Categories > Books > Dresden Files

Desparate Measures

by xwingace 0 reviews

When the Winter Knight comes to the rescue, are you actually being rescued? Ramirez finds out. Post Cold-Days.

Category: Dresden Files - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Fantasy - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2013-12-07 - 8232 words

“Everyone ready? Then go!” I followed my actions to my words, charging the warehouse block that was our target. Other groups would be doing the same thing from the other cardinal points of the compass.

I’d love to say we were executing a daring rescue – well, we were – but really it was all part of a last-ditch effort to reclaim the last victims the Fomor had captured before the Council abandoned San Francisco to its fate.

The Fomor had started encroaching on mortal territories last year. Before, they’d kept to the shadows and edges of the world. But last year, one of the major supernatural powers, the Red Court of Vampire, had been just about completely annihilated. The Fomor had expanded to fill the resulting power vacuum. They’d taken over everywhere the Red Court had had strongholds, and more places besides. Unlike the Reds, however, they didn’t really do subtle all that well. They moved in and kidnapped or suborned anyone with any sort of magical talent to work for them to take over power.

What’s more, it was working. In places where the Council or one of the other powers didn’t have a real, fortified stronghold (like LA, my own home city, or Chicago, where there were two or maybe even three powers with an interest in defending it), we were losing the fight. I’m prettying things up, here. I’d already put myself out of commission for a few weeks once, defending LA. It’s partially what led to the situation in San Francisco becoming this dire. The lesser practitioners were bearing the brunt of it. That’s why we organized these ‘evacuations’.

Anyone with even the slightest magical talent the Fomor hadn’t gotten to had been rounded up. Most of them had already moved to safer areas, but there was still a sizeable faction who was either helping me prepare this assault or standing by to help the victims out.

We had a nice force, even if I do say so myself. Quite apart from its magnificent Commander, Warden Carlos Ramirez, Wizard of the White Council -- i.e. me, we had another major magical talent in the person of Miss Elaine Mallory. She was ostensibly the coordinator of the ParaNet in LA, but in truth someone who should have been on the Council in her own right. I’ve understood from mutual friends that there are… issues that prevented her joining, but she’s a mistress of the lightning bolt and a great fighter. She was heading up the group directly opposite me.

The other groups were being headed by trios of ParaNet practitioners who had learned to work together as effectively as a single more powerful wizard. A few apprentices picking up a lot of combat experience in a very short time filled out our complement of magical shock troops.

The rest were literal shock troops. I kid you not. Mercenaries, ex-army or whatever. Paid for by Lara Raith of the White Court. Now, normally I’d just as soon not ally with a bunch of soul-sucking sex maniacs, but since they and the Fomor shared a prey race – us – there’s arguments like the enemy of my enemy and such things. We even had a few White Court vampires mixed in as commanders for the mercenaries. Although they tended to stay back out of the line of fire. Cowards.

The Fomor invasion had necessitated all sorts of strange alliances. The Council of Wizards and the White Court had previously had a precarious peace at best, but now they were united against the Fomor. A Chicago mob boss, John Marcone, was financing a huge force of not-quite human security types – but unless you brought really convincing arguments to the table, they only kept Chicago safe. We couldn’t afford them here. Even the courts of Faerie were occasionally cooperating with us, at the very least by allowing us to go across their territory in the Nevernever. And the ParaNet, a network of less powerful magical practitioners. It worked pretty well as an early warning system and contact network, even if they had a little trouble defending themselves when things really got messy. Like today.

We went at it full blast. The few defenders the Fomor had left outside the warehouse were swept away in a hail of bullets. I didn’t even have to do anything yet.

My job came once we were inside, where the Fomor had some heavier hitters waiting for the first one to breach the outer defenses. Yours truly again, of course. But even they didn’t last long against a few blasts of magic and some more bullets. The ones who got in close, I cut down with my sword. Hmmm. Somehow, these defenses felt a little light. And where were the prisoners?

The radio man in my team called out. “Team North has the prisoners! There’s 20 of them!” He was keeping his distance, because being around wizards hasn’t been good for any radio ever, and communication was sort of essential today.

“Good. Tell East and West to fall back and guard our exit route. We’ll make our way to the prisoners and help get them out.” With that many prisoners, North was going to need some help so they’d be able to carry out all the prisoners and still keep enough hands free to shoot guns or sling spells.

It took quite a long time to find our way through the warehouse. Either they built these warehouses bigger than I was used to, or the Fomor had been doing things to the interior that physicists wouldn’t approve of. Elaine was still there, trying to bring the last of the prisoners back to consciousness, while the others were clinging to each other or to members of team North.

“Everyone okay?” I asked of nobody in particular while I helped up one young woman. Nobody in particular answered, either. That’s what I get for asking silly questions, I guess. Of course they weren’t okay. Still, I got a few weak nods from the prisoners, which was the best I could expect.

The way out was harder than the way in. The guards Elaine’s team had faced had called in reinforcements. Still, we got out relatively unscathed and met East and West holding open our escape route. Back to the rendezvous so we could get everyone out of here.

The idea was to airlift most of our people out of here. The Raith family had provided a set of helicopters that would pick up our ParaNetters and the mercenaries and ferry them to somewhere an actual plane could take off. Me and Elaine would remain behind as a rear-guard and then escape through a Way into the Nevernever. Not exactly risk-free, but worth it to get so many more people to safety. Also, less risky than putting two wizards on a helicopter loaded with other people.

We arrived at the rendezvous just in time for the helos to start arriving. But that was where our nice, smooth plan began to wrinkle. Pinpricks flared from distant rooftops just as the first helicopter prepared to land. They blossomed into fireballs right above the landing zone, taking all our helos with them. I threw up a shield above the group as soon as I saw them coming. Anyone else who could, did too. Just in time, hopefully. Goddamn missiles.

“It’s a trap!” my radio man shouted. Of all the moments to quote Star Wars, this wasn’t it. Most of the people on the ground had only minor burns, but our ride out of here was gone. “What do we do, Warden?”

More gunfire stared to streak in from ground level. It was mixed with spells this time. Oh yeah. Trap. The Fomor had saved their forces to catch all of us, not just the few prisoners. I knew getting those prisoners out had been too easy.

“Take everyone out through a Way?” I suggested to Elaine, but she looked pained and shook her head.

“I was willing to risk it if it was just us, but we can’t protect all these people in the Nevernever. I’m not even entirely sure where we’d end up. I don’t think there’s any Summer territory close by.”

“Sir!” My radio man again. “Ms Raith says she’ll arrange for an alternative exit route. We just have to hold on until help can arrive.”

“Did she say what kind of an exit route?” I asked, but the radio man shook his head. “Okay, so we do this the old-fashioned way. Brick walls of shields, and we stand by to pick off whatever gets through.”

“Got it,” Elaine acknowledged concurrently with the radio man. Both started relaying orders to various people.

The ‘old-fashioned way’ was really only about five years old, and developed to let people who couldn’t put up a large shield by themselves still help defend a large group. One person set a small shield as an anchor, and everyone else built up the shield from there. It resulted in a layered structure of shields that was far larger and stronger than any of them could have managed on their own.

We were going to need it. We weren’t just shielding the practitioners. All those mercenaries had a place underneath the shield, too. And some of our charges had next of kin or spouses with them, who had refused to go until their loved ones were rescued. Really quite a nice lot of innocents to defend here. And if we were going to hold out for any length of time, we’d have to do it in shifts.

Meanwhile, I was on cleanup duty. Anywhere the shield wavered, even momentarily, things could and did get through. It was up to me and the mercenaries to make sure they couldn’t get at the group of casters maintaining the shield.

I don’t know how long we held out, exactly. It felt like hours, days, even. Time tends to stretch out like that in combat. It was taking its toll, that much was sure. Despite the people maintaining the shield working in shifts, the weight of the assault meant that they were tiring quickly, and not getting enough time to replenish their resources. And with gaps in the shield becoming more frequent, I had to fight more often, too, against more and stronger enemies. I really hoped that new ride was coming soon.

Maybe we’d waited too long to withdraw from San Francisco, but I hadn’t wanted to give it up. So I damned well wasn’t giving up without a good fight. It’s this kind of mentality that keeps getting me into trouble. But I like to think it’s one of my charms, too.

Then a Way opened on the other side of the Fomor lines. Two men stormed out, the Way closing behind them. They came sprinting right at our group. Well, maybe not men. Men couldn’t run that fast. They were through the lines almost before the Fomor could react, taking out several of them in the process. Huh. I thought the White Court could only open portals in their own places of influence. A brothel, for instance. So either there was a whorehouse on the other side of the street, or…

… or one of those two wasn’t a White Court vampire after all.

The taller of the two turned around when spells started flying in his direction, calling up a shield in one easy motion and dropping it again to hurl white-hot spears of fire as soon as the enemy spells dissipated. The other one kept coming on, slipping easily between the layered shields. It was Thomas Raith. The mercenaries at my back relaxed noticeably. Raith immediately started shouting orders.

“Ramirez!” he shouted at me, too. “We need to get these people moving. Half a mile that way,” he waved his hand in the opposite direction from where he’d come. The mercenaries were already at work.

“Hold on. I can’t just tell these people to break their shield.” I gestured to Elaine to set things in motion, however.

Raith nodded. “We’ll lead the way.” He gestured at the captain of the mercenaries, having taken command almost automatically. He bowed slightly to Elaine, who had gone pale while watching the wizard in the distance. “Miss Mallory, any help you can provide would be appreciated.” Elaine nodded and followed him.

Meanwhile, the wizard who’d been taking most of the pressure was getting close to our shield. He hesitated briefly outside it, then stepped through a weak spot. One of the apprentices holding the shield gasped and collapsed.

The wizard was with her before I even had time to react. He caught her weight and helped her up. He gently pushed her in the direction of the slowly retreating group of mercenaries and fugitives. And now I could see his face.

Fuck me, I did know this guy. Even at a distance, the black leather duster should really have given it away. I guess the longer hair threw me off. Well, that and the fact that he was supposed to be dead, last I heard. “Hells Bells, Dresden. You just can’t resist making an entrance, can you?”

That got me a grin. Wherever he’d spent the past year or so, it hadn’t done Harry Dresden much good. What little excess he’d had was gone. There were fresh scars on his face. He looked hard, cold. And the grin just made him look thuggish. “Good to see you too, Carlos.” He looked around to the shield coterie that was just breaking up. “Anyone else for rear-guard duty?”

Three apprentices raised their hands. They’d gone a little pale when I’d identified Dresden. What can I say, the man has a reputation. Not always a good one, either. And the way he looked had even me worried. Still, they’d stick around, no matter what. Good kids.

Dresden acknowledged them. “Good. Stay together and don’t let them get close. We only have to slow them down while we retreat. If you get tired, get back to the main group.”

He hadn’t finished speaking when a Fomor minion popped up behind him and fired a semiautomatic rifle, but the bullets still ricocheted off a shield. Dresden had started to turn and project it just in time. There was no way he could have seen that one coming. I finished the guy off with an energy blast, and that was the end of the brief lull in the fighting.

The Fomor sensed they had us on the run, and they were pushing harder than ever. We made them fight for every yard, but it was getting harder. I couldn’t keep throwing this kind of energy around forever. Harry was still flinging his fire bolts and force thrusts with fresh abandon, but he’d always been scarily powerful. He’d also been fighting for no more than fifteen minutes. With the rescue and the ambush, I’d been at it the best part of a day.

My apprentices were being clever about it. They were using their own shields and talents to create temporary funnels that guided creatures and spells to me and Dresden, letting whichever one of us had his hands free deal with them. Still, the Fomor were getting closer and closer. Soon, spells wouldn’t keep them at bay.

Harry intercepted the first goon to close to melee range. He caught a heavy club on his staff, then followed up with a kick that actually physically sent the goon flying. He raised up a wall of fire that cut the goon and two of his friends off from the rest of the force, and proceeded to lay all three of them out with just a few punches. “ Come on! Is that the best you’ve got?” he roared.

Damn. I’m no slouch when it comes to close-fighting, and I’ve actually had more formal training at it than Harry supposedly has – I’m a fully trained, full-time Warden, after all. But to knock goons of that caliber out, I’d need to get pretty lucky three times in a row. Something was up, here. Because last time I met the guy, Harry would have had to get lucky, too.

The fight went on and on. Even Harry had to be feeling the strain by now. He’d mostly abandoned the fire spells and was just knocking back people and creatures with blasts of force or gales of wind. It still wasn’t enough to keep them all off us, and I was dealing with my own set of thugs when a flare went up.

I’d knocked one of them back when a fire hydrant a few feet in front of me burst. Harry had thrown a bolt of force at it. Then I heard him shout, as clearly as if he were standing right next to me instead of twenty feet away. “Ventas Septentrias!” Winds picked up, gale-force to start, but quickly becoming stronger still. I was fine, but three feet in front of me, the thug I’d just thrown off was picked up and blown away.

But that wasn’t the only thing blowing away. The winds blew apart the spout coming out of the fire hydrant, and the water droplets froze in mid-air. No more creatures could come close. If they managed to struggle into the freezing wind, those frozen droplets tore into them.

“We need to join the others!” Dresden shouted, helping one of the apprentices up off the floor. He picked the boy up in a full fireman’s carry before sprinting off in the direction where the flare had come from. I dealt with my one remaining opponent, then followed. Even unburdened, I still couldn’t keep up with Harry.

Elaine and Thomas Raith were waiting for us fifty yards back, at a gap in a wall of mercenaries with guns to see if anyone dared to follow. Harry handed his burden off to Raith, then waited for me and the final two apprentices to catch up. Those two girls were supporting each other. They looked completely drained.

Harry caught me by the arm. “That wind is going to die the second I step through the Way. We need something a little more permanent. Can you help?”

To be honest, I didn’t have much left. But we still needed to get out of here. “What do you need?”

“Can you get me wall of water around the whole group?”

Sure. Harry Dresden: does the improbable before breakfast. The impossible takes a little longer. Water will ground out magical energy flowing through it very quickly. I’m pretty experienced at working with it, but this wasn’t my kind of spell when I’m fresh out of bed, never mind drained almost to exhaustion. For one, unlike Harry I don’t generally go for big and flashy when small and efficient will do. Second, you can’t manipulate water like that. Especially not if you need it to last. “That’ll give us seconds at most.”

“Can you, yes or no?” Harry bit back. I flinched. It wasn’t like Harry to be that curt. I guess the battle was taking its toll on him, too, even if he wasn’t showing it much, yet.

My apprentice let go of her friend and they both stepped forward, shaky on their feet and all. “We’ll help, too.”

“Let’s give it a shot, then.” I tugged on my gauntlet to make sure it still fit securely and took half a second to get a bit of focus together. Then I cried out my spell and let the magic grab on to the water from the still spraying fire hydrant, shaping it into the wall Harry had asked for.

As soon as the wall started to take form, Harry started his own spell. “Infriga!”. The first part of the wall turned into a sheet of solid ice. Whoa.

OK, so that’s what we were doing. I kept drawing out and shaping the water from the fire hydrant. I shaped it into a semicircle, closing our group in against the front of a set of offices. It was actually becoming a little bit easier now. My apprentices must be working on the feed line to the hydrant itself, pushing more water up into it.

Green light flashed past me, and the echo of gunfire told me that the battle still wasn’t over. Elaine was keeping up the magical fire while Dresden and I were busy building this wall. At some point, I think I heard Harry cry out “Fuego”, and the temperature at my back rose a little. But all of that faded to the background as I had to concentrate further and further on just keeping the water flowing.

Eventually, the silence was complete. Someone touched my arm, gently. When I looked up, Thomas Raith was offering me his hand. I must have fallen to my knees at some point. He helped me up, then caught me as I nearly went down again. Ow. I was going to have a mother of a headache tomorrow. And I wasn’t going to be worth much, magically speaking, for at least a week.

We were now in an enclosed space, with nothing but ice around us. I couldn’t see how thick it was, but it didn’t look like it was melting anytime soon. Right behind me was a scorched line in the asphalt. A straight line from Harry to the last point in the wall to close. He’d taken some of the energy he’d drawn from the water and converted it to fire to help ward off the attackers from the wall. Dio, that was some display of magic. The guy couldn’t be in much better shape than me.

I looked over to Harry. Hey, everyone else was doing it, and sometimes it’s worth following the crowd. He was still on his feet, although he was leaning pretty heavily on his staff. He was looking pretty grey, too.

Actually, strike that. As he straightened, bits of the grey fell out of his hair. A thin layer of frost had formed over his head and shoulders. It was already starting to melt wherever it touched his skin, but it stayed on his coat. Harry straightened up, then strode through the crowd toward the building. People scrambled to get out of his way. He stopped when he got to the building front, right in front of an old sign advertising Forrest & Lake, investment bankers.

“Listen up, folks,” he said. His voice echoed against the ice. People had been quiet already, but now just about all sound ceased. Everything except the impact of bullets and spells on the ice wall, just as a reminder that we still didn’t have long.

“We’re heading into the NeverNever. This Way is safe enough, but here’s a few ground rules: Stay together, don’t touch the water, and don’t follow any blue lights. Oh, and follow your guide.” He held up his free hand. “That clear for everyone?” He waited for a heartbeat, then opened the Way, right in between the two trees of the Forrest & Lake logo. “Let’s go.” He stepped through.

“Injured people and exhausted spellcasters first,” Thomas said beside me, handing me over to a mercenary carefully nursing what looked like a broken arm. Then he nodded at Elaine, who was breathing hard but still looked ready to go another round. “We’ll take over rear-guard duty from here.”

The mercenary helped me through the portal. Huh, Harry must have been getting some practice in. He used to rip these great big gashes that still only stayed open long enough to let a few people through, but this was almost a neat doorway. And looking at it from the other side, it was located exactly between two trees that looked eerily similar to the ones in the Forrest & Lake logo.

Harry was already striding along a narrow solid path through marshy ground. The others were struggling to keep up, all the more because these were the people with injuries helping each other along. I worked myself loose from the mercenary’s support onto my own shaky feet so I could catch up. “Dresden, wait up.”

Harry turned his head to indicate he’d heard me, but only slowed his pace slightly. It took me way too long to catch up. “Hey.”

“Hey, Carlos”. He still wasn’t looking at me. The ice on his face and in his hair was gone, but there were still some crystals on his coat. He opened his mouth to say something else, but then suddenly spun around and shouted out another spell, the runes on his staff flaring up. “Forzare!”

That staff was weird, too. It wasn’t the same staff I’d seen Harry use on previous occasions. The old one had been carved all over with runes and sigils. This one was much less adorned. In fact, there were so few carvings on it, I might even call it unfinished. And yet it was already battered and scorched. The hand holding it didn’t bear any rings, either, and I couldn’t remember seeing Harry’s shield bracelet. Harry had always carried a lot of foci for his magic, but he’d come out here with nothing but a half-finished staff? That wasn’t right.

A young kid, the son of one of the ParaNetters who had escaped with us, was flung back into the arms of an adult, maybe his father. From the puddle he’d evidently stepped into protruded a skeletal hand, still grasping after its target. It slowly sank back into the marsh.

“I said, don’t touch the water!” Harry roared. The people nearest us all cringed back, while those further away went pale. There were a few scared nods.

This wasn’t like Harry in the least. Damn it, was it Harry at all?

Well, someone pretending to be Harry Dresden would probably look and act a lot more like the real thing the way I remembered him. But if someone or something was controlling him, that might account for some behavioral changes. We were dealing with the White Court, here. And Harry had arrived with one of them in tow. I skipped two steps ahead, and planted myself in Harry’s way. “Enough. Whatever you’re doing to the real Harry Dresden, stop it now.”

Harry took one more step, drawing up and drawing in close. Just for an instant, I didn’t see Harry Dresden. I saw Thomas Raith in the throes of battle. Ice-cold, feral rage flared up in those eyes. I gripped my staff tighter and spread my hand out, trying to gather together any last scrap of magic I could manage because fuck me, that was scary.

Look, I’m not short, OK? I’m normal-sized and perfectly proportioned. I work out. But Harry Dresden is freakishly tall and he was coming in very close, and having to look up into that kind of towering anger will put anyone on the defensive.

But it worked before I had to resort to magical measures. Harry stopped, closed his eyes and took a deep breath that he held for a long time before letting it out slowly. He backed off, and that seemed to diminish him more than it should have. The hand that held his staff started to tremble, just a little.

Harry breathed again. It was almost a sigh. “I’m sorry, Carlos,” he said after he’d opened his eyes again. “That fight took more out of me than I realized. I went too far.”

That reaction was more like the Harry I knew. Especially after going over the line. I relaxed my guard, too. “That was overdoing it, yeah.” Harry started to walk again, slower this time, a pace that let me keep up. I followed. The rest of the group didn’t immediately, though. Maybe they didn’t want to get in the way of the angry wizards. Probably a smart move.

Really, looking at him, Harry looked all but okay. The ice crystals on his coat and in his hair had melted now, leaving him wet as if he’d been standing in steady rain for a time. His shoulders sagged, and he was leaning on his staff again. He was too thin, too pale and the scars on his face and hands stood out more than they ever had. “You look terrible.”

“Terrifying, you mean.” Harry grimaced.

“Compared to me, who doesn’t?” I tried to make a joke of it, but it fell flat. Harry stared.

“Have you looked at yourself lately?”

I could only imagine. My Warden’s cloak was gone. I’d been wearing a jacket going in, but only part of one sleeve was still intact. The shirt underneath it wasn’t in much better shape, and I had cuts and scrapes aplenty. I must be a sight, too. “Seriously, though. What happened?”

“Lara Raith let it be known that you and Elaine were in trouble within Thomas’s hearing. He came to find me, and here we are.”

“So not what I meant.” There’d been plenty of rumors flying around about Harry, from the mildly improbable to the utterly ridiculous. Going by what I had seen of events that caused previous rounds of Harry-centric rumormongering, the merely unlikely ones probably had some basis in truth. The ridiculous ones, well... This was still Harry Dresden we were talking about. As in, ‘summoned an undead T-Rex with the power of polka’ Harry Dresden. “So did you actually blow up the Red Court singlehanded?”

Harry shook his head. His shoulders sagged even further. “I had help.”

“Who? Molly Carpenter and Thomas Raith? Karrin Murphy?” Phenomenal as any of those people were, against the whole of the Red Court, they might as well be three of my ParaNetters. “I would have helped, too, you know. If you’d bothered to ask. Hell, I was busy trying to get the Council to help!” And hopelessly failing -- the Council doesn’t look too kindly on us young bucks of less than a century old trying to upset the status quo -- but it’s the thought that counts.

Harry shook his head. “You were busy at the time. It couldn’t wait.”

“It needed to happen so quickly you resorted to desperate measures?” Because that was another rumor that had been going around. Well, that and the reports I’d heard from people who had been in the NeverNever at the time. Apparently it had been quite the show. Pity I missed it, really. When Harry stopped to shoot me a stern glare, I filled in the rest of that rebuke. “The neat ice tricks were kind of a big clue, Sir Knight. Seriously, why?”

The stern glare withered. “Because the Council wouldn’t help, and the vampires were winning. I was out of options, and this was the least bad choice.” Harry was quiet for a little while. “It’s not that bad, this gig. Not while I still have friends to slap me in the face when I’m going too far.” He swept a hand through his hair and shook off some water droplets. “The mantle of the Winter Knight comes with its own set of instincts. That’s the scariest part. When I don’t notice that what I’m thinking isn’t what I’m thinking.” A deep breath, then Harry shot me a slight smile. “So thanks again, Carlos, for calling me on it.”

I nodded to accept the apology. This was a lot more like the Harry I knew. So far, so good. Well, the Winter Knight thing wasn’t exactly good but it had at least gotten us out of a sticky situation. So I could let that go for a while. If that had been the only thing, I’d have dropped all suspicion right there.

Harry’s a friend, but I’m a Warden. Paranoia comes with the job. And Harry Dresden was still supposed to be dead. Shot by a sniper on the shores of Lake Michigan. His ghost had even been seen in Chicago afterward, by people who should know the real Harry from an illusion. But it didn’t feel like this was a good time to ask about it. So I changed the subject.

“How’s Molly?” I asked. I hadn’t seen Harry’s apprentice for quite a while. Way back when – when we’d last really met, she hadn’t been unfavorably disposed towards yours truly. And she was quite the looker, too. But a lot had happened since then. And she’d acquired a reputation. “Word is she was back to her old game.” Harry had taken her on as an apprentice after she’d been nearly executed for using black magic. The past year had been bad everywhere, but Chicago was taking the worst of it. Rumors of a female wizard-level practitioner killing people with magic didn’t help matters.

Apparently Harry had heard those rumors too. He grimaced. “Not quite her old game. Picking up my slack as best she could.” He sighed. “Chicago is just as bad as everywhere else, Carlos. Maybe even worse. If it seems less so, it’s just because there’s more people with an interest in protecting it. My apprentice was one of them.”

“I’m sure there’s better ways she could have done that, Harry. Hey, it’s only because everywhere has been such a mess that the execution of Molly Carpenter hasn’t been scheduled yet. Warden Central isn’t exactly disposed to like her, you know.”

Harry stopped and turned to frown at me. “Your grapevine is lagging, Carlos. I don’t think the Council could touch her now even if they wanted to. But we’d better drop this subject.”

That got to me. Harry was blocking every possible avenue of conversation, here. It wasn’t doing his credibility any good, either. “So why can’t we talk about Molly, huh?”

Something happened then. Hard to describe exactly what, but it was like a shiver ran through all of the grass and water around us. It might have been a wind, except I felt no breeze. And the temperature dropped noticeably.

Harry had slapped a hand against his face, and was shaking his head. “I suppose I should have seen that one coming. Way to put your foot in it, Carlos.” Then he stepped past me to face the ParaNetters and mercenaries coming up behind us. He took up a pose most reminiscent of Gandalf preparing to stop the oncoming Goblin horde cold, Balrog included. “NOBODY MOVE!”

The command hadn’t been shouted all that loudly, but it carried. And it rang with such absolute authority – barely even magic, really – that I froze without even consciously deciding to do so.

Good thing I’d done that, too, or I might have done something unfortunate. From somewhere behind me, where everyone in the group following us would have been looking, sounded a surprised “Huh.” A familiar voice, too. “So that’s how that works.”

Harry had started speaking to the people following us. Some of the mercenaries had managed to raise their weapons before Harry had stepped in, and the eyes of the vampires shone brighter than they should. It’s not good to startle people who’ve just been in combat. “The lady is not here to hurt any of you. Stay back and we can all continue on without any trouble.” He had his back turned to me. He wasn’t including me in any of those statements. Goody.

I turned around very slowly, as soon as my muscles would respond again. My ears had given me good information. I’d heard Molly Carpenter speak. But.. well… let’s say she’d changed since the last time we met. She’d never been close to ugly, not even in the drab brown apprentice’s robe I’d last seen her in. Now she was just stunning. Also? Half-naked. She was wearing the bottom half of some kind of slinky dress, of a blue-purple shimmering material. She held the top half up with one hand to cover the essentials.

She shot me a smile that sparkled like sunlight on snow. And had her eyes always been that icy blue? “Hello, Warden Ramirez.” She turned around, presenting me with an opened zipper that went too far down her -- let’s say ‘back’ -- for my comfort. “Since you’ve taken the trouble of calling me here, would you mind giving me a hand?”

“Grasshopper,” Harry growled from just behind me. It sounded like I wasn’t the only one having some trouble with Molly’s appearance. But there was still something of a warning tone in that deep rumble.

“Hello, Harry” Molly said. She winked at me, then made encouraging motions at me with her free hand. I took the hint, and pulled up the zipper. Her skin was smooth and cool, with no evidence of goose bumps despite the fact that it was none too warm out here. Once I was done, and she was more or less decently clad, she frowned at Harry. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. You’re going to be late.”

Something wasn’t right here. Something didn’t fit the way it used to. I just hadn’t figured out what it was yet. Molly had just appeared out of nowhere. That had something to do with it.

“Something came up.” Harry’s reply was short, to the point, and entirely free of the banter I was used to hearing between these two. He was in between Molly and everyone else but me, looking outward. Like a bodyguard. He’d drawn himself up again, projecting a frosty menace outward to anyone who might want to come near.

Molly looked at the procession of mercenaries and ParaNetters, most still frozen in place. She raised a single eyebrow. “So I see. Why did you bring all these people into Winter?”

“It was the safest Way they could all get to.” Another one of those curt answers. And not helpful to me at all. Nice.

There was some movement behind me. I glanced aside for a moment. Thomas Raith had come up from behind, his clothes showing more evidence of combat than they had when we went through the portal. His eyes were silvery, but he seemed well enough in control. He was being followed by Elaine, leaning on one of my apprentices and looking tired. It looked like the rear guard had gotten some work to do at the end.

Raith walked up to Harry and said something in his ear that caused Harry to close his eyes and take a deep breath. Elaine stopped beside me – on the side that kept me between her and Harry -- and acknowledged Molly with a nod. Almost a bow, in fact. “Lady,” she said, wearily.

Molly mimicked the motion. “Miss Mallory.” She shook her head. “Elaine.”

“I think I prefer Miss Mallory, if it’s all the same.”

The quarter dropped. Lady… A lady who had shown up in the Nevernever at the third mention of her name. Someone who the Winter Knight showed an instinctual deference to, and who seemed to be entirely comfortable in a sleeveless, nearly backless dress in the middle of Unseelie territory. Lady Winter.

Harry, what have you done?

“It didn’t happen the way you think it did, Warden,” Molly interrupted my train of thought. “But this not the time or the place to discuss that.” Her expression changed. “Unless, of course, that’s why you called me here.” She shot a glance at Harry. “I’m not giving you any points for consideration, in that case.”

Hah. Well. I could hardly say I’d summoned her by accident. That’d be the height of impoliteness. Whatever had happened, however Molly-like this fairy queen before me still might be – and there was no real way to know that – summoning one without a pressing reason would grant her full justification to do to me whatever she pleased. Doubly so because of course I hadn’t created a circle to keep her either in or out. So, fast talking was required.

Harry wasn’t going to be any help. Of course not. I couldn’t expect the Winter Knight to help the wizard who foolishly summoned the Winter Lady. He was staring straight ahead. He had partially turned to face me, so he was now staring at a point somewhere beyond my right shoulder.

Almost immediately beyond my right shoulder, in fact. He was staring at the Warden’s sword hanging over my right shoulder, a few remaining scraps of my cloak wrapped around the hilt. When I started to move my hand toward it, his gaze drifted off to take in everyone in the group behind us.

Right. The sword and cloak that marked me as a Warden of the White Council, and the people I’d taken under my protection. The Council had had a treaty with both Summer and Winter for passage through their lands, but it had theoretically but not officially ended with the destruction of the Red Court – the reason the treaty had been created in the first place. It gave me an in, anyway.

I swept my arm in the most elaborate bow I could manage. I could just barely catch the glint of humor in Molly eyes. “Not at all, my Lady. I simply wanted to ensure we were not trespassing. I would hate to expose these people under my protection to the wrath of the Unseelie courts by taking them into your lands unannounced. I would claim rights to safe conduct under the White Council treaty with the Queen of Air and Darkness.”

Molly squared her shoulders, her stance now more formal just like her tone. “The war with the Red Court is over, Warden. Perhaps you hadn’t noticed.”

I shook my head. Play the game. Wasn’t that always the rule with the Fairy courts? “Indeed I had not, my Lady.” I offered her my open hand. “While it is true the Vampire Court was destroyed, the aftermath of that final battle has not ended.” I gestured at the group behind me. “I am guiding these people to safety from one of the remaining skirmishes. All I ask that the warrant of safe passage through Winter lands be extended to us.”

Molly inclined her head, a smile on her lips. “You’re right, it hasn’t. Well played, Warden.” She took my hand and turned it into a handshake. Then her formal stance broke. “So, what really happened?”

We started walking again as I told her what we’d been doing. Harry finally decided to stop playing dumb and filled in the part where Thomas Raith found him on Demonreach (wherever that was) after Lara had told him about the trouble we were in. Molly favoured Harry with a long, level look after he’d finished, which Harry didn’t meet. Elaine finished up with the story of what has happened after we’d stepped through the Way. The Fomor had broken through the ice wall just when Raith and Elaine were about to go through the portal. Three of them had followed into the Nevernever. The skeleton pools had taken all three.

She didn’t mention what it had cost us. From the look on her face, those three had sold their lives dearly.

“I’m sorry for your losses, Miss Mallory,” Molly said, after Elaine had finished. “The Fomor seem to be getting more vicious as time goes on, not less.”

“All the more reason for us to do something about them,” I butted in. “We could use more help, in fact.” I heard Harry start to speak halfway through my last sentence, but he fell silent again as I finished it.

Molly shot me a big grin. “Did you just ask me for help, Warden Ramirez?” Ah, so that sound behind me had been Harry slapping his face. I was getting really good at putting my foot in it. But give me a break here. To me, this was still Harry’s apprentice. Nice girl, extremely talented magically, but no more than an apprentice. Not a Queen of Faery.

Molly seemed to be considering something. “I think I can get all of you back to Chicago almost immediately.” She turned to me. “If you’ll consent to accompany me this evening.”

“Don’t do it, Carlos,” Harry said from behind me. “I can get us where we need to go well enough.”

“You are running just as late as I am, Harry,” Molly cut him off. “And don’t you want to get these people to safety faster?” The two of them locked eyes, silently, for several seconds. Something like communication must have passed in that time, because Harry backed down first. He averted his eyes and stepped aside.

It had given me time to get my wits together, at least. “Let me consider that for a bit,” I said. Time to smarten up, Ramirez. Faery bargains. I should find out what I was bargaining for. “What will I be accompanying you to?”

Molly nodded. Maybe she approved. “The feast of Midwinter.” She turned her head to nod at Harry, behind me. “Harry’s supposed to be there, too.”

Feast … right. That was nicely ambiguously phrased. Especially given that most of the Winter Fae were predators through and through. “Right. And am I going there as the meal?”

The look of disgust on Molly’s face was a picture. Maybe she hadn’t yet changed that much. “No! You’ll be my personal guest and escort.”

“And that’s all of it. I – and I alone, go along with you tonight, and we’re all off the hook.”

Another nod. “Unless you want to make another bargain, yes.” She stopped walking and faced me. “Your decision?”

There didn’t seem to be any traps there that I could see. “Sure.”

Molly shot me another smile. “Good.” She looked around for a bit and walked ahead. Something I only noticed about her now. She wasn’t really looking where she was going.

We were still on a narrow path between those deadly pools of water. All of us had to look down regularly to make sure we weren’t stepping in the water. Even the solid ground was slightly uneven, leading to a lot of balancing. Not so for Molly. She walked in full confidence that wherever she placed her foot, there the path would be. And it was. That, more than her behavior just now, really drove home the ‘Faery Queen’ thing.

Well, that and what she did next. Harry, earlier, had opened a way without much effort. But all Molly did, was snap her fingers, and a portal three times the size Harry had conjured appeared in front of us. Thomas Raith darted through. He came back almost immediately, nodding. “It’s safe. My family’s grounds in Chicago.” He sketched a bow to Molly. “Thank you.”

A few gestures to the mercenaries got the whole group moving through the Way. We waited and let everyone pass. Most people paused to express their thanks. None of them came close, though. All kept their distance, especially from Harry and Molly. I could tell from the expression on Harry’s face that he didn’t like it. Molly’s poker face was better. If she minded, it didn’t show.

When everyone was through, Molly turned to Elaine and Thomas Raith, who had waited until last. “Both of you are welcome to come along as well, you know.”

Elaine refused with a quick shake of her head before following her ParaNetters. Raith shot a quick look at Harry before graciously bowing out. “I’m expected to give a report of this as soon as possible. Enjoy the party.”

Harry snorted. “You know me, I can have fun anywhere.”

Thomas shook his head and went after Elaine. That left just Harry, Molly and me, still in the Nevernever.

“You do know you’re an idiot, right?” Harry mumbled to me while Molly closed the Way.

“I learned from the best, Dresden.” The banter came effortlessly, but nevertheless it felt odd. Molly, in the meantime, had moved a few feet to the left and opened another Way. This one seemed to take a little more effort. “So where are we going?”

“Arctis Tor. Do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect 200 dollars,” Harry supplied. “Party’s about to start. We’re cutting it close. Oh yeah." He turned and offered me his hand. "Merry Christmas.”
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