Cold Days, Page 43Jim Butcher
I drew the rifle from the rack on the Harley, thumbed back the hammer while still holding it in one hand, then twisted at the waist to bring it to bear on the rider, the heavy weapon’s forearm falling into my left hand. I didn’t have much time to aim, and it might have actually been counterproductive, given our speed, the irregularities of the chase, the darkness, and the rain. Plus, I’m not exactly Annie Oakley. So I made a best guess and pulled the trigger.
The rifle let out a crack of thunder, and a burst of disintegrated shadow flew up from the shoulder and neck and jawline of the rider. I got a look at the armor beneath the mask, and a portion of his face, and realized with renewed terror that I’d just put a bullet into the Erlking.
And an instant later I realized with a surge of incandescent hope that I’d just put a bullet into the Erlking on Halloween night.
The Erlking reeled in the saddle, and his horse faltered and veered away, gaining altitude again. I levered a new round into the chamber, gripped the weapon like a pistol, and whirled it back over Karrin’s ducked head to point it one-handed at the rider on the right, who was even now making his own approach, spear uplifted.
I guessed again and shot. I didn’t hit him, but the thunder of the gun came just as he flung the spear. I didn’t rattle the rider, but the flame-eyed horse flinched, and the spear flew wide of us. The rider was not deterred. He brought his steed under control first—then he let out a weird, bubbling screech and swept a long, dark-bladed sword from the scabbard at his side. He started closing the distance again.
It was impossible to lever another round into the rifle quickly while riding behind Karrin. That thing John Wayne does, whirling the rifle one-handed to cock it? It really helps if you have one of those enlarged, oblong lever handles to do it with, and mine was the smaller, traditional rectangle. Also, it helps to be John Wayne. I had to draw the rifle into my chest and hold it steady with my left hand to get it done. The rider swerved in at us and I shot again—and missed as his steed juked and abruptly changed speed, briefly falling back before boring in again.
I repeated that cycle three times before I realized that the rider was playing me for a sucker. He respected the gun, but knew its weakness: me. He wasn’t dodging bullets—he was dodging me, tempting me into taking shots with little chance of success in an effort to get me to use up my ammo.
And all the while, the rest of the Hunt kept pace with us: dozens of riders like this one, plus maybe twice that many shadowy hounds, all keeping about fifty yards back and up, clearly giving the first two hunters the honor of first attempt.
“His horse!” Karrin screamed. “Shoot the horse!”
I ground my teeth. I didn’t want to do that. For all I knew, that thing was only a horse costume—there could be another human being underneath that shadowy outer shell.
The rider screeched again, the sound weirdly familiar and completely hair-raising. Again and again he came in on us, and I kept holding him off as we raced at insane speed through the rainy night, trading bullets for time.
“There!” I shouted suddenly, pointing off to our left. “Over there! The walls!”
We had reached the old steelwork grounds.
Karrin gunned the engine and swept the Harley out onto the open ground, racing frantically toward one of the only structures remaining—a trio of concrete walls maybe thirty or forty feet high, running parallel to one another for at least a quarter of mile—the last remains of U.S. Steel.
As the steed’s hooves started hitting the ground, they abruptly threw off clouds of angry silver sparks with every strike. The dark horse screeched in agony and I let out a howl of defiance—after a century of labor in the steel mills, there had to be unreal levels of trace steel and iron in the ground where they had stood—and whatever power sustained the Wild Hunt didn’t like it any more than the other beings of Faerie did.
“Between the walls!” I shouted. “Go, go, go!”
“That’s crazy!” Karrin shouted.
She guided the Harley around a pile of rubble and raced into the heavy shadows between two of the walls, and the rider was right on us as she did.
“Closer!” I screamed. “Force him to the wall!”
A quarter of a mile goes by fast on a roaring Harley—and the only thing in front of us was the cold water of Lake Michigan. “Hurry!” I shrieked.
“Agh!” Karrin howled, and abruptly the Harley slowed and cut right.
In an instant, we were even with the rider, and though no expression could show through the darkness surrounding his face, his body language was one of shock.
Now for the dangerous part, I thought. Which made me start giggling. Now it was getting dangerous.
Before the rider could change speed or take on altitude, and while the Harley was still leaning toward the rider, I hauled my left foot up onto the seat and sprang at him, still holding the now-emptied Winchester in one hand.
I slammed into the rider, but whoever he was, he was strong. I had the power of the Winter Knight at my disposal, but compared to the rider, my strength was that of a child. He threw a stiff-arm into my chest and nearly sent me tumbling—but I grabbed onto his sleeve, and as he fell I simply hung on. That changed things. It wasn’t an issue of strength against strength. This made it a contest of mass and leverage versus muscle, and muscle lost. I dragged the rider from his saddle and we both hit the rough ground at speed.
My hand was torn from his arm on impact, and I remember trying to shield my head with my arms. The Winchester flew clear of me, too. I could see the rider tumbling as well, silver fire blowing up from the shadowy mask around him. I stopped tumbling yards later, and frantically staggered back to my feet. I spotted the Winchester lying a few yards away and leapt for it.
I grabbed the weapon, but before I could load it, I heard a footstep behind me and I spun, raising the gun up over my head, parallel to the ground. It was in the nick of time. I felt the staggering power of an enormous blow, and a sword rang against the steel of the Winchester’s octagonal barrel.
Kringle recovered from the block swiftly. Scraps of shadow mask hung from him, but he still wore the armor and a bloodred cloak and hood trimmed in white fur. His sword was silvery and unadorned, and he whipped it through a swift series of strikes. I blocked frantically with the Winchester, but I knew enough about fighting to know that I was utterly outclassed. He’d have that sword in me in a matter of seconds.
So I ducked, sprang back from a backhanded slash, and raised the rifle to my shoulder as if I were about to shoot.
That stopped him, forcing Kringle to twist to one side to avoid the theoretical bullet—and when he did, I slammed every bit of will I had into a lance of magical force. “Forzare!”
Kringle slipped aside, incredibly nimble for a man his size, and the strike missed him completely.
It did not miss the base of the ruined wall behind him.
What must have been a couple of tons of aged concrete collapsed with a roar. Kringle was fast and skilled, but he wasn’t perfect. He kept himself from being crushed, but several large stones clipped him and sent him staggering.
I let out a primal scream and rushed him. I hit him at the shoulders, and he was too off balance to bring the sword into play. We both crashed to the ground, but I wound up on top, kneeling over him, gripping the steel barrel of the Winchester in both hands, holding it like a club.
Kringle froze, staring up at me, and I suddenly realized that the night had gone utterly silent. I glanced around. The Wild Hunt had surrounded us, horses coming to a stop, their riders watching intently. Hounds paced nervously around at the horses’ feet, but came no closer. The Erlking was there, too, his shadow mask tattered, greenish blood smearing the visible armor on his shoulder. His right arm hung limply. I turned back to Kringle.
“Join, hide, or die,” I growled. “Those are your options when the Wild Hunt comes for you.”
Kringle narrowed his eyes. “Everyone knows
“Not anymore it isn’t,” I growled. I got to my feet, slowly, and just as slowly I lowered the rifle. Then I extended a hand to Kringle. “Tonight, the Hunt is joining me.” I swept my gaze around the silent assembly, filling it with all the steel and resolve I had. “I just put the Erlking on the bench and laid a beat-down on freaking Santa Claus,” I told them. “So you tell me. Who’s next? Who comes to make an end of the Winter Knight, a peer of the Winter Court and Mab’s chosen? Who is at the top of this food chain? Because tonight is Halloween, and I am damned well not afraid of any of you.”
Firelight eyes stared at me from all around and nothing stirred.
Then Kringle’s chuckle began rumbling up out of his throat, a pulsating sound of deep and hearty mirth. One of his huge hands closed on mine, and I hauled him back to his feet. I glanced over at the Erlking as I did. I could see nothing of his face, but he nodded his head toward me, very slightly. There was something ironic about the way he did it, and I sensed a kind of quiet amusement.
There was a low rumble as the Harley came purring slowly over the ground toward us. Karrin stared at the scene, her eyes wide, and drew the bike to a stop next to me.
“Harry?” she asked. “What just happened?”
“A change of leadership,” I said, and swung one leg over the Harley to hop up behind her. Even as I did, shadows began to whirl and slither. They crawled up Kringle’s legs, restoring the concealing mask—and as they did, they also started climbing the Harley and both of the people sitting on it.
It was a bizarre sensation. Everything about my physical perception sharpened, and I could suddenly sense the world around me with perfect clarity. I could feel the other members of the Hunt, knew exactly where they were and what they were doing on sheer instinct—an instinct that guided them, as well. The night brightened into a silvery fairyland that remained night while being as bright as the noonday sun. The shadow masks became something translucent, so that if I peered closely enough, I could see what was behind it. I didn’t do much peering. I had a feeling that I didn’t want to know what was behind all of those shadows.
Karrin twisted the throttle on the Harley nervously, gunning the engine—but instead of a roar, it came out as a primal screech. The cry was instantly taken up by every single member of the Hunt, even as Kringle, his shadow mask restored, remounted his steed and whirled it to face me.
“Sir Knight,” Kringle said, inclining his head slightly to me, “what game amuses you this fine, stormy evening?”
I started loading shells from the ammo belt into the Winchester, until the rifle was full again. Then I levered a shell into the pipe, slipped a replacement into the tube, shut the breach with a snap, and felt a wolfish smile spreading my mouth. “Tonight?” I asked. I raised my voice to address them all. “Tonight we hunt Outsiders!”
The bloodthirsty screech that went up from the Wild Hunt was deafening.
“Pipe down!” I shouted. “We’re going quiet until we get there!”
The Hunt settled down, though not instantly. Karrin revved the Harley’s engine, and it was completely, entirely silent. I could feel the vibration of the increased revolutions, but they did not translate into sound. The shadows around the Harley shifted and wavered, and after a second I realized that they had taken on a shape—that of an enormous black cat, muscled and solid, like a jaguar. That was astounding to me. Magic was not some kind of partially sentient force that did things of its own volition. It wasn’t any more artistic than electricity.
“Okay,” I said to Karrin. “Let’s move.”
“Uh,” she asked, without turning her head, “move where?”
“The island,” I said.
“Harry, this is a motorcycle.”
“It’ll work,” I said. “Look at it.”
Karrin jerked as she noted the appearance of the Harley. “You want me to drive into the lake.”
“You have to admit,” I said, “it isn’t the craziest thing I’ve ever asked you to do. It isn’t even the craziest thing I’ve asked you to do tonight.”
Karrin thought about that one for a second and said, “You’re right. Let’s go.”
She dropped the Harley into gear, threw out a rooster tail of dirt and gravel, and we rushed toward the shore of the lake. The steel mills had been engaged in actual shipping traffic in their day, and the level field of construction marched right up to the water’s edge and dropped off abruptly, the water four or five feet straight down.
Karrin gunned the engine, covering the last two hundred yards in a flat-out sprint, and the torque on that Harley’s engine was something epic, its bellow too loud to be wholly contained by the shadow mask, emerging from the shadow tiger’s mouth as a deep-throated roar. Karrin let out a scream that was two parts excitement to one part terror, and we flew twenty feet before the tires crashed down onto the surface of the lake—and held.
The bike jounced a couple of times, but I held on to Karrin and kept from flying off. It was an interesting question, though: If I had, would the water have supported me, like an endless field of asphalt? Or would it have behaved as it normally would?
The entire Hunt swept along behind us, silent but for the low thunder of hooves and the panting of the hounds—when suddenly the silver starlight turned bright azure blue.
“Whoa!” Karrin said. “Did you do that?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I looked over my shoulder and found Kringle and the Erlking riding along behind me, I jerked my head at them in a beckoning gesture, and they obligingly came up on either side of the Harleytiger.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing at the sky.
“A temporal pressure wave,” the Erlking said, his flaming eyes narrowed.
“A wha’?” I asked.
The Erlking looked at Kringle. “This is your area of expertise. Explain it.”
“Someone is bending time against us,” Kringle said.
I stared at him for a second and then it clicked. “We’re being rushed forward so that we’ll get there too late,” I said. “We’re looking at a Doppler shift.”
“Is what he said correct?” the Erlking asked Kringle curiously.
“Essentially, aye. We’ve already lost half of an hour by my count.”
“Who could have done this?” I asked.
“You have encountered this before, wizard,” Kringle said. “Can you not guess?”
“One of the Queens,” I muttered. “Or someone operating on their level. Can we get out of this wave?”
The Erlking and Kringle traded a look. “You are the leader of the Hunt,” Kringle said. “What you wright with your power will grace each of us. Would you like to do it?”
Was he kidding me? I had almost as much of an idea of how to screw around with the fabric of time as I did which of my clothes could be safely washed in hot water. “I probably need to save myself for what’s coming,” I said.
Kringle nodded. “If it is your will,” he said diffidently, “we can set our hands against it.”
“Do it,” I said.
They both nodded their heads at me in small bows, and then their steeds raced out in front of the pack. Sparks began to fly from their horses’ hooves, first blue, then abruptly darkening to scarlet. The air seemed to shimmer, and strange, twisted sounds writhed all around us. Then there was a reverberating crash that sounded like something between thunder and the discharge of a blaster. The air split in front of the two of them like a curtain, and as the Hunt hurtled through it, the stars washed out to their normal silver hue again.
“Well-done, I guess!” I shouted—and then I noticed that Kringle was no longer there, though the Erlking still raced along. Over the next few moments he slowed enough to pace Karrin and me. “Hey, where’d Bowl-Full-of-Jelly go?”
“Kringle was our stepping-stone out of the rapids of the stream,” he called back. “To lift us out, he had to remain behind. He will rejoin us farther down the sh
“Harry,” Karrin said.
“How much farther down the shore?”
The Erlking shrugged with his uninjured arm. “Time may hold no terror for us immortals, Sir Knight, but it is a massive force, all but beyond even our control. It will take as long as it takes.”
“Harry!” Karrin snapped.
I turned my eyes front and felt them widen.
We had arrived at Demonreach—and the island was under attack.
The first thing I saw was the curtain wall around the island’s shoreline. It was nothing but a flicker of opalescent light, like a dense aurora borealis, stretching from the water’s edge up into the October sky. It cast an eerie glow over the trees of the island, steeping them in menacing black shadow, and its reflection in the waters of the lake was three or four times bigger and more colorful than it should have been.
As the Hunt rushed closer, I could make out other details, too. There was a small fleet of boats surrounding the island—it looked like something out of WWII’s Pacific theater. Some of the boats were modest recreational models, several at least the size of the Water Beetle, and three looked like tugboat-barge units, the kind that could ferry twenty loaded train cars around the lake.
I could see motion in the waters around the shore. Things were swarming up out of the lake, hideous and fascinating—hundreds of them. They smashed into Demonreach’s curtain wall. Light pulsed in liquid concentric circles where they touched it, and shrieks of alien agony stretched the air toward a breaking point. The waters within twenty feet of the shore bubbled and thrashed in a demonic frenzy.
I felt a pulse of power stir in the air, and a bolt of sickly green energy lashed across the waters and slammed into the curtain wall. The entire wall dimmed for a second, but then resurged as the island resisted the attack. I tracked the bolt back to the barge and saw a figure in a weird, writhing cloak standing on the deck, facing the island—Sharkface.
As I watched, I saw a Zodiac boat carrying a team of eight men in dark clothing rush in toward the shore. The man in the nose of the boat lifted something to his shoulder, there was a loud foomp, and a fire blossomed in the brush, burning with an eye-searing chemical brilliance. Then the Zodiac whirled and rushed back out again, as if to escape a counterstrike—or maybe they just didn’t want to stay anywhere close to waters full of piranhalike frenzied Outsiders while sitting in a rubber boat. Half a dozen other boats were doing the same thing, and several other similar craft were sitting still, full of armed men waiting silently for the chance to land onshore.