Sith led us down yet another passageway, this one darker than the others, until finally I couldn’t see the malk at all in the dimness. Instead, a very dim phosphorescence in the shape of his paw prints began to rise from the floor, giving us just enough light to move by. I could feel Sarissa growing increasingly tense beside me, but she said nothing. Smart. If anything was going to jump up and eat us, our ears would tell us about it first.
The sound of our steps on the floor changed, and I realized that we had moved into a large open space. Just as I did, the glowing paw prints in front of us vanished.
I stopped at once, pulling Sarissa in closer against my side. Again, she remained completely silent, except for one sharp little inhalation.
Silent seconds went by.
“Sith,” I said quietly. “You are a suck guide. I don’t care how big your shadow is.”
My voice echoed cavernously while I waited, but apparently Sith didn’t have a comeback. After a few seconds, I reached up and tugged my amulet out of the tux.
I held it up and concentrated, sending a microcurrent of my will into the design, and an instant later it began to glow with a blue-white light. I held it aloft and looked around.
We were in another ice cave, this one filled with enormous, bizarre… structures, was the only thing I could think to call them. I might have called them sculptures, except no one does sculptures the size of buildings these days, even in ice. I looked around the place slowly. There was something odd about the structures, something almost…
Sarissa was looking, too. She seemed alert, but not frightened. “Are those… giant pieces of furniture?”
The structures were sculpture, built on a scale of maybe one to eight, of a couch, two easy chairs, a brick fireplace, bookshelves…. Mab had re-created my old basement apartment in ice, right down to textured carvings of all of my area rugs crafted into the ice of the floor.
I had about a second to take that in before the cavern exploded with sound, color, and motion. A wave front of pure noise slapped against me as a sudden horde of beings from every dark folktale ever told surged into view at the edges of my light, their screams and cries coming from all around me.
This was a worst-case scenario for a mortal wizard. We can do amazing things, but we need time to make them happen. Sometimes we get that time by preparing well in advance—creating tools that help us focus our abilities more quickly and with greater precision. Sometimes we get the time by picking where and when to begin our battles. Sometimes we do it by slinging the spell from a couple or couple hundred miles away. But I didn’t have any of that going for me.
My convalescence with Mab had kept me way too busy recovering or sleeping to have enough time to create new tools, and my amulet was all I had. On the upside, Mab had given me a serious workout, magically speaking. I’d been forced to use my abilities without any kind of tools or crutch to help me, or else perish. I was better at wielding raw magic now than I’d ever been in my life.
It just wasn’t going to be enough to survive what was coming at me.
I moved without thinking, putting myself between Sarissa and as many of them as I could, and bringing my will to bear upon my right hand. Pallid blue-white fire suddenly engulfed my fingers as I let the pentacle fall. I raised my hand—no time to think or aim or plan— determined to take someone down with me.
Sarissa’s hand snapped out and she grabbed my wrist, jerking my arm down before I could unleash the spell, and I heard two things in the vast roar of sound:
First, Sarissa screaming, “No bloodshed!”
Second, I realized that everything else in the cavern was bellowing, “SURPRISE!”
The horde of all things dark and hideous stopped maybe twenty feet short of Sarissa and me, and the walls and floor and ceiling began to glow with light. Music began to play, a full symphonic freaking orchestra, live, somewhere on the other side of the giant replica of my old secondhand sofa. High up on the ceiling of the cavern, thousands of wisps of eerie light swarmed deep within the ice, swiftly forming up like a flotilla of synchronized swimmers until they formed the words: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DRESDEN.
I stood there with my heart beating too fast for several seconds and blinked at the entire place. “Uh. Oh.”
Sarissa studied the ceiling for a moment and then looked up at me. “I didn’t know.”
“Neither did I, really,” I said. “Is it Halloween already?”
“Just barely, I think,” Sarissa said back.
It got weirder.
They started to sing.
They sang “Happy Birthday.”
Remember when I said that a malk’s voice made my skin crawl? It’s nothing next to the cackling rasp of a swamp hag, or the freaky-weird whistling voice of a manticore. Goblins can’t carry a tune if it has handles, and the huge bat things that served as Mab’s air force shrieked in pitches that could barely be heard. Trolls, hideous giant thugs towering over ten feet tall, sound like laryngitic foghorns.
But layered all throughout that cacophony were voices that went to the other extreme, voices that carried the melody with such perfect, razor-edged clarity that it made me want to slash my wrists on it. People always equate beauty with good, but it just ain’t so. Amongst the Winter Court were beings of haunting beauty, mesmerizing beauty, disarming beauty, flawless beauty, maddening beauty, bloodthirsty beauty. Even in the mortal world, a lot of predators are beautiful, and if you’re quick and motivated enough, you can admire that beauty while they kill you and eat you. Like all the other things there, the Sidhe sang to me, and I could feel the weight of their attention on me like the pressure wave from an onrushing shark.
You don’t listen to music like that. You survive it.
The voices ended abruptly, and left one crystalline alto singing, “And many more.”
The crowd of creatures parted suddenly, and a girl stepped out of their ranks. She paused for a moment, for dramatic effect, and to give everyone time to admire her.
She’d changed her hair again. Now it was a kind of extra-wide Mohawk, long except for where it had been shaved completely away from the sides of her head, where the cut could show off the tips of her gently tapering ears. It was still colored in all glacial shades of blue and green and deep violet, and hung down over much of one side of her face, allowing her to borrow enough of Veronica Lake’s vibe to give her wide, wide eyes a little extra hint of cheerily wicked mystery. She was tallish, for a girl, maybe five-ten, and built with that perfect balance of lean and lush proportions that some girls are lucky enough to have for maybe a year, the kind of look that gets girls that age in trouble with men who should be old enough to know better.
And she was naked. Gloriously, disconcertingly naked—and just as fresh and vibrant and unspoiled-looking as she’d been the first time I’d met her, most of ten years before.
Only, you know. She’d been less naked then.
Man, was I ever noticing that part.
“Here’s the birthday boy!” Maeve said in a singsong voice, flinging both arms up. She started toward me in a slow and slightly exaggerated walk. Technically, she wasn’t entirely naked. She had silver piercings at the tips of her breasts, beneath her lip, in her navel, and probably elsewhere. I didn’t let myself look quite that close. Her flawless pale skin was also spangled with gemstones. I don’t know how they’d been attached, but they clung to her and sent little flashes of color glittering around the cavern when she moved. They were concentrated most densely around her… well. She’d been, ah, vajazzled.
She came slinking over to me in the silence, her green eyes framed in a quasi mask of gemstones and some kind of henna inking, and she absolutely smoldered with sex. Not that she’d never been suggestive before, but this was taking things to a whole new level.
“Look at you,” she said, walking around me and eyeing me slowly and thoroughly. “Rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated, it would seem.”
“Hi, Maeve,” I said. “You know, I almost wore that same outfit. Gosh, would our faces have been red.”
The Winter Lady, Mab’s successor and understudy, completed the circle and stopped in front of me, just oozing pure animal attraction. “It is a birthday. I wore a birthday suit.” She took a deep breath, mostly for effect. “I hope you approve.”
Hell, yes, I approved. Or at least everything south of my upper lip did—way more than it should have, really. She wasn’t using some kind of magic on me; I had gone on alert to such a possibility the second I’d seen her. It must have been all the rest and the exercise and the good diet, most of which I’d successfully avoided back in the real world. It had resulted in a robust and healthy yet perfectly normal libido. Perfectly normal.
It wasn’t me changing. Whatever Mab had done to me that had healed a broken spine, made me able to run at vampire speed, and given me the kind of reflexes that were capable of keeping up with the attack of a furious malk hadn’t changed me on some fundamental level.
Everything was perfectly healthy and normal here in Denial Land.
Maeve’s eyes met mine and she gave me a slow, slow smile. And, as when Mab had been near, I felt my whole body thrum in response to her, to her presence, her proximity, to her… everything. That smile contained something within it, something conveyed to me in a flashing instant—Maeve as she would look in ecstasy, beneath me, looking up at me with that lovely face mindless with sensation. And with that image came a hundred or a thousand others, each of them a single captured moment, the kind of moments that are the only one to survive a frenzied dream, frozen and layered atop one another, each of them a promise, a prediction, and every one of them aimed right at the most base, most primitive parts of my brain. It wasn’t limited to visual imagery. Each layer of the flash had its own round of sensual memory, every one of them only partial but intense—touch, taste, scent, sound, and vision—dozens and dozens of dreams and fantasies compressed into that one instant of dark inspiration.
I’ve had sex that didn’t feel as good as Maeve’s smile.
You hear me, came Maeve’s thoughts, along with the images. You hear me now, because we are together now, just as you are with Mab. I felt you, you know, when you joined yourself to us. And I want to feel more. You are my Knight as well, Dresden. Let me welcome you. Come to me. Come with me. Walk by starlight and let me show you secret delights.
It took me a couple of seconds to remember that I was still standing there in the icy hall, still wearing my clothes, still standing most of an arm’ s length away from Maeve. When I spoke, it was through clenched teeth. “Sorry. Already got a date for tonight, Maeve.”
She dropped her head back and laughed. “Bring her,” she said, her eyes both dancing and wild. Her eyes shifted to Sarissa, who took a short breath and went stiff beside me. “She’s gorgeous, and I would love to… get to know her better.”
Imagine the possibilities, my Knight. Another multisensory slide show hit my head, and every single image was something that I should have known better than to find intriguing, but that I could not bring myself to entirely ignore—only this time Sarissa was included. I can show you pleasures you have never dreamed could be. Bring your lovely companion. I will give you her and many, many more besides.
Again, my head lit up with lunatic pleasure-maybes, dizzying, electrifying, and I felt as if I were about to start tearing my way out of my clothes.
And, just for a second, I considered it.
I’m not really proud of that fact, but it’s not like I’m beyond temptation, either. I’m just as stupid as the next guy, and fora second, I thought about seeing what was behind door number one. I knew it would be foolish—and fun, yeah, but mostly foolish. I knew that I’d be an idiot to go along, and yet…
One day, something is going to kill me. It might be some monster. It might be my own foolishness. It might be what gets most everyone in the end: simple, implacable time (although I wasn’t betting on that one). I’d been closer to the idea of my own death lately, having been dead, or at least mostly dead, for a good while, and I wasn’t any more comfortable with the idea. I didn’t have any more desire to go out in an ugly, painful way than I did before.
And if you’ve gotta go, there are probably worse ways to do it than in a blaze of sybaritic glory.
Damn, Maeve had a great pitch.
Everyone selling something to a sucker does.
The entire hall had gone completely silent, except for my own harsh breathing, and I suddenly became aware of the tension in the air. Every being there was waiting, and I suddenly realized that this was the second murder attempt of the evening. Maeve was trying to destroy me.
“You ever make Lloyd that offer?” I asked.
Maeve tilted her head, staring at me, her smile suddenly frozen.
“Cat got your tongue?” I asked in a louder voice. I put scorn into it. “Did you not hear the question?”
The frozen smile became something subarctic. “What did you say to me?”
“I said no, you psychopathic hosebeast,” I answered, spitting out the words with every ounce of contempt I could muster up. “I saw how you treated Lloyd Slate. I saw how you treated the changelings of your court. I know what to expect from you, you arrogant, spoiled, self-involved, petty, cruel little queen-bee twit.”
Maeve’s expression changed, though not in any kind of focused way. She looked… startled.
Sarissa gave me a shocked look. Then she glanced around, as if hunting for a foxhole or bomb shelter or perhaps some kind of armored vehicle to throw herself into.
“You sent your last handmaiden to murder my friends on their wedding day, Maeve,” I continued, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the entire hall. “Did you think I’d forgotten that? Or was it just too small and unimportant a fact for you to keep it from dribbling out of your alleged brain? Do you think I’m too stupid to understand that you set up this ‘surprise’ party in the hopes that you’d startle me into spilling blood at court, Darth Barbie? You tried to murder me just now, Maeve, and you think a little psychic porn is going to make me forget it? I can’t decide if you’re insane or just that stupid.”
Maeve stared at me with her mouth dropping wide open.
“Now hear this,” I said. “You’re cute, doll. You’re gorgeous. You inspire supernatural levels of wood. And so what? You’re damaged goods. So turn around and move your naked little ass away from me—before I do it for you.”
For a long moment, there was dead silence.
And then Maeve’s face twisted up in fury. The seductive beauty of her features vanished, replaced by an animal’s rage. Her eyes blazed, and the temperature in the air dropped suddenly, painfully, enough to cause icy frost crystals to start forming on the ice. The freaking ice iced over.
Maeve glared at me with naked hatred in her too-big eyes and then gave me a small bow of her head and a little smile. “It would appear we yet have a life to celebrate,” she hissed. “Music.”
From somewhere in the room, the symphony began playing again. The silent gang-circle ring of bedtime-story villainy broke up with a fluid grace, and seconds later you would have thought you were at any kind of extremely wild, extremely posh costume party.
Maeve’s eyes glittered and she spun once, displaying herself to me with a mocking little flick of her hair, and then vanished into the crowd.
I turned to Sarissa and found her staring at me with wide eyes. “You turned her down.”
“No one does that. Not here.”
“Whatever,” I said.
“You don’t understand. The insult you’ve just given her is… is… ” Sarissa shook her head and said, with masterful understatement, “You just earned a little payback, in her mind.”
“That was going to happen sooner or later,” I said. “What bugs me is her response.”
“Music?” Sarissa asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “And in a minute there might be dancing. Can’t be good.”
“It could be worse,” she said. She took a deep breath and settled her arm in mine again. “You won the first round.”
“I only survived it.”
“Here, that is winning.”
“So if we win the rest of the night, we’ll be making a good start.” I looked around us and said, “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere that isn’t the middle of the floor,” I said. “Somewhere I can put my back to a wall. And hopefully somewhere with snacks. I’m starving.”