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 in 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 back yard of the Carpenter household was already thoroughly chewed up from an evening of winter warfare, and two low “fortress” walls faced one another 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 quivering 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 little 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 disc 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’ back yard, 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 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 treehouse 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 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 free-standing 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 him have it. The blast hit him in the small of his back and knocked him from his hooves. He 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 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 up a decent shield, but she could do veils like they were going out of style, and she’d kept her focus and her wits about her.
The creature slowed, head sweeping, and then it saw the snow being disturbed by invisible feet, moving toward the house. It bawled out another unworldly cry and went after them, and I didn’t dare risk another blast of flame—not with the Carpenter’s house in the line of fire. So instead, I lifted my right hand, triggered one of the triple-layered rings on it with my will, and send a burst of raw force at the whatsit.
The unseen energy struck it in the knees, throwing his legs out from under him with such strength that his head slammed into the snow. The disturbance in the snow rushed around toward the front door of the house. Molly must have realized that the deformation of the security door would make it difficult, if not impossible, to open, and once again I felt fierce approval.
But it faded rather rapidly when the whatsit that had been playing possum behind me slammed into the small of my back like a sulfur-and-rotten-egg driven locomotive.
The horns hit hard and it hurt like hell, but the defensive magic on my long, black leather duster kept them from impaling me. It knocked the wind out of me, snapped my head back sharply and flung me to the snow. Everything got confusing for a second, and then I realized that it was standing over me, ripping at the back of my neck with its claws. I hunched my shoulders and rolled, only to be kicked in the nose by a cloven hoof, and an utterly gratuitous amount of pain came with a side order of whirling stars.
I kept trying to get away, but my motions were sluggish and the whatsit was faster than me.
Charity stepped out of the workshop with a steel-hafted ball peen hammer in her left hand, and a heavy-duty contractor’s nailgun in her right.
She lifted the nailgun from ten feet away and started pulling the trigger as she walked forward. It made phut-phut-phut sounds, and the already-seared whatsit started screaming in pain. He leapt up wildly, twisting in agonized gyrations in mid-air, and fell to the snow, thrashing. I saw heavy nails sticking up out of his back, and the smoking wounds were bleeding green-white fire.
He tried to run, but I managed to kick his hooves out from under it before he could regain his footing.
Charity whirled the hammer in a vertical stroke, letting out a sharp cry as she did, and the steel head of the tool smashed open the whatsit’s skull. The wound erupted with greyish matter and more green-white fire, and the creature twitched once before he went still, his body being consumed by the eerie flame.
I stood up, blasting rod still in hand, and found the remaining beasties wounded but mobile, their yellow, rectangular-pupiled eyes glaring in hate and hunger.
I ditched the blasting rod and picked up a steel-headed snow shovel that had been left lying next to one of the children’s snow forts. Charity raised her nailgun, and we began walking toward them.
Whatever these things were, they didn’t have the stomach for a fight against mortals armed with cold steel. They shuddered as if they had been a single being, then turned and bounded away into the night.
I stood there, panting and peering around me. I had to spit blood out of my mouth every few breaths. My nose felt like someone had super-glued a couple of live coals to it. Little silver wires of pain ran all through my neck, from the whiplash of getting hit from behind, and the small of my back felt like one enormous bruise.
“Are you all right?” Charity asked.
“Faeries,” I muttered. “Why did it have to be faeries.”