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Summer Knight, Page 27

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-seven

  I came to on the ground of that dark Nevernever wood. Spirit realm or not, I felt cold and started shivering uncontrollably. That made playing possum pretty much impossible, so I sat up and tried to take stock.

  I didn't feel any new bruises or breaks, so I hadn't been pounded while I was out. It probably hadn't been long. Mother Winter's Unraveling was no longer in my pocket. My bag was gone, as was my ring and my bracelet. My staff and rod, needless to say, had been taken as well. I could still feel my mother's pentacle amulet against my chest, though, which came as something of a surprise. My hand throbbed, where Mab had driven the freaking letter opener through it.

  Other than that, I felt more or less whole. Huzzah.

  I squinted at my surroundings next and found a ring of toadstools grown up around me. They weren't huge, tentacular, horribly fanged toadstools or anything, but it put a little chill in me all the same. I lifted my hand and reached out for them tentatively, extending my wizard's senses along with the gesture. I hit a wall. I couldn't think of another way to describe it. Where the ring began, my ability to reach, move, and perceive with my supernatural senses simply ended.

  Trapped. Double huzzah.

  Only after I'd gotten an idea of my predicament did I stand up and face my captors.

  There were five of them, which seemed less than fair. I recognized the nearest right away - Aurora, the Summer Lady, now dressed in what I could only describe as a battle gown, made out of some kind of silver mail as fine and light as cloth. It clung closely to her, from the top of her throat down to her wrists and ankles, and shone with its own dim radiance in the forest's gloom. She wore a sword at her hip, and upon her pale hair rested a garland of living leaves. She turned green eyes to me, heartbreakingly lovely, and regarded me with an expression both sad and resolved.

  "Wizard," Aurora said, "I regret that it has come to this. But you have come too close to interfering. Once you had served your purpose, I could not allow you to continue your involvement. "

  I grimaced and looked past her, at the ogre Grum, huge and scarlet-skinned and silent, and the horrific unicorn that had apparently been guarding the way to Mother Winter's cottage.

  "What do you intend to do with me?"

  "Kill you," Aurora said, her voice gentle. "I regret the necessity. But you're too dangerous to be allowed to live. "

  I squinted at her. "Then why haven't you?"

  "Good question," said the fourth person present - Lloyd Slate, the Winter Knight. He still wore his biker leathers, but he'd added bits of mail and a few metal plates to the ensemble. He wore a sword at his hip, another on his back, and bore a heavy pistol on his belt. The gaunt, tense hunger of his expression hadn't changed. He looked nervous and angry. "If it had been up to me, I'd have cut your throat when Grum first dropped you. "

  "Why call him Grum?" I said, scowling at the ogre. "You might as well drop the glamour, Lord Marshal. There's not much point to it now. "

  The ogre's face twisted with surprise.

  I glared spitefully at the dark unicorn and spat, "You too, Korrick. "

  Both ogre and unicorn glanced at Aurora. The Faerie Queen never took her eyes off me, but nodded. The ogre's form blurred and twisted, and resolved itself into the form of Talos, the Sidhe lord from Aurora's penthouse at the Rothchild. His pale hair had been drawn back into a fighting braid, and he wore close-fit mail of some glittering black metal that made him look rail-thin and deadly.

  At the same time the unicorn shook itself and rose up into the hulking form of Korrick, the centaur, also dressed in mail and bearing weapons of faerie make. He stamped one huge hoof and said nothing.

  Aurora walked in a circle around me, frowning. "How long have you known, wizard?"

  I shrugged. "Not long. I started getting it on the way out of Mother Winter's cottage. Once I knew where to start, it wasn't hard to start adding up the numbers. "

  "We don't have time for this," Slate said and spat on the ground to one side.

  "If he puzzled it out, others may have as well," Aurora said, her voice patient. "We should know if any other opposition is coming. Tell me, wizard. How did you piece it together?"

  "Go to hell," I snapped.

  Aurora turned to the last person there and asked, "Can he be reasoned with?"

  Elaine stood a little apart from the others, her back to them. My bag rested on the ground near her feet, and my rod and staff lay there too. She'd added a cloak of emerald green to her outfit, somehow making it look natural. She glanced at Aurora and then at me. She averted her eyes quickly, "You've already told him you're going to kill him. He won't cooperate. "

  Aurora shook her head. "More sacrifices. I am sorry you pushed me to this, wizard. "

  Her hand moved. Some unseen force jerked my chin up, my eyes to hers. They flashed, a ripple of colors, and I felt the force of her mind, her will, glide past my defenses and into me. I lost my balance and staggered, leaning helplessly against the invisible solidity of the circle she'd imprisoned me in. I tried to fight it, but it was like trying to push water up a hill - nothing for me to strain against, nothing for me to focus upon. I was on her turf, trapped in a circle of her power. She flowed into me, down through my eyes, and all I could do was watch the pretty colors.

  "Now," she said, and her voice was the gentlest, sweetest thing I'd ever heard. "What did you learn of the Summer Knight's death?"

  "You were behind it," I heard myself saying, my voice slow and heavy. "You had him killed. "


  "Lloyd Slate. He hates Maeve. You recruited him to help you. Elaine took him inside Reuel's building, through the Nevernever. He fought Reuel. That's why there was ooze on the stairs. The water on Reuel's arms and legs was where Summer fire met Winter ice. Slate threw him down the stairs and broke his neck. "

  "And his mantle of power?"

  "Redirected," I mumbled. "You gathered it in and placed it into another person. "


  "The changeling girl," I said. "Lily. You gave her the mantle and then you turned her to stone. That statue in your garden. It was right in front of me. "

  "Very good," Aurora said, and the gentle praise rippled through me. I fought to regain my senses, to escape the glittering green prison of her eyes. "What else?"

  "You hired the ghoul. The Tigress. You sent her after me before Mab even spoke to me. "

  "I do not know this ghoul. You are incorrect, wizard. I do not hire killers. Continue. "

  "You set me up before I came to interview you. "

  "In what way?" Aurora pressed.

  "Maeve must have ordered Slate to take Elaine out. He made it look like he tried and missed, but Elaine played it for more. You helped her fake the injury. "

  "Why did I do that?"

  "To keep me upset, worried, so that when I spoke to you I wouldn't have the presence of mind to corner you with a question. That's why you attacked me, too. Telling me what a monster I'd become. To keep me off balance, keep me from asking the right questions. "

  "Yes," Aurora said. "And after that?"

  "You decided to take me out. You sent Talos, Elaine, and Slate to kill me. And you created that construct in the garden center. "

  Slate stepped closer. "Spooky," he said. "He doesn't look all that smart. "

  "Yet he used only reason. Plus knowledge doubtless gained from the Queens and Mothers. He put it together for himself, rather than being told. " At that, her gaze slanted past me, to Elaine. I tried to pull away and couldn't.

  "Great," Slate said. "No one squealed. Can we kill the great Kreskin now?"

  Aurora held up a hand to Slate, and asked me, "Do you know my next objective?"

  "You knew that if you bound up the Summer Knight's mantle, Mother Winter would provide an Unraveling to free it and restore the balance. You waited for her to give it to me. Now you're going to take it and the statue of Lily. You're going to take her to the Stone Table during t
he battle. You'll use the Unraveling, free Lily from being stone, and kill her on the table after midnight. The Summer Knight's power will go to Winter permanently. You want to destroy the balance of power in Faerie. I don't know why. "

  Aurora's eyes flashed dangerously. She removed her gaze from mine, and it was like suddenly falling back up a flight of stairs. I staggered back, tearing my eyes from her and focusing on the ground.

  "Why? It should be obvious to you why, wizard. You of all people. " She spun in a glitter of silvery mail, pacing restlessly back and forth. "The cycle must be broken. Summer and Winter, constantly chasing each other, wounding what the other heals and healing what the other wounds. Our war, our senseless contest, waged for no reason other than that it has always been so - and mortals trapped between us, crushed by the struggle, made pawns and toys. " She took a shuddering, angry breath. "It must end. And I will end it. "

  I ground my teeth, shivering. "You'll end it by sending the natural world into chaos?"

  "I did not set the price," Aurora hissed. I caught sight of her eyes out of the corner of my vision and started tracking up to her face. I forced my gaze down again, barely in time. She continued speaking, in a low, impassioned voice. "I hate it. I hate every moment of the things I've had to do to accomplish this - but it should have been done long since, wizard. Delay is just as deadly. How many have died or been tormented to madness by Maeve, and those like her? You yourself have been tortured, abused, nearly enslaved by them. I do what must be done. "

  I swallowed and said, "Harming and endangering mortal kind in order to help them. That's insane. "

  "Perhaps," Aurora said. "But it is the only way. " She faced me again and asked, her voice cold, "Does the White Council know what you have discovered?"

  "Bite me, faerie fruitcake. "

  Slate stifled a laugh, hiding it under a cough. I felt more than saw Aurora's sudden surge of rage, sparked by the Winter Knight but directed at me. A flare of light erupted from her, and I felt a sudden heat against the side of my body nearest her. The hairs on my arm rose straight up. Her voice rang out, hot and violent and strong. "What did you say, ape?"

  "They don't," Elaine said, her voice tense. She put herself between me and Aurora, her back to me. "He told me before we left for the Mothers'. The Council doesn't realize the depth of what's happening. By the time they do, it will be too late for them to act. "

  "Fine," Slate said. "He's the last loose end, then. Kill him and let's get on with it. "

  "Dammit, Slate," I said. "Use your head, man. What do you think you're going to get out of helping her like this?"

  Slate gave me a cold smile. "That old bastard Reuel's power, for one thing. I'll be twice the Knight I was before - and then I'm going to settle some accounts with that little bitch Maeve. " He licked his lips. "After that, Aurora and I will decide what to do next. "

  I let out a harsh bray of laughter. "I hope you got that in writing, dimwit. Do you really think she would let a man, and a mortal at that, have that much power over her?" Slate's eyes became wary, and I pressed him. "Think about it. Has she ever given it to you straight, a statement, not a question or a dodge, or something she's led you to assume?"

  Suspicion grew in his gaze, but Aurora laid a hand on his shoulder. Slate's eyes grew a little cloudy at her touch, and he closed them. "Peace, my Knight," the Summer Lady murmured. "The wizard is a trickster, and desperate. He would say anything he thought might save him. Nothing has changed between us. "

  I ground my teeth at the meaningless words, but Aurora had Slate's number, whatever it was. Maybe all that time in Maeve's company had softened him, the drugs and pleasures she fed him making him more open to suggestion. Maybe Aurora had just found a hole in his psychology. Either way, he wasn't going to listen to me.

  I looked around, but Korrick and Talos ignored me. Aurora kept on whispering to Slate. That left only one person to talk to, and the thought of it felt like someone driving nails into my chest. "Elaine," I said. "This is crazy. Why are you doing this?"

  She didn't look up at me. "Survival, Harry. I promised to help Aurora or to give up my own life as forfeit in payment for all the years she protected me. I didn't know when I made the promise that you were going to be involved. " She fell quiet for a moment, then swallowed before she said, her voice forced a little louder, "I didn't know. "

  "If Aurora isn't stopped, someone is going to get hurt. "

  "Someone gets hurt every day," Elaine answered. "When you get right down to it, does it matter who? How? Or why?"

  "People are going to die, Elaine. "

  That stung her, and she looked up at me, sharp anger warring with a sheen of tears in her grey eyes. "Better them than me. "

  I faced her, without looking away. "Better me than you, too, huh?"

  She broke first, turning to regard Aurora and Slate. "Looks that way. "

  I folded my arms and leaned against the back of my toadstool cell. I went over my options, but they were awfully limited. If Aurora wanted me dead, she would be able to see to it quite handily, and unless the cavalry came riding over the hill, there wasn't diddly I could do about it.

  Call me a pessimist, but my life has been marked with a notable lack of cavalry. Checkmate.

  Which left me with one last spell to throw. I closed my eyes for a moment, reaching inside, gathering up the magic, the life force within me. Any wizard has a reservoir of power inherent in him, power drawn from the core of his self rather than from his surroundings. Aurora's circle could cut me off from drawing upon ambient magic to fuel a spell - but it couldn't stop me from using the energy within me.

  Granted, once used, there wouldn't be anything left to keep me breathing, my heart pumping, and electricity going through my brain. But then, that's why they call it a death curse, isn't it?

  It was only a moment later that I opened my eyes, to see Aurora draw back from Lloyd Slate. The Winter Knight focused his eyes on me, scary eyes empty of anything like reason, and drew the sword from his belt.

  "A grim business," Aurora said. "Good-bye, Mister Dresden. "