The third repetition of her name hung ringing in the air, and deafening silence came after as I awaited the response.
When you trap something dangerous, there are certain fundamental precautions necessary to success. You've got to have good bait, something to draw your target in. You've got to have a good trap, something that works and works fast. And, once the target is in the trap, you've got to have a net or a cage strong enough to hold it.
Get any of those three elements wrong, and you probably won't succeed. Get two of them wrong, and you might be looking at a result far more disastrous than mere failure.
I went into this one knowing damned well that all I had was bait. Mab, for her own reasons, had wanted to suborn me into her service for years. I knew that calling her by her name and title would be enough to attract her interest. Though the mechanism of my improved summoning circle would have been a fine trap - if it still existed, I mean - the cage of my will had always been the weakest point in any such endeavor.
Bottom line, I could get the tiger to show up. Once it was there, all I had was a really good chalk drawing of a pit on the sidewalk and "Nice kitty."
I wasn't going into it blind and ignorant, though. I was desperate, but not stupid. I figured I had the advantage of position. Mab couldn't kill a mortal. She could only make him desperately wish he was dead, instead of enduring her attentions. I didn't have a lot to lose. She couldn't make me any more useless to my daughter than I was already.
I waited, in perfect darkness, for the mistress of every wicked fairy in every dark tale humanity had ever whispered in the night to put in an appearance.
Mab didn't disappoint me.
Surprise me, yes. But she didn't disappoint.
Stars began to appear in front of my eyes.
I figured that was probably a really bad thing, for a moment. But they didn't spin around in lazy, dizzy motion like the kind of stars that mean your brain is smothering. They instead burned steady and cold and pure above me, five stars like jewels on the throat of Lady Night.
Seconds later, a cold wind touched my face, and I became conscious of a hard smoothness beneath me. I laid my hands carefully flat, but I didn't feel the cot and the backboard under me. Instead, my fingers touched only cold, even stone, a planar surface that seemed level beneath my entire body. I wriggled my foot and confirmed that there was stone beneath it there, too.
I stopped and realized that I could feel my foot. I could move it.
My whole body was there. And it was naked. I wavered between yelping at the cold suddenly being visited upon my ass, and yelling in joy that I could feel it at all. I saw land to one side and scrambled to get off the cold slab beneath me, crouching down and hanging on to the edge of the slab for balance.
This wasn't reality, then. This was a dream, or a vision, or something that was otherwise in between the mortal world and the spiritual realm. That made sense. My physical body was still back in St. Mary's, lying still and breathing deeply, but my mind and my spirit were here.
Wherever "here" was.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I saw gentle mist and fog hanging in the air. Boiling clouds let a flash of moonlight in, and it played like a spotlight over the hilltop around me, and upon the ancient table of stone beside me. The moon's touch made deeply carved runes all around the table's edge dance with flickers of illumination, writing done in some language I did not know.
Then I understood. Mab had created this place for our meeting. It was known as the Valley of the Stone Table. It was a broad, bowl-shaped valley, I knew, though the mist hid most of it from me. In its exact center stood a mound maybe fifty feet across and twelve feet high at its center. Atop the mound stood the massive slab of stone, held up on four stumpy pillars. Other stones stood in a circle around it, some tumbled down, some broken, only one remaining in Stonehenge-like lintel. The stones all shed faint illumination in shades of blue and purple and deep, deep green. Cold colors.
Yeah. It was after the equinox. So that tracked. The Table was in Winter's domain. It was an ancient conduit of power, transferred in the most primitive, atavistic fashion of all - in hot blood. There were grooves and whorls in the table's surface, coated with ancient stains, and it squatted on the hill, patient and hungry and immovable, like a snapping turtle waiting for warm, vital creatures to wander too close.
The blood spilled upon this table would carry the power of its life with it, and would flow into the well of power in the control of the Winter Queen.
A movement across the table from me drew my eye. A shadow seemed to simply congeal from the mist, forming itself into a slender, feminine shape draped in a cloak and cowl. Glittering green candle flames flickered in what looked like two eyes within the cowl's hood.
My throat went dry. It took me two tries to rasp, "Queen Mab?"
The form vanished. A low, feminine laugh drifted through the mist to my right. I turned to face it.
A furious cat squall erupted from the air six inches behind me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I spun to find nothing there, and the woman's laugh echoed around the top of the misty mound, this time more amused.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you," I said, my heart pounding in my throat. "You told me so, didn't you?"
Whispering voices hissed among the stones around me, none of them intelligible. I saw another flicker of mocking green eyes.
"Th-this is a limited-time offer," I said, trying to make my voice sound steady. "It's been forced by circumstance. If you don't get off your royal ass and jump on it, I'm walking."
"I warned you," said a calm voice behind me. "Never let her bring you here, my godchild."
I carefully kept myself from letting out a shriek. It would have been unwizardly. Instead, I took a deep breath and turned to find the Leanansidhe standing a few feet away, covered in a cloak the color of the last seconds of twilight, the deep blue-purple fabric hiding her completely except for her pale face inside the hood. Her green cat eyes were wide and steady, her expression solemn.
"But I'm here," I said quietly.
Another shadow appeared beside her, green eyes burning. Queen Mab, I presumed, and noted that she was actually a couple of inches shorter than my godmother. Of course, especially in a place like this, Mab could be as gargantuan or Lilliputian as she chose.
Probably-Mab stepped closer, still covered in shadows despite the fact that she was nearer to me than my godmother was. Her eyes grew brighter.
"So many scars," said my godmother, and her voice had changed subtly, growing cold and precise. "Your scars are beautiful things. Within and without." The shadowed figure stepped behind one of the fallen stones and emerged from behind another on the opposite side of the circle. "Yes," said the cold voice coming from the Leanansidhe's lips. "I can work with this."
I shivered. Because it was really cold and I was naked, I'm sure. I looked from the dark figure to my godmother and back, and asked, "You're still using a translator?"
"For your sake," said the cold voice, as a shadowed figure stepped behind the next menhir and appeared atop another. Walking deosil, clockwise.
Mab was closing the circle around me.
"Wh-why for my sake?" I asked.
The cold voice laughed through the Leanansidhe's lips. "This conversation would quickly grow tedious if you kept falling to your knees, screaming in agony and clawing at your bleeding ears, my wizard."
"Yeah. But why?" I asked. "Why would your voice hurt me?"
"Because she is angry," answered the Leanansidhe in her natural voice. "Because her voice is a part of her power, and her rage is too great to be contained."
I swallowed. Mab had spoken a few words to me a couple of years back, and I'd reacted exactly as she described. I'd lost a few minutes of time during the episode her words had provoked as well. "Rage?" I asked. "About what?"
The shadowed figure let out a spitting hiss, another feline sound that made me flinch and cringe away from it as if from the lash of a whip. My godmother jerked sharply to one side. She straightened only slowly, and as she did I saw that a long, fine cut had been drawn across one of her cheeks. Blood welled up and dripped down slowly.
My godmother bowed her head to Mab, and the cold voice came from her mouth again. "It is not for my handmaiden to judge or question me, nor to speak for me upon her own account."
Lea bowed her head to Mab again, and not a flicker of either anger or chagrin showed in her features. Again, Mab moved from one stone to another without crossing the space in between. It should have been getting easier to deal with due to repetition. It wasn't. Each time she did it I realized that she could just as easily have reappeared behind me with foul intentions, and there wouldn't be anything I could do about it.
"There are ancient proprieties to be honored," Mab's voice said, her tone measured and somehow formal. "There are words which must be said. Rites which must be observed. Speak your desire, mortal man."
Now I really was shivering with the cold. I folded my arms and hunched in on myself. It didn't help. "Power," I said.
The shadowed figure froze in place and turned to stare at me. The burning green eyes tilted slightly, as if Mab had cocked her head to one side. "Tell me why."
I fought to keep my teeth from chattering. "My body is badly injured, but I must do battle with the Red Court."
"This you have done many a time."
"This time I'm fighting all of them," I said. "The Red King and his inner circle."
The fire of her eyes intensified. "Tell me why."
I swallowed and said, "They've taken my daughter."
The shadowed figure shuddered, and her disembodied voice breathed a sigh of pleasure. "Ahhh. Yes. Not for your own life. But for your child's. For love."
I nodded jerkily.
"So many terrible things are done for love," Mab's voice said. "For love will men mutilate themselves and murder rivals. For love will even a peaceful man go to war. For love, man will destroy himself, and that right willingly." She began walking in a physical circle now, though her movements were so touched with unexpected motions and alien grace that it almost seemed that there must be something else beneath the shrouding cloak. "You know my price, mortal. Speak it."
"You want me to become the Winter Knight," I whispered.
A laugh, both merry and cold, bubbled beneath her response. "Yes."
"I will," I said. "With a condition."
"That before my service begins, you restore my body to health. That you grant me time enough to rescue my daughter and take her to safety, and strength and knowledge enough to succeed. And you give me your word that you will never command me to lift my hand against those I love."
The figure kept its eerie pace as she circled me again, and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees. "You ask me to risk my Knight in a place of dire peril, to no gain for my land and people. Why should I do this?"
I looked at her steadily for a moment. Then I shrugged. "If you don't want to do business, I'll go elsewhere. I could still call Lasciel's coin to me in a heartbeat - and Nicodemus and the Denarians would be more than happy to help me. I am also one of the only people alive who knows how to pull off Kemmler's Darkhallow. So if Nicky and the Nickelheads don't want to play, I can damned well get the power for myself - and the next time I call your name, I won't need to be nearly so polite."
Mab let out a mirthless laugh through my godmother's lips. "You are spoiled for choices, my wizard. What reason have you to select me over the others?"
I grimaced. "Please don't take this as an insult. But you're the least evil of my options."
The cold voice told me nothing about her reaction. "Explain."
"The Denarians would have me growing a goatee and gloating malevolently within a few years, if I didn't break and turn into some kind of murderous tardbeast first. And I'd have to kill a lot of people outright, if I wanted to use the Darkhallow." I swallowed. "But I'll do it. If I have no other way to get my child out of their hands, I'll do it."
Silence reigned for an unbroken minute on the mound.
"Yes," mused Mab's voice. "You will, won't you? And yes, you know that I do not kill indiscriminately, nor encourage my Knight to do so." She paused and murmured, "But you have proven willing to destroy yourself in the past. You won your last confrontation with my handmaiden in just such a fashion, by partaking of the death angel. What prevents you from taking a similar action to cheat me of my prize?"
"My word," I said quietly. "I know I can't bluff you. I won't suicide. I'm here to deal in good faith."
Mab's burning eyes stared at me for a long moment. Then she began to walk again, more slowly on this, her third traversing of the circle around me. "You must understand, wizard. Once you are my Knight, once this last quest of yours is complete, you are mine. You will destroy what I wish you to destroy. Kill whatsoever I wish you to kill. You will be mine, blood, bone, and breath. Do you understand this?"
I swallowed. "Yes."
She nodded slowly. Then she turned to stare at the Leanansidhe.
Lea bowed her head again, and snapped her fingers.
Six cloaked figures appeared out of the mists, small, misshapen things that might have been kobolds or gnomes or any of a half dozen other servitor races of the Sidhe. I couldn't tell because the cloaks had rendered them faceless, without identity.
But I knew the man they were carrying strapped to a plank.
Like me, he was naked. He had been shorter than me, but more athletic, heavier on muscle. But that had been years ago. Now he was a wasted shell of a human being, a charcoal sketch that had been smudged by an uncaring hand. His eyes were missing. Gone, but neatly gone, as if removed surgically. There were tattoos covering his entire face, particularly his sunken eyelids, all of them simply a word in different languages and styles of lettering: traitor. His mouth was partly open, and his teeth had been inscribed with whorls and Celtic design, then stained with something dark and brown, turning his mouth into living scrimshaw.
His entire body, in fact, was adorned with either tattoos or artistic, ritually applied scars. He was held to the plank with seven lengths of slender silken cord, but his emaciated limbs looked like they would never have the strength to overcome even those frail bonds.
He was weeping, sobbing softly, the sound of it more like an animal in horrible pain than anything human.
"Jesus," I said, and looked away from him.
"I am somewhat proud of this," Mab's cold voice said. "To be sure, the White Christ never suffered so long or so terribly as did this traitor. Three days on a tree. Hardly enough time for a prelude. When it came to visiting agony, the Romans were hobbyists."
The servitors slid the plank up onto the stone table, positioning Slate in its center. Then they bowed toward Mab and retreated in measured silence. For a moment, the only sounds were those of a cold, gentle wind and Slate's sobs.
"For a time, I was contented to torment him to the edge of sanity. Then I set out to see how far over the edge a mortal could go." Her eyes glittered merrily in the shadows. "A pity that so little was left. And yet, he is the Winter Knight, young wizard. The vessel of my power amidst mortals, and consort to the Queens of Winter. He betrayed me. See where it has taken him."
The thing that used to be Lloyd Slate made quiet, hopeless sounds.
I trembled, afraid.
The dark shape came closer, and a pale hand emerged from the folds of cloth. Something glittered coldly in the strange light and landed in the thick grass at my feet. I bent to take it up and found an ancient, ancient knife with a simple leaf-blade design, set into a wooden handle and wrapped with cord and leather. It was, I thought, made of bronze. Its double edge had a wickedly sharp shine to it, and its needle point looked hungry, somehow.
Energy surged through the little blade, power that was unfettered and wild, that mocked limits and scoffed at restraint. Not evil, as such - but hungry and filled with the desire to partake in its portion of the cycle of life and death. It thirsted for bloodshed.
"While Lloyd Slate lives and breathes, he is my Knight," said Mab's voice. "Take Medea's bodkin, wizard. Take his life's blood."
I stood there holding the knife and looking at Lloyd Slate. The last time I'd heard him speak, he had begged me to kill him. I didn't think he'd be capable of even that much now.
"If you would be my Knight, then this is the first death I desire of you," Mab said, her voice almost gentle. She faced me across the Stone Table. "Send his power back to me. And I will render it unto thee."
I stood in the cold wind, not moving.
What I did with the next moments would determine the course of the rest of my life.
"You know this man," Mab continued, her voice still gentle. "You saw his victims. He was a murderer. A rapist. A thief. A monster in mortal flesh. He has more than earned his death."
"That isn't for me to judge," I whispered quietly. Indeed not. I was tempted to hide behind that rationale, just for a moment - just until it was done. Lie to myself, tell myself that I was his lawful, rightful executioner.
But I wasn't.
I could have told myself that I was ending his pain. That I was putting him out of his hideous misery in an act of compassion. Necessarily an act of bloodshed, but it would be quick and clean. Nothing should suffer as much as Lloyd Slate had. I could have sold myself that story.
But I didn't.
I was a man seeking power. For good reasons, maybe. But I wasn't going to lie to myself or anyone else about my actions. If I killed him, I would be taking a life, something that was not mine to take. I would be committing deliberate, calculated murder.
It was the least evil path, I told myself. Whatever else I might have done would have turned me into a monster in truth. Because of Lloyd Slate, I knew that whatever Mab might say, she did not control her Knight completely. Slate had defied her power and influence.
And look where it got him, a little voice whispered inside my head.
The full, round moon emerged from behind the clouds and bathed the whole Valley of the Stone Table in clear, cold light. The runes upon the table and the menhirs blazed into glittering, cold light.
"Wizard," whispered Mab's appropriated voice, seemingly directly into my ear. "The time has come."
My heart began pounding very hard, and I felt sick to my stomach.
"Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden," Mab's voice said, almost lovingly. "Choose."