Cold days, p.46
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       Cold Days, p.46

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  It didn’t take long for the first couple of crewmen to arrive. I wasn’t sure whether they came up from belowdecks or somehow swarmed over from the barge, but two men in dark clothing, carrying pistols at the ready, came hurrying along and started up the stairs.

  I’m not a great shot. But when you’re resting a rifle on a solid surface, one that is perfectly still (at least relative to all the solid surfaces around it), and when the range is about forty feet, you don’t have to be an expert. You just have to take a breath, let it out, and squeeze.

  The Winchester cracked with thunder, and the first man arched into a bow of agony just as he reached the top of the stairs. That ended up working in my favor. He fell back into the second man, just as the second guy spun and raised his pistol. The first man fell into the second, sending his first shot wild, and knocked him about halfway over. The second man couldn’t hold the gun with both hands, but he kept pulling the trigger as fast as he could.

  At forty feet, terrified, in the dark, unsure of his target’s exact location, and sprawled out with the deadweight of another man flopping against him, the poor bastard didn’t have a chance. He got off seven or eight rounds, none of them coming anywhere close. I worked the action on the Winchester, took a breath, let half out, and squeezed the trigger.

  It wasn’t until the flash of light from the shot illuminated him that I recognized Ace, his expression panicked, his gun aimed at a point ten feet to my left. The light flashed and burned his face into my retina for a moment as the dark returned.

  And the tugboat was silent again.

  * * *

  It didn’t take long for the Erlking to finish his work. Maybe three minutes later, a chorus of hideous screams went up from the lake’s surface, and the Hunt howled its triumph and circled into the sky, horns blaring, hounds baying. I saw green fire burning fiercely from the spot the Hunt had started carving, and then the barge started to list toward that side as the water poured into her. Barges aren’t warships, or even maritime vessels. If they have belowdecks spaces at all, they generally aren’t fitted with flood compartments and sealable doors. They sure as hell don’t have automatic systems. They’re just soup bowls. Poke a hole in the bottom, and a bowl isn’t gonna hold much soup.

  I didn’t feel like getting Titanicked, so I hustled over to the spot where I’d boarded the tug. There was a roar from the shadow-tiger mask around the Harley, and Murphy swept up alongside the boat. I leapt down onto the back of the bike in a single smooth motion, which I felt was cool, and landed with way too much of my weight on my genitals, which I felt was not.

  “Go, go, go,” I gasped in a pained falsetto, and Murphy peeled away from the doomed ships.

  Within moments, the Hunt had fallen into formation around me again, and the Erlking was laughing maniacally, whirling his sword over his head. The shadow mask over one leg and a section of his ribs had been torn away, and I could see wounds beneath—but already the shadows were stretching over them again. “I love nights like this!” he bellowed. “I love Halloween!”

  “Yeah, it’s pretty badass,” I said in my wobbling, creaky voice.

  “Sir Knight,” he said, “that was passably done, but from here I believe it shall take more experience and expertise than you possess to continue the Hunt. Do I have your leave to resume command and pursue these Outsider vermin in a more appropriate fashion?” he asked me.

  “Uh,” I squeaked. “You aren’t going to come after me with it, are you?”

  He broke into laughter that could have been heard for miles. He was smiling so hard, it went right through the shadow mask, turning his face into a crazed jack-o’-lantern of soot and fire. “Not this night. I give you my word. Have I your leave?”

  Rather than answer the Erlking in my Mickey Mouse voice, I gave him the thumbs-up.

  The Lord of the Goblins threw back his head and let out another screech, and his steed began to gain altitude. The rest of the Hunt followed him.

  “Uh, Harry?” Karrin said.

  “Yeah?”

  “This is a motorcycle.”

  It didn’t register for a second, and then I blinked.

  We were cruising down the surface of Lake Michigan, and it was chock-full of monstery goodness—and we had just left the Wild Hunt.

  “Oh, crap,” I said. “Head for the island! Go, go, go!”

  Murphy leaned hard into a turn and opened up the throttle. I looked over my shoulder at the Erlking, wheeling in the skies above the lake, spiraling higher and higher, the Hunt following after. We went by a couple of Zodiacs so fast that their occupants didn’t have time to shoot at us before we were gone.

  Then the motorcycle slowed.

  “What are you doing?” I screamed.

  “We can’t hit the beach at this speed,” Karrin shouted back. “We’ll pancake ourselves into those trees!”

  “I don’t really feel like taking a swim tonight!”

  “Don’t be such a pussy,” Karrin snapped. She leaned the bike into another turn, one that angled our direction to run parallel to the shore, and cut out the accelerator.

  I felt the Harley slowing, and for a second I thought I felt it beginning to sink.

  Then the Erlking cried out again and dived, his horse sprinting straight down, trailing the fire of the Hunt from its hooves. The rest of the hounds and riders followed in formation, and their horns and cries rebounded around the night.

  Then, maybe a second before they hit the water, the Hunt changed.

  Suddenly the Erlking wasn’t mounted on a horse, but on a freaking killer whale, its deadly-looking black-and-white coloration stark in the night. Behind him, the other steeds shifted, too, their riders screeching with excitement. The hounds changed as well. Their canine bodies compressed into the long, lean, powerful shape of large sharks.

  Then the whole lot of them hit the water in a geyser of spray, and the Harley promptly fell into the water of the lake—

  —and onto sand just under its surface. The bike slowed dramatically, pushing me up against Karrin, nearly pushing her over the handlebars, but she locked her arms straight and held, drawing the bike up onto the shore of the island. She rode the brake until we’d come to a halt, about five feet short of hitting one of the big old trees on the island.

  “See?” Karrin said.

  “You were right,” I said.

  She looked back up at me, her eyes twinkling. “You are so hot right now.”

  I burst out into a hiccuping laugh that felt like it could have veered off into manic or depressive at any second, the pressure and terror of this entire stupid, ugly day finally getting to me—but it didn’t. There were no enemy ships right on hand, and no one had launched grenades at the island since the Wild Hunt’s attack had begun. There might have been Outsiders in the water, but apparently the Hunt was occupying their total attention. For the moment, we were alone, and Karrin started laughing, too. We laughed like that for several moments. We each tried to speak, to say something about the day, but it kept getting choked off by the half-hysterical laughter.

  “Grenades,” I said. “As if a date has to have—”

  “. . . look on Molly’s face . . .”

  “. . . know he’s a dog but I swear that . . .”

  “Santa Claus smackdown!” Murphy gasped finally, and it set us both into gales of laughter that had no wind to support them, until finally we were just sitting with her small warm form leaning her back against my chest, in the darkness.

  Then she turned her head, slowly, and looked up at me. Her eyes were very blue. Her mouth was very close.

  Then I noticed something.

  The second barge, whose tug Murphy had torched with her grenade, was moving.

  I stood up and climbed off the bike, my eyes widening. “Oh, crap,” I said.

  From there, I could see that Sharkface stood calmly on the surface of the lake at the rear of the barge, his cloak twining and writhing all around him. His arms stretched forward in what was clearly a gesture of command. T
he waters at the rear of the barge boiled with Outsiders, most of them at least partly out of the water, and it took me only a second to work out what was happening.

  They were doing an Evinrude impersonation, slamming their combined mass and preternatural strength against the rear of the barge. The burning tug was still a massive column of smoke and flame in front of the barge, but the barge was definitely moving—and it was close to shore.

  Eerie green and scarlet light flashed in the depths of the lake, soundless and random. Sharkface had been smart. When the Hunt entered the water, he must have sent the lion’s share of his Outsiders against them—while he and a few others came back up to the surface to ruin the crap out of my potential romantic moment.

  “Oh, stars and stones,” I breathed. “If they get that boat to shore . . .”

  “The Harley can’t get us there,” Karrin said. “Not through this terrain and brush.”

  “You can’t keep up with me here,” I said.

  Murphy gritted her teeth at that, but nodded. “Go,” she said. “I’ll come as fast as I can.”

  And then I thought to myself that if I kept on waiting for things to quiet down and be more appropriate and safer before I took action, I was never going to get anywhere in life.

  So I slipped a hand behind her head, leaned down, and kissed her on the mouth, hard. She didn’t stiffen. She wasn’t surprised. She leaned into it, and her mouth tasted like strawberries.

  I gave it two heartbeats, three, four. Then we both drew away at the same time. Her eyes were slightly wide, her cheeks high with color.

  “I’m not going anywhere,” I told her.

  Then I turned and sprinted toward the stretch of shore at which Sharkface had pointed the last barge.

  Chapter

  Forty-five

  For me, running across the island wasn’t a physical effort. It was mostly a mental one.

  My awareness of the place was bone-deep, a total knowledge that existed as a single, whole body in my mind—a kind of understanding that some medieval scholars had called intellectus. It came to me on the level of reflex and instinct. When I ran, I knew where every branch stood out, where every stone lay ready to turn beneath my foot. Moving happened as naturally as breathing, and every step seemed to propel me forward a little faster, like running across the surface of one of those bouncy cages at a kid’s pizza place.

  I didn’t have to run across the island. I just had to think about it and let my body effortlessly follow my mind.

  I came out of the woods on the beach above where the barge was headed, which was roughly twenty-three yards, one foot, and six and one half inches from the nearest edge of the Whatsup Dock. One of the three major pulsing ley lines ran out from the island at almost that exact point, and if the barge managed to ground itself in contact with the line, Chicagoans were going to have a really rough morning commute.

  Now that the Hunt and the Outsiders had taken their fight mostly below the waves, it was quiet enough to hear the barge approaching. Someone had already begun chanting on the deck of the barge. I couldn’t see them through the smoldering wreckage of the tug out in front of the barge, but voices were certainly being raised in unison in a steady chant of some language that sounded as if it were meant to be spoken while gargling Crisco.

  “Whatever happened to Ia, Ia, Cthulu fhtagn?” I muttered. “No one has a sense of style anymore.”

  Behind the chanting, I could hear the bubbling, sloshing water as the Outsiders pushed the barge nearer and nearer.

  I rested the butt of the rifle on the ground next to my foot, crouched down, and squinted out at the boat. It was going to be here shortly, but not instantly, and I was pretty sure I’d get only one chance to stop it. I started gathering power to myself, an action I’d done so many times over the years that it was all but a reflex now, and squinted at the barge.

  If the ritual was already in progress, then there was a chance that they were simply in a holding pattern, maintaining the skeleton of the spell with their own limited energy and waiting until the right moment. Once they were close enough to use it, they’d drop their circle and channel the energy of the ley line, shaping it into the spell’s muscles and organs, filling out the frame that was prepared to accomodate it. I had to make sure they never got that chance.

  A hole in the hull would work, but by the time the barge came within my limited range, it would be too late to drown it. I’d already tried killing its engine once, so I wasn’t terribly excited about the prospect of taking out the creatures pushing it.

  I had to stop it.

  “For destruction,” I said aloud, “ice is also great, and would suffice.” I nodded once to myself, rose, and said, “Okay, Harry. Get this one right.”

  I went down to the shore. Using the butt of the rifle, I inscribed a circle in the mud, and closed it with a touch of my hand and a whisper of will. Once I felt its presence snap into place, I took the will I’d been gathering, reached down into the earth, and gathered more, drawing it up like water from a well.

  I could feel the seething power of the ley line beneath me, could feel how close I came to it in my quest to gather as much energy as I could before I unleashed my attack. The earth trembled with a subterranean river of dark power, the spirit of violence, havoc, and death expressed as energy, and if I tapped into it, I could potentially direct its terrible strength at the enemy. There would be consequences to an action like that, chain reactions and fallout I couldn’t predict, but it would sure as hell get the job done.

  For a second, I almost did it. There was so much on the line. But you can’t go around changing your definition of right and wrong (or smart and stupid) just because doing the wrong thing happens to be really convenient. Sometimes it isn’t easy to be sane, smart, and responsible. Sometimes it sucks. Sucks wang. Camel wang. But that doesn’t turn wrong into right or stupid into smart.

  I’d kinda gotten an object lesson in that.

  So I left that power alone.

  The magic continued to pour into me, more than I usually used, more than was comfortable. After thirty seconds, I felt as if my hairs were standing on end and sparks were shooting between them. I ground my teeth, dug into the cold power of Winter, and kept drawing more. I began directing it down toward my right hand, and cold blue-white fire abruptly wreathed my fingers like the flame from a newly lit gas burner.

  The burned tug was only about a hundred yards away when I lifted my hand, stepped forward out of the circle, and cried out, “Rexus mundus!”

  And a globe of blindingly intense blue light the size of a soccer ball flew out into the night. It spewed mist from every inch of its surface, and flashed through the night like a dying comet. It landed in the water twenty yards in front of the slow-moving barge.

  There was an abrupt screech as the sphere of condensed, absolute-zero cold hit Lake Michigan. Ice formed almost instantly, and large crystals of it shot out in every direction, sharp as spears, kind of like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. One instant it was clear sailing for the barge—the next, the mutant spawn of an iceberg and a giant porcupine bobbed in the water directly in front of it, a barrier of ice the size of a tractor trailer.

  I could have gone bigger, but there just wasn’t enough time. I’d needed it to happen fast, to get that weight into position—but I wasn’t a complete dummy. My pointy iceberg was the size of a semi, but the barge could have carried twenty of them. I just had to get the first piece into the right spot.

  Again I reached for Winter, and again I lifted my hand, howling, “Infriga!”

  Pure cold screamed from my hand into the air, spreading over the surface of the lake in a field shaped like a folding fan. The surface crystallized and froze, and I poured more and more into it, thickening the ice, spreading it toward the little iceberg. The wreckage of the tugboat hit my obstacle first, and the spears of ice punched through the weakened wooden hull of the tug, nailing the iceberg to it. The barge slowed, and pieces of the tug’s rig screamed and bent in pro
test. Then, as it approached, it started hitting the thinnest ice at the edge of the fan—but as it kept coming, the ice got thicker and thicker, providing increasing resistance to the barge’s forward motion. It began to grind to a halt.

  A furious shriek ripped the air. Sharkface. I’d just pissed the Walker off big-time. It probably says something about my maturity level that it made me grin from ear to ear.

  I saw him jump into the air—not like a bunny hop, but a full-on Kung Fu Theater leap, way up over the barge. His rag-strip cloak spread out like dozens of little wings as gravity turned his jump from an ascent into a dive. I was starting to feel the effort of using so much brute-power magic in such a short amount of time, but I had enough left to handle this thing. I prepared a blast of force, ready to swat him away from my barrier of ice and unleash it on him the moment he came within range.

  I missed. Well, I didn’t miss, exactly. But just before the bolt slammed home, Sharkface split into dozens of identical shapes that splintered off in every direction. So one of those shapes got hit with a slap of force that would have rocked a car up onto two wheels, and that one went soaring away.

  But the other forty or fifty crashed down onto my field of ice like cannonballs, smashing through in most places, in some only sending wide cracks through the ice. When that happened, the copies of Sharkface just started tearing it apart with their claws. Thick ice is no joke as an obstacle—unless you’re a Walker of the Outside, I guess, because these things ripped it apart like it was Styrofoam.

  There were so damned many of them. I started slamming more of them, but it was heavy work, and there were just too many targets. While some of them ripped apart the remaining ice, others began to tear apart the iceberg and the tugboat, rending them into scrap with an inexorable strength and claws like steel knives. I might have hit seven or eight of them, but it just didn’t matter. I was the wrong tool for the job, so to speak. This was a much larger problem, and I had no idea how to solve it.