Cold DaysJim Butcher
I could count on the fingers of no hands how many times Bob had come up completely dry. He always knew something. The skull had been working with wizards for centuries. He’d run into damned near everything.
“Uh, what?” I said. “Seriously? Nothing?”
“They’re powerful,” he said. “I can tell you that much. But they’re also complex. I mean, like, Molly on her best day could not come close to weaving together something this crazy. You on your best day could not sling around enough power to juice up one of the smallest stones. And that’s just the first layer. I think there are more. Maybe a lot more. Uh, like hundreds.”
“On each stone?”
“That’s . . . It isn’t . . . You can’t put that much magic into that little space,” I protested.
“No, no, I can’t,” Bob said. “And, no, you can’t. Because it’s impossible. But, um. Someone doesn’t care.”
“How did they do it?”
“If I knew that, it wouldn’t be impossible,” Bob said, an edge to his voice. “But I can tell you this much: It predates wizardry as we know it.”
I would have said, What? but I felt like I’d been saying that a lot already. So I sipped coffee and scowled interrogatively instead.
“This work, the actual spells on the stone, comes from before even the predecessors to the White Council. I’m conversant in the course and application of the Art since the golden age of Greece. This stuff, whatever it is? It’s older.”
“You can’t lay out spells that last that long,” I mumbled. “It isn’t possible.”
“Lot of that going around,” Bob said. “Harry . . . you’re . . . we’re talking about a whole different level, here. One that I didn’t even know existed. Uh. Do you get what that means? In round terms, at least?”
I shook my head slowly.
“Well, at least you’re smart enough to know that,” Bob said. “Um, okay. You know the old chestnut about how sufficiently advanced science could be described only as magic?”
“Right,” I said.
“Well, I’m going to use the same model right now: As a wizard, you’re pretty good at making wooden axles and stone wheels. These spells? They’re an internal combustion engine. You do the math from there. On your metaphorical abacus, I guess.”
I blew out a very long, very slow breath.
I suddenly felt very young and very arrogant, and not terribly bright. I mean, I’d known I was going to be out of my depth when I first hooked up with the island, but I thought I’d at least be in the same freaking ocean. Instead, I was . . .
I was in uncharted space, wasn’t I?
And the best part of this whole conversation? Those spells that had stymied one of the most advanced research tools known to wizardry and baffled the collected knowledge of centuries? Those were just the ruined part of the island.
What the hell was I going to find in the part that was working?
One second I was alone in the ruined cottage, and the next, there was a presence filling the doorway, looking down at me through the empty space where the roof should have been. It was huge, maybe twelve feet tall, and roughly humanoid in shape. I couldn’t see much of it. It was covered in what looked like a heavy cloak that covered it completely. Two points of green fire burned from within the cloak’s hood. It simply stood, unnaturally still, staring down at me, though the cool night breeze over the lake stirred the edges of its cloak.
Demonreach. The manifested spirit of the island.
“Uh,” I said. “Hi.”
The burning eyes shifted from me to Bob on the table. And then Demonreach did something it had never done before.
Its voice was a rumble of heavy rocks scraping together, of summer thunder rolling in from over the horizon. The voice was huge. Not loud. That didn’t do it justice. It just came from everywhere, all at once. The surface of my partly drunk coffee buzzed and vibrated at the all-pervasive sound. “ANOTHER ONE.”
“Meep,” Bob squeaked. The lights vanished from the eye sockets of the skull.
I blinked a bunch of times. “You . . . you’re talking now?”
“Right,” I said. “Um. So . . . you’re having some trouble, I guess?”
“TROUBLE,” it said. “YES.”
“I came to help,” I said, feeling extremely lame as I did. “Um. Is that even possible?”
“POTENTIALLY,” came the answer. Then the vast form turned. It took a limping step. The ground didn’t so much tremble at the weight as shift slightly beneath the sheer, overwhelming presence of the ancient spirit. “FOLLOW. BRING THE MEMORY SPIRIT.”
“. . . meep . . .” Bob whimpered.
I grabbed the skull in shaking hands and stuffed it into the messenger bag. I grabbed a chemical light from the storage boxes on the table, snapped it, and shook it to life as I hurried to catch up. I had an instinct about where we were headed, but I asked to be sure. “Uh. Where are we going?”
Demonreach kept walking, slow paces that nonetheless forced me to scurry to keep up. “BELOW.”
The spirit walked to the ruined circle of the lighthouse and lifted a shadowy arm in a vague gesture. When it did, the ground of the circle rippled and quivered, and then what had appeared to be solid stone began to run down, pouring itself into a hole like sand falling through an hourglass. In seconds, an opening the size of the trapdoor to my old lab had formed in the stone, and stairs led down into the darkness.
“Oh,” I said. I’d known there were caves beneath the island, but not how I had gotten there or where I could find them. “Wow. What’s the game plan here, exactly?”
“THE WELL IS UNDER ATTACK,” came the surround-sound answer. “IT MUST BE DEFENDED.” Demonreach started toward the stairs. There was no way it should have fit down them, but it moved as though that wasn’t going to be an issue.
“Wait. You want me to fight off something you can’t stop?” I asked.
“IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND.”
“OUR PURPOSE, WARDEN,” it said. “FOLLOW ME.”
Then it went down the stairs and vanished into the unknown.
“Here there be monsters!” Bob whispered, half hysterically. “Run! Run already!”
“Think it’s a little late for that,” I said.
But for a second there, I thought about taking his advice. Some part of me wondered what Tibet looked like this time of year. For a minute, it seemed like an awesome idea to go find out.
But only for a minute.
Then I swallowed, gripped the plastic glow stick in fingers that felt very slippery for some reason, and followed Demonreach down into the dark.
I don’t know how far down those stairs went.
I’m not even kidding. I’m not taking poetic license. The stairs went down twelve steps, took a right angle, and went down twelve more, took another right-angled turn, and went down twelve more, and so on. I stopped counting in the low two hundreds and resorted to my awareness of the island to feel out the rest of them. Duh. Seventeen hundred and twenty-eight—twelve cubed.
The stairs were about eight inches each, which meant eleven hundred feet and change, straight down. That was well below the water level of the lake. Hell, it was below the bottom of the lake. The staircase echoed with deep, groaning sounds pitched almost too low to be heard. In the wan light of the chemical glow stick, the place took on a kind of amusement-park fun-house atmosphere, where you suddenly realize that you’ve been routed into a circle with no apparent way out.
“Down, down to goblin town you go, my lad!” I sang in a hearty, badly pitched baritone. I was panting. “Ho, ho, my lad!”
Demonreach’s glowing eyes flicked toward me. Maybe irritated.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You never saw the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit? The one they ma
de before they did the movies in New Zealand?”
It didn’t answer.
“Harry,” Bob muttered at me. “Stop trying to piss it off.”
“I’m bored,” I said. “And I’m not looking forward to coming back up. I get that we’re going a long, long way down, but couldn’t we use an elevator? Ooh, or a fireman’s pole. Then it’d be like going down to the Batcave. Way more fun.” I raised my voice a little. “And more efficient.”
Maybe it was my imagination, but when I said that last, I thought I saw Demonreach’s steady pace slow for a thoughtful second or two.
“Hey, how come you called me Warden?” I asked. “I mean, I’ve been a Warden, but there are a lot of other guys who are better at it than me. I’m not exactly the poster child.”
“WARDEN,” Demonreach said. “NOW THERE ARE MANY. FIRST THERE WAS ONE.”
I counted down the last ten steps out loud, stopped at two, and jumped over the last one to the floor beneath with both feet. My hiking boots clomped on the stone.
We had reached a small chamber, the floor and walls lined in the same stone used in the lighthouse and cottage. I put a hand on them and could feel them quivering with power, with the dissonance of conflicting energies. Actually, looking back, I saw that at some point, the walls of the stairway, and the stairs themselves, had begun to be constructed of the same material—every single stone of it invested with impossible amounts of power and skill.
“Uh,” I said. “Question?”
Demonreach had stopped at a stone doorway shape in the wall. It was surrounded with larger stones covered in intricate carving. The burning eyes turned toward me.
“Um. Who made this place?”
It didn’t speak. It pointed to the door. I looked. There was a sign in the middle of it, a sigil. It wasn’t something I recognized as part of any set of runes that I knew, but I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. It took me several seconds of sorting through memories to run it down—I’d seen it on the spine of a very, very, very old journal on my mentor’s bookshelf.
“Merlin,” I said quietly. “That’s whose sign that is, isn’t it?”
Demonreach did not respond. Why say YES when silence will do?
I swallowed. The original Merlin was the real deal, Arthur and Excalibur and everything. Merlin had, according to legend, created the White Council of Wizards from the chaos of the fall of the Roman Empire. He plunged into the flames of the burning Library of Alexandria to save the most critical texts, helped engineer the Catholic Church as a vessel to preserve knowledge and culture during Europe’s Dark Ages, and leapt tall cathedrals in a single bound. There were endless stories about Merlin. Popular theory among contemporary wizards was that they were more apocryphal than accurate. Hell, I’d always figured it that way, too.
But staring around at this place, I suddenly felt less sure.
Demonreach stretched out one long arm, still shadowy and indistinct in the feeble light of my glow stick. It touched one of the stones framing the door, and the stone erupted into emerald light.
I hissed and shielded my eyes against it, and took note of the fact that the air suddenly crackled with power.
Demonreach touched a second stone, which also began to glow. When it did, the sense of building energy was palpable in the air, and the hairs on my arms began to stand up. That was when I got what was happening here: Demonreach had wards around whatever was beyond the door—much like the wards that had been put into position around Butters’s apartment. Only they had to be fueled with freaking mystic plutonium or something to generate this much ambient energy simply from being bypassed.
The giant spirit reached for another stone, but paused before touching it.
The stones. They were like a security keypad. Demonreach was giving me the combination to its security system. And given how much dangerous energy was in the air right now, it stood to reason that if I ever got the combination wrong, well . . . you’d need a bloodhound, a Ouija board, a forensic anthropologist, and a small army of Little Folk to find what was left of me.
I took careful note of which stones the spirit had indicated. Really careful note. Demonreach touched the last stone, and the granite doorway in front of us didn’t move, exactly—it simply stopped being there. The leashed violence in the air, that angry, watchful energy dwindled and vanished, and Demonreach moved forward through the doorway. I followed.
We emerged into a familiar cavern, and once again my chest lit up with phantom remembered pain.
It was surprisingly well lit, for a subterranean chamber. When I’d last been there, I hadn’t been in any shape to go over the details, but I could now see that several glimmering clusters of crystal in the floor, some kind of pale green quartz maybe, gave off a dim glow. No single patch of them really provided adequate illumination, but as a whole they filled most of the cavern with wan green-white light.
Roots burrowed down into the cavern through its ceiling, though I had no idea how in the hell they’d gotten there. No plant sent roots down as deep beneath the surface as this chamber. No normal, earthly plant did, anyway. Water dripped slowly down from above, and where it fell from the ceiling was where the patches of crystal lay.
Over to one side of the chamber was a hollowed-out section of soft earth no deeper than a very shallow bathtub, about seven feet long. I recognized it, even without seeing the withered vines that lay strewn forgotten all around the area. It was my sickbed, where my body had lain for months while Mab and Demonreach exerted themselves to keep the pumps working while my mind and spirit were doing a Casper impersonation.
My chest panged again and I looked away. Waking up from that particular nap had been one of the top two or three most painful moments of my life. Something inside me had changed. Not because of the pain of the experience—though that had been profound. Staring at that place, I felt as if the pain had been a side effect of a deeper and more significant shift in the way I thought of myself, saw myself, and how I should interact with my world.
Fire isn’t always an element of destruction. Classical alchemical doctrine teaches that it also has dominion over another province: change. The fire of my tribulations had not simply been pain to be endured. It had been an agent of transformation. After all that I’d been through, I’d changed.
Not for the worse, I was pretty sure—at least, not yet. But only a moron or a freaking lunatic could have faced the things I had and remained unfazed by them.
I blinked myself out of my reverie to find Demonreach watching me. There was something intense about its eyes.
“MEMORY,” it said, “REFLECTION.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
I pondered that one for a minute. “Are you saying that I just went into an internal monologue because I came in here?”
Demonreach did not seem to feel a need to clarify. “MEMORY. REFLECTION.”
I sighed. “Well, if I ever need to mull things over, I know just where to go, I guess.” It was chilly in the cavern, and damp, and the air was thick with musty, earthy smells. I turned a slow circle, surveying the entire chamber. “What do you call this place?”
Demonreach said nothing and did not move.
“Right,” I said. “You don’t call it anything at all, I guess.” I scrunched up my nose, thinking. “What is this chamber’s purpose?”
I frowned. “Uh. Of what?”
“The least what?” I asked, feeling exasperated.
Demonreach just watched me.
“Uh, Harry,” Bob said in a small voice. “Maybe you should look at the crystals?”
I glanced down at the skull, shrugged, and walked over to the nearest formation. I stood over it for a moment. It was a large clump, maybe twelve feet long and four or five across. And . . . and the shadows passing through the translucent crystals seemed to indicate
that the floor beneath it had been hollowed out, much the same as my own recovery bed. In fact . . .
I frowned, leaning closer. There was a form beneath the crystals, an outline. The image of whatever it was got to me only after being refracted through multiple crystals, so it was awfully blurry, but I peered at it, trying to unfocus my eyes and look past it, the way you do those magic paintings at the mall.
The image suddenly snapped into disjointed clarity. The form beneath the crystal was a lean creature of basically human shape, maybe nine or ten feet tall and lithe, covered in shaggy hair of golden brown. Its arms were too long for its body. Its hands were too big for its arms. Its fingers were too long for its hands, and were tipped with vicious claws.
And its yellow-gold eyes were open, aware, staring at me in naked, undisguised hatred.
“Fuck me!” I shouted, staggering back in pure, panicked reflex. “That’s a naagloshii! That’s a fucking naagloshii!”
Naagloshii were bad news. Serious bad news. Originally divine messengers of the Dine’s Holy People, they had turned their backs on their origins and become the legendary skinwalkers of the American Southwest. I went up against one of them once. It killed one of my friends, tortured my brother half-crazy, and left me with permanent psychic scars before beating the ever-loving snot out of me. The only reason I had survived was that the wizard who was the greatest shape-shifter I’d ever seen had intervened. Listens-to-Wind had taken on the naagloshii head-to-head. Even then, it had been close, and the naagloshii had escaped to fight another day.
I’ve run into cruel and dangerous beings before. But the naagloshii were quite simply among the most evil creatures it had ever been my displeasure to encounter. And one of the damned things was staring at me from beneath a fragile layer of quartz I could have smashed with a wrench, its eyes burning like it was going to eat me whole.