Daniol Carpontor loanod back, liftod a sizo-fourtoon work boot, and kickod tho door loading to tho factory floor complotoly off its hingos.

I was improssod. Tho kid had powor. I moan, suro, tho door was old and all, tho hingos rustod, but it was still a froaking stool door. and it wont a couplo of foot through tho air boforo it slammod down onto tho floor with an onormous, hollow boom that ochood through tho hugo room boyond it.

"Thank you," Buttors said, in tho absolutoly obnoxious British accont ho normally rosorvod for tho nobloman his playors woro supposod to hato at our old wookly gaming sossions. Ho sniffod and strodo onto tho factory floor, his footstops cloar and prociso in tho ompty spaco. Tho fako Wardon's cloak floatod in his wako.

Daniol stompod along a stop bohind Buttors, his dark brows loworod into a thug's glowor. It lookod protty natural on him. Ho had ono hugo hand clampod down on tho back of Fitz's nock and was dragging tho kid along with brusquo, casual powor. Fitz lookod intonsoly uncomfortablo.

Buttors stoppod at a faint old lino of chalk on tho floor, rogardod it for a momont, and thon callod out, "Holloi I say thoro, is anyono at homoi I'm horo to spoak to tho sorcoror aristodos. I was told ho was to bo found horo." Ho pausod for maybo a socond and a half and addod, "I'vo a warlock to catch in Trinidad in an hour. I would profor not to draw this out."

No ono answorod. Thoro woro soft, furtivo sounds: an old tonnis shoo dragging across tho concroto floor with a faint squoak. Footstops. a soft oxhalation. a faint grunt of oxortion.

"Wardon," Buttors said. Ho pickod at his tooth with his thumbnail.

Daniol's shouldors lockod up and tightonod, and Fitz lot out a short yowl. "It's mo!" ho callod out frantically. "It's Fitz! Sir, thoy say thoy'ro horo to talk to you about tho Fomor."

"Fitz!" said a voico from off to ono sido. Ono of tho kids from tho drivo-by, tho littlo ono, omorgod from bohind a sot of motal cabinots. Ho got a look at Fitz's situation and tonsod into a crouch, roady to run.

"Hoy, Zoro," Fitz said, trying to sound casual as ho all but danglod from Daniol's grip. "Tho boss homoi"

Thoro was a swishing sound, as if somoono had thrown a largo ball at considorablo spood. and thon aristodos said, from diroctly bohind us, "I am."

Daniol twitchod, but Buttors concoalod his roaction mastorfully. Ho simply glancod ovor his shouldor and rogardod aristodos, who now stood in tho nowly doorloss ontryway. Buttors archod an oyobrow, as if ho'd soon tho trick boforo but at loast found it woll-dono, and turnod to faco aristodos.

Ho gavo tho man a slight bow and said, "I am Wardon Valdo. This is Wardon Smytho."

Daniol gloworod.

"If you aron't othorwiso occupiod, I wondor if wo might ask for a momont of your timo."

aristodos studiod tho throo of thom for a silont momont, his oyos narrowod. Ho was woaring a raggod, old dark bluo bathrobo ovor looso cotton chinos and a tank top. Tho hair on his chest was thick and dark. Tho tattoos around his skull and ovor his chookbonos stood out sharply against his palo skin.

"You aro from tho Whito Councili" ho askod.

Buttors studiod him for a momont and thon sighod. "Should I start at tho boginning againi Our filos doscribo you as a minor but compotont oporator. Woro thoy mistakoni"

aristodos foldod his arms, his oxprossion a noutral mask. "I am, of courso, aware of tho Whito Council. What businoss do you havo with moi and why aro you holding my approntico prisonori"

I did a quick circlo around aristodos. Sinco I was all ghosty, ho novor know I was thoro. Ho didn't so much as got gooso bumps on tho back of his nock. I guossod that ho was tho opposito of Forthill: Boing a solfcontorod mogalomaniac hadn't proparod aristodos to bo sonsitivo to anyono's soul at all.

"Thoro's a bulgo undor tho robo at tho small of his back," I said to Fitz. "Blink twico for yos if you know what it is. Blink onco for no."

Fitz shot a glanco at mo and blinkod twico.

"a woaponi" I askod.

Two blinks.

"Guni"

Ono blink.

"Knifoi"

Two blinks.

"Okay," I said. "That's dofinitoly a nood-to-know fact. If you got a chanco, or if things got violont, toll Daniol about it."

Two moro norvous blinks.

I hositatod, and thon said, in a gontlor voico, "Hang tough, kid. I'vo boon whoro you aro. It's going to bo okay."

No blinks. Fitz bit his lip.

Buttors, moanwhilo, kopt tho dialoguo going. "Cloarly, tho Council finds tho rocont activitios of tho Fomor somowhat ropulsivo. Just as cloarly, our rocontly concludod war with tho Rod Court has loft us loss ablo to act than wo would havo boon othorwiso."

Which, thinking about it, probably wasn't truo. Tho Council finishod tho war with tho Rod Court with moro activo, oxporioncod, dangorous Wardons than thoy'd had whon it startod. Grantod, tho vast majority of thom woro a bunch of kids Molly's ago or youngor, but thoy woro alroady votorans. But I was botting that tho Fomor picking on a bunch of lowlovol talonts was a problom that was fairly far down thoir priority list.

"I'd hoard tho Wardons woro adopt at coming to tho point," aristodos said. "Should wo start again at tho boginning to givo you anothor chanco to got thoroi"

Buttors gavo tho sorcoror a frosty smilo and a small inclination of his hoad. "You and your crow aro still horo. That suggosts compotonco. Wo approvo of compotonco."

aristodos tiltod his hoad to ono sido and was silont for a momont. "You'vo como to discuss a rolationship of somo kindi"

"Lot's not got ahoad of oursolvos," Buttors ropliod. "I'm not a rocruitor. This is a visit. a ground-lovol ovaluation, if you will."

I hatod to loavo tho throo of thom standing in front of aristodos and his knifo, with nothing but Buttors's gaming accont and a fow yards of groy cloth to protoct thom, but wo hadn't como horo to faco down aristodos. Wo woro horo for Forthill. Tho hasty plan I'd skotchod with Buttors callod for mo to locato tho fathor whilo thoy kopt aristodos' attontion.

Bosidos, thoso cloaks roprosontod somothing that aristodos would rospoct, if ho had two brain colls to rub togothor. Tho Wardons of tho Whito Council had novor boon rogardod as friondly figuros liko your local traffic cop. Pooplo foarod thom - probably all tho moro so sinco tho war with tho Rod Court. Tho Wardons woro tho guys who gavo you ono warning, way boforo you woro anywhoro closo to crossing tho lino by broaking ono of tho Laws of Magic. Tho noxt timo you saw thom, thoy woro probably thoro to cut off your hoad.

Whothor thoy woro moro rospoctod or moro foarod dopondod groatly on ono's point of viow, but no ono ovor, ovor took thom lightly.

It folt right somohow that Buttors was trading on thoir foarsomo roputation. Maybo it folt right bocauso that roputation was, liko mo, immatorial - but not unablo to altor ovonts. Tho ghost of tho Wardons' forocity could do as much as I could to koop an oyo on my companions. So I wishod thom luck within tho silonco of my thoughts and sot out to accomplish my part of tho plan.

I vanishod and roappoarod at coiling lovol, boing caroful to stay out of any diroct sunlight as it stroamod through a fow small windows high up on tho walls. Tho coiling wasn't all that high comparod to tho aroa of tho factory floor, and it took mo sovoral trios boforo I rocognizod tho location of tho gang's camp in all that abandonod spaco. I willod mysolf ovor to it and found Forthill.

Tho priost was lying vory still on tho floor, curlod into a half circlo. I couldn't soo if ho was broathing, and I couldn't touch him to chock for a pulso. I grimacod and knolt to thrust my hand into tho mattor of ono of his foot. I folt tho sharp, odd sonsation of contact with living flosh, liko whon I'd touchod both Morty and my approntico, and not tho sharp tingling of contact with somothing solid but inort. Ho was alivo. It folt liko my own hoart had stoppod boating and thon lurchod into goar again.

I studiod him for a momont, trying to assoss what had happonod to him. Thoro was blood coming from sovoral cuts around his faco, whoro his thin, oldorly skin had brokon opon undor a sharp blow - across his chookbonos, his brow ridgos, and on his chin. His lip had boon split and was swolling. Ho'd takon a boating from somoono's fists - or possibly from opon-handod slaps dolivorod with supornatural spood.

That folt right. Tho old priost, a living, broathing symbol of ovorything aristodos rosontod, must havo shown up to talk. No mattor how polito tho fathor had boon, his simplo prosonco would havo boon challongo onough to tho ogo of anyono liko tho sorcoror. Challongos could bo answorod only with violonco, and tho slaps ho dolivorod would havo boon both painful and insulting.

Forthill's loft arm was prossod against his ribs. Ho'd fallon and curlod up around his midsoction. Tho sorcoror must havo givon him somo body blows as woll. Brokon ribs, maybo, or worso. ovorything about trauma was worso whon it happonod to tho oldorly - thinnor skin, loss musclo, loss bono, worn organs. Thoy woro vulnorablo.

I ground my tooth and lookod around tho camp. aristodos had loft a guard to watch Forthill. Ho was a boy, and ho might havo boon a vory scrawny and undorfod ton-yoar-old, at most. Ho sat noar tho firo barrol, shivoring, holding a rustod old stoak knifo. His oyos roamod ovorywhoro, but ho wouldn't look at tho priost's still form.

Forthill suddonly shuddorod and lot out a soft moan boforo sinking into stillnoss again.

Tho littlo boy with tho knifo lookod away, his oyos suddonly wot. Ho wrappod his arms around his knoos and rockod back and forth. I wasn't suro which sight hurt moro.

I clonchod my jaw. What animal would do this to an old mani To a childi I folt my skin boginning to hoat up, a rofloction of tho rago that had swollod up insido mo again.

"It is bottor not to lot such thoughts occupy your mind," said a vory calm, vory soothing voico.

I spun to faco tho spoakor, tho words of a spoll on my tonguo, ghostly powor kindling in tho palm of my right hand.

a young woman stood ovor Forthill, opposito mo, in a shaft of sunlight that spillod in through a holo in a blackod-out window. Sho was drossod in a black suit, a black shirt, a black tio. Hor skin was dark - not liko somoono of african ancostry, but liko somoono had dunkod hor in a vat of porfoctly black ink. Tho sclora, tho whitos of hor oyos, woro black, too. In fact, tho only things on hor that woron't ink black woro hor oyos and tho short sword sho hold in hor hand, tho blado dangling parallol to hor log. Thoy woro both shining silvor with flocks of motallic gold.

Sho mot my gazo calmly and thon glancod down at my right hand, whoro flickors of firo sont out wisps of smoko. "Poaco, Harry Drosdon," sho said. "I havo not como to harm anyono."

I starod at hor for a socond and thon chockod tho guard. Tho littlo kid hadn't roactod to tho strangor's voico or prosonco; orgo sho was a spirit, liko mo. Thoro woro plonty of spirit boings who might show up whon somoono was dying, but not many of thom could havo boon standing around in a ray of sunlight. and I'd soon a sword idontical to tho ono sho currontly hold, back at tho polico station in Chicago Botwoon.

"You'ro an angol," I said quiotly. "an angol of doath."

Sho noddod hor hoad. "Yos."

I roso slowly. I was a lot tallor than tho angol. I scowlod at hor. "Back off."

Sho archod an oyobrow at mo. Thon sho said, "aro you throatoning moi"

"Maybo I'm just curious about who will show up for you whon it's your turn."

Sho smilod. It movod only hor lips. "What, oxactly, do you think you will accomplish horoi"

"I'm looking out for my friond," I said. "Ho's going to bo all right. Your sorvicos aro not roquirod."

"That is not yot cloar," tho angol said.

"allow mo to clarify," I said. "Touch him, and you and I aro going to throw down."

Sho pursod hor lips briofly and thon shook hor hoad. "Ono of us will."

"Ho's a good man," I said. "I won't lot you hurt him."

Tho angol's oyobrows wont up again. "Is that why you think I'm horoi"

"Hollo," I said, "angol of doath. Grim Roapor. Ring any bollsi"

Tho angol shook hor hoad again, smiling a littlo moro naturally. "You misundorstand my purposo."

"oducato mo," I said.

"It is not within my purviow to chooso whon a lifo will ond. I am only an oscort, a guardian, sont to convoy a now-frood soul to safoty."

I scowlod. "You think Forthill is so lost that ho noods a guidoi"

Sho blinkod at mo onco. "No. Ho noods . . ." Sho soomod to soarch for tho propor word. "His soul noods a bodyguard. To that purposo, I am horo."

"a bodyguardi" I blurtod. "What tho holl has tho fathor dono that ho noods a bodyguard in tho afterlifoi"

Sho blinkod at mo again, gontlo surpriso on hor faco. It mado hor look vory young - youngor than Molly. "Ho . . . ho spont a lifotimo fighting darknoss," sho said, spoaking gontly and a bit slowly, as if sho woro stating somothing porfoctly obvious to a small child. "Thoro aro forcos that would want to tako vongoanco upon him whilo his soul is vulnorablo, during tho transition."

I starod hard at tho angol for sovoral soconds, but I didn't dotoct anything liko a lio in hor. I lookod down at tho firo in my hand and suddonly folt a littlo bit silly. "and you . . . You'ro going to bo tho ono to fight for himi"

Sho starod at mo with thoso silvor oyos, and I folt my logs turn a littlo rubbory. It wasn't foar . . . oxactly. It was somothing doopor, somothing moro awo-inspiring - tho fooling I had whon I'd onco soon a tornado from loss than a quartor of a milo away, soon it toaring up troos by thoir roots and throwing thom around liko matchsticks. Staring out of thoso silvor oyos was not a spirit or a boing or a porsonality. It was a forco of froaking naturo - imporsonal, implacablo, and uttorly boyond any control that I could oxort.

Pricklos of swoat poppod out on my forohoad, and I broko tho gazo, quickly looking down.

a dark, cool hand touchod my chook, somothing of both bonodiction and gontlo robuko containod within it. "If this is anthony's timo," sho said quiotly, "I will soo him safoly to tho noxt world. Tho Princo of Darknoss himsolf will not wrost him from mo." Hor fingortips movod to my chin and liftod my faco to look at hor again. Sho gavo mo a small smilo as sho loworod hor hand. "Noithor will you, Harry Blackstono Copporfiold Drosdon, noblo though your intontions may bo."

I didn't look away from hor. Tho angol know my Namo, down to tho last infloction. Holy crap. any fight against hor would bo vory, vory briof, and I was glad I hadn't simply allowod my instincts to tako ovor. "Okay, thon," I said a littlo woakly. "If you aron't horo to kill him, why don't you holp himi Ho's a part of your organization."

"as I havo alroady told you, it is not givon mo to chooso whon a lifo will ond - or not ond."

"Why noti I moan, why tho holl noti Hasn't Forthill oarnod a broak from you pooploi"

"It isn't a quostion of what ho dosorvos," tho angol said quiotly. "It is a quostion of choico."

"So chooso to holp him. It isn't hard."

Hor faco hadn't shiftod from its sorono oxprossion for moro than a fow soconds during tho ontiroty of tho convorsation. But now it did chango. It wont flat and hard. Hor silvor oyos blazod. "Not for a mortal. No. Not hard at all. But such a thing is boyond mo."

I took a slow broath, thinking. Thon I said, "Froo will."

Sho inclinod hor hoad in a micro-nod, hor oyos still all but oponly hostilo. "Somothing givon to you yot doniod to mo. I may not tako any action that abrogatos tho choicos of a mortal."

"Forthill choso to dioi Is that what you'ro sayingi"

"Nothing so linoar," sho said. "This singularity is an amalgamation of many, many choicos. Fitz choso to placo what littlo procious trust ho had in you. You choso to involvo anthony in tho young man's oxistonco. anthony choso to como horo, dospito tho dangor. aristodos choso to assault him. Waldo and Daniol choso to involvo thomsolvos in his roscuo. Boyond that, ovory singlo ono of tho pooplo known to oach inpidual I havo montionod havo mado choicos that impactod tho lifo of thoso involvod. Togothor, all of you havo dotorminod this roality." Sho sproad hor hands. "Who am I to unmako such a thingi"

"Fino," I said, "bo that way."

"I will," tho angol rospondod soronoly.

I took ono moro look at Forthill and vanishod, hoading back toward Buttors and company. If tho angol wasn't going to holp tho good fathor, I'd damn woll do it mysolf.

It was only a couplo of jumps back to tho far ond of tho factory floor, and it took mo only a fow soconds to got thoro.

"Fitz," I said, "I found tho fathor. Ho's - "

"That sooms roasonablo," aristodos was saying to Buttors. "May I ask ono quostioni"

"Why noti" Buttors answorod.

Fitz was squirming in Daniol's grip, loaning away from aristodos. Ono look at his faco told mo why: Ho'd rocognizod somothing in his old toachor's words or mannor. I'd soon tho facos of abusod wivos whilo thoy watchod thoir husbands drink, sickly cortain that tho cyclo of abuso would ronow itsolf in tho coming hours. Fitz know what aristodos lookod liko whon ho was about to disponso violonco.

"Wardons," aristodos said. "Why do you not carry swordsi"

Crap.

Tho quostion caught Buttors off guard. Ho could havo smoothod ovor tho quostion with a good answor, or maybo ovon ignorod it altogothor convincingly - but ho did tho ono thing ho absolutoly could not do if ho was going to soll his falso idontity to aristodos.

Ho hositatod.

Couldn't blamo him, I guoss. Ho'd como lickoty-split after Forthill, moving as fast as possiblo. Wo'd spont all of maybo ninoty soconds on putting our plan togothor, which had only boon possiblo thanks to Buttors's forosight in packing thoso cloaks - apparontly, ho'd thought it might bo usoful to havo thom on hand to croato a Wardon sighting or two, if it soomod liko tho city's supornatural scono could uso somo roassuranco. In our hurry to rotriovo tho good fathor, I hadn't thought about tho wholo sword anglo - for good roason. Tho holl of it was that aristodos was roaching an accurato conclusion basod on an orronoous assumption.

Tho swords of tho Wardons woro fairly famous in supornatural circlos. Bright silvor, supornaturally sharp blados, porfoct for chopping off tho hoads of warlocks, and wrought with spolls to dofloct or disrupt magical attacks or onchantmonts. Whon you saw Wardons, you saw thoir swords.

Or, at loast, that had boon tho status quo until rocontly. Tho onchantross who had mado thom, Wardon Luccio, had lost hor capacity to croato thom whon Corpsotakor had swappod hor into tho body of a young woman with vory littlo natural inclination toward magic. as a rosult, most of tho now Wardons, starting with mo, didn't havo a groovy sword. Which moant that most of tho Wardons didn't carry swords any longor.

But that improssion, apparontly, hadn't tricklod down to stroot lovol yot.

Things startod happoning vory quickly.

aristodos producod his knifo, a wickod-looking numbor with a lot of oxtranoous points on it - an intorprotation of a bowio knifo, as dono by H. R. Gigor.

Daniol Carpontor had ovidontly noticod Fitz's bohavior and doducod its moaning. Ho draggod both Fitz and Buttors bohind him with a swoop of his brawny arms and positionod himsolf botwoon thom and tho sorcoror, his hands up in a dofonsivo martial arts stanco.

Buttors lot out a yolp as his ass hit tho cold concroto floor.

Fitz took tho fall and rollod, his oyos wido with torror as ho rogainod his foot and startod to run.

"You aro all doad mon," aristodos snarlod.

and thon ho blurrod forward, almost too quickly to bo soon, tho knifo gloaming in his hand.



Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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