Cold days, p.19
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       Cold Days, p.19

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  The shot zoomed out, rising up to give a top-down view of the island, which became a blurry shape. A familiar five-pointed star blazed itself across the surface of the lake, its lines so long that the pentagon shape at its center enfolded the island entirely. Within the pentagon, a second pentacle formed, like the first one drawn in the manner to preserve and protect. The camera tightened in, and I saw that the second pentagon enfolded the entire hilltop where the cottage and ruined tower lay. The camera tightened more, and I saw more pentacles drawn, this time not flat but at dozens of intersecting angles, their centers encircling the dozen tunnels full of evil beings beneath the island.

  “These,” Bob said, “represent the original enchantments on the island. This is vastly simplified, of course, but the basic star-and-circle architecture is the same as the work you do, Harry.”

  Then the design blurred and increased, growing denser and more delicate and more brilliant in power, until something twinged in my brain and I had to look away from the diagram.

  “Yeah, sorry about that, boss. This is meant to represent the entanglement of the spells being delivered at different times.”

  “No wonder it was so complicated,” I muttered.

  “And it’s even worse than this,” Bob said. “I’m filtering it down for you. And here’s the problem.”

  I forced myself to look back at the projection, and saw those millions upon millions of spells resonating with one another, spreading and interlocking into an impenetrable barrier. It was, I thought, somehow like watching crystals grow. The spells powering the actual construction of it hadn’t been, alone, too much stronger than some of the work I had done—but when they’d been interconnected with their counterparts across time, they’d fed upon one another, created a perfect resonance of energy that had become something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

  Then I saw the dissonance appear. Bob had chosen to show it as a sullen red light that began to pulse lightly at the westernmost edges of the great design. It began as something faint, but then, like an oncoming headache, started to throb into something larger and more noticeable. Where scarlet and blue light touched, there were ugly flares of energy—flares that I had been sensing ever since I’d gotten to the island. Before long, that scarlet pulse had spread to half the island, and then, abruptly, the screen went white.

  Text at the bottom read, NOVEMBER 1.

  “By tomorrow,” I said. “Super. But I still don’t see what is wrong, Bob.”

  “Energy hits it,” Bob said. “A directed burst of energy, a whole lot of it. It unravels the whole containment spell Merlin laid down and triggers the fail-safe.”

  “FIRE,” rumbled Demonreach.

  “I figured that one out, thanks,” I said. “But nothing has actually happened to the spells yet?”

  “Nope,” said Bob. “That tension that’s building? It’s . . . Well, think of it as cause and effect, only backward.”

  “Huh?”

  “What the island is experiencing now is the echo of the moment that burst of energy strikes it,” Bob said. “Only instead of the echo happening after, it’s happening first.”

  I stopped and thought. “You’re telling me that the reason the island is about to blow up is . . . because it’s about to blow up?”

  Bob sighed. “Someone hits the island with energy, Harry. But they’ve figured out how Merlin put this place together. They aren’t attacking it in three dimensions. They’re attacking in four. They’re sending power through time as well as through space.”

  “So . . . I have to stop them from attacking the island tomorrow?”

  “No,” Bob said, exasperated. “You have to stop them from attacking whenever it is that they actually attack.”

  “Uh . . .”

  “Look, the rock they’re throwing hits tomorrow,” Bob said. “But you have to stop them from throwing it at whatever point they’re standing when they throw it.”

  “Oh,” I said, blinking. “I get that.”

  Bob turned to look at Demonreach. “Do you see what I have to work with here? I had to take that down to throwing a rock before it got through.”

  “HIS UNDERSTANDING IS LIMITED,” Demonreach agreed.

  “Okay, I’ve had just about enough from both of you,” I said. “If you’re so smart, how come you don’t stop it from happening?”

  “THE EXPLANATION WOULD DAMAGE YOU, WARDEN.”

  Bob made an impatient sound. “Because that spirit is the island, Harry. The spells, the Well, the physical island, all of it. Demonreach does not exist outside this island. It has no ability to reach beyond itself. The attack is coming from outside the prison. That’s why it needs a Warden in the first place.”

  I scowled. “It talked to me in the graveyard last year.”

  “It bullied Mab into helping it,” Bob said.

  “I DID NOT BULLY. I BARGAINED.”

  “Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll add that to my list, then. Find whoever it is, wherever they are, and stop them from doing something they haven’t done yet.”

  “Unless they have,” Bob said. “In which case, well. Kinda too late.”

  “Right,” I said tiredly.

  I had my own private purgatory full of sleeping monsters.

  I had a parasite in my brain that was fixing to burst my skull on its way out of me.

  My little island paradise was about to explode with enough energy to cook dark gods and Lord only knew what else hanging around under the island. That meant we were talking about a release of energy in the gigaton range. And if I didn’t stop someone from doing it, the continental shelf was about to have a very bad day.

  Oh, right. And I was supposed to kill an insane immortal—or else face the wrath of her mother.

  And I had to do it all in the next twenty-four hours. Maybe a little less.

  “And the sad part is, this actually feels like having my life back. How bent is that?”

  “Harry,” Bob said. “Sunrise in one hour.”

  “Right.” I sighed and picked up the skull. I tucked him away into the messenger bag and said to Demonreach, “I’m on it.”

  “GOOD.”

  I muttered darkly under my breath and turned for the stairs, then started jogging back up them, thinking of all the problems arrayed against me.

  Good thing I’d been working out.

  Chapter

  Eighteen

  Okay, for the record: That is one hell of a lot of stairs to go up.

  Also for the record: I did them two and three at a time, at a run, and went to the top without stopping.

  From there, I went pounding down the hillside, my feet never slipping or faltering, until I got back to the beach, moving at an easy run. The sun was rising behind me, but the solid mass of Demonreach kept it blotted out in shadow, and I could tell only by the light beginning to fill the sky.

  Thomas came to his feet as I left the woods, his hands moving to his weapons automatically. I shook my head at him, never slowing down, and said, “Let’s get this tub moving!”

  “What did you find out?” he called. He started untying the lines and then leapt nimbly up to the deck of the Water Beetle. Molly appeared from the cabin, looking as though she’d been sleeping a few seconds before.

  I ran down the dock and hopped up to the ship’s deck. “A bunch of people are gonna be mad at me, I’ve got some kind of medical issue that’s going to kill me in a while if I don’t deal with it, oh, and the island’s blowing up tomorrow and taking a whole lot of the country with it if I don’t fix it.”

  Thomas gave me a steady look. “So,” he said. “Same old, same old.”

  “I think it’s nice that there are some things in this world you can rely on,” I said.

  My brother snorted and started the Water Beetle’s engines. We backed away from the dock, and then he turned, gunned it, and headed back toward town. Like I said before, the boat isn’t a racing machine, but it’s got some horsepower in it, and as the sun rose properly, we were zooming
over the orange-gold water, leaving a huge V-shaped wake behind us, while I stood at the front of the boat, my hands on the railing.

  I felt it when the dawn broke, the way you almost always can if you stop to pay attention. Something subtle and profound simply shifted in the air around me. Even if I’d been blindfolded, I would have felt the transition, the way that the winds and currents of energy broadly known as magic began to gust and shift, driven by the light of the oncoming sun.

  I wasn’t close enough to any of the Ways to the realms of Faerie to be able to sense whether they had been reopened, but it made sense that they would be. Sunrise tends to disperse and dissolve patterns of magical energy—not because magic is inherently a force of the night so much as because the dawn is inherently a force of new beginnings and renewal.

  Every sunrise tended to erode ongoing enchantments. A spell spread so wide that it curtained the whole of Faerie away from the mortal world would by necessity be rather thin and fragile. When the sun hit it, it would be like about a zillion magnifying glasses focusing light on old newsprint. It would blacken and wither away. My mind treated me to a gruesome little collage of images—the darkest beings of Faerie suddenly pouring forth from every creepy shadow and unsettling alley and dangerous-looking old abandoned building in the city. You’d think my mind would find better things to do, like fantasize about improbably friendly women or something.

  Molly came up and stood with me, facing ahead. I looked at her obliquely. The rising sun behind us painted her hair gold but left her face lightly veiled in shadow. She didn’t look young anymore.

  I mean, don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t like her hair had gone grey and her teeth fell out. But there had always been a sense of energy and life and simple joy welling up from the grasshopper. It had been her default setting, and I hadn’t realized how much I had loved that about her.

  Now her blue eyes looked weary, wary. She wasn’t looking at the beauty in life as much as she once had. Her eyes scanned for dangers both nearby and farther down the road, heavy with caution and made wise by pain—and they had far, far more steel in them than I had ever seen there before.

  Months of training with the Leanansidhe while fighting a street war will do that.

  Maybe if I’d been tougher on the grasshopper early on, it wouldn’t have come as such a shock to her. Maybe if I’d focused on different aspects of her training, she would have been better prepared.

  Maybe, maybe, maybe, but I was kidding myself. Molly’s eyes were always going to end up like that sooner or later—just like mine had.

  This business doesn’t play nice with children.

  “I told you,” Molly said, never looking toward me. “It’s in the past. Leave it there.”

  “You listening to my head, kiddo?”

  Her mouth twitched. “Only when I want to hear the roar of the ocean.”

  I grinned. I liked that so much better than all the “Sir Knights” I’d been getting lately.

  “How much can you tell me?” she asked.

  I looked at her eyes for a moment while she stared ahead and made a decision.

  “Everything,” I said quietly. “But not right this second. We’ve got priorities to focus on first. We can get into the details after we’ve dealt with the immediate threat.”

  “Maeve?” Molly asked.

  “And the island.” I told her about the danger to Demonreach without going into specifics about the island’s purpose. “So if I don’t stop it, boom.”

  Molly frowned. “I can’t imagine how you can stop an event from happening if you don’t know who is going to do it, and both where and when it’s going to happen.”

  “If the problem was simple and easy, it wouldn’t require wizards to fix it,” I said. “The impossible we do immediately. The unimaginable takes a little while.”

  “I’m serious,” she said.

  “So am I,” I replied. “Be of good cheer. I think I know the right guy to talk to about this one.”

  * * *

  Half the sun was over the horizon when Chicago’s skyline came into sight. I just basked in that for a minute. Yeah, I know, stupid, but it’s my town and I’d been gone for what felt like a lifetime. It was good to see the autumn sun gleaming off of glass and steel.

  Then I felt myself tense, and I pushed myself up from where I’d been leaning on the forward rail. I took a moment to look around me very carefully. I didn’t know what had set off my instincts, but they were doing the same routine they’d learned to do every time Mab had been about to spring her daily assassination attempt, and I couldn’t have ignored them if I’d wanted to.

  I didn’t see anything, but then I heard it—the humming roar of small, high-revolution engines.

  “Thomas!” I shouted over the snorting of the Water Beetle’s motor. I gestured toward my ear and then spun my hand in a wide circle.

  It wasn’t exactly tactical sign language, but Thomas got the message. From his vantage point in the wheelhouse atop the cabin, he swept his gaze around warily. Then his gaze locked on something northwest of us.

  “Uh-oh,” I breathed.

  Thomas spun the wheel and rolled the Water Beetle onto a southwesterly course. I hustled over to the ladder up to the wheelhouse and stood on the top rung, which put my head about level with Thomas’s. I shielded my eyes from the glare of the oncoming sun with one hand and peered northwest.

  There were five Jet Skis flying toward us over the water. Thomas had altered course enough to buy us a little time, but I could see at a glance that the Jet Skis were moving considerably faster than we were. Thomas opened the throttle all the way and passed me, I kid you not, a shiny brass telescope.

  “Seriously?” I asked him.

  “Ever since those pirate movies came out, they’re everywhere,” he said. “I’ve got a sextant, too.”

  “Any tent you have is a sex tent,” I muttered darkly, extending the telescope.

  Thomas smirked.

  I peered through the thing, holding myself steady with one hand. Given the speed and bounce of the boat, it wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to get a prolonged glimpse of the Jet Skis. I couldn’t see much in the way of detail yet—but the guy on the lead Jet Ski was wearing a bright red beret.

  “We’ve definitely got a problem,” I said.

  “Friends of yours?”

  “The Redcap and some of his Sidhe buddies, it looks like,” I said, lowering the telescope. “They’re Winter muscle, but I think they’re mostly medieval types. That gives us a couple of minutes to—”

  There was a sharp hissing sound and something unseen slapped the telescope out of my hand, sending it spinning through the air in a whirl of torn metal and tiny shards of broken glass.

  The report of a gunshot followed a second later.

  “Holy crap!” I sputtered, and dropped down to lie flat on the deck. There was another hiss and a loud cracking sound as a round smacked into the wall of the cabin above me.

  “Medieval? Are you sure you know what that means?” Thomas demanded. He heeled the boat about a bit and then snaked it back in the original direction, following a serpentine course. That would make us a harder target—but it also meant that we were going slower, cruising in a zigzag while our pursuers were rushing forward in a straight line.

  But even with the maneuvers, the rounds kept coming in. At that distance, with the relative movements of the vehicles, a purely human marksman could have hit us only through something that went well past good luck and began approaching divine intervention. But the Redcap and his cronies weren’t human. The grace I’d seen the Sidhe displaying on the dance floor had been all precise, subtle elegance and flawless grace. Both of those things transitioned well into marksmanship.

  I still had my shiny, gleaming cowboy rifle, but it was worse than useless in this situation. The .45 Colt round would be killer at conventional gunfight distances, most of which happened at about twenty feet—but it would lose a lot of effectiveness shooting at targets that distant. Coin
cidentally, the guy holding the gun would also lose effectiveness shooting at targets that distant. So blazing away at them seemed like a stupid plan.

  “Hey!” I shouted toward my brother. “If I take the wheel, can you pick them off from here?”

  “If we drive straight, maybe!” he called back.

  A round tore a chunk of wood off the corner of the boat’s dashboard. Thomas stared hard at it for a second. Six inches to the left and it would have hit him in the lower back.

  “Uh,” he said, continuing to veer and swerve the boat. “Plan B?”

  “Right,” I muttered. “Right. Plan B.”

  I thought furiously while the fusillade continued. Rounds hit the side of the ship in sharp, angry whacks. Surely they didn’t have the ammunition to keep this kind of thing up for very long. Though, thinking about it, I had no idea how rapidly they were going through the ammo. For all I knew, one guy was shooting at us, and getting more and more successful at judging the shot over the surface of the water. And the Sidhe were closing. Their accuracy seemed to be increasing as they did. Once they got into optimal range, where they were close enough to land rounds but we weren’t capable of replying in kind, all they had to do was maintain the distance and kill us to death.

  I could start throwing magic at them, but Mab’s training had a gap in it: Everything had been right up in my grille. I’d never engaged her or one of her proxies at more than twenty feet or so, and without a properly prepared staff or blasting rod, I’d never be able to reach out far enough to hit those clowns. Odds were good that they knew it, too. They’d hold the distance.

  A weakness. I had to exploit a weakness. The Sidhe hated iron, but even if I found some, how did I get it to them? I mean, a gun shooting jacketed rounds would really screw them up, but for it to work I’d have to hit them. There was a box of nails in the toolbox. I could throw those, maybe, but again there was the issue of actually hitting them. Which wasn’t going to happen as long as they were way out there.

  I needed to lure them in closer.

  “Grasshopper!” I shouted.

  The cabin door swung open and Molly belly-crawled onto the deck until she could see me. “Who started shooting at us?”