Cold days, p.26
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Cold Days, p.26

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  My grandfather had taught me that magic wasn’t something you used in a cavalier fashion, and it wasn’t considered to be a seductive, corruptive force, the way black magic and the Winter Knight’s mantle were. I had an instinct that the more I leaned on Mab’s power, the more of an effect it would have on me. No sense flaunting it.

  Once I was inside, I found myself in a setting of isolation that would be hard to duplicate anywhere else this close to the city. The gardens are the size of a moderate farm, more than three hundred acres. That wouldn’t mean much to city mice, but to translate that into Chicago units, it was a couple of dozen city blocks’ worth of garden. That’s a lot of space to wander in. You could walk the various paths for hours and hours without ever visiting the same place.

  Most of those paths were grey and empty. I passed a retiree near the entrance, and a groundskeeper hurrying out of the rain toward what looked like a concealed toolshed, and other than that it seemed like I had the whole place to myself.

  There were seasonal decorations out here and there—a lot of pumpkins and cornstalks, where they’d been planning on Halloween festivities. Apparently they were going to be hosting some kind of trick-or-treating function that afternoon, but for the time being the place did not teem with costumed children and bedraggled parents. It was a little eerie, really. The place looked like it should have been crowded, and felt like it was meant to be crowded, but my soft footsteps were the only sound other than the whisper of rain.

  Yet I did not feel as though I were alone. You hear the phrase “I felt like I was being watched” all the time. There’s a good reason for that—it’s a very real feeling, and it has nothing to do with magic. Developing an instinct for sensing when a predator might be studying you is a fundamental survival trait. If you’re ever in a spooky situation and have a strong instinct that you are being watched, hunted, or followed, I advise you not to treat those instincts lightly. They’re there for a reason.

  I walked for about five minutes, and instinct converted into certainty. I was being followed. I couldn’t spot who was doing it, exactly, and there were all kinds of plant cover to conceal whoever or whatever was pacing me, but I was confident that they were out there.

  Maybe my brother’s fears hadn’t been entirely without merit.

  Lily hadn’t said where she intended to meet me, exactly—or rather, I chided myself, I hadn’t badgered Cat Sith hard enough for the details. The furry jerk had calmly denied me that rather important piece of information, simply by never mentioning it, and I hadn’t questioned him closely enough. My own fault. I’d played the malicious obedience card more than a couple of times in my life, but this was the first time I’d had it played against me.

  Man. No wonder it drives people insane.

  So I started walking the main paths systematically. The gardens are built on a series of islands in a little lake, joined by footbridges and grouped into themes.

  I found Lily waiting on the covered bridge to the Japanese garden.

  Her long, fine hair flowed in gentle waves to the small of her back. It was silver-white. Evidently the weather didn’t bother her either. She was dressed in a simple green sundress that fell to her knees, the kind of thing you’d expect to see in July. She had a pastel green sweater folded over one arm for appearance’s sake. Brown leather sandals wrapped her feet, and their ties crisscrossed around her ankles. She stood very still, her deep green eyes focused on the ripples the little raindrops sent up on the surface of the lake.

  And if I hadn’t known better, if I hadn’t known Lily’s features well enough to be sure it was her, I would have sworn that I was looking at Aurora, the Summer Lady I’d murdered at the stone table.

  Before stepping onto the bridge, I paused for a moment to look around me, to truly focus my senses. There, in the bushes—something that moved with feline smoothness paced me in utter silence. More presences filled the water, stirring up more ripples than the rain could account for. And on the far side of the bridge, a number of presences lurked, veiled by magic that kept me from knowing anything about them beyond the fact of their existence.

  I figured that there were at least twice as many guardians present, the ones I couldn’t sense without really buckling down. They would probably be the most capable and powerful of Lily’s escort, too.

  If Lily meant to do me harm, walking out onto that bridge was a great way to trap myself, and an absolutely fantastic place in which to be shot. The railing on either side was of light, fine material, and would provide no real cover. There were an almost unlimited number of places where a rifleman could be lying in wait. If I went out there and Lily meant to hurt me, I’d have a hell of a time arguing with her.

  But she’d given her word that she wouldn’t. I tried to look at this from her point of view—after all, I hadn’t given my word, and even if I had, I could always break it. Had I intended to attack Lily, the bridge presented her with an opportunity to block me in, to slow me down while she and her people escaped.

  Screw this. I didn’t have time to waffle.

  I hunched my shoulders, hoped no one was about to shoot me again, and strode out onto the bridge.

  Lily didn’t give any indication that she’d noticed me until I got to within about ten feet of her. Then she simply lifted her eyes from the water, though she never looked at me.

  I’d been the one to ask for this meeting. I stopped, gave her a bow, and said, “Thank you for meeting me, Lady Summer.”

  She inclined her head the slightest visible degree. “Sir Knight.”

  “Been a while,” I said.

  “Relative to what?” she asked.

  “Life, I guess,” I said.

  “Much has happened,” she agreed. “Wars have raged. Empires have fallen.” She finally turned her head to regard me directly. “Friends have changed.”

  Lily had been gorgeous as a mortal woman. After becoming the Summer Lady, her beauty had been magnified into something that was only barely human, something so tangible and intense that it shone out from her like light flowing out of her skin. It was a different kind of beauty from Mab’s or Maeve’s. Their loveliness was an emptiness. Looking on them created nothing but desire, a need that cried out to be filled.

  By contrast, Lily’s beauty was a fire, a source of light and warmth, something that created a profound sense of satisfaction. Looking at Lily made the pains of my heart ease, and I suddenly felt like I could breathe freely for the first time in months.

  And some other part of me abruptly filled my mind with a violent and explicit image—my fist tangled in Lily’s hair, that soft gentle mouth under mine, her body writhing beneath my weight as I took her to the ground. It wasn’t an idle thought, and it wasn’t a daydream, and it wasn’t a fantasy. It was a blueprint. If Lily was immortal, I couldn’t kill her. That didn’t mean I couldn’t take her.

  I forgot how to speak for a couple of seconds as I fought the image out of my forebrain. Then I forced myself to look away from her, out to the water of the lake. I leaned down on the guardrail, gripping it with my hands. I was a little worried that if I didn’t give them something to do, they might try something stupid. I took a cleansing breath and reengaged my speech centers. “I’m not the only one who’s changed since that day.”

  I could feel her eyes on me, intently studying my face. I had a feeling that she knew exactly what I’d just felt. “True,” she murmured. “But we’ve made our choices, haven’t we? And now we are who we are. I am sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Sir Knight.”

  “What? Just now?”

  I saw her nod in my peripheral vision. “A moment ago, you looked at me. I have seen a face with that precise expression before.”

  “Slate.”

  “Yes.”

  “Well,” I growled, “I’m not Slate. I’m not some pet monster Maeve made to play with.”

  “No,” Lily said, her voice sad. “You are a weapon Mab made to war with. You poor man. You always had such a good heart.”

 
Had?” I asked.

  “It isn’t yours any longer,” Lily said quietly.

  “I disagree,” I said. “Strenuously.”

  “And the need you felt a moment ago?” she asked. “Did that urge come from your heart, Sir Knight?”

  “Yes,” I said simply.

  Lily froze for a second, her head tilting slightly to one side.

  “Bad things are inside everyone,” I said. “I don’t care how gentle or holy or sincere or dedicated you are. There are bad things in there. Lust. Greed. Violence. You don’t need a wicked queen to make that happen. That’s a part of everyone. Some more, some less, but it’s always there.”

  “You say that you were this wicked from the beginning?” Lily asked.

  “I’m saying I could have been,” I said. “I chose something else. And I’m going to continue choosing something else.”

  Lily smiled faintly and looked back at the lake. “You wished to speak to me about my knight.”

  “Fix, yeah,” I said. “He basically gave me until noon to leave town, or we shoot it out at the OK Corral. I’m busy. I don’t have time to skip town. But I don’t want either of us to get hurt.”

  “What do you wish me to do?”

  “Tell him to stand down,” I said. “Even if only for a few days. It’s important.”

  Lily bowed her head. “It grieves me to say this, Sir Knight. But no. I will not.”

  I tried not to grind my teeth audibly. “And why not?”

  She studied me again, her green eyes intense. “Can it be?” she asked. “Can it be that you have come so far, have fallen in with your current company, without realizing what is happening here?”

  “Uh,” I said, frowning. “You mean here, today?”

  “I mean here,” Lily said. “In our world.”

  “Yeah, uh. Maybe you haven’t heard, but I haven’t been in our world much lately.”

  Lily shook her head. “The pieces are all in front of you. You have only to assemble them.”

  “Vague much?” I asked. “Why can’t you just tell me what the hell you’re talking about?”

  “If you do know, there is no need to speak. If you truly do not know, no amount of speech will convince you. Some things must be learned for oneself.”

  I made a disgusted sound and spit into the lake. Take that, lurking bodyguards. “Lily,” I said. “Look, this isn’t complicated. Fix is about to come at me. I don’t want to hurt him. So I came here in peace to try to talk it out. What have I done here today that has convinced you that I’m some kind of psychotic maniac who can’t be trusted?”

  “It isn’t anything you’ve done,” Lily said. “It isn’t anything you had any control over. You didn’t know.”

  I threw up my hands at that. “Didn’t know what?”

  Lily frowned and studied me, her expression drawn with worry. “You . . .” She shook her head. “God, Harry. You really mean it. You aren’t her creature?”

  “No,” I said. “Not yet.”

  Lily nodded and seemed to think for a moment. Then she asked, “Would it pain you for me to touch you?”

  “Why?” I asked.

  “Because I must know,” she said. “I must know if it is upon you yet.”

  “What?”

  She shook her head. “I cannot risk answering any questions until I am sure.”

  I grunted. I thought about it. Yeah, I could keep my inner caveman on a leash, if it meant getting some answers. “Okay,” I said. “Go ahead.”

  Lily nodded. Then she walked toward me. She reached up and her slender, warm fingers touched my forehead, like a mother checking a child for a temperature. She stayed that way for a long moment, her eyes distant.

  Then abruptly she let out a little cry and flung her arms around me. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, oh, oh. We thought you taken.”

  Okay, inner caveman or not, when a girl that pretty is giving you a full-body hug, you don’t come up with the wittiest dialogue. “Uh. I haven’t had a girlfriend for a while now.”

  Lily leaned her head back and laughed. The sound of it was like eating hot cookies, melting into a warm shower, and snuggling a fuzzy puppy all at the same time. “Enough,” she said. “Enough, come out. He is a friend.”

  And, just like that, faeries popped out of absolutely everything in sight. Elves, tiny humanoids no more than a couple of feet high, rose up out of the bushes. A serpent the size of a telephone pole slithered out of the bridge’s rafters. Seven or eight silver-coated faerie hounds emerged from behind a stand of groomed arbor vitae. Two massive centaurs and half a dozen Sidhe of the Summer Court simply blinked into visibility from behind their veils. They were all armed with bows. Yikes. If I’d meant Lily any harm, my body would have resembled a feathery porcupine. The water stirred, and then a number of otters who were all too big to have been born this side of the last ice age came rushing out.

  “Ee-aye, ee-aye, oh,” I said. “Uh, wow. All this for me?”

  “Only a fool wouldn’t respect your strength,” she said. “Particularly now.”

  Personally, I thought she’d gotten to overkill about one elf after those bows, but I didn’t want her to know that. “Okay,” I said. “You touched me. Make with some answers.”

  “Certainly,” she said. Then she moved her hand, and the open air suddenly had the enclosed feeling of a small room. When she spoke, her voice sounded odd, as if it were coming over a radio. She’d put up a privacy spell so that no one could listen in. “What would you like to know?”

  “Um, right,” I said. “Why did you touch my head like that? What were you looking for?”

  “A disease,” she replied. “A parasite. A poison.”

  “Could you repeat that answer, only without the poetry?”

  Lily faced me squarely, her lovely face intent. “Sir Knight, you must have seen it. You must have seen the contagion spreading. It has been before your eyes for years.”

  “I haven’t seen . . .” Then I paused. My head started adding things together. “You . . . you aren’t talking about a physical disease, are you?”

  “Of course not,” Lily said. “It is a kind of spiritual malady. A mental plague. An infection slowly spreading across the earth.”

  “And . . . this plague. What does it do?” I asked.

  “It changes that which ought not change,” she said quietly. “It destroys a father’s love for his family by twisting it into maniacal ambition. It distorts and corrupts the good intentions of agents of mortal law into violence and death. It erodes the sensible fear that keeps a weakly talented sorcerer from reaching out for more power, no matter how terrible the cost.”

  I felt my head rock back as if she’d slammed a croquet mallet into it, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach again.

  “Victor Sells the Shadowman,” I whispered. “Agent Denton and the Hexenwolves. Leonid Kravos the Nightmare. My first three major cases.”

  “Yes,” Lily whispered. “Each of them was tainted by the contagion. It destroyed them.”

  I put a hand on the rail and leaned against it. “Fourth case. Aurora. A champion of peace and healing who set out to send the natural world into havoc.”

  Lily’s eyes glistened with tears. “I saw what it did to her,” she said. “I didn’t know what was happening to my friend, but I saw it changing her. Twisting her day by day. I loved Aurora like a sister, Sir Knight. But in the end, even I could see what she had become.” Tears fell, and she made no effort to wipe them away. “I saw. I knew. In the end, you may have killed her, Harry. But you also did her a kindness.”

  I shook my head. “I . . . I don’t understand why you didn’t want to tell me about it.”

  “No one who knows of this speaks of it,” Lily said.

  “Why not?”

  “Don’t you see?” Lily said. “What if you had been tainted as well? And I revealed to you that I recognized what was happening?”

  I kicked my brain into gear and thought. “Uh . . . then . . .” I felt sick. “You’d be a threat.
I’d have to kill you to keep you quiet. Or make you the next recruit.”

  “Exactly,” Lily said.

  “But why suspect me of being tainted . . . ?” I heard my own voice trail off as I realized the only thing that could have moved Lily against me so strongly.

  “Be at ease,” Lily said, and beckoned.

  And freaking Maeve, the Winter Lady, strolled onto the far end of the bridge and sauntered toward us. She was dressed in leather pants of dark purple and a periwinkle sweater whose sleeves fell past the ends of her fingers, and her mouth was curled into a tiny, wicked smirk. “Hey, there, big guy,” she purred. “Lily give you the skinny?”

  “Not yet,” Lily said. “Maeve, this isn’t the sort of thing one should simply ram down another’s throat.”

  “Of course it is,” Maeve said, her smile widening.

  “Maeve—” Lily began.

  Maeve did a little pirouette that wound up with her toes practically touching mine as she smiled up at me, her too-sharp teeth very white. “Do you have a camera? I want someone to get a picture.”

  “Oh, dear,” Lily said.

  Maeve leaned in close, her smile widening. “Mab,” she breathed, “my mother, the Queen of Air and Darkness, and your liege . . .” She leaned closer and whispered, “Mab has been tainted and has gone utterly mad.”

  My spine turned to brittle ice. “What?”

  Lily looked up at me with a sad, sober expression.

  Maeve let out a peal of giggles. “It’s true,” she said. “She means to destroy the mortal world, wizard, and to do it this very night—to unleash chaos and havoc that have not been known since the fall of Atlantis. And make no mistake, she will destroy it.”

  Lily nodded, her eyes pained. “Unless,” she began. “Unless . . .”

  I finished the thought Lily obviously did not want to complete. “Unless,” I whispered, “someone destroys her first.”

  Chapter

  Twenty-five

  This day had begun so simply: I’d nearly been killed at my birthday party and Mab had ordered me to kill an immortal. I’d survived the first, and if I’d had the good sense to shut up and do the second without asking questions, I might be somewhere reading a nice book or something, and waiting out the clock until it was Maeve-whacking time.