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 where 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," I said. "They should be." I looked down at her and said, "If anything happens, it will be near shore," I said. "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 after 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.
"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."
She eyed me. "What do you know about it?"
I shook my head. "Mostly mortal folklore, which is sort of like trying to understand history through a game of telephone. But the Eye . . . it's a weapon that is beyond what the world has seen in millennia. Anyplace we gather to fight the Fomor's troops, we're just bunching ourselves up for the Eye to wipe us out by the boatload. And from what I heard, we've got very few ways to actually hurt Ethniu. But if we stand by and do nothing, she'll literally level the city with the damned thing."
"So how do we win?" Murphy said.
"Hell if I know," I said. "The Senior Council will have been gathering information this whole time. It's possible they'll have come up with options."
"That's why you went out to the island," Murphy said. "You think you can lock her up out there."
"I think if I tried to walk up and bind her, she'd rip my brain apart from the inside out," I said. I had to force myself not to rest my hand on the knife I was now wearing at my hip. In fact, it would be best if I didn't think about it at all. Too many things in this world are way too good at catching glimpses of your thoughts. "Maybe she can be worn down. I might have a chance then."
"Maybe," Murphy noted. "Might. I'm hearing a lot of waffle words."
"Yeah, that's because I'm speaking optimistically," I said, glowering.
"Let's call that one Plan B, then."
"Plan Z," I said. "This isn't like our usual mess. I'm still a heavy hitter in those. In the league these people are operating in, I'm a middleweight at best. I . . ." I shook my head. "I'm hoping someone has a better idea of what to do than me." I felt myself growing instinctively tenser and cut the throttle by half. "Okay. I think we're getting close. If there's going to be trouble, it will be between us and shore. Better let them know."
She bumped her head against my arm, leaned for a moment, and then pushed away. "I'll tell them."
She limped out carefully to go belowdecks again, and I began to cut the throttle a bit more, peering out into the night. There wasn't much to see. There was some city light against the belly of the cloud cover, south from way down past Aurora, and from the far side of the lake, but Chicagoland was wrapped in utter blackness.
Except . . . it wasn't.
I just hadn't been able to see the firelight from quite so far away.
The tall, dark, silent cliffs of the city's skyline appeared against the not-quite-black overcast. There were candles in windows, hundreds of them in sight, but they were lonely little points of light in all that darkness. Fires had to have been burning on the streets, because they cast ruddy cones of light dimly over the lower levels of some of the buildings.
I cut the throttle even more. I had a pretty good idea of where I was on the lake, thanks to my mental connection to the island behind us, but I was only sure of my position to within maybe a hundred yards, and the dark made things tricky. I didn't want to miss the channel into the harbor and gut the boat on the rocks.
The electric bow lights I would normally have used to help pilot my way in had been blown out when the Last Titan had unleashed the Eye of Balor on the roof of the nigh-indestructible castle of the Brighter Future Society. The Eye had blown a hole clean through it and simultaneously sent out a pulse of magical energy that had blown out the city's grid completely, including the electronics on cars and airplanes and the electrical systems on the boat. The old diesel engine was still chugging away, but that was about the only thing on the boat that had survived the super-hex the Eye had thrown out. Chemical lights hung at the bow and stern, but that was just to keep someone else from running into us, as if anyone else was out on Lake Michigan that night.
I peered through the dirty glass of the wheelhouse, searching for the white painted markers of the channel, which should have been all but glowing in the gloom. The harbor's lights were out, of course, and eighteenth-century lighting was not highly conducive to proper boat-handling safety.
Abruptly there was a crunching sound, squeals of protest from the Water Beetle's hull and superstructure, and the boat went from moving slowly to not moving at all in the space of several seconds. I staggered and had to grab at the ship's console to keep my balance, and the wheel spun suddenly in my hands, the grips smacking my fingers hard enough to leave bruises before I could whip them away.
I lurched out of the wheelhouse as the boat began to pitch sharply to the left and front, timbers groaning.
Murphy appeared from belowdecks, a chemical light hanging from her harness, her little rifle at her shoulder. She staggered into the bulkhead with her bad shoulder and hissed in discomfort, then made it out onto the deck and braced her feet, holding on to the rail with one hand. "Harry?" she called.
"I don't know!" I called back. I reached into my shirt and pulled out my mother's old silver pentacle necklace with the red stone in the center of the five-pointed star. I held it up, murmured a word, and let out a whisper of will, and the silver of the amulet and the chain began to glow with soft blue wizard light. I made my way quickly forward as the ship rocked back the other way, groaning and squealing, holding up the light so that I could see a little ahead of me. "We must have run aground!"
But when I stepped over a thick clump of lines and got to the ship's bow, I could see only dark water in front of me. In fact, the light from my amulet picked out strips of reflective tape and plastic reflectors on the docks, ahead of me and slightly to the left. Which was to port, on a ship, I think.
We were still in deep, clear water.
What the hell?
The ship moaned and rocked the other way, and that was when the smell hit me.
It was an overwhelming odor of dead fish.
I turned and held my amulet out over the clump of "lines" I had stepped over.
It was a thick, rubbery, pulsing, living limb, a tentacle, deep red-purple in color, covered in leathery, wart-shaped nodules and lined with toothed suckers-and it was maybe half again as thick as a telephone pole.
I wasn't telling my body to move in nightmare slow motion, but it felt like that was happening anyway, as I followed the tentacle to the side of the ship, where it had slithered up the hull and seized the superstructure, attaching itself to it with dozens and dozens of limpet suckers-and went down to a vast, bulky shape in the water, something almost as massive as the boat itself.
That tentacle flexed, distorting in shape, and the ship screamed again, rocking the other way.
And a great, faintly luminous eye glimmered up at me through the waters of Lake Michigan.
A colossal squid. A kraken.
The Fomor had released the freaking kraken.
"Stars and sto-" I began to swear.
And then the waters of the lake exploded upward as what seemed like a couple of dozen tentacles like the first burst from the depths and straight at my freaking face.
Tentacles. That's what I remember of the next several seconds.