Cold days, p.50
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       Cold Days, p.50

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “No,” I said, and wiped the blood into the earth, scrubbing it off the nail.

  “Thanks,” he said. He squinted at the wall and then at me. “How the hell did you get in here?”

  “Trade secrets,” I said. “How did you guys get here? I know you didn’t take a boat.”

  “Flew in,” Fix said. “Shape-shifters. I dropped from a hang glider over the lake and parachuted in.”

  “Damn. You got extreme.”

  “I’m getting there,” he said.

  “So you landed here and put the circle up?”

  “Trade secrets,” he said cautiously. “You realize we still aren’t sitting in the same dugout, right? I can do the frenemies thing. It’s kind of traditional. But we are not on the same side.”

  “No. You’re on the wrong side,” I said. “Maybe more than one.”

  “That’s what every conflict sounds like,” he said. “Not everyone can be equally right, Harry.”

  “But believe you me, everyone can be equally wrong,” I said. “Fix, this is about more than Winter and Summer.”

  He frowned at that.

  “Tell me this,” I said. “I’m not asking for anything specific, anything that I might be able to use against you later.” As if Maeve would let me have a later. “Just tell me: Has Maeve ever asked you to take something at her word. And just told you something was true? Straight up?”

  Fix’s frown deepened.

  “And you thought to yourself, ‘Hey, that’s odd. She never just tells anyone anything straight up.’”

  His lips parted slightly, and his eyes fixed on Maeve.

  “And you thought that if anyone but one of the Ladies had said it, you would wonder if she was lying. But she didn’t leave any wiggle room, so it had to be the truth.”

  “So?” he asked, very quietly.

  “So let me ask you this,” I said. “If you assume that she can lie, even if it was just that once—how does it change the picture?”

  Fix might have had some foolish idealism going, but he’d never been anywhere close to stupid. “Oh,” he breathed. “Um.”

  “Remember when Lily opened the door to Arctis Tor for us, back when?”

  “Sure.”

  “When we got inside, the Leanansidhe was popsicled in Mab’s garden,” I said. “Because something had invaded her and influenced her actions. Mab was in the middle of some kind of exorcism based on the model of an ice age.”

  “And?”

  “And what if this invader got into the water before Mab caught it?” I asked. “What if it got into Maeve?”

  “That’s crazy,” he said. “Mab’s the one who’s gone mental.”

  “Is she?” I asked him. “Is it so crazy? Remember that meeting at Mac’s? Remember how we found out that Mab had cracked a gasket?”

  “Maeve told . . .” He stopped speaking suddenly.

  “Yeah,” I said. “A minute ago, you told Lily to ignore the words and look at the actions. You know as well as I do which speaks louder. You know who I am and what I’ve done. So I’m going to ask one more question,” I said. “Whose idea was it to be here tonight? Lily’s? Or Maeve’s?”

  The blood drained from his face. “Oh. Fuck.”

  I bowed my head. Then I said, “Fix, I saved you because you’re a decent guy, and I don’t care if we’re on different teams. I don’t want you dead.”

  “Yeah,” he said quietly. “It . . . speaks pretty loud. But maybe you knew I’d think that. Maybe you did it so that you could play me.”

  “Maybe you’re giving me way more credit for cunning than I’m due. You know how I work. How often do I get to a neat, elegant solution that ties everything up? Can you look at me right now and honestly say to yourself, ‘Dresden, that wily genius! This must be a part of his master plan’?”

  I spread my hands and looked up at him expectantly.

  Fix looked at me, dirty, naked, shivering, burned, bruised, covered in soot and ash.

  “Fuck,” he said again, and looked back at the Ladies.

  “I don’t think Maeve did anything to Lily’s head,” I said. “I don’t think she needed to. I think Lily was insecure and lonely enough that all Maeve needed to do was act sort of like a person. Give Lily someone who she felt understood what she was going through. Someone she thought would have her back.”

  “A friend,” Fix said.

  “Yes.”

  “Everyone wants to have a friend,” he said quietly. “Is that so bad?”

  “Thelma and Louise were friends,” I said. I pointed at the triangle. “Canyon.”

  The muscles along his jaw jumped several times. “Even if . . . even if you’re being honest, and you’re right—and I’m not copping to either—so what? Those coteries with them are their inner circles. They’ll obey without question. You’ve got nothing left to fight with. And I sure as hell can’t take them all on alone.”

  I didn’t want to say it, to give away anything to a potential enemy. Nemesis could have taken Fix, for all I knew. It could be there inside him right then, smirking at the rapport it was establishing with me. That was the ugly fact.

  But sometimes you have to ignore the math, and . . .

  And follow the wisdom of your heart.

  My heart told me that Fix was a decent guy.

  “Fix, I know about this island. It’s kind of my stomping grounds. That’s how I got through. And I know that if Maeve has her way, this island is going Mount Saint Helens, and taking Chicago with it.”

  He stared at me, frowning, pensive.

  “My daughter is in town,” I said in a whisper. “She’ll die.”

  He blinked. “You have a . . . ?” Then he rocked back a little, as he realized what I’d entrusted him with. “Oh. Christ, Dresden.”

  I took a deep breath and pressed on. “The Hunt is out there taking it to the Outsiders right now,” I said. “And they’re winning. And my crew is here, outside the circle. Murphy, Molly, Thomas, Mouse. If I can take the circle down, we aren’t alone.”

  “When did ‘we’ happen?” he asked in a flat, hard tone.

  I looked up at him and saw laughter at the corners of his eyes.

  Sometimes the wisdom of the heart is not at all a bad thing.

  “I won’t let anything hurt Lily,” he said. “For any reason. Period.”

  “Agreed,” I said. “Maeve’s the bad guy.”

  He tested his right hand again and got a little more motion out of it before he winced. “I don’t know where this will get you,” he said, “but as far as I could tell, this was just a ritual circle, like any other.”

  “How so?”

  “When we landed, Maeve sent some hounds and some Little Folk after you and went straight for that lighthouse—and the guardian just popped up out of the ground, where it is now. Maeve assaulted the spirit, just like right now. She kept it busy while Lily walked a circle of the hilltop, singing. I’ve seen her set up circles like that a thousand times. But once she’d gone all the way around, kaboom, up came the wall.”

  I grunted. “Then . . . it’s a preinstalled defense that can be triggered like . . . Hell’s bells, not like a ward. It is a ward. A huge one. But if anything of the island passes through the circle without disturbing it, and anything that isn’t of the island is destroyed . . .” I followed the logic through and sagged.

  “What?” Fix asked.

  “Then there’s no way to break the circle,” I breathed. “It’s like a time-lock safe. It isn’t coming down until sunrise.”

  “Meaning what?”

  I swallowed. Sunrise was too late. So I gathered whatever scraps of strength I had left in me and pushed myself slowly, wearily to my feet.

  “Meaning,” I said, “we’re on our own.”

  Fix eyed the center of the clearing. He passed me a silvery knife he drew from his belt and said, “There you go with that ‘we’ again.”

  Chapter

  Fifty

  I started walking. It was iffy for a couple of steps but I got t
he hang of it.

  “Is there a plan?” Fix asked, keeping up with me.

  “Maeve. I kill her.”

  Which had been Mab’s freaking order in the first place.

  He glanced aside. “You know she’s an immortal, right?”

  “Yeah.”

  His eyes narrowed. “What do I do?”

  “They’ve got the guardian pinned down,” I said. “I think one of those crews has got to stay on it, or it will break loose. Otherwise, Maeve would have been stomping on me right next to Lily.”

  Fix nodded. “She never passes up the chance to tear the wings off a fly.” He frowned. “What happens if the guardian gets loose?”

  I wasn’t sure. Demonreach had enormous power, an absolute dedication to purpose, and no sense of proportion. I had very little idea of its tactical capabilities. It might or might not be able to help in a fight. Actually, I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t—imagine trying to kill specific ants, in a crowd of ants, with a baseball bat. I was pretty sure that if Demonreach ever started swinging at someone, I wanted to be over the horizon at the very least.

  In fact, I realized, that was probably the problem here. Demonreach existed on an epic scale. It was neither suited to nor capable of effectively dealing with beings of such relative insignificance. Standing off a Walker and a small army of Outsiders had not been a huge problem for the island. But Maeve and Lily had slipped inside its guard. They and their personal attendants were sparrows attacking an eagle. The eagle was bigger and stronger and capable of killing any of them, and it didn’t matter in the least.

  Not only that, but Demonreach was a genius loci, a nature spirit. The fae were intimately connected to nature on a level that no one had ever been able to fully understand. One could probably make an argument that Demonreach was one of the fae, or at least a very close neighbor. Either way, the mantles of the Ladies of Winter and Summer would carry a measure of dominion and power over beings like Demonreach. Clearly they were not sovereign over the guardian spirit, because it was withstanding them. Just as clearly, they had something going for them, because it wasn’t trying to crush them, either.

  “I’m not sure,” I answered. “But the point here is that if we jump Maeve, Lily is going to be too busy keeping a lid on the guardian to get involved.”

  “The two of us,” Fix said, “are going to take on all ten of them?”

  “Nah,” I said. “I take Maeve. You get the other nine.”

  “What if they don’t cooperate?”

  “Chastise them.”

  Fix snorted. “That’ll be quick. One way or the other. And . . . it’s going to mean war if the Summer Knight assaults nobles of the Winter Court.”

  “Not at all,” I said. “They aren’t nobles. They’re outlaws. I just outlawed them by the authority invested in me and stuff. I also hereby declare us a joint task force.”

  “We’re a task force?”

  “As of now,” I said.

  Fix bobbed his head amiably. “If we dance fast enough, maybe we can sell that. Then what?”

  “If we’re both alive, we’ll figure it out.”

  We took a few more steps before Fix said, “You can’t take Maeve, wizard. Not in the shape you’re in. Not even if she was alone.”

  “No,” I said. “I can’t.”

  But maybe the Winter Knight could.

  Ever since I’d gotten out of my bed in my quarters in Arctis Tor, I’d felt the power of the Winter mantle inside me, and held it back. I’d felt the primal drives that were its power, the need to hunt, to fight, to protect territory, to kill. Winter’s nature was beautiful violence, stark clarity, the most feral needs and animal desires and killer instinct pitted against the season of cold and death—the will and desire to fight, to live, even when there was no shelter, no warmth, no respite, no hope, and no help.

  I’d fought against that drive, repressed it, held it at bay. That savagery was never meant for a world of grocery stores and electric blankets and peaceable assembly. It was meant for times like this.

  So I let Winter in, and everything changed.

  My weariness vanished. Not because my body was no longer weary, but because my body was no longer important—only my will. My fear vanished, too. Fear was for prey. Fear was for the things I was about to hunt.

  My doubts vanished as well. Doubt was for things that did not know their purpose, and I knew mine. This was a Winter matter, a Faerie matter, a family matter, and it was precisely correct that only beings of Faerie resolve it. I knew exactly what I had to do.

  There was a throat that needed ripping.

  “Harry?” asked Fix. “Uh. Are you okay?”

  I looked aside at him. As hunting partners went, Fix didn’t look like much, but I’d seen him in action before. He was no one to underestimate. And I needed him. Once I didn’t, things might change, because he was on my island and that wasn’t something I could let slide. But for now I could do worse than to have him at my side.

  “I’m a little hungry,” I said, and smiled. “Here. Don’t need it.” I tossed the knife to him, point first.

  He caught it deftly by the handle. I saw the minor shifts in shadow on his neck as his shoulders tensed up. “Remember. You’ve got iron.”

  I didn’t sneer at him, because what would be the point? But I did roll the nail back and forth between my fingers, and heard it scraping on ice.

  I looked down and found that ice had condensed out of the water in the air and formed over my fingertips. I put the nail between my teeth so that I could hold up my fingers. As I watched, icicles began to form, guided by raw instinct, stretching out from my fingertips. I flexed my fingers a few times, and saw the edges form, the ice hard and razor sharp. Nice.

  I debated. Armor, too? Too heavy. This needed to happen fast. Besides, I wouldn’t want the armor to be in the way for what would come after. That was going to be the good part.

  “Time to play,” I said around the nail. I took four steps, building up to a run, and leapt into the air toward Maeve. Fifty feet. No problem. It was glorious, the freedom, the certainty, and I could not imagine what had made me so squeamish about embracing Winter in the first place.

  Bad things kept happening to me. It was high fucking time I started happening to them.

  Maeve must have sensed something at the last instant, despite her focus on Demonreach. I was a fraction of a second away before she moved with the serpentine quickness of the Sidhe, throwing herself to one side. My claws missed her throat by inches. They did slice off one of her dreadlocks, and it whirled through the air as I hit the ground, legs absorbing the shock as my feet dug into the muddy ground near the lighthouse.

  There was an instant of complete shock from Maeve’s coterie, and I used it to slice at the Redcap’s eyes just as Fix landed on the rawhead’s shoulders and overbore the creature, sending it toppling forward to the ground.

  I felt my claws hit. The Redcap screamed and reeled away from most of the blow, darting back, brushing past one of the Sidhe from the Botanic Gardens, behind him. The Sidhe had a blank, confused look on his face as he tried to fight his way out of the concentration of supporting Maeve in her suddenly interrupted spell. No time to think. Claws of bloody ice flashed at him, and I opened his throat to the windpipe. He went down with a choked scream, and I stepped on his chest to fling myself at the two behind him, one a twisted figure inside a droopy grey cloak and hood, the other a lean, gangling thing with the head of a boar, covered in tattoos and bone beads.

  I stomped a foot down onto the cloak, slammed my clawed hand into the body behind it, and ripped out something ropy and hot and slippery. The boar-headed thing tore at my body with its tusks, and I felt bright, distant pain on my ribs. I drove a foot up between its legs in a kick that lifted it six inches off the ground, and took off an ear and half its face with my claws.

  I sensed Fix at my back and heard him grunt, “Down!”

  I dropped to my knees and bounced back up again. In the time I was down, his sword fl
icked out over my head, drove into the chest of the boar thing, and whistled out again, taking heart’s blood with it.

  Then there was a roar, a sound that came from something truly enormous, and someone slammed a tree trunk into my lower back. It took me off my feet and sent silver pain through my body. I landed in a roll and came up to mostly steady feet, one hand supporting some of my weight, the other up in a defensive posture.

  It was the rawhead.

  Rawheads are parasites, creatures that assemble bodies for themselves out of the bone and blood of freshly dead beings. They were more common when every farm and village did some slaughtering each day, back before grocery stores and fast food. As I noted before, this one was enormous, bigger than a couple of large steers, twelve feet tall and weighing at least a ton. The cloak had been torn from it, and now it looked like a bizarre sculpture of bones of various creatures, drenched in fresh blood. It had the skull of something big, maybe a hippo or a rhino, and luminous lights danced in the empty eye sockets. It drew in a huge, wheezing breath and roared again.

  Fix was picking himself up off the ground, bounding up as if he hadn’t been hurt at all—but the Redcap and four other Sidhe were stalking toward him with weapons drawn. Fix faced them squarely, blade in hand, a small smile on his plain face.

  “My, my, my,” Maeve said. She stepped around the leg of the rawhead into sight, giving me a frankly appraising stare. “Who would have thought you would dirty up so well, wizard? I mean, the claws, the blood, the eyes.” She shivered. “It gets to me. I’ve always had a thing for bad boys.”

  I smiled around the nail. “Funny. Because I’ve got something for you, too.”

  “Yeah?” she asked, and licked her lips. “You finally gonna nail me, big guy? You’ve been so coy.”

  “I’m done teasing,” I said.

  Maeve slipped both hands behind her back, arching her body, thrusting her chest toward me. It wasn’t a particularly impressive chest, but it was well formed, and pale, and lovely, and hidden beneath entirely too much bikini for my taste. A snarl bubbled up out of my throat.

  “That’s right,” Maeve said, her wide eyes unblinking. “I know what you’re feeling. The need to fight. To kill. To take. To fuck.” She took a pair of slow steps toward me, making her hips shift back and forth. “This is right. It’s exactly what you should be feeling.”