Battle Ground Page 1

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: The Dresden Files #17

Genres: Fantasy

Chapter One

Apocalypses always kick off at the witching hour.

That’s something you know now.

It makes sense, if you think about it. An apocalypse, by its nature, is kind of doomy and gloomy. The best time for gathering energy for that kind of working is when you’re in the deepest, darkest, coldest part of the night. That time of stillness between, oh, two in the morning and dawn. There’re a lot of names for that time of night. The witching hour. The hour of the wolf. The dead of night. I could go on and on, because we all have names for it.

But they’re all talking about the same time. The hour when you sit up in bed, sweating from nightmares. The hour when you awaken for no reason but to fear the future. The hour when you stare at the clock, willing yourself to sleep, knowing it isn’t going to happen, and weariness and despair beat upon the doors to the vaults of your mind with leaden clubs.

That’s when an apocalypse begins: the witching hour.

And I was charging straight into one as fast as I could.

My brother’s old boat, the Water Beetle, a seedy, beat-up twin to the Orca in Jaws, was too dumpy to skip over the waves of Lake Michigan as we headed for the blacked-out city of Chicago, but it bulldogged its way through them nonetheless.

An Enemy, capital E, was coming for my city, and the small portion of forces that the Accorded nations could gather in time was all that stood between the unknown power of the Fomor nation, led by a mad goddess bearing a supernatural superweapon, and about eight million powerless people with very little means of defending themselves.

I tried to give the boat’s old engine a little more gas, and it started making a weird moaning noise. I gritted my teeth and eased off. I wouldn’t protect anybody if the engine blew up on me and left us bobbing in the lake like a Styrofoam cup.

Murphy came limping up the stairway from belowdecks and eased into the wheelhouse with me. I was about six eight or six nine, depending on my shoes, and Murph had to wear thick socks to break five feet even, so I took up a little more space than she did.

But even so, she slipped up next to me and pressed herself against my side.

I put my arm around her and closed my eyes for a second and focused on nothing but the feel of her against me. Granted, the battle harness and the P90 she carried (illegally, if that mattered at this point) made her a little lumpier and pointier than the dictates of romance typically mandated for a love interest, but all things considered, I didn’t mind. She was also warm and soft and tense and alert beside me.

I trusted her. Whatever was coming, she’d have my back, and she was tough and smart.

(And wounded, whispered some doubting part of me. And vulnerable.)

Shut up, me.

“How much longer?” Murphy asked.

“If any of the lights were on, we’d be able to see the skyline by now,” I said. “How are our guests?”

“Worried,” she said.

“Good. They should be.” I looked down at her and said, “If anything happens, it will be near shore. Makes the most sense for the enemy to post their people or whatever there. Better tell everyone to be ready.”

Murphy frowned at me and nodded. “You expecting trouble? I thought this Titan lady—”

“Ethniu,” I supplied.

“Ethniu,” she continued, without perturbation, “said she wasn’t showing up until the witching hour. But it’s midnight.”

“For practitioners, the witching hour is between two and three in the morning. And besides. I think a revenge-obsessed goddess might not make the most reliable newspaper or clock,” I said. “I think the Fomor are an aquatic nation. I think if she’s really bringing an army in, she’ll have scouts and troublemakers already in position. And I think that even taken off their guard, without their armies, there are beings in this town that only a fool would fight fair against.”

“I guess there’s no honor among demigods,” she quipped.

I didn’t say anything.

That got her attention. I saw her study my face and then ask, “How bad does it have to be for you not to be making jokes?”

I shook my head. “It’s not just what’s happening tonight. It’s what it means. A supernatural legion is coming to murder everyone in the city. Whether Chicago stands or falls, it doesn’t stay the same. It can’t. This is going to be too big, too violent. The mortal world isn’t going to be able to ignore it this time. No matter what happens tonight, the world. Changes. Period.”

She considered that seriously for a moment. Then she said, “The world’s always changing, Harry. The only question is how.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I can’t see how this one is going to be for the better. Mortals versus the supernatural world gets bad, Murph. Ugly. For all of us.” I shook my head. “And that’s going to happen now. I don’t know when. But no matter what happens, it’s coming. Now it’s coming.”

She leaned against me silently and said, “What do we do?”

“Hell if I know. The best we can.”

She nodded. Then she looked at me and said, seriously, “Then get your head right. Leave that war for tomorrow. We’ve got plenty on our plate tonight.”

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, exhaled, and walled away a small ocean of fear that had begun roiling in my mind. By my own words, that worry was coming, no matter what I did. And I would face it when it arrived. Compartmentalize and conquer.

Because for tonight, there was only one thing that needed to be on anyone’s mind.

“Defend Chicago,” I growled.

“Damned right,” Murphy said. “So how do we do that?”

I shook my head. “Way I figure it, Ethniu is our main worry.”

“Why?” Murphy asked openly. “She’s a big gun, but she’s still just one person. She can only be in one place at a time.”

“Because she’s got the Eye of Balor,” I said.

“Of who?”

“King of the original Fomorians,” I said. “Archnemesis of the Tuatha, who I gather were some kind of proto-Sidhe. Ruled Ireland in prehistory. There was a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, so he locked his only child up in a tower for a few thousand years.”

“Ethniu,” Murphy guessed.

“Got it in one.”

“Thousands of years as a prisoner. She’s probably stable and well-adjusted,” Murphy said. “So did he loan her the Eye or what?”

“Kind of. He died hideously, after some good-looking Tuatha snuck in and knocked Ethniu up. The child born of it eventually killed Balor. Maybe the kid gave the Eye to his mom as a Christmas present. I don’t know.”

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