Chapter 6

I didn't sleep long, but I did it well. When my old Mickey Mouse windup alarm clock went off at seven, I had to fight my way up from a deep place on the far side of dreamland. I felt like I could use another eighteen or twenty hours.

It was another instance of my emotions getting the better of me. Using soulfire on pure, instinctive reflex was a mistake - potentially a fatal one. The extramortal well of power that soulfire offered was formidable in ways I understood only imperfectly. I don't know if it made my spells any more effective against the Red Court - though I had a hunch that it sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks did - but I was dead certain that it had drawn upon my own life energy to do it. If I pulled on it too much, well. No more life energy kinda means no more life. And if that energy was indeed the same force that is commonly known as a soul, it might mean oblivion.

Depending on what actually happened when you got to the far side, I guess. I have no idea. And no mortal or immortal creature I had ever met had sounded like he knew for sure, either.

I did know that powerful emotions were an excellent source of additional energy for working magic, sort of a turbocharger. Throw a destructive spell in the grip of a vast fury, and you'd get a lot more bang for your effort than if you did it while relaxed on a practice field. The danger, of course, was that you could never really be sure how much effect such an emotion would have on a spell - which meant that you ran a much higher risk of losing control of the energy. Guys operating on my level can kill others or themselves at the slightest mistake.

Maybe the soulfire came from a similar place as the emotions. Maybe you couldn't have one without at least a little bit of the other. Maybe they were all mixed together, like protein powder and skim milk in a health smoothie.

Didn't matter, really. Less than sixty seconds of action the night before left me exhausted. If I didn't get a handle on the soulfire, I could literally kill myself with it.

"Get it together, Harry," I growled to myself.

I shambled out of bed and out into the living room to find that my apprentice, Molly, had come in while I was sleeping and was profaning breakfast in my tiny kitchen.

She wore a simple outfit - jeans and a black T-shirt that read, in very small white letters, IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU'D BETTER HAVE BOUGHT ME DINNER. Her golden hair was longer - she'd been letting it grow - and hung down to her shoulder blades in back. She'd colored it near the tips with green that darkened to blue as it went down.

I'm not sure if Molly was "bangin'," or "slammin'," or "hawt," since the cultural catchphrase cycles every couple of minutes. But if you picked a word meant to be a term of praise and adoration for the beauty of a young woman, it was probably applicable. For me, the effect was somewhat spoiled, because I'd known her since she was a skinny kid somewhere between the ages of training wheels and training bra, but that didn't mean that I didn't have an academic appreciation for her looks. When she paid any attention, men fell all over her.

Mouse sat alertly at her feet. The big dog was very good about not taking food off the table or from the stove or the counter or on top of the refrigerator, but he had drawn a line on the linoleum: If any bits fell to the floor, and he could get to them first, they were his. His brown eyes tracked Molly's hands steadily. From the cheerful wag of his tail, she had probably already dropped things several times. She was a soft touch where the pooch was concerned.

"Morning, boss," she chirped.

I glowered at her, but shambled out to the kitchen. She dumped freshly scrambled eggs onto a plate next to bacon, toast, and some mixed bits of fruit, and pressed a large glass of OJ into my hand.

"Coffee," I said.

"You're quitting this week. Remember? We had a deal: I make breakfast and you quit morning coffee."

I scowled at her through the coffeeless haze. I dimly remembered some such agreement. Molly had grown up being interested in staying healthy, and had gotten more so of late. She was careful about what she ate, and had decided to pass that joy on to me.

"I hate morning people," I said, and grabbed my breakfast. I stalked over to the couch and said, "Don't feed Mouse anything. Not good for him."

Mouse didn't twitch an ear. He just sat there watching Molly and grinning.

I drank orange juice, which I found a completely inadequate beginning to my day. The bacon turned out to be made of turkey, and the edges were burned. I ate it anyway, along with toast that was not quite done enough. The grasshopper had talents, but cooking was not among them. "Things are up," I said.

She stood at the sink, scrubbing a pan, and looked up at me interestedly. "Oh? What?"

I grunted and thought about the matter carefully for a moment. Molly was not much for combat. It just wasn't her field. The next few days would certainly be hazardous for me, and I could live with that. But if Molly got involved, they might well be murderous.

I'd seen both sides of the "ignorance is safety" line of thinking in action. I'd seen people die who wouldn't have if they hadn't been told about the supernatural and its hazards, and I'd seen them die because they'd been forewarned, and it just wasn't enough to really impress the scale of the threat upon them. There was just no way to know what would happen.

And because I had no way to know what would happen, I'd come to the conclusion that, absent factors that might make me believe to the contrary, I just wasn't wise enough to deny them the choice. Molly was a part of my life. This would affect her strongly, in one way or another. The only responsible thing to do was to let her decide for herself how she wanted to live her life. That included endangering it, if that was what she felt was appropriate.

So, much as I had for Murphy, I laid it out for the grasshopper.

By the time I was finished, Molly was kneeling on the floor next to where I sat at the sofa, her blue eyes wide. "Wow, Harry."

"Yeah," I said.

"Wow."

"You said that."

"This changes everything."

I nodded.

"How can I help?"

I hoped that she hadn't just chosen to get herself killed. "You tell me. What's the smart move, padawan?"

She chewed on her lip for a moment and then peered up at me. "We need information. And we need backup. Edinburgh?"

I drank the last swallow of my orange juice, resented its healthiness, and said, "Bingo."

We took the Ways to Edinburgh, taking advantage of the weird geography of the spirit world to cover a lot more physical distance in the material world. Only certain previously explored routes were safe and reliable, and you had to have some serious supernatural juice to open the door, so to speak, between the real world and the Nevernever, but if you could do it, the Ways were darned handy. The Chicago-to-Edinburgh trip took us about half an hour.

The headquarters of the White Council of wizards is a dull, dim, drafty sort of place - not unlike the insides of the heads of a great many people who work there. It's all underground, a network of tunnels, its walls covered in carvings of mystic runes and sigils, of stylized designs and genuinely beautiful artistry. The ceilings are kind of low for me in places. Some of the tunnels are pitch-black, but most of them are bathed in a kind of ambient light without a visible source, which is an awfully odd look - sort of like one of those black lights that makes certain other colors seem to glow.

We passed two security checkpoints and walked for another five minutes before Molly shook her head. "How big is this place?" Her subdued voice echoed down the empty tunnels.

"Big," I said. "Almost as big as the city above, and it has multiple levels. Way more than we actually use."

She trailed her fingers over an elaborate carving in the stone as we passed it, a mural depicting a forest scene, its edges and lines crisp and clean despite the smoke from occasional torches and the passage of centuries. Her fingers left little trails in the light layer of dust coating the wall. "Did the Council carve it out?"

"Nah," I said. "That would have been too much like work. Rumor has it that it used to be the palace of the lord of the Daoine Sidhe. That the original Merlin won it from him in a bet."

"Like, Merlin Merlin?" she asked. "Sword in the stone and so on?"

"Same guy," I said. "Doubt he was much like in the movies."

"Wrote the Laws of Magic, founded the White Council, was custodian of one of the Swords and established a stronghold for the Council, too," Molly said. "He must have been something else."

"He must have been a real bastard," I said. "Guys who get their name splashed all over history and folklore don't tend to be Boy Scout troop leaders."

"You're such a cynic," Molly said.

"I think cynics are playful and cute."

There was no traffic at all in the main corridor, which surprised me. I mean, it was never exactly crowded, but you usually bumped into someone.

I headed for Warden country. There was a large dormitory set up for the militant branch of the White Council, where I could generally be confident of finding a surly, suspicious face. It was also very possible that Anastasia Luccio, captain of the Wardens, was there. The cafeteria and the administrative offices were nearby, so it was hands down the busiest part of the stronghold.

Warden country and the cafeteria were both empty, though there was a deck of cards spread out on a table in one of the lounges. "Weird," I muttered. "All the checkpoints are business-as-usual or I'd think something was wrong."

Molly frowned. "Maybe someone got into the heads of the sentries."

"Nah. They're jerks, but they're not incompetent jerks. No one around here is going to get away with mental buggery for a while."

"Buggery?" Molly asked.

"Hey, we're in the United Kingdom. When in Rome."

We went across the hall to administration and, finally, found someone: a harried-looking woman who sat at an old switchboard - the kind with about a million holes and plugs that had to be manually inserted and removed to run it. She wore a pair of ancient-looking headphones and spoke into an old radio microphone. "No. No, we have no word at this time. When we learn something, you will be informed." She jerked the wire out, plugged it in under another flashing light, and repeated her spiel. I watched that half a dozen times before I literally waved a hand in front of her face to get her to notice us.

She stopped and blinked up at me. She was a matronly-looking woman, iron grey woven smoothly through her brown hair, which meant that she could be anywhere between forty-five and two hundred years old. Her eyes flicked over me and then Molly, and I saw her body tense. She eased her rolling chair a few inches back from us - like most of the older crew of wizards, she probably regarded me as a sociopath looking for a nice bell tower. The switchboard lights blinked on and off steadily. They were the old kind that made little clicking sounds as they did.

"Ah," she said. "Wizard Dresden. I am quite busy."

"It looks like it," I said. "Wizard MacFee, right? Where is everybody?"

She blinked at me again, as though I had spoken in Ewok. "Why, they're in the Senior Council's residence hall. It was the only place big enough for everyone who wished to witness it."

I nodded pleasantly and tried to remain calm. "Witness what?"

"The ambassador," MacFee said, impatience touching her voice. She gestured at the switchboard. "You haven't heard?"

"Was sort of busy yesterday," I said. "Heard what?"

"Why, the Red Court, of course," she said. "They've sent an ambassador plenipotentiary." She beamed. "They want to change the cease-fire into a genuine peace. They've sent no less than Duchess Arianna Ortega to ask for terms."


Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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