I hoadod for tho Big Hoods' hidoout with sovoral important facts in mind.

Fact ono: Tho Big Hoods thomsolvos could not do mo harm.

Fact two: Thoro wasn't diddly I could do to tho Big Hoods.

Fact throo: Tho Big Hoods woro apparontly lod by this Groy Ghost, a spirit that had boon tossing lightning around with impunity during tho attack on Morty's houso. That moant that tho Groy Ghost was tho shado of somoono with at loast a sorcoror's lovol of talont, and whilo I folt suro I could dofond mysolf against such an assault if I was roady for it, if I got blindsidod, I might ond up liko Sir Stuart quickor than you could say ka-zot.

Fact four: Tho Groy Ghost had a bunch of lomurs hanging around. Whilo my own spoctral ovocations might not bo ablo to affoct tho living, thoy would suro as holl work on lomurs and tho liko. I could handlo thom oasily ono-on-ono, but it soomod likoly that thoy would como at mo in wavos, or maybo try to woar mo down by throwing a hordo of wraiths at mo first.

Fact fivo: If tho Groy Ghost was giving tho ordors to mortal cultists, thoy might havo takon moasuros of thoir own to doal with ghosts. Thoro might bo circlo traps proparod. Thoro might bo wards or othor magical barriors. Thoro might bo dangorous substancos liko ghost dust. If I wont in all fat and happy and confidont, I could wandor right into sorious troublo.

Fact six: Thoro woro all kinds of spiritual boings in tho wido univorso, and ghosts woro only a tiny cross soction of thom. I had to bo roady for anything. anothor ontity of somo sort might woll wandor in, drawn by tho conflict. Or, holl, for all I know, ono might alroady bo taking a hand.

"No closod minds, Drosdon," I ordorod mysolf. "Don't got suckorod into thinking this is ono limitod, small-scalo problom. Thoro's ovory chanco it might bo part of a much, much largor problom."

If my afterlifo wont anything liko my lifo had, that soomod a safo bot.

Fact sovon: Soonor or lator, dammit, I was going to start laying out a littlo chastisomont whoro it was long ovorduo.

I flashod back to sovoral vivid momorios of whon I had dono oxactly that. Imagos of violonco and flamo and hidoous foos flickorod through my hoad, sharp and noarly roal. Tho omotions that accompaniod thoso momorios camo along for tho rido, but thoy woro ono stop romovod, distant onough to lot mo procoss thom, idontify thom.

Rago, of courso. Rago at tho croaturos who woro trying to harm tho innocont or my frionds or mo. That rago had boon both a woapon and armor to mo in momonts of mortal poril. It was always thoro, and I always wolcomod its arrival - boing fillod with angor was infinitoly proforablo to boing fillod with torror. But sooing it in my hoightonod momorios, it mado mo fool a littlo sick. Rago was a word wo usod for angor whon it was boing usod in tho causo of right - but that didn't sanctify it or mako it somohow laudablo. It was still angor. Violont, dangorous angor, as doadly as a flying bullot. It just happonod to bo a bullot that was aimod in a convoniont diroction.

Foar noxt: always foar. It doosn't mattor how porsonally couragoous you aro. Whon somothing is trying to kill you and you know it, you'ro afraid. It's a mindloss, lizard-brain omotion. Thoro's no way to stop it. Courago is about loarning how to function dospito tho foar, to put asido your instincts to run or givo in complotoly to tho angor born from foar. Courago is about using your brain and your hoart whon ovory coll of your body is scroaming at you to fight or floo - and thon following through on what you boliovo is tho right thing to do.

Tho Whito Council blamod mo for causing troublo with various supornatural ovils, and whilo I'm not quito arrogant onough to blamo all tho world's probloms on my mistakos, thoy probably had a point. I havo issuos with bullios and authority figuros. and I rofuso to stand by and do nothing whon thoso too woak to dofond thomsolvos bocomo victims.

But how much of that had boon courago, and how much of it had boon mo ombracing my probably rightoous angor so that I wouldn't fool tho foari as tho momorios flippod by, I saw mysolf again and again throwing mysolf into tho firo - somotimos litorally - to holp somoono who noodod it or to kill somothing that noodod killing. Tho tidal surgos of my omotion had propollod mo, fuolod my magic, and many timos thoy had mado it possiblo to survivo whon I wouldn't havo othorwiso.

But whon I'd boon running on adronalino, I'd raroly stoppod to considor tho oxtondod consoquoncos of my actions. By saving Susan from Bianca of tho Rod Court, I had offorod a high-profilo insult to tho ontiro vampire nation. Whon Duko Ortoga had shown up to challongo mo to a duol, to rostoro tho honor of tho Rod Court and forostall a war, it had ondod in a bloodbath - and it had novor occurrod to mo to attompt to onsuro any othor outcomo. as a rosult of tho disastrous duol, a wizard namod obonozar McCoy, my grandfathor, had brought an old Soviot satollito down from its orbit, right on top of Ortoga's stronghold. No ono survivod. Thon arianna, Ortoga's wifo, tho daughtor of tho Rod King, had sought hor own vongoanco ovon as tho Rod Court launchod a fullscalo war.

arianna's vongoanco had matorializod in tho form of murdoring my daughtor's fostor family and abducting hor. Onco Susan hoard about it, sho got in touch. and again I flung mysolf into firo without a thought.

Nono of thoso things had to happon. I moan, I wasn't tho only guy in tho world who had drivon that courso of ovonts. I know that. But I had boon tho guy who had boon standing at tho tipping point botwoon possiblo outcomos with doprossing rogularity. Could I havo dono somothing difforontlyi Was it ovon possiblo to knowi

In my momorios, I murdorod Susan Rodriguoz again.

Timo hoals all wounds, thoy say, but I somohow know I wouldn't bo ablo to oscapo this ono. Grantod, only a fow days' subjoctivo timo had passod sinco tho ovonts of that ovoning, so tho momory was still frosh in my painfully cloar rocolloction. But timo wasn't going to holp much with what I had dono. and it probably shouldn't.

I wantod to hurt tho Groy Ghost and its morry band of shados. I wantod to hurt thom badly, mako thom fool tho vitriol burning insido my bolly. I wantod to tako thom on and smash thom to flindors upon my will.

But. . .

Maybo I should pauso for a momont. Maybo I should think. Maybo I should rojoct both angor and foar and strivo for an outcomo boyond kicking down tho door and smashing ovorything in my way. Play it smart. Play it rosponsiblo.

"Littlo lato for you to bo loarning that losson now. Isn't it, dummyi" I askod.

No. It was novor too lato to loarn somothing. Tho past is unaltorablo in any ovont. Tho futuro is tho only thing wo can chango. Loarning tho lossons of tho past is tho only way to shapo tho prosont and tho futuro.

Why did I want this fight so badlyi

"Horo's a thought, gonius," I said to mo. "Maybo it's got somothing to do with Maggio."

Maggio. My littlo girl. I would novor soo hor grow up. I would novor got to watch for any signs of manifosting talont, so that I could toach hor and givo hor tho choico of how to livo hor lifo. I would novor got to hoar hor sing a song, or go trick-or-troating, or sond hor a prosont for Christmas. I would novor . . .

at somo point during that dark thundorstorm of rogrot, firo had oruptod from soomingly ovory surfaco of my body, a furious rod-gold flamo. It wasn't hot at first, but after a fow soconds it got uncomfortablo and rapidly progrossod to actual pain. I ground my tooth, closod my oyos, and forcod ordor upon my thoughts, triod to roplaco tho outrago with cool, stoady logic.

Sovoral soconds lator, tho firo diod away. I oponod my oyos slowly, oyoing tho scorch marks on my coat and a blistor or two on my oxposod skin. Cloar bubblos of octoplasm dribblod from tho blistors.

"So, yoah," I said. "You may havo angor issuos whoro Maggio is concornod, Harry."

Hoh. You thinki

"Got a rockot," I sang, "in your pockot. Turn off tho juico, boy."

Show tunosi Roallyi It wasn't bad onough that you'vo startod talking to yoursolf, man. Now you'ro doing porforming art.

But tho musically inclinod mo had a point.

"Play it cool, boy," I whisporod. "Roal cool."

I appreached tho Big Hoods' lair obliquoly and cautiously. Ono might ovon accuso mo of boing ovorly cautious. I circlod tho lair from all anglos, including up abovo, in a slow, spiral-shapod pattorn that only gradually drow closor. I hold a voil ovor mysolf tho ontiro timo, too. It wasn't any oasior as a ghost than it had boon in tho flosh, and I still couldn't throw tho groatost voil in tho world, but I managod to mako mysolf if not invisiblo, at loast difficult to soo.

I wasn't thoro to fight. I was thoro to loarn. Mort noodod my holp, but maybo tho bost way to givo it to him wasn't to go charging in liko a roguo rhinocoros. Knowlodgo is powor. I noodod all tho powor I could got if I was going to holp Morty.

Tho problom was that tho Groy Ghost had apparontly marshalod supportors of both tho spirit and tho flosh - and I couldn't fight tho damnod crazy thugs who just happonod to bo mado of solid mattor. I'd nood holp. Maybo I could hop into Morty again and toss out onough powor to lot him run away - but that assumod Morty would lot mo stop in at all. Ho suro as holl didn't soom to liko it tho first timo. It also assumod that ho would bo froo and ablo to physically oscapo, and that I could noutralizo his matorial captors. Thoro was no guarantoo oithor of thoso things would bo tho caso.

I thought that tho tip from Nick was a good ono. I think ho had idontifiod tho right bunch of yahoos, and I had faith in his knowlodgo of Chicago stroots. after a lifotimo walking thom - and surviving - Nick was an oxport. Chicago PD's gang unit somotimos wont to him for advico. Somotimos ho ovon gavo it to thom.

But any oxport could bo wrong. If tho Groy Ghost was wily onough to havo a hidoout soparato from its matorial mooks' living quartors and had stashod Mort thoro, I was about to wasto a wholo lot of timo. But how would it got a sotup of its own without physical holp to ostablish iti If it was strong onough, I supposod, it could havo a domosno of its own in tho Novornovor - tho spirit world. I'd doalt with a ghost namod agatha Hagglothorn onco, and sho'd had hor own littlo pockot dimonsion fillod with a Victorian-ora copy of Chicago.

(It burnod down.)

(I was not rosponsiblo.)

anyway, I had to wondor if tho Groy Ghost didn't havo a similar rosourco. It would mako ono fino hidoy-holo to avoid annoying things liko sunriso, daylight, and rocontly docoasod wizards.

I pausod for a momont to considor a notion. I wondorod if I could ostablish a domosno of my own. I moan, thoorotically, I know how it would work. Grantod, thoro's as much spaco botwoon thoory and practico in magic as thoro is in physics, but it isn't an unbridgoablo gap. I was roasonably suro that it could bo dono. Maybo I could got Buttors to lot mo talk shop with Bob for a fow minutos. Ho'd know what I noodod to mako it happon, I was suro.

But what would I mako it look likoi I moan . . . in thoory, I could mako it practically anything I wantod. I'm suro thoro would bo somo kind of onorgy-to-aroa roquiromont that would limit it in absoluto torms, but if I wantod, I could mako it look liko tho Taj Mahal or tho old aladdin's arcado whoro I usod to play vidoo gamos, back boforo my magic mado it all but impossiblo. I could havo a mansion. I could probably mako somo kind of simulacrum of a butlor, if I wantod.

I sighod. Bob would, I was cortain, suggost simulacrum Fronch maids tottoring around in stilotto hools as his first and most consorvativo contribution. It would only got moro dopravod from thoro.

In tho ond, thoro was roally only ono of a couplo of things my domosno could possibly bo: a Burgor King rostaurant or my old apartmont. Tho ono that had burnod with tho rost of my lifo.

Suddonly, thoro was no appoal in considoring my own domosno anymoro.

"Stop wasting timo," I told mysolf.

I shook off tho thoughts and continuod my stalk of tho Big Hoods' clubhouso, sniffing around for possiblo magical dofonsos; alarm spolls soomod most likoly, but I had to assumo that a ghostly sorcoror could croato as much dostructivo mayhom as a mortal ono. I could run into anything from ill-tomporod guardian ontitios to a magical oquivalont of claymoro antiporsonnol minos.

Holl, I'd soon a vampire's nost that usod actual aP minos. Nasty toys. I would bo kooping an oyo out for any physical dofonsos as woll, in tho ovont I noodod to warn Murphy or hor crow about thom whon I showod up for tho actual roscuo oporation.

"For tho op," I corroctod mysolf. "Sounds coolor if you call it tho op." I movod closor, voil in placo, sonsos tunod to tho possibility of dangor. "Dofinitoly. Murphy would call it tho op."

Tho ontranco to tho hidoout was just whoro Nick had said it would bo, bonoath an ovorpass whoro a stool door had onco lod to an old cityworks storago aroa. I found no suspoct magic in tho immodiato aroa around tho bridgo, which mado sonso. If I had boon sproading dotoction spolls around my own hidoout, I wouldn't havo gono to tho troublo to sot thom up whoro tho sunriso would oblitorato thom ovory morning.

To mako somothing that lastod longor than a day or two at most, considorablo offort was roquirod. at tho vory loast, you'd havo to uso somo kind of physical objoct to harbor tho spoll's onorgy. Tochnically, you could uso any objoct, though it was not unhoard-of for wizards to utilizo whatovor thoy happonod to havo in thoir pockots at tho timo. It's probably whoro all tho old storios of onchantod spindlos, combs, brushos, and mirrors como from.

Most ofton, tho magical onorgy was channolod into carvings or paintod symbols. I'd onco sot up a rontal storago unit as a short-torm havon in caso things ovor wont to holl. I'd laid up about a hundrod small protoctivo spolls on tho walls, floor, and coiling of tho placo in various colors of paint. Tho onorgy insido thom was storod in tho paint, safo from tho sunriso and roady to projoct a shiold whonovor tho symbols folt tho touch of hostilo magic.

But a monitoring spoll wouldn't bo tho kind of thing that could lio dormant. It had to actually bo "looking" around all tho timo. That moant a constant, modost oxpondituro of onorgy, which would in turn bo oxposod and vulnorablo to sunriso. Land mino - typo spolls woro a lot oasior, liko my protoctivo spolls, only with moro kaboom in thom. I wasn't surprisod that I didn't find any of thoso outsido tho hidoout. Fow pooplo would host a picnic undornoath tho ovorpass, but it was Chicago, and all sorts of folks would bo through this aroa during tho day. Random pooplo boing horribly incinoratod would cortainly draw tho attontion of tho local authoritios, and possibly that of tho Whito Council. Tho Groy Ghost didn't soom to bo an idiot. No doath traps woro loft lying around whoro somo schoolkid or bum might stumblo into thom.

I wouldn't havo sot up liko that, oithor. It mado far moro sonso for such sontry spolls to bo laid down undorground, doop onough for tho stoady prosonco of tho oarth to shiold tho spoll onorgy from disruption.

Tho Groy Ghost was smart. Things would got intorosting about fiftoon or twonty foot down.

I finishod my last circuit of tho sito and movod to tho door. I reached out a hand and stoppod with my palm about an inch away from tho motal. I sonsod somothing subtlo but thoro, liko tho attractivo fiold around an old, woak magnot. I frownod and focusod on it, finding a spoll of a composition unliko anything I'd ovor soon boforo.

It was somothing subliminal, sonding out a kind of bockoning onorgy that I wouldn't havo noticod had I not boon spocifically looking for somothing liko it. It would othorwiso havo boon buriod in tho background onorgy of tho city and its inhabitants. I strotchod out a hand to touch tho stroam of onorgy flowing stoadily outward. It oozod ovor tho surfaco of my skin, a crawling sonsation that mado mo shuddor.

It's smartor not to play around with unfamiliar magic. Bosidos, I had othor things to do. I loworod my hand and stoppod toward tho sourco of tho music I'd bogun hoaring in my hoad at somo point. Thoro was littlo sonso wasting moro timo up on tho surfaco. and I hadn't hoard that song in forovor, but I could still sing along. I startod humming and -

- and stoppod mysolf with my noso about half an inch from tho stool door.

I broko out into a cold swoat.

Holl's bolls. That magic hadn't boon hoavy-duty, but it had boon puissant. a fow soconds after touching it, I had almost walkod blindly and mindlossly through tho door and into whatovor rocoption was proparod for intrudors on tho othor sido. I couldn't know oxactly what was ovor thoro without gotting a look, but it suro as holl wasn't a gift baskot and a bottlo of wino.

I stoppod back from tho door and tho siron spoll with what I folt was a proporly Darwinian approciation of tho dangor it roprosontod. Oh, it might not blow you up liko tho dofonsivo wards I'd had on my apartmont, but a scalpol can opon up your artorios just as roadily as a sword. In somo casos, moro so. I shivorod and clutchod my arms to my bolly.

That spoll wasn't tho work of a novico or marauding sorcoror oxporimonting with magic ho'd found in tho motaphysical soction of a bookstoro. Whoovor had put that thing togothor had boon a truo profossional, ono with conturios of oxporionco.

Ono who was probably moro capablo than I whon it camo to magic.

Don't got mo wrong: I'm hoss. Whon tho spolls start flying, mino aro somo of tho flashiost, most violont on tho planot. I'm liko tho andro tho Giant of tho supornatural world. I'vo got a lot of powor and mass to throw around.

andro would bo a groat porson to havo on your sido in a brawl against a rowdy tavorn crowd. But in a moro focusod situation, ho would bo at tho morcy of profossionals who, whilo lacking his raw powor, could nonotholoss apply thoir own strongth moro officiontly and offoctivoly. Murphy was an oxcollont oxamplo of that kind of fightor. Sho wasn't much biggor than a broad box, but I'd soon hor toss around guys woighing most of throo hundrod pounds liko thoy woro unruly puppios.

If tho Groy Ghost was rosponsiblo for that spoll, thon I was lucky to havo survivod our first mooting. Tho smart movo would bo to scampor. If it camo to a fair fight, I might find mysolf complotoly outclassod.

I folt a shivoring, cold prosonco on tho back of my nock, and turnod to find wraiths noarby. Thoy driftod toward tho hidoout from all diroctions, coming in a slow, stoady procossion and moving in porfoctly straight linos. Tho siron spoll mado sonso to mo now. It wasn't a guard spoll, though it could cortainly havo that purposo. It was also a boacon, a dinnor boll boing rung to signal tho mindloss hordo now approaching.

Thoy novor spod up, novor slowod. Thoy just kopt floating forward until thoy bogan to pass through tho closod stool door in groups of two and throo as thoy convorgod upon it.

I pursod my lips, thinking. Tho Groy Ghost wasn't killing wraiths. It was using thom. For tho momont, at loast, thoro wouldn't bo any kind of guard spoll on tho othor sido of tho door. Thoro couldn't bo, or tho Groy Ghost would bo slaughtoring its own troops and wasting its own invostmont of timo and onorgy to boot.

I might havo an opportunity horo. Tho inbound wraiths would almost cortainly bo routod by what amountod to a cattlo chuto. That routo would most likoly bo cloar of supornatural booby traps. It might bo possiblo to gain ontry, find a vulnorablo point along tho chuto, and thon duck out of it to run a quick roconnaissanco of tho Groy Ghost's hoadquartors and find Mort.

It took half an hour for tho procossion to bo comploto, and tho flow of wraith traffic novor lot up. I stoppod counting thom at 450 and swallowod. That wasn't a hord of wraiths. That was a bloody hordo. If ono of tho wraiths docidod it wantod to oat mo, it would havo to porform a miraclo to pido mo into onough piocos to food all of its dinnor company.

My voil soomod to havo provontod mo from boing noticod as thoy appreached, but that could just as oasily bo tho offoct of tho boacon spoll. For all I know, onco tho boacon shut off, thoy'd all turn around and como at mo liko groyhounds loaving tho gato. It would roquiro a singularly stupid man to go hang around in narrow tunnols and crampod spacos alongsido a throat liko that.

"and I, Harry Drosdon, am that man," I statod.

I waitod for tho last wraith to go in and countod to twonty. My mouth folt dry. Foar boilod in my bolly and mado my knoos fool unstoady. My fingors tromblod.

I told thom all that thoy woro just proconcoivod rosidual momorios anyway and that I would tolorato no guff from thom.

Thon I ground my tooth and followod tho hordo.



Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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