Cold Days, Page 47Jim Butcher
The chanting on the barge rolled upward an octave, gaining frenzied volume. Outsiders thrashed through the water, pushing the barge, surging ahead of it to push pulverized chunks of ice out of its way, their howls and weird clicks and ululations like their own horrible music. Other Outsiders came rushing toward me, on the shore—only to smash uselessly against the glowing barrier of Demonreach’s curtain wall. They couldn’t get to me. Which seemed fair enough, because I couldn’t seem to get to them, either. I’d slowed them down, cost them maybe a couple of minutes, and that was all.
The water near me stirred and then a Sharkface rose up out of it as if on an elevator, slow, his mouth tilted up into a small smile. He stood there on the water perhaps five feet away from me. His eyeless face looked smug.
“Warden,” he said.
“Asshat,” I replied.
That only made his smile wider. “The battle is over. You have failed. But you need not be destroyed this day.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “You’re trying to recruit me?”
“The offer is made,” the Walker said. “We always appreciate new talent.”
“I’m no one’s puppet,” I said.
The Walker actually barked out a short laugh. “At what point have you been anything else?”
“You can forget it,” I said. “I’m not working for you.”
“Then a truce,” Sharkface said. “We do not need you to fight our battles for us. But if you stand aside, we will accord you respect and leave you in peace. You and those you love. Take them to a safe, quiet place. Stay there. You will not be molested.”
“My boss might not go along with this plan,” I said.
“After tonight, Mab will no longer be a concern to anyone.”
I was going to say something badass and cool but . . .
Take the people I love somewhere. Take Maggie. Somewhere safe. Somewhere without mad Queens or insane Sidhe. And just get out of this entire thankless, painful, hideous business. Wizarding just isn’t what it used to be. Not so many years ago, I’d think it was a busy week if someone asked me to locate a lost dog or a wedding ring. It had been horribly boring. I’d had lots and lots of free time. I hadn’t been rich, but I’d gotten to buy plenty of books to read, and I’d never gone hungry. And no one had tried to kill me, or asked me to make a horrible choice. Not once.
You never know what you have until it’s gone.
Peace and quiet and people I love. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
The Outsider probably wasn’t good for it anyway. And I did have one more option.
I had been warned not to use the power of the Well. But . . .
What else did I have?
I might have done something extra stupid at that moment if the air hadn’t suddenly filled with a massive sound. Two loud, horrible crunching sounds, followed by a single, short, sharp clap of thunder. It repeated the sequence, again and again. Crunch, crunch, crack. Crunch, crunch, crack.
No, wait. I knew this song.
It was more like: stomp, stomp, clap. Stomp, stomp, clap.
What else did I have?
I had friends.
I looked up at Sharkface, who was scanning the lake’s surface, an odd expression twisting his unsettling face.
I smiled widely and said, “You didn’t see this coming, didja?”
STOMP, STOMP, CLAP!
STOMP, STOMP, CLAP!
This was somebody’s mix version of the song, because it went straight to the chorus of voices, pure, human voices, loud enough to shake the ground—and I lifted my arms and sang along with them.
“Singin’ we will, we will rock you!”
The Halloween sky exploded with strobes of scarlet and blue light, laser streaks of white and viridian flickering everywhere, forming random, flickering impressions of objects and faces, filling the sky with light that pulsed in time with the music.
And as it did, the Water Beetle, the entire goddamned ship, exploded out from under a veil that had rendered it and the water it had displaced and every noise it had made undetectable not only to me, but to a small army of otherworldly monstrosities and their big, bad Walker general, too.
The Walker let out another furious shriek, his hideous features twisted even more by the frenetic explosion of light in the sky, and that was all he had time to do—the Water Beetle slammed into the last barge at full speed.
The mass differential between the two ships was significant—but this was different from when the barge had hit my iceberg. For one thing, it was almost entirely still, having only barely begun to pick up speed again. For another, the Water Beetle didn’t hit it head-on. Instead, it struck the barge from the side, and right up by its nose. With less than ten yards to spare before the barge’s prow ground up onto Demonreach’s shore, the Water Beetle brutally slammed her nose away from contacting the power of the outgoing ley line.
I couldn’t hear the collision over the thunder of Queen’s greatest hit, but it flung objects all over both ships around with the impact—more so on the Beetle than on the barge. The barge wallowed, stunned, its nose turned away from the beach, its long side being presented to the island, while the Water Beetle rebounded violently, drunkenly, and crunched up onto her hull in the shallows, listing badly to one side.
Mac and Molly were up at the wheel. She had nearly been thrown from the craft, but Mac had grabbed my apprentice around the waist and kept her from getting a flying lesson. I’m not sure she even noticed. Her face was contorted in a concentration so deep, it was practically dementia, her lips moving frantically, and she held a wand in either hand, moving them in entirely disconnected movements, as if directing two different orchestras through two different speed-metal medleys.
And as I watched, two other forms bounded up onto the Water Beetle’s rail, then into graceful leaps that carried them over onto the barge—directly into the center of the ritual that was still running at a frantic pitch.
Thomas had gone into the fight with his favorite combination of weapons—a sword and a pistol. Even as I watched, my brother whirled into a mass of figures on the deck, blade spinning, blood flying out in wide, clean arcs. He moved so swiftly that I could barely track him, just a blur of steel here, a flash of cold grey eyes there. His gun fired in quick rhythm between strokes of his falcata, scything down the Outsiders’ mortal henchmen like sheaves of wheat.
The second figure was grey and shaggy and terrifying. Mouse’s lionlike ruff of fur flew out like a true mane as he whirled and lunged into the ritual’s participants wherever Thomas hadn’t. I saw him rip a shotgun from the hands of a stunned guard and fling it with a snap of his head into another one before bounding forward and bringing half a dozen panicked men to the deck under his weight—and smashing them through the circle that had surrounded the ritual.
The reduced energy the ritual had been able to use, the framework that the ley line would have turned into a deadly construction, vanished, released into the night sky to be shaken to pieces by the music. We will, we will, rock you.
“Hey, Sharkface!” I shouted, stepping forward, gathering Winter and soulfire as I went.
The furious Walker whirled back to me just in time to have the heavy, octagonal barrel of the Winchester slam through the ridge of bone that he had instead of front teeth, and drive all the way to the back of his mouth.
“Get rocked,” I said, and pulled the trigger.
Along with the .45-caliber bullet, I sent a column of pure energy and will surging down the barrel and into the Walker’s skull. His head exploded, literally exploded, into streamers and gobbets of black ichor. His cloak of rags went mad, throwing the headless body into the air and sending it thrashing through the shallow water like a half-squashed bug. Dark vapor began issuing from the frantically twitching body—then suddenly gathered into a single cloud, all in a rush, and shot away, emitting a furious and agonized and terrorized scream as it went, alien but unmistakable.
Then the body went limp i
n the water. The cloak continued flopping and thrashing for a few seconds before it, too, went still.
A unified howl of dismay rose from the surface of the lake, from the Outsiders, and V-shaped wakes appeared on the surface, retreating from the island in every direction, chased by flickering spears of light and music—and the horns of the Hunt began to blare in a frenzy, ringing up from the water’s quivering surface. I saw a massive black-and-white form seize a fleeing Outsider and roll, while a shadow-masked rider lashed out over and over with a long spear. In another place, a shark exploded from the waves, hanging against the sky for a second, jaws gaping, before plunging down directly atop another Outsider, driving it beneath the waves where a dozen wickedly sharp fins abruptly converged.
The woods stirred behind me and Murphy came panting out of them, her P90 hanging from its sling. She came to my side, staring at the chaos.
I couldn’t blame her. It was horrible. It was unique. It was glorious. It was . . .
Suddenly it felt like my heart had stopped.
It was distracting.
“Molly!” I screamed. “Molly!”
Mac heard me through that mess, and shook Molly. When she didn’t react, he grimaced and then delivered a short, sharp smack to her cheek.
She gasped and blinked her eyes, and the sky show and sound track abruptly vanished, right in the middle of the guitar solo.
“Get them out of the water!” I screamed. “Get onto the shore! Hurry!”
Molly blinked at me several times. Then she seemed to get it and nodded her head quickly. She and Mac hurried down to the Beetle’s slanted deck, to the door to below. She called out and Sarissa and Justine appeared, both looking terrified. Molly pointed them at the island, and the three jumped from the ship to the waist-deep water and started wading ashore.
Mouse caught what was happening and let out a short, sharp bark. Mouse doesn’t bark often, but when he does he can make bits of spackle fall from the ceiling. He and Thomas plunged from the bloodied deck of the barge into the water, and began swimming swiftly toward the island.
The cries of the Hunt and frantic Outsiders filled the air now, and even as they did, I forced myself to calm my thoughts, to take slow breaths, to focus on my intellectus of the island. I couldn’t sense anything specifically, but an instinct dragged my chin around, turning me to stare up toward the crest of the island, where the old ruined lighthouse stood among the skeletal forms of the late-autumn trees.
Then it hit me. I shouldn’t have been able to see the lighthouse or the trees from down here, not on a cloudy night, but their silhouettes were clear.
There was light up there.
And as my friends reached the shore and hurried over to me, I realized that there was an empty place in my awareness of the island. I would never have sensed it if I hadn’t been looking. I couldn’t feel anything from around the top of the hill.
“The Walker was just the distraction,” I breathed. “Dammit, they’re not pulling that same trick on me this time.” I turned to them and said, “I think someone’s up at the top of the hill, and whatever they’re doing, it ain’t good. Stay right behind me. Come on.”
I was pretty sure I knew who was up there, and I wasn’t about to do this alone.
So I started toward the top of the hill, taking the agonizingly slow route that I knew would enable my friends to keep up with me.
Whoever was up at the top of the hill had things ready to stop me from getting there. It didn’t work out well for them.
I knew about the trip lines that had been strung up between the trees at ankle level, and knew where the gaps were—more harassment-level opposition from the enemy Little Folk, I was guessing. The people with me didn’t even realize that there were any trip lines.
After that was a trio of particularly vicious-looking fae hounds, the little cousins of Black Dogs. I had taken a Black Dog on once, in my calmer days, and didn’t care for a rematch. I clipped one of the hounds with a shot from the Winchester while it was crouching in the brush ahead, waiting for me to come a few steps closer, and I set on fire a thicket where another one hid before we got within thirty feet. Ambush predators become unnerved when their would-be prey spots them. Fae hound number three hustled out of a hollow log where he’d been planning to rush out and attack with his buddies, and retreated with the two wounded hounds to the far side of the island.
“How did they get on the island?” Molly asked as we kept moving. She was breathing hard, both from her efforts on the lake and from the hike up. “I thought it kept everyone away.”
Demonreach was meant to keep things in, not out, but I didn’t want to blab about that in front of mixed company. “It encourages everyone to stay away, and turns up the heat slowly for anyone who doesn’t,” I said back. “But that’s when it isn’t being attacked by an army of cultists and a horde of howling freaks from beyond reality. It was busy making sure none of the Outsiders could come up onto shore—and none of them could. It just outmuscled an army led by something that could go toe-to-toe with Mab. Everything has its limits.” I checked with my intellectus and realized that Mac and Sarissa were bringing up the rear. That wouldn’t do. I still didn’t know the role they were playing in this game. “Mouse,” I called. “Take rear guard, in case those hounds circle around and try to sneak up on us.”
The big furball made a huffing sound, an exhalation somewhere between a bark and a sneeze, but chewier. Heh. Chewie. I reminded myself to keep track of Mac and Sarissa as we went, but I felt better once Mouse was back there. Intellectus was handy as a reference guide, but not as an early-warning system. If either of them tried anything shady, the shaggy Tibetan guardian was probably the one most likely to notice first, anyway. Might as well have him close.
“Who’s up there?” Karrin asked, her voice low and tense.
“Faerie Queens, I think. Plural.”
“Whoa,” Thomas said. “Why?”
“Complicated, no time,” I said. “No one does anything until I do. Don’t even talk. If the balloon goes up, go after whoever I light up first. After that, improvise.”
Then I continued, increasing the pace a little. The trees near the crown of the island were older, thicker, and taller. The spreading canopy of their branches had shaded out most of the brush beneath them, and the ground was easier to move across, being mostly an irregular, soggy carpet of years and years’ worth of fallen leaves. The scent of molds was thick as we went through, disturbing them.
We emerged into the clearing at the top of the hill, and I stopped in my tracks six inches before I would have come out of the shadow of the forest. Thomas bumped into me. I looked partly over my shoulder with a little push of air through my teeth. He elbowed me in the lower back.
The hilltop had been closed in a circle of starlight.
I didn’t know how else to describe it. I didn’t know what I was looking at. Twelve feet off the ground was a band of illumination, glowing rather than glaring, something that filled the hilltop with gentle light, like an enormous ring floating above the earth. It was of precise width, as if drawn with a compass, and I knew that it was exactly one foot thick—twelve inches. The color was something I had never seen before, changing subtly moment to moment, holding silver and blue and gold, but it wasn’t any of those things and . . . and words fail. But it was beautiful, like love, like music, like truth, something that passed through the eyes and plunged straight to the soul. Gentle, softly glowing light slid from the outer edge of the circle like a sheet of water from an elegant fountain, falling to the ground in a slow-motion liquid curtain of pure light, hiding what was behind it.
I felt the grasshopper move up beside me, her eyes wide. “Boss,” she whispered. “This would make my mom talk in her church voice. What are we looking at?”
“Merlin’s work, I think,” I breathed. “That circle. I think it’s part of the island’s architecture.”
“I . . . It
’s beautiful,” Sarissa murmured. “I’ve never seen anything like it. And I’ve been looking at incredible things my whole life.”
I spoke something I was certain was true in the same moment that I understood it. “It had to be beautiful. It had to be made from beauty. There is too much ugly inside for it to be made of anything else.”
“What do you mean, ugly?” Karrin asked, her voice hushed.
“Later,” I said. I shook my head and blinked my eyes several times. “City to save.” I tried to find something about the circle in my intellectus, but I had apparently already learned everything I could learn about it that way. I knew its exact dimensions; I knew it was part of the structure of the massive spell that made the Well exist. And that was it. It was like the entire thing had been . . . classified, top secret, need-to-know only—and apparently I didn’t need to know.
Which, I supposed, made sense. We were talking about a massive security system.
Molly stooped and picked up a rock. She gave it a gentle underhand toss at the wall of light and it passed through without making a ripple. “Safe?” she asked.
“I doubt it. Give me something that isn’t a part of the island,” I said.
I heard her slip her backpack off her shoulder and open a zipper. Then she touched my arm and passed me a granola bar wrapped in plastic. I tossed it at the wall, and when it touched, it was destroyed. It didn’t go violently. It simply became a flicker of softly glowing light in the precise shape of the bar of “food.”
Then it was gone.
“That also was pretty,” Thomas noted. “In a completely lethal kind of way.”
“Look who’s talking,” Molly said.