A/N: Well, this is it - the final part of this series. A big thanks to everyone who's come along for the ride so far; I really appreciate it. I hope this story wraps up the series for you in a satisfactory way. It may take a few months to finish, mind you - Harry's about to run into just about everyone he's ever known - including a few he thought he was rid of. Anyway, enjoy!
My hand tightened on the stone in frustration, and a little anger crept into my voice. "I'm being watched, Sir. The FBI think I'm a terrorist."
On the other side of a dark expanse, Ebenezar McCoy was far calmer than I. He absently scratched at his wispy white beard with a large, muscular hand. "I know, Hoss. But I have no influence with the FBI."
"I know, Sir. But… doesn't someone? Someone on the council?" I emphasised the last word, ever so slightly.
McCoy lifted a finger to me. "Be careful, boy. Just because this conversation is all in our heads, don't think no one else can hear it." He lowered his hand and sighed. "Look, I know how much you've gone through lately, how much you've lost. But you have to stop and think rationally."
I shrugged. "You're right. I guess I was just a little hot under the collar because the weather's been crap for three straight weeks." He nodded, mollified. "And I've been put on a domestic watch-list." One of his eyebrows went up, and my voice took on a cold edge. "And my apprentice was chased into the Nevernever, fleeing for her life." He took a breath. "And my freaking house was burned down by an angry Fallen Angel!"
"I get it, Harry. And I'm sorry." My teacher, my grandfather, sighed and deflated. He didn't respond with anger, which I had been expecting, and kind of hoping for. He was tired. No, that wasn't quite right. He was weary.
I'd barely spoken to the old man in three weeks. Something had been taking its toll on him, too. Some of the fire went out of my belly. He continued, "I know you've suffered a lot, especially lately. And I wish I could've stopped it all." Some colour returned to his cheeks. "But you've got to understand you're not the only one. Titania, or whatever she's become, has been hitting all kinds of targets this past month. Crippling several of our friends."
A-ha. Note the use of emphasis. He was talking about the Grey Council.
"But beyond all of that," he said, "there's the balance issue. I know, a hit against the Summer Court of the Fae would likely cripple the Black Council, or the Circle, or whatever the hell they call themselves. But, and you have to remember, it would throw the Summer and Winter Courts out of balance. And that could have enormous repercussions."
I grimaced. He was right. The Circle, a sort-of supernatural Legion of Doom, had been building toward… well, something, for the last few years, and lately, all signs pointed to endgame.
Unfortunately for the only professional wizard in the Chicago phone book, my city seemed to figure in their plans. Somehow, I'd managed to get caught up in those plans a few times over the years, and ruined them. A while back, the Circle had decided killing me was the best way to stop that from happening anymore, but I was their rotten apple.
Titania, Queen of Land and Light, Queen of the Summer Court of the Sidhe, was the brains behind the Circle. Unfortunately, I'd recently learned she was also pretty cracked, thanks to an Outsider that called itself He Who Walks Behind. Or Legion, if you've heard of him.
Sigh. I need a flow chart to keep it all straight.
"So," I said slowly, "you're saying we can't hit back, Sir? After everything they've done, everything they're responsible for, she gets off on diplomatic immunity?" I couldn't keep the frustration out of my voice.
A cold, hard smile appeared on his lips, and some life jumped back into his eyes. This was the Ebenezar I knew. "Hell's bells, boy, of course not. I mean we need to wait… until we can hit both Courts at the same time."
My eyebrows spocked themselves. "Um. What?"
"You heard me, Hoss."
I blinked. I had not been expecting this. "Uh, I thought we were on good terms with Winter. Mab lets us use the Ways, and she hasn't tried to get me killed recently."
"True, but who knows what her motives are? And we have to maintain the balance, boy. You think there's any chance at all that Mab won't press an advantage if we hit at the heart of Summer?"
I blew air threw my nose and made a face, but neither action changed what I knew: Mab would destroy Summer if the opportunity presented itself. That action would eventually sink Earth into an ice age from which it would never recover. "No, I don't. She'd press it, and we'd all get crushed."
"But going after both Courts, at the same time… you must have a few heavyweights in the Grey Corner, Sir."
He snorted. "You might say that." He looked down and drew out an old pocket watch. "Gotta go, Hoss. I'll get in touch in a day or two, when I know more."
I nodded, respectfully. "See you then, Sir." I watch McCoy extend his hand out over the edge of the circle he sat in, and he vanished.
Actually, the whole dark room we were talking in vanished, to be replaced by Karrin Murphy's spare bedroom. I made an effort of will, and broke the circle of sand I sat cross-legged in. Feeling the return of magic circulating around my skin, I sighed and turned to my left. Mouse, a dog the same size as I am, looked at me with remarkably intelligent eyes. "Well," I said, "that was interesting."
I turned to my right, and saw the shortest, blondest, cutest, deadliest woman I knew sitting on the bed. "What's interesting?" Karrin Murphy asked.
I explained what McCoy had said while I stood and got the blood flowing through my legs again.
Murph's brows furrowed and her arms crossed themselves. "I see his point, but wouldn't hitting both Queens be impossible? I mean, aren't each of them as strong as the Senior Council?"
"Actually, Mab or Titania could each probably wipe the floor with the entire White Council on their own, unless we got ridiculously lucky. The amount of power required to take them down… I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist. Or at least, human beings aren't capable." I dropped the calling stone on the dresser I had been using for the last few weeks, among several other decoy stones.
Murph thought for a moment, and I rubbed my knees. They'd taken a lot of punishment over the years, and sitting for a long time tended to make them cramp up. Of course, being a wizard, if I stopped hurting them, they'd heal up good as new, eventually. Unfortunately, my life rarely allowed for time to breathe, let alone heal.
"If she's so strong," Murphy asked, "how did we survive the raid on Arctis Tor? You told me she was there, watching us."
"Simple. Mab wanted us to."
"She wanted us to rescue Molly? After her people – no, wait, that's wrong." She looked at me, her eyes asking a question.
"Phages," I supplied.
"After her phages kidnapped Molly?"
I twisted and cracked my back, producing a satisfying series of pops. "Yes." I shook my head. "I still don't know what Mab's motives are. Sometimes, she's easy to read. Mostly, though, she's like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube in the dark."
Murphy leaned forward on her knees, then absently touched a wooden walking stick lying on the bed next to her. I nodded at it. "Awaiting divine inspiration?"
She glanced up at me. "Hmm? Oh, no. I guess I just find it… reassuring." She didn't remove her hand, though. I understood. I'd seen Michael Carpenter, Molly's father, use the sword he once carried in much the same way. I wasn't surprised that Murph, as the newest member of the Knights of the Cross, had developed the same habit. The Swords of the Cross were items of remarkable power.
"It really hasn't done anything supernatural since we left the island," she said. "But the air in this town has just felt… off lately."
"Michael once told me Amoracchius could be quiet for weeks at a time, then keep him busy for months straight." I picked up my staff. The way things had gone in the last few months, I also didn't like being away from my tools or weapons.
She smiled out one side of her mouth. "Then I'm about due for a busy phase."
"If you say so. You're the Knight."
She rolled her eyes at me. "You go running today?"
I nodded. "Yeah." I sighed. "Could only keep up a pace for six minutes."
"Harry, I know you used to run half-marathons, but you had a heart attack 3 weeks ago. I don't know how you keep up any pace at all."
"Foolish mortal," I said in a big voice. "Mighty wizard."
"Uh-huh. How's Elaine?"
I lost all of my bravado. "Oh, you know. We've been out to dinner and the movies a couple of times. She's helping me look for a place, but things are a little tight, until the insurance cheques come in."
"So you two haven't… you know?"
"Oh, come on Murph, you're killing me."
"I'm just asking a question."
"A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell."
"Well, I can accuse you of many things, Harry Dresden, but not being a gentleman isn't one of them."
"Thank you," I said. I still felt awkward. "So… how's Graver?" I was making conversation, but Murph and her PI partner had been getting along beautifully.
She stood. "Oh, Vince is fine. Work's steady, and so is the pay, so he's happy. He wants me to stay longer, but I told him I'm definitely leaving town after New Year's." She paused. "He still asks about Molly." Mouse stood, too, and Murph gave him a scratch behind the ears, which he loved. He led her out to the living room and its many doilies. I followed, thoughts of Molly and the Council's actions against her giving rise to anger.
"Yeah, well, we'd all like to know what happened to her."
"The Council never found her. That could be a good thing."
"They gave up when they figured out that Klaus Schneider is Cowl. Bigger fish, and all that. They finally decided hunting down a crazed necromancer is more important than a lowly apprentice who's never killed anybody."
I like to think that I manage to keep my emotions under control. I like to think that I can separate personal feelings from politics. I like to think that I know when I'm angry.
I like to think a lot of things. Doesn't make them all true.
"Your staff is shaking."
I looked down, and sure enough, my carved oak staff was vibrating in my hand. I was shaking in anger. I put it up against the wall and crossed my arms.
"I've said it before, Dresden. What happened to her isn't your fault."
"I was off chasing my own questions when I should have been training her, Karrin. How is it not my fault?"
"I only meant that it's a stupid rule in the first place."
I snorted. "Yeah, I'll give you that. But if I hadn't disappeared for a month, that mess would have been avoided."
"And no one would know about the Jade Court's involvement with the Circle. You made a choice, there was a consequence."
"You trying to say I should be zen about it? No good deed, and all that?"
She shrugged. "I was going to say, 'shit happens', but your way's more eloquent."
I smirked and glanced to the side. I caught sight of the twilit street through a crack in the drapes, saw some snow drifting in the streetlights. Murphy followed my gaze. "They still out there?"
I closed my eyes, and turned my concentration to the wards I had assembled around Murph's house over the last couple of weeks. Wards are a wizard's first line of defence, like a burglar alarm. They were rings of energy, attached to and stretching out from the threshold of her old family home, granting them a remarkable strength.
A threshold is hard to describe; It's essentially the magic of a home. Every time there's a happy laugh, a tender touch, a reassuring hug, a kind word spoken, the threshold of a home grows stronger.
Even long after a family has departed, the residue of a threshold can remain, blocking out evil and cruelty, and making it difficult for supernatural beings – or even mortal magic, like mine – to cross into the home. If I, or any other wizard, tried to cross a threshold without an invitation, we'd be leaving most of our magic at the door.
It was also a great anchor to tie other magic to. Especially protective magic.
I felt along the wards for pressure, the push of a constant or rapidly repeated presence. A person walking by might be noticeable to a ward, but only for a moment. Someone sitting outside your house for hours on end, waiting for you, would make a real dent. And I felt a dent.
"Yeah," I said, opening my eyes. "Other side of the road, two lots down."
"Wow. Twenty days in a row. The FBI really like you, Harry." She started into the kitchen, and Mouse faithfully trotted beside her. He was hoping there would be scraps, of course.
"I think they hate me. And the only reason they're still watching is because they haven't got enough evidence to come charging in. You have any idea how hard it is to meet clients when you're being tailed by federal agents?"
I grabbed my staff again and followed her around the corner.
"Yes," she said, filling the kettle from the tap, "but they stopped following me a week ago. Apparently, I'm trustworthy."
I shook my head. "And you carry a sword everywhere you go." I turned to Mouse. "It's because she's a blonde, isn't it?"
He sneezed at me.
"I knew it."
Murph diplomatically ignored me. "I'm having Earl Grey. You want some?"
As she was asking, I suddenly became aware of pressure on the side of my brain. I snapped my head around. Something was in the backyard. And it was getting closer, slowly.
"Harry? I asked – what? What is it?"
I gripped my staff tightly, and stepped into the hallway, looking at the back door. "There's someone out back," I said. I moved quickly to the door, and Mouse and Murph followed me. I stopped there, waiting while she ducked into her bedroom. She emerged a moment later with a Glock in her hands and the Sword, Fidelacchius, slung over her shoulder.
I lifted a slat of the blind, and peered through it. I glanced side to side, and saw nothing but Murphy's darkened backyard, covered in snow. I dropped the slat.
"Harry?" Murph whispered.
"Just a sec," I said. The pressure was still there, moving gently through my wards. I just couldn't see what was causing it. Well, not with my normal eyes, anyway. I closed them and gathered up my concentration, focussing on a chakra point about in the middle of my forehead. I opened my eyes, and opened my Sight with them.
The Sight is a natural ability of all wizards. With it, they can see things as they really are, patterns of energy and intent, chaos and stability, life and death, all moving around in a colourful cacophony that reveals the truth of a thing. But once Seen, nothing can ever be Unseen… unless you're on good terms with the memory-eating Jade Court, but I'm not right now.
I Saw the wall of the Murphy house, generations old, and strong, radiating golden love and blue joy, and a bit of red sadness. I Saw the silver purity of the snow falling beyond the wall, and the green potential lushness of the hibernating trees, waiting for their chance to spring back to life.
And I saw a deep violet person-shaped being walking towards the house. It was human, no question about that, full of strength and faith and love, but it was overlaid with something cold and cruel and hard. I caught my breath.
I closed all of my eyes, and shook the sensation of the Sight away. I couldn't be completely certain, but I thought I knew who was out there. "I don't believe it," I said.
"What?" Murphy asked.
"Murph, I need you to trust me on this. I'm going to open the door."
"All right, but I'm not putting this away." She indicated her gun.
"I'd expect nothing else."
I opened the door at a reasonable, unhurried speed. Then, just in case the Federal Bureau of Intrusiveness was listening, I said, "Mister? Here, kitty. You out here? No?" I took a step back and dropped my voice. "I don't live here, but come on in. And close the door," I added quietly.
The door appeared to close all by itself. An instant later, a veil parted, and a young woman, just a couple inches shorter than I, shimmered into existence. She wore jeans, heavy boots, a blood red men's shirt and her shoulder-length hair was dyed, purest white on her left side, deepest purple on her right. She had a light jacket in spite of the cold, a pair of rosy cheeks, and a sword over her shoulder.
She looked at Murphy, smiled. Then she turned to me, slowly, licked her lips and smiled more broadly. Her eyes welled up a little. Damned if mine didn't, too.
"Hello, Grasshopper," I said.
"Hi, Harry," Molly said.
I stared at my former apprentice, conflicted. On one hand, she was a wanted criminal, who had violated the Laws of Magic, ended up on probation, and failed her competency tests, resulting in her being branded a dangerous warlock.
On the other hand, I loved the kid, was overwhelmed that she was alive, and knew all that warlock stuff was mostly a bunch of crap, anyway.
The conflict didn't last long. I dropped my staff, grabbed her in a big hug, and squeezed.
She squeezed back, laughing a little.
"Stars and stones, kid." I pushed her to arm's length, but didn't let go. "Where have you been? Have you seen your family yet?"
"No," she said, her smile faltering. "I wanted – I needed, to see you first."
"Why? Molly, they are going to be - " I cut myself off, looking at her face. Something was different.
"Harry?" Murphy asked. "What's wrong?"
"Molly," I said, glancing up and down, "Are you taller?"
She looked down and took a breath. "Harry, there's something I need to tell you." Before I could stop her, she added, "And you're not going to like it."
I really hate that expression. It's almost always true.
She looked me in the eyes, and I saw something there I'd never thought myself prepared for: age. She was older, and I don't mean physically, but her attitude, her bearing. She seemed wider in the shoulder, too. She was older in spirit. She had seen – or done – something major. Something life-altering.
Something that would get her the protection of the Sidhe.
Harry, a voice whispered in my mind, this makes sense. A horrible, sad form of sense.
Internally, I shouted at the Fallen Angel living in my corpus callosum, No! She wouldn't have done something that stupid!
Think of all Mab has ever done regarding her. And think of how much you still had to teach her! I suggest you ask. I felt a pair of feminine arms crossing inside my chest. Just to be sure.
"Molly," I said slowly, "who protected you? Where did you go? I couldn't find you anywhere, and finding things is kind of my specialty."
"That's… that's what I need to explain to you."
Murphy was standing beside us, looking up, her eyes ping-ponging between us.
"Please tell me you didn't do what I think you did."
The kid bit her lip and closed her eyes. Yeah, I know she's in her early twenties, but I say 'kid' because I've known her since before she knew what sex was.
She opened her eyes again, and there was a hard edge in them I'd never seen before. "I didn't have a choice, Harry. The Council was going to hunt me down." A tear rolled down one cheek.
I clenched my jaw so tightly my teeth ground against each other and made a squeaking sound.
"Hey," Murph said to both of us. "What happened? What didn't you have a choice about?"
Molly and I looked at each other, and I sagged a bit. I felt so powerless in that moment, so guilty, I couldn't even speak. My former apprentice turned to Murph. "I'm the new Winter Knight," she said.