Cold DaysJim Butcher
I lifted an eyebrow. It took a lot to make the skull flinch. “And what is that, exactly?”
The lights in the eye sockets dwindled to tiny pinpoints, and his voice came out in a whisper. “I know how to kill an immortal.”
“Like Maeve?” I asked him.
“Maeve,” Bob said. “Mab. Mother Winter. Any of them.”
Now, that was a piece of information worth killing for.
If the skull knew how to subtract the im from immortal, then he could be a source of danger to beings of power throughout the universe. Hell, he was lucky that gods and demons and supernatural powers everywhere hadn’t formed up in a safari and come gunning for him. And it meant that maybe I wasn’t looking at an impossible mission after all.
“I’d like you to tell me,” I said.
“No way,” Bob said. “No way. The only reason I’ve been around this long is that I’ve kept my mouth shut. If I start shooting it off now, Mab and every other immortal with an interest in this stupid planet are going to smash my skull to powder and leave me out to fry in the sun.” The eyelights bobbed toward the rear compartment. “And there are too many ears around here.”
“Toot,” I said, “get everybody out of the car. I need privacy. Make sure no one gets close enough to eavesdrop.”
“Aw,” Toot complained from the rear compartment. “Not even me?”
“You’re the only one I can trust to keep those other mugs from doing it, Major General. No one overhears. Got it?”
I could practically hear the pride bursting out of his voice: “Got it!” he piped. “Will do, my lord!”
He rolled down a window and buzzed out. I rolled it back up and took a look around the hearse with both normal and supernatural senses, to be sure we were alone. Then I turned back to the skull.
“Bob, it’s just you and me talking here. Think about this. Mab sends me off to kill Maeve, something that would be impossible for me to do on my own—and she knew that you know how to do it. She knew the first thing I would do is come back here as the first step in the job. I think she meant for me to come to you. I think she meant for you to tell me.”
The skull considered that for a moment. “It’s indirect and manipulative, so you’re probably onto something. Let me think.” A long minute went by. Then he spoke very quietly. “If I tell you,” he said, “you’ve got to do something for me.”
“A new vessel,” he said. “You’ve got to make me a new house. Somewhere I can get to it. Then if they come after this one, I’ve got somewhere else to go.”
“Tall order for me,” I said soberly. “You’ve basically got your own little pocket dimension in there. I’ve never tried anything that complicated before. Not even Little Chicago.”
“Promise me,” Bob said. “Promise me on your power.”
Swearing by one’s power is how a wizard makes a verbal contract. If you break your word, your ability with magic starts to fray, and if you keep doing it, sooner or later it’ll just wither up and die. A broken promise, sworn by my power, could set me back years and years in terms of my ability to use magic. I held up my hand. “I swear, on my power, to construct a new vessel for you if you tell me, Bob, assuming I survive the next few days. Just . . . don’t expect a deluxe place like you have now.”
The flickering eyelights flared up to their normal size again. “Don’t worry, boss,” Bob said with compassion. “I won’t.”
“Right, then!” Bob said. “The only way to kill an immortal is at certain specific places.”
“And you know one? Where?”
“Hah, already you’re making a human assumption. There are more than three dimensions, Harry. Not all places are in space. Some of them are places in time. They’re called conjunctions.”
“I know about conjunctions, Bob,” I said, annoyed. “When the stars and planets align. You can use them to support heavy-duty magic sometimes.”
“That’s one way to measure a conjunction,” said the skull. “But stars and planets are ultimately just measuring stakes used to describe a position in time. And that’s one way to use a conjunction, but they do other things, too.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “And there’s a conjunction when immortals are vulnerable?”
“Give the man a cookie; he’s got the idea. Every year.”
“When is it?”
“On Halloween night, of course.”
I slammed on the brakes and pulled the car to the side of the road. “Say that again?”
“Halloween,” Bob said, his voice turning sober. “It’s when the world of the dead is closest to the mortal world. Everyone—everything—standing in this world is mortal on Halloween.”
I let out a low, slow whistle.
“I doubt there are more than a couple of people alive who know that, Harry,” Bob said. “And the immortals will keep it that way.”
“Why are they so worried?” I asked. “I mean, why not just not show up on Halloween night?”
“Because it’s when they . . .” He made a frustrated noise. “It’s hard to explain, because you don’t have the right conceptual models. You can barely count to four dimensions.”
“I think the math guys can go into the teens. Skip the insults and try.”
“Halloween is when they feed,” Bob said. “Or . . . or refuel. Or run free. It’s all sort of the same thing, and I’m only conveying a small part of it. Halloween night is when the locked stasis of immortality becomes malleable. They take in energy—and it’s when they can add new power to their mantle. Mostly they steal tiny bits of it from other immortals.”
“Those Kemmlerite freaks and their Darkhallow,” I breathed. “That was Halloween night.”
“Exactly!” Bob said. “That ritual was supposed to turn one of them into an immortal. And the same rule applies—that’s the only night of the year it actually can happen. I doubt all of them knew that it had to be that night. But I betcha Cowl did. Guy is seriously scary.”
“Seriously in need of a body cast and a therapist, more like.” I raked at my too-long, too-messy hair with my fingers, thinking. “So on Halloween, they’re here? All of them?”
“Any who are . . . The only word I can come close with is ‘awake.’ Immortals aren’t always moving through the time stream at the same rate as the universe. From where you stand, it looks like they’re dormant. They aren’t. You just can’t perceive the true state of their existence properly.”
“They’re here,” I said slowly. “Feeding and swindling one another for little bits of power.”
“Duh,” Bob said. “Where do you think that comes from?”
“Ugh, this whole time? That is creepy beyond belief,” I said.
“I think it was the second or third Merlin of the White Council who engineered the whole Halloween custom. That’s the real reason people started wearing masks on that night, back in the day. It was so that any hungry immortal who came by might—might—think twice before gobbling someone up. After all, they could never be sure the person behind the mask wasn’t another immortal, setting them up.”
“Halloween is tomorrow night,” I said. A bank sign I was passing told me it was a bit after two a.m. “Or tonight, I guess, technically.”
“What a coincidence,” Bob said. “Happy birthday, by the way. I didn’t get you anything.”
Except maybe my life. “’S okay. I’m kinda birthdayed out already.” I rubbed at my jaw. “So . . . if I can get to Maeve on Halloween night, I can kill her.”
“Well,” Bob hedged. “You can try, anyway. It’s technically possible. It doesn’t mean you’re strong enough to do it.”
“How big a window do I have? When does Halloween night end?” I asked.
“At the first natural morning birdsong,” Bob replied promptly. “Songbirds, rooster, whatever. They start to sing, the night ends.”
> “Oh, good. A deadline.” I narrowed my eyes, thinking. “Gives me a bit more than twenty-four hours, then,” I muttered. “And all I have to do is find her, when she can be anywhere in the world or the Nevernever, then get her here, then beat her down, all without her escaping or killing me first. Simple.”
“Yep. Almost impossible, but simple. And at least you know the when and the how,” Bob said.
“But I’m no closer to why.”
“Can’t help you there, boss,” the skull said. “I’m a spirit of intellect, and the premise we’re dealing with makes no sense.”
“Because there’s no reason for it,” Bob said, his tone unhappy. “I mean, when Maeve dies, there will just be another Maeve.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
Bob sighed. “You keep thinking of the Faerie Queens as specific individuals, Harry,” Bob said. “But they aren’t individuals. They’re mantles of power, roles, positions. The person in them is basically an interchangeable part.”
“What, like being the Winter Knight is?”
“Exactly like that,” Bob said. “When you killed Slate, the power, the mantle, just transferred over to you. It’s the same for the Queens of Faerie. Maeve wears the mantle of the Winter Lady. Kill her, and you’ll just get a new Winter Lady.”
“Maybe that’s what Mab wants,” I said.
“Doesn’t track,” Bob said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because the mantle changes whoever wears it.”
My guts felt suddenly cold.
(I’m not Lloyd Slate.)
(Neither was he. Not at first.)
“Doesn’t matter who it is,” Bob prattled on. “Over time, it changes them. Somewhere down the line, you wouldn’t be able to find much difference between Maeve and her successor. Meet the new Maeve. Same as the old Maeve.”
I swallowed. “So . . . so Lily, who took the Summer Lady’s mantle after I killed Aurora . . .”
“It’s been what? Ten years or so? She’s gone by now, or getting there,” Bob said. “Give it another decade or two, tops, and she might as well be Aurora.”
I was quiet for a moment. Then I asked, “Is that going to happen to me, too?”
Bob hedged. “You’ve . . . probably felt it starting. Um, strong impulses. Intense emotions. That kind of thing. It builds. And it doesn’t stop.” He managed to give the impression of a wince. “Sorry, boss.”
I stared at my knuckles for a moment. “So,” I said, “even if I frag this Maeve, another one steps up. Maybe not for decades, but she does.”
“Immortals don’t really care about decades, boss,” Bob said. “To them, it’s like a few weeks are to you.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “Then maybe it’s about the timing.”
I shrugged. “Hell if I know, but it’s the only thing I can think of. Maybe Mab wants a less Maeve-ish Maeve for the next few years.”
“Why?” Bob asked.
I growled. “I already have one why. I don’t need you adding more.” I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. “Why doesn’t Mab do it herself?”
“Oh, I see. It’s okay if you add more whys. You have complicated rules, Harry.”
I ignored that with the disdain it deserved. “I’m serious. Mab has the power. What’s stopping her from tearing Maeve to shreds?”
“Something?” Bob suggested.
“I can’t believe I got my tux shredded for brilliant analysis like that,” I said.
“Hey!” Bob said. “I just told you something so valuable that it could save your life! Or get you killed!”
“Yeah.” I sighed. “You did. But it isn’t enough. I need more information.”
“You do know a few people around here,” Bob said.
I growled. “My physical therapist, who I’ve known for three whole months, nearly died tonight because she showed up at a party with me—and that was with Mab looking over my shoulder as a referee.”
“How is that any different from the last time you played with faeries?”
“Because now I know them,” I said. It was actually sort of scary looking back at the me from a decade ago. That guy was terrifying in his ignorance. “Aurora and her crew were basically a decent crowd. Misguided, yeah. But to them, we were the bad guys. They were tough, but they weren’t killers. Maeve’s different.”
“How?” Bob asked.
“She doesn’t have limits,” I said.
“And you figure you’re up against her.”
“I know I am,” I said. “And she’s grown powerful enough to challenge Mab in her own court. I also know more about Mab now, and all of it scares the crap out of me.” I snorted, and felt a tremble of winged insects in my midsection. “And apparently Maeve is a threat to her. And I’m supposed to deal with it.”
Bob whistled. “Well. Maybe that explains it.”
“Why Mab was so hell-bent on getting you to be the new Knight,” Bob said. “I mean, you’re kind of an avatar of the phrase ‘Things fall apart.’ Mab has a target she wants to be absolutely sure of. You’re like . . . her guided missile. She can’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but she knows there’s going to be a great big boom.”
“I’m a missile, huh?”
“Her big, dumb bunker buster,” he said cheerily. “Of course, you know the thing about missiles, Harry.”
“Yeah,” I said, as I put the Caddy back in gear again. “They’re expendable.”
“Buck up, little camper. At least you had a hot redhead jump your bones tonight. Not the right bone, but you can’t have everything.”
I snorted. “Thanks, Bob.”
“Andi totally got the drop on you. Where was your tiny secret service team?”
“I forgot to invite them past the threshold,” I said. “Besides, I think she’d hit me before anyone could have shouted a lookout anyway.”
“You ever think about replacing them with some real bodyguard goons, Harry? I know a thing that knows a thing.”
“Screw that. Toot and his gang aren’t exactly gangstas, but I trust them. That means more.”
“That means you’re a sucker!” Bob said. “Did The X-Files teach you nothing? Trust no one.”
I grunted. “Cat Sith gave me almost the same advice.”
“Ack,” Bob said. “That guy. He still got the attitude?”
“I feel safe in assuming that he does.”
“I don’t like him, but he’s no dummy,” Bob said. “At least he gives good advice.”
“Mathematically, maybe,” I said. “But trust isn’t one of those things that lends itself well to math.”
“Sure it does,” Bob said. “You trust somebody, they betray you, you get a negative value. You never trust, they can never disappoint you, you break even.”
I laughed. “Or you trust, it’s vindicated, and you’re better off.”
“Shah,” Bob said. “Like that happens.”
“Life’s about more than breaking even,” I said.
Bob snorted. “Which is why the first thing you did, when you got back to town, was call all of your friends and immediately tell them you needed their help, and trust them to help you.”
I scowled out at the road.
“It wasn’t like the first thing you did was abuse one of your friends and inflict property damage on his house and steal a powerful magical counselor whose loyalties are transferrable to whoever happens to be holding an old skull—presumably so that you’d have a lackey who would agree with whatever you said instead of give you a hard time about it. And the only beings you’re allowing to help you are a bunch of tiny faeries who worship the ground you walk on because you buy them pizza.” Bob made a skeptical sound. “I can see how important trust is to you, boss.”
“That’s why I got you, clearly,” I said. “Because I wanted a yes-man and you’re so good for that.”
“Hey, I’m just a mirror, boss. Not my fau
lt you’re ambivalent.”
“I’m not ambivalent.”
“You know better, but you’re being a moron about it anyway,” Bob said. “If that ain’t ambivalence, maybe Mab’s getting to you. Because it’s a little crazy.” He sniffed. “Besides, if you weren’t of two minds about it, I wouldn’t be giving you this kind of crap, now, would I?”
I was going to say something sarcastic, but the red glare of a stoplight suddenly appeared about ten feet in front of the old Caddy’s nose. I stared at the light for a fraction of a second, and then mashed the brakes down. I had an instant to see that it wasn’t a traffic signal, but Toot-toot, his aura glaring brilliant scarlet, frantically waving his arms at me. As the Caddy lumbered forward, I saw him take a couple of steps forward, running up the windshield, and up out of sight above me.
As the heavy old piece of Detroit iron began to slide on the asphalt, I saw an object tumble out of the air in front of me and hit the street, turning over and over. I had another instant to recognize a plain black nylon duffel bag.
And then the world went white and a hammer the size of the Chrysler Building slammed me back against the old Caddy’s seat.
The bomb might have been fifty feet away when it exploded.
Mab’s therapy had paid off. On raw instinct, I’d already begun to form a defensive shield in front of me when everything went boom. I hadn’t had time to build much of a shield, but what little I could do probably kept me conscious.
Explosions are unbelievably loud. If you haven’t been near one, there’s no way to convey the sheer violence of it. It doesn’t really register as a sound, the way a gunshot will. There’s just this single, terrible power in the air, a sudden hammer blow of disorienting pressure, as if you’ve been hit by a truck made of pillow-top mattresses.
Your hearing goes. There’s a familiar, high-pitched tone, only no one is telling you that this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. There’s dust and smoke everywhere, and you can’t see. Your muscles don’t all work right. You tell them to move and it’s iffy. Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. It’s hard to tell which way is down. Not that you don’t know it rationally, somewhere in your head—but your body just seems to forget its natural awareness of gravity.