Cold days, p.42
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       Cold Days, p.42

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “He thinks it suits you,” Molly said, smiling.

  “Goofy motorcycle cowboy meets Scotland Yard?”

  Mouse wagged his tail.

  I grunted as Karrin pulled in and parked her Harley far down the row from the Munstermobile, in a motorcycle parking space. She eyed me as she came walking up to us, then Molly, and gave her an approving nod. “That’s more like it,” she said.

  “Feels good,” I said. I nodded toward the water, where the Water Beetle was chugging slowly back into its berth. Thomas was at the wheel, maneuvering the tub deftly. I waved at him and he replied with a thumbs-up gesture. The boat was ready to go.

  I turned to speak to the others, but before I could, I felt my concentration disrupted. An eerie, cool frisson rolled down my spine, all the way down my body to my legs. There was a flicker and a chill from the little wound, and the pain became a little less. At the same moment, I sensed the air grow a fraction of a degree colder, something I would never have noticed on my own.

  Sundown.

  “That’s it,” I said a second later. “Sun’s down. It’s on.”

  “What if you’re too late?” Sarissa asked. “What if they’re starting right now?”

  “Then we’re wasting time talking about it,” Molly said. “Let’s get to the boat.” She beckoned Mac and Sarissa. “This way, please.”

  I glanced at Mouse and jerked my chin toward Molly. He heaved himself up and went after her, walking just behind our two unknown quantities.

  Karrin had opened a storage compartment on her Harley. She shrugged out of her jacket, and then slipped into a tactical harness and clicked it shut around her. She added a number of nylon pouches to it, then took out a gym bag and dropped heavy objects in before shutting the compartment and locking it. She looked up at me and nodded. “All set?”

  “I miss my gear,” I said. “P90 in there?”

  “His name is George,” Karrin said. “You want my backup gun?”

  “Nah, I’ve already got the finest killing technology 1866 had to offer on the boat. Glad I didn’t name it George. How embarrassing would that have been?”

  “George isn’t insecure,” she said.

  “What about, ah . . . ?”

  “The Swords?”

  “The Swords.”

  “No,” Karrin said.

  “Why not?”

  She frowned and then shook her head. “This . . . isn’t their fight.”

  “That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.

  “I’ve wielded one,” she said. “And it makes perfect sense to me. To use them tonight would be to make them vulnerable. No.”

  “But—” I began.

  “Harry,” Karrin said. “Remember the last time the Swords went to the island? When their actual adversaries were there? Remember how that turned out?”

  My best friend, Molly’s dad, had been shot up like a Tennessee speed limit sign. The Swords had a purpose, and as long as they kept to it, they were invulnerable, and the men and women who wielded them were avenging angels. But if they went off mission, bad things tended to happen.

  “Trust me,” Karrin said quietly. “I know it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes faith is like that. This isn’t their fight. It’s ours.”

  I growled. “Fine. But tell the Almighty that He’s missing His chance to get in on the ground floor of something big.”

  Murphy punched my chest, but gently, and smiled when she did it. The two of us turned toward the dock and began to follow Molly and the others. I was just about to step out onto the dock when I heard something. I stopped in my tracks and turned.

  It started low and distant, a musical cry from somewhere far away. It hung in the darkening air for a moment like some carrion bird over dying prey, and then slowly faded.

  The wind started picking up.

  Again the tone sounded, nearer, and the hairs on my arms stood straight up. Thunder rumbled overhead. The rain, a fitful drizzle most of the day, began to fall in chilly earnest.

  And again the hunting horn sounded.

  My heart started revving up, and I swallowed. Footsteps approached, and then Thomas was standing beside me, staring out the same way I was. Without speaking, he passed me the Winchester rifle and the ammunition belt.

  “Is it . . . ?” I asked him.

  His voice was rough. “Yeah.”

  “Dammit. How soon?”

  “Soon. Coming right through the heart of downtown.”

  “Fuck,” I said.

  Karrin held both hands up. “Wait, wait, the both of you. What the hell is happening?”

  “The Wild Hunt is coming,” I said, my throat dry. “Um . . . I sort of pissed off the Erlking a while back. He’s not the kind of person to forget that.”

  “The king of earls?” Karrin asked. “Now who isn’t making sense?”

  “He’s a powerful lord of Faerie,” Thomas explained. “He’s one of the leaders of the Wild Hunt. When the Hunt comes to the real world, it starts hunting prey and it doesn’t stop. You can join it, you can hide from it, or you can die.”

  “Wait,” Karrin said. “Harry—they’re hunting you?”

  My heart continued to beat faster, pumping blood to my muscles, keying my body to run, run, run. It was hard to think past that and answer her question. “Uh, yeah. I can . . . I think I can feel them coming.” I looked at Thomas. “Water?”

  “They’ll run over it like it was solid ground.”

  “How do you know that?” Karrin asked.

  “I joined,” Thomas said. “Harry, Justine.”

  I clenched my hands into fists on the heavy rifle. “Get on the boat and go.”

  “I’m not leaving you.”

  “Oh, yes, you are,” I said. “Raith and Marcone have the other two sites covered, but we are the only ones left to get to Demonreach. If we blow it there, and the ritual goes off, we’re all screwed. If I go with you, the Hunt follows me and then goes after whoever is close. We’ll never pull off an assault with them on our heels.”

  My brother ground his teeth and shook his head.

  “Let’s go, Harry,” Karrin said. “If they follow us out over the lake, we’ll take them on.”

  “You can’t take them on,” I said quietly. “The Hunt isn’t a monster you can shoot. It’s not some creature you can wrestle with, or some kind of mercenary you can buy off. It’s a force of nature, red in tooth and claw. It kills. That’s what it does.”

  “But—” Karrin began.

  “He’s right,” Thomas said, his voice rough. “Dammit. He’s right.”

  “It’s chess,” I said. “We’ve been checked, with that ritual on the island. We have no choice but to try to stop it with everything we’ve got. If that means sacrificing a piece, that’s how it has to be.”

  I put a hand on my brother’s shoulder. “Go. Get it done.”

  He put his cold, strong hand over mine for a second. Then he turned and ran for the boat.

  Karrin stared up at me for a second, the rain plastering her hair down. Her face was twisted with agony. “Harry, please.” She swallowed. “I can’t leave you alone. Not twice.”

  “There are eight million people in this city. And if we don’t shut the ritual down, those people will die.”

  Karrin’s expression changed—from pain to shock, from shock to horror, and from horror to realization. She made a choking sound and ducked her head, her face turned away from me. Then she turned toward the boat.

  I watched her for a second longer. Then I sprinted for the Munstermobile as the haunting cry of the Wild Hunt’s horn grew nearer. I jammed my key into the door lock and . . .

  And it wouldn’t fit.

  I tried it again. No joy. Half-panicked, I ran to each of the others, but every single one of the locks was out of commission. I was going to bust out a window, but I checked the car’s ignition through it first. It had been packed with what looked like chewing gum. The Munstermobile had . . .

  Had been sabotaged. With gum and superglue. It was a trick I
’d had Toot and company play on others more than once. And now what I had done unto others had been done unto me at the damnedest moment imaginable.

  “Aggggh!” I screamed. “I hate ironic reversal!”

  The Za Lord’s Guard had been escorting us along the way, but I hadn’t said anything about staying on the job once we reached our destination. Given the distance I’d had them covering today, they’d probably dropped down exhausted the second I’d set the parking brake.

  The thunder rolled closer, my unthinking panic rose, and my wounded leg felt like it might burst into flames.

  My leg.

  My eyes widened with horror of my own. The Redcap had killed me at that ambush, and I was only now realizing it. The trickle of blood flowing steadily from that tiny wound would leave a powerful olfactory and psychic trail behind me. Tracking me would be easier than whistling.

  I could run, but I couldn’t hide.

  Thunder roared, and I saw a cluster of dim forms descend from the cloud cover overhead and into the city light of Chicago. I could run, but the Hunt was moving at highway speeds. I wouldn’t even be able to significantly delay the inevitable. Shadowy hounds rushed down at me from the north, along the shoreline, and behind them came a blurry cluster of dark figures on horseback, carrying bows and spears and long blades of every description.

  I couldn’t beat the Hunt. Not even with Mab’s ’roids in my system.

  But maybe . . .

  Then there was another roar—this time not of thunder, but of a hundred and forty horses, American-made.

  Karrin Murphy’s motorcycle slid to a stop close enough to me to throw gravel over my shoes, and I turned to find her revving the engine.

  “Karrin! What the hell are you doing?”

  “Get on the bike, bitch!” she called over the next horn blast. “Let’s make them work for it!”

  She smiled, a fierce, bright smile, and I found my own face following her example.

  “Fuck, yeah,” I said, and threw myself onto the back of the Harley as darkness, death, and fire closed in around my city.

  Chapter

  Forty-one

  I dropped the cartridge belt for the Winchester over one shoulder and hurried to rake in the tail of my new duster before the motorcycle’s rear wheel snagged it and killed me. I damn near fell off as Karrin accelerated, but managed to cling to her waist with the arm holding the rifle.

  Karrin scowled at me, grabbed the rifle from my hand, and slipped it down into a little section on the side of the Harley that fit the short rifle suspiciously well. I held on to her with a free hand, and with the other made sure my coat wouldn’t get me killed.

  “Which way?” she shouted back at me.

  “South! Fast as you can!”

  She stomped one of her feet onto something, twisted a wrist, and the Harley, which had been doing around fifty, leapt forward as if it hadn’t been moving at all.

  I shot a quick glance over my shoulder, and saw the nearest elements of the Hunt begin to slowly fade back. I guess maybe the Wild Hunt hadn’t ever heard about Harley-Davidson.

  But she couldn’t maintain the speed, not even on a wide Chicago street in chilly, rainy weather. There were just too many other people around, forcing her to weave between traffic, and she had to slow down to keep from splattering us all over some family’s sedan. Indignant car horns began to blare as she slipped in and out of lanes, adding an abrasive harmony to the horns of the Wild Hunt.

  “How we doing?” she called.

  I looked back. The Wild Hunt was less than a hundred yards away—and they didn’t have to contend with traffic. The jerks were racing along fifty feet off the freaking ground, up in the dark and the rain, unseen by the vast majority of people going about their everyday business. “They’re cheating! Go faster! Head for the Bush!”

  Karrin turned her head enough to catch me in the edge of her vision. “Is there a plan?”

  “It isn’t a very good plan!” I shouted. “But I need a big open area for it to work, away from people!”

  “In Chicago?” she shouted. Then her eyes widened. “The mills?”

  “Go!” I shouted. Karrin blitzed a red light, narrowly avoiding a left-turning car, and continued her furious rush down Lake Shore Drive.

  Chicago is a city of terrific demands. Demand for a military presence helped establish the early Colonial-era forts, which in turn provided security for white settlers, traders, and missionaries. They built houses, churches, and businesses, which accreted over time into a town, then a city. Chicago’s position as the great crossroads of the emerging American nation meant that more and more people arrived, building more homes, businesses, and, eventually, heavy-duty industry.

  By the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago was a booming industrial city—and its steel mills were nearly legendary. U.S. Steel, Youngstown Steel, Wisconsin Steel, Republic Steel, all thriving and growing on the shore of Lake Michigan, down by Calumet City. The lakefront in that entire area was sculpted to accommodate the steel works, and much of the steel that would fuel the Allied efforts in two world wars was produced in that relatively tiny portion of the city.

  But all things wither away eventually. The American steel industry began to falter and fade, and by the end of the twentieth century, all that remained of an ironmongery epicenter was a long stretch of industrial-strength wasteland and crumbling buildings on Lake Michigan’s shore. A decade later, the city started trying to clean the place up, knocking down most of the buildings and structures—but here and there, stone and concrete ruins remained, like the bones of some vast beast that had been picked clean by scavengers. Nothing much grew there as the city around it thrived—just weeds and property values.

  That portion of the waterfront was slated for renewal, but it hadn’t happened yet, and right now it was blasted heath, a flat, dark, empty, and desolate stretch of level land dotted with lonely reminders of former greatness. There was no shelter from rain or cold there, and on a miserable night like this, there shouldn’t be anyone hanging around.

  All we had to do was make it that far.

  We flew by the Museum of Science and Industry on our right, then flashed over the bridge above the Fifty-ninth Street Yacht Harbor, moving into a section of road that had a little distance between itself and the nearest buildings and a decided lack of foot traffic on a cold autumn evening.

  As if they’d been waiting for an opening away from so many prying eyes, the Wild Hunt swept down on us like a falcon diving onto a rabbit.

  But they were not attacking a rabbit. They were attacking a wabbit. A wascally wabbit. A wascally wabbit with a Winchester.

  Something that looked like a great, gaunt hound made of smoke and cinders, with glowing coals for eyes, hit the ground just behind the Harley and began sprinting, keeping pace with us. It came rushing in, dark jaws spread to seize the back tire, the same motion it might have used had it been attempting to hamstring a fleeing deer. Mindless animal panic raged inside my head, but I kept it away from the core of my thoughts, forcing myself to focus, think, act.

  I saw Karrin’s eyes snap over to her rearview mirror as it closed, and felt her body tensing against mine as she prepared to evade to the left. I gathered my will but waited to unleash it, and as the charhound closed to within inches of the tire, Karrin leaned and took the Harley left. The charhound’s jaws clashed closed on exhaust fumes, and I unleashed my will from the palm of my outstretched right hand with a snarl of “Forzare!”

  Force hit the charhound low on its front legs, and the beast’s head went into the concrete at breakneck speed—literally. There was a terrible snapping sound, and the charhound’s limp body went tumbling end over end, bouncing up into the air for a dozen yards before landing, shedding wisps of darkness all the way.

  What landed in a boneless sprawl on the road was not a dog, or a canine of any sort. It was a young man—a human, wearing a black T-shirt and torn old blue jeans. I barely had time to register that before the body tumbled off the ro
ad and was out of sight.

  “Good shot!” Karrin cried, grinning fiercely. She was driving. She hadn’t seen what was under the hound’s outer shell.

  So that was how one joined the Wild Hunt. It was a mask, a huge, dark, terrifying mask—a masquerade.

  And I’d just killed a man.

  I didn’t get any time to feel angst over it. Karrin gunned the engine of the Harley and it surged ahead, running along the spit of land that bifurcates Jackson Harbor. Even as she did, two riders descended, one on either side of the road, their steeds’ hooves hammering against empty air about five feet up. Like the charhound, the steeds and riders were covered in a smoky darkness through which shone the amber fire of their eyes.

  Karrin saw the one on the right and tried to move left again—but the second rider pressed in closer, the dark horse’s hooves nearly hammering onto our heads, and she wobbled and gunned the accelerator.

  I recognized another hunter’s tactic. The first had forced us to close distance with the second. They were driving us between them, trying to make us panic and think about nothing but running straight ahead—in a nice, smooth, predictable line.

  The second rider lifted an arm and he held the dark shape of a spear in his hand. He hurled it forward, leading the target perfectly. I flung up my left hand, extending my shield spell. It got mixed results. The spear flew into it and through it, shredding my magic as it went—but instead of flying into my face, the spear was deflected just enough that its blade sliced across the back of my neck, leaving a line of burning pain behind it.

  The adrenaline was flowing and the pain didn’t matter. Hell, it really didn’t matter if the wound had opened an artery—it wasn’t as though I could stop to get medical attention if it had. I twisted around to fling another bolt of force at the rider, but he lifted a hand and let out an eerie screech, and my attack was dispersed, doing little more than inconveniencing my target. His horse lost a step or two, but he dug black spurs into the beast’s hide and it soon made up the pace.

  Big surprise, magic wasn’t a big threat to the Huntsmen.

  Solution: Winchester.