In this novel in Jim Butcher’s #1 New York Times bestselling series, an old debt puts Chicago wizard Harry Dresden in harms way...
Harry’s life finally seems to be calming down. The White Council’s war with the vampiric Red Court is easing up, no one’s tried to kill him lately, and his eager apprentice is starting to learn real magic. For once, the future looks fairly bright. But the past casts one hell of a long shadow.
Mab, monarch of the Sidhe Winter Court, calls in an old favor from Harry. Just one small favor he can’t refuse...one that will trap Harry Dresden between a nightmarish foe and an equally deadly ally, and one that will strain his skills—and loyalties—to their very limits.
And everything was going so well for once...
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A martial arts enthusiast whose résumé includes a long list of skills rendered obsolete at least two hundred years ago, #1 New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher turned to writing as a career because anything else probably would have driven him insane. He lives mostly inside his own head so that he can write down the conversation of his imaginary friends, but his head can generally be found in Independence, Missouri. Jim is the author of the Dresden Files, the Codex Alera novels, and the Cinder Spires series, which began with The Aeronaut’s Windlass.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ALSO BY JIM BUTCHER
THE DRESDEN FILES
THE CODEX ALERA
FURIES OF CALDERON
A NOVEL OF THE DRESDEN FILES
A ROC BOOK
Table of Contents
Many folks deserve thanks as usual, particularly my family, who has to put up with my insanity during deadline crunches; my agent, Jenn, who has to make excuses to my editor when I’m late; and my editor, Anne, who in turn has to make excuses for me to her bosses; plus the Beta Asylum, who have the ongoing task of pointing out warts on my babies. The lunatics.
This time I have to add new folks to the list—the local and visiting players at NERO Central, who were good enough to step around me during various roleplay and combat actions, while I finished off the last few chapters of Small Favor in the corner of the tavern.
Winter came early that year; it should have been a tip-off.
A snowball soared through the evening air and smacked into my apprentice’s mouth. Since she was muttering a mantra-style chant when it hit her, she wound up with a mouthful of frozen cheer—which may or may not have been more startling for her than for most people, given how many metallic piercings were suddenly in direct contact with the snow.
Molly Carpenter sputtered, spitting snow, and a round of hooting laughter went up from the children gathered around her. Tall, blond, and athletic, dressed in jeans and a heavy winter coat, she looked natural in the snowy setting, her cheeks and nose turning red with the cold.
“Concentration, Molly!” I called. I carefully kept any laughter I might have wanted to indulge in from my voice. “You’ve got to concentrate! Again!”
The children, her younger brothers and sisters, immediately began packing fresh ammunition to hurl at her. The backyard of the Carpenter house was already thoroughly chewed up from an evening of winter warfare, and two low “fortress” walls faced each other across ten yards of open lawn. Molly stood between them, shivering, and gave me an impatient look.
“This can’t possibly be real training,” she said, her voice quavering with cold. “You’re just doing this for your own sick amusement, Harry.”
I beamed at her and accepted a freshly made snowball from little Hope, who had apparently appointed herself my squire. I thanked the small girl gravely, and bounced the snowball on my palm a few times. “Nonsense,” I said. “This is wonderful practice. Did you think you were going to start off bouncing bullets?”
Molly gave me an exasperated look. Then she took a deep breath, bowed her head again, and lifted her left hand, her fingers spread wide. She began muttering again, and I felt the subtle shift of energies moving as she began drawing magic up around her in an almost solid barrier, a shield that rose between her and the incipient missile storm.
“Ready!” I called out. “Aim!”
Every single person there, including myself, threw before I got to the end of aim, and snowballs sped through the air, flung by children ranging from the eldest, Daniel, who was seventeen, down to the youngest, little Harry, who wasn’t yet big enough to have much of a throwing arm, but who didn’t let that stop him from making the largest snowball he could lift.
Snowballs pelted my apprentice’s shield, and it stopped the first two, the frozen missiles exploding into puffs of fresh powder. The rest of them, though, went right on through Molly’s defenses, and she was splattered with several pounds of snow. Little Harry ran up to her and threw last, with both hands, and shrieked merry triumph as his bread-loaf-sized snowball splattered all over Molly’s stomach.
“Fire!” I barked belatedly.
Molly fell onto her butt in the snow, sputtered some more, and burst out in a long belly laugh. Harry and Hope, the youngest of the children, promptly jumped on top of her, and from there the lesson in defensive magic devolved into the Carpenter children’s longstanding tradition of attempting to shovel as much snow as possible down the necks of one another’s coats. I grinned and stood there watching them, and a moment later found the children’s mother standing beside me.
Molly took after Charity Carpenter, who had passed her coloring and build on to her daughter. Charity and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye—well, in point of fact, we’ve hardly ever seen eye-to-eye—but tonight she was smiling at the children’s antics.
“Good evening, Mister Dresden,” she murmured.
“Charity,” I replied amiably. “This happen a lot?”
“Almost always, during the first real snowfall of the year,” she said. “Generally, though, it’s closer to Christmas than Halloween.”
I watched the children romping. Though Molly was growing quickly, in a number of senses, she reverted to childhood easily enough here, and it did me good to see it.
I sensed Charity’s unusually intense regard and glanced at her, lifting an eyebrow in question.
“You never had a snowball fight with family,” she said quietly, “did you?”
I shook my head and turned my attention back to the kids. “No family to have the fight with,” I said. “Sometimes the kids would try, at school, but the teachers wouldn’t let it happen. And a lot of times the other kids did it to be mean, instead of to have fun. That changes things.”
Charity nodded, and also looked back at the kids. “My daughter. How is her training progressing?”
“Well, I think,” I said. “Her talents don’t lie anywhere close to the same areas mine do. And she’s never going to be much of a combat wizard.”
Charity frowned. “Why do you say that? Do you think she isn’t strong enough?”
“Strength has nothing to do with it. But her greatest talents make her unsuited for it in some ways.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, she’s good with subtle things. Delicate things. Her ability at handling fine, sensitive magic is outstanding, and increasing all the time. But that same sensitivity means that she has problems handling the psychic stresses of real combat. It also makes the gross physical stuff a real challenge for her.”
“Like stopping snowballs?” Charity asked.
“Snowballs are good practice,” I said. “Nothing gets hurt but her pride.”
Charity nodded, frowning. “But you didn’t learn with snowballs, did you.”
The memory of my first shielding lesson under Justin DuMorne wasn’t a particularly sentimental one. “Baseballs.”
“Merciful God,” Charity said, shaking her head. “How old were you?”
“Thirteen.” I shrugged a shoulder. “Pain’s a good motivator. I learned fast.”
“But you aren’t trying to teach my daughter the same way,” Charity said.
“There’s no rush,” I said.
The noise from the children stopped, dropping to furtive whispers, and I winked at Charity. She glanced from the children to me, amusement evident in her face. Not five seconds later Molly shouted, “Now!” and multiple snowballs came zipping toward me.
I lifted my left hand, focusing my will, my magic, and drew it into the shape of a broad, flat disk in front of me. It wasn’t a good enough shield to stop bullets, or even well-thrown baseballs, but for snowballs it was just fine. They shattered to powder on my shield, revealing it in little flashes of pale blue light as a circular plane of force centered on the outspread fingers of my extended left hand.
The children laughed as they cried out their disapproval. I shouted, “Hah!” and lifted a triumphant fist.
Then Charity, standing behind me, dumped a double handful of snow down the neck of my coat.
I yelped as the cold ate my spinal cord, jumped up out of my tracks, and danced around trying to shake the snow out from under my clothes. The children cheered their mother on and began flinging snowballs at more or less random targets, and in all the excitement and frivolity I didn’t realize that we were under attack until the lights went out.
The entire block plunged into darkness—the floodlights illuminating the Carpenters’ backyard, house lights in every nearby home, and the streetlights were all abruptly extinguished. Eerie, ambient werelight reflected from the snow. Shadows suddenly yawned where there had been none before, and the scent of something midway between a skunk and a barrel of rotting eggs assaulted my nostrils.
I yanked my blasting rod out of its holder on the inside of my coat and said to Charity, “Get them inside.”
“Emergency,” Charity said in a far calmer voice than I had managed. “Everyone into the safe room, just like in practice.”
The children had just begun to move when three creatures I had never seen before came bounding through the snow. Time slowed as the adrenaline hit my system, and it felt like I had half an hour to study them.
They weren’t terribly tall, maybe five-foot-six, but they were layered with white fur and muscle. Each had a head that was almost goatlike, but the horns atop them curled around to the front like a bull’s rather than arching back. Their legs were reverse-jointed and ended in hooves, and they moved in a series of single-legged leaps more than running. They got better air than a Chicago Bull, too, which meant I was dealing with something with supernatural strength.
Though, thinking about it, I couldn’t actually remember the last time I’d dealt with something that didn’t have supernatural strength, which is one of the drawbacks of the wizard business. I mean, some things are stronger than others, sure, but it wouldn’t much matter to my skull if a paranormal bruiser could bench-press a locomotive or if he was merely buff enough to juggle refrigerators.
I trained the tip of my blasting rod on the lead whatsit, and then a bunch of snow fell from above in my peripheral vision, landing on the ground beside me with a soft thump.
I threw myself into a forward dive, rolled over one shoulder, and came to my feet already moving laterally. I was just in time to avoid the rush of a fourth whatsit, which had knocked the snow loose just before it dropped down onto me from the tree house Michael had built for his kids. It let out a hissing, bubbling snarl.
I didn’t have time to waste with this backstabbing twit. So I raised the rod as its tip burst into scarlet flame, unleashed my will, and snarled, “Fuego!”
A wrist-thick lance of pure flame leapt from the blasting rod and seared the creature’s upper body to blackened meat. The excess heat melted snow all around it and sent up a billow of scalding steam. Judging by the tackle hanging between the thing’s legs as the steam burst up from the snow, it probably inflicted as much pain as the actual fire.
The whatsit went down, and I had to hope that it wasn’t bright enough to play possum: The Carpenter children were screaming.
I whirled around, readying the rod again, and didn’t have a clear shot. One of the white-furred creatures was running hard after Daniel, Molly’s oldest brother. He’d begun to fill out, and he ran with his fingers locked on the back of the coats of little Harry and Hope, the youngest children, carrying them like luggage.
He gained the door with the creature not ten feet behind him, its wicked-looking horns lowered as it charged. Daniel went through the door and kicked it shut with his foot, never slowing down, and the creature slammed into it head-on.
I hadn’t realized that Michael had installed all-steel, wood-paneled security doors on his home, just as I had on mine. The creature probably would have pulverized a wooden door. Instead it slammed its head into the steel door, horns leading the way, and drove a foot-deep dent into it.
And then it lurched away, letting out a burbling shriek of pain. Smoke rose from its horns, and it staggered back, swatting at them with its three-fingered, clawed hands. There weren’t many things that reacted to the touch of steel like that.
The other two whatsits had divided their attention. One was pursuing Charity, who was carrying little Amanda and running like hell for the workshop Michael had converted from a freestanding garage. The other was charging Molly, who had pushed Alicia and Matthew behind her.
There wasn’t time enough to help both groups, and even less to waste over the moral dilemma of a difficult choice.
I turned the rod on the beastie chasing Charity and let it have it. The blast hit it in the small of its back and knocked it from its hooves. It flew sideways, slamming into the wall of the workshop, and Charity dashed through the door with her daughter.
I turned my blasting rod back to the other creature, but I already knew that I wouldn’t be in time. The creature lowered its horns and closed on Molly and her siblings before I could line up for another shot.
“Molly!” I screamed.
My apprentice seized Alicia’s and Matthew’s hands, gasped out a word, and all three of them abruptly vanished.
The creature’s charge carried it past the space they’d been in, though something I couldn’t see struck its hoof and sent it staggering. It wheeled around at full speed, kicking up snow as it did, and I felt a sudden, fierce surge of exaltation and pride. The grasshopper might not be able to put u...
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