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Cold Days, Page 24

Jim Butcher

  “This is crazy,” Thomas said. “Nobody attacks Mac’s. It’s neutral ground.”

  “What about these Fomor I’ve heard about?”

  “Not even them,” Thomas said. “Every time they’ve gotten close to this place, the BFS came down on them like an avalanche. It’s practically the only thing they’ve really agreed on.”

  I blanked for a second and then said, “Oh, Brighter Future Society.”

  “It isn’t the faeries, is it?” Thomas asked.

  “They’re called the Unseelie Accords,” I said. “Winter equals Unseelie. Anyone in Winter who violated Mab’s treaty would be thrilled to die before she was through with them.”

  “Summer, then?”

  “It isn’t noon yet,” I said.

  The sounds of the city outside had vanished. An unnatural hush fell. I could hear three people breathing a little harder than they normally would, a creaky ceiling fan, and that was about it.

  “Definitely magic,” I said. “Someone doesn’t want anybody seeing or hearing what happens in here.”

  There was a sharp sound, a sudden motion, and a stone sailed through one of the faceted panes of glass on the door. Thomas produced his pistol, and Mac’s shotgun snapped up to his shoulder. Some broken glass tinkled to the floor, and the stone tumbled down and bounced off of my foot before it came to rest on the floor. It was a rounded piece of glassy black obsidian about the size of an egg.

  Tendrils of mist came through the broken pane of glass, and the stone on the floor abruptly quivered and began to buzz. Thomas and I both took several wary steps away from it, but the buzzing increased and warped until it became an eerie, quavering voice, like something you’d hear on an old, worn-out vinyl record.

  “Sssssend out the wizzzzard,” it hummed, each word slow and drawn-out. “Sssssend him to ussssss and all othersssss may ssssstay.”

  “I know a good place for you to pound sand, you gutless fu—” Thomas began helpfully.

  I held up a hand. “No,” I told him quietly. “Wait.”

  “For what?”

  “This is neutral territory,” I said in a voice pitched to carry outside the door. “If you want to talk, come on in. You won’t be attacked.”

  “Sssssend him to usssss.”

  That wasn’t creepy or anything. “My schedule is kind of full today,” I called. “How’s next Tuesday for you?”

  “Thrice we asssssk and done,” hissed the voice. “Sssssend him to usssss. Now!”

  I took slow, steady breaths to keep the fear at bay and think. I was pretty sure that whatever was out there, it wasn’t interested in talking. I was also pretty sure that I didn’t want to toddle out onto that narrow, mist-clouded stairway to start a fight. But I wasn’t the only one in the room. I looked back at Mac.

  “I don’t want to bring any trouble into your place, Mac,” I said. “You’re my host here. I’ll take it outside if you want me to.”

  In answer, Mac made a growling sound and worked the action on the shotgun, pumping a shell into the chamber. Then he reached under the counter, produced a heavy-caliber automatic pistol, and put it on the bar within easy reach.

  Thomas showed his teeth in a predatory grin. “I’m leaving bigger tips from now on.”

  “Right,” I muttered. I gestured at Thomas to move a few steps back, and made sure that neither of us was standing in Mac’s line of fire to the door. I focused on the black stone. It would start there. “Hey, creep!” I called, lifting my left hand. “You heard the man. Kisssss my asssssss!”

  “Ssssso be it,” hissed the voice from the stone.

  And the black stone exploded.

  I was ready for it, though. I’d already prepared the defensive spell, and I poured my will into a thick wall in the air in front of me as fragments of glossy black stone flew around the room. They bounced off my shield and went zinging, shattering one of my empty beer bottles on the table, slamming into the wooden columns, and gouging wood out of the walls. None of them got to Thomas, Mac, or me. I’d put the shield between us and the black stone while our attackers wasted time in negotiation. It wasn’t as good as the shield I could have thrown up if I had managed to replace my old shield bracelet, and I couldn’t hold it up anywhere near as long, but I didn’t need to.

  Once the explosion had passed, I dropped the shield, already focusing my will upon my other hand, gathering a cannonball of raw force, and at the first flicker of motion outside the door’s glass, I snarled, “Forzare!” and sent it hurtling forth.

  Force hammered into the door, and turned maybe fifty pounds of leaded glass into a cloud of razor-sharp shards. The stairwell down to Mac’s place was sunken—there was no way any of the shrapnel could fly out at street level.

  An instant later, the bottom half of the door exploded into flying daggers of wood. My shield stopped anything heading toward Mac, but I couldn’t catch them all. One of them clipped my left cheekbone broadside—if it had tumbled for another fraction of a second, the sharp end would have driven right into my brain. As it was, it hit me like a baseball bat, stunning me and knocking me down.

  The world did that slow-motion echo-chamber thing that happens sometimes with a head blow, and I saw our attacker come in.

  At first, I couldn’t translate what I was seeing into something that made sense: It looked something like those giant spinning, whirling tubes covered in strips of soft cloth at an automated car wash, the ones that actually shampoo your car. Except it wasn’t a tube; it was a sphere, and it wasn’t at a car wash; it was rolling in through Mac’s doorway.

  Mac’s shotgun went off, the sound of it slapping me in the back. Those things are loud in an enclosed space. Dust and bits of scrap cloth flew out of the attacker, but it didn’t slow down. The giant rag ball hurtled toward me, until Thomas dashed in from the side and smashed it with a roundhouse swing of one of Mac’s heavy oak tables.

  Quick bar fighting tip for you—in real life, when you hit a guy with furniture, it doesn’t break into pieces the way it does in the movies. It breaks whoever you hit with it. There was a meaty sound of impact and the rolling shape’s forward momentum was instantly converted into a perpendicular line drive. It streaked across the room, trailing streamers of grey-brown cloth like a ragged comet, the cloth flapping and snapping with unnatural volume until it hit the wall with a solid thwack.

  Another fighting tip for you: Don’t stay on the ground. If you don’t know exactly what you’re up against, if you aren’t sure that the guy you’re fighting doesn’t have a buddy coming along who might help, you can’t afford to be down and relatively motionless. My body was already moving, though I wasn’t sure how it was doing that, pushing me back to my feet.

  Mac put a hand on the bar and vaulted up onto it like he did it all the time. The attacker bounced off the wall, rolled across a tabletop, and fell to the floor in a heap. Mac took a pair of quick steps to get a better line of fire, and boom went the shotgun again. Another cloud of scrap cloth and dust flew up from the attacker.

  The room lurched back into normal speed. Dozens of strips of the dark sackcloth came flying off of the thing, twining in an instant around chairs and tables. A chair flew at Thomas, knocking the table out of his hands, and he was forced to dodge to one side instead of closing in. Mac’s shotgun bellowed three more times, and I hurled another lance of force at the thing. Mac’s shells did nothing but create puffs of debris, and my own arcane strike split and flowed around the thing, shattering a chair and smashing in a portion of the wall behind it.

  And it laughed.

  Furniture exploded out from it, flung with superhuman force. My shield barely caught the narrow edge of a table that had been flung like a Frisbee. Thomas’s legs were scythed out from under him by a flying bar stool, and he hit the floor with a huff of expelled breath. Mac had already thrown himself down behind the bar—but when another table hit it, there was an enormous cracking sound, and several pieces of wood broke under the impact.

  A shape stirred in the writhi
ng mass of ash-colored sackcloth and rose, its outline veiled but not entirely obscured by the cloth. It was lanky-tall, and had to stand hunched over to avoid the lazily spinning blades of the ceiling fans. It was more or less human-shaped, and I was suddenly struck by the realization that I was looking at a humanoid who was wearing some kind of enormous, ungainly garment made of all those restless, rustling strips.

  It lifted its head slowly and focused on me.

  It didn’t look at me—it didn’t have any eyes, just smooth skin laced with scars where they had once been. Its skin was pearly grey lined with darker stripes that made me think of a shark. Its mouth was gaping open in a wide grin that reinforced the impression. It didn’t have teeth—just a single smooth ridge of bone where teeth would have been on a human. Its lips were black, and its mouth smudged with more of it. Twin trails of saliva drooled from the corners of its mouth, leaving black streaks to down past its chin. There wasn’t a hair to be seen on its head.

  “Wizard,” it said, and its voice was the same as had come through the glossy stone. “Your life need not end this day. Surrender and I will spare your companions.”

  I could hear Mac reloading behind me. Thomas had his gun in his hand, behind his back, and was prowling silently around the room to force Sharkface to turn to keep an eye on him.

  Except it didn’t have eyes. Whatever this thing was using to keep track of us, I had a feeling that just standing in an inconvenient spot wasn’t going to net us much of an advantage.

  “Surrender,” I said, as though trying to place where I’d heard the word before. “Yeah, um. I’m not so sure I want any surrenders today. There was a sale on surrenders last week, and I missed it, but I don’t want to rush out and buy another one at the regular price right away. I’m afraid the sale might come back a week later, and then, I mean, come on. How stupid would I feel then?”

  “Levity will not change the course of this day,” Sharkface said. Its buzzing, twisting voice was distinctly unpleasant in my ears, the aural equivalent of the stench of rotting meat. Which was appropriate, because the rest of him did smell like rotting meat. “You will come with me.”

  “Isn’t that what Mab said, Harry?” Thomas quipped.

  I kept my hand shielded from Sharkface with my body and gave my brother the finger. “Look, Spanky,” I said to Sharkface. “I’m a little busy to be tussling with every random weirdo who is insecure about his junk. Otherwise I would just love to smash you with a beer bottle, kick you in the balls, throw you out through the saloon doors, the whole bit. Why don’t you have your people contact my people, and we can do this maybe next week?”

  “Next week is your self-deprecation awareness seminar,” Thomas said.

  I snapped my fingers. “What about the week after?”

  “Apartment hunting.”

  “Bother,” I said. “Well, no one can say we didn’t try. See you later.”

  “Harry,” said a strange voice. Or rather, it wasn’t strange—it was just strange to actually hear it. Mac isn’t much of a talker. “Don’t chat. Kill it.”

  Mac’s words seemed to do what none of my nonsense had—they made Sharkface pissed off. It whirled toward Mac, dozens of sackcloth strips flicking out in every direction, grabbing whatever objects were there, and its alien voice came out in a harsh rasp. “You!” Sharkface snarled. “You have no place in this, watcher. Do you think this gesture has meaning? It is every bit as empty as you. You chose your road long ago. Have the grace to lie down and die beside it.”

  I think my jaw might have hung a little loosely for a second. “Uh. Mac?”

  “Kill it,” Mac repeated, his voice harder. “It’s only the first.”

  “Yes,” Sharkface said, tilting its head almost to the perpendicular. “Kill it. And more will come. Destroy me and they will know. Leave me and they will know. Your breaths are numbered, wizard.”

  As it spoke, I could feel a horrible, hopeless weight settling across my heart. Dammit, hadn’t I been through enough? More than enough? Hadn’t my life handed me enough misery and grief and pain and loneliness already? And now I was going to be up against something else, something new and scary, something that came galumphing at me by the legion, no less. What was the point? No matter what I did, no matter how much stronger or smarter or better connected I got, the bad guys just kept getting bigger and stronger and more numerous.

  Behind me, I heard Mac let out a low groan. The shotgun must have fallen from his fingers, because it clattered on the floor. On my left, I saw Thomas’s shoulders slump, and he turned his face away, his eyes closed as if in pain.

  The people who stayed near me got hurt or killed. As often as not, the bad guys got away to come embadden my life another day. Why deal with a life like that?

  Why did I keep on doing this to myself?

  “Because,” I growled under my breath. “You’re Charlie Brown, stupid. You’ve got to try for the damned football because that’s who you are.”

  And just like that, the psychic assault of despair that Sharkface had sent into my head evaporated, and I could think clearly again. I hadn’t felt the cloying, somehow oily power slithering up to me—but I could sure as hell feel it now as it recoiled and pulled away. I’d felt it before—and I suddenly knew what I was dealing with.

  Sharkface jerked its head toward me, and its mouth opened in shock. For a frozen instant, we stared at each other across maybe fifteen feet of cluttered pub. It seemed to last for hours. Thomas and Mac were both motionless, reaching out for physical supports as though drunk or bearing a heavy burden. They wouldn’t be able to get themselves out of the building in their current condition—but I didn’t have any choice.

  Sharkface and its sackcloth cloak flung half a ton of furniture at me about a quarter of a second after I raised my right hand and snarled, “Fuego!”

  I hadn’t used much fire magic lately, obviously. You don’t go messing around conjuring up flame when you’re at the heart of Winter. There are things there that hate that action. But fire magic has always been my strongest suit. It was the first fully realized spell I ever mastered, and on a good day I could hang around in the same general league as any other wizard in the world when it came to fire magic.

  On top of that, I tapped into the latent energy a particularly meddlesome angel had bestowed upon me whether I wanted it or not—an ancient source of the very energy of Creation itself known as soulfire. Soulfire was never meant for battle—but its presence could infuse my battle spells with significant energy and momentum, making them far more difficult to counter. I had to be careful with it—burn too much in too short a time and it would kill me. But if I didn’t live to walk out of the pub, it wouldn’t matter how much soulfire I had stored up for a rainy day.

  I expected a roar of flame, a flash of white and gold light, the concussion of superheated air suddenly expanding, right in Sharkface’s ugly mug.

  What I got was an arctic-gale howl and a spiraling harpoon of blue-white fire burning hotter than anything this side of a star.

  Sharkface hurled furniture at me, trying to shelter behind it, but the fire I’d just called vaporized chairs and tables in the instant it touched them. They shattered with enormous, screaming detonations of thunder, and every impact made sounds that by all rights should have belonged to extremely large and poorly handled construction vehicles.

  Sharkface crossed its bony grey forearms before it in a last-ditch effort to deflect the spell. If I’d been focused on it, concentrating on pushing the spell past its defenses, maybe it would have burned right through Sharkface and its stupid cloak. But that wasn’t the plan. Instead, I sprinted across the distance between us, through the hideous heat of my spell’s thermal bloom. It was like running through an oven. I saw my spell splash against Sharkface’s crossed forearms, and the thing managed to deflect almost all of the spell away—but not all of it. Fire scorched across one of its cheeks and splashed over its right shoulder, setting a large mass of sackcloth strips aflame.

screamed in pain, a sound that raked at my ears, and began to lower its arms to retaliate.

  The second it did, I drove my right fist into its stupid, creepy face.

  Man, the yahoos I scrap with never seem to anticipate that tactic. They all assume that what with me being a wizard and all, I’m going to stand back and chuck Magic Missiles at them or something, then scream and run away the second they get close enough to let me see the whites of their eyes.

  Okay, granted, that is how a lot of wizards operate. But all the same, you’d think they would remember that there’s no particular reason why a wizard can’t be as comfortable with physical mayhem as the next guy.

  Two things happened.

  First, as my fist sailed forward, there was a sudden thrill that flowed up my arm from my hand, something delicious and startling. I had barely processed that when I heard a crackling noise, and then saw glacial blue and green ice abruptly coating my fist.

  Second, I hit Sharkface like a freaking truck, starting right on the tip of its chin and driving straight toward South America. The ice coating my fist shattered into tiny shards that laced and sliced, but I barely felt it. Sharkface flew back as if I’d slugged it with a sledgehammer, and hit the wall with enough violence to crack and splinter the heavy oak paneling. Sharkface’s cloak fluttered hard as it went backward—the freaking thing was cushioning his impact, just as it had managed to stop shotgun pellets at short range.

  Sharkface bounced off the wall, staggering, and I gave it a left and another right, and then kicked its legs out from underneath it as brutally as I knew how. It went to the floor hard.

  Once Sharkface was down I stomped for its head with my hiking boots, going for a quick kill, which was exactly what this asshole had coming to it for messing with my favorite joint—but that stupid cloak got in the way. Strips flew out to gain purchase and hauled him out from beneath my boot. Even as I reacted, moving to follow him up, more of the sackcloth tendrils seized a dozen bottles of liquor from behind the bar—and flung them harshly onto the puddles of vicious blue-white fire still burning upon the floor where Sharkface had deflected them.