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Cold Days, Page 28

Jim Butcher

  See, surprises like this are exactly why you bring backup in the first place. I knew I couldn’t last more than a few seconds against Ace’s onslaught. I also knew how fast my brother could run.

  But someone else got there first.

  I heard a pair of light steps and then Ace grunted. I looked up through my impact-numbed arms and saw him swing the bat again, this time at a standing target.

  The bat lashed out and never stopped moving in its arc, but suddenly there was a small figure rolling up close to Ace, coming between his chest and the bat in his extended arm. They whirled in a circle, following the spin of the bat, and Ace’s heels abruptly flipped up into the air over his head and he landed empty-handed on the concrete with a gasp of pain.

  A woman stood over him. She was five nothing, and built with the kind of lithe, solid power that you’d expect in an Olympic gymnast who had stayed fit as she aged. Her blond hair was cut short, to finger-length. She’d had a pert upturned nose the last time I’d seen her. It had been broken since then, and while it had healed, I could see the slight bump the break had left. She had on jeans and a denim jacket, and her eyes were blue and blazing.

  Ace started to get up, but a motorcycle boot much smaller than his own slammed down on his chest.

  Karrin Murphy scowled at him, tossed the bat into the bushes, and said in a hard voice, “Stay down, creep. Only warning.”

  It was difficult to translate frantic thought into verbalization through the pain of the cold iron piercing my skin, but I managed to gasp, “Incoming!”

  Murphy’s eyes snapped around her, scanning in every direction including up, and she saw the first of the armored Little Folk diving down at her. Her hand snatched something out of her jacket pocket, and with a flick of her wrist she snapped out a small, collapsible baton. The Little Folk darted down upon her like a squad of angry wasps.

  She didn’t try to evade them. She planted her feet and began snapping the little baton with sharp, precise motions. There wasn’t really time for her to aim at anything—she was running on pure reflex. Murphy’d been a martial arts practitioner since she was a child, mainly in aikido along with several others. Aikido included all kinds of fun areas of study, and one of them was learning how to handle a sword. I knew that she’d also been spending a lot of time training with a gang of ancient Einherjaren, postdead Norse warriors of Valhalla. I doubt any of her teachers had trained her for this situation.

  But they’d come close enough.

  That little baton was a blur as it moved in half a dozen quick, sharp strokes, batting away the incoming Little Folk one by one. There were several sounds of impact and then a sharp ping and then a miniature clatter as Captain Hook was struck from the air and went into a sprawling crash on the ground. There were a series of high-pitched shrieks of panic, and the Little Folk vanished.

  Beginning to end, that little fracas had lasted maybe five seconds.

  I started fumbling at the nails still sticking out of me, but Ace and his baseball bat had left my fingers numb and useless. I managed to pull the one in my arm out with my teeth, which was unpleasant in a dimension I hardly knew existed. I spit out the nail and heard myself making short, desperate sounds of pain.

  Murphy took several steps back until her heel bumped my shoulder. Then she stepped carefully over my body, never taking her eyes off the downed Ace. “How bad?”

  I managed to grate out, “Nails.”

  The bushes crashed and Thomas appeared from them, pistol in one hand, that insanely big Gurkha knife in the other. His gun tracked to Murphy, then snapped upward, and retrained upon the downed Ace. “Oh, hi, Karrin.”

  “Thomas,” Murphy said shortly. She looked down at me. I tried to gesture at the nails still sticking in me, but given the state of my hands and arms, I managed only to flail around weakly. “Dammit, Harry, hold still.”

  It didn’t take her long. Two quick tugs and the nails were free. The level of pain I was experiencing dropped to maybe a tenth of what it had been. I sagged in relief.

  “How bad?” Thomas asked.

  “One of these wounds is bleeding, not bad,” Murphy reported. “Jesus, his arms.”

  “We need to get out,” I said. My voice sounded raw to me. “Trouble coming.”

  “No,” said a beautiful Sidhe baritone. “Trouble is here.”

  They appeared from behind their veils, one by one, with so much melodrama that I was mildly surprised that they hadn’t each struck some kind of kung fu pose. The Redcap with his red beret was in the center of the group. The others were spread out around us in a semicircle, pinning us against the hedge behind us. They were all holding blades and guns. They looked more like models at a photo shoot than actual warriors, but I knew better. The Sidhe are prancy, but fierce.

  Ace let out a croaking laugh. “You see?” he said toward the Redcap. “You needed my help after all.”

  The Redcap gave Ace a glance and a small shrug that seemed to acknowledge the point. “Well, the vampire and the fallen woman. I cannot comprehend how you manage to convince yourself that you are some kind of heroic figure, Dresden, given the company you keep.”

  That got a laugh from the other Sidhe, who probably hadn’t seen much comedy in the past few years.

  I heaved a few times and managed to sit up. Murphy leaned back out of my way. She said to Thomas, “Who are these clowns?”

  “Rambo there in the middle is the Redcap,” Thomas said. “Pretty big hitter in Faerieland, I guess. The others are his lickspittles.”

  “Ooh,” I said. “Lickspittles, nice.”

  “Thank you,” Thomas said gravely.

  “And they have a problem with Dresden, I take it?” Murphy asked.

  “Wanna kill him or something. I don’t know,” Thomas said, nodding. “They tried it on Jet Skis earlier today.”

  “Roger Moore Bond villains?” Murphy asked, her tone derisive. “Seriously?”

  “Be silent, mortal cow,” snarled one of the Sidhe.

  Murphy tracked her eyes calmly over to that one, and she nodded once, as if memorizing something. “Yeah, okay. You.”

  The Sidhe fingered his weapons, beautiful features twisting into a scowl.

  I tried to rise, but by the time I got to one knee I felt like crawling into a dark room and crying while throwing up. I stopped there and fought back the dizzies that tried to take me back down. I was feeling stronger than before already. If I’d had half an hour, I think I could have been ready to do something vaguely like magical violence. But I didn’t have half an hour. I couldn’t fight our way out of this, and if they didn’t have me supporting them, I was pretty sure Karrin and Thomas couldn’t do it either. We needed another option.

  “Look, Red,” I said. “You made your play at my party and it didn’t turn out so well for you. That’s fine. No hard feelings. You tried to kill me and my friends out on Lake Michigan this morning, and I can see why you would. That didn’t go so swell for you, either. So what makes you think it’s going to turn out well for you now?”

  “I like my chances,” said the Redcap, smiling.

  “No reason this has to get ugly,” I said in reply.

  There was something playful in his voice as he responded, “Is there not?”

  “We can stop this right here. Turn around and walk away. We’ll do the same. We’ll let Ace here go free as soon as we get to our cars.”

  “Oh, kill him if you wish to,” the Redcap said absently. “The halfblood is nothing to me.”

  Ace let out a hissing sound and stared at the Redcap.

  “You aren’t,” the Redcap said calmly. “I have made that clear several times.”

  “But I . . . I snared him for you,” Ace said. “I slowed him down. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have caught up to him.”

  The Redcap shrugged without ever glancing at the young man. “And I find that extremely convenient. But I never asked you to help. And I certainly never asked you to be so incompetent as to be captured by the prey.”

I was glad Molly wasn’t around, because the hate that suddenly flared out from Ace was so palpable that even I felt it. I could hear his teeth grinding, and the sudden flush of anger on his face was like something out of a comic book. Ace’s body tensed as though he were preparing to fling himself to his feet.

  At that, the Redcap turned, a too-wide Sidhe smile on his face, and faced Ace for the first time. “Ah. There. You may not have talent, but at least you have spirit. Perhaps if you survive the night, we can discuss your future.”

  Ace just sat there seething, staring daggers at the Redcap, and everyone was focused on the two of them.

  Which was why no one but me noticed when the situation silently changed.

  The Redcap looked back at me and said, “Have the vampire kill the halfblood if you wish. I’ll happily trade my son’s life for yours, Dresden. There are Sidhe who get all sentimental about their offspring, but I can’t say I’ve ever been one of them.” He focused on me and drew a small knife from his pocket, snapping out the blade. It was an instrument for killing at intimate distance. “Companions,” he said, a smug edge to his voice, “with whom should we begin?”

  The air crackled with sudden tension. The Sidhe stared with too-bright eyes, their fingers settling on the hilts and grips of various weapons. This was going to be bad. I couldn’t fight. Karrin couldn’t possibly keep up with attackers who both outnumbered her and operated with superhuman speed and near-invisibility. The Sidhe could defend themselves against my magic, unless I was able to throw absolutely everything at one of them—and I wouldn’t get that chance against half a dozen. Physically I was pretty much useless for the moment.

  Thomas might make it out, but when this crystalline moment of stillness finally broke, I was pretty sure Karrin and I wouldn’t.

  Unless someone broke it exactly right.

  “Hey,” I said innocently. “Weren’t there seven of you guys a minute ago?”

  The Redcap tilted his head at me and then glanced left and right. Five other Sidhe looked back at him, except on the far side of their line, on my left. The Sidhe warrior who had been there was gone. The only thing remaining where he’d been standing was a single expensive designer tennis shoe.

  Right then, in the exact instant of realization, screams, truly agonized screams erupted from several yards away in the brush. There was a crystalline, almost bell-like quality to the voice, and the sound was terrifying, nothing that a human would ever make. Then there was a horrible retching sound, and the screams ended.

  There was a stunned silence. And then an object came sailing out of the brush and landed at the feet of the Sidhe nearest to the one who had been taken. It was a horrible collection of bloody bone, maybe a foot and a half long—a section of spine, ripped clear of its body, bits of tissue still clinging to it.

  That got a reaction from everyone. The Redcap dropped into a crouch, hands up in a defensive posture. Several Sidhe took rapid steps back.

  “Holy Mother of God,” Murphy breathed.

  Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the grisly missile lying on the sidewalk, so their heads weren’t directed toward the future, weren’t able to see that the situation was about to change again.

  “Hey,” I said, in exactly the same tone. “Weren’t there six of you guys a minute ago?”

  Eyes swept back up in time to see the brush swaying where something had dragged the Sidhe from the opposite end of the line, on my right side, into the bushes, and more screams erupted, clawing at the rain-drizzled air.

  “Sith,” hissed one of the female Sidhe, her widened eyes darting everywhere, followed by the barrel of her composite-material pistol. “Cat Sith.”

  Her attention wasn’t on me, and I took the opening. I slammed my will down through my numbed right arm, snarling, “Forzare!”

  At the same instant, Thomas turned his gun on the Redcap and opened fire.

  Invisible force hit the female Sidhe with more or less the same energy as a small car doing twenty-five or thirty. It should have been a lot more than that, and focused on a smaller area, but in my current condition it was everything I had thrown into the best single punch I could throw. She hadn’t been able to counter the spell as it struck, and was flung back away from me. She bounced once in a bed of flowers, and then tumbled into the lake.

  Meanwhile, the Redcap and the other Sidhe darted in every direction and blurred to near-invisibility behind their veils. Thomas might have hit one of them. It was hard to hear any sounds of impact or screams of pain over the thunder of the ridiculously large rounds used in his Desert Eagle. Other guns went off, too.

  Adrenaline surged and I shoved myself to my feet, shouting, “Fall back!”

  Something flashed by me, and then Cat Sith appeared from behind his own veil, leaping with all four paws extended, his claws unsheathed. He landed on what looked like empty air, and his legs moved in a blur of ripping, supernaturally powerful strikes. Blood fountained from the empty air, and Sith bounded away, vanishing again, as one of the Sidhe appeared in the space where Sith had been. The Sidhe’s upper body was a mass of blood and shredded flesh, his expression shocked. He crumpled slowly to the ground, his eyes wide, as if trying to see through complete darkness. His hands clenched aimlessly a few times, and then he went still.

  I turned to run and staggered woozily. Karrin saw it and darted in close to my side, preventing me from falling. She didn’t see Ace, behind her, produce a small pistol and aim it at her back.

  I shouted and lurched down on top of him. The gun went off once, and then I had his gun arm pinned to the ground beneath both of my forearms and the whole weight of my body. Ace cursed and swung a fist at me. I slammed my forehead into his nose a bunch of times. It took the fight out of him, and his head wobbled dazedly.

  There was a high-pitched shriek and a tiny armored form covered in fishhooks hurtled into my face and neck. My injuries swelled into agony again as the damned little metal hooks pierced my skin. I got a quick glimpse of a miniature sword flashing toward my eye. I flinched in a big roll that took me off of Ace, flinging my head in a circle to counter the motion of the little sword with centrifugal force. It cut into my eyebrow and missed my eyeball, and a flood of scarlet blocked out half of my vision.

  After that, things were fuzzy. I swatted at Captain Hook with my forearm, and on the third blow the barbed hooks tore free of my skin. A hand with the strength of a hydraulic crane gripped the back of my coat and dragged me to my feet, and then my brother was helping me move. I sensed Karrin on my blind side, shouting something to Thomas, and then the Desert Eagle started thundering on that side of my body.

  A Sidhe exploded from the brush, visible and wounded, with Cat Sith in hot pursuit. The Sidhe leapt into the air, shimmered, and transformed into a hawk with golden brown feathers. Its wings beat twice, gaining maybe ten feet of altitude—until Cat Sith sailed through the air in a spectacular pounce, landed on the hawk’s back, and they both plunged down into the waters of the lake.

  After that, there was a lot of movement that hurt like hell, and I would have fallen a dozen times without my brother’s support. Then I was being half thrown into the back of the Hummer, coming down on the custom leather seats hard, and too exhausted to do more than pull my feet in so that they wouldn’t get slammed in the door. Both of the front doors opened and closed, and the engine, already running, roared to life, the acceleration pressing me back against the seat for a moment.

  We drove for a few minutes before I was able to start sitting up. When I finally did, I found Thomas driving, with Karrin riding shotgun, holding Thomas’s Desert Eagle in her hands and turned in the seat to steadily watch the road behind us.

  My brother glanced up at me in the rearview mirror and winced. “You look awful.”

  I could see out of only one eye. I reached up to the other one with my hand and found blood smearing it shut and beginning to dry. I leaned to look in the rearview mirror. I had quite a bit of blood on that side of my head. The hooks had made some messy, if not la
rge holes in my skin when they came out.

  Karrin’s eyes flicked toward me for just a second, and she might have gotten a little pale, but she didn’t let any other emotion touch her face. “Looks like we’re clear. No one back there.”

  Thomas grunted. “They can use magic, and Harry left a bunch of blood on the ground. If they want to follow us, they can.”

  “Dammit,” Murphy breathed. “Castle?”

  “And have Marcone’s people cleaning the blood off him?” Thomas asked. “Fuck that.”

  “Amen,” I agreed woozily.

  “Where else, then?” Karrin asked. “Your apartment?”

  Thomas shook his head emphatically. “Too many people will see us taking him in. They’ll call the authorities. And Lara has eyes on the place. If I take a wounded wizard in there, she’d show up faster than Jimmy John’s.” He grunted in discomfort as the truck hit a bump in the road.

  Karrin turned toward him and leaned over to examine him. “You’re hit.”

  “Only one,” Thomas said calmly. “If it was bad, I’d have bled out by now. Gut shot. Don’t worry about it.”

  “Don’t be an idiot,” Karrin said. “You know how easy it is for these things to go septic? You’ve got to take care of this.”

  “Yeah, as soon as we stop somewhere.”

  “Molly’s place,” Karrin said. “It’s under the aegis of Svartalfheim. No one’s getting in there without a major assault.”

  “Right,” I said, the word slurring a little. “There.”

  “Dammit, Dresden,” Karrin said, her voice exasperated. “Just lie down until we can look at you.”

  I threw her a salute with my right hand and paused, feeling an unfamiliar weight on my arm.

  I looked. Captain Hook dangled from it, half a dozen of his armor’s barbs caught in the denim of my jacket. I peered at the tiny armored figure and then poked him with a fingertip. He let out a semiconscious little moan, but the hooks had effectively immobilized him.

  “Huh,” I said. Then I cackled. “Hah. Hah, hah, heh hahhah.”

  Thomas glanced over his shoulder and blinked several times. “What the hell is that?”