Cold Days, Page 31Jim Butcher
Paranoia—because why should the conspiracy theorists get to have all the fun?
I just couldn’t see any of these people turning on me, no matter the influence. But if you could see treachery coming all that easily, Julius Caesar might have lived to a ripe old age. I’d always been slightly inclined to the paranoid. I had a sinking feeling I was going to start developing my latent potential.
I picked my words very carefully.
“Over the past several years,” I said, “there have been several conflicts between two different interests. Several times, events have been driven by internal conflicts within one or both of those interests.”
“Like what?” Butters asked.
“Dual interests inside the Red Court, for one,” I said. “One of them trying to prevent conflict with the White Council, one of them trying to stir it up. Multiple Houses of the White Court rising up to vie for control of it. The Winter and Summer Courts posturing and interfering with each other when Winter’s territory was violated by the Red Court.” I didn’t want to get any more specific than that. “Do you guys see what I’m getting at here?”
“Oh!” Butters said. “It’s a phantom menace!”
“Ah!” Molly said.
Karrin glanced around at all of us and then said, “Translate that from nerd to English, please.”
“Someone is out there,” I said. “Someone who has been manipulating events. Playing puppet master, stirring the pot, stacking the deck—”
“Mixing metaphors?” Thomas suggested.
“Fuck off. I’m just saying that this situation has the same shape as the others. Mab and Maeve at each other’s throats, with Summer standing by ready to get involved, and Outsiders starting to throw their weight around.”
“The Black Council,” Molly whispered.
“Exactly,” I said, which it wasn’t. Up until earlier today, I had known someone was covertly causing the world a lot of grief—and due to their connections with some grim events within the White Council I had assumed it was a group of wizards, which was both naturally arrogant and extremely nearsighted of me. But what if I’d been wrong? What if the Black Council was just one more offshoot of one enormous, intangible enemy? If what I’d gotten from Lily was accurate, the problem was a hell of a lot bigger than I had realized.
And I did not want that problem to know that I had spotted it.
“The Black Council,” I said. “A group of practitioners using dark magic to influence various events around the world. They’re powerful, they’re bad news, and if I’m right, they’re here. If they’re here, I figure it’s a good bet that Sharkface and his chums—”
“Shark,” Butters said. “Chums. Funny.”
“Thank you for noticing,” I said, and continued the sentence. “—are working for the Black Council.”
“The theoretical Black Council,” Karrin said.
“They’re out there, definitely,” I said.
Karrin smiled faintly. “If you say so, Mulder.”
“I’m going to ignore that. The only question is whether or not they’re here now.”
Molly nodded seriously. “If they are? How do we find them?”
“We don’t,” I said. “There isn’t enough time to go sniffing around methodically. We know someone’s going to mess with the island. It doesn’t really matter who’s pressing the button that sets off the bomb. We just have to keep it from getting pressed. The Little Folk find us that ritual site, and then we go wreck it.”
“Um,” Butters said. “Not that I lack confidence in you guys, but shouldn’t we be calling in the cavalry? I mean, doesn’t that make more sense?”
“We are the cavalry,” I said in a flat tone. “The White Council won’t help. Even if I knew the current protocols to contact them, it would take them days to verify that I am in fact alive and still me, and we only have hours. Besides, Molly’s on their most-wanted list.”
I didn’t add in the third reason not to contact the Council—when they found out about my relationship with Mab, the monarch of a sovereign and occasionally hostile supernatural nation, they would almost certainly panic and assume that I was a massive security risk. Which would, for a variety of reasons and to a variety of degrees, be an accurate assumption. And now that I thought about it, given how my, ah, induction had been psychically broadcast to all of Faerie, there was no chance whatsoever that the Council didn’t know. Knowing stuff is what they do.
Butters frowned. “The Paranetters?”
“No,” I said. “The last thing we need is a small army of newbies floundering around and stumbling into us. That’s asking for trouble in the short term, the long term, and every other term there might be. We can go to them for information only. We aren’t dragging them in.”
The little ME took off his glasses and cleaned them absently with the hem of his scrubs. “What about Lara’s team? Or the Einherjaren?”
Thomas shrugged. “I could probably convince Lara to send the team somewhere.”
“Ditto,” Karrin said, “only with Vikings.”
“Good,” I said. “We might need more bodies, and we might need to cover multiple sites. Can you two get that lined up when we break?”
“Molly,” I said. “You’ll take the map up to our little scouts and tell them where to look and what to look for. Keep it simple and promise an entire pizza to whoever finds what we’re after.”
My apprentice grinned. “Drive their performance with competition, eh?”
“Millions of abusively obsessed sports parents can’t be wrong,” I said. “Butters, you’ll go to the Paranetters and ask if anyone’s seen or heard anything unusual anywhere even close to Lake Michigan. No one investigates anything. They just report. Get me all the information you can about any odd activity in the past week. We need to collect data as quickly as possible.”
“Right,” Butters said. “I’ve got some now, if you want.”
I blinked. I mean, I knew the Internet was the fast way to spread information, but . . . “Seriously?”
“Well,” Butters hedged. “Sort of. One of our guys is a little, um, imaginative.”
“You mean paranoid?”
“Yes,” Butters said. “He’s got this Internet lair in his mother’s basement. Keeps track of all kinds of things. Calls it observing the supernatural through statistics. Sends me a regional status update every day, and my spam blockers just cannot keep him out.”
“Hngh,” I said, as if I knew what a spam blocker was. “What’s he got to say about today?”
“That boat rentals this morning were four hundred percent higher today than the median for this time of year, and dark forces are bound to be at work.”
“Boat rentals,” I muttered.
“He’s a little weird, Harry,” Butters said. “I mean, he has a little head-shot photo tree of the people responsible for the Cubs’ billy goat curse. That kind of odd. He blows the curve.”
“Tell him to take the tree down. The billy goat curse was a lone gunman,” I said. “But paranoid doesn’t necessarily equal wrong. Boats . . .”
I bowed my head and closed my eyes for a moment, thinking, but if Butter’s paranoid basement freak was right, then the puzzle piece he’d handed me was woefully unhelpful. I needed more pieces. “Okay,” I said. “Right. Get more data.” I looked up, jerked my head at Thomas, and headed for the kitchen. “Let’s go talk to our guest about his boss.”
* * *
I leaned down to look into the oven through the glass door. There was no light inside, but I could make out Captain Hook’s armored form huddled disconsolately on a coated cookie sheet. I knocked on the glass, and Captain Hook’s helmet turned toward me.
“I want to talk to you,” I said. “You’re my prisoner. Don’t try to fight me or run away or I’ll have to stop you. I’d rather just have a nice conversation. Do you understand me?”
Hook didn’t give me any indications either way. I took silence as a
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to open the door now.” I cracked open the oven door and opened it slowly, doing my best not to loom. Tough to do when you’re the size of a building relative to the person over whom you are standing. “Now just take it easy and we will—”
I’d opened the door maybe six inches when Captain Hook all but vanished in a blur of speed. I swiped an arm at him about a second and a half too late, but I didn’t feel too bad about missing, because Thomas tried to snatch the little maniac, too, and missed completely.
Hook, who worked for our enemies, and who had been right there in the kitchen the whole time we’d been scheming, shot toward a vent on one wall, crossing the room in the blink of an eye, and none of us could react in time to stop him.
None of us but the major general.
Toot dropped down from where he’d been crouched atop a bookcase, intercepting Hook’s darting black form, and tackled the other little faerie to the floor in the middle of the living room. They landed with a thump on the carpeting, wings still blurring in fits and starts, and tumbled around the floor in irregular bursts and hops, sometimes rolling a few inches, sometimes bounding up and coming down six feet away.
Toot had planned for this fight. He’d tackled Hook into the carpet, where the hooks on his armor would get tangled and bind him, slowing him down. Furthermore, Toot’s hands were wrapped in cloth until it looked like he was wearing mittens or boxing gloves, and he managed to seize Hook by the hooks on the back of his armor. He swung the other little faerie around in a circle and then with a high-pitched shout flung him into the wall.
Captain Hook slammed into the wall, putting gouges in the freshly painted drywall, then staggered back and fell to the ground. Toot bore down with a vengeance, drawing his little sword, and the armored figure held up a mailed fist. “Invocation!” he piped in a high, clear voice. “I am a prisoner! I invoke Winter Law!”
Toot’s sword was already in midswing, but at those last two words he checked himself abruptly, pulling the weapon back. He hovered there over Hook with his feet an inch off the ground, gritting his teeth, but then he buzzed back from Hook and sheathed the sword.
“Uh,” I said. “Toot? What just happened?”
Toot-toot landed on the kitchen counter next to me and stomped around in a circle, clearly furious. “You opened your big fat mouth!” he screamed. After a moment, he added, sullenly, “My lord.”
I frowned at Toot and then at Hook. The enemy sprite just sat there on the floor, making no further effort to escape. “Okay,” I said. “Explain that.”
“You offered to take him prisoner,” Toot said. “By Winter Law, if he accepts your offer he may not attempt escape or offer any further resistance to you for as long as you see to his needs. Now you can’t kill him or beat him up or anything! And I was winning!”
I blinked. “Yeah, okay, fine. So let’s make with the questions already.”
“You can’t!” Toot wailed. “You can’t try to make him betray his previous covenants or terror-gate him or anything!”
I frowned. “Wait. He’s a guest?”
“By Winter Law?” I asked.
“Yes! Sort of.”
“Well,” I said, starting toward Hook. “I never signed on to that treaty. So screw Winter Law—”
And abruptly, as if someone had just slammed a row of staples into my skin, the mantle of the Winter Knight vanished completely. Pain soared back into my body, inflamed tissue crying out, my bruises throbbing, the edemas beneath my skin pounding with a horrible tightness. Fatigue hit me like a truck. The sensations were so intense, the only way I could tell that I had fallen to the floor was by looking.
And my body abruptly went numb and useless from my stomach down.
That scared the hell out of me and confirmed one of my worst fears. When I’d consented to serve Mab, my back had been broken, my spine damaged. Taking up the mantle had covered what would probably have been a crippling and long-term injury. But without it, my body was only mortal. Better than most at recovering over time, but still human. Without the mantle, I wouldn’t have legs, bladder or bowel control, or, most important, independence.
I was on the ground like that for a subjective week, but it could have been only a few seconds before Thomas reached my side, with Murphy, Butters, and Molly right behind him. I knew they were there because I could see them, but their voices swam down to me from what seemed like a great distance among the cacophony of raking sensations scouring my nervous system. They lifted me to a sitting position—and then abruptly the pain was gone, and my legs started moving again, jerking in a single, gentle spasm.
The mantle had been restored.
“Okay,” I said in a ragged voice. “Uh. Maybe we won’t screw Winter Law.”
“Harry,” Thomas said, as if he’d said my name several times already. “What happened?”
“Uh,” I said. “I think it’s . . . a side effect. Fallout from defying the order of things.”
“What?” he asked.
“Faeries,” I said. “They’re kind of insane, and mischievous, and dangerous as hell, but they all share one trait—they’re good to their word. They obey what they recognize as law. Especially Mab.”
“You aren’t making much sense right now,” Thomas said.
“The mantle of power comes from Mab. And now it’s in me. But it’s still a piece of her. If I go violating her own realm’s laws, it looks like the mantle isn’t going to have my back.”
“Meaning I’d better figure out what the laws are pretty damned quick,” I replied. “Help me up.”
Thomas hauled me to my feet and I looked at Toot. “You know the Winter Law?”
“Well,” Toot said as if I were an idiot, “of course.”
“Where can I learn it?”
Toot tilted his head. “What?”
“Winter Law,” I said. “Where can I learn it?”
“I don’t understand,” Toot said, tilting his head the other way.
“Oh, for the love of . . .” I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. “Toot. Can you read?”
“Sure!” Toot said. “I can read ‘pizza’ and ‘exit’ and ‘chocolate’!”
“All three, huh?”
“You’re a scholar and a gentleman,” I said. “But where did you learn Winter Law?”
Toot shook his head as if mystified. “You don’t learn it, Harry. You just . . . know it. Everyone knows it.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“Maybe you’re too big,” Toot said. “Or too loud. Or, you know—too human.”
I grunted. Then I eyed Hook, who had continued to sit in the same spot during the entire conversation. “So I’ve gone and made him my guest, eh?”
“Well. More like your vassal.”
I frowned. “Uh? What?”
“That’s what surrender is, duh,” Toot said. “His life is yours to do with as you please. And as long as you don’t starve him or make him an oathbreaker, you can tell him to do whatever you want. And if his liege wants him back, he has to pay you for him.”
“Ah. Medieval-style ransom.”
Toot looked confused. “He did run some, but I stopped him, my lord. Like, just now. In front of you. Right over there.”
There were several conspicuous sounds behind me, the loudest from my apprentice, and I turned to eye everyone else. They were all either covering smiles or holding them back—poorly. “Hey, peanut gallery,” I said. “This isn’t as easy as I’m making it look.”
“You’re doing fine,” Karrin said, her eyes twinkling.
“Come on, Toot,” I said, and walked over to Hook.
The little faerie sat there, apparently ignoring me, which took considerable nerve. If I fell or stepped on him, it would be like a tree falling on a lumberjack. If I were try
ing to hurt him, physically, I could twist him up like Stretch Armstrong.
On the other hand, Hook was a faerie. It probably never even occurred to him that I might violate Mab’s laws.
“The prisoner will stand and face the Za Lord!” Toot shrilled.
Hook obediently got up and turned to face me.
“Identify yourself, please,” I said. “I don’t want your Name. Just something to call you.”
“By some I am called Lacuna,” he replied.
“Suits me, Lacuna,” I said. “Remove the helmet, please. I want to see who I’m supporting.”
Lacuna reached up and removed the face-shrouding helmet.
She was gorgeous.
Fine black hair bound into a braid at least a foot long spilled down out of the helmet when she did. Her skin was paper white, her huge eyes black all the way through. There were small markings or tattoos of some kind in deep purple ink on her skin, but they shifted slightly as I watched, some fading from sight, others appearing. Her features were long and very lean. She had a straight razor’s elegant, dangerous beauty.
Toot’s jaw just about dropped off of his head. “Wow!”
“Hmmm,” Karrin said. “That’s the one who beat you up last night, is it?”
“And tripped him this morning,” Thomas reminded her.
“And tripped me this morning,” I growled. I turned back to Lacuna and studied her for a moment. She looked back at me without blinking. Actually, she didn’t move at all—except for her braid, which drifted upward like cobwebs over a heating vent.
“Huh,” I said. “Was not expecting that.”
Lacuna stared, her eyes flat.
“I won’t ask you to break your word,” I told her. “And I will treat you with respect and provide for your needs in exchange for your service. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Lacuna said.
“Wow!” said Toot.
“Without breaking any oath, I would like to know,” I said, “whatever you can tell me about the person you were serving until you were taken prisoner.”