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Cold Days, Page 45

Jim Butcher

  A hideously mirthful sound spread over the air—the sound of the Erlking’s laughter. His great steed swerved in close to the motorcycle, and he lifted his sword in a gesture of fierce defiance. Then his burning eyes turned to me and he spoke in a voice that was murderously merry. “Well-done, starborn!”

  “Uh,” I said. “Thank you?”

  The lord of the goblins laughed again. It was the kind of sound that would stick with you—and wake you up in the middle of the night, wondering whether perhaps poisonous snakes had surrounded your bed and were about to start slithering in.

  I looked back. The Hunt had spread out into a ragged semblance of its former cohesion, but even as I watched, the riders and hounds poured on extra effort to gather together again. I looked around but saw no sign of Sharkface.

  I did see something else—V-shaped ripples coming toward us through the water. A whole lot of them.

  “Here they come!” I shouted to the Erlking. “Good hunting!”

  “That much seems certain,” he called in that same cheerfully vicious voice, and wheeled his horse to the right. Half of the riders and hounds split off with him, while the other half continued streaming after me.

  I pointed at our target as the Erlking headed toward his. “There!” I called. “Let’s do it!”

  The Harleytiger let out another snarling roar, and Karrin raced toward the second barge. Hellish shrieks went up from both groups of the Hunt—and the oncoming things in the water smoothly split into two elements as they came forward. We raced the enemy toward the barges.

  This time we didn’t have surprise on our side. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two since the Hunt had announced its arrival, but I saw figures stirring on the deck of the barge ahead of us.

  “Gun!” shouted Karrin. “Incoming!”


  Out over the water like this, I didn’t have access to anywhere near enough magic to provide a continuous shield—and I couldn’t try to slap down individual bullets, either. By the time I saw the gunfire, the round would already be going through us. Which meant that this was going to happen the vanilla way, the way soldiers worldwide have done it for a few centuries now. Advance, advance, advance, and hope that you didn’t get shot.

  Then Karrin snatched the rifle out of my hand and screamed, “Take the bike!”

  I fumbled for a moment, but found the handlebars, reaching around her to make it happen. I gunned the throttle as Karrin raised the Winchester to her shoulder, half rose, and squinted through the buckhorn sights.

  Flashes came from the boat, and something that sounded like an angry hornet flicked past my ear. I saw bits of spray coming up from the water ahead of us as the shooters misjudged their range, and I kept on racing straight ahead.

  When we got to within a hundred yards, Karrin started shooting.

  The old rifle boomed, and sparks flew up from the barge’s hull. She worked the lever action without lowering it from her shoulder and fired again. One of the dark shapes on the deck vanished, and two more flinched away. More gunfire came from the boat—panic fire, splashing wildly everywhere and mostly nowhere close to us. Whoever was over there, they didn’t like getting shot at any more than I did.

  As we closed the last yards, Karrin fired three more times in a rapid, assured pace. I couldn’t see whether she hit anyone else until we went roaring past the barge, no more than ten feet away, when a man holding the distinctive shape of a shotgun rose into sight. Karrin was covering the barge’s stern with the Winchester when he popped up. The old gun roared again, and the gunman fell away and out of sight.

  We raced by unharmed, but the enemy gunfire had done its work. The riders and hounds of the Hunt had been distracted by the flying bullets, and they didn’t do nearly as much damage to the barge as in the initial attack. Even as I watched, more and more figures with guns appeared on the barge and started shooting.

  I checked the oncoming rush of Outsiders.

  We weren’t going to sink the barge before they got here.

  “—to sink it!” Karrin was shouting.


  “We don’t have to sink the barge!” she shouted. “It can’t move on its own! We just have to kill the boat that’s pulling it!”

  “Right!” I said, and leaned the Harley into a turn that would take us arching back toward the barge—this time at its front, or prow, or bow or something, where a rig containing a tugboat a bit bigger than the Water Beetle had been built on.

  It also brought us closer to the oncoming Outsiders, and I couldn’t tell which of us would get there first. As I sped up, Karrin dug into the compartments on the Harley, reaching around me, then said, “Hold it steady!”

  Then she stood up, and I couldn’t see a damned thing—but I did see the way she pulled the pin out of a freaking hand grenade, and let the spoon spin off into the night. The Harley buzzed past the tugboat’s rig maybe ten feet ahead of the Outsiders, and Karrin gave the grenade a rather feeble little flick as we went by. I heard it smash into glass, like a stone thrown against a window, and then we were past the barge, and a huge sound thudded through the air, like an entire library of books all dropped flat at the same instant, and an incandescent white light flared from the tug.

  I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the tugboat was on fire, pouring out thick black smoke and leaning sharply to one side. Murphy saw it, too, and let out an ululating war cry before she sat back down and pushed my hands off the handlebars, reassuming control of the Harley. “Two down!” she said. “One to go!”

  I looked back behind me. The Outsiders had begun swarming at the barge, and one of them actually came out of the water at one of the rearmost riders of the Hunt—this horrible thing that was all pustules and multiple limbs with too many joints. As it leapt, the rider raised a shadowy bow and loosed a darkling arrow. It struck the Outsider and burst into red-amber flame the same color as the burning eyes of the Hunt. The Outsider let out an unearthly wail and plunged back beneath the surface.

  “Come on,” I said to Karrin. “Head for the other boat.”

  “Should we?” she asked. “That Erlking guy seems a little . . . do-it-yourselfy.”

  She was right about that. Like any of the other seriously powerful beings of Faerie, the Erlking had a strong sense of pride—and you crossed that pride at your own risk. If I showed up and the Erlking thought I was making the statement that I judged him unfit to finish the task, it could come back to haunt me. On the other hand, I’d already insulted him once and there was a lot on the line. “If he didn’t want me making calls like this, he shouldn’t have let me shoot him and take over his Hunt,” I said. I turned to beckon the riders and hounds behind me and shouted, “Come on!” My voice came out as both my own and in the howling screech of the Hunt, the two interwoven, and the rest of my group joined in the shriek and formed up around the Harley as it raced across the water, toward the third barge.

  Where the fight wasn’t going well.

  There were several long, straight streaks of molten steel where the Erlking and his riders had struck the barge’s hull, the edges marked with flickering tongues of eerie green fire, but they had not torn a hole in it like we had the first barge, either, and the Outsiders had gotten to this barge faster than they had to mine. Even as we approached, I saw a racing hound of the Hunt vanish in a spray of water as things, plural, too twisted and too confusing to count, surged up from below and began to drag the hound down.

  A shriek loud enough to cause spray to rise from the water shook the air, and the Erlking himself plunged down from overhead, leading a trio of hunters behind him. Blades and arrows struck at the Outsiders in plumes of ember fire. The Erlking seized the hound by the scruff of its neck and dragged it up out of the grasp of the creatures beneath the surface.

  The Erlking and his riders had fallen into a formation, a great, tilted wheel. At the far end, the riders were maybe fifty feet above the waves, circling in the air to then charge down at the surface of the water
where it met the hull of the barge. The Outsiders would throw themselves up out of the waves, meeting each individual rider. Hounds would, in turn, try to throw themselves on the Outsiders, smothering their defense so that the rider could strike the barge.

  Meanwhile, figures aboard the barge fired rifles wildly into the night, though the deck of the thing was actually bobbing with the thrashing of the Outsiders in the water around it. Whoever they were, they struck me as amateurish—though maybe it was only because I’d been exposed to real soldiers before, who were a deadly threat even on the scale of supernatural conflict. These guys weren’t the Einherjaren—but at the end of the day, they still had deadly weapons, and more than one rider and hound had been struck by rounds and bled molten light from their shadow-masked bodies. The piercing screech of the Hunt met with the howls of Outsiders and the crack of rifle fire, and bit by bit, the barge’s hull bled red-hot steel.

  But it wasn’t happening fast enough.

  With a groan, the barge’s tugboat, this one mounted behind it, began shoving the thing forward through the water and toward the shore of Demonreach.

  “I shouldn’t have split us up,” I said. “We didn’t cover twice as many targets. We just got twice as half-assed.”

  Karrin made a sputtering sound, then said, “You and math are not friends. Regret later. Lead now.”

  “Right,” I said. The barge wasn’t exactly leaping into motion—but it wouldn’t stop on a dime once it got moving, either. “Do you have any more grenades?” I asked Karrin.

  “I used them a couple of weeks ago,” she said.

  “With Kincaid?” I asked. There was an edge to it. She and the assassin were kind of an item, the last time I looked.

  “Harry,” she said, “focus.”

  Hell’s bells, she was right. I didn’t need the Winter mantle turning me into a territorial alpha dick right now. I stared at the barge for a long second, pushing that instinct away, and then said to the Hunt, “Join the Erlking! Attack the barge!”

  Hounds and riders streamed past us, joining the madman’s wheel of death in the sky, and I lowered my voice, speaking only to Karrin as I reloaded the Winchester. “Get me to the tugboat.”

  She gave me a quick, wide-eyed glance, and then seemed to get it. She gunned the motor, sending the Harley shooting past the Erlking’s very large, very threatening, and very distracting formation, as we raced alone toward the chugging tugboat.

  She brought us right alongside it, and once again I leapt from the back of the Harley. I hit the side of the tug pretty hard, but was able to get the fingers of my left hand around the top of the rail, and with a few kicks managed to swing myself up onto the deck. I landed in a crouch, clutching the rifle, got my bearings, and headed toward a stairwell that would lead me to the boat’s bridge.

  I went up it as quietly as I could, which is pretty damned quiet for a guy my size, Winchester at the ready. The bridge of the tug was big enough to merit its own enclosed space, and I slipped up to the door, took a breath, then ripped it open, lifting the Winchester as I did.

  The bridge was empty, the wheel secured with a pair of large plastic ties. There was a piece of paper taped to the wheel, and on it was written in large black marker, LOOK BEHIND YOU.

  I started to turn, but a cannonball hit me between the shoulder blades. I flew forward onto the bridge and slammed my head against the Plexiglas forward windows. I fell back from that, stunned, and a heavy weight hit me from the side, slamming me into a bulkhead, which felt almost exactly like being slammed into a steel wall.

  I wound up prone, my face to the deck, and once more the heavy weight slammed into me, landing on my back.

  And Cat Sith, who had told me not to turn my back on anyone, purred, “Wizard, Knight, fool. Too ignorant even to know how to die properly.” His skin-crawling voice came out in a throaty buzz next to my ear. “Allow me to educate you.”



  The reasonable thing to do would have been to whimper or flinch or just freak out and look for the nearest exit. But instead of doing any of those things, I felt a chill settle over my brain, and a very cold, calm part of me studied the situation objectively.

  “Join, hide, or die,” I said. I heard the faint echo of the Wild Hunt’s screech in my voice.

  “Excuse me?” Cat Sith said.

  “You have excellent hearing,” I said. “But I will repeat myself. Join. Hide. Or die. You know the laws of the Hunt.”

  “I do know them, wizard. And once I have slain you, the Hunt will be mine to do with as I please.”

  “The real Cat Sith wouldn’t be having this conversation with me, you know. He’d have killed me by now.”

  A blow struck the back of my head, sharp, painful, but not debilitating. “I am Cat Sith. The one. The only.”

  I turned my head slightly and said, “So why do I still have a spine?”

  And I threw an elbow at the weight on my back. I connected with something, hard, and slammed it off me. It hit the other wall of the bridge, and I flung myself to my feet in time to see the large, lean form of Cat Sith thrash his tail and bound at me.

  I ducked him, moving forward under his leap, and spun, and it left the two of us facing each other across the full length of the bridge.

  “Slow,” I said. “I’ve seen him move. Cat Sith is faster than that.”

  A hideous growling sound came from the form of the malk. “I am he.”

  “Get me a Coke,” I snarled.


  “You heard me, Mittens. Get me a freaking Coke and do it now.”

  Sith remained in place, as if locked to the floor, though his whole body was quivering, his claws sheathing and unsheathing in rhythm. But he didn’t fly at me, ripping and tearing, either.

  “You see,” I said, “Cat Sith is a creature of Faerie, and he swore an oath to Queen Mab to obey her commands. She commanded him to obey mine. And I just gave you a command, kitty. Did Mab release you from her command? Did she suspend the duties of her vassal?”

  Sith snarled again, his eyes getting wider and rounder, his tail thrashing around wildly.

  “They got to you, didn’t they?” I said. “They jumped you back at the Botanic Gardens while you were covering my exit. Freaking Sharkface was watching the whole thing and he got you.”

  Sith began quivering so hard that he was jitterbugging back and forth in place on the floor, his head twitching, his fur standing on end and then abruptly lying flat again.

  “Fight it, Sith,” I urged him quietly. “It doesn’t have to win. Fight it.”

  For a second, I thought I saw something of Cat Sith’s smug, contemptuous self-assurance on the malk’s face. And then it was gone. Just gone. Everything went away, and the malk stood for a second with its head down. Then it lifted its head and the motion was subtly wrong, something that simply didn’t have the grace I’d seen in the elder malk before. It faced me for a moment and then it spoke, its voice absent of anything like personality. “A pity. I would have been more useful to them as an active, covert asset.”

  I shuddered at the utter absence in that voice. I wasn’t talking to Sith anymore.

  I was speaking with the adversary.

  “Like Mab wouldn’t have figured it out,” I said. “Like she did when you infected Lea.”

  “Further conversation is not useful to our design,” Not-Sith said, and then the malk’s form flew at me in a blur.

  It was a testament to the power of the Winter Knight’s mantle and the Wild Hunt’s energy that I survived that first leap at all. Sith struck straight at my throat. I got my arms in the way. The black shadow mask of the Hunt over my arms and chest blew apart into splinters, dispersing some of the impact energy of the malk’s spectacular leap, and instead of pulping me against the wall behind me, he just pounded me into it with tooth-rattling force.

  Sith bounced off me, which was what I had hoped would happen. In my line of work, I’ve dealt with more than one critter that is faster t
han fast. When they’ve got their feet underneath them, it’s the next-best thing to impossible to land anything on them—but when they’re in the air, they’re moving at the speed gravity and air resistance dictate, like everybody else. For that one portion of a second, Sith was an object moving through space, not a blindingly fast killing machine. Someone who didn’t know that wouldn’t have known to be ready for it.

  But I did. And I was.

  The blast of raw force I summoned wasn’t my very best punch—but it was the best I was going to get out here over the lake. It slammed into the creature that had been Cat Sith and plowed it out through the Plexiglas window. The plastic didn’t break. It came entirely out of its housing, and the malk and a slab of Plexiglas the size of a door went whirling out into the madness of the night. Sith flew out over the bow of the tugboat and plunged down into the water through the open spaces of the pipe-steel rig between it and the barge.

  I stared hard after the departed malk for a few seconds, to be sure he wasn’t going to bounce right back into my face somehow. As I did, I watched in the other half of the bridge’s forward window while the shadow mask of the Hunt slithered back up over my arms and face. I gave it to a three count, nodded, and then went to the tug’s wheel. I snapped the plastic ties securing it with a pair of fast jerks, then started rolling the wheel as far as it would go to the right. There was a big lever that looked like a throttle, and when I pushed it forward, the boat’s engines started to roar with effort.

  The barge groaned as the tug changed the direction in which it applied force, and the barge’s back end began slowly slewing out and to the left. That drew shouts of consternation from the deck of the barge. I didn’t feel like getting shot in the face, so I knelt down, out of sight, while I pulled the secondhand belt off of my old jeans and used it to secure the wheel in position. Then I recovered the Winchester and backed out of the bridge, hurrying away from it as quietly as I could.

  What I’d done was a delaying tactic at best. It wouldn’t turn the barge around—but it would set it to spinning in place, and maybe cost the enemy time to turn it around if they took control of it again. But that was exactly what the Hunt needed to sink her—time. The longer the barge played sit-and-spin, the better. So I found a nice quiet patch of shadow where I could see the stairs leading up to the tug’s bridge, and where I could stand behind a very large steel pipe. I rested the Winchester on the top bend of the pipe, sighted on the doorway, and waited.