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Cold Days

Jim Butcher

  Even if something sharp and fast doesn’t go flying through some of your favorite organs, a nearby explosion leaves you half-blind, deaf, and drunkenly impaired.


  One moment the Caddy was screeching and sliding toward that black duffel bag. The next, I was staring at a cloud of dust and the dim image of a brick wall at the end of the Caddy’s nose. The windshield had been splintered into a webwork of cracks that made it hard to see. My chest hurt like hell.

  I picked fitfully at it, my fingers clumsy, and thought to myself that the car Sith had provided must have had armored glass, or there would be windshield mixed in with my intestines. Lights danced and darted in my vision. My eyes wouldn’t focus enough to track them. Smells were incredibly sharp. The air was acrid, thick with smoke, laced with the scents of things it is unhealthy to burn. I smelled gasoline nearby. There were wires hanging down from something in the corner of my vision, outside the car, spitting white sparks.

  None of it seemed normal, but I couldn’t quite remember the right word to describe it.


  Right. That was it. Danger. I was in danger.

  A moving target is harder to hit.

  I pushed open the passenger door and stumbled out of the car, choking on dust. Another car wreck? Man, Mike was going to charge me a small fortune to fix the Blue Beetle this time. Did I have the money in the bank? I couldn’t remember whether I’d deposited my last stipend check from the Wardens.

  No, wait. The car I’d just gotten out of wasn’t the Blue Beetle, my trusty old Volkswagen Bug that had died in the line of duty. It was the creepy Herman Munster hot rod my boss had gotten m—

  My brain finished rebooting, and things snapped back into focus; someone had just tried to bomb me back into the Stone Age.

  I shook my head, gagging on dust, then dragged the Redcap’s hat down off my head and over my mouth as a dust mask. The Caddy was up on the curb and had hit a building. The building had gotten the worst of it. One of the Caddy’s headlights was out, its front fender crumpled a bit, and the passenger door had been thrown open, but otherwise the car was fine. Maybe ten or twelve square feet of brick wall had fallen out, some of it onto the hood, some of it onto the sidewalk. I looked around. It was hard to see through the dust. There were a lot of busted-up walls. Several small fires. A streetlight had come swinging down from the line that supported it—that was where the sparking cables came from.

  Lights still darted and flickered randomly, and I blinked, trying to clear the stars away. But stars in the vision were usually white and silver. These were orange and red, like the embers of a fire.

  Then one of those lights pivoted in midair and flashed toward my eyes. I jerked away from it, still clumsy, and a sudden spike of agony burned through my face.

  I screamed and staggered to one knee. Something had gone through my cheek and was still there, tacking the damned Cincinnati cap to my face. I reached for it on instinct, but before I could get to it, pain exploded from my back, from the fresh wounds there, from my bruised hands, from my throat where the Redcap had nearly crushed it.

  That did put me on the ground. It was too much to process, much less ignore. I reacted on blind animal instinct, swiping at the most intense source of pain with my paw. There was another flash of agony, and suddenly the hat came away from my face. A bloodied nail a good four inches long fell away with the hat, its last two inches bloodied, its other end swathed in duct tape.

  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 m
uscle 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.

  Only I turned it to eleven.

  “Ventas reductas!” I thundered, unleashing my will, and an arctic gale came howling and shrieking from my outstretched hand. It condensed the damp October air into mist, too, bellowing out from my hand in a cone the size of an apartment building. Frost formed on every surface in the immediate area. It struck the cloud of diving Little Folk and sent them tumbling in every direction. Little orange lights went spinning and wobbling, their complex formation shattered.

  I saw them begin to gather to one side, trying to re-form, but I poured on the wind and altered the direction of the blast, scattering them again. Molly’s spell was more efficient than anything I’d come up with when I had her level of experience, but there’s no free lunch. That much wind takes a lot of energy to whip up, and I wasn’t going to be able to hold it forever.

  Abruptly, Toot flashed away from me, diving through the air, his wings a blur. He vanished behind the nose of a parked car on the other side of the street, brandishing his sword.

  A brawl spilled out from the tail end of the car an instant later. One of the enemy Little Folk went tumbling in a windmill of arms and legs and fetched up against the corpse of the traffic signal. Two went darting away in obvious panic, their flight erratic and swift, dropping their nail swords as they fled.

  And then there was a flash of sparks as steel struck steel, and Toot came out from behind the truck, frantically defending himself from another of the Little Folk almost as tall as he was. The foe was dressed in black armor covered in spikes made from the tips of freaking fishhooks, even the helmet, and he fought with what seemed to be an actual sword designed to size, a wavy-bladed thing that I think was called a flamberge.

  As I watched, the enemy champion’s blade sheared half an inch of aluminum from the top of Toot’s shield, and he followed up with a series of heavy two-handed blows meant to divide Toot in half.

  Toot bobbed and weaved like a reed, but the assault was ferocious, the foe as fast as he was. He got the flat of the shield in front of another blow, stopping it, but on the next strike the flamberge’s wavy blade caught on the edge of the shield and sliced through it again, leaving it little more than a rectangle of aluminum strapped to Toot’s arm. Toot took to the air, but his opponent matched him, and they darted and spun around a light pole, the enemy’s sword meeting Toot’s improvised blade in flashes of silver sparks.

  I wanted to intervene, but, like it always does, size mattered. My target was tiny and moving fast. The pair of them were darting around so much that even if I got lucky and hit someone, I probably had as much chance of taking out Toot as I did Captain Hook over there. My evocation magic was more focused and precise than it had ever been, thanks to Mab, but my control still wasn’t up to the task of being that discriminating. And besides—I still had to keep my giant leaf blower going against the rest of Hook’s goons. All I could do was watch.

  Hook swung at Toot’s head, but Toot ducked in the nick of time, and the flamberge caught briefly in the metal of the streetlight’s post.

  “Aha!” Toot said, and slammed his table knife down onto Hook’s armored hand.

  The other fae reeled, obviously in pain, and the flamberge fell to the ground.

  “Surrender, villain!” Toot cried. “Face the justice of the Za Lord!”

  “Never!” answered another piping voice from within the helmet, and Hook produced a pair of toothpick-slender daggers. He made a scissor shape of them and caught Toot’s next attack in it, flicking the table knife aside and whipping his dagger at Toot’s throat. Toot recoiled, but took a long cut across his chest, the knife shearing through his armor just as the flamberge had done.

  My major general screamed in pain, recoiling.

  It was the opening I’d needed, and I twisted my leaf blower around to slam into Hook. It caught the little fae as he was starting to move toward Toot-toot, sending him tumbling into the side of a building, while the back blast of wind actually threw Toot clear. He managed to recover in midair, wings blurring, and shot unsteadily toward me. I caught him in my free hand, drawing him in close against my side, and turned partly away from Hook, sheltering Toot.

  The cloud of hostile fae was still swirling and wobbling around. They obviously lacked any kind of leadership, and were still disordered by the gale-force winds with which I’d hit them—but I was almost out of energy, and about two seconds after they got their act together, I was a dead man.

  “Feets don’t fail me now,” I muttered.

  I kept the leaf blower on Hook, who I suspected was their leader, and strode forward, toward the car. I checked it with several quick glances. The gasoline smell wasn’t coming from the Caddy, but from a half-smashed car that had been close to the exploding duffel bag.

  I gave the leaf blower one last surge of power and lunged into the Caddy, slamming the door behind me. I dumped Toot down next to Bob as gently as I could.

  “What’s happening?” Bob shouted blearily from where he’d landed, sideways, in the well of the passenger seat.

  “I’m getting my ass kicked by tiny faeries!” I shouted back, fumbling to start the car. “They’ve got my freaking number!”

  There was a loud pop, and a slender miniature steel dagger slammed through the passenger window, transforming it into a broken webwork, as difficult to see through as a stained-glass window.

  “Ack!” I said.

  Bob started laughing hysterically.

  The dagger vanished and then the same thing happened on the driver’s side.

  Holy crap, Hook was way too bright for someone the size of a Tickle Me Elmo. He was blinding me.

  I got the Caddy into reverse and rumbled back off the sidewalk onto the street, shedding bricks and debris as I went. Just as I bounced down onto the street proper, the front windshield exploded into a web of cracks, too, so I just kept drivi
ng backward, turning to look over my shoulder. That went well for a few seconds, and then the rear window broke, too.

  I gritted my teeth. Under normal circumstances, the next move would be to roll down the window and stick my head out of it. Tonight, I was pretty sure I’d get a miniature dagger in the eye if I tried.

  Sometimes you have to choose between doing something stupid and doing something suicidal. So I kept driving blind and backward through the middle of Chicago while Bob chortled his bony ass off.

  “Tiny faeries!” He giggled, rolling a bit as the Caddy weaved and jounced. “Tiny faeries!”

  My plan worked for about ten seconds—and then I slammed into a parked car. I was lucky that it wasn’t a large one. I mean, I couldn’t see it, but it bounced off the Caddy like a billiard ball struck by the cue ball. It also knocked the wheel out of my hands, wrenching it from my fingers and sending the Caddy onto another sidewalk. It smashed through a metal railing and then the back tires bounced down into a sunken stairwell.

  I struggled to get the Caddy clear, but there was nothing for the tires to grab onto.

  End of the line.

  I let out a heartfelt curse and slammed a fist against the steering wheel. Then I made myself close my eyes and think. Think, think, don’t react in panic. Keep your head, Dresden.

  “Major General,” I said. “You okay?”

  “It’s not bad, my lord.” He gasped. “I’ve had worse.”

  “We’ve got to move,” I said.

  “Run away!” Bob giggled. “Run away! Tiny faeries!”

  I growled in frustration and popped the Redcap’s hat down over Bob. “Stop being a jerk. This is serious.”

  Bob’s voice was only barely muffled. It sounded like he couldn’t breathe. “Serious! Tiny! Faeries! The m-m-mighty wizard Dresden!”

  “You are not as funny as you think you are,” I said severely. “Toot, you got any ideas?”

  “Trap them all in a circle?” Toot suggested.

  I sighed. Right. I’d just need to get them all to land in the same place at the same time, inside of a magic circle I had no means to create.