Cold days, p.2
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Cold Days, p.2

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  It goes on like that. Sarissa and me on waist-high parallel bars, me struggling to remember how to keep my balance, interrupted by a tidal flood of red-eyed rats that forces us to hop up onto the bars before our feet get eaten off. Sarissa spotting me on a bench press, and then Mab bringing a great big old fireman’s ax whistling down at my head at the end of my third set so that I have to block with the stupid straight bar. Me slogging my exhausted way into a hot shower, only to have the door slam shut and the thing start to fill with water. Into which freaking piranha begin to plop.

  On and on. Seventy-seven days. Seventy-seven attempted murders. Use your imagination. Mab sure as hell did. There was even a ticking crocodile.

  * * *

  I had just gotten back from the small gym, where’d I’d hiked about four miles up and I don’t know how many miles forward on the elliptical machine. I was sweaty and exhausted and thinking about a shower and then bed again. I opened the door to my quarters, and when I did, Mab opened fire with a freaking shotgun.

  I didn’t have time to think or calculate before she pulled the trigger. All I could do was react. I flung myself back, slammed my will out into the air ahead of me, coalescing it into a barrier of pure energy. The gun roared, deafening in the enclosed space. Buckshot slammed against the barrier and bounced, scattering everywhere, landing with pops and rattles. I hit the floor, keeping the barrier up, and Mab advanced, her eyes glittering through every shade of opal, wild and ecstatic and incongruous against her otherwise calm expression.

  It was one of those Russian-designed shotguns with the big drum magazine, and she poured all of it into me, aiming for my face.

  The second the gun went click instead of boom, I flung myself to one side in a swift roll, just in time to avoid the pounce of a silver-grey malk—a feline creature about the size of a bobcat with wicked claws and the strength of a small bear. It landed where my head had been, its claws gouging chips from the stone floor.

  I kicked the malk with my heel and sent him flying across the hall and into the stone wall. He hit it with a yowl of protest. I whirled my attention back to Mab as she dropped one drum magazine on the floor and produced another.

  Before she could seat it in the weapon, I slashed at the air with my hand and shouted, “Forzare!” Unseen force lashed out and ripped the magazine and the shotgun alike from her hands. I made a yanking motion, and the bouncing shotgun abruptly shot across the empty space between us. I grabbed it by the barrel (which was freaking hot) just as the malk recovered and leapt at me again. I swung the empty shotgun two-handed and slammed the malk in the skull, hard enough to knock it from the air and leave it senseless on the floor.

  Mab let out a delighted silvery laugh and clapped her hands like a little girl who has just been told she’s getting a pony. “Yes!” she said. “Lovely. Brutal, vicious, and lovely.”

  I held on to the shotgun until the stunned malk recovered and began slinking sullenly away, and only after it was out of sight around the corner did I turn to face Mab again.

  “This is getting old,” I said. “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than to play Grimtooth games with me?”

  “Indeed, I do,” she replied. “But why play games if not to prepare for challenges that lie ahead?”

  I rolled my eyes. “Fun?” I suggested.

  The delight faded from her face, replaced by the usual icy calm. It was a scary transformation, and I found myself hoping that I had not provoked her with my wiseassery.

  “The fun begins when the games end, my Knight.”

  I frowned at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

  “That appropriate attire awaits you in your chambers, and that you are to get dressed for the evening.” She turned to walk after the departed malk, her gown whispering on the stone of the floor. “Tonight, my wizard, shall be . . . fun.”

  Chapter

  Two

  Back in my room, I found my clothes waiting for me: a tux in dark silver and pearl. The first of two small paper envelopes proved to contain a pair of jeweled cuff links, the stones too blue and too brilliant to be sapphires.

  The other one held my mother’s amulet.

  It was a simple silver pentacle, a battered five-pointed star bound within a circle, on a simple silver chain. The pentacle’s center was filled with a small red stone, cut to size. I’d once fastened the gem into place with hot glue. Apparently Mab had sent it to a genuine jeweler to attach it with something more solid. I touched the stone gingerly, and could instantly sense the energy within it, the psychic journal of my late mother’s travels.

  I slipped the amulet on over my head and felt a sudden and profound sense of relief. I had thought it lost when my bullet-riddled self had fallen into the waters of Lake Michigan. I stood there with my hand over it for a moment, just feeling the cool metal press against my palm.

  Then I got dressed in the tux and examined myself in a mirror the size of a pool table.

  “Just a gigolo,” I sang, off-key, trying to enjoy myself. “Everywhere I go, people know the part I’m playing.”

  The guy looking at me out of the mirror looked raw and hard. My cheekbones stood out starkly. I’d lost a lot of weight while I was in what amounted to a coma, and my rehabilitation had added only lean muscle back onto me. You could see veins tight against my skin. My brown hair hung down past my jawline, clean but shaggy. I hadn’t cut it or asked for a barber. Things that know magic can do awful stuff to you if they get hold of a lock of your hair, so I’d decided to hang on to mine. I’d ditched the beard, though. Beards grow out so fast that if you shave every day, there isn’t much of a window for anyone to use them against you—and shaved stubble is too diffuse to make a decent channel anyway.

  I looked a little more like my brother with the long hair. Go figure. Long, lean face, dark eyes, a vertical line of a scar under the left one. My skin was absolutely pasty-pale. I hadn’t seen the sun in months. Lots of months.

  As I looked, the song just sort of faded out. I didn’t have the heart for it. I closed my eyes.

  “What the hell are you doing, Dresden?” I whispered. “You’re being kept locked up like a goddamned pet. Like she owns you.”

  “Does she not?” growled a malk’s voice.

  Didn’t I mention it? Those things can talk. They don’t pronounce words too well, and the inhuman sound of it makes the hairs on the back of my everything stand up, but they talk.

  I spun, lifting my hand in a defensive gesture again, but I needn’t have bothered. A malk I didn’t think I’d seen before sat on the floor of my chambers, just inside the door. His too-long tail curled all the way around his front feet and overlapped itself in the back. He was a huge specimen of the breed, maybe eighty or ninety pounds, the size of a young adult mountain lion. His fur was pitch-black, apart from a white spot on his chest.

  One thing I’d learned about malks was that you didn’t show them weakness. Ever. “These are my chambers,” I said. “Get out.”

  The malk bowed its head. “I cannot, Sir Knight. I am under orders from the Queen herself.”

  “Get out before I get you out.”

  The very tip of the big malk’s tail twitched once. “Were you not the bond servant of my Queen, and were I not obliged to show you courtesy, I should like to see you try it, mortal.”

  I squinted at him.

  That was very unmalklike behavior. Apart from one, every malk I’d met had been a bloodthirsty little killing machine, primarily interested in what it could tear apart and devour next. They weren’t much for small talk. They also weren’t terribly brave, especially when alone. A malk might jump you in a dark alley, but you’d never see him coming.

  This one . . . looked like it might like to see me put a chip on my shoulder.

  I extended my senses cautiously and suddenly felt the nearly silent thrum of the malk’s aura. Whoa. The thing had power. Like, lots of power. You couldn’t usually feel a wizard’s aura unless you were close enough to touch it, but I could
feel his from across the room. Whatever that thing was, it only looked like one of the other furry, terminally ADD homicidal maniacs. I reeled in on the attitude.

  “Who are you?”

  The malk bowed his head once. “A faithful servant of the Queen of Air and Darkness. I am most often called Sith.”

  “Heh,” I said. “Where’s your red lightsaber?”

  Sith’s golden eyes narrowed. “When first your kind began scrawling knowledge upon stone and clay, my name was ancient. Walk carefully around it.”

  “Just trying to brighten the conversation with humor, Sithy. You need to cheer up.”

  Sith’s tail twitched again. “Slicing your spine into coasters would cheer me. May I?”

  “Gotta go with ‘no’ on that one,” I said. Then I blinked. “Wait. You’re . . . Cat Sith. The Cat Sith?”

  The malk inclined its head again. “I am he.”

  Hell’s bells. Cat Sith was a major figure in faerie folklore. This thing wasn’t just a malk. It was the freaking monarch of the malks, their progenitor, their Optimus Prime. I’d taken on an ancient faerie creature like this one a few years back. It hadn’t been pretty.

  When Cat Sith had offered to slice my spine into coasters, he wasn’t kidding. If he was anything like the ancient phobophage, he could do it.

  “I see,” I said. “Um. What are you doing here?”

  “I am your batman.”

  “My . . .”

  “Not the notional hero,” Sith said, a bit of a growl in his voice. “Your batman. Your orderly.”

  “Orderly . . .” I frowned. “Wait. You work for me?”

  “I prefer to think of it as managing your incompetence,” Sith replied. “I will answer your questions. I will be your guide while you are here. I will see to it that your needs are met.”

  I folded my arms. “And you work for me?”

  Sith’s tail twitched again. “I serve my Queen.”

  Aha. Evasion. There was something he was avoiding. “You are to answer my questions, are you not?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did Mab order you to obey my commands?”

  Twitch, twitch, twitch went the tail. Sith stared at me and said nothing.

  Silence could generally be taken as assent, but I just couldn’t resist. “Get me a Coke.”

  Sith stared at me. Then he vanished.

  I blinked and looked around, but he was gone. Then, maybe a second and a half later, there was the snap-hiss of a beverage can being opened. I turned and found Cat Sith sitting on one of the room’s dressers. An opened can of Coke sat beside him.

  “Whoa,” I said. “How did . . . You don’t even have thumbs.”

  Sith stared at me.

  I crossed to the dresser and picked up the can. Sith’s eyes tracked me the whole time, his expression enigmatic and definitely not friendly. I sipped at the drink and grimaced. “Warm?”

  “You did not tell me otherwise,” he said. “I shall be happy to similarly fulfill any such command you give me, Sir Knight, but for those that contravene the orders of my Queen.”

  Translation: I don’t want to be here. I don’t like you. Give me commands and I will give you hell for it. I nodded at the malk. “I hear you.” I sipped at the Coke. Warm or not, it was still Coke. “So why the tux? What’s the occasion?”

  “Tonight is a celebration of birth.”

  “Birthday party, huh?” I said. “Whose?”

  Sith said absolutely nothing for several seconds. Then he rose and leapt down to the floor, landing without a sound. He flowed past me to the door. “You cannot possibly be that stupid. Follow me.”

  My hair was still pretty messy. I slopped some water on it and combed it back, which was as close to neat as it was going to get, and then walked after Sith, my patent leather formal shoes gleaming and clicking on the stone floor.

  “Who’s going to be at this party?” I asked Sith when I caught up to him. I hadn’t left my chambers in a while. My entire life had been eating, sleeping, and getting myself put back together. Besides, I hadn’t wanted to go sightseeing around Arctis Tor. The last time I’d been there, I’d pissed off the faeries. Like, all of them. I hadn’t fancied the idea of bumping into some hostile bogeyman looking for payback in a dark corridor. The door leading from my chambers opened by itself, and Sith walked through it with me behind him.

  “The high and mighty among the Winter Sidhe,” Sith said. “Important figures from the Wyld. There may even be a delegation from Summer there.”

  As we emerged into the capital of Winter, the corridors changed from what looked more or less like smooth, poured concrete to crystalline ice in every hue of glacial blue and green, the bands of color merging, intertwining. Flickers of light danced through the depths of the ice like lazy fireflies of violet and crimson and cold sky blue. My eyes wanted to follow the lights, but I didn’t let them. I couldn’t tell you why, but my instincts told me that would be dangerous, and I listened to them.

  “Kind of a big event, huh?” I said. “Think there’ll be a problem with the paparazzi?”

  “One may hope,” Sith said. “Dispatching the perpetrators of such an intrusion would be gratifying.”

  The air was arctic cold. I could feel the biting depth of the chill, but its fangs couldn’t seem to break my skin. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t shiver. I didn’t shake. I chalked it up to the power Mab had given me.

  Sith led me down a much dimmer corridor, and we passed in and out of patches of deep darkness and cold, sullen light. As we did, our shadows danced and stretched. After a few seconds, I noticed that Cat Sith’s shadow was larger than mine. Like, seven or eight times larger than mine. I gulped.

  “The last time I was at a supernatural shindig, I got poisoned and then everything there tried to kill me. So I burned the whole place to the ground,” I said.

  “An appropriate way to deal with one’s enemies,” Sith said. “Perhaps you will find Arctis Tor less flammable.”

  “I’ve never met a place I couldn’t blow up, burn down, or knock over with enough motivation,” I said. “Think anyone at the party wants to kill me?”

  “Yes. I want to kill you.”

  “Because I annoy you?”

  “Because I enjoy it.” Sith glanced up at me for a moment. His billboard-size shadow on the wall mirrored the motion. “And you also annoy me.”

  “It’s one of my gifts. Asking annoying questions is another. Other than you, is there anyone at the party I should make sure not to turn my back to?”

  “You are of Winter now, wizard.” His turned his golden eyes away from me again. “Don’t turn your back to anyone.”

  Chapter

  Three

  Cat Sith led me down passages I had never seen on my previous visit to Mab’s seat of power. Heck, back then I had thought it consisted entirely of a wall around a courtyard and a single turreted tower. I hadn’t ever seen the complex beneath the ice of the courtyard. It was enormous. We walked for ten minutes, mostly in the same direction, before Cat Sith said, “That door.”

  The one he spoke of was made of ice, just like the walls, though it had a thick ring of what might have been silver hanging upon it. I grabbed the ring and tugged, and the door opened easily onto a small antechamber, a little waiting room complete with several easy chairs.

  “Now what?”

  “Go in,” Cat Sith said. “Wait for instructions. Follow instructions.”

  “I’m not good at either of those things,” I said.

  Sith’s eyes gleamed. “Excellent. I have orders to dispatch you if you disobey Mab’s commands or undermine her authority in any way.”

  “Why don’t you go ask Eldest Fetch how easy that one is, Mittens?” I said. “Scat.”

  Sith didn’t vanish this time. He just sort of melted into shadow. His golden eyes remained behind for a few seconds, and then he was gone.

  “Always stealing from the greats,” I mumbled. “Lewis Carroll’s estate should be collect
ing a licensing fee from that guy.”

  Unless, of course, it was maybe the other way around.

  I went into the chamber and the door shut behind me. There was a table with what looked like handmade candies on it. I didn’t touch them. Not because I was worried about my svelte figure, but because I was standing at the heart of wicked faerieland, and eating random candy seemed like a less than brilliant idea.

  There was an old book on the table next to the candies, set carefully and precisely in place beside the dish. It was titled Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I leaned down and opened it. The text was in German. It was really old. The pages were made of paper of the finest quality, thin and crisp and edged in gold foil. On the title page, under the title, were the names Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the year 1812.

  It was autographed, and personalized, “For Mab.” I couldn’t read the text, so I settled for the illustrations. It was better than reading those stupid celebrity magazines in every other waiting room, and was probably more grounded in reality.

  The door opened soundlessly while I looked at the book, and a vision came into the room. She wore a velvet dress the deep blue-purple of twilight. She glanced back toward the hallway behind her as the door closed, and I saw that the dress plunged low in the front. She had matching opera gloves that reached to halfway up her biceps, and there was a garland of periwinkles in her dark hair that complemented the dress gorgeously. Then she turned back to me and smiled. “Oh, my,” she said. “You clean up nicely, Harry.”

  I rose politely to my feet, though it took me a couple of seconds to say, “Sarissa. Wow. You . . . barely look like you.”