As Alix’s car roared away from the crippled Nina Mori and her band-mates, Christmas wrenched his shoulder joint back into place. Slán Ghrian, the Winter thane’s weapon, whispered audibly in the tongue of Faerie as he did so.
Frost spread on the interior glass, and vapor chased Alix’s words as she asked Christmas what came next.
He gave her an address, and to everyone’s surprise, it was one with which she was familiar. They made their way in haste to the home of Miles Morrison, whose stock-in-trade was obeah and vodoun –-ritual magic in the Caribbean tradition. Black luck, ill fortune was his gift.
They soon arrived in Logan Square, the car barely parked before Christmas was stalking up the stairs to Morrison’s second-floor apartment. The ragged man did not so much knock at the door as beat on it like he meant it harm.
When Christmas finally paused, breathing pale and furious clouds, the door opened a crack. Behind it, a wary eye scanned the group of them.
Alix stepped smoothly in front of the Winter thane. “Miles. I’m sorry. My friend, here …”
The hidden figure let the door open slightly. He raised his chin to Alix in recognition, then turned to Christmas. “Something wrong?”
“Some_one_’s wrong. Stole my goddamn hair. Threw fire at me,” ranted Christmas. “And I want some payback.” He let the glamour on his weapon fall, and Miles stepped back in alarm as the sad, broomstick-and-duct-tape American flag that the ragged man carried changed its form. It became a single heavy bone that reached from his feet to his collar, bleached snow-white and polished, shod in silvery metal and fitted at one end with an angular, machete-like blade. The ragged man shook its blunt end. “I got her blood right here. Fresh.”
Miles turned toward Alix, eyebrows raised to their limit.
“Christmas,” said Alix Ison-Raith, her tone friendly but firm. “The fight’s over, for now. Take a breath.” She turned to Morrison and smiled. “Maybe we can move this out of the hallway?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Miles looked askance at the ragged man, and the weapon he bore. He could swear the thing whispered, just at the edge of his hearing. “Think you can keep it together, pal?”
Christmas cast his eyes down, sheepish. He nodded.
Slowly their host stepped back and widened the door for them to pass. Tilda punched him softly on the arm as she passed. “Thanks, champ,” she said with a wink. “You’re the tops!”
With a few subtle gestures, Alix seated the group around her, making introductions as she did so. “So, Miles,” she began. “You and Christmas know each other?”
The two men exchanged a glance. “Yeah, we… worked together a couple times.” Miles looked sideways at the ragged man. “That was before he got the, uhhh—what the hell is that thing, anyway? And why is it in my house? You’re lucky you brought Ms. Ison with you, or I’d’ve left you out in the hall.”
A soft whisper passed among them, and Christmas’s spine straightened. “I serve the Lady of Winter now, and bear Slán Ghrian in her name,” he said, brandishing the weapon.
Morrison’s brow furrowed. “_Slán Ghrian_,” he repeated. “That’s … what? ‘Goodbye, Sunshine’?”
Tilda snorted. “Catchy. Did it used to belong to Paul McCartney?”
The skin over Christmas’s knuckles, very fair under any circumstances, went a shade whiter.
“Show some respect. This weapon was old when Rome was young.” The ragged man loosened his grip on Slán Ghrian’s haft, and let it lean upon his shoulder. “But unless you decided to become an enemy of the Winter Court, Miles, you don’t need to be scared of it, or me. We always got along all right.”
“We did.” Miles looked Slán Ghrian up and down. “I gotta say, you were kinda creepy as a homeless vet with a gun. This is not a huge improvement.”
Christmas opened his mouth, then shut it as Alix began to speak. “Our friend’s in a complicated place right now—we all are,” she said. “Let me give you the bullet points.”
She was just finishing her summary of the last two days’ events when a thunderous noise arose upon the stairs outside. Heavy footsteps approached the door outside, accompanied by the sound of cursing in a distinctive accent.
“Mr. Miles!” came a voice. “Open the door, please! Hurry!”
Morrison rose. “It’s OK. Just another customer of mine. His name’s—”
“Moe,” they said, in unison.
Shooting a puzzled glance over his shoulder, Miles strode to the front of his apartment. A moment later, the Wizard of LaSalle Street tumbled in, trembling in agitation.
“We have only moments!” he gasped. “Quickly, quickly!”
“Use your words, Moe,” said Alix. “Someone chasing you? Who? How many?”
Then there was light, and smoke, and the echo of a flat, room-filling vibration that was more sensation than sound. Alix, Moe and the rest were all sprawled upon the floor, awash in tumbled furnishings and books.
The apartment’s smoke alarm screamed, as if from a long way off. But the figure in the doorway raised a hand to point in its direction, and it fell silent in a shower of sparks.
The visitor stepped forward over the remains of Morrison’s door, through the black haze and the glow of guttering flames.
He was tall, and lean. His western boots gleamed white, stark against the deep blue denim of his jeans. These, and his red button-down shirt, and his long factory-weathered canvas duster, all spoke of money casually spent. He looked like an oilman, or a president, who wanted desperately to be a cowboy.
And the Bastards—minus Nina Mori—stood smirking behind him.
The visitor had a mustache and a voice designed to bring you the local news at 3, 6 and 10. He spoke amiably.
“How you doin’ today? Good? Good.” He placed his hands upon his hips in a way seemingly designed to call attention to his belt buckle, which hardly needed the help. It was the size of one of the smaller original thirteen colonies, and featured a scorpion sealed in amber.
“You really know how to show a girl a good time, Miles,” said Tilda. “I didn’t know there’d be a floor show.”
The visitor’s hand rose to his back, and drew it down again in a flashing crescent of silver. He held a sword, the runes carved down the length of its blade glowing with white heat.
“I am, generally, a patient and reasonable man,” said the stranger. Then he chuckled. “Nah. Not really. I’m Chester Goddamn McGinnis. Now’s when I talk, and you shut up.”
“Wizard. Used to be a White Council Warden,” Miles whispered to Tilda and Christmas out the side of his mouth. “Just be cool.”
“Give the man a cigar,” chortled McGinnis. “That’s right. I was a Warden … once. Not why I came by, though.”
He raised his sword and pointed the tip at Christmas.
“I came to give you fair warning, neighbor: Nina Mori is under my protection. Whatever business you had with her, it’s over. You’re done. Count yourself lucky that you get to go home with your own foot in one piece.” He sheathed the Warden’s sword, his eyes never leaving the ragged man. “And just to keep you honest,” he continued, “I’ll be collecting anything you’ve got that might belong to Ms. Mori.”
There was silence for a moment. Then the sound of whispers.
Christmas planted the butt of Slán Ghrian on the floor and used it to raise himself to his feet. “I serve the Court of Winter,” he said quietly. “My orders come from the Queen Who Is To Be—not from you. I was commanded to find the one who’s been assassinating the Winter Sidhe with Summer magic. And that assassin is Nina Mori.”
“Not only that,” interjected Alix. “She’s doing it with ritual magic. And she’s performing those rituals in a nightclub owned by members of the White Court.” She cocked her head at the wizard. “The Winter Fey are the ones that told us the attacks were coming out of the club and it took us all of one day to trace it back to Nina Mori and The Losers. If you are tasked with protecting them, it doesn’t seem like you are doing a very good job of it."
The former Warden winced. “Well, ain’t that a … Really?”
“Oh, yes. Really.”
“OK. OK,” said McGinnis. “That changes the scenery a little. Look, let me give you some background. Maybe we can stop this from getting any uglier.”
Nina Mori, McGinnis explained, was a changeling, born of a mortal woman and sired by none other than Atomusk, the Phoenix King. As is the case with many such unions, the mortals involved were soon abandoned by the Fey, and left to fend for themselves.
Nina could not forgive her father for leaving them, and her anger at the Phoenix King only grew greater as she aged, slowly shaping itself into an obsession with revenge.
Eventually, a Winter Sidhe noble—the Duke of Mirrors—learned of Nina’s lineage and her anger, and found a way to use her in his own political machinations. The Duke was a climber, seeking a position as consort to the Winter Queen herself; but he had rivals, and the competition was fierce.
The Duke had stolen the Axe of Atomusk, and Chester McGinnis brokered a deal between the Sidhe and Nina Mori: the Duke would grant her the Axe, and with it magical power greater than she could ever acquire on her own. And if she used her father’s weapon to eliminate the Duke’s competition among the Winter nobles, the blame would naturally fall upon Atomusk, instead—gaining him the displeasure of Mab, Winter’s Queen. Which was a prospect that would cause most gods to tremble.
Alix nodded as McGinnis finished his story. “I understand where the girl’s coming from,” she said. “But my family isn’t taking the fall for this. There could be war.”
“Whatever else is true,” Christmas added, “I know who my real assassin is, now . But we’ll need more power than we have here to challenge a Winter Sidhe.”
“If we could identify—and then save—the Duke of Mirrors’ next target,” mused Miles, “we might gain his favor. Or at least turn the target against the Duke, and distract him. Even weaken him.”
“Can’t help you, there,” said McGinnis.
“Well, you’re Old Man Winter, ain’t you, Christmas?” said Tilda. “Don’t you have any snowman friends you can ask?”
The ragged man shook his head glumly. “As time goes on,” he murmured, “it looks more and more like I’m less ‘palace guard’ and more ‘janitor’, as far as status goes. Nobody in the Winter Court has anything to gain by helping me.”
“Hey,” came the voice of Miles Morrison, who had moved to stand before the smoking ruin of his apartment’s entryway. “I understand that all this Winter Court business is important, but, y’know …” He made a hopeless gesture at the detritus. “Anybody got any suggestions on how I explain this? Or maybe fix it?”
The spellcrafters all had ideas; there was talk of wards and alarms, of traps and summonings. They were still earnestly discussing details when Alix appeared in their midst, cell phone in hand.
“Don’t you worry, Miles,” she said. “I have a carpenter, a locksmith, and a drywall guy on their way. My painter isn’t available ‘til Monday—sorry.
“As far as happenings in the Winter Court go,” she continued, “I reached out to an associate of mine, Marcus. He’s a Winter changeling, but he has a much better relationship with his Fey family than our friend Nina does. He tells me that the smart money is on some … thing named ‘Garm the Glimmering Serpent’ as our next target.”
There was a brief silence.
“That was … efficient,” said Miles.
Alix waved her phone dramatically before dropping it in her purse. “I can’t do fireballs,” she said, “but I can do summoning.”
“Brilliant,” said Christmas. “Especially since there’s no time to waste. I have to cross over into Faerie.” He looked up at McGinnis. “Can you open a Way? I don’t know how.”
“Yep. Not from here, though. I’d have to take you to my place.” McGinnis raised an eyebrow. “Which I’d be happy to do … in exchange for a favor.”
The wizard smiled. “Swear to me you won’t go after Nina Mori. Like I said—she’s under my protection.”
The ragged man ground his teeth. “Fine. I so swear, upon my power.”
McGinnis gazed on Christmas thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded his head. He turned on his heel and moved to the door, beckoning. “C’mon.”
Chester McGinnis had made the practice of magic work for him in a way that few others had.
For example, he had a mansion.
Alix, Christmas, Tilda, Moe and Miles would all, if given the option, have gladly spent significantly more time there, too, exploring its delights; the situation being what it was, however, they allowed themselves to be briskly shepherded into the basement.
“Did you see those pill bottles on the table?” Miles whispered to Christmas.
“Thorazine’s an anti-psychotic.”
Christmas nodded grimly. “Imagine what he’d be like without it.”
The wizard directed them to stand within a permanent arcane circle. It was inscribed in the stone floor using precious metals, with sigils set out in gemstones.
“Once I open this Way, now,” warned McGinnis, “you got until sundown to get back. You don’t make it by then, you’ll have to find your way home.”
“We understand,” said Christmas. “Open it.”
Through the Way was Winter, and Winter was no friend to them.
The wizard had deposited them upon a road, and their path ahead was clear—that much was in their favor. But it was only just autumn in Chicago, and they had not stopped to change clothes or gather equipment; so it was a grim and shivering company that marched toward the home of Garm the Glimmering Serpent—albeit at a very respectable pace.
[I appreciate skipping the whole embarrassing frozen poppy fiasco. I fucking hate the Nevernever. ~Alix]
The path took them through a leafless gray wood, and after some time to the bank of a river that barred their way. They were forced to detour, but soon found a bridge where they could cross.
The bridge, they discovered, was tended by a troll named Abraxus, who made it clear that he would not allow them free passage. Negotiations opened tensely, but the group’s resident merchant trader, Big Moe, stepped in to manage the bargaining. Abraxus quickly revealed himself to be more greedy than hungry or territorial; and Moe, always ready to make a deal, produced from his satchel a pouch of antique silver coins and assorted dinnerware, offering them as a toll.
“I would’ve been glad to give him iron instead of silver,” grumbled Christmas as they put the bridge behind them.
“Always buy an enemy who can be bought,” scolded Moe, waggling a reproachful finger at him. “Always. Every fight costs you a bit of strength—strength you will want when you face an enemy that matters.”
“Good strategy. If you happen to carry around bags of money.”
“You should get a job.” Moe sniffed. “You are a strong man, a healthy man. There is no reason you cannot work. If you were one of my nephews, I would—”
“Hey, look!” called out Tilda.
The fog covering the plain before them had thinned slightly, revealing a formation of standing stones in the distance. The sight brought Stonehenge to mind, although Stonehenge suffered in the comparison; the tallest stones in this monument were over 20 feet high.
Believing their goal was in sight, the group doubled its pace, and in a short time passed the outer ring of the monument’s stones. At the center of the stones was a hole in the earth.
“Well, it’s serpent-shaped,” Miles said doubtfully, as they gathered in a ring around it. “Doesn’t really look like it leads to the home of an aristocrat, though.”
“There should be guards,” said Moe.
“Like, guys in armor, with spears and swords?” asked Alix. “That kind of thing?”
“In Faerie? Oh, yes,” said Moe, turning to face Alix. “They are quite fond … oh.”
Alix was pointing at two creatures that marched toward them, armed and armored in medieval style, and in appearance much like men. They were tall and broad, with drooping mustaches and beetling brows. Their faces were set in an attitude that invited no nonsense, and the group offered them none.
“Goblins,” whispered Miles.
“Ouch,” replied Tilda. “Geez. They might be nice. You don’t know.”
“No, seriously. They’re goblins.”
“Who dares approach the twisting halls of my lord Garm without invitation?” demanded the first soldier.
The ragged man sighed and stepped forward. “I am Christmas, thane of Winter,” he said. “I serve the Queen Who Is To Be, and I come in her name, and on her orders.”
“I know of no such thane,” spat the second soldier.
“I get that a lot,” replied Christmas. “But, please, hear me out. We’ve learned of a plot to assassinate Garm the Glimmering Serpent. Garm and the Winter Lady have a common enemy in this assassin. I’m here to stop him.”
The guards laughed. “Away with you, mortal,” said the first. “You think yourself our equal? If any enemy comes here that your kind could defeat, we will not notice him until we scrape him from our boots.”
The second raised a shaggy eyebrow. “Unless,” he murmured, “it is you yourselves that are the assassins.”
“It’s Summer that’s coming for your lord. Your enemy bears the Axe of Atomusk the Phoenix King. He’s brought down fire on several other Winter Sidhe already.”
“What?” a new voice cried out, preceded by the thud of heavy hooves. It was a third soldier, astride over a ton of horseflesh. This one’s armor was slightly more ornate, his helmet gleaming; he had the look of an officer. “Who are you, strangers? What do you know of these things?”
The horseman, after hearing the story from the beginning, glared coldly at his underlings. “Mortals cross into our lands and come to our doorstep with such news as this, and you turn them away? Whether it is lies or truth, there is something in it for certain.”
The second soldier bristled. “We think not, Commander.”
Alix and Moe exchanged glances, then began backing up, gently guiding the rest of the company away with them. The goblin soldiers argued, their words growing more heated. Then, the second foot soldier drew his sword.
“Now,” hissed Alix. “Protect the officer. Don’t hold back. Go!”
The battle was as ugly as it was short. The goblins first fell on their commander, leaving the mortals free to attack; but the Winter fey were brutally strong. They shrugged off blows from Slán Ghrian’s slashing blade, and even Miles’ knives of iron—deadly poison to the fey—could not pierce their armor.
Big Moe tossed his iron sword to the unarmed Alix, faded back behind Miles, and began to chant. A tree-bending gale swept out of the sky and seized one of the goblins in its frozen claw, raising him far above the ring of standing stones. The wind shook him like a terrier’s toy, then dashed him to the ground.
And still he would have risen, had the goblin officer not charged forth with his lance and staked him where he lay.
Alix raised Moe’s sword to point at the remaining goblin, and unleashed a terrifying stream of invective at him. She questioned his lineage, his skill at arms, his manhood, his bravery, and the quality of his equipment in a single corrosive monologue that stunned her allies as well as the soldier.
They all stood blinking at her. She took a breath.
Moe cleared his throat.
Christmas felt a hot flush in his cheeks. Shaking his head, he pointed Slán Ghrian at the goblin. A mound of snow appeared at the guard’s feet, piled as high as his knees, then hardened into ice.
They advanced upon him. He could not move.
When it was done, the officer saluted them.“I am Commander Witherwood,” he said. “And it appears that I owe you a favor.”