Cold days, p.51
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       Cold Days, p.51

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

  I flexed the fingers of my free hand and prepared to strike. She just had to come a little closer.

  “Can you imagine this all the time, wizard?” Maeve purred. Steel began to ring out, back where Fix was. But I ignored it. Two more steps. “Can you imagine feeling this strong all the time? Can you imagine being so hungry?” She took another step, and another deep breath. “And feeding that hunger. Sating it. Quenching it in flesh and screams.”

  She slid her left hand out from behind her back and ran her palm slowly over her stomach and side. “This flesh. I would not give it to you. I would fight, dare you to do your worst. You could unleash your every aching need. And that would just be the beginning.”

  I was breathing hard now, though I hadn’t been a moment before. My eyes had locked onto the interplay of muscle and skin over her vulnerable belly. The claws would tear through her guts so easily there. Or I could use my teeth. Or just my tongue.

  “Sex and violence,” Maeve purred. She had taken a couple more steps toward me, but I wasn’t sure when. Or why it mattered. “Hunger and need. Take me, here, on this ground. Don’t give me pleasure, wizard. Just take. Let it out, the beast inside you. I wish you to. I dare you to.” Her fingers popped the snap on the little shorts. “Stop denying yourself. Stop thinking. This feels right.”

  Hell, yeah, it did. Maeve might have been one of the Sidhe, and fast, and have all kinds of magic powers, but she wasn’t stronger than me. Once I took her to the ground, I could do as I pleased with her. I felt my mouth water. Some might have come out of one corner.

  Maeve stepped closer yet and breathed, “You came for my throat, didn’t you?” She let her head tilt bonelessly to one side, and slid her hand up her lithe body to push her hair back and away from her neck. Her hips were making small, slow shifts of her weight, a constant distraction. Her throat was lean and lovely. “Here it is. Come to me, my Knight. It’s all right. Let it out, and I will make everything worth it.”

  Her throat. I had wanted it for something, I thought. But now I just wanted. That would be how to do it. Set my teeth on her throat while I took her. If she struggled—or didn’t struggle enough—I would be able to start ripping my way toward the blood.

  “This is how it is supposed to be,” Maeve purred. “Knight and Lady, together. Fucking like animals. Taking what we please.” Her mouth turned up into a smile. “I thought you’d never let it in. Let it in deep, where I could touch.” Her lovely face took on a feigned, youthful innocence. “But I can touch it now, can’t I?”

  I growled. I’d forgotten how to do whatever that other thing was. All I could think about was the need. Claim her as a mate. Take whatever I pleased from her. Make her mine.

  Except . . .


  A fluttering surge of pure terror went through me, and it was energy enough to let me rip the Winter from my thoughts, to push it back. It didn’t want to go. It fought me every inch of the way, howling, filled with raw lust for flesh and for blood.

  My ribs suddenly ached. My head spun a little. I suddenly needed that hand on the ground to keep my balance.

  Maeve saw it the second I regained control. Her eyelids lowered almost closed, and she breathed, “Ah. So close. But perhaps there is still time. Is that your staff, wizard, or are you just happy to see me?”

  I bared my teeth and said, “Maeve . . .”

  “This is perfect,” she said. “In one night I’m going to unleash the Sleepers, slay a starborn, put an end to this troublesome mortal city, and begin a war between Summer and Winter. By the time the real assault on the Gates begins, Winter and Summer will be hunting one another in the night, and be so busy gouging out one another’s eyes that they’ll never see what is coming—all thanks to me. And you, of course. I couldn’t have done this at all without you.”

  She leaned a little closer as she spoke that last, and I ripped at her throat with my ice claws.

  I was exhausted, and it was slow, entirely lacking in the focused power and precision I’d felt under the influence of Winter. She bobbed her head back a fraction of an inch, and the swipe missed and sent me down into the dirt.

  Maeve let out a little peal of laughter and clapped her hands. Then she flicked a couple of fingers negligently toward me and said to the rawhead, “Tear him to pieces.”

  The rawhead took two lumbering steps forward and reached down toward me with bony, bloody claws.

  But before it could grab me, there was a rush of footsteps, and a four-legged form consisting entirely of what looked like mud slammed into its rearmost leg.

  The mud creature hit the rawhead hard. The power of its impact cracked bones and blew the leg out from beneath the rawhead. The fae giant bellowed a ground-shaking roar. A ton of bloody bones fell, and the mud creature, white teeth flashing, kept after it.


  And a nimbus of blue light gathered around its muddy jaws.

  I looked up to see more mud creatures rushing up the hill, though the others were bipedal, of various sizes and shapes. The first one to reach me drew a steel sword from a muddy scabbard and went after the rawhead as well, falcata being used with the brutal power strikes normally employed with a freaking ax. Silver eyes flashed in the blobby, mud-covered face.


  Maeve snarled and stepped toward me, bringing her right hand out from behind her back. She gripped a tiny little automatic in her fingers, though God only knew where she’d been concealing it. She half lifted it, but before she could shoot, gunshots rang out, sharp and clear. One of them hit the ground maybe three feet away, and Maeve bolted aside, vanishing behind a veil as she went.

  The smallest mud figure came to my side, lowering a mud-covered P90. She hooked a little hand beneath one of my arms, her blue eyes reddened and blinking rapidly. With surprising strength, she dragged me back from the rawhead while Thomas and Mouse fought it.

  The others hurried up to join Karrin, and while Karrin covered us, muddy Mac got a shoulder underneath me and with a grunt of effort picked me up in a fireman’s carry.

  “Come on,” Karrin said. “The cottage.”

  While she kept her P90 at the ready and Mac toted me, the other two mud figures, Sarissa and Justine, hurried along beside us. A moment later Mac dumped me gently, more or less, onto the floor of the cottage. Karrin kept her gun pointed at the door.

  “Karrin,” I managed to gasp.

  Her eyes didn’t waver from the door. “Got tired of waiting on you. I’m here.”

  I spit the nail out of my mouth and into my hand. “How?” I asked. Then I eyed them all and said, “Mud. You covered yourselves in mud.”

  “Everywhere,” she confirmed. “Nostrils, eyes, ears, everywhere the light could touch. We figured out that if you completely covered something, it could make it through that wall. God, I’m going to shower for a week.”

  Oh, that was clever. The defense mechanism wasn’t a thinking being, capable of making judgment calls. It was simply a machine, albeit one made of magic, a combination detector and bug zapper. By covering themselves with mud, they’d tricked it into thinking they were of the island.

  Outside the cottage, the rawhead bellowed, and Mouse’s snarling battle bark rang out defiantly.

  “This is insane,” Sarissa breathed.

  “The stones of the cottage have protections on them,” I said. “Not sure how well they work, but they should help.” I looked back at Karrin. “Where’s Molly?”

  “Out there, playing Invisible Girl.”

  There was the sound of a heavy impact, and Mouse let out a terrible, pained-sounding yelp.

  Then it was quiet.

  Karrin’s breathing started coming faster. She resettled her grip on the weapon.

  “Oh, God,” Sarissa said. “Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God.”

  I would have gotten terrified, too, but I was just too tired for it to stick.

  There was no warning, nothing at all. The rawhead shoved its arm into the cottage, seized Karrin by the gun, and hauled h
er out. The weapon barked several times as she went.

  And then it got quiet again.

  “We have to run,” Sarissa said in a whisper. “Harry, please, we should run. Open a Way into the Nevernever. Get us out of here.”

  “I’ve got a feeling we wouldn’t like the part of the Nevernever this place borders,” I said.

  “Oh, Sir Knight,” Maeve called from outside. “Come out, come out, wherever you are, you and everyone with you. Or I’m going to start playing with your friends.”

  “Hey, why don’t you come in here, Maeve?” I called back. “We’ll talk about it.”

  I waited for an answer. I got one a minute later. Karrin let out a pained, gasping sound.

  “Dammit,” I muttered. Then I started to climb to my feet again. “Come on.”

  “What?” Sarissa asked. “No. I can’t go out there.”

  “You’re about to,” I said quietly. “Mac.”

  “We go out,” Mac said, “she’ll kill us.”

  “If we don’t, she’ll kill us anyway. Starting with Karrin,” I said. “Maeve likes hurting people. Maybe we can string her along until . . .”

  “Until what?” Sarissa asked. “Sunrise? That’s hours away.”

  Justine put her hand on Sarissa’s shoulder. “But we’ll stay alive a little longer. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

  “You don’t understand,” Sarissa said. “Not for me. Not for me.”

  Karrin let out another gasp of pain and I ground my teeth.

  “Sarissa,” I said, “we don’t have a choice. Lily just about roasted the top off the hill in a moment of pique. Maeve can do worse. If we stay in here, she will.”

  “Die now, or be tortured to death in a few hours,” she said. “Those are our choices?”

  “We buy time,” I said. “We buy time so that I can think and maybe figure some way for us to get out of this clusterfuck. Now get up, or so help me I’ll carry you out there.”

  A flash of anger went through Sarissa’s eyes. But she got up.

  “All right, Maeve!” I called. “You win! We’re coming out!”

  I held up my hands, palms out, and walked out of the meager makeshift protection of the ruined cottage.



  Maeve was enjoying her victory tremendously.

  She stood on a pile of stone fallen from the lighthouse, next to the Summer Lady and her coterie, who were still focused upon restraining Demonreach. On the ground in front of her lay Thomas, Karrin, and Mouse. Mouse had been hog-tied and his muzzle held shut with thick bands of what looked like black ice. He wasn’t struggling, but his deep, dark eyes were tracking everyone who moved. Karrin sat with her hands tied behind her back, scowling so ferociously that I could see the expression even through the mud. And my brother lay on the ground, bound up like Mouse was, but it didn’t look like he was conscious.

  The rawhead loomed over them, minus one of its arms. The arm lay over on the ground, a jumble of brittle, cracked bones held together by withered strands of some kind of reddish fiber. The rawhead didn’t have an expression to read, but I thought the glow of its eyes looked sullen and satisfied. The Redcap was standing off to one side. Half of his face was a bloody mess, and he had only one good eye now. He was holding Karrin’s P90 casually, with much of the mud knocked off of it. Next to him, two of the Sidhe held Fix’s arms behind his back. The Summer Knight had a bruise blackening the entire left side of his face, running right to the hairline.

  But Molly was not visible.

  So. I might have been dealt a bad hand, but I still had a hole card out there somewhere.

  Maeve hopped down from the fallen stones, still holding that little automatic in her hand, and smiling widely. “You made it interesting, Dresden. I’ll give you that. Your merry band is just so”—she kicked Karrin in the small of the back, drawing nothing but a hard exhale—“feisty.” She eyed the people standing with me. “Now let’s see. Who do we have here?”

  Maeve made a gesture with one hand, and the air suddenly felt thick. Mud started plopping off of everyone covered in it, as if it had begun to rain again and gotten wetter and runnier. “Let’s see, let’s see,” she murmured. “Ah, the bartender. Irony, there. Getting a good view, are you?”

  Mac stared at Maeve without speaking.

  “Please allow me to make sure you don’t get bored. This is a participation sport,” Maeve said, and shot him in the stomach.

  Mac grunted and rocked back onto his heels. He stared at Maeve, his expression completely impassive. Then he exhaled a groan and fell to one knee.

  “Oh,” Maeve said, her eyes glittering. “That just never gets old.”

  Justine made a quiet sound and went to Mac’s side.

  Maeve’s eyes fastened on her. “And the vampire’s crumpet. Luscious little thing, aren’t you? And so close to Lady Raith. You and I are going to have a long talk after this, darling. I just know you’re going to start to see things my way.”

  Justine didn’t look at Maeve, and didn’t answer. She didn’t look frightened—just concerned for Mac. Maybe because Justine was not the most balanced and danger-aware person I knew. Or maybe her poker face was just way better than mine.

  Maeve’s eyes stopped on the last person with me and her smile became positively vulpine. “Well, well, well. Sweet little Sarissa. Isn’t this luscious? There’s nothing I have that you don’t want to ruin, is there?”

  “Maeve,” Sarissa said. She didn’t seem frightened either. Just tired. “Maeve, for God’s sake, how many times have we had this talk?”

  “And yet you keep spoiling things for me!”

  Sarissa rolled her eyes and gave a helpless little lift and fall of her hands. “Maeve, what could I possibly have ruined for you? Did finally moving out of that studio apartment destroy your life? Did getting my nursing degree somehow diminish your power? Did I steal some boyfriend of yours that you accidently left breathing after the first night?”

  “It always goes back to that, doesn’t it?” Maeve said, her tone waspish. “How important you think men are. And here you are trying to impress Mother by bedding this one.”

  “It was work, Maeve. Therapy.”

  “I could see how therapeutic that dress was at his party.”

  “My dress? You were wearing rhinestones. And nothing else!”

  Maeve’s face contorted in rage. “They. Were. Diamonds.”

  Karrin looked back and forth between them with an expression of startled recognition. “Harry . . .” she said quietly.

  “Yeah, I got it,” I said. I turned to Sarissa, who looked younger than Molly. “Mab’s BFF, eh?” I asked her.

  “You said that, not me,” she said quickly.

  “Right,” I said. “You’re just a young, single rehabilitative health professional.”

  “This decade,” sneered Maeve. “What was it last time? Mathematics? You were going to describe the universe or some such? And before that, what was it? Environmental science? Did you save the Earth, Sarissa? And before that, an actress? You thought you could create art. Which soap opera was it again?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Sarissa said. She saw me staring at her and said, “It was before your time.”

  I blinked. “What?”

  She looked embarrassed. “I told you I was older than I looked.”

  “Finally I realize who you remind me of.” I sighed, looking back and forth between Sarissa and Maeve. “It must have been the scrubs that threw me off. Maeve is always dressed like a stripper, and she’s always had the piercings and the club lighting and the crazy Rasta hair.” I looked back and forth between the two. “Hell’s bells, you’re identical twins.”

  “Not identical twins,” they both said at exactly the same time, in the exact same tone of outrage. They broke off to glare at each other.

  “How does that work, exactly?” I asked. I was curious, but it was also an effort to buy time. I’ve yet to meet a megalomaniac who doesn’t love talking about him
- or herself, if you give them half a chance. Especially the nonmortal ones. To them, a few minutes of chat in several centuries of life is nothing, and they let things build up inside them for decades at a time. “You two . . . were born changelings, weren’t you? What happened?”

  “I Chose to be Sidhe,” Maeve spat.

  “And you Chose humanity?” I asked Sarissa.

  Sarissa shrugged a shoulder and looked away.

  “Hah,” Maeve spat. “No. She never Chose at all. Just remained between worlds. Never making anything of herself, never committing to anything.”

  “Maeve,” Sarissa said quietly. “Don’t.”

  “Just floating along, pretty and empty and bored,” Maeve went on in a sweet, poisonous tone. “Unnoticed. Unremarkable.”

  “Maeve,” said Lily in a harsh voice, looking up from where she stood. The Summer Lady kept a hand extended toward Demonreach, and her face was covered in sweat, and she seemed to be leaning back against the hands of the Sidhe behind her to stay upright. “I can’t hold the spirit alone all night. We have to talk about this before it gets any more out of control. Hurry, and let’s finish this.”

  Maeve whirled toward Lily, stamping her foot on the ground. “This is my night! Do not rush me, you stupid cow!”

  “Always so charming,” Sarissa noted.

  Maeve turned back to Sarissa, and her right arm, the one holding the gun, twitched several times. “Oh, keep it up, darling. See what happens.”

  “You aren’t going to let me live anyway, Maeve,” Sarissa said. “I’m not stupid.”

  “And I am not blind,” Maeve spat back. “Do you think I did not know about all the time she has been spending with you? All the intimate talk, the activity together. Do you think I don’t know what it means? She’s doing with you what she always meant to do with you—using you as a spare. Preparing you as a vessel for the mantle. Preparing my replacement. As if I were a broken piece of a machine.”