Cold Days, Page 49Jim Butcher
“What are you doing?” Maeve snarled. “You stupid cow! I cannot defeat the guardian alone!”
Lily ignored her. I sensed her move her hand, an almost absent gesture.
And a sudden wind brushed the fog Fix and I had created from the hilltop as easily as a young mother sweeping fallen Cheerios from a toddler’s tray.
I knew the Ladies were powerful, but I hadn’t realized what that meant in practical terms. Making that much air move that precisely and that suddenly is hard, and it would take a serious investment of energy to make it happen. I could have done it, but it would have been enough heavy lifting to make me want a cold beer and a nice sit-down when I was finished. If I’d had to do it two or three times in a row, I’d have been too tired to lift the beer.
Lily had done it with a comparative flick of her fingers.
And there I was, standing naked on the hilltop over the unmoving form of Fix. I still had my veil up, but it was so rudimentary as to be useless against someone as savvy as the Sidhe. I shouldn’t have bothered to hold on to it at all, but some irrational instinct made me condense it instead to a small field of blurry energy around my hips.
“He’s alive, Lily,” I said, quickly. “We need to talk.”
The whites showed all the way around Lily’s eyes. “What?” she demanded, fury swelling in her tone. “What did you say to me?”
Whoa. On my worst diplomatic day, I still shouldn’t have garnered a reaction like that from what I’d said. “Lily, calm down. Fix is alive. But I think you’re still you over there, and I don’t think you’ve been given the whole truth. Let’s talk before things happen that everyone regrets.”
“How dare you!” she snarled, her rage turning incandescent. Literally. Fire burst from her hands and wreathed her forearms. “How dare you!”
I held up my own hands in front of me, empty. I was pretty sure I looked confused. “Hell’s bells, Lily, what the hell? I do not want a fight here!”
Lily screamed, and Summer fire engulfed her, causing her courtiers to leap away. Gold and green and starlight silver, the fire danced around her, mesmerizing—and swelling. Suddenly I saw the same rage that I’d seen in Titania’s eyes, but that had been the smoldering coals left over after the passing of years, after mourning and grief had eased. The power Lily held on to now came from the same kind of passion—but it was fresh and white-hot, and it wasn’t going to cool anytime soon.
Then I realized what was going on. Maeve had extended her other hand toward me, and her fingers were dancing merrily. She gave me the briefest flash of a look, and it was poisonously amused. I reached into the air in front of me and felt it there, an elegant little glamour, simple enough that Maeve could have done it in her sleep, complex enough to slip by anyone not looking for it, even one of the Sidhe. I’d been talking, but it hadn’t been my words getting to Lily. Maeve had chosen my words for me.
I don’t know what she’d said, but she’d picked something exactly right to drive her Summer counterpart mad with rage. Lily’s gentler, more compassionate nature had been used against her. Maeve had employed her simple little glamour with exquisite timing, at the one instant when there was no way the relatively inexperienced Lily would have expected it—when she was full of concern for the fallen Fix. With a sinking feeling I realized that the passionate young Lady of Summer was no Titania. She had all the heat, but none of the restraint, the balance, and there was no way in hell that she was going to be able to think, to reason, to hold back her fury.
“Destroy him!” she screamed. Trees shook and rocks cracked as she spoke. The sound of it ripped at my ears, and I felt a sudden hot wetness in them. “Destroy Harry Dresden!”
She threw forth her hands and a wall of fire twenty feet high and as wide as a football field roared toward me.
For a fraction of a second, my brain squealed like the last little piggy running all the way home, a spinal-level fear reaction. I had an experience with fire once. It’s the kind of memory that sticks pretty hard.
Fire’s tough to defend against. That’s one of the reasons it’s always been my favorite form of attack. Even if you don’t actually set your target on fire, you can still roast it by heating up the air around it, unless it just throws away everything to get out of your way, in which case it isn’t thinking about doing anything back to you. As weapons go, fire is top-drawer.
Fire’s tricky and fickle. Without focus, it’s just chaos, the random release of stored chemical energy. It isn’t enough to just have fire. You’ve got to know when and where and how to use it to best effect—and Lily didn’t.
I threw myself down over the unconscious Fix and focused, thrusting my hands out to either side, shouting, “Defendarius!”
As I formed a shield around us in a bubble, the firestorm roared down onto us, washing over us like an ocean tide. My shield held the fire back, but it couldn’t stop it entirely, and heat began to burn through. That was why I reached for Winter and filled the little bubble around us with the cold. That wave of fire was too massive for me to overcome—but I didn’t have to overcome it. It was spread out over such a huge area that all I had to do was beat a relatively tiny portion of it, to hold out against it like a large stone on a beach. I didn’t have the strength to beat it—but I did have the strength to hold it away, and to keep just the air within my shield from becoming an oven.
The fire washed over us, and I held on to the shield for a few seconds more, as long as I thought I could. Without my bracelet or my staff to help direct the energy, a few seconds were all I could do—but it was enough to survive. It left me on my hands and knees, gasping, on a small circle of frost-covered earth, but I made it, and so did Fix.
Maeve’s mocking laughter rang out over the hilltop.
Hot air touched the side of my face and grew gently, along with an approaching light. I looked up to see Lily walking toward me over the scorched earth, naked now but for the flames curling around her body, her own clothing burned away in the firestorm. Her eyes weren’t there. There were only a pair of searing fires burning where they had been, wisps of orange and scarlet flame rising up from them as she came closer. Her silken white hair rose into a wavering column like a flame itself, lifted by the hot air and colored golden green and orange by the light of her fiery nimbus.
Behind her, the other Summer Sidhe were shadows, with fire dancing in the reflection of silvery weapons, and with the echoes of it flickering in their hands and upon their brows, power and weapons alike spreading out around me to leave me no escape—but at the flick of a hand from Lily, they stopped and withdrew, back to their original positions near the tower.
I guessed that she didn’t want to incinerate her Summer buddies along with me. I started to lift my hand, to ready another shield, but my other arm couldn’t take the weight of my body and I nearly collapsed.
That was it, then.
I was out of gas.
I managed to get myself up onto my knees and sat back on my heels, panting. Then I tugged the nail out of Fix’s back, gripped it grimly, and faced Lily.
She stopped about six feet away from me, covered in living fire, and stared down, her eyes like spotlights.
“He’s okay, Lily,” I said. “Fix is okay. God, Lily. Can you even hear me?”
Evidently she could not. Lily lifted a hand, and a minuscule sphere of white-hot light formed in the air above it, a tiny star.
Now there, that was focus. I couldn’t have stopped something that concentrated without a major amount of preparation. I could appreciate it in a professional sense, even if it was about to kill me horribly.
And suddenly I felt very stupid. What the fuck had I been thinking? The Queens of Faerie, even the least of them, were elemental powers, something that was simply out of the league of any mortal. I should have tried to contact my grandfather and the Grey Council, should have at least put out a scream to t
he White Council, even if they were less likely to help.
And I should have sent Michael and his family—and Maggie—out of town the second I’d realized the danger. I’d saved the day before, maybe often enough to make me overconfident. I sneer about the White Council being arrogant all the time, but I’d walked into the exact same stupid trap, hadn’t I? Confident of my ability to handle anything that came along, I’d gathered together my little band of enablers and cruised right into this disaster.
“Lily,” I said wearily. “Listen to me. We’ve both been set up by Maeve.”
White fire stared at me.
“The adversary,” I said. “It’s in her. It’s been in her for a long time. Think. It makes the things it takes act against their natures. And you know what it’s done for Maeve?” I leaned forward, holding my weary hands palms up. “It’s let her lie. She can lie her ass off and never blink an eye. Think. How much of your trust in her, of your awareness of what’s going on in the world is based on knowing that she can’t speak an untruth?”
Fire stared—and did not consume me. So I kept talking.
“Don’t take me at my word,” I said. “Just look at what she is doing.”
And Lily spoke, her voice burning with the unleashed power of Summer. “We are working together. We are destroying the largest source of dark energy and corruption in this world. The source you are so desperate to protect that you call Outsiders to defend it!”
Lily didn’t know what was in the Well. She understood that it was a source of dark energy, but not why.
I kept forgetting that she had had the job for only a comparatively tiny amount of time. Before I’d killed Aurora and left poor Lily holding the mantle of the Summer Lady, she’d been a young woman, no older than Molly, only without Molly’s skills and training. She’d been putting her life back together while dealing with the massive power of her mantle, taking a crash course in faerie leadership, struggling to learn.
And if someone had been there to feed her lies as part of her basic education in the supernatural, someone whose word she had trusted, God only knew how much her knowledge had been twisted and colored.
“Who told you I called up Outsiders?” I asked. “Maeve?”
“So arrogant,” Lily said. “You reek of arrogance and deception, like all wizards. Even the famous Merlin, who built this abomination.” Her eyes narrowed. “But as complex as it is, it is still made of mortal magic. This circle that we used to stop your interference—it’s a part of the architecture here. All we had to do was feed power into it to close this place against your allies while we tore it down from inside.”
“If you keep going,” I told her, “you are going to destroy yourself, Lily, and everyone you brought with you, and a lot of innocent people are going to die.”
“Finish it, Lily,” Maeve called. “I told you they would lie. Mortals always lie, and that is why we must stand together. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided. Put him down and we will complete what we have begun.”
“Lily, please,” I said. “Don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. But be certain. Find out for yourself. Then you’ll know. You don’t have to do this.”
The Summer fire vanished abruptly.
Lily stood over me, her hair mussed, her naked body so beautiful, it hurt. She spoke in a quiet, dreadfully numb voice. “You can’t tell me that,” she said. “Not you. Do you think I wanted this? Do you think I wanted pain and death and fear and war? Do you think I wanted this mantle, this responsibility?” Her eyes welled, though her expression didn’t change. “I didn’t want the world. I didn’t want vast riches, or fame, or power. I wanted a husband. Children. Love. A home that we made together. And that can never happen now.” The tears fell, and as the heat, the fury, came back into her voice, the fire gathered around her again. “Because of you. Because you killed Aurora. Because you made me into this. You raise your hand against my champion, my friend, and when you are defeated you dare tell me what I must and must not do?”
“Lily, please,” I said. “You have a choice.”
Maeve was laughing again in the background, an Arkham Asylum kind of laugh that echoed across the bare, burned ground.
“Now,” Lily said, her burning voice bitter. “Now you give me a choice.” The ministar flared to life in her palm again. “Thus do I choose, you son of a bitch. Knight of Winter, burn and die.”
I got it, I think. Or at least, I got most of it. Lily had spent her life a victim because of her luminous beauty. Lloyd Slate had been the last man to abuse her, but I doubted he was the first. All her life, she had been shut away from making choices, but she clearly had not wanted to be part of the world of Faerie; as a changeling, she could have Chosen to become a full faerie being at any time—and she hadn’t. Then when I killed Aurora, I had even taken the choice to remain human away from her.
I hadn’t meant to do that when I killed Aurora, but that fact made no difference in the outcome. I hadn’t just killed Aurora that night. In many ways, I’d effectively killed Lily, too. I’d thrown her into a world where she was lost and afraid. A grieving and furious Titania had doubtless not been the supportive mentor figure Lily had needed. And even if she’d been a newly minted immortal, she must have been horribly angry, and sad, and afraid—and lonely.
Easy prey for Maeve. Easy prey for Nemesis. I wasn’t sure whether there was anything about that entire situation that I could have changed, even if I’d known that it needed changing, but I still felt like I was the one at fault. Maybe I was. It had been my choice that changed everything.
Maybe it was fitting that Lily kill me, in turn.
Her fiery eyes seared into mine as she launched the little star at my heart.
There was a flash of silver, and the little star bounced off of the mirror-bright flat of Fix’s long sword.
It soared into the earth a dozen yards away and hit the ground with a flash and a howl of heated air, creating a brief column of white flame that, presumably, had been intended to replace my head and neck.
Fix was holding himself up on one elbow, and held the sword in his left hand. He looked like hell, but he made a single deft rolling motion and came onto his feet as if he didn’t weigh anything.
And he came to his feet between Lily and me.
“Lily!” Fix said. “What is wrong with you?”
Eyes of flame regarded him. “You . . . you’re all right?”
“I said that,” I said. My voice might have squeaked a little. My heart rate was up.
“Harry, shut up,” Fix said. “Lily, look at him. He isn’t a threat to anyone.”
I guess I must have looked kind of bad, but still . . . “Hey,” I said.
Fix twitched his hips and kicked me in the chest. It wasn’t hard, but in my condition it didn’t need to be. It knocked me over.
“Sir Knight . . .” Lily said. “I . . . Fix, it burns.”
“Stop this,” he urged quietly. “Let’s get out of here, find someplace quiet for you to meditate until you’ve got it under control again.”
“I need to . . . He tried to hurt you.”
Fix’s voice hardened. “The ground is burned black, Lily,” he said. “And there’s frost all over my mail. There are burns all over his arms and shoulders, but I wake up fine, lying in the only grass left on the hilltop.” He held up his sword. The last six inches or so of the blade were simply gone, ending in a melted mess. The point must have been lying outside the area my shield had covered. “But it was hot enough to do this. Forget what anyone said. Who was protecting me, Lily?”
She stared at Fix, the furious fire still curling around her, lifting her hair, burning from her eyes. Then she closed them with a groan, and the fires went out. Lily turned her head sharply away from me. “This is too much,” I heard her whisper. “I’m going to fly apart.”
“My lady?” Fix asked.
Lily made a snarling sound, turning eyes that still
flickered with embers toward me. “Stay where you are, Sir Knight,” she said, spitting the last word. “If you move or lift weapon or power against our purpose, I will not show mercy a second time.” Then she turned and swept back toward the pyramid formation of Sidhe assaulting Demonreach. Her feet left clear imprints in the soot and ash on the ground, and little fires flickered up in the wake of her steps, dying away again when she had passed. She did not say a word, just lifted her hand and again something like an invisible sandblaster started pouring into Demonreach.
I watched, too drained to move more. I did, I noted, have burns on my arms. I didn’t feel them. They didn’t look like anything epic, but they were there.
“Fix,” I said. “Thank you.”
He looked at me, his expression guarded, but nodded his head slightly. “It seemed I was in your debt, Winter.” His eyes sparkled, just for a second. “Couldn’t have that.”
I found myself laughing weakly. “No. No, it might break something.”
“It broke my damned wrist.” He snorted. “My jaw isn’t happy either. Good punch.”
“I cheated,” I said.
“Our business, there’s no such thing,” he said. “I should have known you were goosing me, talking like that. Most of the fighting I’ve done, there hasn’t been much in the way of taunt and insult.”
“Raise your standards. There’s almost always time for an insult or two.”
He smiled, though it was a bit pained. He waggled the fingers of his right hand experimentally. “Are you done?”
I exhaled slowly, and didn’t answer.
“How much of what you told her is true?” he asked.
“What did you hear?” I asked him.
“Pretty much everything after you took the knife out of me.”
“Nail,” I corrected him, and held it up so he could see. It still had his blood on it.
He looked a little pained. “Harry, would you mind?”