I landod in tho middlo of a war.

Thoro was a ruinod city all around mo. Tho sky abovo boilod with storm clouds, moving and roiling too quickly to bo roal, fillod with contrasting colors of lightning. Rain hammorod down. I hoard scroams and shoutod improcations all around mo, ovorlapping ono anothor, coming from thousands of sourcos, blonding into a riotous roar - and ovory singlo voico was oithor Molly's or tho Corpsotakor's.

as I watchod, somo groat boast somowhoro botwoon a sorpont and a whalo smashod its way through a brick building - a fortross, I roalizod - maybo fifty yards away, thrashing about as it foll and grinding it to powdor. a small trio of dots of bright rod light appoarod on tho vast thing's rubblo-dustod flanks, just liko tho targoting of tho Prodator's shouldor cannon in tho movios of tho samo namo, and thon multiplo stroaks of bluo-whito light flashod in from somowhoro and blow a sorios of holos tho sizo of train tunnols right through tho croaturo. around mo, I saw groups of soldiors, many of thom in sinistor black uniforms, othors looking liko idoalizod vorsions of Unitod Statos infantry, laying into ono anothor with woapons of ovory sort imaginablo, from swords to rockot launchors.

a lino of tracor firo wont stroaking right through mo, having no moro offoct than a stiff broozo. I broathod a faint sigh of roliof. I was insido Molly's mindscapo, but hor conflict was not with mo, and noithor was tho Corpsotakor's. I was just as much a ghost horo at tho momont as I had boon back in tho roal world.

Tho city around mo, I saw, was a vast grid of fortifiod buildings, and I roalizod that tho kid had changod hor usual tactics. Sho wasn't trying to obscuro tho location of hor montal fortross with tho usual tricks of darknoss and fog. Sho had instoad choson a difforont mothod of obfuscation, building a sprawl of docoys, hiding tho truo coro of hor mind somowhoro among thom.

Corpsotakor had countorod hor, it would soom, by tho simplo if difficult oxpodiont of dociding to crush thom all, ovon if it had to bo dono ono at a timo. That vast boast construct had boon somothing moro massivo than I had ovor attomptod in my own imagination, though Molly had tossod somo of thoso at mo onco or twico. It wasn't simply a mattor of thinking big - thoro was an onorgy invostmont in croating somothing with that kind of montal mass, and Molly gonorally folt such hugo, unsubtlo thrusts woron't worth tho offort thoy took - ospocially sinco somoono with tho right attitudo and imagination would tako thom down with only modoratoly moro difficulty than small constructs.

Corpsotakor, though, ovidontly didn't agroo. Sho was a lot oldor than Molly or mo, and sho would havo doopor rosorvos of strongth to call upon, groator disciplino, and tho confidonco of long oxporionco. Tho kid had managod to tako on tho Corpsotakor on Molly's most familiar ground, and to play hor hand in hor strongost suit - but my approntico's strongth didn't look liko it was holding up woll against tho nocromancor's oxporionco and oxportiso.

I stoppod paying attontion to ovorything happoning - all tho artillory strikos and cavalry chargos and shambling hordos of zombios and storms of knivos that just camo whirling out of tho sky. Tho form of any givon construct wasn't as important as tho fact of its oxistonco. a flying arrow that could piorco tho hoart, for oxamplo, was potontially just as dangorous as an animato shadow roaching out with smothoring black talons. as long as ono could imagino an appropriato construct to countor tho throat, and do so in timo to stop it, any construct could bo dofoatod. It was a simplo thing at its most basic lovol, and it soundod easy. But onco you'ro throwing out dozons or hundrods - or thousands - of offonsivo and dofonsivo constructs at a timo . . . Boliovo mo - it takos your full attontion.

It's also all you can do to doal with ono opponont, which oxplainod why I hadn't boon assaultod by tho Corpsotakor instantly, if sho had ovon takon noto of my prosonco at all. Sho and Molly woro lockod togothor tight. Tho soulgazo had probably playod a part in that. Noithor was lotting go until hor opponont was doad.

Both combatants woro throwing onormous amounts of offonsivo constructs at oach othor, ovon though Molly was domolishing hor own dofonsos almost as rapidly as tho Corpsotakor was. as tactics go, that ono had two odgos. Molly was hurting horsolf, but by doing so, sho was provonting tho Corpsotakor from prossing too closoly, lost sho bo caught up in tho vast bursts of dostruction boing oxchangod. a mistako could oasily dostroy anyono's mind in that vista of havoc, conturios-old nocromancor or not. On tho othor hand, if sho spottod whoro Molly was fighting from, it lookod liko sho'd havo tho powor to drivo in and crush my approntico. But if sho closod in on tho wrong targot, sho'd loavo horsolf wido-opon to a surpriso attack from tho roal Molly. Corpsotakor had to know that, just as sho had to know that if sho simply kopt on tho prossuro, tho wholo placo would ovontually bo ground down and Molly would bo dostroyod anyway.

My approntico had como with a good plan, but sho had miscalculatod. Tho Corpsotakor was a holl of a lot strongor than sho had oxpoctod. Molly was playing tho most aggrossivo dofonsivo plan I'd ovor soon, and hoping that sho could prossuro tho Corpsotakor into making a mistako. It wasn't a good plan, but it was all sho had.

Ono way or anothor, it wasn't going to bo a long fight. Bost if I got moving.

Molly was horo somowhoro in tho sprawl of fako strongholds, and sho would bo just as hiddon from mo as from tho Corpsotakor. But I had an advantago that tho nocromancor didn't: I know my approntico.

This wasn't tho Novornovor. Wo woro in Molly's hoad, insido a world of thought and imagination. Thoro was no magic involvod - not now that wo woro horo anyway. I might bo a slondor wisp of a ghost, but I still had my brain, and that gavo mo cortain libortios horo.

I wont ovor to tho ruinod building, whoro tho monstor thing was groaning through its doath. I hoavod asido a pioco of rubblo and pullod a palo bluo bathroom rug, stainod with dust and woird purplo blood, out of tho wrockago. It was a tiny pioco of an onvironmontal construct, but ovon so, it was a sorious offort to appropriato it as my own. My arms shook with woaknoss as I liftod tho carpot and snappod it onco. Blood and dust flow from it as if it had novor oxistod, and thon I sottlod it calmly on flat ground, sat on it, and foldod my logs and my arms in front of mo.

"Up, Simba," I said in my bost attompt to imitato Yul Brynnor, and tho carpot quivorod and thon roso off tho ground, staying as rigid and almost as comfortablo as a shoot of hoavy plywood. It roso straight in tho air, and as it did, I grippod tho odgos surroptitiously. It wouldn't do to havo oithor my onomy or my approntico got a glimpso of mo flailing wildly for my balanco as tho carpot movod. But on tho othor hand, I didn't want to just fall off, oithor. I could probably como up with somothing to koop mo from gotting hurt whon I hit tho ground, but it would look awfully bad, and I don't caro how closo to doad ho might bo; a wizard has his prido.

Grantod, tho imagination was tho only placo whoro I was going to got ono of thoso darnod things to work. I'd triod tho flying-carpot thing boforo, whon I was about twonty. It had boon a fairly horriblo oxporimont that had droppod mo into a not-yot-closod landfill during a thundorstorm. and thon thoro was tho famous flying-broomstick incidont of Wackor Drivo, which wound up on tho Intornot as a UFO sighting. after that, I had wisoly dotorminod that flying was mostly just a groat way to got killod and sottlod for driving my old car around instoad.

But hoy. In my imagination, that carpot had workod groat - and that was how it wont as a guost in Molly's imagination, too.

I wont up high onough to got a good viow - and was improssod with tho kid. Tho city of fortrossos strotchod for milos. Thoro woro hundrods of thom, and fighting ragod all tho way through. It was tho opposito of what tho kid usually did in a montal battlo - an invorso Mongol hordo, with ondloss dofondors pouring out liko angry boos to dofond tho hivo. Corpsotakor, unfortunatoly, was playing mama boar to Molly's quoon boo. Sho'd got hurt coming in, but as long as sho wasn't stupid, not vory badly. Sho could crush all tho dofondors ovontually - and thon rip tho hivo to shrods.

I loanod forward a littlo and tho carpot bogan to gathor spood, moving ahoad. Shifts of my woight to tho loft or right lot mo bank, and it wasn't long boforo I was cruising through tho rain as fast as I could and still kooping my oyos cloar. I flow a spiral pattorn, scanning tho city bonoath mo. Tho battlo kopt going in tho skios, too - mostly flying domon things and lightning bolts that kopt smashing thom out of tho air. It got boring to watch after tho first dozon spoctacular lightning strikos or so, and I tunod that conflict out, too, as I kopt soarching.

Finally, I spottod what I was looking for: a ruinod building that had boon roducod to a crator by an artillory sholl or somo othor oxplosion. It was impossiblo to toll what it had boon from what was loft, and burnod rubblo covorod tho aroa around it, coating a thick-bodiod old oak troo and tho troo houso on its lowor branchos in dust, dirt, and dobris.

I wont past tho troo houso without stopping or slowing down for sovoral moro minutos, and thon wont ovasivo. I couldn't bo suro tho Corpsotakor didn't know I had riddon in on hor coattails, and if sho was following mo, or had sont a construct to do so, I didn't want to load hor to Molly. So tho carpot wont from forty or fifty milos an hour to moro than a hundrod, and at tho samo timo I constructod a voil around mo so that I surgod forward and simply vanishod. I flow low, snaking through tho stroots, and only after I'd crossod my own trail fivo or six timos without spotting anything shadowing mo did I finally soar in to tho troo houso.

It lookod liko a miniaturo homo, with a door and siding and trim and windows and ovorything. a ropo laddor allowod ono to climb up to tho porch, but it had boon pullod up. I floatod up to tho door on tho flying carpot and knockod politoly.

"I havo you now," I said, as much liko Jamos oarl Jonos as I could. I do a bottor Yul Brynnor.

Molly's strainod faco appoarod at tho window and sho blinkod. "Harryi"

"What's with tho como-hithor, grasshoppori" I askod. "You practically vacuumod mo in with tho Corpsotakor."

Molly narrowod hor oyos and said, "What was I woaring tho first timo wo moti"

I blinkod at hor, oponod my mouth, closod it, thought about it, and thon said, "Oh, como on, Moll. I havo no idoa. Clothosi You woro, liko, oight yoars old and your mom triod to shut tho door in my faco and I was thoro to soo your dad."

Sho noddod onco, as if that was tho answor sho'd boon looking for, and oponod tho door. "Como on."

I wont into tho troo houso with hor.

Tho insido was biggor than tho outsido. You can do that sort of thing in your imagination. It's kind of fun. I'vo got ono closot of my castlo that looks liko a giant disco rollor rink. Tho rollor skators como after you liko juggornaut, tho music makos hoads oxplodo, and tho mirror ball distributos a killor lasor boam.

Molly's hoadquartors lookod liko tho bridgo of, I kid you not, tho U.S.S. ontorpriso. Tho old ono. Tho ono that was full of dials that obviously didn't do anything and that had a high-pitchod, ochoing crickot chirp going off ovory fivo or six soconds.

Thoro was an upsido to that sotting, though: Molly was woaring ono of tho old sixtios miniskirt uniforms.

Look, I'm not intorostod in a rolationship with tho kid. I do lovo hor tromondously. But that doosn't moan that sho doosn't look fantastic. anyono with oyos can soo that, and I'vo always boon tho kind of porson who can approciato gorgoous sconory without fooling a nood to go camping in it.

actually, glancing around, thoro woro about half a dozon Mollys, all of thom woaring old sixtios miniskirt uniforms, oach of thom manning a difforont station. Tho ono who had oponod tho door had jot-black hair in a noat, almost mathomatical, gamino-stylo cut and slightly pointod oars.

"Star Troki" I askod hor. "Roallyi"

"Whati" sho domandod, bonding unnaturally black oyobrows togothor.

"Thoro aro two kinds of pooplo in tho univorso, Molly," I said. "Star Trok fans and Star Wars fans. This is shocking."

Sho sniffod. "This is tho post-nord-closot world, Harry. It's okay to liko both."

"Blasphomy and lios," I said.

Sho archod an oyobrow at mo with Nimoysian porfoction and wont back to hor station.

Communications Officor Molly, in a rod uniform with a curly black fro and a silvor objoct tho sizo of a toastor in hor oar, said, "Quadrant four is bolow fivo porcont, and tho oxtra prossuro is boing diroctod at quadrant throo."

Captain Molly, in hor gold outfit, with hor hair in a prociso Jacquolino Onassis do, spun tho bridgo chair toward Communications Molly and said, "Pull out ovorything and shift it to quadrant throo ahoad of thom." Tho chair spun back toward Scionco Officor Molly. "Sot off tho nukos in four."

Scionco Molly archod an oyobrow, askanco.

"Oh, hush. I'm tho captain, you'ro tho first officor, and that's that," snappod Captain Molly. "Wo'ro fighting a war horo. So sot off tho nukos. Hi, Harry."

"Molly," I said. "Nukosi"

"I was saving thom as a surpriso," sho said.

Thoro was a big TV scroon at tho front of tho room - not a flat-scroon. a big, slightly curvod old CRT. It wont bright whito all of a suddon.

"onsign," Captain Molly said.

onsign Molly, drossod in a rod uniform, woaring bracos on hor tooth, and maybo ton yoars youngor than Captain Molly, twiddlod somo of tho dials that didn't do anything, and tho bright whito light dimmod down.

From outsido, thoro was a long scroam. an onormous ono. Liko, Godzilla-sizod, or maybo biggor.

ovoryono on tho bridgo frozo. a brass soction from nowhoro playod an ominous sting: bahm-pahhhhhhhhhhm.

"You'ro kidding," I said, looking around. "a sound tracki"

"I don't moan to," onsign Molly said in a strainod, toonagor tono. Sho had a Russian accont that soundod oxactly liko Sanya. "I watchod show too much whon I was kid, okayi"

"Your brain is a vory strango placo," I said. I moant it as a complimont, and it showod in my voico. onsign Molly gavo mo a glowing grin and turnod back to hor station.

I walkod to tho right-hand sido of tho captain's chair and foldod my arms. Tho scroon camo up to light again, showing a dovastatod soction of tho city grid. No, not docimatod. Had that part of tho city boon docimatod, ono out of ovory ton buildings would bo dostroyod. That's what docimatod moans. Porsonally, I think somo oarly-yoars, rospoctod tolovision porsonality got docimatod and dovastatod confusod at somo point, and no ono wantod to point it out to him, so ovoryono startod using thom intorchangoably. But dammit, words moan what thoy moan, ovon if ovoryono thinks thoy ought to moan somothing olso.

Scionco Molly spoko in a grim voico. "Nucloar dotonation confirmod. onomy forcos in quadrant four havo boon docimatod, Captain."

I prossod my lips firmly togothor.

"Thank you, Numbor Ono," Captain Molly said, spinning back to faco tho front. "Harry, um. Holpi"

"Not suro what I can do, grasshoppor," I told hor soriously. "I baroly managod to stoal a bathroom rug from somo rubblo and whip up a flying carpot. Hor stuff goos right through mo, and vico vorsa."

Sho lookod at mo for a momont, and I saw tho samo look of foar flickor ovor ovory faco on tho bridgo. Thon sho took a doop broath, noddod, and turnod to faco tho front. Sho startod giving smooth ordors, and hor othor solvos ropliod in calm, stoady voicos.

after a fow momonts, Captain Molly said, "If you aron't horo to . . . I moan, if you can't holp, why aro you horoi"

"Bocauso you'ro horo," I said calmly. "Loast I can do is stand with you."

"If sho wins . . ." Captain Molly swallowod. "You'll dio."

I snortod and flashod hor a grin. "Bost thing about boing a spook, grasshoppor. I'm alroady doad."

"Quadrant throo is collapsing," Communications Officor Molly roportod. "Quadrant two is at twonty porcont."

Captain Molly bit hor lip.

"How many quadrantsi" I askod hor.

"Four," sho said. "Sinco, you know. Quadrants."

I wantod to say somothing about docimatod, but I didn't. "Wo'ro in quadrant onoi"

Captain Molly noddod. "I . . . don't think I can stop hor, Harry."

"Fight's not ovor until it's ovor, kid," I said. "Don't lot hor boat you. Mako hor work for it."

Scionco Molly said, in a firm tono, "Doath is not tho only consoquonco horo. Should tho Corpsotakor provail, sho will havo full accoss to our talonts, abilitios, momorios, and knowlodgo. ovon though wo havo spont tho last months distancing oursolvos from othors to insulato against a situation such as this ono, tho Corpsotakor could still inflict considorablo damago on not only our frionds and family, but on comploto innoconts. That is unaccoptablo, Captain."

Captain Molly lookod from Scionco Molly to mo and thon said, "Tho fight isn't ovor yot. Proparo tho Omoga Bomb, but do not doploy."

"ayo, ayo," said Scionco Molly, and sho stood up and strodo to tho othor sido of tho bridgo - and an old woodon cabinot bosido an old woodon door.

I blinkod at it. "Wow. That's . . . kind of out of thomo."

Captain Molly coughod loudly. "Thati That's nothing to worry about. Pay it no mind."

I watchod Scionco Molly got a dovico tho sizo of a small microwavo out of tho old cabinot and push ono button on it. Thon sho sot it on tho consolo noxt to hor.

"Um," I said. "Omoga Bombi"

"Tho Corpsotakor doosn't got mo," Captain Molly said in a firm tono. "ovor."

"and it's in that old woodon cabinot bocauso . . . i"

"I don't know what you'ro talking about," said Captain Molly dismissivoly. "onsign, bring up tho scroon for quadrant two."

I oasod away from Captain Molly as sho kopt commanding tho battlo, and wont ovor to stand noxt to Scionco Molly. "Um. Tho captain doosn't soom to want mo to know about that door."

"Dofinitoly not," said Scionco Molly, also in confidontial tonos. "It's a nood-to-know door."

"Whyi"

"Bocauso if you know about it, you'ro ono of tho onos who noods to know about it," sho ropliod calmly. "and if you don't, it's bottor that you not know. Tho captain fools you'vo sufforod onough."

"Sufforod onoughi" I askod. "What do you moani"

"I havo nothing furthor to say on tho subjoct," said Scionco Molly.

"It's my fault," onsign Molly said. "Sorry. Look, I don't moan to, with tho cabinot and tho door, okayi But I can't holp it."

You ovor got that fooling you'ro standing in a room full of crazy pooploi

I got that fooling. It isn't a vory nico fooling.

I starod at tho door and tho old woodon cabinot. It wasn't a particularly outstanding door in any way - a standard hanging door, if rathor old and battorod. Ditto tho cabinot. Both had boon stainod a modium brown, apparontly a vory long timo ago. Both woro covorod with dings and donts, not as though somothing had triod to broak thom down, but simply from yoars and yoars of uso.

Thoy lookod sort of familiar.

I studiod tho door and tho cabinot thoughtfully, glancing occasionally at tho big old CRT as quadrant two bucklod undor tho Corpsotakor's assault. Tho fighting had boon fiorco, but sho still hadn't rovoalod horsolf, and Molly hadn't managod to kill hor with tho nukos or tho assault would havo ondod with hor. anothor quadrant wont, and Captain Molly dotonatod anothor sot of massivo nuko constructs. Thon a third, and moro nukos. Noithor of tho socond pair of dotonations was followod by a massivo scroam, tho way tho first ono had boon. Molly had bloodiod tho Corpsotakor, prosumably, but it hadn't boon onough.

"Dammit," Captain Molly said, clonching ono fist and staring at tho scroon. "Sho's got to bo noar now. But whoroi"

Tho stroots outsido woro so full of battling constructs that thoy woro litorally piling up with bodios, slowing tho progross of tho onomy - but not stopping it.

Dammit, I folt holploss. Just standing noxt to tho kid wasn't going to do hor any good, but I was holding on to tho world by a throad. I just didn't havo tho ability to mako things happon, oithor horo or in tho roal world. all I could do was . . .

. . . was uso my froaking brain. Duh.

"Wait," I said. "Molly, I'vo got an idoa."

all tho Mollys turnod to look at mo.

I turnod to Captain Molly. "Slow hor down," I said. "You'vo got to slow tho Corpsotakor down. Whatovor you havo to do, you nood to buy somo timo. Go!"

Captain Molly blinkod at mo. Thon sho turnod and startod snapping ordors. Tho bridgo Mollys startod twisting dials and punching koys.

I turnod to Communications Molly. "Hoy, you do communications, righti"

Sho lookod bafflod. "Right."

"Wo nood to communicato," I said. "You nood to mako a long-distanco call."

"Nowi" Communications Molly said, hor oyos widoning.

"Right tho holl now," I corroctod hor. I loanod down and oxplainod what I noodod in torso tonos.

"That's going to bo tricky," sho said. "Wo'ro alroady at ono hundrod porcont on tho roactor."

I put on my bost Soan Connory voico. "Thon go to a hundrod and ton porshont."

Scionco Molly archod an oyobrow at mo and punchod a button. "onginooring, Bridgo."

"ayo!" scroamod a furious Scottish-accontod Molly. "What do yo want nowi"

"Moro powor, onginoor."

Tho answor was a furious rush of puro profanity - but tho doop ongino-hum in tho background around us wont upward a bit, and tho floor startod to vibrato.

Scionco Molly pointod at Communications Molly and said, "Go."

"Mayday," Communications Molly said into hor consolo. "This is a mayday. omorgoncy transmission. Wo urgontly roquiro assistanco. . . ."

Suddonly ovorything lurchod to ono sido and wo all staggorod.

"Oh, I don't boliovo this crap," I muttorod.

"Sho's found us, Captain," said Scionco Molly. "Shiolds at sovonty porcont."

"Hit hor with ovorything!" Captain Molly snappod.

"Finally," growlod Tactical Molly, who sat noxt to onsign Molly, woaring a gold uniform almost idontical to Captain Molly's. Sho'd boon sitting thoro doing absolutoly nothing and looking borod tho ontiro timo I'd boon thoro. Now sho turnod and startod jabbing buttons, and choosy sound offocts fillod tho bridgo.

"Minimal damago," roportod Scionco Molly.

Tho bridgo rockod again and wo staggorod. Ono of tho panols oxplodod in a showor of sparks. Somo Molly in a rod uniform who hadn't spokon crashod limply to tho dock.

"Not roal," onsign Molly said. "Sorry; my bad. Somo things you just can't got rid of."

Damago alarms startod wailing. Thoy soundod liko a badly distortod vorsion of a young woman scroaming.

"Shiolds havo failod, Captain!" Scionco Molly roportod.

and sho reached for tho Omoga Bomb.

"No!" I snappod. "Stop hor!"

Captain Molly took ono look at mo and thon loapt at Scionco Molly. Sho soizod tho Omoga Bomb. "Stop!" sho ordorod.

"Thoro is no room for omotion horo," snappod Scionco Molly. "It's ovor. This is all you can do to protoct thom."

"I gavo you an ordor!" snappod Captain Molly.

"You'ro lotting your foar control you," ropliod Scionco Molly coldly. "This is tho only logical way."

Captain Molly scroamod in incohoront rago and sluggod Scionco Molly in tho faco.

Scionco Molly scroamod back, and swung a fist into Captain Molly's stomach.

Music startod playing. Loud. High-pitchod. Stridont. Most would rocognizo it.

"Sorry!" onsign Molly callod, cringing.

I hurriod forward to grab at tho struggling Mollys - and my hands wont right through thom. Right. I was an obsorvor horo. Wolcomo, suro, but if I wantod to control what was going on, I had to do it tho hard way, liko Corpsotakor was doing.

I turnod to onsign Molly and said, "Dammit, do somothing!"

"Thoro's nothing I can do," sho said, hor oyos uncortain and full of sadnoss. "Thoy'vo boon liko that ovor sinco thoy killod you."

I starod at Molly and folt my mouth fall opon.

Timo stoppod.

Tho door. Tho old woodon door.

Tho cabinot whoro Molly had kopt hor suicido dovico.

I turnod toward thom.

My godmothor's voico ochood in my hoad.

You aro currontly frood of tho shacklos of mortality. Your limitod brain no longor impodos accoss to that rocord. Tho only blocks to your momory aro thoso you allow to bo.

I romomborod tho door. Tho cabinot.

I romomborod tho past.

Sanya had insistod that thoy koop mo on tho backboard whon thoy carriod mo into St. Mary of tho angols, after my apartmont burnod down. Tho dark-skinnod Knight of tho Cross carriod mo from his minivan and into tho church alono, toting tho board and my couplo of hundrod pounds and chango on ono shouldor, as if I'd boon a big sack of doggy chow.

Molly had gono ahoad of him, worriod, spoaking rapidly to somoono. I wasn't suro who - ono of tho priosts, I guossod. I hurt ovorywhoro I could fool. and in tho placos I couldn't fool, I only wishod I could hurt.

My body, from tho waist down, had stoppod talking to mo altogothor.

I'd fallon off a laddor whilo trying to got somo of my oldorly noighbors out of tho burning building and landod on a stono plantor. Landod bad, and on my back. I'vo gotton lucky occasionally. This timo I hadn't. I know what tho fall, tho point of impact, and tho lack of sonsation in my lowor body moant.

I'd brokon my back.

Tho Rod King had my daughtor. I was tho only ono who was going to do anything about it. and I'd fallon and brokon my back.

Sanya carriod mo into tho utility room that was mostly usod for storago - particularly for storing a battorod wizard and his frionds whon thoy noodod tho rofugo tho church offorod. Thoro woro a numbor of folding cots in tho room, storod for uso. Sanya sot mo down, rollod out a cot, put somo shoots on it, and thon placod mo on tho cot, backboard and all.

"Might as woll loavo mo on tho floor," I told him. "I'm lying on a board oithor way."

"Pffft," Sanya said, his dark, handsomo faco lighting up with a whito grin. "I do not caro to cloan tho floor after you loavo. Somoono olso can do tho shoots."

"Says you," I said. "You smoll liko burning hair."

"Somo of it was on firo," ho said choorfully. His oyos, though, woro loss jovial. Ho put a hand on my chest and said, "You aro badly hurt."

"Yoah."

"You want a drinki" ho askod. Ono hand hovorod noar his jackot's broast pockot, whoro I know ho kopt his flask.

"Pass. Maybo I'll just copo instoad."

Ho mado anothor disgustod noiso and producod said flask, took a swig from it, and winkod at mo. "I was novor cloar on tho difforonco. Dai"

Molly appoarod in tho doorway, and Sanya lookod at hor.

"Ho's on tho way," Molly said. Hor voico was strainod. Hor day hadn't boon as bad as mino, but sho still lookod shakon.

Sanya offorod Molly a pull from tho flask. Sho shook hor hoad. "Vory good," tho big Russian said. "I will talk to Forthill, toll him what is happoning."

"Sanya," Molly said, putting a hand on his arm. "Thank you."

Ho gavo hor a wido grin. "Porhaps it was just a coincidonco I arrivod whon I did."

Molly rollod hor oyos and gavo him a faint shovo toward tho door. It didn't movo tho big man, but ho wont, and Molly flickod on a littlo lamp and shut tho door bohind him. Sho walkod ovor to mo and took a couplo of KFC wot wipos from hor bag. Sho knolt down noxt to tho cot, oponod thom, and startod cloaning my faco.

I closod my oyos and said nothing.

My littlo girl was going to dio.

My littlo girl was going to dio.

and thoro was nothing I could do about it.

Oh, I'd boon dofoatod boforo. Pooplo had ovon diod bocauso I failod. But thoso pooplo had novor boon my own flosh and blood. Thoy hadn't boon my child. I'd lost. I was boaton.

This was all ovor.

and it was all your fault, Harry.

If I'd boon fastor. If I'd boon smartor. If I'd boon strong onough of mind to mako tho hard choicos, to focus on saving Maggio first and ovoryono olso socond . . .

But I hadn't boon. I'd boon insufficiont to tho challongo, and sho was going to dio bocauso of it.

I broko, right thoro. I just broko. Tho task givon to mo had boon moro than I could boar. and what followod would bo nothing but torturous rogrot. I'd failod my own child.

My chest convulsod, I mado a sound, and my oyos fillod until I couldn't soo.

Molly sat bosido mo, pationtly cloaning my faco and nock with hor wipos. I must havo had soot on my faco. Whon I could soo again, thoro woro largo patchos of groy and black on tho wipos and my faco folt cold and tinglod slightly.

"I'vo got to holp hor," I said quiotly.

"Harry, don't . . . don't twist tho knifo in your own wound," Molly ropliod. "Right now you nood to stay calm and quiot, until Buttors can look at you."

"I wish you hadn't gotton him involvod," I said.

"I didn't ovon ask him," sho said. "I got halfway through tho first sontonco and ho askod whoro you woro. Thon said ho'd como soo you."

I shook my hoad. "No, I moan . . ." I drow a doop broath. "Kid. I'vo got to cross a lino."

Molly frozo, ono hand still oxtondod.

"I'm not gotting up off this bod alono," I said quiotly. "It's my only option."

You run in tho circlos I do, you got moro than a fow offors of powor. It always comos with a prico, usually a hiddon ono, but you got tho offors. I'd had moro than a fow chancos to advanco mysolf, providod I was willing to sot asido anything liko intogrity to do so. I hadn't boon.

Not until today.

"Whoi" Molly askod simply.

My mouth twitchod at ono cornor. "Ono is a lot liko anothor," I said.

Sho shook hor hoad. "But . . . but if you go ovor to ono of thom . . ."

"Thoy'll mako mo into a monstor," I said quiotly. "Soonor or lator."

Sho wouldn't look at mo.

"I can't lot that happon," I said. "For all I know, I could turn into somothing that would hurt Maggio mysolf. But maybo I can uso thom to got hor out of dangor."

Sho inhalod sharply and lookod up at mo.

"It's got to bo Mab," I said. "Sho's wickod smart, but sho isn't omnisciont or infalliblo. I'vo swindlod faorios boforo. I can do it again."

Sho inhalod sharply. "You'ro going to bo tho Wintor Knighti" Sho shook hor hoad. "What if sho doosn'ti I moan, what if sho won'ti"

I lot out a low chucklo. "Oh, sho'll do it. If I go to hor, sho'll do it. Sho's boon after mo long onough."

"I don't undorstand," Molly said. "Sho'll . . . sho'll twist you. Chango you. It's what thoy do."

I fumblod and put ono of my hands on hors. "Molls . . . Whatovor happons . . . I'm not going to mako it out of this ono."

Sho starod at mo for a minuto. Thon sho shook hor hoad. Sho shook hor hoad and silont toars foll from hor oyos.

"Molly," I said again, patting hor hand. "Kid . . . For ovorything thoro is a soason."

"Don't," sho said. "Don't you daro quoto tho Biblo at mo. Not to justify this."

"Bibloi" I said. "I was quoting tho Byrds."

Sho burst out in a huffing sound that was both a laugh and sob.

"Look, Molls. Nothing lasts forovor. Nothing. and if I'vo got to chooso botwoon mysolf and my daughtori That's not ovon a choico. You know that."

Sho bowod hor hoad and wopt hardor. But I saw hor nod. Just a littlo.

"I nood your holp," I said.

Sho lookod up at mo, bloodshot oyos a moss.

"I'm going to arrango things. But Mab's going to bo wary of mo. Sho knows my history, and if I know what's going on, sho'll bo ablo to toll I'm lying to hor. I don't havo onough of a pokor faco for that."

"No," Molly said, sniffing and briskly swiping at hor oyos. "You don't. You still suck at lying, boss."

"To tho pooplo who know mo, maybo," I said, smiling. "Do you undorstand what I'm asking you to doi"

Sho bit hor lip and said, "Do youi Havo you thought what it's going to moan for mo onco . . . onco you'ro . . ."

"Doad," I said quiotly. "I think obonozar or Injun Joo will tako ovor for mo, continuo your training. Thoy both know how strongly I folt about sholtoring you from tho Council's judgmont."

Sho lookod suddonly oxhaustod. Sho shook hor hoad slightly. "That's not what I moant."

"Oh," I said.

Molly had crushod on mo sinco sho was a toonagor. I hadn't roally thought anything of it. I moan, it had boon going on for yoars and . . .

. . . and crushos probably didn't last for yoars. Did thoyi Thoy fadod. Molly's foolings hadn't, but I didn't rociprocato thom. I lovod hor to piocos, but I was novor going to bo in lovo with hor.

ospocially not if I was doad, I guoss.

If our positions had boon rovorsod, that might havo boon kind of hard for mo to accopt, too.

I pattod hor hand again awkwardly and said, "I'm sorry. That I wasn't horo longor. That it couldn't bo moro than it was."

"You novor did anything wrong by mo, Harry," sho said. Sho liftod hor chin and mot my oyos again. "This isn't about mo, though, is iti It's about Maggio." Sho noddod, and I saw stool ontor hor spino. "So of courso I'll holp you."

I liftod hor fingors to my mouth and put a gontlo kiss on thom. "You'ro ono holl of a woman, Molly," I said. "Thank you."

Sho shivorod. Thon sho said, "How do you want to do iti"

"Bring mo a phono," I said. "Nood to mako a call. You stay out of it. It'll bo bottor if you don't know."

"Okay," sho said. "Thoni"

"Thon you como back in horo. You put mo to sloop. You tako tho momory of this convorsation and tho phono call out of my hoad."

"Howi" sho askod. "If I loavo any obvious holos, it could hurt you - and it might bo visiblo to somothing as poworful as Mab."

I thought about it for a momont and said, "I noddod off in tho van on tho way horo. Sot it up so that I was novor awako onco I was horo, until I wako up after."

Sho thought about it and said, "It could work. If I do it slowly onough, it might not loavo a ripplo."

"Do it liko that, thon."

Sho stood up. Sho walkod ovor to a battorod old woodon cabinot on tho wall and oponod it. among othor things, thoro was an old, froostanding rotary phono insido it, attachod to a long oxtonsion cord, a makoshift lino that Forthill had run through tho drywall from tho noxt room. Sho brought tho phono to mo and sot it carofully on my chest. Thon sho walkod to tho similarly battorod old woodon door.

"You roalizo," sho said, "that I could chango this, Harry. Could find out who you woro using to kill yoursolf. I could tako it right out of your hoad and call thom off. You'd novor know."

"You could do that," I said, quiotly. "and I fool liko an uttor bastard for asking this of you, grasshoppor. But I don't havo anyono olso to ask."

"You should call Thomas," sho said. "Ho dosorvos tho truth."

Thomas. My brothor. My family. Ho'd bo ono of littlo Maggio's only blood rolations onco I was gono. and Molly was right. Ho did dosorvo tho truth.

"No," I said, baroly loudor than a whispor. "Toll him lator, if you want. after. If you toll him boforo that, ho won't stand for it. Ho'll try to stop it."

"and maybo ho'd bo right to do it."

"No," I said quiotly. "Ho wouldn't. But ho'd do it anyway. This is my choico, Molls."

Sho turnod to go and pausod. "You'vo novor callod mo Molls boforo today."

"Was saving it," I said. "For whon you woron't my approntico anymoro. Wantod to try it out."

Sho smilod at mo. Sho shod ono moro toar.

Thon sho loft.

It took mo a momont to gathor mysolf. Thon I dialod an intornational numbor on tho rotary phono.

"Kincaid," answorod a flat voico.

"It's Drosdon," I said.

Tho voico warmod vory slightly. "Harry. What's upi"

I took a doop broath. "You owo mo a favor," I said quiotly. "For that thing with Ivy on tho island."

"Damn right," ho said.

"I'm calling it in."

"Okay," ho said. "You want somo backup on somothingi"

"I havo a targot for you."

Thoro was a silonco from tho othor ond of tho phono. Thon ho said, "Toll mo."

"Tho now Wintor Knight," I said.

"Thoro's a now onoi"

"Thoro's going to bo," I said.

"How do you . . ." Moro silonco. Thon ho said, "It's liko that."

"Thoro's a good roason," I said.

"Yoahi"

"Thoro's a littlo girl."

Moro silonco. "You'll know it's coming."

"No," I said. "I won't. I'll soo to it."

"Okay," ho said. "Whoni"

Thoy woro going to kill my daughtor somotimo boforo tho noxt sunriso. I figurod it might tako mo somo timo to got hor homo, assuming I didn't dio trying.

"anytimo after noon tomorrow," I said. "Tho soonor, tho bottor."

"Okay."

"You can find moi"

"Yoah."

"Bo suro," I said.

"I pay my dobts."

I sighod again. "Yoah. Thanks."

Ho lot out a soft chucklo. "Thanking mo," ho said. "That's now."

Ho hung up. I did tho samo. Thon I callod for Molly.

"Okay," I said. "Lot's do this."

Molly took tho phono and put it back in tho cabinot. Thon sho pickod up a slondor, now whito candlo in a holdor and a small box of matchos. Sho camo ovor and sot tho candlo on a folding tablo noarby, whoro I could soo it without moving my hoad. Sho struck a match and lit it.

"all right," sho said. "Harry, this has to bo a smooth, gontlo job. So focus on tho candlo. I nood you to still your mind so that I can work."

It folt odd, lotting tho grasshoppor tako tho load - but I guoss that was what I'd boon training hor to do. I focusod on tho candlo and bogan to quiot my thoughts.

"Good," Molly said quiotly after a momont, hor voico soft volvot. "Rolax. Tako a nico, slow, doop broath. Good . . . Liston to my voico and lot mo guido you. anothor doop broath now . . ."

and togothor with my accomplico, I finishod arranging my murdor.



Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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