Cold days, p.18
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       Cold Days, p.18

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  I got a sudden sinking feeling.

  And I turned to the next mound of quartz. And the next.

  I’m a lucky guy. I didn’t have one of the most nightmarish fiends in circulation lying on the floor within pouncing distance.

  I had six of them.

  There were more shapes beneath more crystal mounds. I didn’t recognize them. I’m pretty sure I was extremely happy that I didn’t.

  “The least,” I said, my voice shaking. “You’re telling me that a naagloshii is one of the least.” I felt like sitting down, so I did, sort of abruptly, onto the floor. “What . . . what else is in here?”

  Demonreach turned to a wall. It lifted an arm and the stone of the wall faded into nonexistence, revealing a hallway maybe fifty feet across. I got back up onto my shaky legs again to take a look. The tunnel sloped down gently, and was lit by the wan glow of the crystals.

  Lots of crystals.

  Lots and lots and lots of crystals.

  The tunnel stretched into the distance. Maybe it was a mile long. Maybe two. Maybe it ran all the way down to Hell. Mounds of crystals dotted the tunnel at regular intervals. Some of them were the size of buildings. Some of the individual crystals had to be the size of freaking trees. I had barely gotten my gawk on when a flood of energy smashed into me, as though opening the door had released liquid held back under pressure. The energy had no physical presence—but I felt a nauseating wave of greasy cold flooding through me, the dark power of the ley lines that converged upon the island breathing across me like a cloud of invisible smog.

  “THE WELL,” Demonreach said. The spirit turned, slowly, and eleven more doorways to tunnels almost identical to the first one sighed into existence. Eleven more of them. Because one infinite tunnel full of horrors obviously wasn’t enough. I had twelve.

  The dark energy from them hissed and oozed through the air, as if sheer malice and vicious will had been distilled into an unseen mist.

  “And . . . and everything down there makes a naagloshii look like small change?” I asked.

  “CORRECT.”

  “Of course. Naturally,” I said, staring down the first hall. “What are they? What’s down there?”

  “NIGHTMARES. DARK GODS. NAMELESS THINGS. IMMORTALS.”

  “Holy crap,” I whispered. And that was when I understood why the place was called the Well. “This is why the island is the source of all those ley lines. It’s like a great big bubbling geyser of bad.”

  Bob let out an awed whistle. “Uh. Wow, boss, yeah. That’s exactly it. The energy in those ley lines . . . it’s the body heat these things give off.”

  I felt a giggle coming up. “Man. Containment. Hell’s bells, containment.” I tried to stuff the giggles back down and addressed Demonreach. “This isn’t a magical stronghold,” I said. “It’s a prison. It’s a prison so hard that half a dozen freaking naagloshii are in minimum security.”

  “CORRECT,” Demonreach answered, “WARDEN.”

  Chapter

  Seventeen

  “I don’t guess this job pays anything, does it?” I asked.

  The spirit just regarded me.

  “Didn’t think so,” I said. “So . . . when you call me Warden, you’re speaking literally.”

  “INDEED.”

  “And you are what? The guard?”

  “THE GUARD. THE WALLS. THE BARS. I AM ORDER.”

  “You are not the first law-person I would want to be involved with,” I said. I raked my fingers back through my hair. “Okay,” I said, wincing. “The things in here. Are they dangerous where they are?”

  “THEY ARE ALWAYS DANGEROUS. BUT THEY HAVE THE LEAST OPPORTUNITY TO EXPRESS IT HERE.”

  I blinked. Those were some of the longest, most nuanced, and most complex sentiments the spirit had expressed to me. Which meant that we were speaking about something important—which only made sense. Demonreach didn’t care about friends or enemies or the price of tea in China. It cared about its inmates, period. Anything else, everything else, would be judged based upon its relevance to that subject.

  “But can they get loose?”

  “NOT WITHOUT OUTSIDE INTERVENTION,” Demonreach said, “OR YOUR AUTHORIZATION.”

  “Meep,” I breathed. “Uh. You mean I could turn these things loose?”

  “YOU ARE THE WARDEN.”

  I swallowed. “Is it possible for me to communicate with them?”

  “YOU ARE THE WARDEN.”

  “Oh, Hell’s bells, this is bad.”

  I had just inherited myself a world of trouble.

  Having experienced a naagloshii up close and personal, there wasn’t any way I was letting one of those hideous things loose. I doubted I was going to like anything else that was being held prisoner here any better. In fact, I had no intention, for the time being, of even looking at them, much less finding out who and what the inmates were—and forget about actually talking to them. Not going to happen. Things that old and powerful could be deadly with only a few carefully chosen words dropped at the right place—and I’d learned that one the hard way, too.

  But none of that really mattered.

  I’d just been handed what amounted to a great big ugly weapon of mass destruction and potential havoc. To the various powers of the supernatural world, it wouldn’t matter that I would never use it. All that would matter was that I had it to use. Really, Officer, I know that’s a rocket launcher in my trunk, but I’m only holding it so that someone bad won’t use it. Really. Honest.

  The guys in the White Council who didn’t like me were going to turn purple and start frothing at the mouth when they found out. And every foe the White Council ever had would start looking at me like a gift from Heaven—someone with knowledge of the inner workings of the Council, with enormously concentrated personal power, who was almost certain to frighten the Council enough to make them suspect, isolate, and eventually move against him. That guy would be an awesome asset in any struggle against the wizards of the world.

  And boy, wouldn’t the White Council know it?

  Like I didn’t have enough recruiters aiming for me already.

  And hey, the very best part? I didn’t actually have a real, usable superweapon. I just had the key to a great big box full of pain and trouble for a whole lot of people.

  No wonder my grandfather had looked stunned when he’d seen what I had done with Demonreach. Or maybe less “stunned” than “horrified.”

  My head was starting to ache again. Dammit, this was all I needed. Over the past few years, my headaches had grown steadily worse, to the point where sometimes they all but knocked me unconscious. I could function through it, to some degree—you don’t spend most of your life learning to manipulate the powers of the universe without racking up a considerable amount of self-discipline and tolerance for pain. But it was just one more freaking stone being added to the baggage I had to carry while I tried to get out of the tightest corner I had ever been in.

  Demonreach growled. In all capital letters.

  And the headache vanished.

  One second, my scalp was tightening up as two separate ice picks dug into my skull in the same places they always did, and the next the pain was utterly gone. The endorphins my body had started pumping got to the scene to find no pain there and threw a party instead. I didn’t fall over in a dazed stupor, because of my universe-manipulating chops, but it was close.

  “Whoa,” I breathed. “Uh . . . what did you just do?”

  “I WARNED IT.”

  I blinked several times. “You . . . warned away my headache?”

  “THE CREATURE CAUSING IT. THE PARASITE.”

  I stared stupidly for a second, and then sorted through my memories again. That’s right. Right here in this chamber, the last time I’d been here, either Mab or Demonreach had said something about the division of labor keeping my body alive while the rest of me was elsewhere. They’d said that the parasite kept my heart running. I glowered at Demonreach and said, “Tell me about this parasite.”


  “I WILL NOT.”

  I made an exasperated sound. “Why not?”

  “IT BARGAINED.”

  “With what?”

  “YOUR LIFE, WARDEN.”

  I thought about that one for a few seconds. “Wait. . . . You needed its help to save me? And its price was that you don’t tell me about it?”

  “INDEED.”

  I exhaled slowly and ran my fingers over my head. Something was running around in there, giving me migraines. “Is it a danger to me?”

  “IN TIME.”

  “What happens if it stays in there?” I asked.

  “IT BURSTS FORTH FROM YOUR SKULL.”

  “Aglck!” I said. I couldn’t help it. My skin was crawling. I’d seen those Alien movies at a formative age. “How do I get it out?”

  Demonreach seemed to consider that for a moment. Then it said, “ASK GRASSHOPPER.”

  “Molly? Uh, seriously? You know she’s new, right?”

  It just looked at me.

  “How long do I have to take care of it?” I asked.

  “SOON.”

  “Soon? How soon is soon? What do you mean, soon?”

  It just stared at me.

  Right. Immortal, inhuman, wholly-focused-on-holding-evil-horde-still-forever sorts of creatures don’t have a real solid grasp of the concept of time. From what I’ve seen and heard over the years, I’ve begun to understand that linear time is a uniquely mortal perspective. Other things aren’t attached to it nearly as tightly as we are. There were bushes on the island older than me. There were trees there older than Chicago. Demonreach was not compatible with stopwatches or day planners.

  “Okay,” I said. “Okay, priorities: Put the skull-bursting-parasite issue aside for the moment. That leaves me in charge of a veritable doomsday machine that the White Council and everyone else is gonna flip out about. But they aren’t going to flip out about it today, because presumably they don’t even know I’m alive yet, and if I don’t stay focused on the next twenty-four hours, I might not live long enough to have all that fun. So we forget about that for now, too.”

  “SENSIBLE PRIORITIES.”

  “I’m glad you approve,” I said. I was pretty sure something that didn’t understand minutes and seconds wouldn’t be big on getting sarcasm either. “You’ve still got a problem. I need you to explain it to me.”

  “YOU ARE TOO LIMITED,” Demonreach said. “IT WOULD DAMAGE YOU, AS IT DAMAGED YOUR SPIRIT.”

  I held up both my hands and half flinched. “For God’s sake, don’t think it at me. You think way too loud.”

  The glowing eyes looked somehow disgusted. “THIS MEANS OF CONVEYANCE OF IDEAS IS INEFFICIENT AND LIMITED.”

  “Words, words, words,” I said. “Tell me about it. But it’s what we’ve got, unless you can draw me a picture.”

  Demonreach was still for a moment—and then vines abruptly twined up out of the floor. I almost jumped, but stopped myself. It clearly hadn’t done me any harm, apart from what I’d done to myself, and if it wanted to hurt me, I wasn’t going to be able to stop it anyway. So I waited.

  The vines twined up into my bag and came out wrapped around Bob’s skull.

  “Harry!” Bob squeaked.

  “He’s one of mine,” I said in a hard voice. “You hurt him and you can forget me helping you.”

  “LITTLE ENTITY,” Demonreach said. “YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE WARDEN. YOU WILL TRANSLATE. YOU WILL NOT BE DAMAGED.”

  “Hey!” I said, and took a step between Demonreach and Bob. “Did you hear me, Hopalong? Put down the skull.”

  “Harry!” Bob said again. “Harry, wait! It heard you!”

  I scowled and turned to look at Bob. He looked like the same old Bob. “Yeah?”

  “Yeah,” the skull said. The eyelights were flicking everywhere, as if watching dozens of screens at once. “Man, this thing is big! And old!”

  “Is it hurting you?”

  “Uh, no . . . no, it isn’t. And it could if it wanted to. It’s just . . . kind of a lot to take in. . . .” Then the skull quivered in the grip of the tendrils and said, “Oh!”

  “Oh, what?” I asked.

  “It’s explaining the problem,” Bob reported. “It had to take it through several levels of dumbing-down before I was able to get it.”

  I grunted and relaxed a little. “Oh. So what’s the problem?”

  “Hang on. I’m trying to figure out how to dumb it down enough for you to get it.”

  “Thanks,” I growled.

  “I got your back, boss.” Then Bob bounced up and down in the tendrils a few times. “Hey, Hopalong! Turn this thing around this way!”

  Demonreach glowered at the skull.

  Bob jiggled a little more. “Come on! We’re on a schedule here!”

  I blinked at that. “Damn. You went from scared to wiseass pretty quick there, Bob.”

  Bob snorted. “’Cause as big and bad as this thing is, it needs me to talk to you, and that makes me important. And it knows it.”

  “LESSER BEINGS ONCE KNEW TO RESPECT THEIR ELDERS,” Demonreach said.

  “I respect the crap out of you,” Bob complained. “You want me to help, and I’m telling you how. Now turn me around.”

  A sudden breeze passed through the cavern in a long, enormous sigh. And the vines stirred and twisted the skull toward the nearest wall.

  Bob’s eyelights brightened to brilliance and suddenly cast double cones of light on the wall. There was a scratchy sound that seemed to emanate from the skull itself, a blur of a sound like an old film sound track warming up, and then the old spotlight-sweeping 20th Century Fox logo appeared on the wall, along with the pompous trumpet-led symphony theme that often accompanied it.

  “A movie?” I asked. “You can play movies?”

  “And music! And TV! Butters gave me the Internet, baby! Now hush and pay attention.”

  The opening logo bit faded to black and then familiar blue lettering appeared. It read: A LONG TIME AGO, PRETTY MUCH RIGHT HERE . . .

  “Okay, come on,” I said. “You’re going to buy me a lawsuit, Bob.”

  “Hush, Harry. Or you’ll go to the special hell.”

  I blinked at that, confused. I’m not supposed to be the guy who doesn’t get the reference joke, dammit.

  On the wall, the black gave way to a star field that panned down to a blue-and-green planet. Earth. Then it zoomed in and in and in until I recognized the outline of Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, and came closer still until it got to the outline of the island itself.

  Bob is invaluable, but man, he loves his wisecracks and his drama.

  The image sank down until it showed a familiar landing point, though it had no ruined town and no Whatsup Dock and no row of wooden piles in the water. It was just a little beach of dirt and sand and heavy, brooding forest growth.

  Then a ribbon of light maybe eight feet long split the air vertically. The light broadened until it was maybe three feet wide, and then a figure appeared through it. I recognized the signs—someone had opened a Way, a passage from the Nevernever to the island. The figure emerged, made a gesture with one hand, and the Way closed behind it.

  It was a man, fairly tall, fairly lean. He wore ragged clothing in many shades of grey. His grey cloak had a deep hood on it, and it shadowed his features, except for the tip of his nose and a short grey-white beard covering a rather pointy chin.

  (Letters appeared at the bottom of the screen. They read: MERLIN.)

  “Wait? You saw Merlin?” I asked Bob.

  “Nah,” Bob said, “but I cast Alec Guinness. Looks good, right?”

  I sighed. “Could you get to the point, please?”

  “Oh, come on,” Bob said. “I wrote in this romance triangle subplot and cast Jenna Jameson and Carrie Fisher. There’s a love scene you’re gonna really—”

  “Bob!”

  “Okay, okay. Fine. Sheesh.”

  The movie shifted into fast motion. The grey-clad figure became a blur. It walked about waving its arms, a
nd directed oceans of energy here and there, settling them all in and around the substance of the island itself.

  “Wait. Did Demonreach tell you how he did that?”

  “No,” Bob said, annoyed. “It’s called artistic license, Harry.”

  “Okay, I get it. Merlin built the island. However he did it. Get to the part with the problem.”

  Bob sighed.

  Merlin walked into the woods in comically fast motion and vanished. Then time passed. The sun streaked by hundreds and then thousands of times, the shadows of the island bowing and twisting, the trees rising, growing, growing old, and dying. At the bottom of the screen, words appeared that read, A LOT OF TIME PASSES.

  “Thank you for dumbing that down for me,” I said.

  “De nada.”

  Then the camera slowed. Again, Merlin appeared. Again, oceans of power rose up and settled into the island. Then Merlin vanished, and more years passed. Maybe a minute later, he appeared again—looking exactly the same, I might add—and repeated the cycle.

  “Hold on,” I said. “He did it again? Twice?”

  “Ah,” Bob said, as a fourth cycle began on the screen. “Sort of. See, Harry, this is one of those things that you’re going to have trouble grabbing onto.”

  “Go slow and try me.”

  “Merlin didn’t build the prison five times,” Bob said. “He built it once. In five different times. All at the same time.”

  I felt my brows knit. “Uh. He was in the same place, doing the same thing, in five different times at once?”

  “Exactly.”

  “That does not make any sense,” I said.

  “Look, a mortal jail is built in three dimensions, right? Merlin built this one in four, and probably in several more, though you can’t really tell whether or not he built it in a given dimension until you go there and measure it, and the act of measuring it will change it, but the point is: This is really advanced stuff.”

  I sighed. “Yeah. I’m getting that. But what’s wrong?”