Cold Days, Page 25Jim Butcher
I slashed at the tumbling bottles with an effort of will, but I hadn’t had a soft-touch spell in mind during the previous seconds. My clumsy grab accomplished nothing but to shatter one of the bottles early, and flames roared up from where the spilled liquor fell.
Alcohol fires are a nasty business. Booze burns a good deal hotter and faster than, for example, gasoline. In seconds it can take the temperature from below freezing to seven hundred degrees, hot enough to turn flesh into briquettes. Mac and Thomas were both down. There was no way I could get them both out of the fire in time—which meant my only option was to stop it from happening.
Sharkface let out an eerie, defiant shriek and suddenly vanished into the writhing mass of his coat again, becoming nothing but flailing cloth and dust and stench. The creature bounded into the air and streaked like a sackcloth comet out the front door—and there was diddly I could do to stop it.
Instead, I turned to the fires just as bottles began to shatter on the floor, just as white-hot flames began to leap. I hurled my will through my body, drawing forth the frigid purity of Winter, calling, “Infriga!”
Howling wind and cold engulfed the nascent fires. And the floor around where the fires had been. And the walls. And, um, the ceiling.
I mean, pretty much every nonliving surface in the place was completely covered in a layer of frost half an inch thick.
Mac and Thomas started groaning. I gave them a minute to pull themselves together and watched the door. Sharkface didn’t show up for a rematch. Maybe he was busy changing into fresh undies because I’d scared him so bad. Right. More likely he was off doing a Right Stuff walk and gathering his gang.
The fog lightened and burned off within five minutes or so, and the sounds of the city returned.
The attack was over. Mac stared woozily around the pub, shaking his head. Covered in glittering frost and ice, it looked like the place Santa’s elves must go when they finish their shift at the toy shop.
Mac gave me a look and then gestured at the pub, clearly wanting an explanation.
“Hey,” I said crossly. “At least it didn’t get burned to the ground. Count your blessings, man. That’s better than most buildings get around me.”
Thomas sat up a moment later, and I helped him to his feet.
“What happened?” he asked blearily.
“Psychic assault,” I told him. “A bad one. How you feeling?”
“Confused,” Thomas said. He looked around the place, shaking his head. The pub looked like it had just been raided by Super Bowl–berserk Bears fans. “What was that thing?”
I rubbed at my forehead with the heel of my hand. “An Outsider.”
Thomas’s eyes went wide and round. “What?”
“An Outsider,” I repeated quietly. “We’re fighting Outsiders.”
“Outsiders,” Thomas said. “Are you sure?”
“You felt it,” I said. “That mental whammy. It was exactly like that night in the Raith Deeps.”
Thomas frowned but nodded. “Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?”
Mac walked silently past us to the ruined door. He bent down and picked something up out of the general wreckage there. It was the Accorded Neutral Territory sign. It was scorched on one corner, but he hung it back up on the wall. Then he leaned his hands against it and bowed his head.
I knew how he felt. Violent encounters tend to be scary and exhausting, even if they last for only seconds. My nerves were still jangling, my legs were trembling a little, and I wanted very badly to just plop down onto the floor and breathe for a while. I didn’t. Wizards are stoic about this kind of thing. And my brother would make fun of me.
Thomas exhaled slowly through his nose, his eyes narrowed. “I don’t know much about them,” he said.
“That’s not surprising,” I said. “There’s not a lot of information on Outsiders. We think that’s because most people who run into them don’t get a chance to tell anyone about it.”
“Lot of things like that in the world,” Thomas said. “Sounds like these things are just a little creepier than your average demonic nasty.”
“It’s more than that,” I said. “Creatures out of the Nevernever are a part of our reality, our universe. They can get pretty bizarre, but they have a membership card. Outsiders come from someplace else.”
Thomas shrugged. “What’s the difference?”
“They’re smarter. Tougher. Harder to kill.”
“You handled that one pretty well. Didn’t look so tough.”
I snorted. “You missed out on the end. I hit that thing with my best shot, and I barely made it uncomfortable. It didn’t leave because I hurt it. It left because it didn’t expect me to fight clear of its whammy, and it didn’t want to take any chances that I might get lucky and prevent it from reporting to its superiors.”
“Still ran,” Thomas said. “Yeah, that mind-meld thing was awful, but the bastard wasn’t all that bad.”
I sighed. “That little creep Peabody dropped one Outsider on a meeting of the Council. The best wizards in the world were all in that one room and took it on together, and the thing still managed to murder a bunch of them. It’s hard to make magic stick to Outsiders. It’s hard to make them leave. It’s hard to hurt them. It’s hard to make them die. They’re insanely violent, insanely powerful, and just plain insane. But that isn’t what makes them dangerous.”
“Uh,” Thomas said. “It isn’t? Then what is?”
“They work together,” I said quietly. “Near as we can tell, they all work together.”
Thomas was silent for a moment as he considered the implications of that. “Work together,” he said. “To do what?”
I shook my head. “Whatever they do. Their actions are not always predicated on rationality—or at least, that’s what the Council thinks.”
“You sound skeptical.”
“The White Council always assumes that it’s at least as smart as everyone else all put together. I know better.”
“Because you’re so much smarter than they are,” Thomas said wryly.
“Because I’m on the street more than they are,” I corrected him. “The Council thinks the Outsiders are just a giant box of crazy that can go rampaging in any random direction.”
“But you don’t think that.”
“The phrase ‘crazy like a fox’ leaps to mind.”
“Okay. So what do you think these Outsiders are doing?”
I shrugged. “I’m almost certain they aren’t selling Girl Scout cookies. But don’t quote me.”
“Don’t worry; I hardly ever want to sound clueless. But the fact that they’re working together implies a purpose. A goal.”
“So?” my brother asked. “What do they want?”
“Thomas, they’re aliens. I mean, they’re like super-mega-überaliens. They might not even think, at least not in the way we understand it. How the hell are we supposed to make even an informed guess about their motivation—assuming that they have one?”
“Doesn’t matter how weird they are,” Thomas said. “Moving together implies purpose. Purpose implies a goal. Goals are universal.”
“They aren’t from this universe. That’s the point,” I said. “Maybe you’re right; I don’t know. But until I have a better idea, it’s smarter to keep reminding myself that I don’t know, rather than assuming that I do know, and then translating anything I learn to fit my preconceptions.”
“Here’s a fact that is no assumption,” Thomas said. “They wanted you.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“All I can do is guess.”
I sighed. “My gut says they’re planning a jailbreak.”
Thomas grunted. “Might have been smarter for them to have left you alone. Now you know something.”
I made an exasperated sound. “Yes. Those fools. By trying to kill me, they’ve revealed their very s
ouls. I have them now.”
Thomas gave me a steady look. “Being Mab’s bitch has made you a pessimist.”
“I am not a pessimist,” I said loftily. “Though that can’t last.”
That made Thomas grin. “Nice.”
At the door, Mac looked up suddenly and said, “Dresden.”
Thomas tilted his head, listening. Then he said, “Cops.”
I sighed. “Poor guys. Bet last night’s watch hasn’t even been released to go home yet. They’re going to be cranky.”
“The explosion thing?” Thomas asked.
“The explosion thing.”
We didn’t need to be detained and questioned all day, and I didn’t need to get into an altercation with the police, either—they’ve got no sense of humor at all for such things. You always hear about there being no rest for the wicked, but I’m pretty sure cops aren’t racking up much extra hammock time, either. Thomas and I traded a look and headed for the door.
I paused by it, and looked at Mac.
“It knew you.”
Mac stared at nothing and didn’t answer.
“Mac, that thing was dangerous,” I said. “And it might come back.”
“Look,” I said. “If my guess is right, that twit and its buddies might wipe out a big chunk of the state. Or possibly states. If you know something about them, I need it.”
Mac didn’t look up. After several seconds, he said, “Can’t. I’m out.”
“Look at this place,” I said quietly. “You aren’t out. Nobody is out.”
“Drop it,” he said. “Neutral territory.”
“Neutral territory that is going to burn with all the rest of it,” I said. “I don’t care who you are, man. I don’t care what you’ve done. I don’t care whether or not you think you’re retired from the life. If you know something I need it. Now.”
“Harry, we need to move,” Thomas said, urgency tightening his voice.
I could hear the sirens now. They had to be close. Mac turned and walked back toward his bar.
Dammit. I shook my head and turned to leave.
“Dresden,” Mac called.
I turned to look back at him. Mac was standing behind the bar. As I watched, he took three bottles of beer from beneath the counter and placed them down in a straight line, one by one, their sides touching. Then he just looked up at me.
“Three of them,” I said. “Three of these things?” Hell’s bells, one of them had been bad enough.
Mac neither nodded nor shook his head. He just jerked his chin at me and said, “Luck.”
“We’re gonna talk,” I said to Mac.
Mac turned a look on me that was as distant and as inaccessible as Antarctic mountains.
“No,” he said. “We aren’t.”
I was going to say something smart-ass. But that bleak expression made it seem like a bad idea.
So instead, I followed my brother up the debris-strewn stairs and into the rainy morning.
* * *
We passed the first police car to arrive at the scene on our way out, driving at the sedate pace of upright citizens.
“I love evading representatives of the lawful authority,” Thomas said, watching the car go by in his rearview mirror. “It’s one of those little things that make me happy.”
I paused and thought about it. “Me too. I mean, I know a bunch of these guys. Some of them are good people, some of them are jerks, but most are just guys doing a job. And it’s not like sticking us in a room and questioning us is going to accomplish anything to make their day go more smoothly.”
“And you enjoy driving authority figures insane,” Thomas said.
I shrugged. “I watched The Dukes of Hazzard at a formative age,” I said. “Of course I enjoy it.”
“Where next?” Thomas asked. “Molly’s place?”
I thought about it for a minute. I didn’t think it would be a great idea to be there when Fix came looking for a fight. Svartalves were a little prickly about territory, and they might not be at all amused if I dragged a personal conflict into their domain. But there were other people I wanted to contact before nightfall, and I needed a phone and some quiet workspace to do it in.
“The Summer Lady has granted your request for an audience,” said Cat Sith from the backseat.
Thomas nearly took the Hummer off the street and into a bus stop shelter. My heart leapt into my throat as if it had been given bionic legs and its own sound effects. Thomas regained control of the vehicle almost instantly, letting out a wordless snarl as he did.
“Sith,” I said, too loud. My heart was running at double time. I glared at him over the front seat. “Dammit.”
The malk’s too-long tail flicked back and forth in smug self-satisfaction. “Shall I interpret that as an order to burn something, Sir Knight? If you are to survive long in Winter, you must learn to be much more specific in your turns of phrase.”
“No, don’t burn anything,” I said, grouchily. I thought about giving the malk an order not to sneak up on me like that anymore, but thought better of it. That would be exactly the kind of order that Cat Sith would take grotesque amusement in perverting, and I wanted to avoid putting him into a playful mood. “What did Lily have to say?”
“That she would guarantee your safety from harm wrought by herself, her Court, and any in her employ or influence,” the malk said, “provided that you came alone and kept the peace.”
I grunted, thinking.
“Why would she want you alone?” Thomas asked. “Unless she planned on doing something to you.”
“Because the last time she saw the Winter Knight, he was murdering the previous Summer Knight?” I guessed aloud. “Because the last time she saw the corpse of the Summer Lady, I was the one who’d made it? Because I’m a known thug who wrecks things a lot?”
Thomas bobbed his head slightly to one side in acknowledgment. “Okay. Point.”
“Sith,” I asked, “where is the meeting?”
“A public venue,” Sith said, his eyes half-lidded. “Chicago Botanic Gardens.”
“See?” I said to Thomas. “That’s not a venue for an assassination—for either of us. There are too many people around. There are plenty of ways out for anyone who wants to leave. That’s a viable neutral location.”
“If I remember right,” Thomas said, “the last time the Summer Lady tried a hit on you, didn’t she animate a bunch of plants into a giant monster that tried to kill you in the garden center of a Walmart?”
I rode in silence for a few seconds and then said, “Yeah, but . . . it was dark. Not as many people around.”
“Oh,” Thomas said. “Okay.”
I held the back of my left fist up to him, then used my right fist to make a little circular cranking motion next to it, while slowly elevating the center finger of my left hand until it was fully extended. Then I turned to Sith.
“What do you think? Is the risk acceptable for a meeting in that location?”
“You would be foolish to meet with her at all,” Cat Sith replied. “However. Given her promise and her chosen location, I judge it to be at least possible that she may actually intend to treat with you.”
“Suppose she’s lying,” Thomas said.
“She can’t,” I told him. “None of the Sidhe or the greater powers of either court can tell an outright lie. Right, Sith?”
“Logically speaking, my answer to that question would be unsupportable as truth.”
I sighed. “Well, that’s how it is among them,” I said. “No falsehoods. They can twist words around, they can avoid answering, they can mislead you by drawing you to false conclusions, but they can’t blatantly tell a lie.”
Thomas shook his head as he pulled onto 94 and started north. “I still don’t like it. That crowd never gives you what you expect.”
“Think how boring it would be if they did,” I said.
We both considered that wistfully for a beat.
sp; “You might have to go in alone,” Thomas said. “But I’m going to stay close. Things go bad, just make some noise and I’ll come in.”
“They aren’t going to go bad,” I said. “But even if they do, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Summer’s weird, but they’re basically good neighbors. I don’t blame them for being jumpy.”
Sith made a disgusted sound.
“Problem?” I asked him.
“This . . . compassion,” the malk said. “If you prefer, I can slash your throat open now, Sir Knight, and save the vampire the cost of fuel.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” I said. “I want you to stay close to Thomas and alert him to any source of danger. If a fight breaks out, your goal is to assist in making sure that both he and I escape, without doing harm to any innocent bystanders, and without killing any mortals.”
Sith started making a sound like my cat always did right before he spit out a hairball.
“Hey,” Thomas said. “Those are custom leather seats!”
Sith spit out a glob the size of a small plum, but instead of a hairball it was actually a small collection of splintered chips of bone. He flicked his tail in scorn and then leapt lightly into the rear bed of the Hummer.
“Jerk,” Thomas muttered.
“Just drive,” I said.
He grimaced and did. After a few miles he asked, “You think this is going to work? This peaceful summit thing?”
“Sure,” I said. After a second, I added, “Probably.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“We’re down to maybe now?”
I shrugged. “We’ll see.”
The Botanic Gardens of Chicago aren’t actually in Chicago, which always made them seem a little shady to me. Ba-dump-bump.
Rain was coming down in fitful little starts, averaging out to a mild drizzle. The air was cool, in the low fifties, and combined with the rain it meant that the gardens weren’t exactly crowded with ardent floraphiles. The weather didn’t bother me. In fact, I could have taken the jacket off and felt fine—but I didn’t.