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The Matter of Chicago: A Dresden Files AU
matterofchicago
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July 2013
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Luce [userpic]
BOOK TWO: putting out your fires with gasoline (8/?)

Table of Contents

Title: putting out your fires with gasoline, Book Two of The Matter of Chicago
Rating/Warnings: R for violence.
Word Count: This chapter: 8,641. This book: 45,876.

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six | Chapter Seven

Notes: It's time for another megachapter! Also, I'm very sorry for the lateness of this. Not only was this possibly the hardest chapter to write (aaargh I fukken hate battle sequences) but finals week happened in the middle of writing and that sucked. So.

This is the first chapter to not be beta'ed by Grene the Wonder Beta. She's on vacation. Thanks to reticent_lass and inteligrrl for subbing.




John took a moment to look over the list of locations that I'd made, places where Nicodemus might be able to work up the power for his ritual. He got a pen out and added a few more notes before handing the papers off to Hendricks with some curt instructions. I leaned in a way I hoped was casual on the wall, tracking him out of the corner of my eyes, keenly aware of him. I could almost follow his movements with my eyes closed, I was so acutely aware of his presence.

Hendricks stepped out onto the porch and started making phone calls, likely waking up the entire Chicago Outfit and getting them out on the streets to watch for signs of anything. We needed coverage, and John provided in spades, like I'd hoped he would.

He actually came. I couldn't stop being surprised by that. I wasn't sure I'd do the same thing in his shoes.

But, given how his absence and our fight had been driving me to distraction lately... I had something I needed to admit to myself about this. But later. Not when Michael and Charity were knelt in prayer for Shiro's safety. Not when we were waiting for word about Nicodemus. There was just too much going on. Despite how much I hated doing so, I needed to do a postmortem on these last few days. But later.

As much as I had become a de facto member of the Carpenters, the sight of them praying for Shiro made me uncomfortable. Shiro was in danger because of me, lined up to be Nicodemus's sacrifice. Shiro, who smoked and liked Elvis and became a Baptist by accident. It didn't seem possible that Shiro could be in real danger, given how much ass the tiny little guy could kick.

It was cliche to say it should have been me in his place, but it was true. While I cooled my heels here, Shiro could have been anywhere, undergoing whatever 'preparations' Nicodemus deemed suitable for the ritual.

I couldn't stay in the room with Michael and Charity doing that. I got out of my chair and almost fled to the kitchen. I was moving fast, too fast for someone who'd gotten the tar beaten out of them. My wrist caught on the edge of the doorway. The bandage caught and tore with a musical rip. I hissed as it yanked hard against my injuries.

I sighed and went to grab the first aid kit Molly left in the kitchen. I flipped it open and started the rather unforgiving task of cutting through the gauze with the scissors in my left hand.

Coming up behind me with that silent sneaky walk he employed so often, John said, "That's easier with help." He watched me with dark, blank eyes.

"I think waking Mols up just to rebandage me would be pretty mean," I replied, turning my back to him and trying again to cut through the bandage.

"Don't be a child." John stepped up and took the scissors from me. He took my hand and I winced. "What?"

"Um, ow?" I elbowed him lightly, mindful of my wrists. "I'm in an invalid, be nicer."

John frowned, looking down at my hands. More carefully, he snipped through the ruined gauze and peeled it off. Under it, the layer of bandage that was laid directly on my wounds was dyed a dark, muddy red. John's motions slowed before he lifted part of the remaining wrap and looked at one of the deep gashes in my wrists.

John went still. I'd seen statues that moved more than he did.

He broke out of his moment and he went back to work, wrapping a new bandage with the sort of quick efficiency that told of experience with first aid. After he was done, he let go of me and stepped back, tucking his hands into the pockets of his pants. His movements were quick, but mechanical, lacking his usual smoothness.

"Are you..." I stopped and ducked my head a little so I was eye-level and stared hard at him. "Are you freaking out? Is this you freaking out?"

John sighed and shut his eyes. "I do not freak out."

"Yeah, but you're doing the Marcone equivalent."

He kept his eyes closed, breathing slowly. It wasn't the kind of stressed, harsh inhales and exhales through the nose I associated with someone trying to control themselves. That was too demonstrative for John. He just breathed. "These last two days have not gone as I'd hoped."

"You always have a back-up plan," I pointed out.

"I always have several back-up plans. This magnitude of failure was beyond even my foresight." His eyes opened and slid sideways to look at me. "And I've lost you, which is frankly salt in the wound."

My lips were dry. I swiped my tongue over them and saw him watch. Nothing else about him moved.

Epiphany. He wanted to kiss me. He probably wanted to do a lot more than kiss. He wanted to hurt me for what I did to him and wanted me back with him and for nothing to have gone wrong and the Shroud to be in his hands and Chicago safe. His plans hadn't just gone awry; Murphy's Law singled him out and ruined everything. This detachment was his way of keeping his head.

I felt a surge of sympathy and struggled to squash it. He betrayed me. He'd gone behind my back and hadn't brought me in on this, and then he tried to cut me off when I fought back against him. I was supposed to be angry with him. And I was, but it didn't feel as urgent as... this. The way that even after we indulged in a bit of mutual back-stabbing, we couldn't help but fall back into this rhythm. It was conscious effort to not do this. We hadn't lost it.

It didn't feel real to me, the idea that this fight could ruin us. It should have, but instead of thinking about how much I wanted to punch him the face, I wanted to slide over, nudge my shoulder against his and tell him we'd get through this. We. We.

Hell's bells, this was not the time for me to have an emotional breakthrough about John.

But I found myself swaying towards him, letting the back of my hand brush his in a purposefully casual way. "I don't know. Maybe..."

John got this delicate set to his face, like his mask was about to slip away and out of his grasp. His eyes bored into me and I held his gaze. "Not now, Harry. I cannot afford the distraction."

I understood. As much as I could, anyway. "Okay. Later?"

He nodded solemnly. "Tell me about the locations you picked. Which are you thinking are most likely?"

I took a deep breath. "The Cloud Gate might be a good bet. The manacles Nick used on me were Faerie make and the Cloud Gate is one of those places where the space between our world and theirs is weak. If he's working with the Fae, he might do it there."

He asked, "Why is the Cloud Gate weak in that way?"

I leaned on the counter next to him. In front of me were kitchen knives in their block. I got a sudden, full flashback to Nicodemus pulling out that knife he was going to use to kill me. Now, to kill Shiro...

I shook my head hard. "Because it's a giant mirror. Reflective surfaces make for good portals into the Nevernever."

"The what?"

God, that was a can of worms I was not ready to open right now. "Ask me when this is over and I'll explain. Basically, where the supernatural comes from. Kind of." I rubbed my face. "Long story. But anyway, mirrors make passage easier. The Bean is one giant mirror that bends the way we see Chicago. It's powerful. That area under the Bean's arch is probably one of the easiest places to access Faerie from."

"You picked Buckingham Fountain too. Is Millennium Park significant?"

"Not the Park itself, but Chicago architecture has magic in it." I smiled at him faintly. He nodded, like he already knew this, and I think he did. "Bundy Fountain included. I don't think it's a likely spot though. It's got big potential for sponsored magic but it's based on water."

"And water is often a grounding force of magic," he said, following along.

"Gold star, Mr. Marcone," I said sardonically. He was a good student though. "There's also the ley lines. Chicago's full of them. There's a powerful source somewhere out in the Lake, feeding a lot of them."

"Something's out on the water?"

I shrugged. "Don't know. Do I look like the sailing type? I haven't looked into it." He nodded like he was taking note of that, adding it to his list of projects. Knowing him, he was. "But the River's a massive ley line, though it has the same water problem as the fountain."

"I imagine everything on the list is like that," John mused. "Location A is a possibility if not for caveat X."

I hummed in a vaguely affirmative way and looked out of the kitchen. Michael and Charity were still sitting together, heads bowed. Sanya was looking at the map of Chicago, perhaps getting familiar with layout of new territory. After a moment, he left the room, so my attention drifted again. Hendricks was working away at his PDA with Gard standing at his shoulder, watching him. She was almost regal, exuding old, powerful magic like perfume. She seemed... suited to John and Cujo, a more functional cog in their efficient machine than I ever was.

"Stop glaring at Ms. Gard," John murmured. "She was not meant to be a replacement, simply a substitute."

"Was."

John sighed and shook his head. "As you said: later." He watched Hendricks for a moment. Hendricks noticed and they looked at each other for a long beat. I assumed their weird almost-psychic communication was going on. Made the most sense. Satisfied, John returned his attention to me. "Besides, jealousy is unbecoming."

I sputtered. "Jealous of-- of your rent-a-wizard-cop? Tell me, did you have to pay extra for the pretty blonde model or did you have store credit to help pay for her?"

John cracked a grin and chuckled softly. "They were out of the leggy skinny brunets."

I pointed a finger in his face. "Have I mentioned lately how not funny you are?"

He got ready to reply, but Hendricks was suddenly talking loudly into his phone and everyone in the room snapped to attention. "Need a pick up, land in the Wrigleyville location you dropped us off in. Be ready to go." He ended his call and said to John, "We have major movement out of Undertown into the Grant Park area."

"What kind of movement?" I asked.

"Not-human. Don't have more details than that yet. Our guys are relocating to meet them."

John nodded and looked around the room. "We need to move."

Sanya walked into the room with an assault rifle and Esperacchius. "I am ready."

Michael stood and Charity with him. Before he could step away, she fisted a hand in his shirt and yanked him down into a deep, passionate kiss. "Come back alive," she told him.

Michael kissed her, more chastely. "I go with God."

Two holy Knights, an Old World magical security expert, a mafioso, a Don, and a White Council wizard.

Avengers, assemble.

"Gentlemen and lady," John said. "Let's go recover the Holy Shroud."



Outside the house, a helicopter touched down. Hendricks darted forward, opening the sliding side door, and everyone climbed in. We got latched in and helmeted as the helicopter lifted daintily off the ground and into the Chicago night. I was pretty sure what we were doing was very illegal, but it was also quite awesome.

I tugged the mic on my helmet down to my mouth. "You brought a helicopter."

John crossed his arms and leaned back. "You asked for my help."

"Is this a SWAT chopper?"

"You said please," he replied with a little smile.

Sanya, sitting next to me, gave me a look. "Your ex owns this helicopter?"

"He's not my ex," I said instantly, and John twitched, staring at me with bright eyes. This was not helping his focus, and our vanilla mortals needed to be on top of their game for this. "So do we have any more info yet?"

Hendricks checked his PDA again, then briefed us over the comm. "The movement out of Grant Park is varied. Our people in the thick of it are reporting that iron is effective. Fae, likely."

My way back into Undertown had been blocked by a sudden, impenetrable wall of ice and now Fae were apparently working with the Denarians. "Do you have a description of any of the Fae?"

His face was lit by the glow of the screen in his palm. After a moment he said, "Guys just took out a big one. Two storey tall, humanoid with white fur."

"Snow ogre. Winter. Winter's involved." I blew out a sigh. "That's not good."

"Why would the Winter Court be working with the Fallen?" Sanya asked.

I didn't have an answer. "Cold iron's going to be our best bet."

Gard added, "The park is likely to be filled with Fae and what Denarians Nicodemus still has with him. The Knights," she gestured to Sanya and Michael, "should focus on the Denarians while the rest of us protect them from the Fae."

"Miss Gard and Harry are both combat-capable," John said. "Perhaps Mr. Carpenter and Harry should check one of the hotspots while Miss Gard and Mr. Sanya see to the other. That will hopefully offer us a fair shot at finding the location of the ritual." As he spoke, he tapped Hendricks' arm and pointed under the seats. Hendricks nodded and leaned down to flip up a hatch in the floor. From it, he pulled out a fistful of what looked like metallic batons. He passed them out to everyone. John twisted his and flicked his wrist. The baton extended into a truncheon just a hair over a yard long. In the cramped confines of the helicopter, it came close to hitting Sanya in the nose. John examined it critically before collapsing it again and tucking it into a loop of his combat vest.

"Our priority should be to find and rescue Shiro," Michael said.

Gard tied her hair back into a ponytail and shook her head. "With respect, Knight, the Shroud is of more importance. This ritual can still be executed without the human sacrifice, though on a smaller scale. Our goal should be to minimize the loss of life. The many outweigh the few." She looked to everyone in turn. "Whoever has a shot at the Shroud should get it to safety immediately and through any means necessary."

Michael looked unhappy with that, but nodded. I reached over and put my hand on his knee. He looked to me and squeezed my hand gratefully. "If we find Nicodemus, we'll find Shiro," I pointed out. I didn't say that Shiro being alive was a crapshoot at this point but I didn't need to.

The pilot came over the line to say, "ETA ninety seconds, Mr. Marcone."

"Thank you, Mr. Briggs. Lower to drop altitude on the edge of the park, we'll go in on foot."

I dug around in my duster pocket and pulled out a chunk of chalk. I broke it in two and tossed a piece to John and Cujo each. "Fae don't have free will. If things go bad, get yourself in a circle."

Gard reached into the floor compartment and drew out an ax. A massive, double bladed ax that looked well-used. She lifted the thing like it was nothing. Hendricks was watching her out of the corner of his eye and I saw him swallow thickly. I wondered if he was afraid of her or something. If we made it out of this alive, I'd have to ask.

As we got close, John opened the doors. From the sky, it was easy to see what a mess had been made of the area. I could see movement below us, the glitter of scales and armor, beings human-shaped and not locked in battle. The lights around Grant Park were out, so I couldn't pick anything in particular out in just the light of the city. The ambiance of Chicago seemed... dimmer. It was as though the light was having a hard time penetrating the space around here. That wasn't a good sign and spoke of dark magic being worked.

The helicopter went into a hover over Butler Park, a music stage between the Cloud Gate and Buckingham Fountain. There was a winch, and each of us took turns getting down with the last, Gard, being lowered remotely by the co-pilot.

Once our feet were on the ground, I asked, "Gard, you got some kind of magic that can be used as a signal flare?"

She considered. "Yes, I should have something that will suffice."

I thumped my staff on the ground. "Whoever finds the ritual sends up a metaphysical shot?"

"Agreed."

"Preferences?" Sanya asked me.

I knew that if Winter was around, I did not want to be anywhere near the Cloud Gate. My eyes were already scanning around for the scarlet hair of my Godmother. Lea showing up now would be just my luck. "Bundy Fountain."

Sanya nodded and slapped me on the arm. "Udachi." He hefted his rifle and headed out northwest across the field, to the Bean. Gard bowed her head curtly to John before following, her ax at the ready.

John took out his baton again, swinging it experimentally. "Mr. Hendricks and I will move to where the Fae are coming from and see about stemming the tide."

"How're you going to do that?" I asked.

"Judicious application of plastic explosives. Once that's taken care of, we will rejoin you against Nicodemus."

"Remember the chalk," I told him.

"Memento mori, Harry," he replied coolly. "Don't be reckless."

We could die doing this. In that moment, I wanted to scrap the plan and go with him or bring him with Michael and I, just to make sure he'd survive. He had his own job to do but I wanted to be selfish. I didn't want to risk him dying without me. And if he came with me, we'd be together when Nicodemus levied the curse of the firstborns on Chicago. Morbid, yet tempting.

Stars and stones, one or both of us could die tonight.

I reached out and caught him by the front of his vest and planted my lips on him. It was fast and close-mouthed, but immensely satisfying anyway. He blinked in surprise at me afterward. "Don't forget, we have to have that talk later, John."

He nodded once. "Later, then." He gently opened my hand where it was still holding him and stepped away. I watched him and Hendricks head out, iron truncheons ready.

Michael and I shared a look, Michael's gaze deep with understanding and sympathy. Without speaking, we headed south to Buckingham Fountain.

At the south end of Butler Park, before we hit Jackson, we ran into a cluster of cat-like malks. They were like Mister would after being bitten by a radioactive snowman: bobcat-sized with broad paws, icy grey fur, and big nasty teeth. Malks traveled in groups, and this pack was at least twenty in number. It was hard to tell in the dark.

I poured some will into my pentacle, lighting the area with blue-white light. "You can either get out of our way or eat iron," I told them.

One hissed at us, its tail flicking in the air. "You are outnumbered," it mewled.

"Easy enough to fix," I said and leveled my staff at them. "Fuego!"

Fur flew and the air was thick with angry feline cries as the malks scattered. Every one ran in a different directions. It was impossible to track them in the dark. Michael swung Amoracchius and took one out as it leapt at him. A malk swiped at my back. There was surprising force behind the strike even if my duster protected me from the claws. I spun and clubbed the malk with my staff, sending it rolling.

Michael grunted, beating away another faerie. "Harry--"

"I know, I know, fire wasn't the best idea. Ow, fuck!" I smacked another malk as it charged me. "Ventas servitas!"

A column of wind plowed through the pack. Michael saw the opportunity and grabbed me, dragging me through the malks. It wasn't easy, making it through their ranks. I decided I'd underestimated the number of malks after I fought off the sixth that tried to jump me. A few tried to climb me like a tree, swinging their claws at my neck when they got high enough.

We barreled out onto Jackson, hitting the pavement at a run. I slung a few more wind spells behind us. I almost whipped out my fire cyclone spell, but it took more power than I was willing to spare at the moment. I'd need it soon.

Almost immediately, actually. As we crossed into the courtyard leading to the fountain, a figure stepped out of the shadows. He was human and built like an athlete, but wasn't dressed the part. He wore just jeans and a worn white tee, seemingly unaffected by the February weather. That was clue one. Clue two was the icicle sword loosely tucked into his belt. Clue three was the snowflake scar on his neck that caught the light of my pentacle.

Clue four was the arctic cold thrill in his eyes as he grinned at us.

We'd run into the Winter Knight, a mortal who had given himself over to the Court, body and soul. He was their property, their most powerful ace in human affairs. His presence here only confirmed our suspicions that Winter was helping the Denarians.

I stepped between him and Michael, drawing will into my shield bracelet. Michael lifted his sword in a defensive stance. "Harry?"

"Winter Knight," I said. "Bad news."

The Winter Knight threw his head back and laughed, deep and masculine. "To the point, aren't you, Dresden?"

"I hate when people know my name before we've been introduced. Kind of rude, don't you think?"

The Knight bowed deeply, the gesture sardonic and somehow conveying exactly how little he gave a shit about my opinion. "Knight Slate, at your service." He straightened, drawing his sword in the same motion. "And I'm afraid this is as far as you go."

Michael stepped out from behind me, his own sword at the ready. "You stand in the way of our mission?"

Slate shrugged one shoulder. "Nothing personal. Just following orders."

"Protecting Nicodemus?" I asked. "Do you even know what he has planned for Chicago?"

"Don't know, don't care. This world doesn't concern me."

How long did you have to be Queen Mab's slave before the mortal world didn't matter to you anymore? I conjured a ball of fire in my palm, anger pooling into flame. Slate watched me and took a menacing step forward.

Oh, I wanted to flambé him, no doubt. But first, he'd confirmed the ritual location for me. I flung my hand skyward, releasing my magic so it soared upward, burning as bright as any flare. Realization dawned on Slate's face and he lunged at me, sword first.

Michael had my back. Or front, as it were. Amoracchius clashed musically with Slate's sword. As the blades ran together, shaved ice fell to the ground.

My blasting rod was gone, so I only had my staff. Less bang, but more control. I conjured up some fire, letting it coat the end of the staff, then swung it like a club.

Slate grunted in pain as the hit landed, fire singeing his shirt. Otherwise, it didn't seem to have much effect on him. His hand snapped up and grabbed my staff, and frost spidered out from his grip, spreading up the wood. I knew letting it touch me would lead to bad, bad things.

I threw my weight back, forcing him to let go or fall with me. He let go, and I landed hard on my ass.

Whether it was from his Knighthood or just being the sort of muscled guy who could brawl, Slate was able to hold Michael off with his sword one-handed even as he collected a sphere of ice in his other hand. I shielded against the ice ball, letting it bounce away. It landed in a small fountain nearby, one of the many that surrounded the monstrous Buckingham Fountain. All the water in the thing instantly froze.

Lightbulb. I rolled to my feet and flung two spells in quick succession: "Fuego! Forzare!"

The fountain's ice melted, then my force spell knocked the top of the thing right off. The water pressure went nuts, firing a mist into the air. The wind wasn't cooperating, but a little more applied will and some faux-Latin, and the water rained onto the three of us.

By then, Michael was on the defensive as Slate rained blow after blow against him. He had no finesse, striking with all his might, whaling on Michael. Michael was being forced back further and further, water sloshing around his feet.

I get reckless when my friends are in danger. It's a problem, I know. But I dove at Slate, throwing myself at him. I managed to catch him mid-swing when his balance was off, and down we went into the water.

Slate snarled like an animal and flipped us. One of his hands grabbed me around the neck, slamming my head into the ground. Black spots appeared in my vision, but through them I could see Slate gathering another lethal ice ball in his fist.

"Michael!" I gasped, not having enough air to scream.

Michael heard anyway and grabbed Slate by the scruff of his shirt like he was a rabid dog, and threw him off me.

Three things happened very quickly.

Slate lost hold of his ice magic, sending the sphere flying in a graceful arc up through the air.

Michael pulled me to my feet.

And I threw all the power I could spare into a shield, a curved wall at our feet, encircling us.

The water on the ground froze the instant the magic ball hit it. Slate was still lying on his back and the ice spread over him, freezing every drop of water soaked into his clothes. He was embedded a few inches in the frozen fountain water, all of it ice except for the puddle within my shield.

Slate laughed and struggled, the ice around his body starting to crack. "You think you can stop the Winter fucking Knight with ice?"

"Just need to slow you down so I can do this," I replied and hefted my staff again. I hit him right in the temple and it was lights out for Knight Slate.

Michael and I watched Slate slump to the ground. We would be foolish to turn our backs on him before we knew for certain he was out. When he didn't stir, Michael looked up and said my name softly.

I looked and saw what he was looking at. The area around the Buckingham Fountain courtyard was glittering with bright, inhuman eyes. They watched us, pinpricks of light in the darkness. It was impossible to count them all, but the scarier thing was that they weren't doing anything.

"Why aren't they attacking us?"

Michael shook his head. "I do not know. Let's not waste time trying to answer that."

"Yeah..." I had a feeling that whatever the answer was, it wasn't going to be good. We reluctantly turned our backs to the Fae and walked through the courtyard to the Fountain. It was a quiet walk, the city around us eerily still. Michael kept his hand on Amoracchius while I gripped my staff with both hands, waiting for anything. The dark was oppressive, so I lit my pentacle again so it shone blue-white against the night.

It was only then did we see what we were standing on.

The gray stone that made up the courtyard was splattered with purple. At first glance, it looked like some very sloppy graffiti, but I found I was looking at sigils and geometric lines that mapped out a design that wouldn't be out of place in the Key of Solomon. Some scrawled marks I recognized, but the majority of it seemed to be in Hebrew, with was not an alphabet I was familiar with. But I understood the implications of seeing Hebrew integrated into a complicated magic circle. It didn't bode well.

"Shiro," Michael murmured.

Oh. Blood. The writing was in blood. The red seemed purple in the light of my pentacle. My foot happened to be touching one curved line and I jerked away from it like it burned me. I was standing in Shiro's blood.

Hell's bells, there was a lot of it. From what I could see, the ritual circle spread out from the fountain spilling out over half the courtyard. It was impressive, even before any power was being willed into the lines. I tried not to think about how much blood Shiro would even have left.

We were on guard as we scoped out the area. The stone of the Fountain was covered in the writing. Michael tried to make out some of it, but while his liturgical Latin was pretty good, his Hebrew wasn't. The simple fact that the design was so extensive and well-laid out had me nervous. That Nicodemus hadn't shown up yet was even worse.

I heard Michael inhale sharply. He burst into a sprint, running across the grounds. I swore and followed him.

Michael dropped to his knees next to something on the ground. I could barely see it, oblong and muddy blue-red. Otherwise, I had no idea. "What, what is it?"

Michael looked up at me, eyes wide and lost, then just bowed his head, holding Amoracchius' hilt against his cheek.

My hand shook as I lifted my pentacle to shine light over the form on the ground. For a moment, I didn't know what I was looking at. My mind couldn't put the evidence together and tell me what it was. It didn't look like anything.

Except it had Shiro's eyes, open and staring blankly skyward.

His body wasn't recognizable. He'd been cut over and over. Some slices were thin enough to be barely visible. Other looked like they'd been ripped open messily, flesh revealed, blood smudged around the wounds. His skin was bloodless and pale like wax.

Of course it was bloodless. They'd used it all as paint for their ritual.

I was hit with the sudden urge to retch.

They did this to him while he was alive, judging by the amount of blood on his skin. Some of the cuts were red. Some weren't. Dead bodies didn't bleed. Shiro had been killed during the process.

Just a few hours ago, he was alive and trading his life for mine.

"This was supposed to be me," I said quietly.

Michael shook his head, still leaning on his sword, and reached out to shut Shiro's eyes. "No, Harry."

"It was. I was supposed to be the sacrifice." It was hard to breathe, my entire body tight like I was being squeezed by a vice. "Why would he do that? Why did he--"

"Don't worry, Mr. Dresden," a voice above us called, cajoling and downright cheerful. "By the end of this night it won't matter anyway."

Nicodemus didn't so much step out of the shadows as much as the shadows folded away to reveal him. He stood with the Shroud draped around his shoulders, tucked into his weird rope tie. His hands were dark from Shiro's blood.

Fury flooded me. The image of him fingerpainting a plague ritual with the blood of a Knight of the Cross was so hideous and wrong, I couldn't handle it. I aimed my staff at him and bellowed, "VENTAS FUEGO!"

A cyclone of fire soared at him. Nicodemus jumped into the air, his shadow forming wings that blocked out the starlight, and glided into the air. Buckingham Fountain had four levels; the lowest level was the size of a swimming pool while the top three were stacked in the center. Nicodemus landed on the top one, the water firing into the air behind him. All the extra ornate spouts had been shut off so only the main pump kept going. It launched water twenty feet in the air. Nicodemus was quickly soaked by it, but he grinned all the same.

"As I understand it, this is the part where I laugh manically and gloat about how unstoppable I am. Excuse me if I skip that part." He spread his arms wide and beckoning, his shadow wings stretching out from him. He clicked his fingers.

And the Fae came charging in.

The malk pack lead the charge, the not-cats tumbling over each other in their haste to sweep over the courtyard. Behind them were the frost-coated hellhounds my Godmother favored, snarling and flashing their teeth in the night. Some were ridden by small, lesser Fae that carried ice like broken glass in their hands. A few snow ogres thundered in at the back of the pack, one carrying an uprooted tree as a weapon (as if anything that size needed a weapon). For just a moment, I saw a tall, baboon-esque creature with rubbery skin, but when it saw me looking, it waved its hand. A mist exuded from it, darker than the Chicago night. The mist seemed to eat light, leaving an coal black cloud to settle over the area. A hob, I recalled from Bob's lectures about Winter Fae. A hob used hazy myrk to sap the magic away from everything it touched, except the other fae, who moved through it fine.

And as the Fae spread over the courtyard, I could feel Nicodemus starting up the magical engine that the Fountain had become. Somehow, likely with the help of his Fallen Angel, he'd overcome the water's grounding effect and had harnessed the potential beyond. It was faint at first, but the lines painted on the ground began to glow with red light.

"Michael..."

His face was serious, pale. His hands tightened around Amoracchius, ready and determined. "Have faith, Harry."

"Not really my field of expertise."

"Then focus on setting things on fire and I shall have enough faith for both of us." Michael put his hand on my shoulder and I could feel it, the force of Michael's belief like it was a tangible thing. It was pure warmth and comfort seeping into me from Michael's skin. All my energy returned to me, a loan from the wealth of power Michael carried.

I gasped and let out an involuntary laugh, filled with hope as my pentacle blazed with light like a beacon. "Okay. Yeah, let's do that."

We fought back to back. I wielded fire and force equally, beating back the tide of Winter. My shield stayed up as Michael and I both ducked behind it. The smaller Fae fell against us, and Amoracchius ran them through when I didn't toss them back with my magic.

The hobs and snow ogres were another matter altogether. I knew Michael and I were capable of taking them out, but not in conjunction with all the other creatures were were fighting. We avoided them, retreating when he needed to to stay out of their range.

We couldn't go on, us versus the army of Winter. The Fae seemed to keep coming and all the while, Nicodemus was channeling power into the ritual. We needed a breakthrough.

It started far off, with just the sound of gunfire to herald it. Soon, the sounds grew louder and I twisted my head to see. On the far end of the courtyard, a new group was joining the fray. It was a relief to see something non-Fae, and bunch of iron- and Uzi-carrying Outfit men fit the bill. John's men were moving on our position.

"Cavalry's here," I said to Michael.

"We need to get to Nicodemus!" His voice was rough, most of his attention on bringing his sword down on a hellhound that was snapping its jaws at us.

"Works for me. On three?" I pressed my back flush to his and shielded us completely, a sphere of force forming around us. I felt him nod. "One, two... " I flung my arms out and called, "Contegus forzare!"

My shield blasted out, knocking back our assailants enough to give us room. Together, we leapt into the Fountain and waded as quickly as we could to the center where Nicodemus stood on one of the upper tiers.

"You're gonna have to cover me. Won't be able to pull up my shield for a few minutes after that," I panted at him.

"Hopefully this won't take that long." Michael started to climb the next tier. Amoracchius flashed with holy light, a clear warning, before something grabbed Michael and threw him backwards.

I screamed wordlessly, spinning to see Deirdre at the edge of the Fountain. She was back in her demonic form, a lock of her razor hair wrapped around Michael's chest. She toodled her fingers at me as she slammed Michael against the stone rim of the water fountain.

"Michael!"

The Knight swung his sword, catching Deirdre's hair and cutting it loose. With a shrug, the tendril fell off him, splashing loudly into the water. There were slices along his arms and chest, but he showed no sign of weariness. "Harry, go! Get the Shroud!" He lifted his sword against the Denarian, glowing with the power of his faith. "I will handle this creature."

I didn't want to leave Michael to it, but I could feel how much power was in the air. It was thick around us, dark and miasmal. I couldn't spare the time.

I turned and vaulted up the Fountain, climbing to meet Nicodemus. He was facing away from me, his eyes closed, his mouth moving as a steady stream of words poured from his mouth. It wasn't a language I recognized, but I'd bet my last nickel (sorry, sorry) on Hebrew. This close, I could feel the shape of the ritual. Dark magic radiated from Nicodemus, into the Fountain, and fed back into him like a perpetual cycle that built on itself. The Shroud around his shoulders was almost filtering the energy, giving it a purpose. A really bad purpose.

As I swung my leg up onto the top tier, Nicodemus' shadow lashed out at me, grabbing me and pushing me down. My head fell under the water and I panicked as I was unable to push myself out, the shadow holding me fast.

Just before my vision went black, the pressure was gone. Instead, I was lifted into the air by my coat, high enough my feet swung without touching anything. I shook water from my eyes and opened them.

Nicodemus smiled at me, continuing to speak the incantation for the ritual. I swung my staff at him, but he grabbed it with his human hand, holding it still with a startling amount of force.

I couldn't speak with the shadow wrapped around my throat, but I did have my focus and little other choice. I focused on the word: forzare.

Nicodemus gasped in pain and stumbled backward as a blow of force crashed into him. My head spun from the spell. Casting without words was always a last resort for wizards.

He steadied himself, glaring at me before he just started chanting again. I managed to form a small shield like a buckler above my wrist. It flashed with light as the shadow hit me. I did my best to block, but the shadow was fast and soon I had thin slices over my arms and chest. The water soaking me was a small comfort, numbing me until I barely felt the pain.

Not bothering to fend off the shadow, I swung my staff at Nicodemus with fire and will. It was enough to make him stagger, but throwing my whole body into the blow left me wide open. The shadow stabbed me in the leg and I screamed, the feeling sharp enough it cut through the numbness. With the deep gash, my leg couldn't quite hold me up anymore and I started to fall forward.

Nicodemus caught me, a hand gripping the front of my shirt and holding me up. He continued to chant, spitting the words in my face with a fierce mad gleam in his eyes. I fought to get my legs underneath me without much luck. I dropped my staff and groped at the hand he was lifting me with. The collar of my shirt dug into my neck, making it hard to breathe. Nicodemus watched me struggle with rapt interest.

When I seized the noose around his neck, it wasn't on purpose. I was just looking for something to hold onto. My hands found the rough rope and clenched. I saw Nicodemus' eyes widen and knew I'd done something right.

Before he could toss me aside, I grabbed the noose with both hands and pulled it, driving the knot into his throat.

The effect was immediate. He'd practically shrugged off my magic, but was obviously not impervious to the noose. He clawed at me, trying to make me let go. His hands wrapped around mine-- he let me go, and my leg went out from under me. I dragged him with me as I kept the noose in hand. We hit the basin of water and strove against each other, him trying to loosen my grip and me holding on like my life depended on it. It probably did; the second I let go, Nicodemus would waste no time in killing me.

We thrashed at each other, each trying to overpower the other. He pushed my head under the water for a moment, but I kneed him in the gut and flipped us the other way, returning the favor. It was brutal, savage, with no magic and no demons. Just a fight to the death.

I got my knees on his chest, pinning him down with all my weight, and jerked the noose tighter. Nicodemus made a sick gurgling sound. He might've been almost dead. It might've been over--

I saw the Shroud float by in the water next to us. It must've came free from Nicodemus' shoulders as we grappled.

My staff was nearby. I grabbed it, snagged the Shroud, and rolled off the tier, into the next one. I did it single-mindedly, running off the one relentless thought of get the Shroud away from Nicodemus. When I tried to stand, my leg lodged a solid protest, and I fell gracelessly down to the bottom level of the Fountain.

When I lifted my head, I could see the brawl that had broken out around me. Outfit guys versus Winter, the ultimate showdown. Iron batons flashed in the dim light, gunfire barking around the courtyard, the smell of cordite and Winter magic in the air. I needed to run, but there was no way I'd make it far, especially not with Nicodemus still alive. He'd be on me in seconds.

I forced myself to my feet, leaning on one of the ornate statues in the Fountain. There were so beings in the brawl but I needed...

John. I found him standing back to back with Hendricks, both of them working together to beat down the hoard of Fae. The myrk drifted around them, and they had evidentially figured out that breathing it in wouldn't be wise and tied handkerchiefs around their noses and mouths.

John was my best shot, I knew it. One vanilla mortal could slip away faster than a Knight or whatever Gard was.

"John! JOHN!" I screamed this name across the courtyard. His face turned to me.

I threw the sodden Shroud in the air and pointed my staff, propelling my will. "FORZARE!"

The Shroud sailed through the air like a home run smash. John caught it underhanded and immediately tucked it under his arm. I saw his mouth move, Hendricks nod in response, and John just vanished, ducking into the foray and retreating with Hendricks covering him.

"No, no, NO!" Nicodemus snarled behind me. I spun and shielded barely in time to avoid being decapitated by his shadow. He didn't try again, instead charging by me. He was going after John.

I threw myself at him, caught his legs, and sent us both belly-first into the Fountain. I got a kick in the face for my troubles and repaid it with a slap of pure force. We were back to our dirty fighting in the water, pure physicality punctuated by the occasional burst of magic.

"Insolent child!" He backhanded me, the gesture echoed by his shadow, and I went flying straight out of the Fountain. I hit the ground and rolled, too weak to stop myself.

I came to a stop when I hit something. I opened my eyes, shook water out of my eyes, and looked.

Shiro's still body was laying next to me.

And his eyes were open.

That was bad enough, looking into the eyes of dead man. But before I could react, I felt the pull of a soulgaze and fell forward into his eyes.

The fact he was still alive was lost in the scene that stretched out before my Sight. The faint mist of the Fountain intensified into a downpour. Torrential rain beat onto everything with great force. The sky was dark, not from night, but from storm clouds thick enough to block out the light. It seemed like it'd always been that way. There were trees around, either barren or with their branches hanging limply downward. The ground was sodden and more water than earth. Kneeling in it made my knees sink into the squelchy mud. It was cold and miserable and hopeless.

The clouds parted and a solid beam of bright sunlight peaked through. It illuminated a spot ahead of me, and I could see Shiro sitting in the warm light. He was cloaked in white, dry despite the storm. The earth around him dried and turned green where the light touched.

It was a small space, but it was a beacon in the misery.

Shiro, whole and unharmed, lifted his eyes to me. "Harry."

My throat tightened and I couldn't say anything.

"I know. I'm going to die. It's my time. I did all I could and I have no regrets. I knew what I was getting into. Do not blame yourself for this." He smiled, as brilliant as the sun. "Though would you do me a favor?"

I nodded and cleared my throat a few times. "Anything. Anything."

He waved his hand to the west, where the storm was darkest. "He took the sword. Get it from him. Put it to good use and pass it onto a worthy soul if you can find one."

"I will. I swear, I will." I might've been crying. It was hard to tell in the cold of the rain, drops running down from my hair and over my skin.

Shiro held out a hand to me. I scrambled up to my feet and moved closer to him. As I drew near, the cold faded, the area around Shiro sun-warmed.

I settled back onto my knees just outside his circle of light. It didn't feel right to join him in it. Not after everything else that had happened to him because of me. It was captivating, though, the way it shone on him, how the light made everything around look less grim.

He shook his head, amused. "Harry. Listen to me. This will pass. There is darkness in you, and it could devour you or you could destroy it."

I inhaled sharply, shaken. "How? How do you know?"

"Sanya was much like you." His smile grew wistful. "He beat it. You will too." Shiro reached out and put his hands on my shoulders. I gasped at the flood of emotions that filled me. Safety, determination, pure golden power. Life.

"Keep faith," Shiro said. "Have hope. Find love." He pulled me forward into the light and kissed my forehead like a benediction. "Give Sanya and Michael my regards."

The soulgaze ended abruptly. I felt thrown out of it, as if it'd ended prematurely. I shook myself and looked down at Shiro and saw why.

His eyes were still open, but glassy and empty. Dead. Gone.

But not forgotten.

I stood up, oddly refreshed. Only seconds could've passed, but I felt like I'd slept hours in a warm, familiar bed. It wasn't the artificial boost from a coffee-based potion or an energy drink. It was rest and energy. Shiro's final gift to me, I supposed.

I looked around the field, the frantic battle around me. Dead fae lay on the ground with bullet casings scattered around, dark mortal blood and paler Fae blood splattered. I didn't see many human bodies, which registered to me as a plus. But my focus was scattered, distant. I had my goal to accomplish; nothing else truly mattered.

There was a sound, loud but from a great distance. I looked up and saw the SWAT helicopter rising into the air. John had to be on board, getting the Shroud away from here. Already, I could feel the magic-building ritual the Fountain was wrapped up in start to break apart without Nicodemus' focus.

Nicodemus was staring up at the helicopter, his body glowing with a hellish red light. Before my eyes I saw his shadow stretch out, holding onto Nicodemus and forming those giant wings. They started to flap, sending surging gusts out from Nicodemus.

He bent his knees, started to leap in the air.

I picked up my staff and walked over, strangely calm. I waited until Nicodemus was high off the ground before twirling my staff in a pinwheel circle, drawing my will into the motion. "I don't think so, bub. Ventas! Ventas! VENTAS SERVITAS!"

The wind built, pulling to me and into the spin of my staff. I drew it all in until Nicodemus' wings beat wildly, unable to get any more lift. I watched coldly as he fell, slamming into the ground.

I approached slowly, readying my will for more. Nicodemus was slow getting to his feet, likely through the combination of trying to fuel such a large ritual, duking it out with me, and his abrupt return to earth. His coat hung open and I saw the gleam of metal attached to his hip. Fidelacchius.

I planted my staff and reached out like I could will the sword into my grasp. And I could. "Erazrof!"

The sword soared away from Nicodemus and into my outstretched hand. Nicodemus' head jerked up, eyes wide, looking at me, staff in one hand, sword in the other. The touch of Shiro's katana against my skin filled me with even more power. I felt like I had that night last year when John kissed me for the first time and I channeled sunlight like an old god. I let that fierce strength show on my face when I grinned.

"Game over, Nick. The Shroud's gone, the Outfit boys are holding off your borrowed army, and you've got a wizard, two Knights, and some badass Nordic babe here to kick your ass," I told him straight. Sometimes honesty really is the best policy. "Come get some."

The thing about Nicodemus was that he wasn't like most of the people I'd faced in my career of wizardry. I'd dealt with bad guys who never saw how screwed they were, who wanted to behead me for daring to impugn their might, who could never cut their losses and get while the getting's good.

Nicodemus wasn't like that.

He took in everything I said, then turned and ran. His shadow wings spread as he did, and when he kicked off the ground at the far end of the courtyard, he went airborne, and flew out over the black waters of the Lake.

He turned and he ran.



Chapter Nine

reticent_lass: I love this, how it’s all coming down to which tough, skinny jerk can out-wrestle the other in this freezing dark fountain at some ungodly hour while all this magic warfare rages on around them.
Lucy: :laughs forever:


OH HEY, I'm going to be overhauling the layout of this comm soon. I've been using white text on black because I personally read that better, but does anyone have a preference? Do you need bigger/small text? Anything? OKAY I MIGHT'VE ALREADY IMPLEMENTED A NEW LAYOUT. Yea/Nay?

And, for the curious: Buckingham Fountain.

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Comments
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This was amazing. Especially the part with Shiro. And you can write action scenes. My hand was over my mouth at one point to keep me from squeaking. XD

Maybe I can write them, but it's akin to having a root canal for me-- necessary process, but very painful. Glad it worked for you though!

Like usual, I love this entire chapter a ridiculous amount (no, really, there are joyful noises and fist biting of pure glee involved), but I have to say that this:

Gard reached into the floor compartment and drew out an ax. A massive, double bladed ax that looked well-used. She lifted the thing like it was nothing. Hendricks was watching her out of the corner of his eye and I saw him swallow thickly. I wondered if he was afraid of her or something. If we made it out of this alive, I'd have to ask.

might just be my favourite thing ever. Ever. Gard/Hendricks Harry/Obliviousness OTP! :DDD

I think after dealing with John and Harry so much, Hendricks needs to get his own life for a bit. And any excuse to have Gard around is awesome. 8D 8D 8D

my first post here but my god that was good.. like shelly i also had my hand over my mouth in parts!

i like the new layout as well! :D XD

I'm just finishing futzing with the layout. Lemme know if you have any issues. Thanks for reading!

Yeah, I realized the majority is not a fan of light-on-dark like I am, so I wanted to make the fic comm more accessible. Hope you like!

This was utterly amazing. I sat at the edge of my seat, wanting to know what would happen next. The pacing, the descriptions, the emotions underneath everything. Just brilliant.

The horror of they walking on Shiro's blood and finding the remains of Shiro's body was so well executed and the soulgaze in the end was perfect.

A very powerful chapter.

Thank you, that's extremely reassuring. :haaaates this chapter: Glad you liked!

So. Much. Love. Seriously, the train fight is one of my favorites, but I didn't miss it, because this? Was fantastic. You do write action very well, and it definitely kept me engaged as a reader. And setting it around Buckingham Fountain (just got back from Chicago, so yeah. Fun!) was fantastic. I am fascinated by the involvement of the Fae, and how that's going to play out.

And for the record, did you intentionally quote "Army of Darkness" for Harry's throw down with Nicodemus? Because I laughed out loud, and all I could think of was Ash: "Yo, She-Bitch! Come get some." Which, when I think of it, is a perfect reference for Harry.

Anyway, enough of my babble. Great chapter as always, and I can't wait to see how you handle the fallout, particularly considering where John is going with that Shroud.

One of the betas pointed out that considering Butcher gets to right about Chicago, he does a lot of grand finales in anonymous buildings and parks. Which bugs me. They way that every great architect gives a gift to Chicago. It's got gorgeous locations-- why doesn't JB use them? [/rant]

... I was going for stereotypical action hero cockiness, but omg it's an Ash quote, that's even better.

This is greatness. Really like how you use canon and change it into something new. Awesome action scenes. I like how you wrote the tension between Harry and John and how they care about each other and are aware that there's alot they're going to need to discuss. Was very glad to see an update. The new layout is very different but I think it works. Really like the header. I usually read light font on dark background easier myself but this definitely works fine. Great chapter as always. Thanks for posting this. <3

I'm a light on dark girl too, but I figured more people prefer the opposite and I should be more accomodating. Or something. 8|

The header is by the amazing alexwhitewell, btw. She is brilliant and I love her. ♥

Whaaaaaaat. Oh my god, why so amazing?

JOHN, JOHN, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? MORON.

Harry -- for once, I don't really have the urge to call Harry a moron. I'm pretty much on his side on this one! And he's so ~adorable~, all realizing he has some thinking he needs to do but putting it aside, realizing the fight isn't the end of him and John. :D But yeah, if John isn't going to share in the trust, here, Harry is exactly right to leave his ass! For a little while. Until John stops being a moron. (Love John 'not' freaking out about Harry's injuries, btw.)

And in conclusion: Shiro! *sobs*

Hey, you caught up! :waves:

John and Harry are finally going to talk next chapter. Long overdue. They'll be okay. Mostly. :pats them: Until the next arc anyway. 8D

Eeee :D This is way awesome.

I'm usually not much for fight scenes, but I think the one here worked out very well.

Too many lines in here to quote, but dear god, I loved the not-dialogue between John and Harry.

And I know you were struggling over it, but a truly epic battle, worthy of (better than?) Butcher!

Thanks to you -- and I mean that totally unironicalyl -- I have a new fandom. It's not like I needed another one, but Jesus Christ, do I ever love your Harry/John. And this whole story.

Ugh. This chapter? So very much worth the wait.

That was AWESOME! Harry made Nic run! And trusted John to get the shroud out of there, and all the times he kept insisting John wasn't his ex with John thinking he'd lost Harry, so sweet! Oh, and the bit with Shiro. This is so excellent. Love how you adjusted the ritual - was it for a different plague? Were they right about the first-born son thing? Or will we ever know?!?!?! And why is Winter so involved? And will Harry ever understand the signs of attraction between two other people? Hee. And for not liking to write action, you can really write action. Just awesome!

I love you. I don't even- there is so much about this chapter that is awesome, and then the rest of it is perfect. So, yeah. I got nothing except, I love you. Harry and Marcone's not-a-conversation, Marcone's barely keeping it together, his reaction to Harry's wounds. The fight, the soul-gaze with Shiro, which, god. I didn't think his death scene could be any more painful than in the books, but there you go, proving me wrong.

"Then focus on setting things on fire and I shall have enough faith for both of us." This was awesome. I love your Michael.

Also, I like the new layout and love the new header. :)

Woo hoo! Great update; really liked the action and the little moments between Harry and John.

this chapter is full of awesomeness

but this is probably my favorite line:

Gard reached into the floor compartment and drew out an ax. A massive, double bladed ax that looked well-used. She lifted the thing like it was nothing. Hendricks was watching her out of the corner of his eye and I saw him swallow thickly. I wondered if he was afraid of her or something. If we made it out of this alive, I'd have to ask.

No Harry. It's Gard/Hendricks love! Damn, I love how seeing that she's badass makes Hendricks even more besotted.

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