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The instant it came free, I felt my pain recede again, back to the dull background annoyance it had been a few moments before. My thoughts cleared as the agony retreated.

Someone had shot me? With a freaking nail gun? What the hell was going on here?

No sooner had I thought that than another light flashed toward me, and before I could react, a second round of utterly ridiculous levels of pain slammed through me, starting at my leg. The other pains resurfaced, with the fresh addition of my throbbing face. I screamed and swatted, and tore a second nail, much like the first, from the flesh of my right quadriceps. Again that cold power flooded into me, making pain distant, making thoughts more clear.

The ember-colored lights were coming at me too fast. There was no time to get a defensive spell up, not in my condition, and my body, Winter Knight or not, wasn't fast enough to dodge or swat them out of the way. Even as I processed those thoughts, a third nail hit me in the left arm, and I had to scream and thrash my way out of another spike of pure agony. I felt utterly helpless, and stunned at my inability to overcome so tiny a foe.

And I suddenly knew how the late Summer Lady, Aurora, had felt at the end.

"Get up, Harry," I panted, fighting through the disorientation, the polar shifts in pain. "Get up before they nail you."

Nail you. Get it?

But I always joke when I'm afraid, and I was terrified. Whatever these things were, if they got more than one of those nails into me, I doubted I would be able to hold my thoughts together long enough to get them out again. I had a gruesome vision of myself stretched in lifeless, agonized rigor on the sidewalk, nails sticking out of every square inch of my skin.

I tried to scramble, to evade, but compared to the darting motes of light, I was moving in slow-motion replay. Half a dozen more of the glimmering things came arrowing toward me out of the night, zooming at me in a flying V formation, and I knew things were about to get really bad.

Then someone blew on a coach's whistle, a sound I heard even through my stunned ears, and a tiny, distant voice piped, "To the Za Lord!"

Half a dozen little cool blue spheres of light flashed toward my attackers, intercepting them only a couple of feet from my body. Six explosions of sparks and glowing motes lit the night, various colors swirling and spinning, as the tiny soldiers of the Za Lord's Guard closed to battle with my attackers.

Toot soared in from directly overhead, his heels landing hard on my stomach. For somebody the size of a chicken, he was strong, and my breath huffed out as I was knocked back to the ground. He planted his feet wide, a snarl on his tiny face, his shield hefted up to a defensive position, his table-knife sword in hand. "Stay down, my lord! Wait until we clear a path for escape!"

A path? I took a second to look around. I saw one of Toot's "kernels" go by, flying sideways, wielding a spear made of a straight pin and a pencil against another of the Little Folk, a humanish figure dressed in what looked like actual black armor made of some kind of shaped plastic or maybe carapace, and carrying another of the too-familiar nails. The enemy faerie was wounded, and glowing motes of scarlet and sullen orange light dribbled from a straight pin-inflicted wound on his tiny leg.

Sullen and chill spheres of light darted everywhere, dozens of them, all spinning and diving and looping at once. There was no way to track all of that motion. Even if I'd been completely clearheaded, I would have done well to follow a tenth of it.

Five or six more enemy fae, larger and brighter than the others, dived down at me bearing a nail sword in each hand. They let out shrill, eerie little cries as they came at me-and at Toot-toot.

Okay, I've thought a lot of things about Toot-toot over the years. I've compared him to a lot of really humorous stuff, and occasionally to people I didn't admire too much. I've made jokes at his expense, though never when I thought it would hurt him. But if you'd asked me for a perfect parallel for the little guy a year ago, I would never, ever, ever have said, "King Leonidas."

Toot let out a high-pitched roar and leapt into the air. He smashed his shield into the black-armored fae in the center of the enemy formation, spinning as he did, to send the luckless faerie careening into the companion on his left. Toot's sword lashed out, and a single dragonfly wing went fluttering free of the body it had been attached to. The little fae went spinning out of the air to crash into a pile of fallen bricks and rubble.

Two got through.


The next thing I knew, Toot was pulling a nail from the muscle over my abdomen, and fresh hits there and in my left pectoral muscle had added their toll of pain to my evening. Toot, gripping the nail carefully by its duct-tape handle, turned and flung it at a pair of dueling fae, striking the orange-lit enemy with the broad side of the steel nail. There was a flash of white light, and the hit fae let out a shriek that started at the edge of human hearing and went up into dog frequencies, and darted away, the guard in hot pursuit.

"They're breaking!" Toot bellowed. Well. As much as someone who can fit in a bread box can bellow. "After them, kernels!"

Sullen lights slithered away in panic, while bright balls of blue buzzed after them.

"Permission to pursue those jerks, my lord?" Toot shouted.

I finally had a couple of seconds to get my head together. I shook it violently. It didn't help, but the simple act of putting together recognition of a problem, consideration of a solution, and taking action to fix it had gotten my mental house in some kind of order.

"It's a feint," I said, looking around. "They're luring the guard away."

There. High up. Way the hell high up, maybe twenty stories. A blob of ember-colored light suddenly plunged off of a balcony and began to fall toward us. As it came closer, the blob broke apart into dozens of angry little spheres. They began to bob and interweave, picking up more and more speed, the patterns dizzying, confusing. Streaking lights peeled off from the main cloud in every direction.

Toot, once more perched on my stomach, stared up at them, his mouth open. His left arm sagged, his shield dropping down to his side. "Uh-oh." He gulped. "Um. I'm not sure I can get them all, my lord."

I sat up, forcing him off my stomach, and gained my feet. "You did good, Toot," I growled. "Okay, small fry. Wizard time."

A couple of years back, me and my apprentice, Molly, had been studying air magic as part of her basic grounding in the elemental forces. She hadn't ever picked up the knack for using blasts of wind as weapons, but she had managed to develop a spell that did a passable imitation of a blow-dryer.

I lifted my right hand, summoned my will, and readied the blow-dryer spell.

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