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Summer Knight, Page 23

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-three

  I took the Beetle a ways north of town, keeping to the lake shore. Rain sheeted down, and lightning made the clouds dance with shadow and flame. Maybe ten miles from the center of town, the downpour eased up, and the air became noticeably colder - enough so that in jeans and a tee, I was shivering. I pulled the car off Sheridan Road a couple miles north of Northwestern University, out toward Winnetka, set the parking brake and locked it up, and trudged toward the shore of the lake.

  It was a dark night, but I called no lights to guide me, and I didn't carry a flashlight. It took my eyes a while, but I finally managed to start making out shapes in the darkness and found my way through the light woods around this part of the lake shore to a long, naked promontory of rock thrusting itself a dozen yards into the water. I walked to the end of the stone and stood there for a moment, listening to the thunder rolling over the lake, the wind stirring the water into waves nearly like those of the sea. The air itself felt restless, charged with violence, and the light rain that still fell was uncomfortably cold.

  I closed my eyes, pulling together energy from the elements around me, where water met stone, air met water, stone met air, and drawing as well from my own determination. The power coursed into me, dancing and seething with a quivering life of its own. I focused it with my thoughts, shaped it, and then opened my eyes and lifted my arms, wrists out so that the old pale round scars on either side of the big blue veins there felt the rain falling on them.

  I pushed out the power I'd gathered and called into the thunder and rain, "Godmother! Vente, Leanansidhe!"

  A sudden presence appeared beside me, and a woman's voice said, "Honestly, child, it isn't as though I'm far away. There's no reason to shout. "

  I jerked in surprise and nearly fell into the lake. I turned to my left to face my faerie godmother, who stood calmly upon the surface of the water, bobbing up and down a bit as waves passed under her feet.

  Lea stood nearly my own height, but instead of dark contrasts and harsh angles, she was a creature of gliding curves and gentle shades. Hair the color of flame coursed in curls and ringlets to below her hips, and tonight she wore with it a gown of flowing emerald silk, laced through with veins of ochre and aquamarine. A belt made from a twisted braid of silken threads of gold wound around her waist, and a dark-handled knife rested on a slant at her hip through a loop in the belt.

  She was one of the high Sidhe, and her beauty went without saying. The perfection of her form was complemented by features of feminine loveliness, a full mouth, skin like cream, and oblong, feline eyes of gold, cat-slitted like those of most fae. She took in my surprise with a certain reserved mirth, her mouth set with a tiny smile.

  "Good evening, Godmother," I said, trying for a proper degree of politeness. "You look lovely as the stars tonight. "

  She let out a pleased sigh. "Such a flatterer. I'm already enjoying this conversation so much more than the last. "

  "I'm not dying this time," I said.

  The smile faded. "That is a matter of opinion," she responded. "You are in great danger, child. "

  "Thinking about it, I realize I generally have been whenever you were around. "

  She clucked reprovingly. "Nonsense. I've never had anything but your best interests at heart. "

  I barked out a harsh laugh. "My best interests. That's rich. "

  Lea arched a brow. "What reason have you to think otherwise?"

  "For starters, because you tricked me out of a big evil slaying magic sword and sold me to Mab. "

  "Tut," Lea said. "The sword was just business, child. And as for selling your debt to Mab . . . I had no choice in the matter. "

  "Yeah, right. "

  She arched her brows. "You should know better, dear godchild. You know I cannot speak what is untrue. During our last encounter I returned to Faerie with great power and upset vital balances. Those balances had to be redressed, and your debt was the mechanism that the Queen chose to employ. "

  I frowned at her for a minute. "Returned with great power. " My eyes fell to the knife at her waist. "That thing the vampires gave you?"

  She rested her fingers lightly on the knife's hilt. "Don't cheapen it. This athame was no creation of theirs. And it was less a gift than a trade. "

  "Amoracchius and that thing are in the same league? Is that what you're saying?" Gulp. My faerie godmother was dangerous enough without a big-time artifact of magic. "What is it?"

  "Not what, but whose," Lea corrected me. "And in any case, you may be assured that surrendering my claim on you to Mab was in no way an attempt to do you harm. I have never meant you lasting ill. "

  I scowled at her. "You tried to turn me into one of your hounds and keep me in a kennel, Godmother. "

  "You'd have been perfectly safe there," she pointed out. "And very happy. I only wanted what was best for you because I care for you, child. "

  My stomach did a neat little rollover, and I swallowed. "Yeah. Uh. It's very . . . you. I guess. In a demented, insane way, I can understand that. "

  Lea smiled. "I knew you would. To business, then. Why have you called to me this night?"

  I took a deep breath and braced myself a little. "Look, I know we haven't gotten along really well lately. Or ever. And I don't have a lot to trade with, but I had hoped you'd be willing to work out a bargain with me. "

  She arched a red-gold brow. "To what ends?"

  "I need to speak to them," I said. "To Mab and Titania. "

  Her expression grew distant, pensive. "You must understand that I cannot protect you from them, should they strike at you. My power has grown, poppet, but not to those heights. "

  "I understand. But if I don't get to the bottom of this and find the killer, I'm as good as dead. "

  "So I have heard," my godmother said. She lifted her right hand and extended it to me. "Then give me your hand. "

  "I need my hand, Godmother. Both of them. "

  She let out a peal of laughter. "No, silly child. Simply put your hand in mine. I will convey you. "

  I gave her a sidelong look and asked warily, "At what price?"

  "None. "

  "None? You never do anything without a price. "

  She rolled her eyes and clarified, "None to you, child. "

  "Who, then?"

  "No one you know, or knew," Lea said.

  An intuition hit me. "My mother. That's who you're talking about. "

  Lea left her hand extended. She smiled, but only said, "Perhaps. "

  I regarded her hand quietly for a moment, then said, "I'm not sure I can believe that you're really going to protect me. "

  "But I already have. "

  I folded my arms. "When?"

  "If you will remember that night in the boneyard, I healed a wound to your head that may well have killed you. "

  "You only did it to sucker me into getting you the sword!"

  Lea's tone became wounded. "Not only for that. And if you consider further, I also freed you of a crippling binding and rescued you from a blazing inferno not twenty-four hours later. "

  "You charged my girlfriend all her memories of me to do it! And you only saved me from the fire so that you could put me in a doghouse. "

  "That does not change the fact that I was, after all, protecting you. "

  I stared at her in frustration for a minute and then scowled. "What have you done for me lately?"

  Lea closed her eyes for a moment, then opened her mouth and spoke. Her voice came out aged and querulous. "What's all that racket! I have already called the police, I have! You fruits get out of our hall or they'll lock you away!"

  I blinked. "Reuel's apartment. That was you?"

  "Obviously, child. And at the market, earlier this eve. " She lifted her hand in the air, made an intricate motion with long, pale fingers, and opened her mouth again, as if singing a note of music. Instead, the sound of police sirens emerged, somewhat muted and indistinguishable from the real thing.
  I shook my head. "I don't get it. "

  She moved her fingers again, and the sirens blended into another silver-sweet laugh, her expression amused, almost fond. "I am sure you do not, poppet. " She offered her hand again. "Come. Time is pressing. "

  She had that part right at least. And I knew she was telling me the truth. Her words had left her little room for evasion. I'd never gotten anything but burned when making deals with the faeries, and if Lea was offering to help me for free, there had to be a catch somewhere.

  Lea's expression told me that she either knew what I'd been thinking or knew me well enough to guess, and she laughed again. "Harry, Harry," she said. "If it is of any consequence to you, remember that our bargain is still in effect. I am bound to do you no harm for several weeks more. "

  I'd forgotten about that. Of course, I couldn't fully trust to that, either. Even if she had sworn to do me no harm, if I asked her to take me somewhere she could drop me off in a forest full of Unseelie nasties without breaking her word. She'd done something very similar to me last year.

  Thunder rumbled again, and the light flared even more brightly in the clouds. Tick, tick, tick, the clock was running, and I wasn't going to get anything done standing here waffling. Either I trusted myself to my godmother or I went back home and waited for something to come along and squash me.

  Going with Lea wasn't the best way to get what I wanted - it was just the only way. I took a breath and took her hand. Her skin felt like cool silk, untouched by the rain. "All right. And after them, I need to see the Mothers. "

  Lea gave me an oblique glance and said, "Survive the flood before hurling yourself into the fire, child. Close your eyes. "


  Annoyance flickered over her eyebrows. "Child, stop wasting time with questions. You have given me your hand. Close your eyes. "

  I muttered a curse to myself and did it. My godmother spoke something, a string of liquid syllables in a tongue I could not understand - but it made my knees turn rubbery and my fingers suddenly feel weak. A wave of disorientation, dizzying but not unpleasantly so, scrambled my sense of direction. I felt a breeze on my face, a sense of movement, but I couldn't have said whether I was falling or rising or moving forward.

  The movement stopped, and the whirling sensations passed. Thunder rumbled again, very loudly, and the surface I stood on shook with it. Light played against my closed eyelids.

  "We are here," Lea said, her voice hushed.

  I opened my eyes.

  I stood on a solid surface among grey and drifting mist. The mist covered whatever ground I was on, and though I poked at it with my foot, I couldn't tell if it was earth, wood, or concrete. The landscape around me rolled in hills and shallow valleys, all of it covered in ground fog. I frowned up at the skies. They were clear. Stars glittered impossibly bright against the velvet curtain of night, sparkling in dozens of colors, instead of in the usual pale silver, jewels against the blackness of the void. Thunder rumbled again, and the ground shook beneath the mist. Lightning flashed along with it, and the ground all around us lit with a sudden angry blue fire that slowly faded away.

  The truth dawned on me slowly. I pushed my foot at the ground again, and then in a circle around me. "We're . . . " I choked. "We're on . . . we're on . . . "

  "The clouds," my godmother said, nodding. "Or so it would seem to you. We are no longer in the mortal world. "

  "The Nevernever, then. Faerie?"

  She shook her head and spoke, her voice still hushed, almost reverent. "No. This is the world between, the sometimes place. Where Chicago and Faerie meet, overlap. Chicago-Over-Chicago, if you will. This is the place the Queens call forth when the Sidhe desire to spill blood. "

  "They call it forth?" I asked in a quiet voice. "They create it?"

  "Even so," Lea said, her voice similarly low. "They prepare for war. "

  I turned slowly, taking it in. We stood on a rise of ground in a broad, shallow valley. I could make out what looked like a mist-shrouded lake shore not far away. A river cut through the cloudscape.

  "Wait a minute," I said. "This is . . . familiar. " Chicago-Over-Chicago, she had said. I started adding in mental images of buildings, streets, lights, cars, people. "This is Chicago. The land. "

  "A model of it," Lea agreed. "Crafted from clouds and mist. "

  I kept turning and found behind me a stone, grey and ominous and enormous, startlingly solid amid all the drifting white. I took a step back from it and saw the shape of it - a table, made of a massive slab of rock, the legs made of more stones as thick as the pillars at Stonehenge. Writing writhed across the surface of the stone, runes that looked a little familiar. Norse, maybe? Some of them looked more like Egyptian. They seemed to take something from several different sources, leaving them unreadable. Lightning flashed again through the ground, and a wave of blue-white light flooded over the table, through the runes, lighting them like Las Vegas neon for a moment.

  "I've heard of this," I said after a moment. "A long time ago. Ebenezar called it the Stone Table. "

  "Yes," my godmother whispered. "Blood is power, child. Blood spilled upon that stone forever becomes a part of who holds it. "

  "Who holds it?"

  She nodded, her green eyes luminous. "For half of the year, the Table lies within Winter. For half, within Summer. "

  "It changes hands," I said, understanding. "Midsummer and Midwinter. "

  "Yes. Summer holds the Table now. But not for much longer. "

  I stepped toward the Table and extended a hand. The air around it literally shook, pressing against my fingers, making my skin ripple visibly as though against a strong wind - but I felt nothing. I touched the surface of the Table itself, and could feel the power in it, buzzing through the flowing runes like electricity through high-voltage cables. The sensation engulfed my hand with sudden heat and violence, and I jerked my fingers back. They were numb, and the nails of the two that had touched the table were blackened at the edges. Wisps of smoke rose from them.

  I shook my fingers and looked at my godmother. "Let me get this straight. Blood spilled onto the Table turns into power for whoever holds it. Summer now. But Winter, after tomorrow night. "

  Lea inclined her head, silent.

  "I don't understand what makes that so important. "

  She frowned at the Table, then began pacing around it, slowly, clockwise, her eyes never leaving me. "The Table is not merely a repository for energy, child. It is a conduit. Blood spilled upon its surface takes more than merely life with it. "

  "Power," I said. I frowned and folded my arms, watching her. "So if, for instance, a wizard's blood spilled there . . . "

  She smiled. "Great power would come of it. Mortal life, mortal magic, drawn into the hands of whichever Queen ruled the Table. "

  I swallowed and took a step back. "Oh. "

  Lea completed her circuit of the table and stopped beside me. She glanced furtively around her, then looked me in the eyes and said, her voice barely audible, "Child. Should you survive this conflict, do not let Mab bring you here. Never. "

  A chill crawled down my spine. "Yeah. Okay. " I shook my head. "Godmother, I still don't get what you're trying to tell me. Why is the Table so important?"

  She gestured, left and right, toward a pair of hilltops facing one another across the broad valley. I looked at one, squinting at a sudden blur in my vision. I tried looking at the other, and the same thing happened. "I can't see," I said. "It's a veil or something. "

  "You must see if you are to understand. "

  I drew in a slow breath. Wizards can see things most people can't. It's called the Sight, the Third Eye, a lot of other names. If a wizard uses his Sight, he can see the forces of magic themselves at work, spells like braids of neon lights, veils pierced like projections on a screen. A wizard's Sight shows things as they truly are, and it's always an unsettling experience, one way or the other. What you see with the Sight stays with
you. Good or bad, it's always just as fresh in your mind as if you'd just seen it. I'd looked on a little tree-spirit being with my Sight when I'd been about fourteen, the first time it had happened to me, and I still had a perfect picture of it in my head, as though I was still looking at it, a little cartoonish being that was part lawn gnome and part squirrel.

  I'd seen worse since. Much worse. Demons. Mangled souls. Tormented spirits. All of that was still there too. But I'd also seen better. One or two glimpses of beings of such beauty and purity and light that it could make me weep. But each time it got a little harder to live with, a little harder to bear, a cumulative weight.

  I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and with careful deliberation unlocked my Sight.

  Opening my eyes again made me stagger as I was hit with a sudden rush of impressions. The cloudy landscape absolutely seethed with magical energies. From the southern hilltop, wild green and golden light spilled, falling over the landscape like a translucent garden, vines of green, golden flowers, flashes of other colors spread through them, clawing at the gentle ground, anchored here and there at points of light so vibrant and bright that I couldn't look directly at them.

  From the other side, cold blue and purple and greenish power spread like crystals of ice, with the slow and relentless power of a glacier, pressing ahead in some places, melted back in others, especially strong around the valley's winding rivers.

  The conflict of energies both wound back to the hilltops themselves, to points of light as bright as small suns. I could, just barely, see the shadow of solid beings within those lights, and even the shadow of each was an overwhelming presence upon my senses. One was a sense of warmth, choking heat, so much that I couldn't breathe, that it pressed into me and set me aflame. The other was of cold, horrible and absolute, winding cold limbs around me, stealing away my strength. Those presences flooded through me, sudden beauty, power so terrifying and exhilarating and awesome that I fell to my knees and sobbed.

  Those powers played against one another - I could sense that, though not the exact nature of their conflict. Energies wound about one another, subtle pressures of darkness and light, leaving the landscape vaguely lit in squares of cold and warm color. Fields of red and gold and bright green stood against empty, dead blocks of blue, purple, pale white. A pattern had formed in them, a structure to the conflict that was not wholly complete. Most of a chessboard. Only at the center, at the Table, was the pattern broken, a solid area of Summer's power in green and gold around the Stone Table, while Winter's dark, crystalline ice slowly pressed closer, somehow in time with the almost undetectable motion of the stars overhead.

  So I saw it. I got a look at what I was up against, at the naked strength of the two Queens of Faerie, and it was bigger than me. Every ounce of strength I could have summoned would have been no more than a flickering spark beside either of those blazing fountains of light and magic. It was power that had existed since the dawn of life, and would until its end. It was power that had cowed mortals into abject worship and terror before - and I finally understood why. I wasn't a pawn of that kind of strength. I was an insect beside giants, a blade of grass before towering trees.

  And there was a dreadful attraction in seeing that power, something in it that called to the magic in me, like to like, made me want to hurl myself into those flames, into that endless, icy cold. Moths look at bug zappers like I looked at the Queens of Faerie.

  I tore my eyes away by hiding my face in my arms. I fell to my side on the ground and curled up, trying to shut the Sight, to force those images to stop flooding over me. I shook and tried to say something. I'm not sure what. It came out as stuttering, gibbering sounds. After that, I don't remember much until cold rain started slapping me on the cheek.

  I opened my eyes and found myself lying on the cold, wet ground on the shores of Lake Michigan, where I'd first called out to my godmother. My head was on something soft that turned out to be her lap. I sat up and away from her quickly. My head hurt, and the images the Sight had showed me made me feel particularly small and vulnerable. I sat shivering in the rain for a minute before I glanced back at my godmother.

  "You should have warned me. "

  Her face showed no remorse, and little concern. "It would have changed nothing. You needed to see. " She paused and then added, "I regret that it was the only way. Do you yet understand?"

  "The war," I said. "They'll fight for control of the area around the Table. If Summer holds the space, it won't matter if it's Winter's time or not. Mab won't be able to reach the table, spill blood on it, and add the power of the Summer Knight to Winter. " I took a breath. "There was a sense to what they were doing. As though it was a ritual. Something they'd done before. "

  "Of course," Lea said. "They exist in opposition. Each wields vast power, wizard - power to rival the archangels and lesser gods. But they cancel one another flawlessly. And in the end, the board will be evenly divided. The lesser pieces will emerge and do battle to decide the balance. "

  "The Ladies," I said. "The Knights. "

  "And," Lea added, lifting a finger, "the Emissaries. "

  "Like hell. I'm not fighting in some kind of fucked-up faerie battle in the clouds. "

  "Perhaps. Perhaps not. "

  I snorted. "But you didn't help me. I needed to speak to them. Find out if one of them was responsible. "

  "And so you did. More truly than if you'd exchanged words. "

  I frowned at her and thought through what I knew, and what I'd learned on my trip to the Stone Table. "Mab shouldn't be in any hurry. If Summer is missing her Knight, Winter has the edge if they wait. There's no need to take the Table. "

  "Yes. "

  "But Summer is moving to protect the Table. That means Titania thinks someone in Winter did it. But if Mab is responding instead of waiting, it means . . . " I frowned. "It means she isn't sure why Summer is moving. She's just checking Titania's advance. And that means that she isn't sure whodunit, either. "

  "Simplistic," Lea said. "But accurate enough reasoning, poppet. Such are the thoughts of the Queens of the Sidhe. " She looked out across the lake. "Your sun will rise in some little time. When once again it sets, the war will begin. In a balanced Court, it would mean, perhaps, little of great consequence to the mortal world. But that balance is gone. If it is not restored, child, imagine what might happen. "

  I did. I mean, I'd had an idea what might go wrong before, but now I knew the scale of the forces involved. The powers of Winter and Summer weren't simply a bunch of electricity in a battery. They were like vast coiled springs, pressing against one another. As long as that pressure was equal, the energies were held in control. But an imbalance in one side or the other could cause them to slip, and the release of energies from either side would be vast and violent, and sure to inflict horrible consequences on anything nearby - in this case, Chicago, North America, and probably a good chunk of the rest of the world with it.

  "I need to see the Mothers. Get me to them. "

  Lea rose, all grace and opaque expression, impossible to read. "That, too, is beyond me, child. "

  "I need to speak to the Mothers. "

  "I agree," Lea said. "But I cannot take you to them. The power is not mine. Perhaps Mab or Titania could, but they are otherwise occupied now. Committed. "

  "Great," I muttered. "How do I get to them?"

  "One does not get to the Mothers, child. One can only answer an invitation. " She frowned faintly. "I can do no more to help you. The lesser powers must take their places with the Queens, and I am needed shortly. "

  "You're going?"

  She nodded, stepped forward, and kissed my brow. It was just a kiss, a press of soft lips against my skin. Then she stepped back, one hand on the hilt of the knife at her belt. "Be careful, child. And be swift. Remember - sundown. " She paused and looked at me askance. "And consider a haircut. You look like a dandelion. "

  And with that, she stepped out onto the lake, and her
form melted into water that fell back into the storm-tossed waters with a splash.

  "Great," I muttered. I kicked a rock into the water. "Just great. Sundown. I know nothing. And the people I need to talk to screen all of their calls. " I picked up another rock and threw it as hard as I could over the lake. The sound of rain swallowed up the splash.

  I turned and trudged back toward the Beetle through the thunder and the rain. I could see the shapes of the trees a bit better now. Dawn must be coming on, somewhere behind the clouds.

  I sat down behind the wheel of the trusty Beetle, put the key in, and started the car.

  The battered old Volkswagen wheezed once, lurched without being put into gear, and then started to fill with smoke. I choked and scrambled out of the car. I hit the release on the engine cover and opened it. Black smoke billowed out, and I could dimly see fire behind it, chewing up some part of the engine. I went back to the front storage compartment, got out the fire extinguisher, and put out the fire. Then I stood there in the rain, tired and aching and staring at my burnt engine.

  Dawn. At Midsummer, that meant I had maybe fifteen hours to figure out how to get to the Mothers. Somehow, I doubted that their number was listed. Even if it had been, my visit to the battleground around the Stone Table had shown me that the Queens possessed far more power than I could have believed. Their sheer presence had nearly blown the top off my head from a mile away - and the Mothers were an order of magnitude above even Mab and Titania.

  I had fifteen hours to find the killer and restore the Summer Knight's mantle to the Summer Court. And then to stop a war happening in some wild nether-place between here and the spirit world that I had no idea how to reach.

  And my car had died. Again.

  "Over your head," I muttered. "Harry, this is too big for you to handle alone. "

  The Council. I should contact Ebenezar, tell him what was happening. The situation was too big, too volatile, to risk screwing it up over a matter of Council protocol. Maybe I'd get lucky and the Council would A, believe me, and B, decide to help.

  Yeah. And maybe if I glued enough feathers to my arms, I'd be able to fly.