Cold days, p.44
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       Cold Days, p.44

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  I stared in shock. The recent rain meant that the island wasn’t likely to burst into flame anytime soon, but I had utterly underestimated the scope of tonight’s conflict, ye gods and little fishes. This wasn’t just a ritual spell.

  This was an all-out amphibious assault, my very own miniature war.

  “Erlking,” I said. “Can you veil the Hunt, please?”

  The Erlking glanced at me, and then back at the Hunt, and suddenly the cold, weirdly flat-sounding dimness of a veil against both sight and sound gathered around us like a cloud.

  “This doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “The ritual would still need a platform, and that would take time and work to set up—at least a day. It would show. They haven’t even gotten onto the island y—” Then the truth hit me in a flash. “The barges,” I said. “They set up a ritual platform on one of the barges. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

  “The waters of the lake would diminish the power they could draw from the ley lines running beneath it,” the Erlking said.

  “Yeah,” I said. “That’s why they’re assaulting the shore. They’re going to force a breach and then run the barge aground on the island. That’ll put them in direct contact with the ley line.”

  “There are many Outsiders here, Sir Knight,” he noted. “More than enough to do battle with the Hunt, if we become bogged down in their numbers. They will react to us as one beast, once they know the danger we pose to them. Have a care for where we enter the fray.”

  “We’d better make the first punch count,” I said. “Three barges. Which one has the platform?”

  “Why assume there’s only one?” Karrin asked. “If it was me, I’d set the spell upon all three of them, for redundancy.”

  “They might have set the spell up on all three of them for redundancy,” I said.

  She drove one of her elbows back against my stomach, lightly.

  “We start this by sinking a barge,” I decided. Then I blinked and looked at the Erlking. “Can we sink a barge?”

  The shadow-masked Erlking tilted his head slightly to one side, his burning eyes narrowed. “Wizard, please.”

  “Right,” I said. “Sorry. Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, catch a Sharkface by the toe.” I pointed at the barge in the middle, where I’d seen the Outsider a moment ago. “That one. And once it’s down, we’ll split into two groups. You’ll lead half the Hunt for the barge on the far side, and I’ll take my half to the nearer one. If we can nix any possibility of the ritual happening, maybe they’ll call it a night and go home.”

  “That seems unlikely,” said the Erlking. He slowly flexed the arm I’d shot him in, and I could sense that, while it was not comfortable, the lord of the goblins was already functionally recovered from the injury.

  “Never know until you try,” I said. I looked back at the Hunt and pointed toward the center barge. I repeated my instructions to them, and soot black hands drew dozens of shadowy weapons.

  I leaned into Karrin a little and said, next to her ear, “You ready for this?”

  “Only a lunatic is ready for this,” she said. I could hear her smile as she spoke. Then she turned her head and, before I could react, planted a kiss right on my mouth.

  I almost fell off the Harley.

  She drew her head back, flashed me a wicked little smile, and said, “For luck. Star Wars–style.”

  “You are so hot right now,” I told her. I lifted my Winchester overhead, then dropped it to point forward, and the Hunt surged ahead at its full, insane speed, silent and unseen and inevitable.

  “Go right past its rear end,” I told Murphy.

  “You mean its stern?”

  “Yes, that,” I said, rolling my eyes. And then I began to gather in my will.

  It was hard, a slow strain, like trying to breathe through layers of heavy cloth. It was like holding a fistful of sand—every bit of energy I drew in wanted to slip away from me, and the harder I tried to hold it, the more trickled through my fingers.

  So I gritted my teeth, accepted that I wasn’t going to have a lot of energy to work with, and tried to hold it loosely, gently, as we closed in on the barge. We were the first to pass it, and as we did I flung out my hand, crying out, “Forzare!” Raw will leapt through the air, shattering our concealing veil. The energy was focused into the shape of a cone, needle-pointed at the top, and widening gradually to about six inches across—an invisible lance. I couldn’t have done any more with the limited energy I had at my disposal. It hit the hull of the barge with a clang and a shriek of tearing metal, and then we were past it, and Karrin was tugging the Harley into a tight, leaning turn.

  I checked over my shoulder and saw the Erlking, his sword in hand, lean over the saddle and strike. There was a hissing sound, and a howl of screeching steel, and, starting at the hole I’d punched in the barge’s hull, a straight line of red-hot metal appeared where his sword had simply sheared through it. Behind him, the next riders struck, their weapons carving steel like soft pine, slashing at the weakened section and tearing the original hole I’d made wider and wider.

  I heard a howl of rage, and looked up on the deck of the barge to see Sharkface there, already gathering energy to hurl at the riders of the Hunt.

  He didn’t take the hounds into consideration.

  Before he could unleash his power, a dozen of the beasts hit him, all together, in a single, psychotic canine wave. Since they were running fast enough to get themselves a speeding ticket in most of Illinois, the impact was formidable. Hounds and Outsider alike flew out over the rails of the barge and vanished into the waters of Lake Michigan—and somehow, I knew, the fight continued beneath its waves.

  The Erlking let out a shriek of encouragement, one that was echoed by the other riders as the tail end of the column passed the barge. As the last rider struck, a column of eerie green fire rose up from the glowing edges of the shredded steel hull, and with a groan of strained seams, the barge started to list badly to the right—starboard, I guess—as water rushed in through the hole the Hunt had made.

  Karrin had already wheeled the Harley into a snarling turn, one that let us see the deck of the ship as it began to sink. Smart. She’d been thinking farther ahead than me. I could clearly see the dozens of lines and figures that had been painted onto the barge’s deck, along with burning candles, incense, and the small, still remains of animal sacrifices—mostly rabbits, cats, and dogs, it looked like.

  Rituals, whatever form they take, always involve the use of a circle, explicit or otherwise—the circle had to be there to contain the energy that they’d been building up with all the sacrifices, if nothing else. This one had been established invisibly, maybe originally set up with incense or something—but as the water lapped over the edge of the circle, it immediately began to disperse the pent-up energy, visible as clouds of fluttering sparks, like static, that danced along the surface of the water.

  And for just a second, everything in the night went silent.

  Then there was a disturbance in the water, with more ugly green light pouring up from below. Water suddenly rushed up, displaced by something moving beneath the surface, and then Sharkface exploded up from the depths, his freaky rag-cloak spread out around him in an enormous cloud of tentacle-like extrusions. He turned his eyeless face toward me—me, exactly, not Karrin, and not the Erlking—and let out a howl of fury so loud that the water for fifty feet in every direction vibrated and danced in time with it.

  And a wave of pure, violent, blinding, nauseating pain blanketed the face of Lake Michigan.

  Chapter

  Forty-three

  Suddenly, I wasn’t on the bitch seat of Karrin’s Harley. I was hanging suspended in midair, and I was in agony.

  I opened my eyes and looked wildly around me. Barren, icy earth. Cold grey sky. My arms and legs were stretched out into an X shape, and ice the color of a deep blue sky encased them, holding them stretched out against what felt like an old, knotted tree. Muscles and ligaments from my everywhere were at the
trembling breaking point. My own heartbeat was torment. My face burned, exposed to cold so severe that it hurt even me.

  I tried to scream, but couldn’t. A slow, gargling moan came out instead, and I coughed blood into the freezing air.

  “You knew this was coming,” said a voice, a voice that still made my entire body thrum in response, something simple and elemental that did not care how long she had held me in torment. “You knew this day would come. I am what I am. As are you.”

  Mab walked into my vision from the left. I barely had enough strength to keep my eyes focused on her.

  “You saw what happened to my last Knight,” she said, and began to take slow steps closer to me. I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, but I couldn’t help it—I heard myself make a soft noise, felt myself make a feeble effort to move or escape. It made her wide eyes glint for an instant. “I gave you power for a purpose, and that purpose is complete.” She turned her hand over slowly, and showed me something she held in it—a small metal spike, too large to be a needle, too small to be a nail. She walked closer to me, rolling the fine-pointed etcher between two fingers, and smiled.

  Her fingertips traced over my chest and ribs, and I shuddered. She’d carved the word weak upon my body in dozens of alphabets and hundreds of languages, etching it into my flesh, the palms of my hands, the soles of my feet, with miles upon miles of scars.

  I wanted it to be over. I wanted her to kill me.

  She leaned close to my face. “Today,” she breathed, “we start carving your teeth.”

  Cold enveloped me, and water slithered into my mouth though I tried to keep it out. Some seeped through my cracked lips. More went up my nostrils and took the long way around—and then it froze into ice, slowly forcing my jaws apart. Mab leaned in close to me, lifting the etcher, and I caught the faint scent of oxidation as the instrument began scratching at my incisors. . . .

  Oxidation. The smell of rust.

  Rust meant steel—something no Faerie I’d ever seen, apart from Mother Winter, could touch.

  This wasn’t actually happening to me. It wasn’t real. The pain wasn’t real. The tree wasn’t real. The ice wasn’t real.

  But . . . I still felt them. I could feel something behind them, a will that was not my own, forcing the idea of pain upon me, the image of helplessness, the leaden fear, the bitter vitriol of despair. This was a psychic assault like nothing I’d ever seen before. The ones I’d felt before this one were feeble shadows by comparison.

  No, I thought.

  “Nnngh,” I moaned.

  And I then I drew a deep breath. This was not how my life would end. This was not reality. I was Harry Dresden, Wizard of the White Council, Knight of Winter. I had faced demons and monsters, fought off fallen angels and werewolves, slugged it out with sorcerers and cults and freakish things that had no names. I had fought upon land and sea, in the skies above my city, in ancient ruins and in realms of the spirit most of humanity did not know existed. I bore scars that I’d earned in dozens of battles, made enemies out of nightmares, and laid low a dark empire for the sake of one little girl.

  And I would be damned if I was going to roll over for some punk Outsider and his psychic haymaker.

  The words first. Damned near everything begins with words.

  “I am,” I breathed, and suddenly the ice was clear of my mouth.

  “I am Harry . . .” I panted, and the pain redoubled.

  And I laughed. As if some freak who had never loved enough to know loss could tell me about pain.

  “I AM HARRY BLACKSTONE COPPERFIELD DRESDEN!” I roared.

  Ice and wood shattered. Frozen stone cracked with a sound like a cannon’s blast, a spiderweb of tiny crevices spreading out from me. The image of Mab flew away from me and blew into thousands of crystalline shards, like a shattering stained-glass window. The cold and the pain and the terror reeled away from me, like some vast and hungry beast suddenly struck on the nose.

  The Outsiders loved their psychic assaults, and given that this one happened about two seconds after Sharkface came up out of the water, it was pretty clear who was behind it. But that was fine. Sharkface had chosen a battle of the mind. So be it. My head, my rules.

  I lifted my right arm to the frozen sky and shouted, wordless and furious, and a bolt of scarlet lightning flashed from the seething skies. It smashed into my hand and then down into the earth. Frozen dirt sprayed everywhere, and when it had cleared, I stood holding an oaken quarterstaff carved with runes and sigils, as tall as my temple and as big around as my joined thumb and forefinger.

  Then I stretched my left arm down to the earth and cried out again, sweeping it up in a single, beckoning gesture. I tore metals from the ground beneath me, and they swirled like mist up around my body, forming into a suit of armor covered in spikes and protruding blades.

  “Okay, big guy,” I snarled out at the dark will that even now gathered itself to attack again. “Now we know who I am. Let’s see who you are.” I took the staff and smote its end down on the ground. “Who are you!” I demanded. “You play in my head, you play by my rules! Identify yourself!”

  In answer, there was only a vast roaring sound, like an angry arctic wind gathering into a gale.

  “Oh, no, you don’t,” I muttered. “You started this, creep! You want to get up close and personal, let’s play! Who are you?”

  A vast sound, like something you’d hear in the deep ocean, moaned through the sky.

  “Thrice I command thee!” I shouted, focusing my will, sending it coursing into my voice, which boomed out over the landscape. “Thrice I bid thee! By my name I command thee: Tell me who you are!”

  And then an enormous swirling form emerged from the clouds overhead—a face, but only in the broadest, roughest terms, like something a child would make from clay. Lightning burned far back in its eyes, and it spoke in the voice of gale winds.

  I AM GATEBREAKER, HARBINGER!

  I AM FEARGIVER, HOPESLAYER!

  I AM HE-WHO-WALKS-BEFORE!

  For a second, I just stood there, staring up at the sky, shocked.

  Hell’s bells.

  It worked.

  The thing spoke, and as it did, I knew, I knew what it was, as if I’d been given a snapshot of its core identity, its quintessential self.

  For one second, no more than that, I understood it, what it was doing, what it wanted, what it planned and . . .

  And then that moment was past, the knowledge vanished the way it had come—except for one thing. Somehow, I’d held on to a few crumbling fragments of insight.

  I knew the thing trying to tear my head apart was a Walker. I didn’t know much about them except that nobody else knew much about them either, and that they were extremely bad news.

  And one of them had tried to kill me when I was sixteen years old. He-Who-Walks-Behind had nearly done it. Except . . . from where I stood now, I wasn’t sure he’d really been trying to kill me. He’d been shaping me. I don’t know for what, but he’d been trying to provoke me.

  And this thing in my head, the thing I’d named Sharkface, was like him, a Walker, a peer. It was huge, powerful, and in a way utterly different from the kinds of power I had seen before. This thing wasn’t bigger than Mab. But it was horribly, unbearably deeper than her, like a photograph of a sculpture compared to the sculpture itself. It had power at its command that was beyond anything I had seen, beyond measure, beyond comprehension—just plain beyond.

  This thing was power from the Outside, and I was a grain of sand to its oncoming tide.

  But you know what?

  That grain of sand might be the last remnant of what had once been a mountain, but that which it is, it is. The tide comes and the tide goes. Let it hammer the grain of sand as it may. Let lofty mountains fear the slow, constant assault of the waters. Let the valleys shudder at the pitiless advance of ice. Let continents drown beneath the dark and rising tide.

  But that grain of sand?

  It isn’t impressed.

 
; Let the tide roll in. The sand will still be there after it rolls out again.

  So I looked up at that face and I laughed. I laughed scorn and defiance at that vast, swirling power, and it didn’t just feel good. It felt right.

  “Go ahead!” I shouted. “Go ahead and eat me! And then we’ll see if you’ve got the stomach to keep me down!” I lifted my staff and golden white fire began to pour from the carved runes as I gathered power into it. The air grew chill with Winter, and frost formed on the razor-edged blades in my armor. I ground my feet into place, setting them firmly, and the glow of soulfire began to emanate from the cracks in the earth around me. I bared my teeth at the hungry sky, flew the bird at it with my free hand, and screamed, “Bring it on!”

  A furious voice filled the air, a sound that shook the earth and sky alike, that made the ground buckle and the swirling clouds recoil.

  * * *

  And then I was back on the Harley, clutching Karrin’s waist in one hand and clinging to the Winchester with the other. The motorcycle was still in motion, but it wasn’t accelerating. It felt like we were coasting.

  Karrin let out a low, gurgling cry, and suddenly sagged forward, panting. I pulled her back against me, helping her to sit up, and after a few seconds she gave her head a few quick shakes and snarled, “I hate getting into a Vulcan mind meld.”

  “It hit you, too?” I asked.

  “It . . .” She cast a look over her shoulder, up at me, and shuddered. “Yeah.”

  “You okay now?”

  “I’m starting to get angry,” she said.