Cold days, p.16
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       Cold Days, p.16

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “I mean why were you sleeping on board?”

  “Because you didn’t tell me what time you’d be there, and I got sleepy,” he said.

  Molly glanced aside at Thomas, and then at me. “I asked you to do it?”

  “Uh, yeah,” Thomas said, snorting. “You called around ten.”

  Molly kept looking at me, frowning. “No. No, I didn’t.”

  Thomas promptly cut the throttle on the boat. The Water Beetle began coasting to a halt, and the sound of the water hitting her hull resurfaced as the rattle of her engines died.

  “Okay,” Thomas said. “Uh. What the hell is going on, then?”

  “Molly,” I said, “are you sure?”

  “None of my issues have included memory loss or unconscious actions,” she said.

  Thomas squinted back at her. “If they had, how would you know it?”

  Molly frowned. “Valid point. But . . . there’s been no evidence of that, to my knowledge. I’m as confident about that as anything else I perceive.”

  “So if Molly didn’t call me . . .” Thomas began.

  “Who did?” I finished.

  Water slapped against the hull.

  “What do we do?” Molly asked.

  “If someone set us up to be here,” Thomas said, “it’s a trap.”

  “If it’s a trap, they sure as hell didn’t try very hard to hide it,” I said. “All we really know is that someone wanted us here.”

  Molly nodded. “Do you think . . . ?”

  “Mab’s work?” I asked. “Having my ride prepared? Yeah, maybe.”

  “If your new boss wanted you on the island, wouldn’t she just have told you to go there?” Thomas asked.

  “Seems like,” I said. “Taking her orders is pretty much my job now.”

  Molly snorted softly.

  “Maybe I’ll grow into it,” I said. “You don’t know.”

  Thomas snorted softly.

  More water sounds.

  We didn’t have a lot of choice, really. Whether or not we’d been manipulated into showing up, there was still a giant potential problem with the island, something that had to be addressed as soon as possible. If I waited, dawn would be upon us, and it was entirely possible I’d be too busy—or dead—to fix the problem before it went boom. Which meant that the only time I had to take real action was right now.

  “Just once,” I growled, “I’d like to save the goddamned day without a shot clock. You know?”

  “The monster business is an easier gig,” Thomas said, nodding. “Way, way easier.”

  Which was my brother’s backhanded way of telling me what he thought of me.

  “I think we all know I’m not smart enough for that,” I said. “Eyes open, everyone. Thomas, pull her up to the dock. Let’s see who’s waiting for us.”

  * * *

  The island had once been host to a small town, back in the late nineteenth century. It had been home to docks, warehouses, and what might have been a fishery or cannery or something. Probably no more than a couple of hundred people had lived there, at most.

  But the people weren’t there anymore. And what was left of the town was like some kind of skeleton lying among the trees that had grown up through the floorboards. I don’t know what happened to the town. Stories from the time mention only mysterious events in the lake, and an influx of new customers to what passed for a psychiatric care facility of the day. The town itself had been expunged from any records, and not even its name remained to be found. The island, likewise, had vanished from the official record—though if I had to guess, I would say that the reigning authorities at the time decided that covering up the island’s existence was the best way to protect people from exposure to it.

  Actually, knowing what I know now, I’d guess that the island made them come to that conclusion. The island I’d named Demonreach was very much alive.

  Most of the world is, actually. People think that civilization and organized religion have somehow erased the spirits that exist in nature, in all the world. They haven’t. People aren’t the omnipotent force for destruction that we arrogantly believe we are. We can change things, true, but we never really destroyed those old spirits and presences of the wild. We aren’t that powerful. We are very loud and very self-involved, though, so most people never really understand when they’re in the presence of a spirit of the land, what the old Romans called a genius loci.

  So, naturally, they also didn’t understand when they were in the presence of a truly powerful spirit of the land—a potent spirit like that of, say, Vesuvius.

  Or Demonreach.

  I’d been to the island on most weekends up until I got shot, and Thomas had often come with me. We’d used some fresh lumber, some material salvaged from the ruined town, and some pontoons made from plastic sheathing and old tractor-tire inner tubes to construct a floating walkway to serve as a dock, anchored to the old pilings that had once supported a much larger structure. Upon completion, I had dubbed it the Whatsup Dock, and Thomas had chucked me twenty feet out into the lake, thus proving his utter lack of appreciation for reference-oriented humor.

  (And I’d thrown him forty feet out with magic, once I got dry. Because come on, he’s my brother. It was the only thing to do.)

  The Water Beetle came drifting slowly into the dock, and bumped it gently. You had to be a little bit nimble to get over the side of the boat and onto the floating dock, but fortunately for me you didn’t need to be a gymnast. We’d limned the outer boards of the floating dock in phosphorescent paint, and in the darkness it was a gently glowing, clearly visible outline. I hit the dock and secured the first line on the ring we’d installed, then walked down the dock and caught the second when Thomas threw it to me. Once the boat had been made fast, Thomas lowered the gangplank (a pirate’s life for me!), and Molly padded down it. Thomas came last, buckling on his gun belt, which was currently hung with his ridiculously huge Desert Eagle, just in case we were attacked by a rabid Cape buffalo, and a big old bolo-style machete.

  Watching him put the weapons on, I started to feel a little bit naked. I didn’t have any of my usual gear, and I’d survived a bunch of nasty situations because I’d had it. I rubbed my hands against the thighs of my jeans, scowling, and tried not to think of how the only gear I had now consisted of a messenger bag and a talking skull.

  Thomas noticed. “Oh. Hey, you need a piece, man?”

  “They’re just so fashionable,” I said.

  He slipped back aboard and came out with a freaking relic. He tossed it to me.

  I caught it, frowning. It was a repeating rifle, a Winchester, complete with the large rounded hoop handle on the lever action. It was seriously heavy, with an octagonal barrel, walnut wood fixtures, and shining brass housing. Elkhorn sights. The gun had a certain comforting mass to it, and I felt like even if it ran out of ammunition, I would still be holding a seriously formidable club. Plus, whatever it was chambered in, a gun that heavy would hardly kick at all. It’d be more like handling a shotgun that pushed against your shoulder, rather than trying to jar it off.

  “What am I?” I complained. “John Wayne?”

  “You aren’t that cool,” Thomas said. “It’s quick, easy to instinct-shoot, and good to way out past the effective range of a handgun. Lever action, it’ll be reliable, keep working right through the apocalypse.”

  Which was a point in its favor, the way my life had been lately. “Rounds?”

  “Traditional, forty-five Colt,” he said. “Knock a big man down in one hit and keep him there. Catch.”

  He tossed me an ammo belt heavy with metallic shells that were nearly as big around as my thumb. I slung the belt across my chest, made sure the chamber was empty, but with a shell ready to be levered into it, and balanced the heavy gun up on one shoulder, keeping one hand on the stock.

  Molly sighed. “Boys.”

  Thomas hooked a thumb back at the boat. “I got a machine gun you can have, Molly.”

  “Barbarian,” she said.
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  “I don’t rate a machine gun?” I asked.

  “No, you don’t,” Thomas said, “because you can’t shoot. I just gave you that to make you feel better.”

  “You ready?” I asked them.

  Molly had her little wands out, one in each hand. Thomas swaggered down the gangplank and looked bored. I nodded at them, turned, and took several quick steps off the dock and onto the stony soil of the island.

  My link with the island was an extremely solid and powerful bond—but it existed only when I was actually standing on it. Now that I was, knowledge flooded into me, through me, a wave of absolute information that should have inundated my senses and disoriented me entirely.

  But it didn’t.

  That was the beauty of intellectus, pure universal knowledge. While I stood on the island, I understood it in a way that was breathtakingly simple to experience and understand, but practically impossible to explain properly. Knowledge of the island just flowed into me. I could tell you how many trees stood upon it (17,429), how many had been taken down by the summer’s storms (seventy-nine), and how many of the apple trees currently bore fruit (twenty-two). I didn’t have to focus on an idea, or wrest the knowledge from the island. I just thought about it and knew, the way I knew what my fingers were touching, the way I knew what scents belonged to what foods.

  We were alone on the island. That much I knew. But I could also sense a profound unease in the place. Molly’s description had been perfectly accurate. Something was wrong; some kind of horrible strain was upon the island, a pressure so pervasive that the trees themselves had begun to lean away from the island’s heart, stretching their branches toward the waters of the lake. Without my heightened awareness of the island, I never would have been able to sense the shift of inches across thousands and thousands of branches, but it was real and it was there.

  “We’re clear,” I said. “There’s no one else out here.”

  “You’re sure?” Thomas asked.

  “I’m certain,” I said. “But I’ll stay alert. If I sense anyone showing up, I’ll fire off a shot.”

  “Wait,” Thomas said. “Where are you going?”

  “Up the hill,” I told him. “Uh . . . up to the tower, I think.”

  “Alone? You sure that’s smart?” he asked.

  Molly was standing at the end of the dock. She crouched down, reaching a hand out toward the dirt of the island. She brushed her fingers against it and then jerked them away with a shudder. “Ugh. Yes. We don’t want to step off the dock. Not tonight.”

  I could hear Thomas’s frown in his voice. “Island’s got its panties in a bunch, eh?”

  “I think something bad would happen to us if we tried to go with him,” Molly said, her voice troubled. “Whatever’s happening . . . Demonreach only wants Harry to see what’s going on.”

  “Why doesn’t it just marry him?” Thomas muttered under his breath.

  “It sort of did,” I said.

  “My brother the . . . geosexual?”

  I snorted. “Look, think of it as a business partner. And be glad it’s on our side.”

  “It isn’t on our side,” Molly said quietly. “But . . . I think it might be on yours.”

  “Same thing,” I said warningly, out at the island in general. “You hear that? They’re my guests. Be nice.”

  The thrumming tension in the island didn’t change. Not in the least. It went on with a kind of glacial inevitability that didn’t give two shakes for the desires of one ephemeral little mortal, wizard or not. I got the feeling that nice simply wasn’t in Demonreach’s vocabulary. I’d probably have to be satisfied with it refraining from violence.

  “We’ll talk,” I said to the island, trying to make it a threat.

  Demonreach didn’t care.

  I muttered under my breath, bounced the Winchester on my shoulder, and started walking.

  Walking on the island is an odd experience. I’d say it’s like walking through your house in the dark, except I’ve never known a house as well as I knew that island. I knew where every stone lay, where every branch stuck out in my path, knew it without being warned by any senses at all. Walking in the dark was as easy as doing it in broad daylight—easier, even. I’d have had to pay at least a little attention to use my eyes. But here, every step was solid, and every motion I made was minimal, efficient, and necessary.

  I made my way through unbroken brush in the dark, hardly making a sound, never tripping once. As I did I noted that Molly had been right about another thing: The clash of energies in the air had created enough dissonance to drive away most of the animals, the ones that had the capacity to readily escape. The deer were gone. Birds and raccoons were gone, and so were the skunks—though that would be one hell of a long swim to the nearest stretch of lakeshore, animals had been known to swim farther. Smaller mammals, mice and squirrels and so on, remained, though they had crowded into the ten yards or so nearest the shoreline all around the island. The snakes were having a field day with that, and evidently weren’t bright enough to know that there was a bigger problem brewing.

  I found the trail to the top of the hill, the high point on the island, and started up it. There were irregular steps cut into the hillside to make the ascent easier. They were treacherous if you didn’t walk carefully, or if you didn’t have near-omniscience about the place.

  At the top of the hill is a ruined lighthouse made of stone. It’s basically just a chewed-up silo shape now, having collapsed long ago. Next to the ruined tower, someone cobbled together a small cottage out of fallen stones. When I first saw it, it had been a square, squat little building with no roof. Thomas and I had been planning on putting the roof back on, so that I could overnight on the island someplace where I could build a fire and stay warm, but we hadn’t gotten that far yet when everything had gone sideways. The cottage just sat, empty and forlorn—but a soft golden glow bathed the interior wall I could see from my position. There was the scent of wood smoke on the air.

  Someone had built me a fire.

  I made my way forward cautiously, looking around with both my awareness and my eyes, just in case my omniscience was in actuality nigh-omniscience, but I couldn’t sense any threat. So I went into the cabin and looked around.

  There was a fire in the fireplace and a folding table stacked with thick plastic boxes containing jars of food that would stay good for months at a time. The boxes would resist the tampering of critters. There were some camp implements stored in another box, and I took the time to break out a metal coffeepot, went out to the little old iron pump just outside the front door, and filled it. I tossed in a couple of handfuls of coffee grounds, hung it on the swivel arm by the fireplace, and nudged it over the fire.

  Then I broke out the skull and set him down on the table. “Okay, Bob,” I said. “We have work to do. You been listening?”

  “Yeah, yeah,” Bob said, his eyelights flickering to life. “Island go boom or something.”

  “We’re on a mission to find out what it’s going to do, and why, and how we can stop it.”

  “Gosh, I’d never have thought of that myself, Harry.”

  “This is top secret stuff,” I said. “Anything you learn here is for me and you only. You go to someone else, I want this whole evening locked away someplace nice and tight. And don’t go splitting off another personality on me, like you did with Evil Bob.”

  “Entirely confidential, check,” Bob said. “And it would take a lot more than one night working with you to build up enough momentum to spin off a whole new me. I have to actually learn things to make that happen.”

  “Less insult, more analysis,” I said.

  The beams from the skull’s eye sockets grew brighter. They swept left and right, up and down, panning around like prison searchlights. Bob made thoughtful noises.

  I tended the coffeepot. After it had been boiling for a few minutes, I took it off the fire, added a splash of cold water from the pump to settle the grounds, and poured myself a cup. I added a lit
tle powdered creamer and a bunch of sugar.

  “Might as well drink syrup,” Bob muttered.

  “Says the guy with no taste buds,” I said. I sipped. “Been meaning to have you out here to take a look at the place anyway.”

  “Uh-huh,” Bob said absently.

  “So?” I asked.

  “Um,” Bob said. “I’m still working on the surface layer of spells on the stones of this cottage, Harry.”

  I frowned. “Uh. What?”

  “You know there’re symbols there, right?”

  I sipped coffee. “Sure,” I said. “They kinda lit up when—”

  Nauseating, mind-numbing horror and pain flashed over my thoughts for a couple of seconds. I’d used my wizard’s Sight to look at the wrong being a couple of years ago, and that isn’t the kind of mistake you ever live down. Now the memory of seeing that thing’s true being was locked into my noggin, and it wouldn’t go away or fade into the past—not ever.

  That’s bad. But the really bad part is that I’ve gotten used to it. It just caused a stutter step in my speech.

  “—the naagloshii tried to get inside. It didn’t seem to like them much.”

  “I should fucking think not,” Bob said, his voice nervous. “Um, Harry . . . I don’t know what these are.”

  I frowned at him. “Uh. What?”

  “I don’t know,” he repeated. He sounded genuinely surprised. “I don’t know what they are, Harry.”

  Magic is like a lot of other disciplines that people have recently begun developing, in historic terms. Working with magic is a way of understanding the universe and how it functions. You can approach it from a lot of different angles, applying a lot of different theories and mental models to it. You can get to the same place through a lot of different lines of theory and reasoning, kind of like really advanced mathematics. There’s no truly right or wrong way to get there, either—there are just different ways, some more or less useful than others for a given application. And new vistas of thought, theory, and application open up on a pretty regular basis, as the Art develops and expands through the participation of multiple brilliant minds.

  But that said, once you have a good grounding in it, you get a pretty solid idea of what’s possible and what isn’t. No matter how much circumlocution you do with your formulae, two plus two doesn’t equal five. (Except maybe very, very rarely, sometimes, in extremely specific and highly unlikely circumstances.) Magic isn’t something that just makes things happen, poof. There are laws to how it behaves, structure, limits—and the whole reason Bob was created was so that those limits could be explored, tested, and charted.