choose mortality.'

"Because if they did, the sacrifice would be invalidated. And Hell would take a piece out of Titania's hide--not to mention her kingdom."

"Which would probably mean the end of the world as I know it. Any sane man would recognize that and leave the kids where they are."

I considered rolling my eyes, but thought better of it. "So how far did you get at bringing about the end of the world?"

That curious, speculative look was back on his face. "You're assuming I did something."

"You're still mad about the kids, you're bull-stubborn and you've got power. And sitting around on your ass wouldn't have gotten anyone infuriated enough to fling you into another universe. Of course you did something."

"I could have sent myself here, y'know."

"Sure you could. Tell me, do you often laugh evilly when you're unconscious?" I sighed, and hauled myself to my feet. "I'm gonna get some coffee. Want some?"

"Got any beer?"

I nodded, then walked to my icebox (no, not a refrigerator, an icebox) and pulled out a couple of chilled bottles of the best homebrew in existence. Mac would kill me if he knew I was drinking his beer cold, but I've never been a fan of room temperature beer, even in winter. Call me a Philistine, but I just don't like it.

Then I opened both bottles, wandered back to the living room and handed one to Constantine.

He smiled faintly, took a huge swig...then spluttered in shock. "This is not American beer."

"No," I replied calmly, sipping my own. "A friend of mine makes it."

He tasted the beer again--a small swallow this time, instead of a gulp. "If your friend's a human, I'll be very surprised. Where were we again?"

"Clarifying how you got here."

"Ah. That's a bit hard to describe."

I waited a bit, but he didn't say any more. "Okay, I'll bite. Why is it hard to describe?"

"Hadn't done much yet." He glanced around. "Got an ashtray? I don't want to try smoking when I'm drinking this."

I scanned the room quickly, settling on a cracked saucer that I'd picked up at some odd garage sale or another. Standing once more, I picked it up, put it in front of him, and sat down on the hearthrug again. "So what was the not much that you had done?"

"Interviews--arguments, really, since no humans seemed to know the details I was investigating, and the demons and fae I talked to were mainly interested in warning me to stay out of it and mind my own business."

"And of course when they started telling you that, you figured there had to be something worth investigating, which made you push harder--"

"--which led to me heading home late one night and running into an interesting stranger. I must not have been thinking; I know better than to let strangers get too close. But this one...I couldn't even think straight around him. Didn't want to, either."

"Who was it?"

"Dunno. Never saw him before, and he didn't introduce himself. I remember what he looked like, though. Young man in his early twenties. Thirty at most. Tall, though not as tall as you. Dark hair, pale skin. Don't know what color eyes he had, but I wasn't exactly focusing on them, if you know what I mean." His blue eyes sparkled, and I decided not to ask for details. "Anyway, he got close enough to indicate that he was interested when I smelled something foul. Like--dry, dusty leather-covered death. Then a magical force grabbed me and I couldn't move. I heard something laugh--whatever it was, it wasn't human--and then say, 'Vengeance will be ours, wizard. You will pay in blood.' That's word for word.

"And the next thing I remember is waking up in the morgue." He gave me a sardonic glance. "Well? Is that enough information?"

"Maybe," I said slowly. "I think I know who brought you here. Her name's Mavra. She's a Black Court vampire...you know, the Dracula variety. She's also a sorceress. Powerful one, too. And I think she was hoping that you'd be in town for a while, doing the kind of dangerous magic that you're good at."

Constantine sat straight up and stared me in the eye. I barely looked away in time. "Why was she hoping that?"

"Because there aren't that many wizards in my world that dance on the edge the way you do," I explained. "As far as the White Council of Wizards is concerned, there's only one wizard in Chicago who would have the power and inclination to do the sort of magic you do, and that would be me."

He was quick, I'll give him that. "Which means that if you hadn't found me tonight, you'd be dead as soon as they caught you. You wouldn't even have an alibi, which would make you look even guiltier. And I'd be stuck here, not knowing how to get back. Even if I didn't get beheaded, I'd be stuck in a world-sized prison."

Feeling sobriety washing through me, I nodded. "Yeah. Judicial murder for me, and either perpetual imprisonment or--more than likely--execution for you. The two nosiest wizards in two worlds dead, and neither the Fae nor Hell would seem to have lifted a finger. I don't know what Mavra's connection to Faerie or Hell is--it could be that the questions you were asking in your world set off some sort of weird echo here. Or maybe Hell and Faerie are pretty much the same in any world, and the leaders of one or the other decided that using Mavra's hatred and desire for revenge was just the sensible thing to do. But I'm going to find out."

"No," he said calmly. "We will."

I nodded, privately thinking that I had an extra reason for wanting to kick Mavra from here to Halifax. I didn't know whether she'd gone to Constantine's world and disguised herself as Thomas Raith or simply created a solid illusion of him that she'd been manipulating long-distance. Either one was evidence of her powers growing exponentially, which was serious trouble. She'd been hard for me to fight before, and she was a lot stronger now.

Well, yeah, so was I. But she was immensely powerful with centuries of experience, whereas I wouldn't even come of age, as far as wizards were concerned, for another sixty years. In magic, as in anything else, it takes time to develop skill, abilities and techniques. A few tricks and raw talent--no matter how great that talent potentially is--doesn't compare. I was already way out of my league.

But there was no alternative. I was going to have to fight Mavra--and not just fight her, but deal her a crushing blow in the process.

No one uses my brother as bait in a murder conspiracy and gets away with it.

***

Chapter Text

I don't remember much of what was said after that; I'd been up for almost twenty-four hours, and Constantine was exhausted and in pain, for which I could hardly blame him. Traveling between dimensions can take a lot out of you, especially if you've been injured in the process. Eventually, his head flopped against the sofa cushions while I curled up in front of the fire and dozed off.

When I woke again, it was mid-morning. I briefly considered remaining curled up on the hearth for the rest of the day, then pulled myself to my feet and staggered across the living room to make a phone call or two.

I planned to make the first call to my brother. Unfortunately for me, Thomas wasn't living at his own apartment anymore; for the past six months or so, after being tortured by a virtually omnipotent evil deity, he'd been ensconced at Chateau Raith. Physically, he was healing, and no wonder; he was eating better than he had for years. Emotionally...

Well, emotionally he was a lot more distant, and small wonder. What Thomas ate--what all White Court vampires ate--were emotions and, ultimately, human life-force. Since Thomas belonged to the House of Raith instead of one of the other White Court Houses, he fed on lust while he had sex. Of course, the fact that he was effectively eating his sex partners alive meant that yes, he was slowly killing them--or, if he was hungry enough and desperate enough, killing them fast--but even the ones who knew what he was didn't seem to mind.

I minded. I minded that Thomas was killing people. I minded his damnable biology--he could eat a twelve-course banquet cooked by the chef at the Waldorf every day and would still starve to death if he couldn't feed on humans. I minded that if he tried to go back on his self-imposed diet of nibbling at the edge of emotions and souls rather than devouring both completely, he'd almost certainly die, and I minded even more that he hadn't decided to risk death rather than kill any longer. I minded that he still refused to talk about what had happened to him at the shagnasty's hands, and that he scarcely spoke to me these days, save in the most superficial way. I minded that he'd suffered because of me, and that I'd failed to save him.

Now that I'd had a few hours of sleep, I didn't think that Thomas had been wandering around in a comic book dimension. It's not that he's incapable of magic; like most people, he can cast simple spells if he works hard at it. But being a practitioner is a long way from being a wizard. Believe me, there's no simple anyone-can-cast-it charm that opens doors to the DC Universe or the Marvel-verse. Otherwise, I'd have found it in the past thirty years. And used it. Hey, comic book fanatic, what can I say?

So Thomas couldn't have been physically present in Constantine's universe; he had no way of getting there. And I didn't see his sister, who's also my evil stepsister, dumping him there, even for a second. Lara's devious--if she went up against Machiavelli, I'd pity the man--and I have no doubt that the House of Raith has a passel of tame enchanters on retainer. But she doesn't generally attack family unless family has attacked her first. She will attack family if they're a threat--I've seen her do it, and it's the stuff of nightmares. But since she and Thomas actually get along and even seem to be sort of friendly...no. I couldn't see Lara giving orders to send Thomas on a round trip to the DC-verse to seduce a somewhat hell-tainted wizard. I mean, she and Thomas have never pulled that with me, and I live a universe closer than Constantine.

I wasn't even sure that Mavra had physically entered the DC/Vertigo-verse. Granted, unlike Thomas or me, she wouldn't have to worry about the transition from one world to another killing her, but not every dimension is survivable, even by an evil vampire sorceress. The Nevernever is filled with realms that are real but that would be horrific for any visitor. The Realm of Ghosts. The Wood of Suicides. Any of ten thousand different hells. Even the kingdoms of various pantheons can annihilate a person's mind.

The only thing I could picture Mavra doing was making her way into the Nevernever, which is easy enough if you can create a portal leading to it, and then taking a long, slow walk through the place, searching for locations where portals have been created before. It would take ages to find the area leading to Constantine's universe, but I suspect that doesn't matter much when you're undead and practically immortal. And there's not a lot in the Nevernever that could kill Mavra. No sunlight there (there's light, but not the sort she's vulnerable to). Not a lot of people armed with stakes or sanctified anything. She'd have to avoid the various god-realms, sure, but that would still give her plenty of leeway. And I doubted if anyone from either Court of Faerie would attack a powerful member of the Black Court of Vampires. Titania is officially neutral when it comes to vampires and wizards alike, while Mab only blocks the Red Court from crossing her land; Black, White and Jade Courts, by implication, still have access.

And once Mavra found or made a portal to Constantine's universe--well, she could have crafted a golem and put a disguise spell on it to make it look like my brother. Or she could have cast such a spell on one of the Black Court's human slaves. Renfields, they're called. They don't have anything approaching free will. Or personalities. Or minds. And they'll defend to the death the creatures that enslaved them. They're pathetic--and utterly lethal.

I'd had to kill some Renfields once. I didn't want to have to do it again.

I was going with solid illusion as a theory for now. Of all the methods of crossing from one reality to another, that was the least risky; no golems or Renfields to be damaged in transit. And it allowed the sorcerer casting the spell to maintain a fair bit of control. I suspected Mavra would like that.

Okay, so I had a working clue as to how she'd "encountered" Constantine. I could even guess how he'd gotten from his universe to mine: grab him magically, pull him across the threshold of her portal, create a second portal, add some flash and sound effects for drama--even villains only get one chance to make a first impression--and physically throw him through. And if he got hurt or died in the process...well, it didn't matter. If he was dead, I'd likely be questioned by the White Council about the sudden appearance and death of a man on the night that a portal opened and closed in my neighborhood; weird shit in Chicago always makes them suspicious, which means that I'm under suspicion roughly 24/7. And if he was alive, he'd be using every kind of magic he knew to get home. Including black magic. Which would lead right back to me again.

Only somehow I'd lucked out for a change, and had driven down the right street at the right time. As a result, I knew where Constantine was, as well as having some inkling of what was going on.

Problem was, knowing what was going on didn't really help. Quite the contrary.

Much as I wanted to ask Thomas what was going on, and as angry as the Council, Lara and Murph would be if I didn't tell them what I suspected was going on, I didn't have any evidence. I had a few scraps of information, a couple of wild theories and no proof whatsoever. And no one on my side would want to get involved on the basis of a crazy theory alone. The only people who would listen would be moles for an organization that's trying to destroy the White Council (a.k.a. the Black Council) and spies for other groups who aren't that nuts about the White Council. The White Court of Vampires. The Red Court of Vampires. Half of Faerie. And let's not forget the Denarians, though I'd be perfectly happy to do so. Some people would make the world better if they vanished into oblivion for the rest of forever. The Denarians fit that category. (Yeah, I know an ex-Denarian who's a decent guy, not to mention a real-life paladin, but I think that Sanya is the exception that proves the rule.)

All that being honest would do--aside from tipping off the bad guys ahead of time, because I'd so want to do THAT--is convince the people who were nominally on my side that I was either lying or Up To Something in great big blood-red capital letters. Neither of which would help with the core situation. The kids. The sacrificed and trapped kids.

I couldn't see Hell relinquishing the changeling kids because of outstanding diplomacy, despite the fact that me being diplomatic would be borderline miraculous. And I really couldn't see myself storming the Gates of Hell single-handed, either. Not successfully. I'm good at combat magic, but I'm not that good.

And yet...I couldn't stand by and do nothing, either.

When I was fourteen or so, I read this--I don't know whether you'd call it a story or an essay--about a town called Omelas. Everyone in this town was completely and perfectly happy, prosperous, well-fed and at peace all the time. But the price of all this joy was the unending fear, misery and degradation of a small, mentally retarded child shut away in a small filthy supply closet in a basement, cut off from light, warmth, comfort and love forever. For everyone else to be happy, the child had to be in torment. That was the deal. No one could even say a kind word to the child.

Most of the people of Omelas accepted the child's misery, just as those in Faerie who knew about the fate of the changelings had accepted it. A few people walked away from the town to try to find something better. No one ever tried to get the kid out of that filthy prison room and change the situation. That bothered me a lot back when I was fourteen.

And now I was forty (though I still looked like a gangly young man in my early twenties; in wizard terms, I was a precocious adolescent). And I was facing the children of Omelas. And I couldn't accept it. And I wasn't going to walk away and leave them there. Doing that and staying Harry Dresden weren't compatible.

Carefully, I replaced the telephone's receiver in its cradle. No point in making phone calls yet.

Then I went off to the kitchen to brew myself a cup of instant coffee. If you have to ponder how to overcome the unimaginable cruelties of the universe, it's better to do so over a cup of Taster's Choice. Caffeine and heat can make any problem conquerable.

I was on my third cup when the telephone rang.

I answered by the second ring. "Murphy?"

"No," said the woman on the other end. "It's Gard. I have a message for you."

Sigrun Gard. John Marcone's Valkyrie bodyguard. Great. "Go ahead."

"I am instructed by my employer to tell you to be at Executive Priority in one hour. Bring any and all assistance you think you will need; you will use every ounce. Do not be late, either; you will require more time than is available as well."

I tried, belatedly, to gain some control over the conversation. "Look, Sigrun, I don't work for Marcone--"

"Nor do I. He contracts my services from my employer, if you recall." She sounded annoyed, as if I should have remembered this.

Oh. So Odin wanted me to help out. Stars, this day just kept getting better and better.

An intelligent wizard would just obey the king of the Norse gods. Me, I get argumentative--not just with Odin, but with archangels, demons, spawns of djinni, Vampire Lords, Faerie Queens, the seven ruling members of the White Council known as the Senior Council and eldritch abominations known as Outsiders. It's not precisely disobedience and arrogance, though most people think that's what it is. It's more like refusing on principle to obey as long as it looks like I might be obeying out of fear. Or refusing to obey if I think that what I'm being ordered to do is going to hurt someone.

So, with the kids and all of the attendant problems of saving them still filling my mind, I did not say, "Sure, Sigrun, you can tell your boss that I'll be there as fast as I can." Oh, no. I had to blurt out, "You know, I'm kinda busy right now, there's this pressing case--"

"Yes. We know."

"You do?" That shouldn't have surprised me, given that Odin is supposed to know everything that goes on anywhere in the world, thanks to his ravens Huginn and Munin. And of course a god could pass necessary information from himself to a demigoddess servant with a snap of his fingers. Just the same, though, I was surprised. I'd never had to deal with an omniscient client before.

"Of course we know. And you are wasting time, which you do not have in abundance. Mr. Hendricks will arrive at your apartment in five minutes; I would prefer not to risk your--vehicle--breaking down at a crucial moment. And you may well believe me, Mr. Dresden, when I say that this is critical. And the fact that you are alive to affect the situation may alter everything."

That made me stop and listen, because I knew what she meant. A few years back, during the mess with the Dark wizards and wannabe-evil gods that I'd told Constantine about, John Marcone had driven by in a limo and given me a lift. Nothing important, right? But Gard, who'd been driving the limo, had said at the time that by giving me a ride in his car, John had altered fate. I'd been destined to die that day.

No way I could believe that Ms. Gard had been joking. No way at all.

"Okay," I said quietly. "You have my word. I'll be there."

I wouldn't say that her voice softened, but some relief crept into her tone. "Good." And without another word--without so much as saying "goodbye"--she hung up.

Knowing that Hendricks is scrupulously punctual (especially when his boss is in trouble), I galumphed up to my bedroom; tossed on some clean clothes (blue jeans and a heavy, long-sleeved black pullover--it was cold for late May); ran back down to my sub-basement; threw a dozen or so potions into a battered canvas duffel bag; wrapped up Bob the Skull in a towel over his protests and put him, somewhat more gently, into the bag as well (chalk that up to an insanely illogical impulse); unlocked my basement safe, retrieved my medium-barreled .357, loaded it and put the safety on; went back up to my bedroom; grabbed my enchanted leather duster, donned it and shoved the handgun in my right-hand pocket; went back downstairs and picked up my staff of white oak and my blasting rod; and, because I was in a Bogart mood, added a gray fedora to the ensemble. What the stylish noir wizard is wearing this century. All done in two minutes. If trying to beat the clock before an ally of dubious status arrives ever becomes an Olympic sport, the U.S. will own the gold in that category as long as I'm alive.

Then I touched Constantine on the left arm lightly. I've had to sleep with broken bones; I know how the pain pulses through your sleep, how it ripples through even when you're all but forcing yourself to rest. "Constantine. Wake up. We've got a case."

***

Chapter Text

To say that Hendricks wasn't thrilled at the prospect of hauling Constantine to Executive Priority is like saying that Antarctica is slightly chilly. He didn't know Constantine, didn't like Constantine and didn't trust Constantine, and he wasn't bringing the man anywhere near Marcone. That was final.

"Ms. Gard said to bring any and all assistance that I thought I might need," I retorted. "And I think that I'm gonna need Constantine. I don't know why; it's just a hunch. If you don't like it, call her!"

And he did. There was a fair amount of growling and grumbling, at least on his side. I have no idea what Ms. Gard said to convince Hendricks, but the sheer horror on his face when he realized he had to bring not just one but two wizards to his boss's inner sanctum was a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

So we got started ten minutes late. And ten minutes after that, we arrived at Executive Priority, where a lovely young woman who looked vaguely Middle Eastern was waiting for us. She was dressed impeccably in a comfortable white jacket, a red silk blouse and a white pleated linen skirt that reached all the way down to her ankles. One slim olive hand was carrying a steno notebook and a fountain pen. "Mr. Hendricks? Hello. I'm Sheri Lord. Ms. Gard sent me to escort the three of you upstairs."

I expected Hendricks to protest. He didn't. He just looked unhappier than ever. But he followed Sheri in to a private elevator nonetheless, motioning Constantine and me to do the same. I didn't remember the private elevator from previous visits; maybe Marcone was becoming more cautious in his old age.

Once the elevator stopped and we were en route to Marcone's office, I was dead certain he'd become more cautious. The corridor to the left of the elevator was as twisty as a Mobius strip, and once we made our way to the end of that, the world turned as inside out and upside down as an Escher drawing.

"You didn't mention that your boss was a wizard," murmured Constantine.

"He ain't," grunted Hendricks. "You'll see that in a minute. He got someone else to do this. Not Dresden."

I watched Sheri to see how she reacted to what the two were saying, not to mention how she felt about this weird section of hallway. But she didn't react. She simply walked along serenely as if nothing was troubling her at all.

The corridor didn't so much peter out as simply come to a stop outside an immense door carved of teak and reinforced with iron-bound beams of rosewood and mountain ash. I could feel the magic in the door pushing me away. In front of the door stood Ms. Gard. She nodded at the sight of me and Constantine, gave Hendricks what might have been a half-second's smile--and then frowned at Sheri, who blushed and said something in a language I didn't understand.

Ms. Gard shook her head. "No. Not now. There is much that needs to be discussed first--and every thought need not be recorded."

This didn't please Sheri at all. She protested once more in the language I didn't speak.

But arguing with Ms. Gard was like arguing with the Rock of Gibraltar. "No. Later. But not now."

Sheri pressed her lips together until they were almost white, then turned and walked back up the corridor as if it was the straightest line in the universe.

Ms. Gard sighed. "I apologize. She is helpful, and possibly the finest secretary in existence, but she is rather overly obsessed with record-keeping. At times that may have its uses, but now is not one of those times."

So saying, she traced three runes on the door; they briefly glowed gold. Then she nodded at the three of us. "You may come in now."

The place looked like an ordinary office, if by "ordinary" you mean "simple cost-the-earth elegance that would make the Rockefellers bite their bank balances in half with envy." But it wasn't. Every board, every nail, the smallest thread in the carpet and the slightest angle of the furniture had all been placed very, very deliberately. And I could see and sense the magical patterns formed by clusters of screws, nuts and nails as well. It wasn't a sanctuary, exactly. It was more of a bunker. And it had been designed to protect all those within it from--at minimum--the magical equivalent of an atomic bomb.

That Marcone was in here at all was worrying, especially given what had happened to him once when a safe house had been compromised.

The fact that he was sitting at his desk with his head in his hands was downright scary.

Hendricks strode up to Marcone and lay a hand the size of a ham on his shoulder. "Don't worry, Johnny. We're gonna get this fucking mess straightened out. We are."

Marcone looked up at him, green eyes wild. "I want you to promise me that you won't do anything untoward--"

"No."

Marcone looked nonplussed. "What?"

"Ain't makin' any promises. Already made all the promises that matter when I came to work for you. I said I'd protect you. Fight if I had to. Die if necessary. I ain't takin' back my word, Johnny. Not even if everything's turned to shit. Especially not if everything's turned to shit. You got that?"

I stared. In fifteen years, I hadn't heard Hendricks say that much.

Constantine, on the other hand, was nothing short of annoyed. "All right," he said, lighting up a cigarette and dropping carelessly into a chair across from Marcone's desk. Feeling like an idiot for not thinking of that myself, I followed suit. "I dunno what's wrong, but I'm getting pretty tired of hints dropping like anvils around me. So how about this--you tell us what's wrong, and we'll tell you what's wrong, and maybe, just maybe, the five of us can sit down and figure out how to get out of this muck we've all been dropped in headfirst. Sound good? I thought so." He nodded to Gard. "Let's start with you, sweetcheeks. What's eating your boss?"

Gard gave him a look of pure outrage, but said nothing. Marcone, however, answered, and he sounded as if he'd been drained of energy.

"Although I've never had any dealings with the lady, it seems that I have displeased Titania in some way. I received a message at midnight informing me that in seven days I am to be delivered, body and soul, to Hell. Forever."

There was, understandably, a moment of silence following this. I, at least, couldn't speak. I'm not sure how to explain what Marcone and I are to each other. The best word would be "complicated." We started out as mortal enemies and progressed from there to banter, battling evil together and risking our lives for each other...while still swearing that we couldn't stand each other. Up till two seconds before Marcone's announcement, I would have sworn that I loathed everything he stood for. Now I felt as if I'd just been socked in the stomach with a sledgehammer. I didn't want to believe it was real, but it hurt too much to be anything but.

"Yeah," snarled Hendricks. "And he didn't bother to tell anyone this until I came in at eight this morning. How stupid was that?"

"I knew," Gard said quietly. "But my employer forbade me to speak of it until Mr. Marcone granted me permission." She sounded frustrated and angered by the conflicting orders, as well as by Hendricks' impotent fury. It took me a minute before I realized that I'd just heard a Valkyrie apologize to a mortal.

Constantine, meanwhile, was scowling. "Wait a second. She can't do that. You're human. Humans don't fall under her authority."

Marcone sighed impatiently. "Wizard Constantine, this had occurred to me. Regrettably, it does not seem to matter. She alleges that as the consort of a member of her court, I am de facto under her authority, and that if she wishes to dispose of me, she is within her rights to do so."

"Since when are you fooling around with one of the Fae?"

Okay, probably NOT the best question I could have asked. And I really should have foregone the indignant and injured tone as well.

Hendricks gave me a "What the fuck is your problem, Dresden?" expression. Gard looked unsurprised. Constantine started chuckling to himself. And Marcone...well, he was perplexed, but he answered, which was more than anyone else bothered to do.

"I'm not 'fooling around' with anyone, Mister Dresden. Least of all one of the Fae. I have no idea what the Queen of Summer is talking about. However, she seems to regard this claim as a trump card, so I am forced to take it seriously. Although why she would wish to send me to Hell, I do not know."

"Well," drawled Constantine with an arrogant smirk, "seems to me that if you figured out who your consort was, you might figure out Titania's motivation. Or is that just too sensible for this universe?"

Marcone's brows drew together. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Wizard Constantine."

"No? Well, let's play a little game, shall we? It's called, 'Who in this room is important enough that you'd be bothered if I did something like this?'" And with that, he stood up, put his good hand on my chest (effectively pinning me to the chair) and kissed me as if his existence depended on it.

I was too stunned to do much except gape at him for a few minutes, and believe me, he took full advantage of my shock and my open mouth. Then my evil id decided that fun was fun but he hadn't had sex since my last girlfriend and I broke up six months ago, and he wasn't leaving anything to chance and...well, while I was gibbering incoherently, he shoved me out of the driver's seat and started kissing Constantine back.

Then I heard a soft, coughing growl, and Marcone pulled Constantine away from me. "For the next seven days," he said softly, his green eyes ablaze with homicidal fire, "you will refrain from touching him. I'm going to Hell anyway; I have absolutely no incentive to spare you. If you value your life, do not tempt me."

"What, you're not going to thank me?" The smirk was curling Constantine's lip again. "After all, I just identified your consort."

"You couldn't have found a way to do that that didn't involve my French-kissing an ashtray?" I demanded, glaring at Constantine as I wiped my mouth. "Seriously, invest in some breath mints."

Constantine, despite being gripped by a near-homicidal mob boss, still looked smug. "You weren't complaining a few minutes ago."

"Anyway, you fucked up. I'm not...we haven't..."

Constantine fired an incredulous look at me. "Why not? You didn't have any trouble kissing me."

"We're straight, damn it!"

He glanced at me, then at John Marcone's coldly furious expression, and laughed. "Yeah. About as straight as a rainbow."

"Besides," I plowed ahead, trying desperately to change the subject, "I'm not a member of Titania's Court--I'm human. And stars and stones, if I've got connections to any court, it's Winter!"

"Fine," he shot back. "So summon someone from Winter and ask him what your connection is with Summer. That's simple enough, isn't it?"

I was just about to retort that summoning any entity to this highly protected and warded locale would be all but impossible at best when it occurred to me that I didn't need to summon a spirit at all. I just had to reach out and speak to the one I'd brought with me.

"Not a bad idea." And with that, I unzipped my duffel bag and pulled out Bob's towel-wrapped skull.

As I removed the towel, Bob was spluttering. "Damn it, Harry, don't do that! I hate not being able to see or hear anything!" Then his fiery orange eyes looked around the room. "Wow. Haven't been in a holy place like this for a while."

"Holy?" That surprised me.

"Oh, yeah," Bob replied. "Not Christian, mind you, but definitely holy. There are enough symbols and relics in this room to fend off every demon from every pantheon ever. And the symbols and relics are all working together. It's beautiful, in a way." If I ever saw a skull lost in a reverie, I saw it then. Then he sighed--how the hell does he do that without lungs?--turned his attention toward me once more. "So. What did you want to speak to me about? And"--I could tell from the leer in his voice that he'd spotted Gard--"are you going to introduce me to your friend first?"

I stood up and held up the skull, looking and feeling like a cut-rate Hamlet. "Fine. The lovely blonde lady is Sigrun Gard, security consultant for MONOC Corporation and contractor to John Marcone. Don't even think about it, she's way out of your league. The red-headed mountain glowering at you is Marcone's bodyguard, Hendricks--if he has a first name, I suspect it's known only to his mother and God. The green-eyed guy in the Armani suit is John Marcone. You've heard me mention him before this. And the one in the brown trenchcoat is John Constantine, and I think he's another universe's version of me. Everyone, this is Bob. He's an air spirit. And he works for me. Think of him as a kind of mystical computer."

Ms. Gard scrutinized the skull in my palm. "I have heard of this creature. It was owned by the necromancer Kemmler once; it has been in existence for at least four thousand years. If you command this spirit, wizard, you have the power of gods."

I looked her--well, not in the eye, about two inches to the left of the eyes--and spoke the truth as I knew it. "He's a spirit of air and intellect who answers magical questions for me in exchange for romance novels, porn videos and the occasional night out while possessing my cat."

Her blue eyes narrowed. "Then you have accepted no gifts from him."

"No," I answered, wondering where this was going. "He does research, and he gives magical advice. Sometimes I take the advice. A lot of times I don't. He gets paid either way."

"So you owe him nothing." She nodded; apparently this met with her approval. "You have protected yourself better than you know, Dresden." She held out her hand. "Now. Give me the skull."

"What? No!"

"I will not retain him," she said impatiently. "You slew his previous owner; he is yours, both by inheritance and by conquest. But there are questions which must be asked--and I have the authority to ask them in the name of my employer." And then she addressed a few gargled syllables to Bob in what I assume was Old Norse.

I think that if Bob had been human, he would have been shaking. "Harry, no! At least make her promise not to destroy me, Harry, please!"

"Your word nothing happens to him--"

"No. I make no promise that will bind me or mine. Not before I know the facts. Give me the skull, Harry Dresden."

I knew she was right not to make such a promise; Bob, under evil influence, could be dangerous. And given how many lives and souls were on the line, she had every right to be cautious. But that didn't mean that I had to like it.

Reluctantly, I handed the skull to her.

She traced three runes on the top of the skull--first the "less than" arrow used in math, then a pitchfork-like symbol composed of a vertical line with a right angle superimposed on the top, and finally an upward-pointing arrow. The runes of kenaz, algiz and teiwaz. Mentally I translated the runes: If the gods will it, bring light and inspiration into our darkness. Guardian who is bound to protect and defend, take up your sword and grant us your assistance now. Sacrifice your will in this, and bring us aid.

Then she spoke several syllables which sounded like wind rustling through trees and city streets. At first I didn't know what she'd said, but after a minute or two I realized--she'd spoken Bob's real name.

Bob, sounding older and considerably less chipper than he usually did with me, answered. "Sigrun, Chooser of the Slain, Aider of Men and All Their Faring. What wouldst thou have of me?"

I think it was the first time I'd heard Bob speak Archaic. But it didn't faze Gard in the least.

"From thee I would have truthful and complete answers to all questions asked in this room at this time, none refused and nothing thou knowest or surmise held back, whether I or any other here doth question thee. Are we agreed?"

"We are," said the skull with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "But--ere we begin--I would ask a boon of thee."

"And what boon is that?"

"Can we please go back to modern English?"

This made Gard chuckle. "Very well. I see no harm in that. Now. Titania has condemned John Marcone to Hell, claiming she has the right to do so because he is the consort of a member of her Court. We do not understand what she means."

"All I can think is that somehow it's connected to the kids she gives to Hell," I muttered, scarcely aware that I was speaking aloud. "But that doesn't make any sense, either. Marcone's not a changeling or the offspring of a changeling, and he's certainly not a child."

If Bob had had a body, he would have been shuffling his feet. "Er. This is complicated. And I'm not sure you're going to believe me. Can we start with something else?"

Delphic chorus from me, Marcone, Hendricks and Gard. "NO!"

"Okay, okay!" Bob paused for a minute, his fiery orange eyes swirling as he considered what to say next. "Well, I know the answer, but you're going to need an explanation or two to understand."

"Then speak on," Gard commanded.

"And try not to take too long," Marcone said in a dry and overly patient tone. He was leaning against the edge of the desk, right between Constantine and me. I had the feeling Marcone wasn't going to move while Constantine was in the room. "I'm only going to be here for seven days."

"Gosh, you people are pushy," grumbled the skull. "All right, consort. Uh...that would be you, Harry."

"We had figured that out," said Constantine, who was sitting down once more. "What we don't know is why. Dresden says"--and there was a wealth of doubt in the word--"that they haven't done anything."

"Well, nothing sexual," Bob agreed. "But where faeries are concerned, that's not such a huge deal. Most fae have sex whenever they can, and why not? It's fun. It's designed to be fun. Intimacy is something else again. Now that's rare."

"Intimacy?" I said, frowning. "What, like true love?"

Bob snorted at that. "Not the way that the White Court means it, believe me. They just talk about sex with the person who loves you enough to sacrifice anything for you, and who you love enough to do the same. Which is dumb. I mean, what happens if the person who loves you and who would sacrifice anything for you is someone who, according to silly human morals, you can't have sex with? Does that mean the love isn't true?

"Anyway, the Fae figure it differently. First, you gotta know the person down to the marrow of their bones. No illusions left. No thinking the person is better than they are. You know it all, good and bad. That's hard for humans."

But not hard for a wizard who could soulgaze others. And thanks to his forcing a soulgaze, John Marcone and I had known each other that well almost since the moment we'd met. "Go on."

"Second. Trust. Which is...a lot of different things. Trusting someone not to hurt you in any way. Or trusting them to tell you the truth, even when it's the last thing you want to hear. Trusting them with your deepest secrets--the ones that could break your life in half if someone blabbed. Trusting that someone to be there when everything turns to shit and there's no hope anywhere." From his perch in Gard's palm, he gave me a sidelong glance. "Trusting someone whose flaws and weaknesses you know completely...that's even harder."

No need to run through all the times that Marcone and I had trusted each other beyond reason. There were too many to count. I took a deep breath. "And the third?"

"Sacrifice," he said simply. "Not your life, necessarily, though that's a popular choice. Basically, you have to be willing to put what matters most to you on the line for the other person--not just once, but always."

I closed my eyes.

We had put a lot on the line for each other over the years--our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor, as the Founding Fathers would put it. He trusted me enough so that Hendricks and Gard came to me when he was in trouble. And, I had to admit, I turned to him in crises as well. Oh, he still thought my recklessness and political naiveté were dangerous; I still loathed the Outfit he worked for, and had taken pains for years to convince my friends and sometime allies that I loathed the man himself, to the point of not caring what happened to him. But when push came to shove, we were there for each other, no matter what the cost.

I looked at John and realized that the same thoughts had been running through his mind as well.

"That's intimacy by Sidhe standards," Bob said softly. "Romance is easy; everyone likes playing that game. But intimacy is hard. It takes time. And it changes people. Fae figure that if two people are that close, they're making love every day whether they've actually gotten around to the sex part or not."

"Sounds like any old friendship would work," rumbled Hendricks, and I thought I detected a note of resentment in his tone. Or maybe it was just plain hurt.

"Nah," said Bob, and I knew that the skull would have been turning from side to side if Bob could shake his head no. "Sure, friendship involves trust, but it generally contains a few illusions as well. Favorable ones, but still. And putting friendship on a monetary basis changes everything. You'd do anything for Marcone. That's good. But that's also your job."

"Nevertheless," Marcone said in a clear and carrying voice, "he is, and always has been, my friend."

Judging from the pleased surprise in Hendricks' expression, it had been a long time since Marcone said that. Perhaps he hadn't thought he'd needed to state the obvious. But Hendricks had needed to hear it. I saw it in his eyes.

"All this is very sweet," Constantine said in a voice that stated plainly he found it anything but, "but that still doesn't answer the question of why, does it? I'm pretty sure that Titania doesn't go around condemning everyone who might be...er...'emotionally intimate' with a member of her court."

"Will you cut that out? I'm not one of Titania's subjects!"

"Er...Harry." If Bob had sounded tense before, he was worried now. "You are a member of her court. I mean, I know you have more links in Winter, but-- "

"What are you talking about?" I yelled. "Humans can't be members of the courts of Faerie! I mean, they can live there if they get stolen away or make a bad bargain--it's like being a resident alien--but they can't be actual members of the court, it's impossible!"

"No," Bob said slowly. "Human beings can't be."

Why do I have to spell this out? I wondered, then decided it didn't matter. "I can't be a member of the Summer Court, Bob. I'm human."

Bob's fiery gaze slid away from me. "Sort of."

"Sort of?! Sort of human is like sort of pregnant--it's not possible! Either you are or you're not!"

Bob sighed. "Then I guess you're not, Harry."

***

There was a moment of silence while I tried to wrap my head around that concept.

Ms. Gard, on the other hand, spoke only two words in cold, controlled fury. "You lie."

"You bound me with my own name to tell all the truth I know, Wound-Giver," Bob said, speaking again in his older and more serious voice. "Harry might prefer it if I were lying, but I'm not."

"So Dresden's a faerie," Hendricks said, as if turning the thought over in his mind. "Who'd've guessed?"

"Oh, yes," Constantine replied, his tone transforming his words into an indecent proposition. "And in more ways than one, apparently."

"Will you two shut the fuck up?" I snapped at them, ignoring John's sudden vindictive grin at Constantine, then wheeled on the skull. "Look. This is impossible. Child of two human parents. Dead ringer for my father and I have my mother's eyes, so definitely not adopted. Mom was a human wizard. Dad was an ordinary mortal. I'm not seeing a lot of wiggle room here, Bob. Unless you're going to tell me that my mother really deserved the name 'LeFay.' Is that it? Because I was under the impression that she was called LeFay because she spent a lot of time in Faerie and knew most of the ways through it--"

"Well, yes, Harry--"

"Not to mention being friends with the Leanansidhe--"

"Harry--"

"And even Mab seems to have known her, but that's still no reason to think--"

"It wasn't your mother, Harry!"

I stared at Bob, knowing I couldn't have heard right.

"It was your dad." A huge sigh. "And don't look at me that way, Harry. I knew him. I knew him before he was Malcolm Dresden, mortal magician. He was a changeling of the Summer Court, and he grew up in Faerie. Spent hundreds of years there, too, by the mortal calendar. If he'd grown up in the human world, maybe he would have come to his Choice earlier, but as it was--"

I only owned two photographs of my father. One was an aged, brittle newspaper clipping showing him in full magician's garb at a benefit performance in Cincinnati. The other showed him and my very pregnant mother in front of the Lincoln Memorial. A good-looking young couple, tall and dark-haired. My mother had been caught mid-laugh. My father, his hand resting on her arm, looked as if he might burst from happiness. There was nothing in those images or in my memories of the man to indicate that he been born and raised in a realm that had nothing to do with humanity.

I couldn't accept this. I couldn't. Being a human wizard was who I was. If I wasn't entirely human--well, wouldn't someone have noticed by now?

Unbidden, words a half-demon mercenary had spoken close to seven years ago came back to me. I'm as human as you are, Dresden.

Oh, God. If Kincaid was right...

...no. I couldn't even complete that thought.

"Go on," I said, more for the sake of concealing my shock than anything else. Since my voice was barely intelligible and my throat felt and sounded as if it had been rubbed raw with a cheese grater, this didn't work too well. "Go on, Bob. Tell me about my dad."

I had the impression that Bob would have been squirming if it were physically possible. "Harry, I don't know everything..."

"You knew him, you said. So talk!"

The flames in the skull's sockets flickered as Bob thought. "It was more like knowing of him. We didn't hang around in the same circles. But he was recognizable. First, he was tall, like you. Secondly, he spent most of his time with his father's family, the Sina-Mru--"

"The what?"

"I have heard of them," said Ms. Gard. "A clan of hunters, fire-lords and messengers, all able to transform into humans...though their true form is quite different." She stood still for a moment, an unreadable look on her face as she rubbed her chin. "Tales say that they are benevolent by nature, and bring blessings to those about them, change to their friends, and destruction to their enemies. They are hard to kill, and when they do die, the death is always one of suffering and sacrifice."

I gazed at Marcone's beige shag carpet, which had suddenly become fascinating. "Go on." I didn't know if I was speaking to Bob or Ms. Gard, but that didn't seem to matter.

"Anyway," Bob continued, "the Sina-Mru are defenders of Summer--mostly because they can survive the cold of Winter. Not sure why--a lot of Summer fae have trouble in Winter's realm, and vice versa--but there's a story about fire running through their veins."

"Color me astonished," murmured Marcone. "The title 'defenders of Summer'...is that in an official capacity?"

"Yeah. It's not that they're Titania's elite guard or anything..."

No, that position's occupied by the weregoats, I thought grimly, remembering the gruffs all too well.

"...but they're sort of like knights combined with tanks. They can hit hard, and go on hitting hard for quite a while."

"Remarkable," Marcone replied in a tone that was anything but surprised. "So they have absolutely nothing in common with a fire-oriented combat mage-white knight type, in other words."

I ignored this as best I could. "What about my grandmother?"

"Your dad's mother? I don't know." Bob sounded surprised that I would even ask. "She was human; I know that because your father was half-human. But she was long since out of the picture by the time I saw your dad for the first time. I don't know that your dad ever saw her after he was born. Like I said, he grew up in Faerie. His father raised him. As a son, not a servant."

I gave mental props to my Sina-Mru grandfather for trying to do right by Dad. Most Fae parents don't want much to do with their changeling children; either they abandon the kids outright, or they treat them like slaves. I'd learned that a few years back when I was trying to stop a war between Summer and Winter. My grandfather, at least, had brought his son into his family. And had loved Dad deeply, because children who aren't loved don't learn how to love...and if there was one thing on Earth that I knew, it was that my father had loved my mother and me with all his heart.

"So how did he meet my mother?" I asked, half to myself. "I mean, you make it sound like he was happy in Faerie."

"I don't know," Bob retorted, his tone adding that he didn't care, either. "Ask Lea--she might know. She and Lea hung around together a lot; your mother probably told her something about your dad. After all, she lined up the whole fairy godmother gig for Lea to protect you!"

"And how well that worked."

"You're not in Hell!" the skull snapped. "And you would have been, if not for your parents. Titania doesn't like powerful kids, Harry. And Changelings and their children--it's like horses, you know? Sometimes the strongest and the swiftest are the ones that aren't thoroughbreds. And that's just Changelings and their offspring by mortals. The child of a Changeling and a wizard--"

My breath was stuck in my throat. "Wait a second. You mean that when I was born, Dad still hadn't chosen to be human?"

The orange flames flickered in the skull's eye sockets. "Well, duh. Of course not. He loved your mom to pieces and he would have stayed with her--and you--as long as you both lived. He was loyal, y'know? But Faerie was home. And it had been home to him for--well, longer than a wizard's lifetime. A lot longer."

I could understand that, even if I didn't want to. I'd lived in Chicago for thirty years, ever since I was ten. I could just imagine how attached I'd be to the city after five hundred years or so.

"So why turn human?" Hendricks asked, his ugly face contorted in puzzlement. "I mean, if he wanted to go home, why not just take Dresden back with him to his family? The See Na Maru, or whatever they're called. If growing up with them was good enough for Dresden's dad, why wasn't it good enough for Dresden?"

"I can think of several reasons," Marcone replied, toying with a paperweight of prismatic crystal and blue coral as he spoke. "First, the tithe to Hell. Growing up where he did, I'm quite certain that Malcolm Dresden was familiar with the terms--and with Titania's hatred and fear of Changelings and their offspring. Second, being a creature of magic, as the folk of Faerie are, he unquestionably knew that his son was, or would be, a wizard of considerable power--precisely the sort of child that Titania chose to sacrifice." He gave me a significant glance. "Parents--and others--have been known to sacrifice a great deal to protect the children dear to them.

"And third...remaining a faerie would have availed him nothing, and risked Harry's life and soul. Titania had most likely heard of the child's birth and sent trackers after both Harry and his father. If Titania's hunters were tracking the magic of the two, how hard would it be to find wizard magic, which is rare as it is, in close proximity to a creature of Summer? Lord Raith had no reason to spare the child of the mortal man--or so he thought--who had displaced him. The White Council had been searching for Margaret Dresden for years; they would certainly not trust a faerie to raise an infant wizard...if they allowed a wizard of such unusual heritage to survive at all. Some, undoubtedly, would have argued against it. And then, of course, several years before her death, Margaret Dresden had made a number of complex and, dare I say, unwise deals with certain dark powers. I'm quite sure that they would have been willing to consider her son's life, soul, or both as partial compensation for her debts.

"So he did the only thing he could have done. He accepted permanent exile from his homeland and the loss of the family that had raised him to save his and Margaret's child." Marcone gazed at me and spoke the next two sentences carefully, enunciating every syllable. "He had no regrets, Harry. Believe that."

I shook my head, partly because I was shocked that he knew so much and partly because he was trying to reassure me. But there was no way I could believe that my father had had no regrets. He'd lost everything, hadn't he? There had to have been times when he'd doubted that I was worth it.

Parents--and others--have been known to sacrifice a great deal to protect the children dear to them, Harry. Believe that.

Oh, stars and stones.

"You didn't know about the tithe until a day or two ago, did you?" I demanded of Marcone. "But then Titania--or one of her agents--showed up a little north of here and made some threats, right?"

"You have no idea." And for the first time, Marcone looked genuinely ill. "The threats were quite simple. I was to cease aiding you, now and in the future. If I did not..."

"...a little girl would get hurt?" Granted, Jane Doe, a.k.a. Amanda Beckitt, was physically twentysomething. But since she'd been in a coma in a Wisconsin nursing home since she was around ten, I figured that mentally and spiritually she was a child. Comas have a nasty way of interfering with growing up.

His face was the yellowish-white of old linen. "Certain blessings were mentioned--such as waking up--that were horrific when mixed with other things."

"Like?"

"Pain. Locked-in syndrome. And Denarians."

I imagined a little girl waking up in a body too big for her, terrified, panicked and unable to move or speak. Being buried alive in one's own body forever--that would be hell in itself. How long could a terrified child endure that without going completely insane? And then adding the imaginative tortures the Denarians were capable of on top of that...no. It didn't bear thinking of.

A sudden thought occurred to me. "Titania actually mentioned the Denarians? I mean, as allies she could whistle up?"

"She did," Marcone said bitterly, his body sagging forward. "It occurred to me--for about two seconds--that I could report this alliance of hers to the Council; certainly no one rational would want to see an entente between the Denarians and the Summer Court. Then I recalled that the Knights of the Blackened Denarius, despite being the psychotic hosts of fallen angels, are long-time signatories of the Unseelie Accords, as are the Courts of Faerie...and that the White Council of Wizards did not remove the Denarians from the Accords when they kidnapped and tortured a twelve-year-old girl who is the repository of all recorded human knowledge."

They'd kidnapped and tortured him, too, but he'd shoved that into a compartment of "just business." It was Ivy's pain and the Council's refusal to punish the cause of it that outraged him. I couldn't blame him. I felt much the same way myself.

"I'm really beginning to hate this White Council of yours," Constantine muttered. "What the fuck's the matter with them?"

I'd been holding back my rage for six months, and now it burst out. "You mean aside from three-quarters of the Wardens being mind-controlled for the better part of a decade? Or the policies of the entire Senior Council being shaped and influenced for at least that long by potions doubling as the ink in the documents they handled? Or that the guy who did all this wasn't acting alone, and died without saying who he was working for? Or gee, how about the fact that the new guy on the Senior Council is almost certainly a part of the organization that did all this--and that set up his predecessor's murder?"

There was a long, long silence. Gard nodded as if she'd suspected this for some time. Constantine muttered something obscene in disgust. Marcone looked as if he believed what I was saying, but didn't want to.

Then Hendricks spoke.

"Conspiracies, political extortion, killing each other, and lots of enemies just waiting like vultures for the moment when you're too badly hurt to fight, and they can destroy you like that." He snapped his fingers. "Sounds familiar, don't it, Mister Marcone?"

It was the right thing to say; Marcone relaxed. Just a fraction of a fraction--given the situation, anything more would have been impossible--but for a second, I saw not a bodyguard with a barely leashed temper and his urbane, imperturbable boss, but a shy giant with a talent for rhymes bantering with the tense, vengeance-seeking swordsman who was his best friend.

And when Marcone answered Hendricks, there was just a hair's worth of humor in his tone. "Indeed, Mister Hendricks. One wonders if the Vargassi family have any magical relatives; the Council's turf wars sound remarkably similar."

"I'm not planning on taking over." It seemed very important to say that.

"Funny," Hendricks grunted. "That's exactly what Johnny said right before he did."

Ignoring him, I mentally reached for the thread of the conversation. How far had we gotten? Oh, yes.

"So Titania put some pressure on you by threatening a child. Classy. And you couldn't go to the Council, because you knew damned well they wouldn't help. Then she said she'd leave the kid alone if..." I frowned. "Okay, this is where I'm stuck."

"She asked if I would agree to help her pay a debt she owed to an ally. I tried asking questions, but she would only answer three: the debt did not involve the Denarians; aiding her would not result in my death, nor in harm to my friends and allies, nor to Chicago itself; and my assistance might well save your life as well as--" Amanda's name remained trapped in his throat, but I knew who he meant.

"Three questions that you can ask of fate," I muttered. "No more, no less." It's an old tradition, so old that most people don't even remember that it is magic. Of course, if you ask the wrong questions, then you're screwed.

He gave me a quick nod. "And I had my three questions. I knew I should not assent, even so--but I had the distinct feeling that refusal to aid her would result in me, my friends and the entire population of Chicago all praying for a death that would never come. Agreement seemed less costly to fewer people, in the end."

I was torn by his reaction. On one hand, it didn't seem as if he'd had any choice but to do exactly what Titania said. Most likely I would have done the same thing and then tried to wiggle out of it later. And at the same time, I was furious. It didn't matter that I'd made some dumb choices in my life; John Marcone, head of the Chicago mob, should not be making a similarly dumb choice--even if it was the only choice a decent man could make. He should have thought of something intricate, complex and Machiavellian that would have made Lara Raith applaud with appreciation.

I don't know what he saw in my face, but for a moment, he looked puzzled.

Swallowing my rage and frustration as best I could, I tried to speak calmly. "It's not just Titania and Hell. I mean, if you can call that kind of unholy alliance 'just' anything. I think Mavra's involved, too. That's how Constantine got here. Seems he's been nosing around a similar case in his universe. Titania, Hell and kids." And ignoring Constantine's glowerings, I explained about his discovering a similar tithe to Hell in his universe, the stonewalling he'd gotten from all sides, and the handsome young man who'd tempted him and who was almost certainly a solid illusion concocted by a sorceress who was also a Black Court vampire.

"But it's not that complicated," I added. "Hell is demanding payment for leaving Faerie alone; it's an old deal that's been in place almost as long as Faerie has. It's supposed to be seven of the best that Faerie has, but it sounds like Titania's started giving it a creative spin. Also, Titania isn't the queen of all Faerie in our reality, so Mab must be--tithing--too..."

"Not with kids, Harry," Bob said in a firm voice. "Kids are rare in Winter, even Changeling kids. Summer's the one in charge of fertility, after all."

I nodded to him and kept going. "Hell makes the demand. Titania is delivering the supply. And Mavra...I think she's Titania's security consultant." I glanced at Ms. Gard. "Or maybe 'assassin' is a better word."

"Mister Dresden," Marcone said quietly, "I have the strongest respect for your talents. But I don't know how you can hope to take on the Black Court, Faerie and Hell itself and hope to survive, let alone succeed. And we--or at least I--do not have much time.

"So I want you to promise me something. Swear it on your power."

"Swear what on my power?" Breaking promises weakens everyone spiritually, but with wizards, it's noticeable. A broken promise weakens our magic. Permanently. And a promise made on a wizard's power means that if the promise is broken, he loses all of his magic. Forever. And promises don't take any account of whether or not you meant to keep them, or even tried to keep them. If you promised to do something and didn't, the promise is broken. No arguments, no re-negotiations, no best-two-out-of-three. Broken.

Yeah, I was just a little terrified by the prospect. Being a wizard isn't just what I am, it's who I am.

"Promise first," Marcone said at last. "Then I'll tell you. I swear to you, I'll ask for nothing you'd consider dishonorable."

"Forget it," snorted Constantine. "Haven't we heard enough already about inadvisable promises made when people don't know the whole story? Not to mention that not leveling with your consort strikes me as a very bad idea."

Marcone gave him a Look. And believe me, it deserved the capital L. It wasn't a bad look, or an angry one. You just didn't want to see it again. Then he turned back to me, a pleading expression in his faded-money-green eyes. "Trust me, Harry."

The hell of it was, Constantine was right. Promising anything sight unseen would be abysmally stupid. And Marcone was devious and sneaky and could out-think me on twelve different levels at once. I didn't think he'd ask for anything bad, but promises have a habit of twisting around to mean something entirely different. Sure, he'd be hurt if I refused, but he'd get over that.

Taking a deep breath, I gazed into his imploring, desperate eyes and addressed him in a firm tone. "I promise."

Constantine began swearing comprehensively, imaginatively and without a word of repetition.

Marcone sagged against his desk. "Thank you, Harry."

"Mind telling me what I just promised?"

"That you will not trade yourself to Hell, or give yourself to the demons outright." He held up a hand like a stopping guard. "No, you would never choose to do either. But I know you, Harry. If all else failed, you would begin thinking that one life and one soul was not too much to trade for eight million of both. While that may be true of me--it's been many years since I've had any hope of Heaven--I will not let the best chance that my city has for survival throw himself away because of misplaced nobility. Nor do I want you selling your soul to three different demons to ensure that none of them will dare kill you, or something similarly damnation-inducing. You will remain free of Hell's clutches, Harry, and you will live." He gave me a gentle yet terrible smile. "Do you understand?"

***

Chapter Text

Hendricks drove Constantine and me (and Bob in my duffel bag) back to my apartment after that. I wasn't talking; information overload can do that to a person. Constantine was still muttering to himself, though by now he'd progressed to grumbling about everyone knowing his business and about his having to work with idiots--as usual. Hendricks didn't say a word till he'd parked in front of my apartment. Then, ignoring Constantine, he spoke.

"You had to promise. I get that. But I've got a promise to make you, too. If you let him go to Hell to save you--if you don't rescue him--so help me God, Dresden, I'll kill you. There won't be anything left of you but pixie dust. Got it?"

Oh, yeah. I got it, all right.

Once we were inside, Constantine flopped down on the couch and asked for a beer. He got a glass of water and a painkiller instead. Out cold in three minutes. Fine by me. I had people that I had to go talk to, and since I didn't exactly know where to find the two who outranked me, I wasn't sure where to start.

In the end, I plopped Bob on my workbench in the sub-basement with the latest Nora Roberts (I figured that would distract him, if nothing else did) and settled for two pizzas with everything from Pizza Spress--one to be delivered to my place in three hours and the other that I'd pick up myself--and a trip to Saint Mary of the Angels. And it says something about how unwilling I was to think about my father and Faerie that my first port of call was a church.

Understand this--I'm theological Switzerland, as close to true neutral as you can possibly get. I don't doubt the existence of God, or hundreds of other gods; when you've summoned a deity or two for the odd piece of divination, you know a Valkyrie personally, one of your closest friends was once a holy knight known as the Fist of God, and you keep having run-ins with fallen angels, you don't argue with reality.

What I don't believe is that everything that happens, good and bad, is God's will. That leads to the conclusion that things like children being carried off and imprisoned in Hell forever are also God's will, and the very idea of any divine and supposedly benevolent being wanting this to happen makes me sick. So I wasn't in the best frame of mind to be in church. However, I knew that if I was going to go up against the forces of Hell, then I needed assistance from Heaven.

Problem was, I couldn't imagine that God or any of His people would want to help any wizard, much less a killer who was tainted with black magic and whose brain had been, if not possessed, at least occupied by a copy of a fallen angel for three years. Yes, Heaven--or at least an archangel referred to as "Heaven's wetworks man"--had assisted me on a couple of occasions. But I'd never had the feeling that Uriel had helped me out of pure altruism. He would want something eventually, I was sure, and I had no idea if I would be willing or even able to pay the price he asked.

And yet here I was in a pew in Saint Mary of the Angels, staring at the mural of the Assumption of the Virgin painted in the domed ceiling over the altar, hoping that an archangel would show up so that I could beg him for help.

I waited about an hour, looking around at paintings, statues and stained glass windows and trying not to think. I didn't do too well at either one; despite the fact that it was the last thing I wanted to think about, my mind kept running over the subject of my parentage like a gerbil racing around in its wheel. This also meant that I was gazing at the church's art without really seeing it.

It was a stupid thing to focus on; trying to come up with a plan that would allow me to save Marcone and the kids and let me, my friends and Chicago survive the wrath of Mavra, Summer and Hell, then and in the future, would have been a lot more sensible. But I couldn't. The news about my father had shaken me like the Big One will shake California one of these days, and while I knew I'd rally eventually, at the moment I was just a shocked and outraged survivor stumbling about in the wreckage.

The person I was angriest at was Bob. He'd known about my father, damn it; he'd known for years. And he hadn't told me. The son of a bitch hadn't told me, even though he knew I was starved for information about my family.

And even though my father's family wasn't human.

That was what hurt the most. I'd based my entire life on trying to be the best possible human wizard ever--despite numerous fuckups--and any way I added it up, half human wizard, one quarter normal mortal and one quarter faerie didn't total "100% human." Oh, I was human enough to have a soul; otherwise, none of the soulgazes I'd experienced would have happened. But "human enough" isn't the same as truly being human. Anyone who doesn't quite fit in an established category will know what I mean.

I was just debating whether or not to leave when I heard a sigh of someone who had had a miserable day. I turned my head toward the sound, seeing no one, and instantly it was as if a sentence had unfolded in my brain.

Who specializes in finding lost kids, Harry?

It took me a minute or two to realize what that particular thought meant.

"Oh, no," I said aloud. "I don't want to get him involved. He's just an ordinary human--"

Who had employed a wizard and hadn't blinked at the weird shit I got involved with. And who genuinely cared about children, even the unlovable ones.

Well, I'd come here looking for help. This wasn't the help I'd expected, but it was the only answer I had.

"Thanks, I think," I muttered to the altar, and then hurried out of the church to my car. It was time to pay a call on my former employer.

***

I drove to the apartment building that housed Ragged Angel Investigations fully expecting to see the place condemned. It wasn't. In fact, it looked like it had been renovated; the steps had been repaired, the facade had changed from crumbling brick to Carrera marble, the doorway was well-lit with lanterns of what looked like hand-wrought iron, and the front door was of steel-reinforced mountain ash. At least one of the businesses in the building was evidently doing well financially, though I doubted if it was Nick Christian's. No one gets rich hunting down lost or kidnapped children.

I was just heading toward the granite steps when an older jogger--fifties or sixties, iron-gray hair, designer jeans--ran into me. I staggered and barely managed to avoid falling down.

"Harry?" gasped the jogger.

I didn't recognize the man in front of me. It wasn't just that it had been almost twenty years since I'd seen him; he had changed completely in the meantime. I hadn't realized how accustomed I'd become to seeing people who, human or not, weren't touched much by the passing of years. Nick had been. He didn't look bad, mind, just older. He could have been the grandfather of the man I'd once worked with.

"Hi, Nick," I said, feeling embarrassed and belatedly wondering if coming to see him was such a good idea.

He stared up at me for a long moment. "Harry Dresden? What the hell happened to you?"

"Oh!" Stupid of me not to realize he'd notice the scars. "A guy tried to stab me in the eye and cut open my cheek instead. Bisected my lower lip, too. The scars aren't too bad, though. And they're fading." I didn't add that I had a few years to go before they vanished altogether.

Nick shook his head as if amazed that after all these years, I was still missing the incredibly obvious. "I'm not talking about the scars, Harry. Okay, you look more battered than you did when you worked for me. But you still look about twenty-two. Twenty-five, at the outside. And I never saw an experienced private investigator who looked young. The business ages people."

Not if you're the son of a wizard mother and a changeling father, I thought. "Just chalk it up to good skin and better genetics." Then I took a deep breath. "Nick, I need to talk to you. There's this case I've got--it involves missing kids--and it's bad. I don't know how I'm going to get the kids away from the guys holding them, and I'm on a deadline. Seven days. Less than that, since the clock started ticking today..." I must have looked somewhat wild-eyed. "I know I haven't seen you for years, and you don't owe me a thing, but--can you help? Please?"

He sighed. "I don't imagine you're getting paid for this? No, I didn't think so. Okay, I'll help. Just give me a half hour, will you? I've got an interview in a few minutes with a woman who's looking for her missing stepson. A Ms. Stricatro. She part of your case?" I shook my head. "All right. Then just let me listen to what she has to say and take some notes. Then I'll talk to you."

A few minutes later, we were walking into the new improved office of Ragged Angel Investigations. Ms. Stricatro was already sitting in the waiting room.

She was stunning.

Her hair was white. Not silver-gray, not platinum blonde. White as new-fallen snow, swept up onto her head in a pompadour, and her skin, if possible was paler than her hair. She didn't look sallow, sickly or anemic, either. Her lips were a reddish-purple that should have looked harsh against her pale face but instead blended with it perfectly, while her eyes were a feral green with just a hint of blue. She was wearing one of those worth-their-weight-in-gold dresses that the upscale women's magazines--so I'm told--call "frocks." This particular frock shifted from blue to green to purple and back again as she breathed and shifted in her seat, and was just low-cut enough to be distracting. Opals gleaming with crimsons and violets shimmered in her ears.

And I'd seen her before. Not in that particular dress or with that hairstyle, but I knew who she was, all right.

She stood up as we walked in, a flicker of amusement playing about the corners of her lips. "You are more efficient than I had expected, Mr. Christian. I come to you seeking reconciliation with the godson I recently inherited, and at our first meeting, you bring him right to me. My compliments."

I spoke through nearly paralyzed lips. "Hello, Mab."

***

Chapter Text

The Queen of the Winter Court inclined her head politely but said nothing. It was then that the full absurdity of it all sank in.

"Why did you need Nick Christian to find me? You know where I live and where I work; stars and stones, you've been to my office!"

Mab glanced away, looking, to my astonishment, flustered. "When last we spoke, I was very angry with you--both for your destruction of Arctis Tor and for your treachery."

"Treachery!? What are you talking about?"

"You destroyed the capital of Winter--at least in part--with Summer fire," she said bitterly. "What would you call that, if not an act of war? I could have cried blood feud on you and the Summer Lady for that. But I forebore. Then I learned that the Queen of Summer was seeking the destruction of your consort and your death--the death of one who belongs to me--and I hid your fire magic from you. And you overcame my protection. Mine!" The outrage in her voice was palpable. "And not content with that, you dared to make a deal with the creature of Summer sent to slay you."

When she put it that way, I had to admit that she had a point. Bringing Summer fire to Arctis Tor had to have been an act of hostility in Mab's eyes--even though all I was concerned with was keeping me and those with me warm. Then I'd absorbed the Summer fire into my own fire magic--which should have been a tip-off right there that I wasn't entirely human--and used it as a weapon against Arctis Tor and its guards. But the rest of it...

"I didn't see the politics of bringing Summer fire to Winter," I admitted. "I was just thinking in terms of heat so that my rescue party and I could survive Winter's cold. And when the phobophages holding my apprentice prisoner attacked with their friends--" I spread my hands wide. "Wind and earth weren't effective weapons. Fire was the only power I had left that I thought might help us survive. And I was close to drained of power. So--"

She gazed at me in pure exasperation. "And why did you not simply ask me for permission to enter my realm, instead of sneaking in like a thief? You could have conveyed your wishes to my daughter; you know where she holds court. Or did you truly think that if the criminals were of Winter, I had to be part of the conspiracy? By such logic, you yourself must be part of the Black Council, since all of its members are wizards."

I didn't ask how she knew about the Black Council; the lady is a supernatural power in her own right, so I'd be surprised if she didn't know about people who might try challenging her. Besides, she was correct; it had never occurred to me that she might not know about Molly's kidnapping, much less be part of it.

I've never been any good at humility or apologies, but it struck me that now would be a great time to try both.

I bowed my head. "I'm sorry, Mab. I was wrong. I...I should have come to you for help. I should have asked permission. I was just thinking about survival. I didn't realize how it would look.

"I didn't overcome your protection, though. Michael Carpenter thought that some demonic force was concealing my magic from me, so he asked God to make me remember--"

Mab snarled at that. "Idiot. Well-intentioned idiot. In trying to reassure himself, he might have cost both of us something of value."

That gave me a bit of a chill, I'll admit. It made me sound like I was property--which, given that I still owed Mab a hefty debt, was precisely the case. But that didn't mean I had to like it.

An odd noise interrupted us. Nick was gazing goggle-eyed at both of us, his expression mutely pleading for a sane explanation.

"Ummm..." How was I going to explain this? "Uh, Nick, you'd better sit down. This could take a while..."

Mab stepped forward, gripped Nick's chin in one slim hand and exhaled the smoke-like cloud you breathe out on a cold day. Then, just as swiftly, she released him. He stumbled to a chair and slumped there, looking as if he had fallen asleep on his feet.

I tried to make my tone more perplexed than accusatory. "What did you just do?"

"I provided him with an explanation," she replied calmly. "The knowledge and understanding he requires are part of his mind now; there is no need to argue or explain. He needs only a few minutes to accept this knowledge. And I did not have to add much. He has had much experience with magic and trolls and creatures that lurk in the dark."

As little as I like any magic that interferes with minds, I wasn't about to tell a faerie queen what she could or couldn't do. Especially when I needed her to pull my chestnuts out of the fire. "Can we wait till he wakes up? I've got a case I need to tell you about, and it would be easier to tell you both at once. And then. Um. I have a favor to ask."

"A favor?"

I fumbled for the right word. "A boon. Er, O Queen."

Two perfect dark eyebrows escalated almost to her hairline. "You dare to ask for a boon after all you have done?"

"I have to," I said desperately. "Look, Mab, I wouldn't ask as a rule, but...well...innocents are involved. Children. And Titania's got John Marcone roped into her trap too, and it looks like she's trying to use him to get hold of me too, and you just said to talk to you first--"

"The Freeholding Lord is involved? And the Summer Queen?" A grimace of rage flashed across her perfect face. "I would be most interested to hear what you have to say about both."

Once Nick was awake and had dealt with the shock of having knowledge dropped into his head (he described it as feeling like "an icicle in the brain"), I told both him and Mab about the case...most of it, anyway. I couldn't quite bring myself to say the word "consort" in connection with Marcone; I already knew that he would have preferred that Bob hadn't spoken that word, especially not in the presence of anyone else. Without really planning to, I spun the situation into something simpler: an enemy who had become a friend as close as a brother. It was no less than Bob had said, yet I knew somehow that I was omitting something vital.

Nick was silent for a few moments--long enough for me to wonder if Mab's mojo had worked. But I needn't have worried. He was just thinking things over, as he always had.

"I suppose it's occurred to you that the whole thing could be bullshit. I mean, John Constantine, Harry? He's not exactly noted for honesty even in comic books. And this guy--he could be conning you. Or maybe he's not trying to con you out of anything, but he's still trying to trick you. Or maybe he's playing with your fanboyism, just for the fun of it. There are a lot of possibilities."

"You didn't see him appear out of nowhere," I retorted. "And you didn't hear the laughter of whatever sent him. Trust me, he's the real thing."

"Okay," he said. "Assume that he is John Constantine. It's bizarre, but say you're right. Hell, for all I know, Mickey Mouse is touring the Sears Tower this minute with Mystique and Magneto. But even if this is Constantine--and that's a big if--that doesn't prove he's telling the truth. In fact, it suggests that he isn't. Unless you think that he's trying to rescue a bunch of children imprisoned by Hell out of sheer altruism."

"I suspect it's more a case of him stumbling over something bad by accident," I replied, thinking of all the times that had happened to me. "And then everyone and his brother got after him and ordered him--or maybe threatened him--to leave the bad stuff alone and just maintain the status quo. And that got his back up." I chuckled slightly. "I think he likes taking orders even less than I do."

"All right. Say that's the reason. And say that the kids are real and not a trick or a lie or a figment of someone's imagination. Maybe Constantine can even get you to wherever the kids are. Maybe he not only can, but will. But there's just one little problem. How are you going to get out?" He looked as if he wanted very badly to shake some sense into me. "We're talking about Hell, Harry. And I never heard that it has a revolving door."

Mab gazed at me imperially. "I will not permit you to throw yourself away by a mad invasion that will fail quite miserably. You are powerful, child--but even if you had reached your full strength, you could not do battle with all the forces of Hell. And it would be pointless for you to offend yet another monarch. I like the ruler of Hell even less than he likes me. And I will not see you become a time-share."

I had a sudden ghastly vision of me transformed into a marionette with neither life nor soul to call my own and Mab and the Devil taking turns pulling the strings. I shuddered, suddenly recalling the words of a demon I'd once had dealings with as I sent him howling back to Hell without my soul.

"We are watching you, wizard! You walk through shadows and one night you will slip and fall. And when you do, we will be there. We will be waiting to bring you down to us. You will be ours in the end."

She gazed at me with those feline green eyes, and I had the unsettling feeling that she had glimpsed that momentary image of me as a puppet and hadn't much liked being equated with Lucifer. When she spoke, I was sure of it. "I make few demands on you; I call on you only when there is grave danger, be it to either of our worlds or to a member of my court."

"What?" I'd heard a lot of outrageous things today, but the notion that Marcone was a member of the Winter Court took the proverbial cake.

She sighed, as if wondering why the infant in front of her didn't grasp that water was wet. "He is bound in a number of ways to one who owes me debts. To a vassal of mine, if you will. A temporary one, yes, for there are a limited number of debts that he can repay. But while my debtor owes aught to me, he and his are mine--and under my protection. Or so it was until he behaved most treacherously without realizing what he was doing. Then was I bound by oath and honor to leave him to his own devices, to live or die on his own. Truly, I should have left those linked to you by blood or love, my vassal, to suffer and die as well--but they are worth preserving...and they, at least, did not give offense."

"So you couldn't get in touch with me," I said, thinking out loud. "In fact, that's probably why, before you cut off all contact, you stopped talking to me personally and had Grimalkin act as your voice instead--so that you could communicate with me without speaking to me directly. And when I fucked that up by making a deal with the eldest Gruff, you had to find a different loophole. A human talking to me, that would be legit. And if Nick told me that someone was looking for me, then I'd have to find out who was doing the looking. Which would lead to my contacting you. Only I ran into you by accident before he could do that, and said hello." Which counted as voluntary contact, I supposed, since it had led to us talking. "So what happens now?"

"You could try planning for a change," grumbled Nick. "Instead of, y'know, reacting every time someone pushes your buttons."

I ignored this for the moment, gazing solemnly at Mab as I waited to hear what she had to say.

She was silent for longer than I liked, and when she finally spoke, her words frightened me. "I can believe that you did not understand how you gave offense. But my personal belief is irrelevant. There are rules. You did not offend a private person, but the Winter Queen. I can forgive my...inherited godson, if you will...but the Queen requires tangible proof of loyalty from her vassal. And, as the offended party, I shall name the test." As I began to open my mouth to protest, her eyes flashed a warning. "This is not negotiable, wizard."

I gulped, knowing that she had me backed into a corner and knowing, too, that there was no way out. I had to have her help to save Marcone and the kids, not to mention getting out of this with both skin and soul intact. Being snarky and storming off in high dudgeon was tempting, but stupid. And despite doing some really dumb things in the past, I knew that this time I couldn't afford to be stupid. "What do you want me to do?"

"What I have asked for twice before, child," she said patiently. "I would have you become the Winter Knight." She held up a hand as if to still my refusal. "Ere you say 'no' yet again, I would ask that you recall the tales of my people. You were raised on them, as many children are. Some opportunities come but three times. You cannot lightly refuse."

Stars and hell's fucking bell-stones.

It was the last job in the world that I wanted. Aside from the horror of being owned by someone else, I had vivid memories of the last Winter Knight, Lloyd Slate. He'd been everything I didn't want to be: sadistic, cruel, psychotic, drug addicted, a rapist and a murderer. He'd betrayed the Winter Court and Mab for Titania's daughter, Aurora, who, with the best of intentions, had started a civil war in Faerie that had come damned close to destroying the mortal world. I'd stopped the war and ordered an army of wyldfae to attack her with plastic-hilted steel knives from Pizza Spress, which had killed her.

Slate hadn't been as lucky as Aurora. He'd been caught and taken to Arctis Tor, where he'd been--and in fact still was--covered in ice, blinded and crucified, driven mad from pain and yet pulled back from death and madness time and time again as Mab healed his physical and mental wounds.

The thought of becoming what he had been and of being punished as he now was made me sick.

Despite everything, the words, "Hell, NO!" were on the tip of my tongue. But Nick, looking perplexed, spoke first.

"What does the Winter Knight do?"

Mab smiled a feline smile. "An excellent question, Mister Christian. The Knights of each Court have duties to each Queen--She Who Was, She Who Is, and She Who Is To Come." She dimpled suddenly. "Would you care to ask what those duties are?"

"No," Nick replied firmly. "I'd rather not waste a question if I don't have to, and in any case, what the duties are is part of the first question. So please--elaborate." He gave her a wry grin. "And please call me Nick--'Mister Christian' sounds like I should be mutinying against Captain Bligh of the Bounty."

She chuckled, which made my hackles rise. I wanted badly to warn him to not make any deals with the Sidhe...and at the same time, I had to admit that he was doing a lot better against Mab than I normally did.

"Very well...Nick." Her tone turned the word into a caress. "Since you do not ask, I shall, as you say, elaborate. The Winter Knight must serve the Queens of his Court by caring for and protecting all subjects within their domains, by protecting the Queens' interests and battling their enemies." She spread her hands helplessly. "Does that sound so terrible?"

Nick gestured at her to go on. "Tell me about the Queens' interests and enemies."

"Summer," I said bitterly.

Mab looked surprised. "Not so, child. If Summer were my enemy, I would not ask you to be my Knight. Summer is...a rival court. We do not always get on, and neither of us can hold the advantage for long; you know the risks of permanent imbalance. But one cannot--must not--exist without the other. Winter's enemies are those who would harm us and our vassals and those who would overthrow power in any realm. You should know this; you have battled our enemies often enough."

So Mab didn't regard the entire Summer Court as a foe. She was pretty pissed at Titania, mostly because Titania kept trying to hurt me and mine, but she wasn't mad at everyone in Summer per se. As for those who would unsettling the balance of things and attempting to seize power...yeah, that would probably be the Black Council, most of the vampire courts, the Denarians--pretty much everyone I'd fought in the past ten years or so.

"Those are Winter's enemies," I said, my throat suddenly dry. "Tell me about Mother Winter's interests. And Maeve's."

She nodded slowly, as if I'd finally done something intelligent. This would have been more reassuring if I had any idea what the intelligent thing I'd done was. "Mother Winter is harsh and ill-tempered, but she is wise, and can be just for all her severity. It is the Knight's duty to carry out her justice as he sees fit."

"You mean," Nick said, "that he--or she, I guess"--here Mab nodded impatiently--"is the law. And the Knight can be as merciful or as cruel as he or she wants to be." He gazed at her thoughtfully. "I'd imagine that's a powerful temptation--being able to do anything you want to anyone you want and no one saying no."

"It has destroyed many Knights--on both sides." Mab waited a minute or two, as if expecting Nick to say something more; when he did not, she continued. "Maeve, traditionally, considers the Winter Knight her escort and companion. Many have also been her lovers, though it is not required." She shot me a glance filled with mischief. "She merely flirts with those who have consorts, however."

Oh, I wasn't about to get into a discussion of who my consort was, especially not in front of Nick. And in any case, I'd been the recipient of Maeve's flirting and knew just how far she tended to push it. "She wants a child of mine." I kept my eyes on Mab, not sure how I'd deal with Nick's reaction.

Mab shrugged. "Considering your pedigree, are you surprised? A child sired on Winter by one of Summer and wizard blood would be immensely powerful. But if you do not wish to grant my daughter such a gift, refuse her. It will not offend my mother or me, and Maeve will enjoy the banter and refusal game almost as much as she would enjoy seducing you. You are not compelled to sleep with my daughter in exchange for position or power, though many have done so. The Winter Knight is not required to be a whore."

I stared at her, my head spinning. As casually as that, she'd spoken of my bloodlines. Call me crazy, but I'd been hoping against hope that Bob had gotten my father mixed up with someone else--or even that he'd made up his story out of whole cloth. Now I had independent confirmation.

I wasn't entirely human.

And I didn't like that at all.

"You knew about my father," I said through numb lips. "You knew. All this time. And you never told me."

The astonishment in Mab's face was almost tangible. "Tell you? But--you didn't know?"

At this point I no longer cared that I was letting cats out of bags. No, not cats. Saber-toothed tigers. Rabid ones.

"Of course I didn't know! Who would have told me? My mother? Oh, no, wait, she's dead. My father? Oh, no, he's dead too. I don't know if my mother even had any relatives, and clearly my father's family didn't give a damn or they would have found me by now. I'm pretty sure that Mom didn't confide in my five-year-old brother about me, seeing as how I wasn't born or even conceived when she fled Chateau Raith. Lea never said a fucking word, and if Justin had known--"

"Justin DuMorne knew of your bloodlines, child," Mab said in a soft voice that nevertheless carried...and that commanded absolute silence. "As he knew of Elaine Malory's. Like you, she is--what is the term?--a hybrid, though there are two differences. First, she is the distant descendant of a changeling, not the child of a changeling and a wizard. There is faerie blood in her far back, but it runs thin. And second, she is of the blood of Winter."

Oh, crap. Things were starting to make a frightening amount of sense. Elaine and I were both affiliated by blood to one court and bound by other loyalties to the opposite one. Elaine, though, had gone further, and vowed at sixteen that she would forever be a friend of Summer. (Mostly out of survival instinct and fear. Being mentally enslaved by your adoptive father who sics an Outsider bounty hunter on your boyfriend, and then seeing the start of a homicidal duel between the two men, will have this sort of effect.) Stars, that must have amused Titania--the descendant of changelings voluntarily siding with the court and queen that kept sacrificing changelings' children and grandchildren.

I suspected that Titania had thought that Elaine might be useful on her own; both courts craved a tame wizard, I was sure of that. Somehow, though, I suspected that she had also wanted Elaine as bait.

Only I hadn't taken the bait. I'd believed for decades that Elaine was dead, burned to death along with Justin DuMorne.

This had kept me from looking for her. My godmother's determination to protect me by turning me into a literal dog residing in Winter--after all, nothing in the human world could hurt me if I wasn't living among mortals and wizards and wasn't human--had kept me away from the Nevernever, and from Faerie in general, for years.

Looking back, I wondered if that hadn't been Lea's objective in the first place. As she'd promised my mother, she'd protected me...not by transforming me, but by making me fear such transformation. My mind and my refusal to be owned had done the rest.

And when I'd finally forced Lea to leave me alone for a year and a day--which would have meant no protection against Titania--Lea had simply upped the ante, granting Mab authority over me in exchange for I-didn't-know-what.

Hell's bells, I hated feeling that everyone had known what was going on except for me.

"Mab," I said, rubbing my temples and trying to ignore the dizziness sweeping through me, "why the hell didn't you--or anyone else--tell me what was going on?"

She frowned. "That was a foolish question, wizard. You must not waste the questions you have. No one told you because doing so would have endangered you further. Can you ignore your father's family, knowing that they exist? Or are you wondering, even now, if you could slip into Summer without anyone noticing your presence? I tell you truly--Titania has had them watched secretly for years, waiting for you to do that. They would die the instant you crossed into Summer. And you would be left without protection, with maddening guilt, and with no way out. She would almost certainly tell you that one of your kin was still alive. Or perhaps two. No more. Injured, of course. Terribly maimed in the struggle. But alive. And you could save them, even help them...for a price." She gazed at me, her blue-green eyes searching my face. "Could you refuse to help an innocent? Especially one who was suffering because of you? I think not."

Only one word leaped out at me. "She wouldn't maim..."

Mab regarded me with an unreadable expression. "Titania is of a warmer court--not a better one. Remember that." She tapped the arm of her chair impatiently. "And you are wasting time."

"Why me?" I demanded. "You don't need me; you've already got Lloyd Slate."

"A better question," she conceded, "and more on point than the other. But still, you should not have to ask something so obvious. I need a new Knight so that the traitor Knight can die."

"You--" I wet my lips, and tried to force my mind to form phrases that were statements, not questions. "You could have killed him ages ago. You didn't need to keep him alive this long."

Mab's expression said very clearly that I was an idiot. "For there to be balance in this world, there must be a Knight in each court. And the Knights of the Courts, like the three who serve the Christian God, do not--as a rule--retire. Nor do they quit. They certainly cannot be fired. Each serves for his--or her--lifetime. And if the one who is chosen as a successor while his predecessor still lives will not take up the mantle immediately, the current Knight must retain the position, at least officially, until the successor changes his mind...even if the current Knight is no longer worthy of the title."

So Slate was going to be tortured for years--or until I said yes, whichever came first. Given that wizards can live up to five centuries, Slate was looking at five hundred years of torture. Possibly longer. I had no idea how long the fae from my father's side of the family might live, but faeries, despite what James Barrie claims, tend to live for hundreds, even thousands of years. This...wasn't good.

All I could do was tell Mab the absolute truth. "I don't want the job. I don't want to give up being a wizard, or my friends and family, or Chicago, or anything else that makes my life matter. I don't want anyone to have the kind of power over me that you have over Slate. And I really don't want to become the kind of creep that Slate was. Is. Whatever."

Mab looked as baffled as if I'd suddenly started speaking Urdu. Then Nick spoke up, and I certainly did NOT jump a little because I'd been focusing so much on Mab that I'd almost forgotten he was there.

"Why're you worried about becoming anything like Slate, Harry?" He scratched his graying head. "You're nothing alike--and considering all the info she dropped in my head, you can trust me on this."

"Well..." I squirmed in my seat. "I thought he might have become the Winter Knight because--"

Because he was a criminal. And an addict. And psychotic. And a traitor. Nothing that I wanted to say to the lady.

"My daughter chose him," Mab said wearily. "She mistook a strong body for a strong mind and will, and thought he might be tough enough to withstand the most ruinous of temptations. He couldn't. And Knights serve until death, wizard. I told you that.

"As for your not wanting anyone to have such power over you as I have over my Knight--" Her eyes sparkled, though whether in amusement or in exasperation, I couldn't tell. "Seven men and women have such power over you already, and have had since you joined the White Council. Or did you perhaps forget that they could have executed you when you were sixteen, and that no one would have said them nay?"

Nick scowled. "I ever run into your bosses, I'm gonna have a few words with them about killing kids."

Mab paid no more attention to Nick's words than she would have to a buzzing fly. "And when have I asked you to cease being a wizard? Or to give up living in Chicago? Or to give up those who matter to you?" She placed her hands on her hips--not easy to do when you're sitting in a narrow chair in a waiting room--and shook her head. "Have you not guessed why I wish you to be my Knight?"

"So that you can protect me?" Damn it, I didn't expect that to come out in the form of a question.

"Partly. But mostly because you are doing the job already. Yes--and have been since you struck out on your own as an investigator. Possibly even a little before that."

"Huh?" I knew I couldn't have heard right.

"How often have you fought to save not only your friends or this city, but realms and worlds? You have starved and sickened and battled until there was no magic left in you--and even then, you have fought on. You have faced the direst of temptations--and yes, you have slipped a time or two. But you have won more often than you have lost." She tapped an opalescent fingernail against her chin. "Without question, I could choose a more intelligent Knight--your brother, for example. But I could not choose a better one." She sighed. "And now that we have all of these old confusions settled, I must ask you to give me an answer. We have discussed this long enough--and for John Marcone, time grows dangerously short."

Yes. Yes, it did.

"This is that third favor you want me to do, right?" She nodded impatiently, her lips parting to speak. "No, don't say anything. That wasn't really a question."

I still didn't want the job. Dear God, I didn't want it. Being a Warden and a Regional Commander was tough enough. I didn't want to think about all the possible conflicts of interest I could have by being a Warden and a Winter Knight. Or how enraged and suspicious the Council would be--again--when they found out. I wasn't looking forward to explaining this to them, either.

But...if it was the only way to keep John alive and un-damned and to save a bunch of kids from endless suffering, not to mention keeping Summer from assassinating me or getting the Denarians to turn me into one of them...well, I was kinda low on choices, wasn't I?

"I accept," I said quietly. "I accept the job of Winter Knight."

It was a fight not to close my eyes at the sight of Mab's triumphant smile.

***

Chapter Text

Once that was settled, I thought that Mab would want to discuss how to save the kids and John--well, both Johns, really, since Constantine would be at risk as long as he remained in this world.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

"This is no longer your concern," she said, as if handing down an edict. "As members of my court are involved in Titania's...arrangements, it is now mine. Not yours, my Knight, however much you want it to be. And certainly not that of the Council--Black or White. It is not the place of humans, however powerful, to say aught on the subject of the Courts' treaties with Hell."

"What if Titania decides that Constantine and I should have tragically fatal 'accidents' while you're negotiating?" I argued, ignoring the fact that she'd just told me that this was none of my damned business.

Mab tapped the arm of her chair and gazed up at me as if she couldn't quite believe I'd had to ask that. "What would you normally do if someone attacked you or yours while the powerful engaged in diplomacy?"

There wasn't much to say after that. Mab murmured something about going to Undertown to speak to her daughter and melted away like a snowflake in July. Nick closed up for the day and went home, his eyes still full of question marks. Me, I drove to Pizza Spress, barely picked up the pizza in time and dropped it off by the side of a road near a forested suburb for the wyldfae to feast on. I didn't feel up to talking to Toot-Toot right then. All I wanted to do was go home and veg out. I'd had a surfeit of Faerie--possibly for the next century. So, after dropping off the pizza, I headed home.

I had just driven off the Kennedy Expressway and was heading down North Ogden Avenue when I spotted the nuckelavee.

You know how most people's mental image of a faerie is a pretty Tinker Bell thing with sparkly butterfly wings and pixie dust? Yeah. Well, nuckelavees are the opposite of that. They're Summer fae, linked to fire and fertility...but in a grotesque way. Picture a skinless and bleeding man with no legs fused with the body of an equally skinless and bleeding horse with flippers as well as legs, and make the blood thick and black and visible in every white vein and yellowish artery. Add flayed arms so long that they drag on the ground like an ape's. Swell the head to about ten times the size of a human's so that it sways back and forth on a neck that looks too small and frail to hold it, give it a jaw that juts out and a mouth similar in size and function to a good-sized shark's, and grant it one enormous eye of molten fire that scorches everything it sees. Then turn the creature's breath to the deadliest of poison.

Nuckelavees are sea creatures, primarily, though if you upset one, he's more than willing to invade the land, blight all plant life with a glance and kill any beasts and people with a single exhaled breath. Maybe because they're salt water fae, they loathe fresh water. I couldn't imagine one wanting to be in Chicago, which is filled with ponds and lakes in parks, has a river flowing through its heart and borders on the freshwater inland sea known as Lake Michigan. This nuckelavee had to be uncomfortable here, had to want to go back where he came from.

So, being an optimist and an idiot--if that isn't redundant--I slowed the Beetle down, half-rolled down the window, and called out to the monster. "Hey, listen, I don't want any trouble with you--"

That was all it took. The thing tilted its ginormous head toward me as if it were listening, then broke into a shambling gallop, running straight toward my car, its impossibly long arms straining to grab me.

Uh-oh.

I barely had time to bring the car to a screeching halt and dive for the passenger-side door; I didn't dare go for the driver's-side one, as the nuckelavee's arms were scrambling to reach through the window I had stupidly opened. Once I was out the other side, I activated the spell in my shield bracelet, then yanked my somewhat battered and scarred wizard's staff from the passenger seat toward me...trying desperately to ignore the giant flayed hand tipped with glittering talons that was clawing a hole in the glass.

Wait. Only one hand? Where--?

Something struck the shield near my leg hard enough to hurt.

I looked down and saw the nuckelavee's other hand struggling to grab my leg from underneath the car. Hurriedly, I stood up and backed away from the Beetle as quickly as I could. Anywhere within a nuckelavee's reach was too close. I'd surprised it once with a magical shield; it would know what to expect a second time, and could cut through the shield like a hot knife slicing through butter.

I had nothing to fight it with, either. My fire spells were canceled out by its own power; I doubted if I could use wind to bludgeon it, and I didn't want to tear up pieces of the Beetle or the street to blow through the monster as weapons; and I couldn't very well use the power of earth to attack the nuckelavee with an earthquake while a hundred or so cars and their panicked drivers were driving off the expressway and right toward both of us.

So I did the only thing I could do. I ran like hell, hoping that the monster would follow me and not slaughter half of Chicago instead.

It did.

I knew that it wasn't really trying to catch me. It didn't have to. Quite apart from its prodigious strength, size and magical power, Titania had sent the nuckelavee for me and me alone. By fae standards, I was its lawful prey, and right now, it wasn't doing anything more sinister than playing with its food. If I couldn't save myself, no one, not even Mab, would raise a finger to save me.

Fortunately, I had an idea or two save myself from being poisoned, vivisected and eaten. It involved rather more running than I would have liked, but hey, beggars can't be choosers.

I ran like a crazy man, zooming from North Ogden to the next street off of it, West Race Avenue. I sped past a Starbucks, wondering how many people would really see the monster and how many would just think that they were having a hallucination. Right and straight up North Elizabeth. Left onto West Erie. Right and straight up North Noble. And finally, after what felt like a long, long time, right onto West Chicago Avenue, to Eckhart Park.

Eckhart Park is just a few blocks from my apartment. I've spent a lot of time there over the years, both jogging and relaxing. I knew for a fact that there wasn't a single pond, lake or river in the entire park. But if I was right, I might not actually need one.

If I was right.

Technically, the gate to the park was the next street over. I didn't have that kind of time. I scrabbled over the iron fence with its sharp pointed tips and, trying to look as if I weren't desperate for both rest and air, grinned through the bars at the monster that wanted to tear me apart and eat me...not necessarily in that order.

"So, what do you say? I win and you go back to Titania and tell her that you couldn't find me. How's that?"

The nuckelavee's only answer was a bellow like the roar of a tidal wave. I couldn't understand what it was saying, but I didn't need to. It was infuriated, it had been humiliated by a mere human (sort of), it had no intention of going back to Titania and reporting its failure, and it was starving.

Then, as if it were tired of talking to me, it wheeled about and began a slow, thoughtful trot around the park's fence...clearly looking for an opening that wouldn't bring its body close to iron.

"Have it your way," I called after it in my most condescending tone--the one guaranteed to make any supernatural creature stop listening. "You're going to regret it." I hope.

I was halfway across the park when the nuckelavee charged through the front gate; in fact, I knew the exact minute it happened, because the wails and shrieks that had followed it to the park intensified. Practically everyone who had seen it before this had wept or screamed or howled a Skywalker "Nooooooooooooooo!," but up till now, most of the terror-stricken folks had been in cars that they could (and did) drive in the opposite direction. Now the people seeing the monster were park visitors and park employees, so most of them were on foot. If it weren't for the fact that the nuckelavee had been sent to stop me from interfering in Titania's plans, three-quarters of the people in Eckhart Park that day would have would have been burned alive, poisoned, torn apart and eaten in mere seconds. And I had a feeling that once it killed me, it was planning on treating this park like its own personal smorgasbord.

Yeah. Not if I could help it. I hadn't brought Titania's assassin here to turn my fellow Chicagoans into a five-course meal.

Standing still, I began humming. That's one thing Ghostbusters got right, by the way; supernatural creatures hate that. It gets on their nerves. Music is great. Singing is fine. Humming...not so much.

And I was humming the one thing that's all but guaranteed to turn any fae ballistic--a Disney tune. Don't ask me why. Maybe fae don't like peppy pop music. Maybe they just detest revisions of fairy tales and folklore. I don't know. But Disney anything drives them nuts.

Which was just the way I wanted it. Give me an enemy that can't think straight any day of the week.

It froze as it heard the opening bars of "Poor Unfortunate Souls." And then--once more--it bellowed like a thunderous wave crashing on the shore and raced toward me.

Everybody's a critic.

There aren't many places to run to in Eckhart Park. The children's playground, the stage for band concerts, the basketball courts, the baseball diamonds--almost everything is outside.

One place that isn't is the Eckhart Community Pool.

Technically, you're supposed to pay the clerk at the counter when you enter the poolhouse. I was trying to get away from an irate nuckelavee, so I skipped that part and fled right into the locker room. Not toward the pool. The locker room, which was a nasty place. Sticky floors. The smell of urine. The odd homeless person hanging around. And a couple of weapons I didn't think the nuckelavee would be expecting.

Now the only question was whether or not I could cast the spell I needed faster than the nuckelavee could grab me, glare at me with its fiery eye, or breathe.

The locker room wasn't very big and the nuckelavee was, so it took little time for the creature to corner me against the end of a row of lockers. It didn't get too close to the lockers, but then, with those long arms, it didn't need to. With a brush of one massive hand, it shredded my shirt, then proceeded to dig its nails through the shield I still hadn't dropped and right into my chest. I knew it was readying itself to tear my heart out.

I tried to lift my staff to cast the spell. The nuckelavee blinked, then glanced at the staff...which instantly dissolved into ash.

Stars and stones, I did not need this today.

Raising my be-ringed right hand to the sky, I focused all of my exhaustion, confusion and rage into one spell. "FUEGO!"

A blue-white fireball soared toward the ceiling, going absolutely nowhere near the nuckelavee.

The monster began to make sounds like the wind rustling through dried-out seaside grass. I had the distinct feeling it was laughing at me.

Mentally, I began to count. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand...

That was when the sprinkler system switched on.

I'm no fan of getting wet; running water washes away my magic, at least until I dry off. But I would live.

The nuckelavee, on the other hand, began to shriek as if the chloride-treated fresh water was prussic acid. It flailed frantically, scrambling to get away from the deadly water...which, by now, was all over the filthy floor, the walls, the lockers, me and the nuckelavee itself. Within minutes, it was no more than ectoplasmic goo...clear, slippery and rapidly vanishing.

God bless The Wizard of Oz.

I collapsed onto a soaking-wet bench for awhile; I really needed to rest. And after I'd done so for a couple of minutes, I went out to talk to the poor cashier who'd been on duty today, reassure her that yes, she had seen what she'd thought she'd seen, and no, she wasn't crazy, and then beg to use her phone. With my magic temporarily kaput, at least I wouldn't fry it. This time.

***

Charity Carpenter arrived in the family SUV about ten minutes later, armed with a couple of garbage bags filled with dry underwear, a red jogging suit and fresh sneakers, as well as a calming word or two for the young cashier who was still having a panic attack. I squelched into the men's room, changed into the dry outfit she'd provided, transferred my loaded gun from my duster pocket to that of the jogging suit's jacket, shoved my soaking wet attire into the trash bags and hurried out to the car in less time than it takes to tell of it. One thing I've learned over the years is that you don't keep Charity waiting.

She didn't ask any questions until we were pulling out of the parking lot. "What happened?"

"Titania sent an assassin. I killed it."

"She will not like this, of course."

"Of course not," I retorted. "But if my choice is between Titania being pissed off or me being disemboweled and eaten, I know what I'm going to choose."

She nodded. "Why is she angry?"

I opened my mouth to tell her that it was far too complicated to explain in a three-block drive. After all, it's not like Charity and I are exactly friends. We're wary allies at best.

What came out was an abridged version of what had happened since last night--abridged because I couldn't tell Charity about Marcone's involvement, (she had no reason to wish the man well, considering that her husband had been crippled and half-blinded trying to save him), I really couldn't delve into the "consort" issue just yet (I could barely think clearly about that myself), and I wasn't ready to reveal the fact that I was the new Winter Knight to anyone. The result was a somewhat mutilated version of the truth. I could talk easily enough about Constantine's presence and Titania's deal with Hell, but explaining why I was investigating the case at all, much less why Titania was so determined to kill me, was somewhat more difficult.

Charity kept driving around in a circle while I talked. At last we reached a stoplight, and she turned and faced me. "You have forgotten part of the story. It does not ring true. Now--what have you left out?"

"Stuff that I shouldn't talk about, because it could get people killed," I said firmly. "And stuff that I don't know how to deal with at the moment. It--it's not about trust, Charity. You have to believe that."

As the light turned green, she nodded. "I do. There are times when being completely honest is unthinkable." She gave me a sharp look. "But do not be dishonest with yourself, even if you cannot be completely honest with others." A pause. "What will you do when you get home?"

"Sit down. Veg out. Reinforce my wards. Brew some potions. Probably not in that order."

She looked thoughtful as she braked to a stop in front of my apartment building. "Build a fire in your hearth and your cooking stove. Eat something hot. And pray."

The last shard of advice didn't surprise me, but the first two did. "Why?"

"It is easier to be hopeful when you are warm and fed. If you are striving against Hell, you will need hope...and prayer."

"Don't worry about me, Charity," I replied with a heartiness I didn't feel. "I'll be fine."

And with that, a wave and a brief word of thanks, I got out of the SUV, dispelled the protection spells surrounding my building, unlocked my steel security door and walked straight into pandemonium.

***

Chapter Text

Constantine was standing in the middle of my living room, shouting at the top of his lungs as he faced a chalk circle surrounded by intricate symbols and runes. Inside the circle was a demon--a hideous creature with a beaklike nose and clawlike pincers for hands wearing a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles perched incongruously on its face.

I knew this demon. Chaunzaggoroth, its name was, and a native of the region that most called Hell and that its species called 'Downbelow.' When I'd been younger and considerably dumber, I'd summoned Chaunzaggoroth on a fairly regular basis for information, and had only stopped when it had tempted me with the prospect of learning more about my family...in exchange for the one part of my name that Chauncy hadn't known. The low, low price of total control of my soul, in other words.

I'd kicked Chauncy's treacherous tush back to Hell that day, and hadn't summoned a single demon since.

Now Chaunzaggoroth was back. And Constantine had not only summoned the demon to my home, he was yelling at it. Worse than that, it was gazing at him with an expression best described as "smug."

I took a deep, deep breath. Not that I needed one; it was more to keep myself from choking on profanity than anything else. "Constantine. Why is there a demon in my living room?"

"Had to do something," he said with a shrug. "Didn't know where you'd gone or when you'd be back. So I used my loaf to get what info I could. I wasn't trying to summon this one--never ran into him before--but he showed up, so I figured, 'Well, I'll start with you, anyway.'" He glared at Chaunzaggoroth. "Only thing is, he's not being very helpful. Talks a lot, but doesn't say much. And smarmy with it. So if you don't mind--"

It struck me that 'talkative, smarmy and unhelpful' was a pretty good description of Chauncy, and that Constantine had taken considerably less time to come to this conclusion than I had. Reluctantly, I had to concede that Constantine was probably in less danger than I had been when I'd been dealing with the demon. I doubted that he would think for one second that the demon was an amiable and civilized ally. Demons in comics didn't specialize in amiable rationality. Well, unless you were talking Hellboy, and since Hellboy was from Dark Horse Comics, not Vertigo, I wasn't sure if Hellboy and John Constantine shared a universe, anyway.

"Get what you can out of him and then banish him," I said with very bad grace. "And make it quick. I don't want him here."

"That," he retorted, giving me the fishy eyeball, "is what I'm trying to do." He turned back to the demon. "Now then. Let's start over again, shall we? You can quit angling for my soul, because it's already co-owned by three of your bosses, not that any of them are very happy about that. And he"--he jerked a thumb in my direction--"is not for sale. So quit acting like a poufy professor from Oxbridge, Screwtape. I'm not impressed."

Chauncy peered through its glasses, looking for all the world like a thoroughly reasonable chartered accountant--which was no small feat, considering that it appeared to be at least one-third lobster. "You must offer something in exchange for any information I might possess, John Constantine. Something of value with which to seal our bargain."

"How about this? You come up with as much completely truthful and completely accurate information as possible, and in return, I don't drown you in holy water. You get to live. Won't that be nice?" And, smirking at the demon, Constantine patted a radioactive-yellow-and-lime-green Super Soaker leaning against his right leg. I would have been willing to swear he had dredged up the water blaster from my sub-basement. How the hell he had figured out that the Super Soaker contained more than tap water, I didn't know, but he was right--it was filled with holy water, straight from the fonts of Saint Mary of the Angels. When a goodly proportion of your enemies are vampires, you tend to say, "Screw dignity" and use whatever weapon works.

Chaunzaggoroth glanced warily at the giant water gun.

"You know my reputation," Constantine said quietly, his eyes and voice turning chill. "Believe me, it's not accurate. No one's ever heard the worst, because the ones I've hurt the worst aren't in any shape to talk about it...even if they're still in existence."

"You are threatening me, human?" Chauncy growled, battering its pincers against the invisible barrier the chalk circle had created. "Or are you merely attempting to deceive yourself?"

Constantine sighed patiently. "You figure it out. If you don't want to talk...well, I'm sure I can send you back where you came from easily enough. And I can find some underling of yours who'd just love to get my good graces by being helpful...and by gossiping about his boss's weaknesses." He smiled sweetly. "Your choice, sunshine."

There was a long silence. At last Chaunzaggoroth spoke in a bitterly angry tone. "Very well, John Constantine. But know that you have also earned my undying enmity this day."

"Awww. We're not going to be bosom pals? I'm wounded." Constantine's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the demon. "Now. Answer my questions--truthfully, accurately and completely."

The demon's voice was heavy with loathing. "What I say will give you no joy, John Constantine. Nor you, Harry Blackstone Dresden."

Constantine didn't even deign to answer aloud. He just motioned the demon to continue.

"The one who brought you here will never send you back. And those who most wish you to return"--a sly glance in my direction told me that it was referring to the Council--"will not do so."

A shrug, as if being flung into another universe and forced to remain there meant nothing. "Tell me the terms of Titania's and Mab's treaties with Hell. The exact terms, nothing added or paraphrased and nothing left out."

"This is not my area of expertise!" Chaunzaggoroth protested, a note of something suspiciously like anxiety in its voice.

"Exact terms," Constantine repeated, not taking his eyes off of the demon for a nanosecond. "Nothing added. Nothing paraphrased. Nothing left out."

"You ask too much." Chaunzaggoroth spoke quickly, as if it were worried. "Ask me something easier. There are simpler things you hunger for; I could provide them."

The demon's tone was utterly sweet and reasonable, calling up visions of friends and family whose lives had been twisted or destroyed because of me. I heard the pain in the wails of those too soon dead and saw the anguish in the eyes of those who'd suffered irrevocable damage. For one split second, I knew that I was the cause of their misery, and would have given almost anything to make it un-happen.

And then Constantine laughed. Not a bark of laughter. Not a bitter chuckle. He threw back his head and laughed long and hard, as if Chaunzaggoroth had just told the best joke in the world.

"Oh, lor'," he said at last, dragging his sleeve across his eyes. "I never expected to see a demon playing a guardian angel. You're not bad at faking the sweetness and altruism, though you've got a long way to go before you're as good at either as a Liverpool whore. But the visions are really overkill. And you just don't look celestial...especially when you start clacking your mandibles and pincers almost as if you're hungry."

His gaze hardened. "Exact terms. Now. Next time I shan't ask. I'll just practice my marksmanship. Slowly." And with that, he picked up the Super Soaker from the floor beside him and aimed it at Chauncy's left claw.

Chaunzaggoroth paced about the circle, glaring at both of us. Constantine simply stood there, his finger on the trigger.

"Your future, mortals, is suffering." It grinned, a hideous expression on that face. "And I do not lie."

Constantine pulled the trigger.

For just a second, I thought that he might have aimed to miss. Then the blast of holy water struck Chaunzaggoroth's left claw, and the air was torn by nightmarish shrieking.

"Look at that," Constantine said, his unsurprised voice carrying over the demonic screams. "Seems like suffering is your future as well."

It took three more blasts of holy water before Chauncy got the message that a) Constantine wasn't going to stop and b) I wasn't going to make him stop. After that, it rattled off the terms pretty quickly.

"The land that is now that of the Summer and Winter Courts was once claimed by Hell. The Dark Prince"--I rolled my eyes at that title; it sounded like the kind of thing an evil overlord would want to be called on a good day--"the Dark Prince agreed to let them have the land, in exchange for a small consideration. Once the mortgage was agreed to, they were told the terms--seven of the fairest and best the Summer Court had, and seven of the fairest and best of the Winter Court, to be chosen by the Queens of each Court."

"And if the tithe isn't paid?" Constantine asked in a tone that suggested he was discussing the history of cardboard, or something equally fascinating.

"Then there would be war. And the Courts would lose. The Sidhe could not stand against Hell's legions."

Privately, I wondered about that. I'd never noticed that demons were averse to battles, at least with me; they just liked saving themselves the trouble of a knockdown slugfest. Deals, manipulation, trickery...those were their favorite weapons. Not confrontation. And this despite the fact that the Fallen were scarily powerful.

On the other hand, the most powerful wizard in the DC universe had managed to overpower a demon--not one of the Fallen, granted, but a demon nonetheless--with a few shots from an oversized water pistol.

Faerie and Hell might be more nearly a match for each other than anyone realized. A couple of hundred years ago, people had feared faeries as they had demons. Nowadays, most people didn't believe in the Fae, but the old uneasy fear of demons was still very much intact. Moreover, people--even aggressively rational sorts who only thought of Hell as a literary trope--didn't perceive Hell as an amalgamation of the cruel and agonizing afterlives described in a thousand times a thousands religions and folktales, a wild patchwork assortment of kingdoms at war with itself. No. They expected Hell to fit the parameters of their personal nightmares, and for Hell to be more powerful than anything...except, of course, for Heaven.

One thing Hell's always been good at is PR.

Faeries, no. Faeries focus on etiquette, illusions and repayment of debts and obligations. They don't care what you believe, so long as you behave properly toward them. The residents of Hell, on the other hand, think that belief shapes behavior. If you think or believe or feel in X way, you will do Y.

And if this treaty was the con job that I now suspected it was, the demons might be right. No nation shuns a war it's 100% certain of winning...but both Courts of Faerie and the White Council had avoided thinking this for thousands of years. Well...Mab probably hadn't. But she'd said that she and Lucifer didn't get on well, and was evidently just starting negotiations with him now.

But Titania had spotted the elephant in the room. And once she'd realized what everyone else wasn't talking about, she'd figured out a way to make Hell's little con job work for her.

I might have even admired her for getting the better of Hell if her plot hadn't involved eternally damning potential rivals while they were children.

Constantine was gazing at Chauncy with what seemed to be boredom. "Someone must have tried to re-negotiate that treaty at some point. Or spoken against it, or rebelled against it. Don't tell me that everyone in Faerie placidly accepted the notion that any of them could go to Hell at any time on the whim of a queen, because I don't believe it."

"Those who rebel do not last long," said Chauncy in a tone that was just a hair away from gloating. "Most prefer continued existence to the certain damnation that will follow if they are seen as a threat."

Constantine lit a cigarette and inhaled slowly. "You're missing the point. Of course faeries are as chickenshit as humans. That goes without saying. It's just that humans generally find a variety of ways to be self-absorbed cowards. Whereas you're describing a realm where all of the people in two kingdoms are 100% supportive of their leaders' decisions--out of enlightened self-interest, of course. In other words, Faerie's accomplished something that no other realm ever has...complete unity of purpose."

He blew smoke into Chaunzaggoroth's face. "Laddie...Heaven never managed that. So pull the other one; it's got bells on."

Chauncy was just opening its beak to answer when a bolt of black magic smashed into my front door.

It felt horrible. Magic comes from life and the emotions that give life meaning. Life isn't supposed to be used to cause death or destruction. When it is, the sheer wrongness of it is as tangible to me as humidity during a heat wave is to most people. This particular attack--which was definitely denting my door--made me feel as if I was bathing in slime, decay and death. It reverberated in my very bones.

Feeling as if I were about to be sick to my stomach, I turned to Constantine. He gave me a decidedly puzzled look. "You have something you'd like to share with the rest of the class?"

"Did I mention that I ran into a nuckelavee assassin on the way home?"

"No, Dresden. I think you forgot to mention that interesting little detail." Something solid yet squishy hit my door with an unpleasant thud. "You going to get that, or wait till they break in?"

"I'll get it eventually." I had no intention of mentioning what I was going to do in front of Chauncy, who looked entirely too pleased by this development. Focusing my attention on the wards, I strove to shore them up, mending the damage that the user of black magic was inflicting on them. It was tougher than it should have been.

At first I didn't understand. Then it dawned on me. The dousing I'd gotten at Eckhart Park had washed away my magic for a while, and it hadn't completely come back yet. Granted, I was mostly dried off and, thanks to Charity, in dry clothes, so I was functional, if at low power. But I needed at least a half hour to fully recharge my batteries. And, judging by the intense battering that a sorcerer--probably Mavra--was giving my security door, I wasn't going to get it.

Fire, my preferred weapon, takes a lot of energy, so turning the steel red hot was clearly out. And wind is generally better if you can use it to whirl a projectile into something. I had no problem with using wind to drive a stake through Mavra's heart--actually, that would be kind of cool--but here I had to contend with threshold magic. As long as my threshold was functional--and it was one of the few defenses I had--I couldn't send a cyclone across the door's threshold to stake Mavra. I could if Mavra crossed my threshold, but I had no intention of inviting her in. I'd never get rid of her then. As long as I lived at this address in Chicago, my door would be open to her, and I wouldn't be able to do a thing about it. Revoking invitations to vamps is, unfortunately, a Hollywood thing. While I could try to avoid the threshold issue by sending a magical wind crashing through a wall, I really did not want to demolish my apartment, or the building it was in.

So that left earth magic. The slowest kind of magic and, because of that, the type I was least likely to use in a fight. Twenty seconds to prepare a spell doesn't sound like much, but it can be a deadly delay in battle--especially if your enemy can fire off five or six other spells during that time. And because I didn't practice earth magic much, I also found it the most difficult.

I knelt down, fished some chalk out of my pocket, drew a large circle on the concrete floor around me and placed my hand in the middle of the circle. For a moment, I wished I could cast an inaudibility spell, despite the fact that Constantine was keeping Chaunzaggoroth busy. Then I shrugged and recited the incantation slowly and carefully.

"A coelo usque ad centrum. A coelo usque ad centrum. A coelo usque ad centrum."

Then I closed my eyes and reached out to the earth beneath me for what I needed.

It was buried deep. I had to dredge it up and pull it toward me, which felt as if I was lifting two-ton weights at the bottom of the ocean.

I'd just about dragged it into reach when I heard the door unlock and swing open. I tensed; the spell wasn't ready yet, and if I tried to cast it now, all the work I'd done would be for nothing. I had to keep all my attention on the spell.

Then I heard the hesitant word, "Harry?" followed by Constantine bellowing, "Stone the perishing crows, Dresden, what's he doing here?"

***

Chapter Text

It took me a few seconds to shift the spell I'd been working on into a kind of mental reservoir, though it probably seemed longer to Constantine. When I finally opened my eyes, he was glaring at me with deep suspicion.

"What," he demanded, gritting his teeth, "is he doing at your apartment? When I told you about the chap who was bait, you didn't mention that he was your boyfriend." And he jerked a thumb in the direction of Thomas, who was dressed in an outfit that looked as if both jeans and T-shirt had been spray painted on.

"He's not--"

"He has a KEY! You're not going to tell me that a man who looks like that and who came on to yours truly just happened to have the ability to let himself into the home of a celibate acquaintance, are you?"

Thomas, damn him, was looking amused. And there was no way I could explain that well, yes, Thomas did have the ability to let himself into my apartment at any time, and no, we weren't sleeping together and no, we never had. I knew that he was my brother, and even I didn't find the truth credible.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Thomas...what did you see out there? And why are you here now? Not to put too fine a point on it, but we haven't been talking much for the past six months or so."

A spasm of guilt flicked across his perfect face. "Father got a message today from--I don't know. One of his sources. The message said that some enemies of yours were going to settle old scores, and did he want to ally himself with them. It was subtler than that, but that was the gist. As soon as I could, I slipped out to warn you; you deserve that, at the very least." He gave me an apologetic look. "And I didn't see anyone out there, Harry. Well, unless you want to count a dumpster on wheels that got loose and was banging against your door. I moved it."

If he'd tapped into his demon's strength to move the dumpster, that might explain why I'd felt black magic outside. It shouldn't have felt like spoiled and twisted wizard's magic, but hey, I was stressed and tired. It could be true.

The problem was, I couldn't see any reason why he'd bother to move it. Tapping into the demonic side of his soul uses energy, and using up energy means needing to eat. Which, in Thomas's case, as with all vampires, means needing to eat people. I knew he'd been draining people regularly for six months, but I couldn't believe that didn't bother him.

Not to mention that his behavior didn't feel right. Thomas worries about me, sure, just like I worry about him. But neither of us ever admits it. Thomas should have been bantering, arguing with me, insulting me--anything but saying straight out that he came to warn me about my enemies because he was worried. This wasn't my big brother's style at all.

And I couldn't believe that Thomas was acting like this on purpose to tip me off that something was wrong. Thomas knows that I don't do subtle.

Constantine was still glaring at me. I couldn't very well say anything in front of Chauncy, though. Granted, there was an excellent chance that Chauncy already knew Thomas was my brother, but I had no intention of mentioning that fact in case it didn't.

Still kneeling in the middle of my magic circle, I sighed and motioned him to sit down. "So. Tell us about the plan, Thomas." Never mind that I was all but certain that there wasn't one.

He sat down briefly, but soon he was pacing about the room in ever-widening paths that were taking him closer and closer to Constantine, Chaunzaggoroth and me. Constantine continued to watch Thomas and me as if we were both traps and unexploded bombs; I knew that he thought that I'd sold him out to the bitch who'd ripped him out of his world, and that Thomas was her willing catspaw. Given his life, it was the most reasonable thing to think...but knowing that he thought I'd betrayed him hurt.

Not that I could focus on that, or indeed on the intricate plan spilling from Thomas's lips. Instead, I readied three spells while trying to give the impression of zealous attentiveness, waiting for some small hint that would tell me what was wrong.

And eventually my attentiveness was rewarded. Thomas glanced at me, his eyes meeting mine for the fraction of a second.

Corrupt and twisted magic swirled against the barriers created by the two chalk circles as I felt the beginnings of a soulgaze.

Thomas and I soulgazed years ago. And you can only soulgaze a person once. No repeat performances. No exceptions.

Ergo, not Thomas. Not a Black Court vampire or a golem, as they're soulless creatures that wouldn't have caused any reaction at all. I was betting on it being a Renfield. No personal magic to speak of, and enough of an empty vessel, mentally and emotionally, that Mavra could channel her darkest magic through her human slave...

...once the Renfield got past the threshold and drew near enough to my circle to break it.

I glanced down, and saw that the Renfield had smudged a sneaker-sized hole in my defenses,

Shit.

As putrid enchantments that weren't coming from the Renfield but through him sailed straight across the shattered circle, I crouched down, readying myself for what I had to do and knowing that it was going to give me nightmares.

"Thomas!" I howled. "What the hell's going on?"

The Renfield, whose disguise spell still made it look like a scared and angry version of my brother, crept over to me. "I don't know," it seemed to say, though I was certain that Mavra was the one speaking. "It must be bad, though. It's affecting your dog. Harry, we've got to get out of here."

Get out of here. Yeah. Even if I'd had in the inclination to leave, I wouldn't--not with Mouse blocking the door, his teeth bared in a savage snarl. And he was looking directly at the Renfield.

"I don't think so, Mavra," I said in a chipper voice, addressing the sorceress rather than her mindless puppet. "My dog doesn't like you."

The Renfield let loose a howl of inarticulate rage and leaped for my throat. I barely had time to activate my shield bracelet.

The shield saved me. Otherwise the Renfield would have torn my throat open with its teeth and nails. But in another sense, my magic endangered both me and Constantine...for when the Renfield hit the shield, it sent me flying backwards into Constantine, who stumbled, staggered and then fell to his knees, his right hand smudging and breaking the circle Chaunzaggoroth had been imprisoned in until that moment.

The demon's shriek of triumph is something I never want to hear again.

I didn't have much time to focus on it, though. When you've got a crazed and mindless slave of vampires trying to rip through your force field with black magic being channeled through its body by its puppetmistress owner so that she can wipe you out of existence, a demonic scream isn't as distracting as you might think.

I crossed my arms over my chest, jabbing my elbows upwards into its chest. No good. My elbows are sharp and I know how to use them in a fight, but the Renfield disguised as Thomas didn't have enough mind left to register discomfort.

The thing was, I didn't want to use magic to kill it. Renfields don't count as human to the Council; I wouldn't be breaking any magical laws by hexing this one to death. But until Mavra had ripped away its mind and will, it had been a human being with thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears, and I knew that the person it had been would have been horrified by the puppet it had become.

I rolled off to the side--nearly colliding with Constantine in the process, which made him let loose a string of highly original profanity--startling the Renfield enough so that it didn't roll with me at least for a couple of seconds, which were all I needed to pull my medium-barreled .357 Magnum from my duster pocket. I clicked off the safety...and waited for it to draw closer. I wasn't going to get a second chance at this.

The Renfield laughed, a dry and dusty laugh I'd heard before. That gave me the chills. Renfields can't laugh. But what followed was worse. The Thomas disguise shredded and disappeared. Then the creature's body shifted, transforming from a male body to an androgynous female one. The skin turned a pallid grey; the lips became bluish. The eyes took on a flat, deflated look and seemed to be covered in milky blue cataracts.

"I don't recall inviting you in, Mavra," I said in a voice that certainly was not trembling.

She glided toward me, ignoring the gun in my hand. No reason why she wouldn't ignore it; Stoker never described Black Court vampires as being vulnerable to bullets. "I do not require an invitation now."

Her voice was slightly less raspy than I remembered. Residual moisture in her new body, no doubt.

"Cute," I said with disgust. "Send in a human, or at least something that's biologically human, to get past the threshold. And then switch your mind with its...well, lack of one, and reshape the body according to your will."

It was almost exactly what a necromancer called Corpsetaker had pulled a few years back. She'd almost bodyswitched herself into becoming the Captain of the Wardens, too.

But, as a wise man once said, the mind's a monkey. Mavra could have repaired what physical damage she'd done to her slave and left the rest of the body alone. She hadn't, though. She'd transformed the body from that of a human being to that of a Black Court vampire. Because, to Mavra's way of thinking, being a vampire was who she was.

Mavra said nothing. She merely stretched her blue lips into a parody of a smile.

"So?" I said. "No gloating? No pontificating? Don't tell me one of the bad guys finally read the Evil Overlord List."

She gazed at me with utter loathing, barely sparing a glance for Constantine. "You have both inconvenienced me greatly, wizards. And the Queen of Summer even more so. You will do this no more. And Hell can eat the souls of you both." And with that, she lunged for me.

Constantine kicked her in the ass, turning her lunge into a stumble. Before she could right herself, I pulled the trigger. I could only hope that the bullet would lodge somewhere inside her chest. I didn't see any blood or guts coming out of a hole in her back, which was a plus, at least.

"Useless," she whispered, continuing to move toward me. No blood or guts. Good. "Did you really think that a bullet could destroy--"

And then an odd look swept across her face as she collapsed to her knees. And I grinned.

She looked up at me, her filmy eyes bewildered and blank. "What have you done?"

"Truce or not, some wizards are still prepared for a war with vampires," I said, feeling more than a little smug. "These bullets have been blessed by a holy man. And soaked in garlic, oil of roses and holy water. I call it the Buffy Special."

At that point--and honestly, I couldn't have improved on the timing if you'd paid me--the wound burst into flames. Narrative Laws of Causality. Gotta love 'em.

She didn't last long after that. Not that I took that for granted even after she was lying there in front of me in what might be considered a state of extreme death. We're talking about vampires, after all; they come back more often than a bad burrito from Taco Bell. But I swear that all I planned to do was use the Super Soaker to vaporize the body. It's a bit hard to come back from the grave when you don't have a body to come back to.

Shoving the Magnum back in my duster pocket, I picked up the Super Soaker, which still felt about half full, and fired it at the smoldering hole in her chest.

A good blast of water burst out--and froze in mid-air.

For a moment, it hung there, attached to the nozzle of the water rifle.

I don't know quite what I was thinking, but I knew I didn't want the holy water, or holy ice, to snap off and crash to the floor in a billion pieces. Breaking it off of the nozzle seemed like a very good idea.

I can't quite explain the fact that, as I broke off the frozen holy water, it changed from a thin, ill-shaped spear of ice to a thick and pointed stalactite. Or, you might say, a stake.

I took tight hold of it and slammed it through the chest of Mavra's new body, wondering as I did what had happened to the old one. I didn't wonder for very long, though, for as the ice stake touched her skin, it sliced through both ribcage and heart as if the ice were a hot knife and the body soft butter.

Mavra's corpse sat bolt upright and shrieked.

For a moment, I felt as if I were looking at two corpses superimposed on each other, one lying on my living room floor, the other sprawled in a ruined hallway that looked oddly familiar, though for the life of me I couldn't figure out why. And a memory of words from a long-ago lesson drifted through my mind: the law of the sympathetic wound. Whatever happens to you in one form happens in the other. Usually it applies to werewolves--if a werewolf breaks a leg when transformed, the leg is still broken when he or she turns human again--but it's also the same thing that makes voodoo dolls work. Create something that's another version of a person and then harm that thing, and you've harmed the person.

Mavra had made the Renfield into an identical version of her. So when the once-Renfield had been shot and staked, the original Mavra had experienced just what it had.

Then the superimposed image of the body in the hallway vanished. The transformed corpse of the Renfield ceased to shriek, slumped to the floor and withered to dust.

I was looking around for something to scoop up the vampire dust with so that I could take it outside and scatter it to the four winds when I heard Constantine's voice. He was chanting what sounded like an invocation. I turned toward his voice, wondering what the hell he was doing.

He was standing over Chauncy, who apparently had decided that staying to observe what was going on would be in its and Hell's interest. Given Constantine's cat-that-ate-the-cream smirk and Mouse having pinned down the demon and positioning his jaws inches from its neck, I suspected that Chauncy now regretted that decision.

"Go ahead," it snarled. "Banish me. Slay me. Only consider this, John Constantine--do you truly need another enemy in Hell?"

Constantine shrugged as if it made no difference to him. Not for the first time, I wondered when Constantine was in his timeline. How many demonic and magical enemies did he have by now? What had he gone through already? And what did I know had happened that, as far as he was concerned, was still to come?

Chauncy appeared somewhat miffed by Constantine's indifference, but it was still trying to negotiate. "Release me, and I can free you and your friends from much of the torment that will later befall you both. I am not, of course, able to save you from the actions of my superiors, but--"

"You can't save me from your bosses," Constantine said with eerie calm, as if pronouncing judgment. "And you can't save my friends from me."

"But John Constantine," Chaunzaggoroth wheedled, his voice fairly dripping with honey, "do you not wish to go home? A true and loving home, the likes of which you have never known?"

Constantine glanced over at me with an unreadable expression. It might have meant, "It does sound like a good deal," or "I know what he's saying is a crock, Dresden," or even "Don't worry. I have a plan."

"But is it a cunning plan?" I murmured just as unbearable pain lanced through my head and began throbbing in my bones. Dimly, I began to wonder what was wrong.

Constantine glanced at me, down at the floor, then back at me again. "You stupid shit," he said, as if in wonder that anyone breathing could be this idiotic. "Some magic's loose. Grab it!"

I didn't understand what he was saying, but I reached out with my wizard senses and grabbed for it...

...and grasped the earth spell that I'd been preparing before the Renfield disguised as my brother had crossed my door's threshold. It had built up a lot of momentum since then; I hadn't been controlling it for a while. That was what I was feeling--the momentum, because I was still connected to the spell. I needed to cast it now, before it got any stronger.

I would have flung it directly at the demon if not for the fact that Mouse was crouching on the creature's chest and didn't seem inclined to move. Fine. I could adapt.

I pulled the spell up through the earth and let it fly.

And a second or two later, Chaunzaggoroth began howling in pain.

Truthfully, I hadn't done much. I'd just convinced the roots of an elder tree, a mountain oak, an ash tree and a bo tree to grow through my floor and bind Chaunzaggoroth there. I'd initially intended to stake any necromancers or zombies with the roots and branches, but I knew that staking a demon wouldn't do any good. Plus I was not in favor of impaling Mouse. Binding Chauncy with the roots of four powerful sacred trees, on the other hand...well, for centuries, these trees had been tools of magic, as well as symbols of faith. I'm not a worshiper of trees (or much of anything, for that matter), but I have faith in magic.

Constantine regarded the demon for a bit. "Tell you what," he said at last. "I'm going to let you go. At the same time, I don't want you chatting with anyone about what you know--or think you know. So I'm going to make sure you don't. Ever."

And with that, he pulled a switchblade from inside his trenchcoat.

I'm not going to go into detail about what happened next. All I can say is that carving a sigil into the essence of a demon is a blood-drenched business. Not a fatal one, even for the demon, but bloody and unpleasant. Chaunzaggoroth screamed a lot, not that that made any difference to Constantine. It bothered me, partly because I'm not a fan of causing pain and partly because I was convinced that my neighbors were going to call the police and say that someone was being murdered. I really didn't think the argument, "Oh, no, this wizard from a comic book series is just marking the essence of a demon so that he'll be invisible to everyone but gods and their servants, and thus won't be able to betray either of us to a faerie queen or to Hell" would go over too well with Chicago's Finest. Even the cops from Special Investigations might have trouble with that.

Once it was done, Constantine motioned me to release the demon. I did. Grudgingly. Constantine had promised to let Chauncy go, and I knew the power of a wizard's promise. But that didn't mean I had to like it.

"You're free to go now," Constantine said, and damned if he didn't manage to sound like--well, like John Marcone being regal toward a defeated rival.

Chaunzaggoroth ignored him and fixed me with a homicidal glare. "I curse you, Harry Blackstone Dresden. May the stars from the sky fall down at the sight of you; may the stones turn to poison beneath your feet. May you drown in despair and empty night. In the end, you will hear my home tolling for your soul--"

"Why is it that demons never know when to piss off?" Constantine asked the air.

"Beat it, Chauncy," I said, ignoring Constantine. Not that I disagreed with him, but if the two of us got started bantering, we'd be here all night. "Get out of here now, or so help me, I'll banish you myself."

Chaunzaggoroth sneered. "And where would you banish me to, wizard? Downbelow?"

I shook my head--no, I'm not going to answer that--and began dialing a phone number. I could have managed a Banishing Spell--banishings are easy enough, they're just summonings in reverse--but it struck me that one simple, non-magical phone call might be more effective.

Because it had occurred to me that while I might not be able to call on an archangel and be certain that he would show up, I did have a spiritual being from a divine realm on speed dial.

"Hi, Sigrun," I said as soon as the woman I was calling picked up. "Harry Dresden here. Listen, Constantine caught a spy who was apparently dealing with both sides of a certain contract. Now, he's managed to make sure it will never, ever do that, but we thought you might want to talk to it. Its name is Chaunzaggoroth"--I pronounced it perfectly, ignoring the demon's shock--"and he's just dying to meet you."

***

Chapter Text

Back then, I didn't know what kind of reputation Valkyries had as interrogators--though I really could have guessed, based on Bob's reaction--but I learned that day. Chauncy didn't react well to finding itself face to face with one of the Choosers of the Slain. Its panic was a beautiful thing. By the end, Chancy was begging her to turn it over to the angels, and Constantine was sitting in my living room drinking more of Mac's ale while blatantly eavesdropping on as much of the interrogation as he could--which wasn't much, unless he spoke Old Norse or whatever language demons speak in private. Which, truthfully, I wouldn't have put past him.

I didn't stick around. There wasn't anything I could have done to help, and it had been a long and stressful day. I left the three of them downstairs; if Ms. Gard or Constantine needed me, they could holler for me. And I'd had enough of demons and other enemies to last me for a week, at least.

I stretched out on my bed to think about my father and his family, and about the implications of becoming the Winter Knight, and promptly fell asleep.

I awakened at midnight to the sound of the bedroom phone ringing. After smacking it for a few minutes because I'd mistaken it for my Mickey Mouse alarm clock, I finally woke up enough to pick up the receiver. "Huh? Whuh?"

"Mister Dresden," said a crisp and--even in my befuddled state--familiar voice. "Ms. Gard has just returned. She informed me that she had spent the evening interrogating a demon at your place and that she'd just killed it."

"Did she?" I mumbled. "Good f'her. Thanks f'tellin' me. G'night."

"You didn't know?" The suppressed rage in Marcone's voice was almost palpable. "Are you telling me that with a demon in the house you actually went to sleep?"

"John," I yawned, "Ms. Gard had the situation in hand. It was terrified of her. It couldn't do a thing to avoid answering her questions, and believe me, it tried. Also, it was pretty badly wounded before that, thanks to me binding it with the roots and branches of sacred trees and Constantine blasting it with holy water and marking it with a sigil that made it invisible and inaudible to--well, anyone who isn't us, a god or an agent of a god."

"There are a great many gods in the world," he said, the tension still filling his voice. "And not all are benevolent."

The memory of the shagnasty I'd faced not long ago filled my mind, and I shuddered. "Yeah. That's why I asked Ms. Gard over here. As an agent of MONOC Corporation, she had power over it."

"Wouldn't there only be one God that had power over it?"

I shrugged. "Maybe if it had been one of the Fallen--they've got authority issues up the wazoo. I mean, thousands of years and they're still having adolescent temper tantrums over whether or not their dad is the boss of them. Talk about your dysfunctional families.

"But Chauncy--I'm not saying its real name again if I don't have to--came from Downbelow. Originally, I mean. It didn't have to Fall to get there. So less question of who's in charge. Any god or spiritual being that serves a god would have worked. I just decided not to leave which god up to chance."

"That," he said after a moment's silence, "is almost logical. However, I believe that killing it and sending it back to Hell was a bad idea."

I grinned. "You don't read Vertigo Comics, do you?"

Silence for a moment. "I've never been a fan of Wizard Constantine's series. Why?"

"You did know who he was when you met him, then."

"I believe we've established that, Mister Dresden. Though I fail to see what Wizard Constantine's universe of origin has to do with whether or not it was a bad idea for Ms. Gard to kill the demon's physical body on this plane and thereby send it and all the information it had winging straight back to Hell."

"The sigil marking its essence did something to it," I explained. "Not only couldn't it be seen or heard by anything in Hell, but it couldn't survive there. If it tried to go back, it would get blasted to oblivion. And at the same time, there wasn't anywhere else that it considered home. Maybe if it had had time to build up an attachment to somewhere, it could have avoided going back to Hell when it died, but since Ms. Gard killed it just hours after it was marked--"

"It had nowhere else to go. And it was destroyed. Without ever being able to tell any of its superiors what it had gleaned about your interest in this matter." A pause. "Mister Dresden, that was positively devious."

"I do my best." That was as close as I was going to get to admitting that a) any fan at ComicCon could have figured this out, so I wasn't entirely sure that Hell hadn't, and b) I wasn't sure that my memories of the story where Constantine had engraved such a sigil into the essence of a succubus who'd fallen in love with an angel were all that clear. I thought I had the gist of it--that going back to Hell was supposed to destroy her--but I dimly recalled that she'd been hidden from Hell on a number of occasions and that she'd still managed to go back in the end. I was fairly sure that Chauncy had been blasted into nonexistence--those were the terms of the spell, after all--but I couldn't rid myself of the feeling that I'd forgotten some details from the original story. Important ones.

Not something I was going to admit out loud.

What I did say was, "Take it easy, John. It'll be okay."

It was a stupid thing to say. Fatuous, even. But what do you say to a man who's facing the certainty of Hell?

"I should feel that I shouldn't have gotten you involved, shouldn't I?" he said softly. "I don't. I think you may be the only chance I have to escape--this time."

"This time?"

"I can hardly escape forever," he replied in an even quieter voice. "There are things I've done for the safety of this city that would make you loathe me. Not merely the Outfit I work for, but me."

I had a feeling he was right, but I wasn't going to say that. I've been dealing with people being appalled by my actions since I was sixteen. That level of fear and loathing wear you down over time. John sounded like he was about as worn down as he could get; the last thing he needed tonight was to be sniffing gloom.

"I've done some pretty horrible stuff myself," I said at last. "I don't know that I could loathe you in good conscience."

A bark of bitter laughter. "Mister Dresden, you are an innocent woolly lamb compared to me. The wizards who think that you are the coming of the Antichrist are, to be charitable, idiots."

"Why do you do it, then?" I demanded. "If you hate it so much--and it sounds like you do--then why bother? If you hate being crime boss of Chicago, then quit!"

"Yes," he said wearily. "I suppose I could do that. After all, it's not as if I have dozens of rivals who would tear this city apart if I weren't in charge, slaughtering thousands of innocents in their bid for power and considering it no more than the price of doing business. Nor should the sheer supernatural power of Chicago and the ambitions of those who wish to claim it be of any concern. I should just save myself and step out of the way. What are 9.6 million lives, compared to one soul?"

My mouth went dry, and I swallowed with difficulty. "You can't stop. I don't mean you mustn't. You can't. You can't stop, and you can't walk away. No more than I could, if I were in your place."

He was as silent as grass growing.

"It'll be okay," I said gently, thinking that it would have to be. Anything else was unacceptable. I'd lost too many friends and lovers over the years. I couldn't lose one more person who mattered. And he did matter. As little as I liked the man's job or employers, he belonged here in Chicago and here in my life.

For the first time since Constantine had kissed me, I wondered if Marcone kissed better.

It should have been a shocking thought. After all, about twelve hours before, I'd been arguing that I was straight. But it wasn't. It was more like facing up to a realization that had been lurking in my mind so long that I'd come to accept it even though I'd never consciously admitted that there was anything to accept.

I'm...mostly straight. Women attract me. They always have. But sometimes I notice things about a guy--like the pecs on a naked Billy (sorry, Will) Borden, or the chests of a couple of seriously built Knights of the Cross. I admire nice suits. Smiles. And eyes. Especially money-green eyes.

I'd never done anything beyond looking. I'd never even considered doing so. But if John had been here tonight, I'd have been holding him tight, occasionally brushing a thumb down a slightly stubbled cheek. Whether I could or would do anything else if he were here, I didn't know, and in fact, it seemed irrelevant. Tonight wasn't about lust; it was about a tough guy facing a nightmarish situation that seemed beyond mending. Right now he needed to know that things would work out. And I needed that, too.

"Mister Dresden," he was saying anxiously, "are you there?"

"Harry," I corrected him. "I insist that all my consorts call me Harry. And would you like to know what happened today after I left your office? Aside from the death of a demon, that is."

A pause. When he spoke, I could imagine him sitting in his bedroom, striving to control himself and not glance into the room's shadowed corners, keeping his head high and his voice calm. "Yes. I'd like to hear that, Harry. I'd like that very much indeed."

***

Chapter Text

I fully expected to hear from Titania the next day in the form of a phalanx of gruffs. Killing an assassin was probably an act of war in Faerie. And I didn't think Hell would be any too pleased about one of its demons perishing, either, not that the powers of Hell are ever that pleased with yours truly.

But nothing happened. No battles, no threats. Just total silence. I would have almost preferred an attack.

I did hear from someone about Mavra's death, but that wasn't an attack. It might have been a threat. It's a little hard to tell with my evil stepsister. And of course she didn't call me, because that wouldn't have been subtle enough. No, instead I got a letter hand-delivered to my office that begged to inform me that Lady Mavra of the Black Court had vanished quite suddenly and that the ruling house was most distressed about this.

"Didn't take the rulers long to get distressed," I pointed out to Lara over my rotary phone about five minutes later. "In answer to your question, she did drop by my place yesterday afternoon. But she left pretty quickly after that, and I haven't seen her since."

All of which was true. It might not have been 100% true, but sometimes being a good detective involves knowing what not to say. Since Lara was asking me what was going on, that meant someone--possibly her, possibly not--had an interest in knowing how deep my involvement was. If the news hadn't got out yet about Mavra's death, or Chauncy's, or my being the Winter Knight, I wasn't going to bring any of it up. I had a feeling I was going to need every particle of the element of surprise that I could get.

The problem was, I also needed backup. But I had a hunch that asking the White Court for help in this case would be a very bad idea.

"How's Thomas?" I asked instead. Mavra hadn't turned the Renfield into an exact duplicate of my brother; I didn't think I had to worry about Thomas suffering the same fate she had. But I suspected that she'd tapped into Thomas's mind a bit so that she could compel the Renfield to imitate Thomas well enough to, temporarily, pass muster with those who knew him.

"Sleeping. He's been sleeping since yesterday afternoon."

I gulped. "Is he sick?"

"Not precisely. According to an expert I consulted"--that meant that she'd called one of the Raiths who was a practitioner, if not a wizard--"someone came very close to violating the Third Law of Magic."

Thou shalt not invade the mind of another. I had no doubt that Mavra had been tap-dancing on the edge of that Law. Technically, though, she hadn't broken it. The White Council applied the Laws to human wizards and human targets. Thomas wasn't a human being. And Mavra, of course, hadn't been human for centuries.

I hate loopholes that hurt people I love.

"Can I come see him?" I begged. "You wouldn't even know I was there--"

"Of course you can come see him," Lara said in a voice of infinite compassion. "Just tell me where Mavra is and what she's done to my brother."

"Our brother."

"Very well." Impatiently. "Our brother."

"I don't know what spell she used," I said in desperation, scowling at the phone. "I don't use mental magic. And I don't know where she is at the moment. I hope she's dead and dust, and that her soul, if she has one, is in the middle of nowhere. But I honestly don't know."

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone. Then Lara addressed me in a crisp, cold, professional tone. "Mister Dresden, you may see Thomas when you have told me every last detail about this incident, and not before. I suggest that you hasten to do so--for Thomas's sake, if not for your own." Click, followed by a dial tone.

I sighed, and mentally filed away Thomas's state as just one more problem to be solved.

I researched his condition, of course, in between ransacking books, scrolls, parchments and the memories of Constantine and Bob about Hell, the treaty with the Fae, Faerie in general, and Titania in particular. I studied spells and brewed potions that I thought might help me survive a confrontation with the Summer Court or with Hell for more than two seconds. I carved a new staff out of white oak, since the nuckelavee had incinerated my old one. I had Toot-Toot and the Za-Lord's Army searching Chicago for portals to the Nevernever that Titania or Hell might be using as doorways. I ate when I remembered to, slept when my body grew too weary to do anything else, and scarcely bothered to breathe.

I found very little that told me how to save a bunch of innocent kids and a not-so-innocent crime lord.

And I still couldn't shake the feeling that I was missing something important. Something that could turn this whole mess around.

On the sixth day, John left the safe room over the protests of Hendricks, Ms. Gard and me. He must have already made arrangements to support his organization and to continue caring for Amanda Beckitt, because he spent the day going wherever he liked, and he insisted the three of us come with him. This included a trip to a Wisconsin nursing home and back, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the home of the Blackhawks, a tiny Italian bakery in the worst neighborhood in Chicago and a gym with an underground boxing ring that made Hendricks's eyes shine suspiciously bright.

I couldn't blame him. This wasn't a tour; it was a series of goodbyes, an attempt to shore up good memories against an eternity of torment. It was like attending a wake. And the fact that Marcone was being relentlessly cheerful didn't help. I didn't say anything, though. I'd faced death and destruction and despair too often with mocking, defiant laughter not to recognize that Marcone was doing something similar. Stars, I gave him points for even trying.

His escort to Hell showed up at dawn--the oldest gruff, as in weregoat, who I'd met about a month before and who definitely didn't look happy with this assignment from Titania, and a black unicorn with golden, pupil-less eyes, who looked nothing so much as smug.

"I thought unicorns were supposed to be the good guys," I protested. Not that I ever believed it. Unicorns are typically depicted as smiling horses with horns. Any horse that has a long pointy weapon and that is smiling is definitely up to something. "How come you're helping with this?"

The unicorn gazed at me as if he thought I was the stupidest thing he had ever seen. "I am called Amduscias, mortal," he said in a voice like an oboe. "And I am a Grand Duke of Hell."

Terrific. I always knew I had good reason for distrusting unicorns.

"I believe," said Marcone in a calm tone, "that my ride is here. I must go."

Hendricks clamped Marcone's wrist with his left hand. If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed his hand could move that fast. "No."

"Mister Hendricks."

"No, Johnny." He glared down at his boss, his face twisted like a gargoyle's. I couldn't tell if he was trying not to yell or trying not to weep. "No. The wizard couldn't save you. Gard couldn't, either. But I'm still here, and I'm still your bodyguard. And I'm going to guard you till I die."

"Which will not take long," interrupted Amduscias in a disdainful tone. "Do you truly believe you can save him using guns and bullets?" He managed to make "guns and bullets" sound like "stone knives and bearskins."

Hendricks gave the Grand Duke of Hell a horrible grin. "I've fought vampires and Outsiders and fuckin' fallen angels. And I don't care who I have to fight now. I'm going to save him."

"How loyal you are to your employer." The disdain had transformed to utter contempt. "He must pay you well."

Hendricks made a rude gesture with his free hand. "Fuck that shit. This ain't about Mister Marcone, or the boss of Chicago, or the Freeholding Lord, or any other title you'd care to mention. This is about Johnny. And you're gonna have to go through me to get him."

"Well," murmured the unicorn, lowering his head so that his horn was perfectly poised to impale Hendricks' heart, "I would be more than happy to oblige."

A fur-covered hand gripped the sharp tip of the horn, holding the unicorn firmly in place.

Amduscias tried to swing his head toward the gruff grasping his horn. He couldn't do it. "You dare interfere?!"

"We were not sent here to fight," said the gruff steadily. "Nor to bring harm to the one who has chosen to fulfill this bargain." There was a slight emphasis on the word "chosen."

"They have no right to stop us!"

"They have a right to try," the gruff retorted. "Though not here, and not now. The Freeholding Lord agreed to turn himself over, and this must be done, or others will pay sorely."

"You're saying," Hendricks said, pulling the words out as if he were removing his own teeth one by one, "that I got no choice? I gotta let you take him?"

"Yes," said the gruff. "You must."

The Grand Duke laughed.

"Amy," I said to him, smiling sweetly, "I know you're a grand duck and all that, but if you laugh one more time, you're gonna take him back to Hell with your own horn stuffed somewhere very uncomfortable. And if you don't have one of those yet, I'll use your horn to create one."

"Do you hear this insolence!" cried the Grand Duke, his voice sounding more like a trumpet than an oboe.

"I hear," said the gruff, with a shrug that said that hearing and caring were two different things. "I would advise you to heed his warning." It bared its goatlike teeth. "This wizard keeps his promises."

Amduscias took the gruff's advice and fell silent, which was a blessed relief.

Hendricks, looking as if he felt this was the ultimate betrayal of his old friend, slowly released his grip on John's wrist.

Marcone took the opportunity to give each of us a long, long look, as if he was memorizing our faces. Not for the first time, I felt like an intruder. Hendricks had the right to be here. Maybe Gard. But I didn't.

Then--slowly, oh, how slowly--he walked toward his guards. He didn't speak a word--not even goodbye. And he didn't look back. It was one of the most stupidly honorable things I've ever seen a human being do--and coming from me, that's saying a lot.

I expected the gruff to open a portal to the Nevernever, or the unicorn demon to zap all three of them to Hell/Downbelow. But neither happened. Instead, the gruff spoke quietly to the other two and then, with Marcone in the center, flanked on the left by the gruff and on the right by the demon, the three walked up the street, around the corner, and out of sight.

I felt wretched and angry...and, I must admit, oddly disappointed in Marcone. I didn't want him to be stupidly honorable; that was my skill set. I wanted him to be Machiavellian and devious and downright sneaky; that was his. Walking into the arms of the enemy was not the kind of thing that the Roundworld equivalent of the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork should do.

A memory stirred then of one of the early Discworld books, in which Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh Morpork, had been overthrown by a dragon and the dragon's summoner and flung into a dungeon with a really strong door...or so it seemed. Then the captain of the watch had realized that Vetinari might be in a dungeon cell, but he wasn't a prisoner.

All the bolts and bars and chains had been on the inside of the cell.

No. Not a cell. A fortress.

What kind of mind, the author had asked, would carefully consider its own downfall and turn it to advantage?

I knew what kind.

If there was a loophole in this mess, John Marcone had found it. Now I had to do the same.

I mentally ran over what the gruff had said. John had agreed to go with them to save Amanda. He'd chosen to do so. And because of that agreement, we couldn't stop the Summer Court or Hell from taking him. We had no right to do so.

But we did have the right to try to rescue him afterwards, I realized with something approaching glee. After John was in their hands, we had the right to try to get him back. And if we won...

He'd be free. And the kids would be free. And neither the Summer Court nor the ruler of Hell could do a thing about it. No innocents would suffer. No payback for those who fought to free Marcone or the kids. If we won this contest, both Titania and Lucifer would just have to suck it up and deal.

All I had to do was figure out what the contest was and how to win it.

Yeah. That's like saying that you're guaranteed to win the Nobel Peace Prize if you just create world peace. Anyone can figure that much out. It's the how we're a bit fuzzy on.

Focus, Harry, I told myself. There are a couple of things you're missing. Like, where were they going? They could have just popped into the Nevernever with him, but they didn't.

So there had to be a place around here that both Titania and Hell could use. A place that had been a focus of magical power for years.

Not the island of Demonreach, obviously. The genius loci was, in a word, grumpy. It liked me. It didn't like most magic-users, human or not, and it wasn't afraid to express its displeasure. Not to mention that most people, including the ones who terrified me, were scared to death of both the island and its guardian spirit. So that was out. And definitely not any of the Council's safe houses in Chicago, either; using any of those might attract the wrong sort of attention.

In fact, there weren't a whole lot of places of power in Chicago that weren't on someone's surveillance list. The wizards watched the places favored by the Red Court; the Red Court watched the locales used by the wizards, the Black Court and the White Court; Summer watched Winter's Ways through the Nevernever; Winter watched any and all of Summer's incursions; the Black Court watched anyone they considered their enemies; and the White Court watched everyone. And it was rare to find a place that would tolerate both faerie magic and black magic. Even Constantine had been surprised when he'd found both in--

I stopped. Then I backed up, took a deep breath and focused--really focused--on that dark-paneled library Mavra's original body had been in.

Hell's fucking bells.

I turned to Hendricks and Gard, who, mercifully, hadn't left yet. "Ms. Gard. Do you have a phone with you? A functioning one?"

"Yes," she said in a puzzled tone. "Why?"

"Tell Constantine to go here." I fumbled in the pockets of my duster, found a stub of a pencil and a crumpled parking ticket, and wrote down the address of a mansion on Chicago's Near North Side on the blank side of the ticket. "And tell him to bring Mouse with him. Tell him not to waste a second. We don't have much time."

"Why there, Dresden?" rumbled Hendricks, his small eyes glinting suspiciously at me. "What's so special about that place?"

"They used to call it the van de Ochtend Mansion," I said quietly, thinking of a large house with gabled roofs and walls of rough gray stone, a sunken garden, a skylit loft as large as a ballroom that had been used for potion brewing and spell practice...and a library with walnut paneling. "But not long ago, a Dark wizard lived there. He would have done anything for power. Anything. He even consorted with Outsiders. And if it came to a choice between power and Laws of Magic...well, he was a Warden. He knew how to break the Laws and get away with it."

Gard was frowning. "I have never heard of this man before."

"You wouldn't have," I assured her. "Justin DuMorne has a good reputation, even now. Most wizards still don't believe that I had to fight him--and kill him--if I was going to survive. But the house--he made a lot of bids for power in the house, and a lot of twisted bargains. I couldn't guess at most of them, even now.

"But the thing is, once you open a door to somewhere--or something--it's hard to keep that door locked for good. And DuMorne..."

I paused as I thought of him stealing Bob's skull from the study of the insane necromancer who'd helped cause a couple of world wars; of a sixteen-year-old girl under DuMorne's thrall kneeling naked in a magic circle, her lips stained purplish-red with fresh blood that he'd just ordered her to drink; of a sixteen-year-old boy being relentlessly pursued by He Who Walks Behind, one of the warriors of the eldritch abominations known as Outsiders.

"DuMorne," I said at last, shoving painful memories away, "opened a lot of doors to a lot of different places. And, since his death, I don't think anyone's bothered to close them. The Council just examined his death scene and left. And I haven't been back to the house since I was sixteen. No one's lived in the house since then. Any wards to keep those portals shut would be long gone. The magic and the portals would be...more than accessible."

"Lemme get this straight, Dresden," Hendricks demanded, his arms crossed over his chest. "The creep who adopted you was not only dark, he turned his house into a kind of supernatural O'Hare Airport, with portals going to and from everywhere. Including, probably, his own personal Hellmouth. And no one's checked lately to see if the spells keepin' out the supernatural roaches and rats are working anymore. And the roaches and rats are damned good at tapping into what magic's stored there, as well as usin' those doors. That about it?"

I nodded.

"Doesn't sound like we've got any more punch now than we did before."

"We do, though. But I'd rather wait till we're surrounded by cold iron before we talk about it." And I shut up until the three of us were in Marcone's limo. Then I explained.

"So," I concluded, "will you call Constantine? And will you tell him about Mouse?"

Gard gave a curt nod. "And what will you be doing?"

"Well, if you'll drive me home and wait for me, I can grab some stuff that I think we're going to need. And then--"

"Then I will take you, Mister Hendricks, Wizard Constantine and myself to the address you gave me," she said firmly, then frowned. "Though I could wish that the odds were somewhat more in our favor."

"Never tell me the odds," I muttered.

I wasn't thinking about the odds, though. There was no point; they'd gone from astronomical to more astronomical as this mess had unraveled. Taking a good hard look at them would be like taking a good hard look at my bank balance--doing so wouldn't tilt the balance in my favor, and the certain knowledge of how bad things truly were would only depress me with the sheer hopelessness of even trying to salvage this situation. Not an attitude you want to embrace right before battle.

What was troubling me was the sense of time doubling back on itself. I had to return to a place of violence, attempted murder and betrayal where, once more, I would have to battle on behalf of those who'd been tricked, trapped and placed under the power of another. Not to mention having to fight to save my own life...and my somewhat tarnished soul.

Who says you can't go home again?

***

Chapter Text

Constantine was waiting out in front of my building with Mouse when we drove up. I didn't bother to answer his, "Dresden, what the hell's wrong now?" as I brushed past him to deactivate my wards and enter my apartment. I figured that Gard could explain that, and probably a lot more succinctly than I ever could.

Once inside, I headed down to my sub-basement lab and started shoving knives, chains, boxes of ammo--anything made of iron or steel, really--as well as a vast array of plastic bottles filled with offensive and defensive potions and squeegee bottles filled with holy water in an over-the-shoulder duffel bag. Not even remotely stylish, but hey. If I have to choose between being ready to fight and looking good while doing so, I'll take strength over style any day of the week.

As I was doing the world's hastiest job of packing, my enormous cat Mister--I tell people that I feed him sheep, if that gives you an idea of his size--came yowling down the stairs demanding to know when dinner was, and couldn't it be a little earlier?

I glanced thoughtfully at Mister and then at Bob's skull. "Hey. Bob. Want an evening out with the cat? Granted, it would be a working night out, but--"

The skull was quiet for a minute. "You want me to hitch a ride in the cat and come with you, wherever you're going?"

"Yeah, I do." Granted, I didn't ask Bob along on many jobs, but his knowledge might actually help in this case. "We're going to the van de Ochtend Mansion. I know you remember it. The study, anyway. You spent a lot of time in DuMorne's study."

Bob's eyes paled from orange to a faded yellow--his equivalent of blanching in shock. "There? Harry, why do you want to go there?"

"I don't. But I think that Titania and Hell are using it as a base--and a crossroads to everywhere." I shrugged. "There's a lot of power in that house. You know that."

"Better than you do," muttered the skull. "You weren't in on DuMorne's plans, Harry. I was. I was part of them. I don't know how much help I'm going to be."

"You know where the portals in the house lead," I said, opening my safe and weighing a katana and a broadsword in my hands. I wished that I could bring them along, but they weren't mine. Fidelacchius had chosen Karrin Murphy as its new wielder, and Murphy, so far, was refusing to accept the job of Knight of the Cross. And Amoracchius, which had formerly belonged to the noblest man I knew, hadn't found a successor yet. It wasn't me, that I knew. I knew that like I knew I was a wizard.

"Yeah, and I know who he made deals with," Bob snapped. "That doesn't help. I'm just one air spirit. A disembodied air spirit, at that. I don't have a lot of power. You need someone who does. In fact, you need an army...and not one made of wyldfae."

"Well, I don't have an army," I retorted, shoving the katana back in the safe and locking the door. "Thanks to Mavra bringing Constantine here, I can't even get the Council involved without putting both our necks on the chopping block for practicing black magic. They'd never believe I didn't summon him to our world, and the stuff he's done...yeah, that would go over well. We're down two Knights of the Cross and I'm not calling Sanya back from Nigeria or Outer Mongolia or wherever the hell he is so that he can get permanently sidelined too. Thomas has been out cold for a week, and Lara is severely pissed off at me because I haven't given her all the details about why, which I can't without getting myself in bigger trouble. Murphy...I can't keep getting her involved in cases connected to Marcone. She's having enough trouble keeping her job as it is with all of her odd absences thanks to my cases. If her bosses decide she's dirty...being a cop is her whole life. And I can't ask Will and Georgia and the rest of the Alphas to fight the literal Devil. I don't even want to ask me to do that.

"So what I've got is a wizard from another universe, a thug bodyguard, a Valkyrie under contract to the mob, a Temple Dog and you. And possibly the Winter Court, though I'm not sure what Mab's going to do." Before he could say anything, I explained about my being the new Winter Knight. Before I was done, he was spluttering.

"Do you know how dumb it was to agree to do that?"

"Sure. But if I didn't sign on--well, with Titania going after me and with Mab unable to protect me, I'd have been doubly screwed. And I doubt if I'd have survived the fight with Mavra a few days ago without the power of Winter behind me." I summarized that battle in a few terse sentences. "Come on, Bob. I really need your help. And time is passing, and we don't have that much of it. Today. Maybe
tonight. I doubt if we have much more than that."

The skull's eyes flared. "What time is it?"

I chewed my lower lip. "Sunrise. Maybe a little after."

"You got time, then. Titania's not going to turn anyone over to Hell before tonight. It has to be done at midnight. It's tradition." Bob rolled his fiery eyes at this. "But you're gonna need to be in place long before that. And you're gonna need to close all the portals. All of them, Harry. And once they're all closed...you have to take the power in the house back, and make it yours."

"I don't want that power."

"I know." There was a pause. "But boss, if you don't take it back, then the power just hangs around where anyone can grab it. And all the fighting you're doing--even freeing the people who shouldn't be damned--it'll all be for nothing. If you don't reclaim that power, Titania and Lucifer can undo everything. And it'll all start again. Only this time, they'll know your limits. And you'll have even less chance of winning."

I took a deep, shuddering breath. "Bob...DuMorne's power was seriously twisted. I don't know if I can handle that kind of darkness."

"Yeah. I know." Then Bob sighed. "One more thing, boss. I'll be there at sunset, wearing the cat. But before then--I want twelve hours. From now to sunset. Hey," he added, as I opened my mouth to protest, "it's not as if I can normally do anything in sunlight. And that house is filled with windows."

Yes. He was right about that. Sighing, I mentally threw in the towel. "Fine. But no causing orgies."

"Boss!"

"No. Orgies," I repeated. "Even if you do think they're a good idea. And you swear you'll help us."

"I'll help you so much you'll owe me a year of Skinamax," Bob replied smugly, before adding with some hesitation, "At least...I hope I'll be able to."

"Okay. Then you've got your pass. And I'll see you at sunset." I hope, I thought. Bob doesn't have much of a sense of time.

"Great! You won't regret this, Harry!" And with that, Bob streamed out of his skull in a streak of yellowish-orange spheres, surrounded Mister, who merely yawned --how that cat can be so blasé about possession, I'll never know--and raced upstairs.

Zipping up the bag and slinging it over my shoulder, I stumped upstairs to let out Bob and Mister.

***

Chapter Text

Mouse was the only one who was happy to see me when I got back in the limo Gard was driving. Gard herself was a bit irritated that I'd taken longer than I'd said I would, though she was trying not to show it; Constantine was very irritated that I'd taken as long as I had, and wasn't trying to hide it at all; and Hendricks gave me one of his patented death glares, followed by a threat. "If he ends up suffering because you were stallin', Dresden--"

"He won't," I said curtly, wishing I believed that myself. "And I wasn't."

It didn't take us long to get to the mansion, which looked a lot better than I'd expected. The last time I'd seen it, I'd been setting half of it on fire. But there were no visible scars, no half-seared beams or smoke-blackened walls or floorboards long since warped and ruined by water damage. I couldn't figure out if the city had repaired it to keep it from being an eyesore and a health hazard or if the Council had had it fixed out of respect for one of their own.

"This ain't right," rumbled Hendricks as he surveyed the house, its cobbled walk and the sunken garden--now tangled and overgrown with weeds--off to the side. "This ain't right at all."

"I guess someone had it fixed," I suggested. "I mean, I can understand that."

He gave me a patient look. "I'm not talkin' about the fact that it's not half-burnt. It's been more'n twenty years; someone could've paid to have it repaired by now so that it could be sold. I'm talkin' about the fact that it's perfect."

"Perfect?" I said, frowning. "I don't--"

"Use your eyes, Dresden," he growled. "You ever see a deserted house with gleaming windows before?"

He was right, I realized. The house was immaculate. Fresh curtains were fluttering in the windows; a newly made wreath of pine branches and holly branches hung on the door. The walk was not only shoveled, but swept. To all appearances, this house was occupied. In fact, if I looked at the bay window in front, I could almost imagine--

I scowled as a Christmas tree, dripping with tinsel and glowing with electric lights, faded into being. For a minute, I could hear the far-off laughter of children at play.

"All right," I said to whoever was casting this spell, concentrating as I opened my Sight. "Now you're just being insulting. It's May, not December. And nothing is that relentlessly charming."

It wasn't.

Scrutinized under my Sight, the house was hideous. Patches of rot and decay splotched its walls. The front door had been smashed in by some unknown force, and there was a large, complex, swirling pattern on the floor just beyond the threshold that made me ill to look at. Dark wounds filled with writhing, twisting shapes covered the walls. And it stank. The closest I can come is the stench of a decaying eviscerated corpse mixed with vomit, rotten eggs, spoiled milk, Limburger cheese and skunk.

I gagged, and was very nearly sick on the front step. When I could speak again, I turned to the others. "It's bad."

Before either Hendricks or Constantine could ask, "How bad?", Mouse stepped forward and barked one clear echoing bark--which sounded, to my ears, as if it were both a warning and a challenge.

Shrill shrieks tore the air. I had the feeling that at least a few unpleasant things were fleeing.

"Good dog," I murmured, scratching Mouse behind his ears. "Very good dog."

He smiled up at me as if to say, Yes, I know.

***

We got in after that. It wasn't easy, sneaking past the pattern just on the other side of the front door--Hendricks had the hardest time, as gigantic football-player-like thugs are really not designed for sneaking--but we made it at last. Then it was simply a case of going from room to room and sealing off the portals. As if by unspoken agreement, Constantine sealed the ones leading to Hell, I sealed the ones leading to Faerie and other non-infernal parts of the Nevernever, and Ms. Gard did something--I'm still not sure what--to the ones leading to the Outer Gates and beyond.

Hendricks and Mouse, for lack of a better term, patrolled, looking for anything that might be guarding the place. And, unfortunately, they found it. In one room--I think it had once been the solarium--they discovered a forest that extended to infinity and a boy with hair made of flame, green teeth and feet that were backwards.

"It didn't like me," Hendricks told us afterwards. "It didn't like me at all. It just looked at me, and I didn't know where I was or how to get out. I couldn't have even tried to find a door; at that point, I didn't know what a door was. If it hadn't been for the dog--" And at that, he fell silent.

Mouse had dragged him out of the curupira's forest and back into the house proper. But it had been a near thing.

The curupira was the worst any of us ran into that day, though. Oh, we found a handful of imps and a centaur of two, but none of them put up more than a token fight. The centaurs, in particular, scarcely seemed interested in fighting us, barely exchanging a spell or two and scurrying away as soon as possible. I began to wonder if there was some dissension in Summer's ranks.

Constantine didn't agree. "They're frightened, Dresden!" he exclaimed when I suggested that the centaurs might not be thrilled with what Titania was up to. "They don't want to be here, they don't want to fight a couple of insane wizards, and most of all, they don't want to piss her off by killing you! Do you really think that she made a play for your boyfriend by coincidence? Or that the faerie and the demon couldn't have just popped in here instead of meandering off in the direction of this house? Or that Dracula's bride could have refrained from providing you with a convenient little vision of this place? Do the words 'it's a trap' really mean nothing to you? Are you such a deaf, blind fuckwit that you can't figure this out?"

"If you knew it was a trap, why'd you come along?" I demanded.

"Because one of us has to get me home. And I highly doubt--despite your power and your off-the-wall plans--that it's going to be you."

John Constantine thought I was a loser. Damn. That hurt.

I refrained from turning him into an ashtray. That may have been the most heroic thing I've ever done.

Nevertheless, we continued to seal the portals. Oh, it wasn't as if they couldn't be re-opened from the other side. We could only hope that if the portals were closed, we'd have a couple of seconds more to react and fight back. That's what we were spending all our strength on--seconds. And the barest possibility that, if the portals were shut, faerie and diabolic forces might not be able to walk into the house quite as quickly as they had before.

We were children trying to fight off serial killers with cap pistols.

But what else could we do?

***

Chapter Text

We finally finished sealing the last portals--those in the walnut-lined library--at eleven o'clock. Titania must have been watching, because she re-entered the Mansion twenty minutes later, with Lucifer (or so I presumed) by her side.

You're probably curious to know what the First of the Fallen looked like. The truth is, I don't know. I can tell you what my eyes saw--a perfectly ordinary man in a three-piece suit. He could have been one of Marcone's colleagues. I don't remember anything else: not his hair color or his eye color or his age or what his expression looked like. He wasn't handsome. He wasn't ugly. He just slid through your mind, not even leaving a ripple behind. Relentlessly average, I think, is the best description.

And yet--I don't know how to put this--there was a mind-bending wrongness about him. It was like looking at the water of a polluted lake--a scummy but everyday brown on the surface, but with shadows swimming just a hair deeper that are unhealthily large, tumorous and deformed. Just the suggestion of what's lurking just below the surface hurts your mind, and makes you want not to look any closer for fear of what you might see.

Very quickly, I looked away, focusing my attention on the Faerie Queen.

Titania looked both like and unlike Mab. That is, they both had Sidhe-white hair, delicate features and fair skin. But they weren't identical. Titania's hair had a slightly golden tint to it that Mab's lacked, while Mab's eyes were the greenish-blue of glacier ice and Titania's were the gold-green of new leaves in spring. Sisters, you'd have said, but not twins.

And she was laughing. Talking about the marvelous trick she'd played on Marcone and laughing. That in itself was enough to make me hate her. It was certainly enough to make me growl under my breath.

Immediately and theatrically, she turned to face us, her expression a parody of surprise. "Wizard Dresden. And guests. How astonishing to see you here tonight. Have you come to join in our revels?"

Faeries are nuts about etiquette, so that told me several things. First of all, Titania didn't know I was the Winter Knight. Either Mab hadn't killed Lloyd Slate yet and passed the job on to me, or she hadn't publicized that one Knight was dead and another had taken his place. I was betting on the latter.

Secondly, she hadn't recognized John Constantine. Who, more to the point, didn't look like he knew her, either.

"Anything familiar about her?" I whispered to him.

"Her face is different," he whispered back a bit hesitantly. "But her voice is identical."

And that told me the third thing I needed to know--that there was a link between our two universes. The Titanias looked different and obviously had different memories, but...on some cosmic level...they were the same. Which was the best news I'd heard for a while.

I gave the Titania standing in front of me my friendliest smile. "Sorry, we didn't come here to party. We came to rescue John Marcone and all the changeling kids from Hell. Permanently."

I don't know what I was expecting her to do, but tittering laughter wasn't among my choices.

"Dear, dear child," she said, and the mockery in her voice was like a lash. "Do you truly believe that you can defeat both of us in a contest of raw power?"

On hearing those words, Constantine strolled away from my side, walked over to what had once been DuMorne's desk, and sat down on it. Then, after lighting his Silk Cut cigarette in an infinitely slothful manner, he blew a smoke ring, gazed up at the ceiling and smirked. "Actually, it's not a question of raw power, and you know that. You have to act through a third party, if you want to act at all. And he can't act; he has to let his minions do the fighting. Because if he gets involved directly, that opens the door to allowing the angels and their boss to interfere as well." A wolfish smile. "Those are the rules."

Titania studied him as she might have studied a large and exceptionally ugly cockroach. "Rules, whether recorded or not, are but traditions," she said at last. "And traditions can be bent--and broken."

And with that, she turned on me.

Queens of Faerie, like demon lords, archangels and the strongest necromancers, have godlike power. Titania wasn't actually using it, which was why I survived the first onslaught. She was just playing with me, the way Mister might play with a mouse.

It hurt. That's all I'm going to say. She struck me with the club-like force of gravity and earth and with the heat of the sun at midsummer. She bounced me off of walls, caused vines to sprout from the walls to choke me, and then turned the vines into poisonous snakes and the tentacles of octopuses. I could feel my skin shriveling and splitting, stinking of disease and death; sparrows and starlings landed on me, digging their clawed feet into the open wounds covering my body, and pecking at my eyes. I could feel the bones in my body swelling, expanding, growing all out of proportion, transmuting me into something monstrous, hideous, inhuman--

I tried to scream. But I couldn't make a sound.

And then, suddenly, the pain went away. It didn't seep away the way that pain does when you're slowly starting to feel better. It was just...gone.

I rubbed my eyes, half-expecting to be blind.

While Titania had been concentrating on me, Constantine had moved in a semi-circle from his perch on the desk to directly behind Titania. He had one arm wrapped around her neck; the other arm was holding a knife to her throat.

"I hate to do this," he said in a tone that stated clearly that he didn't mind at all, "but you see, I just want to go home. And I don't think your farting around torturing Dresden is going to help me do that, or that it's going to change his mind any about the crime lord or the kids. Christ, I don't even like kids, and I don't want 'em stuck in Hell for scaring you about what they might be when they grow up. So cut the crap and let the kids and Dresden's boyfriend go. Or I'll start my new whittling hobby right now, and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't enjoy it."

Titania flicked a worried glance at the demon beside her. Constantine just laughed.

"I don't think he's going to do anything to me, sweetheart. Not unless he wants to start a three-way civil war in Hell for ownership of my soul. And he wouldn't like that. The trouble with civil wars is that they don't guarantee that the people on top stay on top, isn't that right?"

If looks could have killed, the demon's expression would have not only left Constantine dead, but disemboweled and cut into four pieces as well.

Then, just as deliberately, he turned away from Constantine, gestured at a wall that had held a portal about an hour ago and spoke a single-sound? Word? I don't know. But, in response to it, a portal opened, and things began crawling out. I didn't know what they were--only that they had too many mouths and legs and eyes. Looking at them made me sick. They gave me a mind-ache.

And as quickly as that, the battle was on.

Gard reached up, and a double-edged battle axe materialized in her right hand. First time I ever saw proof that the ability to pull huge objects out of nowhere exists in real life as well as cartoons. Mouse began to growl. Hendricks, who apparently didn't believe in using the safety on handguns, took careful aim and began firing at anything that looked vaguely vulnerable. And me? I went with my strengths--wind and fire.

And it wasn't enough.

It wasn't that we weren't trying. We all were, even Constantine, who did a good job of opening portals in front, behind and underneath the Nameless Things while continuing to hold a knife to Titania's throat. If the creatures had been acting alone, I think we would have felt a lot more confident. As it was, there was no way to ignore the fact that the N.T.s were a Little League team, while the faerie queen and the demon that was, I suspected, Lucifer's avatar were playing in the Olympics.

Even so, I dared to hope that we could damage or banish enough of the N.T.s to make this struggle inconvenient to the two in charge. I fought to believe that fighting these monsters in some way counted as trying to rescue John and the kids. I needed to believe that what we were doing wasn't entirely useless.

Then, just as things couldn't possibly get any worse, I realized with shock that my stores of magic were starting to run low.

I should have realized this would happen. I hadn't slept for two days and hadn't eaten for at least that long. If I added in the number of portals I'd closed today--twelve hours of magic at least--then it became semi-miraculous that my magic was still working at all.

"You seem to be having some problems, wizard," said Titania evenly, contorting her fingers into shapes that made me wince. Bones should not bend that way.

In response to her gesturing, the knife Constantine was holding just above her neck flew from his fingers.

And straight toward me.

I ducked and rolled away from the blade just in time to avoid being sliced and diced. My duffel bag, unfortunately was not so lucky. The knife had cut about halfway through the shoulder strap.

There was an unpleasant thud as Constantine flew headfirst into a bookcase, let out a sharp cry, then crumpled to the floor and lay still.

"At least tell me why you're so eager to kill me," I panted, gripping the duffel bag as I tried to keep the strap from snapping. "It's not as if a mortal wizard is much threat to a queen of Faerie. And I'm not interested in Sidhe politics. Seriously, do you really think you have to worry about me now that I'm safely grown up?"

She gazed at me as if I'd suddenly started speaking Urdu. "There is nothing safe about you. And nothing will make you so. But...I will offer you a bargain. One of those I have given to Hell in tribute may go free. I will even be generous and say that you may choose the one who may go free."

My mouth suddenly seemed to have gone dry. "And what would you want in exchange for this generous offer?"

She smiled brilliantly. "Why...you."

***

Chapter Text

I stared at her. "You have got to be fucking kidding me."

She blinked as if a chair had spoken. For a second I had the feeling that I'd just unexpectedly ad libbed in a long-memorized script. "Your consort was willing to make such an agreement to save an innocent. Are you less noble than he?"

"Definitely," I said in a firm voice as I staggered to my feet. "I'm not willing to go to Hell for the rest of eternity to save someone just because you and the Devil say that you'll let someone out if I do. Lucifer doesn't exactly have a great rep when it comes to honesty, and I just flat out don't believe a single word you're sayin', lady. I don't trust people who throw kids who've barely reached the age of reason into the pits of Hell to shore up some measly political power. I'm funny that way.

"Not to mention that you haven't answered our challenge yet. You haven't even said whether or not you're accepting the challenge. All he's done is whistle up minions to stall us. You haven't even done that much.

"So I'll repeat why we're here, since it doesn't seem to have penetrated your thick skull yet." There was a horrified gasp at this, but I ignored it. "We're here to rescue the kids you offered in tribute to Hell, and we're here to rescue John Marcone. No trades, no souls, no even-steven offers. What we want is not a matter for negotiation. Hell has no right to those kids, and you had no right to threaten Coma Girl and coerce Marcone into sacrificing himself for her." I scowled at both of them and crossed my arms over my chest. "I'm not gonna waste time asking nicely. Instead, I'm gonna put it in terms I think you can understand. Let. My. People. Go."

Titania pressed two fingers to her forehead as if I were giving her a headache. "The children you speak of are not 'your people,' wizard. They are not even children as you know the term. Would you like to see what you are defending so fiercely?" And she spoke a word that rang as if DuMorne's former study had been transformed into a bell tower.

Instantly a magic circle covering fully a third of the room materialized. I had no sense of a portal opening, so I was forced to conclude that the circle had been here all along. I had just been so aware of the horrors I might see in this house with the Sight that I hadn't bothered to open my Third Eye, metaphorically speaking, since I'd walked in the front door. Mentally, I kicked myself for that.

Titania was right, though. There weren't a lot of changeling children in that circle who could pass for human. Three or four bald and blue-skinned water spirits were curled up on the ground, taking in everything with large bulging froggy eyes. Six-inch-high bundles of sticks paced about the circumference of the circle. A raw-boned teen in overalls who had cloven hooves for feet sat on his haunches and rocked back and forth. A small boy, covered in seaweed and scales and looking prematurely old, huddled against a goat-headed girl. A small green-eyed creature covered in moss and mushrooms was lying on the study's floor--looking like nothing so much as a mound of earth that had been unceremoniously dumped there--and sobbing hopelessly. Something that was part octopus and part human drew itself up into a ball, as if trying to make itself disappear.

In the center of the group was John Marcone.

He wasn't physically naked, as he'd been when the Denarians had held him prisoner, but I'd only once seen him as vulnerable as he was now, his head bowed, pain in every movement. He glanced now and again at the children, his gaze opaque and unreadable. I could see his lips moving; I couldn't hear him--the circle kept sound contained within itself--but I could make out a few words: Save them. Please.

I'm terrible at turning down requests from damsels in distress--even if the damsels are of the masculine, muscular Mafia don variety.

I kept my back turned toward Titania, chiefly because I knew it would annoy her. "No deal."

"What!"

"No deal," I repeated, glancing over at Hendricks, Mouse, Gard and Constantine. Currently there was a lull in the battle with the Nameless Things. Hendricks was reloading his handguns; Gard had torn a curtain from the window and was wiping off her battle axe. Constantine was slumped against a bookcase and Mouse, looking as if he'd fallen there. None of them were in good shape; all had been bitten and clawed by the N.T.s, and Constantine was one huge battered lump. The surviving N.T.s, and there were a lot of them, didn't act all that eager to resume the fight, though Lucifer's spokesman seemed to be telling them to do just that, and no wonder. Half the room was drenched in their ichor and entrails.

"I'm not going to turn myself over to Hell," I said, turning to face her. "And I'm not going to choose one person to be saved and, by default, turn all the others over to Hell. I'm not going to give you permission to damn any of us. You may kick my ass in the process. You might even kill me. But I'm not going to give you permission to damn anyone...and you know why? Because you need that permission. This whole 'tribute to Hell' business doesn't work without it. Parents have to agree to turn over their kids. John had to agree to turn himself over to save someone else. It has to be a deliberate choice, doesn't it? That's why you're not picking me up and throwing me bodily into Hell right now. Because I promised John I wouldn't make that choice, no matter what."

Titania gazed at me with flinty hatred. "I can force you to make that choice."

"No," I said thoughtfully. "I don't think you can. I think you can hurt me, even kill me. I think you can threaten me and anyone else you want to pull into this mess with the worst we can imagine--and promise gorgeous bribes, if the threats don't work. But I don't think you're allowed to mess with my will for the sake of your deal with Hell, or with the will of anyone else involved. Otherwise you--or your avatar in the Vertigo-verse--wouldn't have had Mavra send Constantine here. You'd have just changed his mind with a snap of your fingers...that, or made him forget that there was anything to investigate at all. That would have been a lot more convenient for you, wouldn't it? One wizard neutralized, and the other not getting involved in the first place."

Titania shrugged, an almost elegant gesture when she did it. "Stubborn refusal to choose a particular path is not so insurmountable an obstacle. Fae and humans alike can be...persuaded...to find it in their best interests to comply with the wishes of others, despite their sincere desire to do otherwise. My sister and counterpart has taught you that once or twice, I believe."

I clenched my jaw and said nothing.

"It would not be difficult to persuade you," she said in a pleasant tone. "How long do you think you would be able to withstand seeing others suffer because of you? Somehow, I do not think that your heart is as hard and cold as Winter could wish."

"Somehow," I said, mimicking her tone as much as I dared, "I think you're full of it."

Her face froze with anger colder than anything I'd felt at Arctis Tor. "You dare--!"

"Of course I dare," I replied, swatting aside her words. "Hi, Harry Dresden here. I dare anything. Even telling you the truth. Because if you want me to agree freely through my own choice, then torturing people is out. You bring torture into the mix, and it's duress. Hell's bells, even threats can be a form of emotional duress. You'd be forcing me to make a choice, to the point where I wouldn't be free to make another one. And that's not freely granting permission at all."

She sniffed. "That is a human way of thinking. I, and the creatures of the realm Downbelow, think quite differently."

"I've got no idea how you think," I retorted, "but you're wrong about demons. I've gotten to know them quite well over the years, and one thing that you find in all of them--whether natives of the realm or Fallen--is a healthy appreciation for free will. They're not against torture, of course they're not, I know that much--but they like persuasion and temptation a lot better. They want people to choose to work for them. There's no percentage in it if it isn't a free choice."

I took a deep breath. "Just like the choice you and Mab make every seven years when you turn over seven of your own to Hell."

Despite the fact that Constantine didn't look like he could even breathe, slumped as he was against a bookcase across the room, he lit up a Silk Cut cigarette. "You're right, Dresden. It's a treaty, so therefore it's voluntary. It has to be."

"On both sides," I said with a nod. "Didn't you ever wonder why Hell was willing to keep its promise to you and Mab, Titania? I mean, Lucifer there could have just said at some point, 'Hey, guess what? You know those tributes you're paying me? Well, you're going to keep paying them. Only now I'm taking the land back, too. And what are you gonna do about--" I broke off, partly because Lucifer had just turned his attentive gaze on yours truly, which was slightly less pleasant than having maggots crawl all over my skin, and mostly because, as he gazed at me, I began choking.

And then, as I was fighting for air, he dropped half the ceiling on my head.

Thank God for primed and activated shield bracelets. If it hadn't been for that, I'd have been squashed as flat as a cartoon character crushed by a falling anvil. My magical shield took most of the impact, saving my life and protecting my brain from being crushed.

However, the momentum from the blow to the shield knocked me backward--as it happened, straight into a wall.

The strap from the duffel bag, which had been pulled one way and knocked the other throughout the battle with the Nameless Things, as well as my battering by Titania, had apparently been tested to its limits and beyond, for as I struck the wall, it snapped, and the duffel bag went flying, scattering its contents as it fell.

What few potions had remained in the bag spilled out, the contents leaking from scores of thermoses, sports bottles and plant misters. Bullets and kitchen knives littered the floor, turning it into the fae equivalent of a minefield.

And a plastic-sheathed broadsword that I definitely did not remember putting in the duffel bag fell through the air into the direct center of the magic circle.

The children shied away from it. No surprise there; it was made of steel, and to faeries, steel's just a fancier form of iron.

Marcone didn't see steel, though. He saw a weapon. And he pulled the sword free of its sheath as smoothly and neatly as he'd ever drawn a switchblade.

The blade glowed white.

The light pouring from the blade was blinding. I tried closing my eyes, but it was no use; eyelids weren't enough of a barrier. It was like being inside a supernova.

Lucifer howled in purest rage. That hurt worse than the light did.

And then the white light faded, leaving Marcone staring at the sword in his hand.

I give him credit; he didn't stare at it for more than a second or two. If it had been me, I think I'd have been reduced to babbling incoherency for the rest of the night. But--just for that brief span, and as best as I could tell, considering the green and purple spots splotching my vision--his eyes widened, and an expression of "What?" swept across his face. And then--like a lake calming after the wind disturbs it--his habitual expression of unflappable reasonableness returned. Carefully, he placed the tip of Amoracchius on the floor near the edge of the magical barrier keeping them all in, and etched a line in the floor, bisecting and breaking the circle.

The kids poured out of the wrecked circle. Most of them bolted for the stairs; the ones that didn't started looking around for weapons. The wooden- and plastic-hilted knives lying all over the floor seemed to be favorites. Grabbing knives, they flowed toward Titania, who screamed in what sounded like real terror.

At the same moment, a score or two of the Nameless Things leaped toward John, who swung the sword as if it were a hockey stick and the N.T.s were multiple pucks he was trying to drive into the champion team's goal for Olympic gold.

And let me tell you, watching him was fantastic. Oh, he didn't have anything close to Michael Carpenter's technique. But he swung and stabbed with the precision I'd seen him use with a multitude of knives. He might not have been stylish, but he was accurate. Judging by the amount of ichor being spilled on the floor, painfully accurate. At least as far as the demons were concerned. it wasn't long before the room was filled with the screams of the N.T.s, as well as those of Titania. She was using a magical shield to protect herself from the steel blades the kids were wielding, but all you had to do was look at the centuries-old hatred in the kids' bitter eyes and you knew that the shield wouldn't stop them. The same wish was evident on every young-old face: If you think it's all right to send us to Hell, then you go there.

I had no idea how they were going to accomplish this, but they sure were going to try.

And that was when John decided to reopen arbitration.

"Now, Your Majesties," said John to Titania and Lucifer, running through a fifty-legged thing with sharp-toothed mouths coating its legs and paws which had mistakenly decided that sneaking up behind Hendricks was a good idea, "I wonder if we might continue the discussion raised earlier. My wizard-consort"--I was shocked when he used that term, but then again everyone seemed to keep describing him as my boyfriend, so he might well have decided that that ship had sailed--"my wizard-consort raised a number of excellent points regarding the validity of the treaty, none of which I was aware of at the time that you and I, my lady, brokered our little arrangement. I was aware, of course, that you were not acting in good faith where I was concerned, but I did not dream that you had been promulgating fraud on this level--and for such a long time. Of course, such blatant bad faith invalidates any and all treaties that follow it. And as Freeholding Lord of Chicago, I must insist that that applies to all such arrangements made within the Chicagoland area."

He grinned, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded younger by at least twenty years and lower by at least five tax brackets. "That's the Chicago, Joliet, Michigan City and Naperville area. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Ya unnerstand?"

I beamed. He'd just told them that his Amanda, who lived in Wisconsin, was under the authority of the Freeholder--and that therefore Titania had had no right to make a deal involving her life or sanity in the first place.

Faerie queens and demon lords don't often get told where to get off by mere mortals. Titania's shield was falling before the knives of the changeling kids, so she was rather preoccupied...but not so much so that she couldn't exchange a long look with Lucifer's avatar which seemed to be some sort of a signal.

Because the next minute, the eldest gruff had materialized and had cast whatever my universe's equivalent of Petrificus Totalus is at me, and I was about to be impaled by a demonic unicorn.

John, looking rather wild-eyed, lunged toward me. "Harry!"

I don't know what he had in mind--cutting off the unicorn's horn would have been wonderful, but John was so mad that simply cutting the unicorn itself in half might have seemed like a good idea--but I could already tell that it wasn't going to work. There was no way that he could get across the room before the Grand Duke Amy turned me into wizard kabob.

I closed my eyes. Being staked is never pretty. I've never liked watching it. I especially didn't want to watch someone being staked when the someone was me.

"What," a girl's voice demanded, "are you doing to my vassal?"

At that, I opened my eyes. That voice had sounded...familiar. I glanced around, trying to move my head as little as possible.

Standing in the door of the study was a girl with Sidhe-white hair, her arms crossed over a purple-and-black striped corset top as she tapped her right foot impatiently. Beside her was a tall man, also with white hair, attired in a way that bordered on nineteenth-century royalty and looking decidedly smug. Behind the man and the girl, but towering over both, was an enormous bird with copper and gold feathers that looked as if they were aflame, the claws and paws of a lion and the head of a human man. It was far too big for the room, or, indeed, for the house; it could have carried off an elephant and a whale at the same time and not suffered any strain. How it had managed to fit in here, I had no clue. Behind it in what looked like an unending stream were other birds of the same type--some with male heads, others with female ones--and none even close to the same size as the first.

No one bothered to answer the girl. She looked a bit annoyed at this.

"Well? Isn't anyone going to explain what being done to the wizard?" She glanced at Titania. "Mother and Grandmother are going to be very cross about you mistreating our Knight, you know."

"And I," said the enormous man-faced bird in slow, rich, deliberate tones that were almost a song, "would like very much to know why my queen is attacking my grandson."

As I was gaping over that--I really had not expected my grandfather to be a bird--the white-haired man sidled into the room, strode over to where I was lying and, heedless of the gruff holding me down and the demon unicorn keeping me pinned down, knelt down beside me.

"Told you you needed an army, boss," he said softly.

***

Chapter Text

I closed my eyes for a minute, wondering if I was dreaming this entire surreal situation. I would have liked to think that. It would have solved a lot of problems.

Then I opened my eyes again. Nope. White-haired guy was still there.

"I don't know who you are," I said in a low voice, "but you're not Bob. So don't tell me that you are. Now, who the hell are you?"

A patient sigh. "It's me, boss. Really. I have mentioned being a disembodied air spirit, right? As in, not able to take on a physical form like most creatures of faerie can?"

"Uh..." Well, Bob had said something about that, I couldn't deny it. "You look pretty embodied at the moment."

"Yeah." For a moment, his eyes flared orange. "Well. Uh. I figured you needed some help, and that Winter wouldn't appreciate anything being done to their new Knight. And I didn't know how to get hold of Mab, and Mother Winter rarely leaves Faerie. But Maeve has a local court in Undertown. I mean, yes, she was scarily mad at me the last time I saw her about a thousand years ago, and I've avoided her ever since...but--well, she is one of the queens. And okay, she might kill me for entering her presence without her permission, but she wouldn't send me to Hell. And Titania might do that to you. So when you said I could take a ride in Mister, I rode him to Undertown."

"How did you get a body again?" demanded the gruff holding me down.

I was about to say something sarcastic about it being nice to know that Bob and I were having a private conversation when Bob answered.

"I apologized."

I stared at him for a long moment. "I thought you were kind of fuzzy on the whole good-bad thing."

"I am," he replied, sounding puzzled. "But this wasn't about good and bad. I did something that made Maeve mad. I knew why it got her mad, too. I just never said I was sorry before. And I didn't want her anger to get in the way of helping you. So I owned up, and begged her to save you. And to call your family." He shrugged. "I had to beg for a while. Loudly. But the Winter Lady gave me my old form back." He glanced down at the suit he was wearing and grimaced. "Not my old clothes, though. This outfit was her idea."

"How'd you know that she knew how to get in touch with my family?" I demanded, trying not to think about the fact that I was part bird. Part faerie was bad enough, but part bird? Not that the universe is under any obligation to be fair, but still...stars and stones. "They're Summer, not Winter."

"I didn't know," he said, surprising me. "I just took a chance that if Mab knew about your family, maybe her daughter did too. If Maeve didn't know...well, I was going to have to find the Summer Lady, and that would have been bad. A Winter spirit asking the Summer Lady to betray her mother on behalf of the Winter Knight? Titania would have obliterated both me AND Lily for that, and that's just for starters. The civil war you stopped wouldn't have been anything compared to the fireworks that would cause."

"But...you would have done it," I said through numbed lips. "You would have taken that kind of chance."

He smiled slightly. "Well, yeah, Harry. Of course." A pause. "Gotta save the guy who keeps me supplied with romance novels and porn mags, right?"

There was a lump in my throat the size of Texas. "Of course."

He glanced at the gruff. "You gonna let him up? It looks like there's been a stay of execution." He nodded at Titania--still surrounded by a swarm of armed changelings--and at Lucifer, who were both glaring at Maeve and my paternal grandfather with homicidal loathing. The rest of the Sina-Mru had poured into the room (without in any way filling it, which gave me vertigo) and were very effectively blocking both the exit and every single magical portal. I didn't think they were going to budge anytime soon, either. The Rock of Gibraltar would have been more movable.

"Gladly would I release him," said the gruff in a voice filled with irony, "but I greatly fear that"--an expressive glance toward the demon unicorn--"such action would not be acceptable to Amy."

"Amduscias!"

"Amy is determined to destroy the wizard with his horn," the gruff continued in a conversational tone. "Indeed, and I do swear 'pon it, the mammering moldwarp seems almost to be compensating for something."

The unicorn lifted his head to snort indignantly.

I rolled out of range of his stabbity horn as quickly as I could.

I didn't even see Bob move, but seconds later, one hand was on Amduscias's horn and the other around his muzzle. "Y'know, I've never been too nuts about demons," he said pleasantly. "In fact," and his voice shifted from a teenager's tenor to a cultured baritone, "I detest them. I dealt with the last one foolhardy enough to trouble me and mine some three hundred years ere the millennium before the one nine years past." He smiled at Amduscias. "Wouldst like me to demonstrate to thee what I have learned in that time, thou chunnering worm?"

The temperature in the area surrounding Bob immediately dropped about fifty degrees. This scared me a little. The last time I'd felt the temperature fall around Bob, he'd been under the influence of his former owner and had been creepily dangerous as a result. I glanced at his eyes, wondering if they would be ice-blue. They weren't. They were a bright reddish-orange, which was a pretty good sign that he was a) acting of his own free will, and b) a little excited and a lot furious. I wasn't sure whether to find the fact that Bob could intimidate demons without benefit of necromantic influence to be awe-inspiring or horrifying.

I'm sure Amduscias wanted to look badass. The problem is that form really does follow function. If you're horse-shaped, then when someone threatens you, your eyes will roll wildly with panic.

I decided that I didn't want to focus on demons at the moment. Tottering to my feet and wincing as I temporarily shifted my weight onto a badly battered ankle, I turned my attention to the faeries and the Devil. The Nameless Things that John, Hendricks, Gard and Constantine had been fighting were now gone, I noticed. I had a feeling that when the cavalry arrived, the N.T.s had exited, stage left...though whether with or without diabolic permission, I had no clue.

"I still do not understand this," my grandfather in a stern voice. He sounded, I swear, as if he were scolding Titania. She didn't look any too pleased about this, either, but she didn't fuss about it. "How could you see Harry"--he pronounced my name almost like "Hayri"--"as a threat? Had he attacked or imperiled you, I would say nothing--"

"Jawid, he slew my daughter!"

"Not when he was born," my grandfather retorted. He wasn't fazed by her public use of a name, so it was likely a nickname. "And you have been seeking him at least that long. And I do not believe that you saw these"--he glanced at the changelings--"as threats to you or your power ere they were armed with steel. Why these children, Your Majesty? Why them and not criminals or enemies? Tell me true, for I would know."

It was weird seeing an expression on his face that I'd seen on Ebenezar McCoy's...generally when I'd been trying to pull a fast one. Titania looked every bit as angry and uncomfortable as I ever had when Eb was firing that look at me.

"There were...indications...that those chosen would prove dangerous to two worlds," she said at last, sounding as haughty as if she were touching on great matters of state. "I would prefer not to say more."

My grandfather's eyes--they were dark like mine, I noted--flicked toward Lucifer and then just as quickly dismissed him. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it, but that was what I saw in his face: contempt and dismissal.

"Yes," he said to Titania. "I have no doubt you would prefer that. Nevertheless, you must say more, if only for the sake of the mortal you have so sorely wronged. I refer, of course, to the Freeholding Lord."

"I did not wrong him," Titania insisted.

"No. The situation did that." My grandfather shook his head as if unable to believe any of this. "Did you see an opportunity to break the treaty, to trap two who had grown troublesome, or both?"

Before Titania had merely looked angry and sullen. Now guilt had been added to that. But she didn't answer.

"Excuse me?" Marcone interrupted. His normal accent was back in place, which gave me an odd stab of disappointment. "Break the treaty? It's been explained to me that it's roughly a question of dual citizenship."

My grandfather shrugged. Let me tell you, it's very weird when a human-headed bird shrugs its shoulders. "Debatable. My grandson does have family in Summer. A rather large family, in fact. But he has no particular allegiance to that Court, and never has had. And I doubt if he would have declared for it even before he became the Winter Knight. Attempted assassinations by one's potential ruler tend to be a bit...off-putting.

"Still--many in Summer would have declared her in the right had she made a claim of blood against Harry. Aye, and would have felt that you substituting for one to whom you are bound so closely was fair and just." He glanced at Titania again, and his disgust was all but palpable. "But the claim was not against Harry or you. It was against a mortal child, trapped in slumber and an aging body." He favored John with an amused smile. "You were so busy trying to protect the child that you never once stopped to wonder if the Summer Queen had the authority to claim her."

John lifted his eyes to meet Grandfather Jawid's. I gave him points for that. "Given the link between Dresden and myself, I thought that Amanda might be related to Harry through me, as it were. And, in any event, I did not spend much time debating the matter. She made it quite clear to me that if I did not obey, Amanda would only be the first to suffer. I was not willing to let an entire city bleed."

"Which was fucking stupid," said Constantine from over in the corner, and I most assuredly did not jump at the sound of his voice. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe would kick my ass if I did.

Marcone regarded Constantine the way a microbiologist would regard a plague virus--fascinated, but repulsed. When he spoke, it was in the slow, patient tone people use to talk to very small children. "I did not take over Chicago to make things worse."

"Wouldn't've stayed in business long if he made things worse." This from Hendricks. He was leaning against a bookcase, the right side of his face one huge bruise and the left arm of his jacket torn and bloody. "Letting your people die, or betraying 'em to rivals--that ain't good business. You work with the competition; you don't sell out your own." He glared at Titania. "Not even if it's easy. Words gets around that you can't be trusted, and then where are you?"

Constantine didn't look a bit impressed. "This wasn't about business. It was personal. And letting it be personal was stupid."

"Yes," Marcone said quietly. "As idiotic as discovering that children in one's own universe were being condemned to eternal torment and, despite the risks, determining to free them...before one even met Dresden." As Constantine spluttered over this, John turned back to my grandfather. "You have spoken of the treaty possibly being invalid and certainly being broken, and of Amanda being outside of the treaty's bounds. Well and good. But what of them?" He rested the tip of the sword--I was starting to think of it as his sword--on the floor as he nodded at the children. "If they are still to be condemned--"

Maeve laughed. "My mother has been negotiating with Lucifer all this week. She will be most distressed to learn that the negotiations were not honored and that our Knight needed to intervene to save children of Faerie...not to mention another member of the Winter Court. As am I." For a moment, I was certain that her eyes were made of glacier ice. "Since the rescue mission was performed by one of Winter, it falls to us to find homes for them. They would be welcome in our court."

"And if the children cannot survive in Winter," added my grandfather, casting a worried glance at a small changeling that looked like a doll made of green twigs, "I have spoken to another power who will guard the children where Summer will not. He has met my grandson, and finds the passage arrogant, but amusing and original."

Passage? I thought. Then I remembered an old history lesson of DuMorne's. He'd told me that "Merlin" was the name of a bird of prey, and from then we got onto the words for raptors at various ages. "Passage" was a falconry term, the word for a hawk that was no longer confined to nest or branch, but that wasn't fully adult yet either.

My grandfather smiled at the puzzlement in most faces. "An the children so wish, the Erlking would be honored to give them sanctuary. He vows that he and all others owing him allegiance shall count the children as being of his blood and his line, for aye and for all."

That was when it finally hit me. We won. We'd honestly won. The kids were safe. John was safe. Sure, Titania and the Devil were going to be pissed at me, but that was no different than the way things had been before this got started.

I should know better than to be hopeful. It just causes problems.

"You expect me to simply accept this?" Lucifer said in a sorrowful voice. If his exterior was relentlessly ordinary, his voice was not. It was low, reasonable and charming, yet overladen with authority. He sounded so rational and so sad that I came close to trying to reassure him we were really sorry about all this and not to worry, it wouldn't last forever. One sharp glance from John, however, persuaded me that this might not be a good idea.

"The treaty is broken," said Maeve indifferently. "And it should never have existed in the first place."

"You ask that I voluntarily deprive myself of tribute?" The Internal Revenue Service being asked to put itself out of business wouldn't have sounded so incredulous. "I do not lose."

I bit my tongue at that. Hard. Unfortunately, Constantine wasn't nearly so polite. "Funny. I thought your entire soddin' history was about losing."

I don't know what I was expecting, but the Devil going still and the air in my lungs feeling as if it was suddenly made of rock wasn't it. As if from very far away, I heard him say, "You think I've lost, petty little magician? I own your entire world. I even own you."

Constantine, ignoring the implication that he was nothing but a stage performer skilled at sleight of hand, smirked. "You only own a third of me. Two other Lords of Hell own the rest. And as I said before--potential cause of three-way civil war. Which would not be in your best interests."

Lucifer's voice was deceptively mild. "True. But I don't need to take you below to torment you, you know. It's not as if I'm without power here on Earth...and unlike the other humans here, who stand at the brink, you are already the property of Hell." And, lifting two fingers in what seemed to be a blessing, he smiled gently at Constantine.

Snarling pain-filled profanity, Constantine arched, twisted and bent backwards as thorns, scythes and meat-hooks sprouted from within his body and began tearing his flesh in every possible direction. His limbs swelled, growing three times the size they should have, turning black with decay. The skin split and acid flowed from the wounds, causing the skin to bubble and burn as it rotted. Insectile monstrosities crawled from the wounds.

I fought hard not to throw up.

"A rather paltry beginning," John said reprovingly as he glanced at Lucifer. "The special effects are horrifying, of course, and yet I expected more from the Devil than a show from Industrial Light and Magic."

There was, understandably, silence after this remark. I froze, wondering just when John Marcone had lost his mind.

"If you find my work inadequate," murmured Lucifer, "I would be more than happy to demonstrate my skill on someone from your universe." His tone said that John and I would be at the top of that list if the answer was yes.

John looked pained at this. "You would really avenge even the smallest insult? Why waste your time on such things when you have a kingdom to run? Does it really matter to you what one wizard thinks? As you said, Constantine will be Hell's eventually anyway. Why torment him for being disrespectful in the face of that? Did you honestly expect him to rejoice at the prospect?" He gazed at Lucifer in what appeared to be sincere perplexity, a prince speaking to another prince.

I held my breath. Understand, I've run into my fair share of demons over the years. Some are brutal; some are subtle. All of them are dangerous. I hadn't run afoul of Satan up till now, but if you'd asked me how I thought such a meeting would go down, I'd have described a cross between Linda Blair's possessor in The Exorcist, Al Pacino as your average corporate attorney in The Devil's Advocate, and the Great Horned Beast that AH-nuld fought in End of Days. To say that I was expecting an explosion--whether literal or metaphorical--pretty well sums it up.

I was not expecting Bob to crack up.

"He's got him," he whispered, a huge Ronald McDonald grin sprawling all over his face. "Your boyfriend's got him!"

"Exactly why do you think that challenging the Devil is a good idea?" I hissed back...or tried to. "We're talking DEVIL. You know, ultimate evil?"

Bob gave me a very patient look. "If this were the real Devil, Chicago would have vaporized a couple of hours ago. And then God would have had the right to act directly on Earth, and trust me, you would have noticed. Did you ever hear of the Metatron?"

"Alan Rickman's role in Dogma, right?"

A groan. "Okay. Think 'Presidental press secretary.' He's not the guy in charge, but he's the one who lets those beneath the guy in charge--that is, everybody--know what's going on. And he can act in the boss's place, under certain circumstances."

I glanced at the Lord of Blandness, who seemed to be frozen by John's chutzpah. "So you're saying that this one's the diabolic equivalent of the Metatron? Not the Devil personally, just a proxy?"

"Yeah. Like an ambassador. He can act in the name of Hell and...well, any insult to him would be the equivalent of an insult to Downbelow or his boss--"

"Oh, good. That makes me feel so much better." I shook my head. "I gotta do something."

"Harry." Bob grabbed me by the shoulders. Hard. "Listen to me. Do. Not. Interfere. You butt in and the entire equation changes. Just watch."

If I could have lifted my left arm, I would have conjured a shield spell and shoved Bob across the room at the same moment. But Bob didn't move his hands from my shoulders. Which doesn't sound like much, but I quickly found out that just because Bob looked human, that didn't make his body human. He was immovable. I tried to fight him. I really did. But I would have had an easier time struggling with a glacier.

If I had to admit it, I did feel better about John dealing with a demon rather than Lucifer himself. Well, comparatively speaking, because the odds had gone down from impossible to merely astronomical. It was just barely possible that John would come out of this with his life, mind and soul intact. Okay, so the odds were several trillion to one, but people do win lotteries.

"Are you challenging me, mortal?" inquired Not-Lucifer. I didn't like his tone, which was one of light-hearted amusement.

"No, he ain't," said Hendricks, giving John a shut-UP-boss glare. "He ain't that crazy. He must be stoned on the faerie dust in the air or something."

"Thank you, Mister Hendricks. That will be all," Marcone said firmly, before turning back to the Devil's proxy. "I don't enjoy seeing children enslaved and imprisoned. Nor do I wish to see Harry Dresden--or wizards not unlike him from elsewhere in the multiverse--tortured. So...yes. As Freeholding Lord of Chicago and of Baron of this demesne, I do challenge you and your claims."

If Bob had released my shoulders at the moment, I would have buried my face in my hands. John couldn't sense it--but Not-Lucifer here had just gone from feeling like the absence of magic to practically radiating it. It was as if he'd gone from zero to 200 m.p.h. in ten seconds. I didn't know who this demon was, but he made the shagnasty I'd dealt with six months ago look like a toddler.

"Relax, Harry," Bob said softly. "Just watch."

I didn't reply; I was afraid of giving away too much. But when I got into a duel with a Duke from the Red Court of Vampires, he considered choosing the weapons his right as the challenged party (only semi- and quasi-challenged, but vampires exist for technicalities, I swear).

I didn't want to think about what weapons the Devil's stand-in might demand. But I didn't have long to find out.

"Swords."

Marcone looked startled. Then he glanced from Amoracchius to the diabolic understudy...and burst out laughing. "No, I don't think so."

Not-Lucifer blinked, but he recovered quickly. "You have no confidence in your weapon, then? Or is it yourself you doubt?"

"I think it would be...unwise." Said very quietly, but I'd heard that tone before. Marcone wasn't going to budge on this and I knew it, even if Demon Boy didn't.

"I could use a weapon of comparable power," Not-Lucifer said, and he actually managed to sound magnanimous. "Not an angel's weapon, but a mortal-forged sword, the opposite number of your own. The fight would be balanced, at least."

"I find it impossible to believe that someone else has not had an opportunity to wield one of these swords against you...or your predecessor," Marcone said a tone so smooth and polished that I very nearly missed the sarcasm. "Which, I would imagine, failed miserably. I suspect that a battle fought for pride and the greater glory of John Marcone--after all, who hasn't dreamt of defeating an ultimate enemy and achieving fame and fortune?--might hamper, even weaken, this sword. Or perhaps nothing would happen to the sword, but I would be disqualified from using it. The rules for possessing magical artifacts are often complex." He shook his head. "No. That won't do at all."

"You doubtless have a counter-proposal." Not-Lucifer crossed his arms over his chest. "Let us hear it. And quickly, before the steel-armed brats shred the Queen of Summer to bits." He gazed indifferently at the kids, who were drawing very close to Titania and whose expressions were starting to seep into Lord of the Flies territory.

"Well...you did have one good suggestion," Marcone conceded. "A balanced fight. I would agree to that."

"As would I."

Marcone nodded, then walked over to Hendricks, handed him Amoracchius, removed two guns and their holsters from I have no idea where, and topped the pile off with three wicked-looking knives. I guess those were the ones that he hadn't thrown or used yet.

"What are you doing?" Not-Lucifer demanded.

Marcone smiled. "Ensuring that this will be a balanced fight. If I have no weapons, you cannot use them either. Well, I suppose you could--Hell is not noted for fair play--but I believe that in most contests, cheating results in the cheater automatically losing, does it not?"

"You honestly believe you can beat me?"

"In your true form? No." Marcone squeezed the arm of Hendricks, who looked as if he was about to go thermonuclear in panic, and then walked back to where Not-Lucifer was standing. "But you cloaked in a mortal shell, subject to all of the limitations of that mortal body, such as pain and exhaustion, without mortal or magical weapons, and forbidden to use magic because your opponent cannot?" He shrugged. "I might have a chance. Especially since this will not be a battle to the death. A battle to defeat will be quite enough."

I gaped at him, open-mouthed. The sheer audacity of the proposal was enough to make me boggle. But even more impressive was the fact that Not-Lucifer was wearing the tense, trapped expression of a man who had been backed into a corner. He hadn't been. All he had to say was "No," and they'd have to start negotiating their duel again. But looking at the two of them, I knew he wouldn't say that. That would have been tantamount to an admission that he couldn't fight a mere human on the human's level. His infernal pride--and I do mean that literally--wouldn't allow the Devil's spokesman to back down.

"We will, of course, need a judge for this," Marcone continued. "Regrettably, nearly everyone here seems to be on one side or the other. I would be honored to accept you as a judge, Winter Lady," and he bowed to her as he said this, "but I fear that the Queen of Summer would protest that you were prejudiced against her and her...ally. I must refuse the air elemental for the same reasons; he is, after all, one of yours. None of the participants in this quarrel can be judges, of course, and Wizard Constantine"--he gazed at the ruined body of the man and managed, somehow, not to be violently sick--"is, sadly, indisposed."

He looked thoughtful. "Perhaps...the leader of the Sina-Mru would deign to help. They are allied with Summer, and powerful...and, I have heard, scrupulously fair." He spocked an eyebrow at the Devil's spokesman, as if saying, Well?

"Very well," Not-Lucifer said with extraordinarily bad grace, even for a demon. "Now, shall we get on with it?"

***

Chapter Text

It wasn't until the battle started that I realized how huge the limits on Not-Lucifer were. He couldn't use any demonic powers, and he couldn't allow Titania to use any faerie magic on his behalf. He couldn't tap into the magic permeating the DuMorne house. And he couldn't use the power of the changelings because they were under dispute. All he had was a healthy thirtysomething human body and the ability to physically strike people. No demon, not even one in human form, is ever entirely human...but this one was as close to ordinary mortal limits as it was possible for a demon to get.

He must have been waiting for John to cheat. All he needed was for John to use one thing that a normal human wouldn't have at his disposal. It didn't have to be anything big. A charm. An amulet. Hell's bells, a shield spell from me. Bob knew what he was doing when he made sure that I didn't interfere.

John didn't cheat. I'm sure he could have; I've never known the man not to have several aces up his sleeve. I just think that he figured that not cheating was the best way to drive his opposition insane with frustration. Instead, he fought the way he must have fought when he was a young man working for Tony Vargassi; he punched, jabbed, delivered uppercuts, elbowed and kicked. But at the same time, he was fair--no low blows, nothing that might be considered even vaguely questionable. It wasn't Marquis of Queensbury by any stretch of the imagination, but no one used to down and dirty street fighting could have pointed to anything and yelled, "Hey, no fair!"

And the Spokesman for Satan was getting the worst of it.

This surprised me. He was physically younger than John and, I suspected, in perfect shape; if you have your choice of bodies, you might as well create one in ideal condition, right? The problem was, he didn't know how to fight with fists or feet; he was used to fighting using various kinds of magic. In a magical fight, he would have kicked my ass, never mind John's. In a physical contest where magic was allowed, he'd have been able to amp up his blows with just the extra oomph that magic provides. In a battle of pure muscle, he was out of his element.

And that offended him. His expression told the whole story. Unarmed mortals shouldn't be capable of hurting demons, it said. That is not how the world works.

I really wasn't astonished when he started delivering blows that were a tad questionable...and, when those passed without comment from my grandfather the judge, Not-Lucifer's punches and kicks moved on to "a lot questionable."

"Why doesn't somebody stop this?" I muttered.

Bob didn't answer, but the oldest gruff did. "The new Knight may well need to take certain liberties, an he is to survive. If the Sina-Mru were to rule that such liberties are not permitted by one side, they would not be permitted by the other, either. Which might well prove the Knight's death."

"But if he cheats, that's an automatic forfeit! Hell would win. And that would mean that he--"

Belonged to Hell. Him, the kids and Constantine. Fair and square. For all eternity.

I gaped at the gruff in horror.

"Fear not," he said in an attempt at a reassuring tone. "It is not impossible. He may yet win."

"How?"

This time the gruff didn't answer.

I don't know how long this would have gone on if not for Constantine. He'd been sprawled on the floor for quite a while, his rotting face and hands now mercifully hidden from my view as he lay in a half-contorted, half-fetal position. And thanks to the way he was lying, I missed the obvious until, abruptly, he stood up, all traces of the torture spell gone.

A light went on in my brain. Marcone had set stricter terms for this fight than I'd realized. He hadn't told the Spokesman of Satan that he couldn't use magic in their fight. He'd automatically thought in terms of Not-Lucifer being unable to do any magic at all because he himself couldn't. And what was more, he'd put it that way: "forbidden to use magic because your opponent cannot."

Forbidden to use magic. ANY magic. I wasn't sure if that phrasing had been deliberate or accidental, but I had a feeling it was the only thing that had kept Not-Lucifer from attacking anyone Marcone gave a damn about, like Hendricks or the kids. At least until somebody cheated, and so far no one had done that.

Only now Constantine was on his feet again. And I could tell that he was starting to gather power.

No one ever accused John Constantine of fighting fair.

I elbowed Bob in the ribs to get his attention, which felt something like elbowing a mountain. For an air spirit, he was a lot more solid than he needed to be.

But it worked. He stared at me, then followed my gaze. A coldly forbidding expression swept across his face, and for a second his eyes flared orange. Then, without warning, he shoved me toward Constantine...which meant that I was heading toward him in a stumbling half-trip-half-run.

I'd like to be able to say that I tackled the man like the high school quarterback I never was, but the truth is that I just flat-out ran into him. Hard. We both ended up falling.

"Dresden," he said, glaring at me as he staggered back to his feet, "you have, without doubt, the world's most appalling timing."

"Think, you idiot," I hissed at him, grabbing the front of his trenchcoat with my burned and be-gloved hand...and valiantly resisting the temptation to conk him on the noggin with my staff with the other. "The rules are specific--no magic. You attack Damien there with magic, it's cheating and he wins by default. And all of this ends up being for nothing!"

"He's already cheating," Constantine said with exaggerated patience. "Or at least skirting the edges. And if you'll notice, the Kentucky Fried Chicken acting as judge isn't doing much to stop it."

"Okay, first of all, that's a lousy way to talk about a man's grandfather--"

"Ah. That explains a great deal about your lack of reason. You literally are a birdbrain."

"Species-ist," I muttered. "Listen, from what I've been told, he's trying to give John a little leeway--"

An amused smirk swept across his face. "So it's 'John' now, is it?"

I ignored this, mainly because it wasn't until he said this that I realized just how easily I'd slipped into thinking of Marcone as "John." And how scared this fight was making me. I didn't even want to get into the why. Tersely, I told Constantine what the gruff had told me.

He was quiet for a minute, then spoke. "All right. You want him to live. I get that. You want the kids to be safe; I get that too. I think you'd even yank my miserable arse out of the fire if you could figure out a way to do it. Y'know, most wizards wouldn't give a flying fuck about the rest of the world as long as they got theirs. Me included. You're an oddball, Dresden." He pulled a slightly bent Silk Cut from a pack inside his trenchcoat, frowned, straightened it as best he could, then lit it. "But the point is, playing fair isn't going to save anyone here, any more than cheating will."

I turned away from Constantine to gaze at the fight between John and Not-Lucifer. It was getting uglier by the minute. Not-Lucifer was pounding John with blows just a whisker's side of legit. John wouldn't be able to last much longer, I could tell. Probably the only thing keeping him going now was the sure and certain knowledge of what would happen if--or when--he lost. "I'm open to suggestions."

"Can you defend me if I need it?"

Normally my answer would have been an indignant, "Of course!" Given how exhausted my magic was, the best I could muster was, "I think so."

He nodded as if reluctant honesty was exactly what he had expected. "Then follow my lead and trust me. Not a good idea, no--but do it anyway."

I sighed. "Well, it's not as if I haven't asked people to trust me in improbable situations."

"Good," he said, and began drawing magic to himself. Not fast. Not at a rate that anyone would deem threatening. But drawing it, nevertheless. Not the kind of thing you'd notice if you were paying total attention to a fight, but exactly the kind of thing you'd notice if you were waiting for it.

He gathered as much power as he could, until I could feel that he was all but blazing with magic. Then he paused dramatically and made a complex, serpentine gesture toward Not-Lucifer--something on the level of a pro basketball player moving in a way that might be either a pass or a fakeout.

Now, if the Devil's spokesman just took the bait...

He did. Unfortunately, we reckoned without two things. First, he must have figured that he was only going to get one chance to take us by surprise, so he took it. And second, he didn't act alone. Titania joined in.

The house around us vanished, leaving us neck-deep in ice-cold and muddy river water. A second later, the banks of the river were replaced by the full heat of Summer. Blast furnaces fueled by suns would have been cool by comparison. There was no shelter we could swim to, and even if there had been, we didn't know where we were. We could have been in the Mississippi-Missouri, or the Amazon, or the Yellow River in China. Any long, wide, deep river would have done. Plus running water is the Achilles Heel of anyone from my world who practices magic. I didn't have much power left, but what there was, the river was slowly and inexorably washing away.

I wasn't sure if Constantine was in a similar fix, but it didn't matter. He had done his part. Before he decided that I'd been rendered completely helpless, stepped in to cast a spell and, with the best and most arrogant intentions in the world, fucked everything up, I had to do mine. If I could. If I had the strength to do this on my own. I'd never done this before without a certain otherworldly boost.

And if I could fight the current and reach the portion of the river where John and Not-Lucifer were fighting.

Titania and Not-Lucifer were hovering over the river; naturally, they weren't going to limit their abilities by jumping in with the rest of us. Then I looked around for the kids, for the flock of the Sina-Mru, for Maeve and Bob and the gruff, for Gard and for Mouse. No sign of any of them. Grand Duke Amy the Unicorn was somewhere nearby--I could hear him laughing--but he wasn't in the water. Constantine's face was just a pale blur. Hendricks was barely clinging to a sandbar. And John...John had been battered so much that if I didn't get to him in a couple of minutes, he would drown. And that would only be the beginning of his misery.

Yeah. Not if Malcolm Dresden's son could help it.

I kicked, paddled and cut my way across the current. It was like slogging through cold and dirty cement. It would have been easier if I hadn't been holding my staff, but I was, and I didn't intend to let it go.

As I approached the combatants, John reeled back from a blow. His eyes were dazed--I wasn't sure if he was seeing me, or how many versions of me he was seeing if he was--and his breath whistled as he gasped for air.

I'd wondered where, under the circumstances, I'd get the power to fuel this spell. Now I knew. The rage swelling within me made me feel strong enough to wrestle a T-rex.

I wrapped my left arm around him and pulled him against me. I had to; he'd have drowned otherwise. I didn't have to pull him quite so tightly against me, though.

Then I held out my soaking-wet staff and focused on pouring out the one power I possessed that wasn't rooted in the enchantment of an artifact, training or even DNA, and that no environmental cause could take away.

The power found in the depths of my soul.

Silvery light poured down my arm, transforming my staff into what looked like a solid laser beam. Trying to control the fact that I felt as if I was going into overdrive, I lifted my laserstaff as high as I could, shoved it first toward Titania and then toward Not-Lucifer with every ounce of strength that I had left and spoke two words through gritted teeth. "Time. Out."

There was just enough time for the two of them to look nonplussed. Then I heard a whisper of, "Well, finally," the world filled with wings made of fire...and the Devil's stand-in let loose a howl of pain, rage and despair.

And then we were back in the DuMorne manor. Dripping and muddy, but back. Bob, the gruff, the rest of the Sina-Mru, the kids, Gard, Mouse--everyone I hadn't seen while I was in the river--were staring at Hendricks, Constantine, John and me in utter perplexity, as if to say, "Where did you guys come from?"

For the first time, I wondered if the reason I hadn't seen everybody in the river was because Titania and Not-Lucifer hadn't bothered to bring everyone in DuMorne's library. It would have made sense, I supposed, for the Devil's stand-in to have brought his ally with him; even if she couldn't zap herself out of a circle of steel knives, he didn't have any such problem. And it would also make sense to leave behind the non-humans helping me; why bring enemies of comparable power with you if you don't have to? The only non-human enemy he'd had to bring along was my grandfather; if the judge hadn't seen him beat John Marcone, he wouldn't have won.

Satan's spokesman was lying on the floor --no surprise there, all of us were, except for Hendricks, who was trying to totter to his feet--looking as if he'd just run out of fuel. And my grandfather was gazing down at him, his expression that of a profiler regarding the work of a new and particularly twisted serial killer.

"You. Had. No. Right," Not-Lucifer was saying in an almost Shatneresque way. "They"--a glare at Constantine and me--"used magic first."

"The wizard from the other universe only gathered magic," my grandfather said, flapping his wings in what I presumed was impatience. "He used none of it to attack. No provisions were made against trickery. And Harry used magic, but not to fight you or Her Greatness." A cool nod to Titania. "He only called for me to stop the fighting...a call which I had been awaiting for some time."

"Why didn't you stop it yourself?" I demanded. I wasn't in a position to demand anything, kneeling on the floor, drenched to the skin, covered in watery mud, drained of magic and exhausted spiritually, and holding onto John--who was all but unconscious--with a death grip. But I did so anyway.

"Because I am only the judge in this contest," he said with ineffable patience. "A judge is not the same as a referee. I could see that he was cheating." He shrugged, as if to say that anyone from Hell cheating was inevitable. "But I could only say who had won and who had not...until you called for a time out. He did not cease his translocation spell when you said that, you see. Nor did Her Radiance"--and the sarcasm in the words describing Titania was all but tangible--"cease casting her heat spell. The cheating had been recognized by at least one member of the audience. You called for the fight to stop. They did not stop. A blatant violation of the rules...and a forfeit."

He smiled grimly at Not-Lucifer. "You may tell your master, Nysrogh, that Hell has lost its claim to the tithe from Faerie, and to all of the hostages of Sidhe blood and all those of Sidhe blood imperiled by that tithe. And," he continued, turning toward Titania, "John Marcone kept his word to you, O Brightness of Brightness, and went freely toward damnation to save others. But the tithe is no more, so his oath has no further meaning. He too may go free.

"I would free you too, John Constantine," he concluded, "but you have chained yourself to Hell, and of your own choice. If you wish to be free, you will have to find your own way out...and in your own world.

"I can send you back, though." He beckoned to one of the flock--a female with shoulder-length copper curls and an inquisitive expression. She looked like she was around my apprentice's age--well, her face did. Like my grandfather, she was mostly bird, and I don't know how to judge the ages of birds. "Sahar is gifted in traveling between worlds. She will take you home. That is," and his voice turned dry, "if you do not mind accepting favors from...how did you put it?...'a Kentucky Fried Chicken.'"

Constantine didn't even react. "Nope, I don't mind." I swear, nothing embarrasses that man.

As Sahar knelt down to let him on her back--she was larger than a good-sized elephant, of course she had to kneel down to allow a human a chance of climbing on--Constantine turned back to look at me...or rather, at me holding John. "Never met a wizard like you, Dresden," he said at last. "I'd give you a piece of advice, but I think you've already taken it."

I was too tired to think about what he meant. Instead, I forced myself to say a few awkward sentences. "Thanks for everything you did. Wouldn't have made it through a lot of this without you. And I'm glad I had the chance to meet you."

He gazed at me for a moment or two. "I'm always going to regret two things," he said at last. "First, that you weren't born in my universe. We could've got into some glorious trouble there. And second--that he got there first. Ah, well." He touched my face lightly. "Take care of yourself, eh? And take care of him. Next time I might not be around to save your arse."

The words slipped out before I even realized I was making a promise. "Count on it."

And that was the end of the conversation. After that, he just walked back to where Sahar was waiting, clambered onto her back, and flew off with her. I'm still not sure how that worked, by the way. There wasn't room for her to get a running start, let alone take off, and anyway there was nowhere for her to take off to, unless she wanted to fly straight into a bookcase or a wall. But take off they did, and the bookcase they ended up flying towards dissolved into a portal to the Nevernever as they approached, turning back into a bookcase once more after they went through.

That seemed to be the cue for everyone to start packing up and leaving. Maeve left next, with one slim, strong hand on Titania's arm as she chattered nonstop about how much her mother was just dying to see Titania again, it had been too too long. Maeve doesn't prattle; I've met her often enough to know that. What she was really saying was, "Gotcha!"

About half of the changeling kids trailed after Maeve. Some of them looked doubtful, many of them were clearly scared that Winter would be no better for them than Summer, and none looked hopeful. But here and there I caught a glimpse of an expression I recognized, because I'd felt it on my own face, back before DuMorne adopted Elaine and me. It said very clearly that there had to be something better than all the pain and misery and emptiness they'd already endured, and they were going to find it, no matter what it took or what it cost. No matter what.

My grandfather chose three of the Sina-Mru to guide the remaining children to the Erlking. They acted as if he'd just knighted them. Maybe he had.

Not-Lucifer--Nysrogh, I guess I should say--didn't even look at Titania or the changelings as they left. But he did glare at John and me. "You will suffer, firebird wizard," he said in that dramatic whisper villains always seem to favor. "You and yours. Every day, for the rest of your miserable lives."

"Yes," my grandfather said, his wings flapping in impatience. "That's called 'being mortal.' It has naught to do with you or your master, however much you both like to take credit for it."

Mouse huffed as if in agreement. Then he turned to Hendricks, who put something in his mouth, padded over where John was lying and I was sprawled semi-sitting, dropped Amoracchius on the floor beside John and gave one resonant bark of warning.

Bob didn't say anything. He just stepped up next to my grandfather, crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at Not-Lucifer. His normally orange eyes had shifted to greenish-blue.

I've known Bob a long time. When disembodied, he wasn't all that big on confrontations. In fact, he's been visibly scared by a lot of my enemies. The fact that he was voluntarily confronting someone now--a someone important in the Lowerarchy of Hell, at that--and managing to give the impression that a sentient North Pole blizzard would visit a universe of hurt on that someone if he even harmed a molecule in my body...

Yeah. Simple air elemental. In the same way that I'm a simple primate. Technically true, but it leaves out an awful lot.

Not-Lucifer didn't even argue with the three of them. He just cringed a little, like a fighter who knows he's been outclassed, and slithered off, presumably back to where he came from. The Grand Duke Amy slunk after him. I'd never pictured a unicorn slinking before, but that's what he did.

Bob, Hendricks and Gard were the next ones to leave, and they didn't want to. Hendricks was especially clear about how he felt. "You two just got threatened by the Devil's right-hand man, and you want the people who could protect you to leave? Dresden, that is fucking crazy!"

I didn't bother to point out that Hendricks was battered, cut, burned and lame, and that he couldn't have arm-wrestled a toddler at that point. I didn't think he'd thank me for pointing out either fact.

"I just want to talk to my grandfather for a minute," I said. "In private. I'll keep Mouse with me. With us."

It took a bit more negotiation before Hendricks and Gard agreed to wait by the door--not even in the hallway outside, by the door itself. Once they were out of earshot and Mouse had flopped down next to me with a doggy sigh, I turned to my grandfather. "I just have two questions. Then I won't hold you up any longer. First, will you help John? He's been on the edge of unconsciousness for a long time, and I know that's bad. And I suck at healing. I...I don't know what I could give you in exchange, but we could...discuss..." My words trailed off as I realized that he looked surprised, and not a little hurt.

"I would commend you for trying to negotiate a fair bargain with most of those in Faerie," he said slowly. "But, child...one does not make such bargains with family. Family members are not strangers...or should not be."

"I'm sorry," I said, staring at the floor. "I didn't mean to insult you. Please don't hold it against--"

"I hold it against no one," in a gentle tone. "You do not know your family, and that is our fault. Mine, in fact. I feared that our presence in your life would attract the Queen's attention; I was already low in her favor for claiming and raising your father." An old, deep sorrow swept across his face. "You're very like him, you know."

He seemed to shake himself, then continued in a brisker tone. "And there is no need for me to heal him now, Hayri. As soon as the fight was over, I mended his more dangerous wounds and carried him from the borders of unconsciousness to restful sleep. He will ache for a bit--some of his less serious injuries will mend better at their usual speed--but he will be fine."

"I...I don't know what to say." I truly didn't. Fae don't often act out of altruism, and they loathe being thanked; gratitude is a burden they don't know how to repay. But if ever a faerie deserved thanks, my grandfather did.

He smiled wryly. "Well, I could hardly let your consort die, could I? He too is family. Now. What is your second question?"

I could feel my face turning hot."Um...could I come talk to you sometime about my father? Not in Summer--Titania's going to hate me forever for what happened today, and I'm pretty sure she wouldn't want me in her territory even if it hadn't happened, between the business with Aurora and me being the new Winter Knight and all--but somewhere neutral. And safe. Well, safe-ish. If you wouldn't mind, that is. If you would, I'd understand."

The smile on his face made the sun look dark by comparison. "I would be honored, Hayri. As would your other relatives, I have no doubt. Perhaps we could meet here in Chicago...though not in this house. It is a foul place."

"Um." How to say this diplomatically? "You might stand out a little."

As if in answer, the gigantic bird in front of me vanished and was replaced about two seconds later by a man with copper and gold wings and what seemed to be brown and yellow feathers coating his entire body.

"Er...I don't think you could walk down the streets of Chicago that way and not have people think that you were either an alien or an angel."

He grimaced in evident disgust. "Mortals have grown less imaginative if that is all a winged man inspires. Ah well. Is this better?" And with that, he shifted once more, this time to the form of a graying, dark-eyed, olive-skinned older man as tall as me, clad in a yellowish-gold cable-knit sweater, brown trousers and black boots.

He might have been a computer-aged photo of my father come to life. I stared at him, unable to speak.

Gently, carefully, he removed John from my arms and placed him on the floor. Then he drew me to my feet and pulled me into a massive hug. "Grandson."

I hugged him back tightly, ignoring my watering eyes. Apparently I'm highly allergic to gold wool sweaters made out of the transformed feathers of a faerie. Who knew?

***

Chapter Text

Once Grandfather and I had finished talking--and there wasn't much to say after that beyond making arrangements to meet at Mac's in a couple of weeks--Hendricks took John and I to our respective homes. Both of us were sore and worn out; I figured that we'd talk the next day.

As it turned out, our conversation had to be postponed longer than I would have liked. I had to bring Nick Christian and Lara Raith up to speed--well, mostly; once the contract to Hell was broken, Thomas woke up, which meant that my big brother was allowed to have visitors; Mab had a few purely ceremonial tasks she insisted that I perform; I had to fight to keep my apprentice from going thermonuclear when she found out who was wielding Amoracchius these days; and you don't want to know how furious the Council was when they found out that I was now Warden and Winter Knight...not to mention my being one quarter Summer fae. There were a lot of comments about power grabs and early birds, a bird flipping the Council the bird, certain wizards being for the birds...you get the idea. I got tired of it very quickly.

Around this time, the consort thing leaked out in the supernatural world. Not too surprising--too many people knew about it and took it for granted to even consider keeping it secret, which meant that a lot of folks who were just hearing about it second- or even third-hand were pole-vaulting to wrong conclusions. I didn't get into any situations that I couldn't use sarcasm to get out of, but John--and I only found this out after the fact--ended up running into one of the highly placed Catholic zealots who had been urging me for years to give Amoracchius to someone, and preferably one of their number. Saying that they weren't thrilled about a Chicago crime lord having the sword is like saying that Antarctica in winter is mildly chilly. I gather that John was unfailingly courteous, diplomatic and charming--which probably drove the churchman up a wall even more. He ended up stalking off and vowing that John wouldn't keep the sword long.

I'm sure that the attack by two Denarians three days later was a complete coincidence.

Again, that was something I found out about after the fact. It ended ingloriously, with John having to flee for his life. (It would take too long to tell you what Hendricks and I had to say about the Denarians several weeks afterward...which was when John deigned to inform us of this.)

The next day, he contacted Michael and Charity Carpenter and acquired a coach and a sparring partner, which made Molly mad enough at all three of them to detonate the sun. I was grateful that the grasshopper is a sensitive and that such a spell was and is forever beyond her.

What made it worse was that John hadn't stepped down as crime boss of Chicago. I suspected he wasn't going to, at least not immediately. There was no way he would turn the city over to an ambitious rival who would turn organized crime into a major turf war that would end up hurting and killing civilians. He'd give up the sword before he let Chicago suffer that way. So he would have to find someone as bright as he was who also possessed some level of power in the Outfit, charisma, insane self-control and a similarly obsessive drive to make crime both profitable and non-violent. And that kind of person wasn't going to be easy to find.

Meanwhile, I was adjusting to a newly embodied housemate. It had been awhile since I'd shared my apartment with anyone, let alone a mercurial air spirit. Truthfully, Physical Bob wasn't all that different from Skull-Dwelling Bob. He retained his remarkable knowledge of magic, his habit of reading romance novels and porn, his cheerful, unabashed lust for humans and his practice of warning me not to do something that he knew damned well I was going to do. He wandered all over Chicago in search of incipient orgies, followed me to crime scenes, introduced himself to Murphy and the rest of Special Investigations as my new partner ("but not his partner, if you follow me--that's someone else"), contacted people who'd refused to pay me for services rendered for months, even years, and persuaded them to pay what was owed, and nagged me to take somewhat lucrative jobs so that I'd have the luxury of paying the rent on time and we'd both have the pleasure of eating. He was maddening, infuriating...and unbelievably loyal.

If Bob hadn't retained his nosy interest in my sex life, I don't know when I would have seen John again. Probably not until a case threw me in his path or a battle with a demon threw him in mine. Bob, naturally, didn't see the point of this and made a few arrangements behind my back. Though I have no proof, I'm pretty sure that my faerie godmother and my grandfather helped. It would be like them.

I was working in my office in late June when John walked in wearing what I call a "resolutely normal" costume--a Chicago White Sox baseball cap, a bright blue T-shirt with a navy blue tiger and blazing phoenix sitting side by side, jeans, scruffy white sneakers and a backpack containing, I was sure, Amoracchius. He'd put aside his air of authority as well, and had a decidedly perplexed expression. "I received an invitation that said you needed to see me?"

I stood up from my desk, walked over to him and put my good hand on his left forearm. I was planning on saying something sarcastic and banter-ish, the kind of thing I'd been saying to him since we met. But somehow, when my hand touched his skin, all of the worry and fear and protectiveness that I'd felt during the recent disaster coalesced, lancing through me like a lightning bolt.

There was no thought involved. Nothing rational. Just a dizzying amount of desire, followed by the awareness that what I wanted wasn't purely sexual. I wanted him in my bed, yes, and that as quickly and as often as possible. But I also wanted him in my life.

He gazed up at me, his eyes darkening. "Harry?"

"Consort," I murmured, then bent low and kissed him.

He groaned and kissed back--but only for a moment. Then he jerked back, looking as if that was the last thing he wanted to do, and snapped his fingers in my face. "Focus, Harry. Whatever spell's been put on you, you have to fight it."

I was still feeling half-drunk on desire and kisses, so I didn't process this too well. "Huh? What are you talking about, John?"

"You're straight, Harry," he said, as if explaining things to an imbecile. "Straight men do not kiss other men that way."

My evil subconscious took over my mouth at that moment; that's the only possible explanation. "Unless wanting to see you stark naked and spread-eagled on the floor this minute is a symptom of heterosexuality, I think I'm bi."

His eyes widened and his breath sped up, but he continued speaking in a tightly controlled voice. "And since I know you would never even consider such divergence from the heteronormative, that means enchantment. Probably Titania or one of her minions trying to torment us both. Or perhaps Hell trying to tempt me. A cruel temptation, if so, but this is Hell we're talking about--"

"John!" I'd never imagined that he'd believe my feelings to be either the product of a malicious spell or a hell-spawned illusion. "It's me, I swear to God!"

He enunciated very carefully in a this-is-SPARTA voice. "Harry. Dresden. Is. Straight."

"Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden has been waist-deep in a fucking river in Egypt for the past fifteen years," I retorted. "Anyway, I thought you were supposed to be straight too...and you kissed me back, remember?"

Maybe it was the incredibly lame pun. Maybe it was the fact that I'd turned argumentative instead of seductive. At any rate, he gave me a thoughtful look before speaking once more. "I suppose I should be flattered that you chose to approach me upon coming out, but really, I'm at a loss to understand why you picked me. You know far better looking and far younger men than I. Thomas Raith. Carlos Ramirez--"

"I'm not interested in Carlos," I retorted. "At least not that way. He's a friend, that's all."

"And the White Court vampire?" John spoke calmly, but he looked as if the words he was speaking hurt. "You cannot tell me that you lived with one of them for more than two years and remained celibate."

"He never tried to seduce me," I said with some aggravation. "Okay, yes, we've pretended to be lovers in public for various cases of mine...and to shore up his cover story as a gay hairdresser. But I think he figured out fairly early that me having sex with my big brother would almost certainly guarantee a messed-up wizard. More messed up than I normally am, in fact."

He gaped at me, open-mouthed. I think that was the first time I'd ever seen John Marcone completely at a loss for words. He had to close and open his mouth several times before he could speak again, and then he only managed one coherent word: "...brother?"

"Yeah. Mom got involved with the King of the White Court once upon a time and...well, Thomas was the result. It's supposed to be a secret; you can imagine how happy the Council would be if they knew that one of their Wardens had a vampire for a relative. Especially with this on and off war we've got going with the vamps. I just...didn't want you thinking he was competition."

"I fail to see why you would care what I thought on the subject," he said with stony calm. "Even if I were to concede, hypothetically, that you are an unusually attractive man, I cannot believe that pure, lust-filled sex would meet with the approval of my new employer."

"John--"

"So while I thank you for telling me--and trusting me--with this news--"

"John--"

"You must see that this is completely--"

"I told you because I love you, you jerk!"

The shouted words reverberated in the silent office. At last he spoke, albeit in a voice little more than a whisper. "Tell me again that you don't believe you're under a spell."

"I'm not under a spell."

He nodded as if he didn't believe me. "And you meant to say what you just said?"

"Um. No. Definitely not. But then, I never do mean to say things like that." I glanced away, gazing at a water splotch on the wallpaper opposite me with great concentration. "I'm really not good at telling people that I love them. I get scared that'll be the jinx that makes them go away for good. But...uh...I did realize a few times during the whole mess that I wanted to protect you and make sure you were safe. Like, every other minute. Stars and stones, you know that! You made me promise on my power not to turn myself over to Hell to save you!"

"So I did," he murmured. "That doesn't mean you have to want me, you know."

"No, it doesn't." I swallowed what felt like a billiard ball in my throat and forced myself to ask the next question. "Do you want me?"

He went very still, then studied my face as if to see if I was joking. Whatever he saw must have satisfied him, because he nodded slowly. "Couldn't you tell?"

"I'm not accustomed to men finding me attractive. I'm not accustomed to me finding men attractive and telling them, either." I ran my gloved hand through my hair. "I don't even know the rules for this."

He barked a laugh. "Yes. It's unfortunate that Miss Manners has never composed an instruction manual on courtship for newly bisexual wizards."

"And newly bisexual crime lords."

"Oh, no. Nothing new here. Simply...well-concealed." He sighed. "Harry, sit down. I'm getting a crick in my neck from staring up at you."

I sat down behind my desk once more.

"I won't gamble the sword on lust, Harry," he said in a quiet but intense tone. "I will gamble it on love. But--and understand this before anything starts--I am not a casual person. And I will not willingly let you go. I've wanted this...much too long."

He caressed my wrist with his thumb. "And we will have to be painfully discreet for the foreseeable future. I know that will be anathema to you. The supernatural world may have heard of our consortship, but it does not know the details. Our world does not even know that we are consorts, which is just as well. My rivals would certainly use my--inclinations--to prove that I have no business living, let alone running Chicago. In both cases, the less that is known, the safer we and those around us will be.

"It will not be easy. Almost every man on the planet would be a less problematic choice than I." He gave me a steady, regretful look, as if he were saying goodbye. "The choice is yours."

I didn't think about what he said. I didn't dare. I knew that if I thought about it, my mind would start showing me images of my amazingly horrible luck. Once I started picturing everything that could go wrong, I wouldn't have the nerve to make a choice.

So I shoved the images out of my mind and doodled a pentagram on my desk with a paper clip instead. "What happens if I say no?"

He answered so smoothly that I knew that was the answer he was prepared for. "We drop the subject and--I hope--pretend that this conversation never happened."

"And if I say yes?"

He hesitated--just a fraction of a second, but I noticed it. He wasn't quite as prepared for this eventuality, then.

"Bed, I think. Mine. It would be long enough and wide enough even for you. Followed by food and possibly conversation."

I'd like to say that I weighed the possibilities for a long time, but I didn't even think about it for a nanosecond. "Yes."

"'Yes'?" He sounded as if he didn't quite believe what he was hearing.

I nodded, pulling him toward me.

I intended to pull him close enough for me to kiss him once more. But either I was stronger than I thought or John was more off-balance than I realized, because I ended up with a crime lord/Knight of the Cross in my arms and straddling my hips. And it very quickly became apparent that neither of us was indulging in this simply to save the other's feelings.

When at last he pulled back for air, he regarded me quite seriously for a moment. "You are, you realize, quite insane even to consider this."

"I hope that as a Knight you don't have any moral objections to sleeping with crazy people."

"It's something I try not to make a practice of. However, in your case, I will be delighted to make an exception." Again, that probing look. "The only question, really, is what to do next."

"Penthouse?" I suggested. "Bed? The Kama Sutra?"

He burst out laughing. "The Kama Sutra is rather specific in its concentration on male and female pairs, Mister Dresden."

"We'll invent a gay version. That is," I grinned wickedly at him, "if you feel up to it."

His eyes glinted like a tiger's in the jungle underbrush. "I believe that I am 'up' for anything."

He was, but his cellphone wasn't. That's what happens when you hug a wizard.

I managed to contact Hendricks on my rotary dial office phone. It only took seven tries.

The limo made it to John's place. Just. The elevator...

Well, what the hell. We only had to walk up ten flights of stairs.

***

Much as I wish I could describe that first time, I can't. Suffice to say that it was slow, passionate, inventive--at least on John's part--and, for me, educational. I'd never run into anything that could be described as "frottage" or "intercrural" before. Also, I found out that for John, a wizard temporarily washed clean of magic by ten minutes in a blissfully hot shower was the world's most powerful aphrodisiac.

Despite John's pledge to feed and talk to me, we were too sleepy and sated after to go anywhere near his kitchen. I lay back, stretched out and luxuriated in the feeling of lying in a bed without my ankles and feet hanging off the far end. John lay beside me, his head pillowed on my hairy chest. He said he needed to do that so that he could hear my heartbeat. I think that he wanted to reassure himself that I was real.

As for conversation, we didn't talk much. He only said one thing before dropping off to sleep.

"I don't know where this is going, Harry," he slurred as his voice faded away and he drifted off to sleep. "I really don't."

I wrapped my arms about him and smiled. There was no question in my mind where this was going; he'd already told me that much. He didn't do casual. I didn't do casual. He wasn't going to risk the sword on anything long-term but purely sexual; and he wasn't going to gamble his reputation in two worlds on anything that didn't matter to him at least as much as the city did. The only thing he would risk everything for was love. Long-term love.

I was no expert, but I had a sneaking suspicion that fifteen years of laughter, worry, and risking our lives and souls for each other counted as precisely that. We didn't have to learn to love each other; that ship had already sailed. We had to accept that we already did.

The universe had tossed a lot at us in the past month and a half. John had gone from hostage of Hell to a responsibility that he still found incomprehensible. I'd acquired a job I'd spent years refusing, a troublesome friend I would probably never see in person again who came from another reality I couldn't even survive in, and a family that was nothing remotely like any I'd ever dreamed of having.

But--in some weird fashion--it was working out. Not as we'd expected, or even as we'd originally wanted--but as we needed. I knew that this would too.

It won't be easy, I thought, stroking the stubble on his sleeping face. We were both stubborn. Our various jobs, temperaments and personalities would put us on collision courses more often than not. And he was right about discretion being alien to me. Having to keep this situation a secret would drive me mad with frustration. And the fact that keeping quiet about it might save my friends and John's people from danger or death just made it worse, because, in a sane world, John and I being lovers wouldn't endanger anybody.

Not to mention that there were plenty of supernatural people who hated the idea of our even being allies, let alone consorts in fact as well as in name. When they figured it out, as they inevitably would, there would be problems. Which is like saying that the Titanic leaked the tiniest bit.

So was this--was he--worth the trouble?

I thought back to the moment that John had told us about the deal Titania had manipulated him into making, to the terrible emptiness I'd felt as the eldest gruff and the Grand Duke Amy had escorted him away, to my holding his wounded and unconscious body in my arms, and realized that I'd already decided, with all my heart and soul, that he was worth every ounce of trouble and risk imaginable.

And considering all the danger he'd gone through for me, I knew he felt the same.

Perhaps it was ridiculous, given my appalling luck, but I couldn't help feeling that the future was bright and filled with promise.

Instinct told me to mark the occasion before I drifted off to sleep myself. Tightening my arms around him, I whispered one word three times. "Consort. Consort. Consort."

Three meanings of the word echoed in my mind. Companion. Friend. Spouse.

I closed my eyes with a sleepy smile. And what I say three times is true.

***