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Summer Knight, Page 25

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-five

  The carriage took off so smoothly that I almost didn't feel it. I leaned over the window and twitched the shade aside. We pulled away from the hotel and into traffic with no one the wiser, cars giving us a wide berth even while not noting us. That was one hell of a veil. The carriage didn't jounce at all, and after about a minute wisps of mist began to brush up against the windows. Not long after, the mists blocked out the view of the city entirely. The street sounds faded, and all that was left was silver-grey mist and the clop of horse hooves.

  The carriage stopped perhaps five minutes later, and the door swung open. I opened my gym bag and took out my rod and staff. I slipped the sword cane through my belt and drew out my amulet to lie openly on my chest. Elaine did the same with hers. Then we got out of the carriage.

  I took a slow look at my surroundings. We stood on some kind of spongy grass, on a low, rolling hill surrounded by other low, rolling hills. The mist lay over the land like a crippled storm cloud, sluggish and thick in some places, thinner in others. The landscape was dotted with the occasional tree, boles thick and twisted, branches scrawny and long. A tattered-looking raven crouched on a nearby branch, its bead-black eyes gleaming.

  "Cheery," Elaine said.

  "Yeah. Very Baskerville. " The carriage started up again, and I looked back to see it vanishing into the mist. "Okay. Where to now?"

  At my words the raven let out a croaking caw. It shook itself, bits of moldy feather drifting down, and then beat its wings a few times and settled on another branch, almost out of sight.

  "Harry," Elaine said.


  "If you make any corny joke using the word 'nevermore, I'm going to punch you. Do you understand me?"

  "Never more," I confirmed. Elaine rolled her eyes. Then we both started off after the raven.

  It led us through the cloudy landscape, flitting silently from tree to tree. We trudged behind it until more trees began to rise in the mist ahead of us, thickening. The ground grew softer, the air more wet, cloying. The raven let out another caw, then vanished into the trees and out of sight.

  I peered after it and said, "Do you see a light back there in the trees?"

  "Yes. This must be the place. "

  "Fine. " I started forward. Elaine caught my wrist and said in a sharp and warning tone, "Harry. "

  She nodded toward a thick patch of shadows where two trees had fallen against one another. I had just begun to pick out a shape when it moved and came forward, close enough that I could make it out clearly.

  The unicorn looked like a Budweiser horse, one of the huge draft beasts used for heavy labor. It had to have been eighteen hands high, maybe more. It had a broad chest, four heavy hooves, forward-pricked ears, and a long equine face.

  That was where its resemblance to a Clydesdale ended.

  It didn't have a coat. It just had a smooth and slick-looking carapace, all chitinous scales and plates, mixing colors of dark green and midnight black. Its hooves were cloven and stained with old blood. One spiraling horn rose from its forehead, at least three feet long and wickedly pointed. The spirals were serrated on the edges, some of them covered with rust-brown stains. A pair of curling horns, like those of a bighorn sheep, curved around the sides of its head from the base of the horn. It didn't have any eyes - just smooth, leathery chitin where they should have been. It tossed its head, and a mane of rotted cobwebs danced around its neck and forelegs, long and tattered as a burial shroud.

  A large moth fluttered through the mist near the unicorn. The beast whirled, impossibly nimble, and lunged. Its spiral skewered the moth, and with a savage shake of its head, the unicorn threw the moth to the earth and pulverized the ground it landed on with sledgehammer blows of the blades of its hooves. It snorted after that, and then turned to pace silently back into the mist-covered trees.

  Elaine's eyes widened and she looked at me.

  I glanced at her. "Unicorns," I said. "Very dangerous. You go first. "

  She arched an eyebrow.

  "Maybe not," I relented. "A guardian?"

  "Obviously," Elaine said. "How do we get past it?"

  "Blow it up?"

  "Tempting," Elaine said. "But I don't think it will make much of an impression on the Mothers if we kill their watchdog. A veil?"

  I shook my head. "I don't think unicorns rely on the normal senses. If I remember right, they sense thoughts. "

  "In that case it shouldn't notice you. "

  "Hah," I said in a monotone. "Hah-hah, ho-ho, oh my ribs. I have a better plan. I go through while you distract it. "

  "With what? I'm fresh out of virginity. And that thing doesn't look much like the unicorns I saw in Summer. It's a lot less . . . prancy. "

  "With thoughts," I said. "They sense thoughts, and they're attracted to purity. Your concentration was always better than mine. Theoretically, if you can keep an image in your head, it should focus on it and not you. "

  "Think of a wonderful thought. Great plan, Peter Pan. "

  "You have a better one?"

  Elaine shook her head. "Okay. I'll try to lead him down there. " She gestured down the line of trees. "Once I do, get moving. "

  I nodded, and Elaine closed her eyes for a moment before her features smoothed over into relaxation. She started forward and into the trees, walking at a slow and measured pace.

  The unicorn appeared again, ten feet in front of Elaine. The beast snorted and pawed at the earth and reared up on its hind legs, tossing its mane. Then it started forward at a slow and cautious walk.

  Elaine held out her hand to it. It let out a gurgling whicker and nuzzled her palm. Still moving with dreamlike slowness, Elaine turned and began walking down the length of the lines of trees. The unicorn followed a pace or two behind her, the tip of its horn bobbing several inches above Elaine's right shoulder.

  They'd gone several paces before I saw that the plan wasn't working. The unicorn's body language changed. Its ears flattened back to its skull, and its feet shifted restlessly before it finally rose up on its hind hooves, preparing to lunge, with the deadly horn centered on Elaine's back.

  There wasn't time to shout a warning. I lifted my blasting rod in my right hand, summoned the force of my will, and pushed it through the focus with a shout of "Fuego!"

  Fire erupted from the tip of the rod, a scarlet ribbon of heat and flame and force that lanced out toward the unicorn. After having seen how spectacularly useful my magic wasn't on the Ogre Grum, I didn't want to chance another faerie beast shrugging it off. So I wasn't shooting for the unicorn itself - but for the ground at its feet.

  The blast ripped a three-foot trench in the earth, and the unicorn screamed and thrashed its head, trying to keep its balance. A normal horse would have toppled, but the unicorn somehow managed to get a couple of feet onto solid ground and hurled itself away in a forty-foot standing leap. It landed on its feet, already running, body sweeping in a circle to bring it charging toward me.

  I ran for the nearest tree. The unicorn was faster, but I didn't have far to go, and I put the trunk between us.

  It didn't slow down. Its horn slammed into the trunk of the dead tree and came through it as though it hadn't been there. I flinched away, but not fast enough to avoid catching several flying splinters in the chest and belly, and not fast enough to avoid a nasty cut on my left arm where one of those serrated edges of the horn ripped through my shirt. The pain of the injuries registered, but only as background data. I stepped around the bole of the tree, taking my staff in both hands, and swung it as hard as I could at the delicate bones of the unicorn's rear ankle.

  Well, on a horse they're delicate. Evidently on unicorns, they're just a bit tender. The faerie beast let out a furious scream and twisted its body, tearing through the tree, shredding it as it whipped its horn free and whirled to orient on me. It lunged, the horn spearing toward me. I swept my staff up, a simple parry quatre, and shoved the tip out past my body w
hile darting a pair of steps to my right, avoiding the beast's oncoming weight. I kept going, ducking a beat before the unicorn planted its forequarters, lifted its hind, and twisted, lashing out toward my head with both rear hooves. I rolled, came up running, and ducked behind the next tree. The unicorn turned and began stalking toward me, circling the tree, foam pattering from its open mouth.

  Elaine cried out, and I whipped my head around to see her lifting her right hand, the ring on it releasing a cloud of glowing motes that burst around her in a swarm. The little lights streaked toward the unicorn and gathered around it, swirling and flashing in a dazzling cloud. One of them brushed against me, and my senses abruptly went into whiteout, overwhelmed with a simple image of walking down a sidewalk in worn shoes, the sun bright overhead, a purse bumping on my hip, stomach twinging with pleasant hunger pangs, the scent of hot asphalt in my nose, children laughing and splashing somewhere nearby. A memory, something from Elaine. I staggered and pushed it away from me, regaining my senses.

  The motes crowded around the unicorn, darting in to brush against it one at a time, and at each touch the faerie beast went wild. It spun and kicked and screamed and lashed out with its horn, lunging at insubstantial adversaries in wild frenzy, but all to no avail.

  I looked past them to see Elaine standing in place, her hand extended, her face set in an expression of concentration and strain. "Harry," she shouted. "Go. I'll hold it. "

  I rose, heart pounding. "You got it?"

  "For a little while. Just get to the Mothers," Elaine responded. "Hurry!"

  "I don't want to leave you alone. "

  A bead of sweat trickled down the side of her face. "You won't be. When it gets loose, I'm not waiting around for it to skewer me. "

  I gritted my teeth. I didn't want to leave Elaine, but to be fair, she'd done better than I had. She stood against the unicorn still, only a dozen long strides away, her hand extended, the creature as contained as if she'd wrapped it in a net. My slender and straight and beautiful Elaine.

  Memories, images washed through me, dozens of little things I'd forgotten coming back to me all at once; her laugh, quiet and wicked in the darkness; the feeling of her slender fingers slipping through mine; her face, asleep on the pillow beside me, gentle and peaceful in the morning sun.

  There were many more, but I pushed them away. That had been a long time ago, and they wouldn't mean a thing if neither of us survived the next few minutes and hours.

  I turned my back on her, left her struggling against the strength of that nightmarish unicorn, and ran toward the lights in the mist.