"Wizard," it said, and its voice was the same as had come through the glossy stone. "Your life need not end this day. Surrender and I will spare your companions."
I could hear Mac reloading behind me. Thomas had his gun in his hand, behind his back, and was prowling silently around the room to force Sharkface to turn to keep an eye on him.
Except it didn't have eyes. Whatever this thing was using to keep track of us, I had a feeling that just standing in an inconvenient spot wasn't going to net us much of an advantage.
"Surrender," I said, as though trying to place where I'd heard the word before. "Yeah, um. I'm not so sure I want any surrenders today. There was a sale on surrenders last week, and I missed it, but I don't want to rush out and buy another one at the regular price right away. I'm afraid the sale might come back a week later, and then, I mean, come on. How stupid would I feel then?"
"Levity will not change the course of this day," Sharkface said. Its buzzing, twisting voice was distinctly unpleasant in my ears, the aural equivalent of the stench of rotting meat. Which was appropriate, because the rest of him did smell like rotting meat. "You will come with me."
"Isn't that what Mab said, Harry?" Thomas quipped.
I kept my hand shielded from Sharkface with my body and gave my brother the finger. "Look, Spanky," I said to Sharkface. "I'm a little busy to be tussling with every random weirdo who is insecure about his junk. Otherwise I would just love to smash you with a beer bottle, kick you in the balls, throw you out through the saloon doors, the whole bit. Why don't you have your people contact my people, and we can do this maybe next week?"
"Next week is your self-deprecation awareness seminar," Thomas said.
I snapped my fingers. "What about the week after?"
"Bother," I said. "Well, no one can say we didn't try. See you later."
"Harry," said a strange voice. Or rather, it wasn't strange-it was just strange to actually hear it. Mac isn't much of a talker. "Don't chat. Kill it."
Mac's words seemed to do what none of my nonsense had-they made Sharkface pissed off. It whirled toward Mac, dozens of sackcloth strips flicking out in every direction, grabbing whatever objects were there, and its alien voice came out in a harsh rasp. "You!" Sharkface snarled. "You have no place in this, watcher. Do you think this gesture has meaning? It is every bit as empty as you. You chose your road long ago. Have the grace to lie down and die beside it."
I think my jaw might have hung a little loosely for a second. "Uh. Mac?"
"Kill it," Mac repeated, his voice harder. "It's only the first."
"Yes," Sharkface said, tilting its head almost to the perpendicular. "Kill it. And more will come. Destroy me and they will know. Leave me and they will know. Your breaths are numbered, wizard."
As it spoke, I could feel a horrible, hopeless weight settling across my heart. Dammit, hadn't I been through enough? More than enough? Hadn't my life handed me enough misery and grief and pain and loneliness already? And now I was going to be up against something else, something new and scary, something that came galumphing at me by the legion, no less. What was the point? No matter what I did, no matter how much stronger or smarter or better connected I got, the bad guys just kept getting bigger and stronger and more numerous.
Behind me, I heard Mac let out a low groan. The shotgun must have fallen from his fingers, because it clattered on the floor. On my left, I saw Thomas's shoulders slump, and he turned his face away, his eyes closed as if in pain.
The people who stayed near me got hurt or killed. As often as not, the bad guys got away to come embadden my life another day. Why deal with a life like that?
Why did I keep on doing this to myself?
"Because," I growled under my breath. "You're Charlie Brown, stupid. You've got to try for the damned football because that's who you are."
And just like that, the psychic assault of despair that Sharkface had sent into my head evaporated, and I could think clearly again. I hadn't felt the cloying, somehow oily power slithering up to me-but I could sure as hell feel it now as it recoiled and pulled away. I'd felt it before-and I suddenly knew what I was dealing with.
Sharkface jerked its head toward me, and its mouth opened in shock. For a frozen instant, we stared at each other across maybe fifteen feet of cluttered pub. It seemed to last for hours. Thomas and Mac were both motionless, reaching out for physical supports as though drunk or bearing a heavy burden. They wouldn't be able to get themselves out of the building in their current condition-but I didn't have any choice.
Sharkface and its sackcloth cloak flung half a ton of furniture at me about a quarter of a second after I raised my right hand and snarled, "Fuego!"
I hadn't used much fire magic lately, obviously. You don't go messing around conjuring up flame when you're at the heart of Winter. There are things there that hate that action. But fire magic has always been my strongest suit. It was the first fully realized spell I ever mastered, and on a good day I could hang around in the same general league as any other wizard in the world when it came to fire magic.
On top of that, I tapped into the latent energy a particularly meddlesome angel had bestowed upon me whether I wanted it or not-an ancient source of the very energy of Creation itself known as soulfire. Soulfire was never meant for battle-but its presence could infuse my battle spells with significant energy and momentum, making them far more difficult to counter. I had to be careful with it-burn too much in too short a time and it would kill me. But if I didn't live to walk out of the pub, it wouldn't matter how much soulfire I had stored up for a rainy day.
I expected a roar of flame, a flash of white and gold light, the concussion of superheated air suddenly expanding, right in Sharkface's ugly mug.
What I got was an arctic-gale howl and a spiraling harpoon of blue-white fire burning hotter than anything this side of a star.
Sharkface hurled furniture at me, trying to shelter behind it, but the fire I'd just called vaporized chairs and tables in the instant it touched them. They shattered with enormous, screaming detonations of thunder, and every impact made sounds that by all rights should have belonged to extremely large and poorly handled construction vehicles.
Sharkface crossed its bony grey forearms before it in a last-ditch effort to deflect the spell. If I'd been focused on it, concentrating on pushing the spell past its defenses, maybe it would have burned right through Sharkface and its stupid cloak. But that wasn't the plan. Instead, I sprinted across the distance between us, through the hideous heat of my spell's thermal bloom. It was like running through an oven. I saw my spell splash against Sharkface's crossed forearms, and the thing managed to deflect almost all of the spell away-but not all of it. Fire scorched across one of its cheeks and splashed over its right shoulder, setting a large mass of sackcloth strips aflame.