Cold Days, Page 23Jim Butcher
“What?” Thomas asked. “In cash?”
Thomas reached into a pocket and produced a bunch of plastic cards. He fanned them out and showed them to me. “What about these?”
“Those aren’t a nickel,” I said.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Molly sighed. She reached into a pocket and produced what looked like a little old lady’s coin purse. Then she flicked a nickel toward me.
I caught it. “Thanks. You’re promoted to lackey.”
She rolled her eyes. “Hail, Ming.”
I slid the nickel across the bar to Vadderung. “There.”
He nodded. “Talk to me.”
“Right,” I said. “Um. It’s about time.”
“No,” he said, “it’s about your island.”
I eyed him warily. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean,” he said, “is that I know about your island. I know where it came from. I know what it does. I know what’s beneath it.”
“Uh,” I said. “Oh.”
“I’m aware of how important it is that the island be well managed. Most of the people who came to your party in Mexico are.”
By which he meant the Grey Council. Vadderung was a part of it. It was a group of folks, mostly wizards of the White Council, who had joined together because it seemed like the White Council was getting close to meltdown, and they wanted to save it. But since the rats were in the walls, the only way to do it was covertly, working in cells. I wasn’t sure who, exactly, was a member, except for my grandfather and Vadderung. He had come along with the rest of the mostly anonymous Grey Council when I’d gone to take my daughter back from the Red Court, and seemed to fit right in.
Of course, I was pretty sure he wasn’t a wizard. I was pretty sure he was a lot more than that.
So I broke it down for him, speaking very quietly. I told him about the attack being aimed at the island from across time. Hard lines appeared in his face as I did.
“Idiots,” he breathed. “Even if they could defeat the banefire . . .”
“Wait,” I said. “Banefire?”
“The fail-safe,” Vadderung said. “The fire the island showed you.”
“Right. It’ll kill everything held there rather than let them escape, right?”
“It is the only way,” Vadderung said. “If anyone managed to set free the things in the Well . . .”
“Seems like it would be bad,” I said.
“Not bad,” Vadderung said. “The end.”
“Oh,” I said. “Good to know. The island didn’t mention that part.”
“The island cannot accept it as a possibility,” Vadderung said absently.
“It should probably put its big-girl pants on, then,” I said. “The way I understand it, it might already be too late. I mean, for all I know, someone cast this spell a hundred years ago. Or a hundred years from now.”
Vadderung waved a hand. “Nonsense. There are laws that govern the progression of time in relation to space, like everything else.”
“Meaning that the echoes caused by the temporal event are proportionately greater than the span of time that was bridged,” he said. “Had the attack been launched from a century ago, or hence, the echoes of it would have begun far, far in advance of the event—centuries ago. These echoes have appeared only within the past few days. I would guess, roughly, that the attack must originate only hours from the actual, real-time occurrence.”
“Which is tomorrow,” I said. “So it’s happening sometime today or sometime tomorrow.”
“Most likely not tomorrow,” Vadderung said. “Altering one’s past is more than mildly difficult.”
“The paradox thing?” I asked. “Like, if I go back and kill my grandfather, how was I ever born to go back and kill my grandfather?”
“Paradox is an overrated threat. There is . . . a quality similar to inertia at work. Once an event has occurred, there is an extremely strong tendency for that event to occur. The larger, more significant, or more energetic the event, the more it tends to remain as it originally happened, despite any interference.”
I frowned. “There’s . . . a law of the conservation of history?”
Vadderung grinned. “I’ve never heard it phrased quite like that, but it’s accurate enough. In any event, overcoming that inertia requires tremendous energy, will, and a measure of simple luck. If one wishes to alter the course of history, it’s a far simpler matter to attempt to shape the future.”
I grunted. “So if I go back in time and kill my grandfather, what happens?”
“He beats you senseless, I suspect,” Vadderung said, his gaze direct.
Oh, man. Vadderung knew about Ebenezar. Which meant that either he was higher in the old man’s circle of trust than I was, or he had access to an astoundingly scary pool of information.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “Paradox? Universe goes poof?”
“If it works like that, I’ve never seen it, as evidenced by the fact that . . .” He spread his hands. “Here it is. I suspect a different form of apocalypse happens.”
I frowned. “Like what?”
“A twinned universe,” Vadderung said. “A new parallel reality, identical except for that event. One in which you never existed, and one in which you failed to kill your grandfather.”
I pursed my lips. “That . . . doesn’t really end well for me in either case.”
“An excellent reason not to meddle in the natural course of time, wouldn’t you say? Meddling with time is an irrationally, outrageously, catastrophically dangerous and costly business. I encourage you to avoid it at all costs.”
“You and the White Council,” I said. “So it’s going to happen sometime today or tonight.”
Vadderung nodded. “And nearby.”
“Because the energy requirements are astronomical,” he said. “Bridging a temporal gap of any length is something utterly beyond the reach of any mortal practitioner acting alone. Doing such a thing and then trying to project the spell over a distance as well? The difficulty of it would be prohibitive. And do not forget how much water surrounds the island, which will tend to mitigate any energy sent toward it—that’s one reason the Well was built there.”
I nodded. All of that hung together, based upon everything I knew of magic. People always assume that magic is a free ride—but it isn’t. You can’t pull energy from nowhere, and there are laws that govern how it behaves.
“So this . . . time bomb. It has to come from how close?” I asked.
“The shores of the lake, I suspect,” Vadderung said. “The island itself would be the ideal location, but I doubt that it will cooperate with any such effort.”
“Not hardly,” I agreed. “And you can’t just scribble a chalk circle and pull this spell out of your hat. It’s got to have an energy source. A big one.”
“Precisely,” Vadderung said.
“And those things tend to stand out.”
He smiled. “They do.”
“And whoever is trying to pull this off, if they know enough about futzing with time to be making this attempt, they know that the echoes will warn people that it’s coming. They’ll be ready to argue with anyone who tries to thwart them.”
“They most certainly will.” He finished his coffee.
I had made the right call here. Vadderung’s advice had changed the problem from something enormous and inexplicable to something that was merely very difficult, very dangerous, and likely to get me killed.
“Um,” I said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but . . . this is a high-stakes game.”
“The highest, yes,” he agreed.
“I’m thinking that maybe someone with a little more experience and better footing should handle it. Someone like you, maybe.”
He shook his head. “It isn’t practical.”
I frowned. “Not practical?”
“It must be you.”
p; “It’s your island,” Vadderung said.
“That makes no sense.”
He tilted his head and looked at me. “Wizard . . . you have been dead and returned. It has marked you. It has opened doors and paths that you do not yet know exist, and attracted the attention of beings who formerly would never have taken note of your insignificance.”
“Meaning what?” I asked.
There was no humor at all in his face. “Meaning that now more than ever, you are a fulcrum. Meaning that your life is about to become very, very interesting.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He leaned forward slightly. “Correct that.” He looked at his watch and rose. “I’m afraid I’m out of time.”
I shook my head, rising with him, blocking him. “Wait. My plate is already pretty full here, and if you haven’t noticed, I’m barely competent to keep myself alive, much less to prevent Arkham Asylum from turning into the next Tunguska blast.”
Vadderung met my eyes with his and said in a growl, “Move.”
I looked away, too. I’d seen too many things with my Sight already. And I had a bad feeling that trading a soulgaze with Vadderung would not improve my performance over the next day or so.
“Where are Hugin and Munin?” I asked.
“I left them at the office,” he said. “They don’t like you, I’m afraid.”
“Birdbrains,” I muttered.
He smiled, nodded to Mac, and walked to the door.
“Can I do this?” I asked his back.
I made an exasperated sound. “How do you know?”
Odin turned to look back at me with his gleaming eye, his teeth bared in a wolf’s smile, the scar on either side of his eye patch silver in the light coming through the door. “Perhaps,” he murmured, “you already have.”
Then he opened the door and left.
I scowled at where he’d been standing, and then slouched back on my barstool. I grabbed my beer, finished it, and set it down a little harder than I had to.
Mac was back at the grill, making some of his famous steak sandwiches for Thomas and Molly. I waved at him, but before I could say anything, he had already added another steak to the first two. My stomach growled as I got up and went to Molly and Thomas’s table.
Perhaps you already have.
Now, what the hell had he meant by that?
I filled Molly and Thomas in on what I had learned from Vadderung while we ate. Mac’s steak sandwiches were too awesome not to eat, even if it was more or less breakfast time.
Molly blinked as I finished. “Uh. Who is that guy?”
Thomas gave me an even look. My brother had figured it out. He tilted his head microscopically toward Molly.
“A friend, I think,” I said. “When you work it out, you’re ready to know.”
“Ah.” Molly frowned and toyed with a few crumbs, pushing them around with a forefinger. She nodded. “Okay.”
“So what’s next?” Thomas asked.
I finished the last few bites of my sandwich in a hurry. Man, that tasted good. I washed it down with some more of Mac’s excellent beer. Normally, a couple of bottles along with a meal would leave me ready for a nap. Today they felt about as soporific as Red Bull.
“Molly,” I said, “I want you to go talk to Toot. I need the guard to gather up and be ready to move when I give the word.”
“Scouts?” she guessed.
I nodded. “While you’re doing that, I’m going to go figure out the potential sites for the time bomb spell so we know where to aim the guard. Order some pizza; that will gather them in.”
“Okay,” she said. “Um . . . money?”
I looked at Thomas. “She already came through for me once. Your turn.”
Thomas snorted and slipped a white plastic card out of his pocket. It was utterly unmarked except for a few stamped numbers and a magnetic strip. He flicked it across the table to Molly. “When you get your pizza, have them run that.”
Molly studied the card, back and front. “Is this a Diners Club card or something?”
“It’s a Raith contingency card,” he said. “Lara hands them out to the family. Once they ring up the first charge on the card, it’ll be good for twenty-four hours.”
“For how much?” Molly asked.
“Twenty-four hours,” Thomas repeated.
Molly lifted her eyebrows.
Thomas smiled faintly. “Don’t worry about amounts. My sister doesn’t really believe in limits. Do whatever you want with it. I don’t care.”
Molly took the card and placed it very carefully in her secondhand coin purse. “Okay.” She looked at me. “Now?”
I nodded. “Get a move on.”
She paused to draw a pen from her purse. She scribbled on a napkin and passed it to me. “My apartment’s phone.”
I glanced at it, read it, and memorized it. Then I slid it to Thomas, who tucked the napkin away in a pocket. “You’re going to just send her out there alone?”
Molly regarded Thomas blankly. Then vanished.
“Oh,” Thomas said. “Right.”
I stood up and crossed the room to the door. I opened it and glanced out, as though scanning suspiciously for anyone’s approach. I felt Molly slip out past me as I did. Then I closed it again and came back inside. Thunder rumbled over the lake, but no rain fell.
“I noticed,” my brother drawled, “that you didn’t leave her a way to contact you.”
He snorted. “You think Fix would hurt her?”
“I think she won’t give him much choice,” I said. “She’s come a long way—but Fix is exactly the wrong kind of threat for her to mess with. He’s used to glamour, he can defend against it, and he’s smart.”
“Molly’s not too shabby herself,” Thomas said.
“Molly is my responsibility,” I said.
I hadn’t meant for the words to come out that cold, that hard. The anger surprised me, but it bubbled and seethed still. Some part of me was furious at Thomas for questioning my decision regarding my apprentice. Molly was mine, and I would be damned if some chisel-jawed White Court pretty boy was going to—
I closed my eyes and clenched my jaw. Pride. Possession. Territoriality. That wasn’t me. That was the mantle of Winter talking through me.
“Sorry,” I said a moment later, and opened my eyes.
Thomas hadn’t reacted in any way, to my snarl, my anger, or my apology. He just studied me. Then he said, quietly, “I want to suggest something to you. I’m not trying to make you do anything. You just need to hear it.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m a predator, Harry,” he said. “We both know that.”
“So I recognize it in others when I see it.”
“And you’re looking at Molly like she’s food.”
I frowned at him. “I am not.”
He shrugged. “It isn’t all the time. It’s just little moments. You look at her, and I can see the calculations running. You notice every time she yawns.”
I didn’t want what Thomas was saying to be true. “So what?”
“When she yawns, she’s showing us that she’s tired. It makes us take notice because tired prey is easy prey.” He leaned forward, putting one arm on the table. “I know what I’m talking about.”
“No,” I said, my voice getting cold again. “You don’t.”
“I tried going into denial like that when I was about fifteen. It didn’t work out too well.”
“What?” I asked him. “You think I’m going to attack her when she goes to sleep?”
“Yeah,” he said. “If you don’t recognize what’s motivating you and control it, you will. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But eventually. You can’t just ignore those instincts, man. If you do, they’ll catch you off guard some night. And you will hurt her, one
way or another.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. I frowned down at my empty bottle of ale.
“She trusts you,” Thomas said. “I think some part of you knows that. I think that part sent her away from you for a damned good reason. Take this seriously, Harry.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I’ll . . . try. This stuff keeps catching me off guard.”
“Nature of the beast. You’ve always been good at keeping things right between the two of you, even though she’s carrying a torch the size of a building. I admire you for that. I’d hate to see it come apart.”
I rubbed at my eyes. My brother was right. I’d been forcing myself to look away from Molly all morning. That had never been an issue before. That was part of Winter, too—hunger and lust, a need for heat in the darkness. It had driven Lloyd Slate, just as it had several other Winter Knights over the years.
It had driven them insane.
I had to learn to recognize that influence before someone got hurt.
“Yeah, okay,” I said. “When I get done sprinting from one forest fire to the next, I’ll . . . I’ll figure something out. Until then, feel free to slap me around a bit if you think I need it.”
Thomas nodded very seriously, but his eyes sparkled. “I’m your brother. I pretty much always feel free to do that.”
“Heh,” I said. “I’d like to see you . . .”
I trailed off, glancing at Mac, who was staring at the door to the pub, frowning. I followed his gaze. The glass on the top half of the door was faceted and partly frosted, but it was clear enough to give you a blurry image of whoever was standing outside the door. Or at least, it would have been if the exterior hadn’t been blanketed by a thick grey mist.
Thomas noticed me, and looked. “Huh,” he said. “Uh. Doesn’t the fog usually burn off in the morning?”
“We didn’t have any this morning,” I said.
“So . . .” Thomas drawled. “That isn’t right.”
“No,” I said. “No, it isn’t.”
There just weren’t all that many reasons someone would blanket an area with mist—to conceal an approach. We both stood up and faced the door.
Behind us, Mac reached under the bar and came out with a pistol-grip shotgun made of black composite material. It had a folding stock and barely enough of a barrel to qualify as a hunting piece.