By Jim Butcher
It rained toads the day the White Council came to town.
I got out of the Blue Beetle, my beat-up old Volkswagen Bug, and
squinted against brilliant midsummer sunlight. Lake Meadow Park lies
a bit south of Chicago's Loop, a long stone's throw from Lake
Michigan's shores. On a normal summer morning, even in heat like
we'd had lately, the park would be crowded with people. Today, it
was deserted but for an old lady with a shopping cart and a long
coat, tottering around the park. Someone had set the sun to "broil."
Even before noon, my jeans and tee-shirt were too hot for the
I squinted around the park for a moment, took a couple of steps
onto the grass, and got hit on the head by something damp and
I flinched and slapped at my hair. Something small fell past my
face, and onto the ground at my feet: a toad. Not a big one, as
toads go--it could have easily sat in the palm of my hand. It
wobbled for a few moments, upon hitting the ground, then let out a
bleary croak, and started hopping drunkenly away.
I looked around me, and saw other toads on the ground. A lot of
them. The sound of their croaking came to me more clearly as I
walked further into the park. Even as I watched, several more
amphibians plopped from overhead, as though the Almighty had dropped
them down a laundry chute. Toads hopped around everywhere. They
didn't carpet the ground, but you couldn't possibly miss them. Every
moment or so, there would be a thump, and another toad would land on
the ground. Their croaking sounded vaguely like the speech-chatter
of a crowded room.
"Weird huh?" came an eager voice. I looked up to see a short
young man with broad shoulders and a confident walk coming towards
me. Billy the Werewolf wore sweatpants and a plain, dark tee-shirt.
A year or two ago the outfit would have concealed the forty or fifty
extra pounds he'd been carrying. Now they concealed all the muscle
he'd traded it in for. He stuck out his hand, smiling. "What did I
tell you, Harry?"
"Billy," I responded. He crunched down hard as I shook his hand.
Or maybe he was just that much stronger. "How's the werewolf biz?"
"Getting interesting," he said, "in the gypsy sense of the word.
We've run into a lot of odd things lately, when we've been out
patrolling. Like this." He gestured at the park. Another toad fell
from the sky several feet away. "That's why we called the wizard."
Patrolling. Hell. "Any of the normals been here?"
"No, except for some meteorological guys from the University.
They said that they were having tornadoes in Louisiana or something,
that the storms must have thrown the toads here."
I snorted. "You'd think magic would be easier to swallow than
Billy grinned. "Don't worry. I'm sure someone will come along and
declare it a hoax before long."
"Uh huh." I turned back to the Beetle and popped the hood to
rummage in the forward storage compartment. I came out with a nylon
backpack, and dragged a couple small cloth sacks out of it. I threw
one to Billy. "Grab a couple of toads and pitch them in there for
He caught the bag and frowned. "Why?"
"So I can make sure they're real."
Billy lifted his eyebrows. "You think they're not?"
I squinted at him. "Look, Billy, just do it. I haven't slept, I
can't remember the last time I ate a hot meal, and I've got a lot to
do before tonight."
"But why wouldn't they be real? They look real."
I blew out a breath and tried to keep my temper. It had been
short, lately. "They could look real and feel real, but it's
possible that they're just constructs. Made out of the material of
the Nevernever. I hope they are."
"Because all that would mean is that some faery got bored and
played a trick. They do that sometimes."
"Okay. But if they're real?"
"If they're real, then it means something is out of whack."
"What kind of out of whack?"
"The serious kind. Holes in the fabric of reality."
"And that would be bad?"
I eyed him. "Yeah, Billy. That would be bad. Magical forces
tilting things out of balance. Sort of like when something goes
wrong with a machine when I'm around it, only a lot bigger. It would
mean something big was going down."
"But what if--"
My temper flared. "Billy, look. I really don't have the time or
inclination to teach a class today. Shut the hell up."
He lifted a hand in a pacifying gesture. "Okay, man. Whatever."
He fell into step beside me, and started picking up toads as we
walked across the park. "So, uh. It's good to see you, Harry. Me and
the gang were wondering if you wanted to come by this weekend, do
I scooped up a toad of my own, and eyed him dubiously. "Doing
He grinned at me. "Playing Arcanos, man. The campaign is getting
Role playing games. I made a monosyllabic sound. The old lady
with the shopping cart wandered past us, the wheels of the cart
squeaking and wobbling.
"Seriously, it's great," he insisted. "We're storming the
fortress of Lord Malocchio, except we have to do it in disguise in
the dead of night, so that the Council of Truth won't know who the
vigilantes who brought him down were. There's spells and demons and
dragons and everything. Interested?"
"Nah. Too much like work."
Billy blinked at me for a second and then let out a snort.
"Harry, look. I know this whole vampire war thing has you jumpy. And
grouchy. But you've been lurking in your basement way too much
"What vampire war."
Billy rolled his eyes. "Word gets around, Harry. I know that the
vampires declared war on the wizards after you burned down Bianca's
place last fall. I know that they've tried to kill you a couple of
times since then. I even know that the wizards' White Council is
coming to town sometime soon to figure out what to do."
I glowered at him. "What White Council."
He sighed. "It's not a good time for you to be turning into a
hermit, Harry. I mean look at you. When was the last time you
shaved? Had a shower? A haircut? Got out to do your laundry?"
I lifted a hand and scratched at the wiry growth of beard on my
face. "I've been out. I've been out plenty of times."
Billy snagged another toad. "Like when?"
"I went to that football game with you and the Alphas."
He snorted. "Yeah. In January, Dresden. It's June." Billy glanced
up at my face, and frowned. "People are worried about you. I mean, I
know you've been working on some project or something. But this
whole unwashed wild man look just isn't you."
I stooped and grabbed a toad. "You don't know what you're talking
"Maybe I know better than you think," he said. "It's about Susan,
right? Something happened to her last fall. Something you're trying
to undo. Maybe something the vampires did. That's why she left
I closed my eyes and tried to remember not to crush the toad in
my hand to death. "Drop the subject."
Billy planted his feet and thrust out his chin at me. "No, Harry.
Dammit, you vanish from the face of the earth, you're hardly showing
up at your office, won't answer your phone, don't often answer your
door. We're your friends, and we're worried about you."
"I'm fine," I said.
"You're a lousy liar. Word is that the vampires are bringing more
muscle into Chicago. That they're offering their groupies full
vampirehood if one of them brings you down."
"Hell's bells," I muttered. My head started to ache.
"It isn't a good time for you to be outside by yourself. Even
"I don't need a babysitter, Billy."
"Harry, I know you know more than the rest of us, you can do
stuff that other people can't do, but it doesn't make you Superman.
Everyone needs help sometimes."
"Not me. Not now." I stuffed the toad into my sack and got
another. "I don't have time for it."
"Oh, that reminds me." Billy drew a folded piece of paper out of
the pocket of his sweatpants, opened it up, and read it. "You've got
an appointment with a client at three."
I blinked at him. "What?"
"I dropped by your office and checked your messages. A Ms.
Sommerset was trying to reach you, so I called her and set up the
appointment for you."
I stared, my temper rising again. "You did what?"
His expression turned annoyed. "I checked your mail, too. The
landlord for the office dropped off your eviction notice. If you
don't have him paid off in a week, he's booting you out."
"What the hell gives you the right to go poking around in my
office, Billy? Or calling my clients?"
He took a step in front of me, glaring. I had to focus on his
nose to avoid the risk of looking at his eyes. "Get off your moral
high horse, Harry. I'm your freaking friend. You've been spending
all your time hiding in your apartment and you should be happy I'm
helping you save your business."
"You're damned right it's my business," I spat. The shopping cart
lady went past in my peripheral vision, cart wheels squeaking as she
walked behind me. "Mine. As in none of your business."
He thrust out his jaw. "Fine, Harry. How about you just crawl
back into your cave until they come evict you from that, too." He
spread his hands. "Good God, man. I don't have to spend time as a
wolf to know when someone's in a downward spiral. When they're
hurting. You need help."
I jabbed a finger at his chest, reaching down to poke it. "No,
Billy. I don't need more help. I don't need to be babysitting
a bunch of kids who think that because they've learned one trick
they're ready to be the Lone Ranger with fangs and a tail. I don't
need to be worrying about the vamps targeting the people around me
when they can't get to me. I don't need to be second guessing
myself, wondering who else is going to get hurt because I
dropped the ball." I reached down and snatched up a toad, jerking
the cloth bag from Billy's hands on the way back up. "I don't need
Naturally, the hit went down right then.
It wasn't subtle, as attempted assassinations go. An engine
roared and a black compact pick-up truck jumped the curb into the
park fifty yards away. It jounced and slewed to one side, tires
digging up furrows in the sunbaked grass. A pair of men clung to a
roll bar in the back of the truck. They were dressed all in black,
complete with black sunglasses over black ski masks, and their guns
matched--automatic weapons in the mini-Uzi tradition.
"Get back!" I shouted. With my right hand, I grabbed at Billy and
shoved him behind me. With my left, I shook out the bracelet on my
wrist, hung with a row of tiny, medieval-style shields. I lifted my
left hand towards the truck and drew in my will, focusing it with
the bracelet into a sudden, transparent shimmering half-globe that
spread out between me and the oncoming truck.
The truck ground to a halt. The two with guns didn't even wait
for it to settle. With all the fire discipline of an action movie
extra, they pointed their guns more or less at me and emptied their
clips in one roaring burst.
Sparks flew from the shield in front of me, and bullets whined
and hissed in every direction as they ricocheted. My bracelet grew
uncomfortably warm in the space of a second or two, the energy of
the shield taxing the focus to its limit. I tried to angle the
shield to deflect the shots up into the air as much as possible. God
only knew where all those bullets were going, and I could only hope
that they wouldn't bounce through a nearby car or some other
The guns clicked empty. With jerky, unprofessional motions, both
gunmen began to reload.
"Harry!" Billy shouted.
I lowered the shield and lifted my right hand--the side that
projects energy. The silver ring I wore on my index finger had been
enchanted to save back a little kinetic energy whenever my arm
moved. I hadn't used the ring in months, and it had a whale of a
kick in it--one I hardly dared to use on the gunmen. That much force
could kill one of them, and that would be just the same as letting
them fill me full of bullets. It would just take a little longer to
set in. The White Council did not take kindly to anyone violating
the First Law of Magic: thou shalt not kill. I'd slipped it once on
a technicality, but it wouldn't happen again.
I gritted my teeth and focused my shot just to one side of the
gunmen and triggered the ring. Raw force, unseen but tangible,
lashed through the air and caught the first gunman a glancing blow
across his upper body. His automatic slammed against his chest, and
the impact tore the sunglasses from his head and shredded bits of
his clothes, even as it flung him back and out of the pickup, to
land somewhere on the ground on the other side.
The second gunman got less of the blast. What did hit him struck
against his shoulder and head. He held onto his gun, but lost the
sunglasses, and they took the ski mask with them. The gunman, a
plain-looking boy who couldn't have been old enough to vote, blinked
against the sudden light, and then resumed his fumbling reload.
"Kids," I snarled, lifting my shield again. "They're sending kids
after me. Hell's bells."
Something, some instinct, made the hairs on the back of my neck
try to lift me off the ground. As the kid with the gun started
shooting again, I flicked a look back over my shoulder.
The old lady with her shopping basket had stopped maybe fifteen
feet behind me. She turned towards me, and I saw now that the woman
wasn't as old as I had thought. I caught a flicker of cool, dark
eyes beneath age make-up. Her hands were young. She came out of the
shopping basket with a sawed off shotgun, and swung it towards me.
Bullets slammed against my shield, and it was all I could do to
hold it in place. I couldn't have brought any magic to bear against
the second assailant without losing that shield--and inexpert or
not, there were enough shots flying through the air that they would
have trouble missing me. A shotgun wound at five yards isn't
something you go to the hospital with. They take you straight to the
Billy moved. He had already stripped out of his sweatshirt, and
he had enough muscle to ripple--flat, hard muscle, athlete's muscle,
not the carefully sculpted build of weightlifters. He dove forward,
towards the woman with the shotgun, and stripped out of his sweats
on the fly. He was naked beneath.
I felt the surge of magic Billy used then--sharp, precise,
focused. There was no sense of ritual in what he did, no slow
gathering of power building to release. He blurred, as he moved, and
between one breath and the next, Billy-the-Naked was gone and
Billy-the-Wolf slammed into the assailant, a dark-furred beast the
size of a Great Dane, fangs slashing at the hand that gripped the
forward stock of the shotgun.
She cried out, jerking her hand back, scarlet blood on her
fingers, and swept the gun at Billy like a club. He twisted and
caught the blow on his shoulders, a snarl exploding from him at the
blow. He went after the other hand, faster than one could easily
see, and the shotgun tumbled to the ground.
The woman screamed again, and drew back her hand.
She wasn't human.
Her hands distended, lengthening, as did her shoulders, her jaws.
Her nails became dirty-looking talons, and she raked them down at
Billy, striking him across the jaws, this time eliciting a pained
yelp mixed with a snarl. He rolled to one side and came up on his
feet, circling to force the woman-thing's back to me.
The gunman in the truck clicked on empty again. I dropped the
shield and hurled myself forward, diving to grip the shotgun. I came
up with it and shouted, "Billy, move!"
The wolf darted to one side, and the woman whipped around to me,
her distorted face furious, mouth drooling around tusk-like fangs.
I pressed the gun hard against my shoulder, pointed it at her
belly and pulled the trigger.
The gun roared and bucked, slamming hard against my shoulder. Ten
gauge, maybe, or slug rounds. The woman doubled over abruptly,
letting out a shriek, and stumbled backward and to the ground. She
wasn't down long, and almost bounced back to her feet, scarlet blood
all over her rags of dress, her face wholly inhuman now. She
sprinted past me, to the truck, leaping up into the back. The gunman
hauled his partner back into the truck with him, and the driver
gunned the engine. The truck threw out some turf before it dug in,
jounced back onto the street, and whipped away into traffic.
I stared after it for a second, panting. I lowered the shotgun,
realizing as I did that I had somehow managed to keep hold of the
toad I had picked up in my left hand. It wriggled and struggled in a
fashion that suggested that I had been close to crushing it, and I
tried to ease up on my grip without losing it.
I turned to look for Billy. The wolf paced back over to his
discarded sweat pants, shimmered for a second, and became once more
the naked young man. There were two long cuts on his face, parallel
with his jaw. Blood ran down over his throat in a fine sheet. Billy
carried himself tensely, but it was the only indication he gave of
"You all right?" I asked him.
He nodded, and jerked on his pants, his shirt. "Yeah. What the
hell was that?"
"Ghoul," I told him. "Probably one of the LaChaise clan. They're
working with the Red Court and they don't much like me."
"I didn't expect the claws."
"They're sneaky that way. Can you walk?"
"Good. Let's get out of here." We both headed towards the Beetle.
I picked up the cloth sack of toads on the way there, and started
shaking them back out onto the ground. I put the toad I'd nearly
squished down with them. Then I wiped my hand off on the grass.
Billy squinted at me. "Why are you letting them go?"
"Because they're real."
"How do you know?"
"The one I was holding crapped on my hand. They aren't
I let Billy into the Blue Beetle, and got in the other side. I
fetched the first aid kit from under my seat, and passed it over to
him. Billy pressed a cloth against his face, squinting out at the
toads. "So that means things are in a bad way?"
"Yeah," I confirmed. "Things are in a bad way." I was silent for
a minute. Then said, "You saved my life."
He shrugged. He didn't look at me.
"So you set up the appointment for three o'clock, right? What was
the name? Sommerset?"
He glanced at me, and kept the smile from his mouth--but not from
his eyes. "Yeah."
I scratched at my beard and nodded. "I've been distracted lately.
Maybe I should clean up first."
"Might be good," Billy agreed.
I sighed. "I'm an ass sometimes."
Billy laughed. "Sometimes. You're human like the rest of us."
I started up the Beetle. It wheezed a little, but I coaxed it to
Just then, something hit my hood with a hard, heavy thump. Then
again. Another heavy blow, on the roof.
I feeling of dizziness swept over me, a nausea that came so
suddenly and violently that I clutched the steering wheel in a
simple effort not to collapse. Distantly, I could hear Billy asking
me if I was all right. I wasn't. Power moved and stirred in the air
outside--hectic disruption, the forces of magic, usually moving in
smooth and quiet patterns, suddenly cast into tumult, disruptive,
I tried to push the sensations away from me, and labored to open
my eyes. Toads were raining down. Not occasionally plopping, but
raining down so thick and hard that they darkened the sky. No gentle
laundry-chute drop for these poor things, either. They fell like
hailstones, splattering on concrete, on the hood of the Beetle. One
of them fell hard enough to send a spider web of cracks through my
windshield, and I dropped into gear and got away from the
Both of us were breathing too fast as I headed down the street.
Something serious was going on with the local powers. Something was
badly out of whack. The White Council was coming to town tonight to
discuss the war. I had a client to meet, and the vampires had upped
the stakes in the war, striking at me more openly than they had
dared to before.
I flipped on the windshield wipers. Amphibian blood left scarlet
streaks on the glass.
"Good lord," Billy breathed.
"Yeah." I said. "It never rains, it pours."