Cold Days, Page 32Jim Butcher
I caught my mistake and rolled my eyes. “Let me rephrase that. Tell me whatever you can about the person you were serving until you were taken prisoner without breaking any word you’ve given him.”
Lacuna nodded at that and frowned pensively. Then she looked up and said in a serious, confidential tone, “He does not seem to like you very much.”
I took a slow, deep breath. There were more titters behind me.
“I noticed that, too,” I said. “Tell me what you know about what’s happening tonight.”
“Children,” she said in a sepulchral voice, and her little face twisted up with unmistakable fury. “And candy. Lots and lots of candy.”
“Wow!” Toot said. He zipped away in a flutter of wings.
“Without breaking your word, tell me everything else you know about Ace,” I said.
“He owes me,” Lacuna replied grimly, “for services rendered.”
I sighed. “I don’t suppose you’d like to volunteer to offer me some more useful information?”
The armored faerie stared at me without blinking. It was a little creepy.
“Nah, I didn’t think so,” I said. “Are you hungry?”
She seemed to consider that for a moment, then said, “Yes.”
“Do you want some pizza?”
Lacuna’s face twisted up in disgust. “Ugh. No.”
My eyebrows went up. That was a grade-A first. The Little Folk would quite literally go to war over pizza. They liked it that much. “Uh. What would you like to eat, then?”
“Celery,” she replied promptly. “Cheese. Green tea. But mostly celery.”
“How random,” I said. I looked over my shoulder. “Molly?”
“I’ve got those,” she said, and went to the kitchen.
“Okay, Lacuna,” I said. “We’ve got a bunch of business to take care of. I want you to eat, get some rest, and make yourself comfortable. You aren’t to leave this apartment. Understood?”
Lacuna nodded somberly. “Yes.” Her wings blurred and she darted across the apartment to the kitchen, where Molly was preparing a plate with Lacuna-chow on it.
“Good. I’ll figure out what to do with you later.” I rubbed the back of my neck and went back over to the others. “Well. That was a little frustrating.”
“Why’d you take her prisoner then?” Thomas asked.
I glowered at him. “Don’t you have a squad of mercenaries to round up? Or a bridge to jump off?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay, everybody,” I said. “You’ve got your assignments. Let’s get them done. Molly, you’ve got the apartment and the phone, so after you send the search parties, you’re coordinating. Anyone learns something, call Molly with it. Otherwise, meet back here by five.”
There was a round of nods and agreements, and Butters, Thomas, and Karrin headed out into the city.
Once they were gone, Molly asked, “Why’d you ditch them like that?”
I lifted my eyebrows again. The grasshopper just kept getting cleverer. “I wasn’t ditching them,” I said.
Molly arched an eyebrow. “You weren’t?”
“Not entirely,” I said. “That stuff needs doing, too.”
“While you go somewhere dangerous all by yourself. Am I right?”
I didn’t answer her right away, and she finished making Lacuna’s meal. She put the plate on the counter and the serious little faerie fell upon it like a ravening wolf.
“Something like that,” I said. “Don’t you have a job to do, too?”
Molly eyed me. Then she picked up the map on the table, folded it, and walked toward the door. “I’m not going to fight you about it. I just wanted you to know that I knew.”
Just then, Toot buzzed back into the apartment from somewhere. He zipped in frantic, dizzying circles, starting at the point he’d last seen Lacuna, until his spiral search pattern took him to the kitchen. Then he swooped down to Lacuna, landing neatly on the counter.
I peered at the two little faeries. Toot held out to Lacuna a wrapped watermelon Jolly Rancher, as if he were offering frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. “Hi!” he said brightly. “I’m Major General Toot-toot!”
Lacuna looked up from her food and saw Toot’s gift. Her eyes narrowed.
And then she sucker punched Toot-toot right in the face.
My little bodyguard flew back a couple of feet and landed on his ass. Both of his hands went up to his nose, and he blinked in startled bewilderment.
Toot had dropped the Jolly Rancher. Lacuna calmly kicked it into the disposal drain of the kitchen sink. Then she turned her back on Toot, ignoring him completely, and went back to eating her meal.
Toot’s eyes were even wider as he stared at Lacuna.
“Wow!” he said.
The Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary has a second name—the Magic Hedge. There are about fifteen acres of trees, brush, and winding trails. It’s been an established bird sanctuary for decades, and is a major port of call for birds migrating south for the winter. If you read some flyers about the place, they’ll tell you all about how the Magic Hedge is chock-full to bursting with the magic of birds and nature.
But the folks who live here also call it the Magic Hedge because it’s a fairly well-known hangout for men who are hoping to hook up with other men. The ratio of cruisers to bird-watchers (and don’t think I didn’t consider an ironic joke about binoculars and watching birds) varies depending on the time of the year. When there are tons of birds and bird lovers around, that means lots of people with binoculars and cameras. That kind of thing really cuts down on the romantic mystique.
The place sticks out like a hook, almost totally enclosing Montrose Harbor, which is mostly a place for boats that are a lot less grubby than the Water Beetle. There’s a yacht club in there, and a fairly busy beach nearby. So occasionally non-bird-watching, noncruising people wander through the Magic Hedge, too.
People like me.
At the end of October, most of the migrating flocks had already gone by, but the Hedge was still a rendezvous for leftover flocks of sparrows, which would gather together over a few days, then merge and leave in an enormous cloud. I spotted two dozen species on my walk in, without binoculars. I knew most of them, if I had bothered to dig their names out of my memories. I didn’t. Ebenezar, when he taught me, had been very serious about making sure I learned the proper names of things.
The park was mostly empty today, under the cold grey drizzling sky. On the way in to where I wanted to go, I passed a man dressed all in black, with a black hat and black sunglasses—sunglasses, for crying out loud—who tracked me with his needlessly cool gaze as I went by.
“Not here for that,” I said. “Making a long-distance call. Be gone in half an hour. One way or another.”
He didn’t say anything, and as I passed he faded back into the brush. There’s a community here. Spotters, runners. The police run stings sometimes. Seems like an awful lot of fuss and trouble for everyone involved, to me, especially in the modern world.
Bob wasn’t in my shoulder bag anymore, but I’d replaced him with what I’d need. The lake nearby and the falling rain would do for water. Earth was there in plenty, and I used a garden spade to dig a small pit. The fitful cold winds from the northwest would do for air, and once I got the few pounds of kindling I’d brought piled into a small, hollow pyramid, it didn’t take me long to get a tiny fire going, even in the rain.
I waited until it had begun to blaze up, building it to make it burn hotter and faster. I didn’t want to cook on it. A few minutes were all I needed. I stayed low and moved as little as possible. The song from hundreds of gathered sparrows was enthusiastic, pervasive.
Once the fire was burning, I used the trowel to cut a circle into the soft earth around me. I touched it with my finger and invested a minor effort of will, and the magic of the circle snapped up around me. It was a mystic barrier, not a physical one, someth
ing that would contain and focus magical forces, and generally make it easier to do what I was about to do. It couldn’t be seen or touched but it was very, very real.
A lot of important things are like that.
I gathered my will, sinking into pure focus. People think wizards use magic words, for some reason. There aren’t any magic words, really. Even the ones we use in our spells are just symbols, a way to insulate our minds from the energies coursing through them. Words have a power every bit as terrible and beautiful as magic, and they don’t need a special effects budget to do it, either.
What drives magic is, at the end of the day, sheer will. Emotions can help reinforce it, but when you draw on your emotions to fuel magic, even that is simply a different expression of will, a different flavor of your desire to make something happen. Some things you do as a wizard require you to set any emotion you have aside. They’re good in a crisis, but in a methodical, deliberate effort they can wreak havoc with your intentions. So I blocked out all my confusion, doubt, and uncertainty, along with my perfectly intelligent terror, until all that remained was my rational self and my need to reach a single goal.
Only then did I lift my head and speak, infusing every word with the power of my need, casting the summoning forth into the universe. The power made my voice sound strange—louder, deeper, richer.
“Lady of Light and Life, hear me. Thou who art Queen of the Ever-Green, Lady of Flowers, hear me. Dire portents are afoot. Hear my voice. Hear my need. I am Harry Dresden, Winter Knight, and I needs must speak with thee.” I lifted my joined voice and will and thundered, “Titania, Titania, Titania! I summon thee!”
The last syllable rebounded from every surface in sight with booming echoes. It panicked the sparrows. They flew up in a cloud of thousands of wings and little bodies, gathering in a swarm that raced wildly in circles around the meadow.
“Come on,” I breathed to myself. “Come on already.” I stood in silence for a long, long minute, and I was starting to think that nothing was going to happen.
And then I saw the clouds begin to rotate, and I knew exactly what it meant.
I’ve lived in the Midwest for most of my life. Tornadoes are a fact of life out here, part of the background. People think they’re scary, and they are, but they’re very survivable, provided you follow some fairly simple guidelines: Warn people early, and when you hear the warning, head for the safest space you can reach quickly. That’s usually a basement or root cellar. Sometimes it’s beneath a staircase. Sometimes it’s in an interior bathroom. Sometimes the best you can hope for is the deepest ditch you can find.
But basically it all amounts to “run and hide.”
Years of life in the Midwest screamed at me to do exactly that. My heart started speeding up and my mouth went dry, while the clouds overhead—and when I say “overhead” I mean directly over my head—turned faster and faster.
Birds exploded into the sky from all over the Magic Hedge, joining the sparrows in their wild circling. The air suddenly became close, and the drizzling rain cut off as if a valve had been closed. Lightning with no thunder flickered weirdly through the clouds, which turned every shade of white and blue and sea green as the water vapor separated the light into the visible spectrum.
Then I felt it—a warmth like that I’d felt in Lily, only a hundred times hotter and brighter and more intense. The clouds started to lower, and the frantic birds tightened their circle, until they were a wall of shining feathers and glittering eyes around the meadow. Then there was a flash of light, a toll of thunder that sounded weirdly musical, like the after-tone of some vast gong, and a shower of earth and glowing bits of charred autumn grass flew into the air. I threw up an arm to shield my eyes—but I kept my feet planted.
When the dirt settled and the dust and ash cleared, the Lady of Light and Life and Monarch of the Summer Court stood about fifteen feet away from me.
She was breathtaking. I don’t mean beautiful, because she was that, obviously. But it was the kind of beauty that had so much scope, so much depth, so much power that it made me feel dwindling, insignificant, and very, very temporary. You feel it the first time you see the mountains, the first time you see the sea, the first time you see the vast, bleak majesty of the Grand Canyon—and every single time you look at Titania, the Summer Queen.
I’d say that the details of her appearance were unimportant, except that they weren’t—particularly for me.
Titania was dressed for a fight.
She wore a gown of mail made from some kind of silvery metal, the links so fine that at first it looked like woven cloth. It covered her like a second skin, all the way to the top of her throat. Over that she wore a long robe of silk that shifted in colors from the yellow of sunlight to the green of pine needles in a slow strobelike pattern. Her silver-white hair had been braided into a tail and then fixed in coils at the base of her neck. Upon her head was a crown of what looked like twisted vine with still-living leaves. She carried neither weapon nor shield, but her wide Sidhe eyes stared at me with the absolute certainty of one who knows she is armed well beyond the ability of her enemy to withstand.
Oh, and if I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn to you that it was Mab standing there. Seriously. They didn’t look like sisters. They looked like clones.
I started off by bowing to her, deeply. I held it for a beat before rising again.
She was a statue for a few seconds. She didn’t so much as nod back to me, to any measurable degree, but some microchange in her body language indicated acknowledgment.
“You who slew my daughter,” Titania said quietly. “You dare summon me?”
The last word slashed through the air, its fury palpable. It struck the circle surrounding me and broke into a shower of gold and green sparks that vanished almost instantly.
I’ve had some experience with the Queens of Faerie. When they get angry and start talking to you, you freaking hear them. And then if you survive it, you hope you can make it to the emergency room in time. I just hadn’t seen any scenario in which my talking to Titania wouldn’t make her furious—so I’d drawn the circle as a precaution.
Sometimes I use my brain.
“Crazy, right?” I said. “But I needed to speak to you, O Queen.”
Her eyes narrowed. The curtain-cloud of birds continued their circling around us, though they had fallen eerily silent. The clouds overhead continued to spin. We were as isolated from the rest of the world as if we stood in a private garden. “Speak, then.”
I thought about my words and picked them carefully. “There are events in motion. Very large events, with serious ramifications for basically the whole world. I mean, I thought the war between the White Council and the Red Court was a big deal—but now it looks to me like it was more or less an opening act for the real band.”
Her eyes narrowed. She nodded her head a fraction of an inch.
“Something is going to happen tonight,” I said. “The Well will come under attack. You know what could happen if it is opened. A lot of people would get hurt in the short term. And in the long term . . . well, I’m not sure I know what would happen, but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t be good.”
Titania tilted her head slightly to one side. It reminded me of an eagle considering its prey and deciding whether or not it was worth it to swoop down on it out of nowhere.
“I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t happen,” I said. “And because of the nature of this . . . problem . . . I can’t trust any of the information I get out of the people I’m working for.”
“Ah,” she said. “You wish me to pass judgment upon my sister.”
“I need someone with knowledge of Mab,” I said. “Someone who knows the events are in motion. Who would know if she had . . . uh. . . . Changed.”
“And what makes you think that I would have the knowledge you seek?”
“Because I Saw you preparing the battlefield at the stone table, years ago. You’re Mab’s equal. I Saw your power. You don’t get pow
er like that without knowledge.”
“That is true.”
“I need to know,” I said. “Is Mab sane? Is she . . . still Mab?”
Titania did a statue impersonation for a long moment. Then she turned her head to one side and stared out toward the lake. “I do not know.” She gave me an oblique look. “I have not exchanged words with my sister since before Hastings.”
The next-best thing to a millennium’s worth of estrangement. Dysfunction on an epic scale. This was exactly the kind of family tension into which sane people do not inject themselves.
“I’m going to inject myself into your family business,” I said. “Because I’m scared to death of what could happen if I don’t, and because it needs to be done. I understand that you’re Mab’s enemy. I understand that if she says black, you say white, and that’s the way it is. But we’re all in a southbound handbasket together here. And I need your help.”
Titania tilted her head the other way and took a step toward me. I almost flinched back out of the circle. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t think it would keep me safe for long if she decided she wanted to come at me, but as long as it was there, it meant that she would have to spend at least a little time bringing it down—time in which I could attack her. It also meant that if I took the first swing, I’d be sacrificing the circle’s protection, and my only current advantage. She looked down at my feet and then back up at me expectantly.
“Uh,” I said. “Will you please help me?”
Something flickered over her face when I said that, an emotion that I couldn’t place. Maybe it wasn’t a human one. She turned abruptly away and seemed to consider her surroundings for the first time. “We shall see,” she said. She turned back to me, her eyes intent. “Why did you come here for the summoning?”
“It’s a bird sanctuary,” I said. “A natural place, intended to preserve life and beauty. And birds seem kind of Summery to me. Following summer to the south over the winter and then returning. I thought that it might be close to some of Summer’s lands in Faerie. That you’d have an easier time hearing me.”