Cold days, p.52
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       Cold Days, p.52

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  Sarissa looked pale and nodded slowly. “Maeve,” she said, her voice very soft. “You’re . . . you’re sick. You’ve got to know that.”

  Maeve stopped, tilting her head, and her hair covered most of her face.

  “Somewhere, you have to realize it. She wants to help you. She cares in her way, Maeve.”

  Maeve moved her left arm alone, pointing a finger straight at me. “Yes. I can see how much she cared.”

  “It isn’t too late,” Sarissa said. “You know how she lays her plans. She prepares for everything. But it doesn’t have to happen that way. The Leanansidhe was sick and Mother helped her. But her power alone isn’t enough to heal you. You have to want it, Maeve. You have to want to be healed.”

  Maeve quivered where she stood for a moment, like a slender tree placed under increasing strain.

  “We need the Winter Lady now,” Sarissa said. “We need you, Maeve. You’re a vicious goddamned lunatic and we need you back.”

  Maeve asked in a very small voice, “Does she talk about me?”

  Sarissa was silent. She swallowed.

  Maeve said, her voice harsher, “Does she talk about me?”

  Sarissa lifted her chin and shook her head. “She . . . won’t say your name. But I know she fears for you. You know that she never lets things show. It’s how she’s always been.”

  Maeve shuddered.

  Then she lifted her head and stared venomously at Sarissa. “I am strong, Sarissa. Stronger than I have ever been. Here, now, stronger than she is.” Her lips quivered and twitched back from her teeth into a hideous mockery of a smile. “Why should I want to be healed of that?” She cut loose with one of her psychotic laughs again. “I am about to unmake every precious thing she ever valued more than her own blood, her own children. And where is she?” Maeve stuck her arms out and spun around in a pirouette. Her voice became pure vitriol. “Where? I have closed the circle of this place and she may not enter. Of course, these stupid primates sussed out a way through it, but she, the Queen of Air and Darkness, could not possibly stoop to such a thing. Not even if it costs her the lives of her daughter and the mortal world, too.”

  “Oh, Maeve,” Sarissa said, her voice thick with compassion and something like resignation.

  “Where is she, Sarissa?” Maeve demanded. There were tears on her cheeks, freezing into little white streaks, forming white frost on her eyelashes. “Where is her love? Where is her fury? Where is her anything?”

  While that drama was going on, I thought furiously. I thought about the mighty spirit who was my ally, who was being held immobile and impotent. I thought about the abilities of all of my allies, and how they might change the current situation if they weren’t all incapacitated. Molly was the only one at liberty, and she had worn herself out over the lake. She wouldn’t have much left in her—if she appeared now, the fae would defeat her handily. She couldn’t change this situation alone. Someone would have to set things into motion, give her some chaos to work with.

  I just didn’t have much chaos left in me. I was bone-tired, and we needed a game changer. The mantle of the Winter Knight represented a source of power, true, but Maeve had damned near talked me into joining her team when I’d let it have free rein. I wasn’t going to help anyone if I let myself give in to my inner psycho-predator.

  If we weren’t all inside the stupid circle, at least I could send out a message, a psychic warning. I was sure I could get it to my grandfather, to Elaine, and maybe to Warden Luccio. But while I was sure a mud coating could get us out of the circle, there was no way the fae would give us time to coat ourselves and do it. We were effectively trapped in the circle until sunrise, just like a being summoned from the Nevernev—

  Wait a minute.

  Circles could be used for several different things. They could be used to focus the energy of a spell, shielding it from other energies. They could be used to cut off energy flows, to contain or discorporate a native being of the Nevernever.

  And if you were a mortal, a genuine native of the really real world, they could be used for one thing more: summoning.

  The hilltop was one enormous circle: one enormous summoning circle.

  “She is not here,” Maeve was ranting. “She sends her hand to deal with me? So be it. Let me send her a message in reply!” The little automatic swiveled toward my head.

  I shouted as swiftly as I could, putting whatever will I had left into the shortest and most elemental summons there is: “Mab! Mab! Mab! I summon thee!”

  Chapter

  Fifty-two

  It’s impossible to know how something is going to arrive when you summon it.

  Sometimes it’s huge and dramatic, like it was with Titania. Sometimes they come in a burst of thunder or flame. Once, this thing I’d summoned arrived in a shower of rotting meat, and it took me a month to get the smell out of my old lab. Less often, they simply appear, like a slide-show image suddenly projected on the wall, drama-free.

  Mab came in a bell tone of sudden, awful, absolute silence.

  There was a flash—not of light, but of sudden snow, of frost that abruptly blanketed everything on the hilltop and gathered thick on my eyelashes. I reached up a hand to flick the snowflakes out of my eyes, and when I lowered it, Mab was there, again in her crow black dress, with her midnight eyes and ebon hair, floating three feet off the ground. The frost was spreading from her, covering the hilltop, and the temperature dropped by twenty degrees.

  In the same instant, everything on the hilltop ceased moving. There was no wind. There were no fitful drops of rain. Just pure, brittle, crystalline silence and a sudden bleak black presence that made me feel like hiding behind something, very quietly.

  Mab’s dark, bleak gaze took in the hilltop at a glance, and stopped on Lily and her supporting coterie. Mab’s left eye twitched once. And she spoke in a low, dreadfully precise voice. “Cease. This. Rudeness. At once.”

  Lily suddenly stared at Mab with wide eyes, like a teenager who had been walked in upon while making out in the living room. The confidence of her stance faltered, and she abruptly lowered her hand. There was a sigh, as of completed labor, from her crew. I checked Demonreach. The guardian spirit had ceased to look slow-motion windblown, and simply stood in the opening to the lighthouse, motionless.

  Lily stared at Mab for a few seconds. Then she lifted her chin in defiance and took a few steps, until she stood shoulder to shoulder with Maeve.

  Mab made a low, disgusted sound and turned to face me. “I have heeded your summons; yet I would not enter this domain unless specifically bidden. Have I your permission to do so?”

  “Yes,” I said. “Yes, you do.”

  Mab nodded her head slightly, and descended to the ground. From me, she turned to Demonreach. “I thank you for your patience and your assistance in this matter. You could have reacted differently but chose not to. I am aware of the decision. It will not be forgotten.”

  Demonreach bowed its head, barely, a gesture of acknowledgment, not cooperation or compliance.

  Once she had seen that, something seemed to ease out of Mab. It was hard to say what gave me that impression, yet I had the same sense of relief I would have felt upon seeing someone remove his hand from the grip of a firearm.

  Mab turned back to me and eyed me up and down. She quirked one eyebrow, very slightly, somehow conveying layers of disapproval toward multiple aspects of my appearance, conduct, and situation, and said, “Finally.”

  “There’s been a lot on my mind,” I replied.

  “It seems unlikely that your cares will lighten,” Queen Mab replied. “Improve your mind.”

  I was going to say something smart-ass, but said mind noted that maybe I could wait until my bacon was entirely out of the fire before I did. I decided to pay attention to my mind and bowed my head in Mab’s direction instead. I felt like I’d gotten a little smarter already. Baby steps.

  Then Mab turned to Maeve.

  The Winter Lady faced the Queen of Air and Darkness with c
old fury in her eyes and a smile on her lips. “So,” Maeve said. “You come in black. You come as a judge. But then, you always did that with me. But it’s just a game.”

  “How a game?” Mab asked.

  “You have already judged. Passed sentence. And dispatched your executioner.”

  “You have duties. You have neglected them. What did you expect?”

  “From you?” Maeve said bitterly. “Nothing.”

  “Nothing is precisely what I have done,” Mab said. “For too long. Yet to lose you presents a danger of its own. I would prefer it if you allowed me to assist you to return to your duties.”

  “I’m sure you would,” Maeve sneered. “I’m sure you would enjoy torturing me to the brink of sanity to make me a good little automaton again.”

  Mab’s reply was a second slower coming than it should have been. “No, Maeve.”

  Maeve ground her teeth. “No one controls Maeve.”

  Frost formed on Mab’s soot black lashes. “Oh, child.”

  The words had weight to them, and finality—like the lid to a coffin.

  “I will never be your good little hunting falcon again,” Maeve continued. “I will never bow my knee to anyone again, especially not to a jealous hag who envies everything she sees in me.”

  “Envy?” Mab asked.

  Maeve cut loose with another one of those lithium-laced laughs. “Envy! The great and mighty Mab, envious of her little girl. Because I have something you will never have, Mother.”

  “And what is that?” Mab asked.

  “Choice,” Maeve snarled.

  “Stop,” Mab snapped—but not in time.

  Maeve bent her elbow to point her little gun casually across her body and, without looking, put a bullet into Lily’s left temple.

  “No!” Fix blurted, suddenly struggling against the Sidhe holding him.

  Lily froze into absolute stillness for a second, her beautiful face confused.

  Then she fell like the petal of a dying flower.

  “Lily!” Fix screamed, his face contorted with agony. He fought wildly, though he couldn’t escape, lunging toward Maeve, paying no attention whatsoever to his captors. For their part, Winter and Summer fae alike seemed stunned into near-paralysis, eyes locked onto Lily’s fallen form.

  Mab stared at Lily for a long second, her eyes wide with an echo of the same shock. “What have you done?”

  Maeve threw back her head and howled mocking, triumphant laughter, lifting her hands into the air.

  “Did you think I did not know why you prepared Sarissa, hag?” she half sang. “You wrought her into a vessel of Faerie. Rejoice! Thy will is done!”

  I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about for a second—but then I saw it.

  Fire flickered to life over the late Summer Lady. It did not consume Lily. Rather, it gathered itself into green and gold light, a shape that vaguely mirrored Lily’s own, arms spread out as she lay prostrate upon the frost-covered earth. Then, with a gathering shriek, the fire suddenly condensed into a form, the shape of something that looked like an eagle or a large hawk. Blinding light spread over the hilltop, and the hawk suddenly flashed from Lily’s fallen form.

  Directly into Sarissa.

  Sarissa’s eyes widened in horror, and she lifted her arms in an instinctive defensive gesture. The hawk-shaped Summer fire, the mantle of the Summer Lady, plunged through Sarissa’s upraised arms and into her chest, at the heart. Her body arched into a bow. She let out a scream, and green and gold light shone from her opened mouth like a spotlight, throwing fresh, sharp shadows across the hilltop.

  Then her scream faded into a weeping, gurgling moan, and she fell to the earth, body curling into a shuddering fetal position.

  “Mantle passed.” Maeve tittered. “Nearest vessel filled. The seasons turn and turn and turn.”

  Mab’s eyes were wide as she stared at Maeve.

  “Oh, oh!” Maeve said, her body twisting into a spontaneous little dance of pure glee. “You never saw that coming, did you, Mother? It never even occurred to you, did it?” Her own eyes widened in lunatic intensity. “And how will you slay me now? Whither would my mantle go? Where is the nearest vessel now? Some hapless mortal, perhaps, ignorant of its true nature? The instrument of some foe of yours, in alliance with me, ready to steal away the mantle and leave you vulnerable?” Maeve giggled. “I can play chess too, Mother. Better now than ever you could. And I am now less a liability to you alive than dead.”

  “You do not understand what you have done,” Mab said quietly.

  “I know exactly what I have done,” Maeve snarled. “I have beaten you. This was never about the sleepers, or this accursed isle, or the lives of mortal insects. This was about beating you, you hidebound hag. About using your own games against you. Kill me now, and you risk destroying the balance of Winter and Summer forever, throwing all into chaos.”

  Sarissa lay on the ground, moaning.

  “And it was about taking her away from you,” Maeve gloated. “How many mortal caterwauls or sporting events will the Winter Queen attend with the Summer Lady? And every time you think of her, you remember her, you will know that I took her from you.”

  Mab’s black eyes went to Sarissa for a moment.

  “The blame for this lies with me,” Mab said quietly. “I cared too much.”

  I realized something then, in that moment when Mab spoke. She wasn’t reacting as she should have been. Cold rage, seething anger, megalomaniacal outrage—any of those would have been something I would have considered utterly within her character. But there was none of that in her voice or face.

  Just . . . regret. And resolution.

  Mab knew something—something Maeve didn’t.

  “Remember that when this world is in ashes, Mother,” Maeve said, “for you cannot risk my death this night, and I will not lift a finger to aid you in the Night to come. Without the Winter Lady’s power, your downfall is simply a matter of time—and not much of that. After this night, you will not see me again.”

  “Yes,” Mab said, though to which statement was unclear.

  “I have choice, Mother, while you will be destroyed in your shackles,” Maeve said. “You will die, and I will have freedom. At last.”

  “To fulfill one’s purpose is not to be a slave, my daughter,” Mab said. “And you are not free, child, any more than a knife is free because it leaves its sheath and is thrust into a corpse.”

  “Choice is power,” Maeve spat in reply. “Shall I make more choices this night, to demonstrate?”

  She lifted the little pistol again and pointed it at me.

  Karrin drew a sharp breath.

  And I suddenly understood what was happening; I understood what Mab knew that Maeve didn’t.

  Sarissa wasn’t the only Faerie vessel on the hilltop. She was simply the one Maeve had been meant to see.

  There was one other person there who had been spending time with a powerful fae.

  Who had a relationship with one that was deeper and more significant than a casual or formal acquaintance.

  Whose life had been methodically, deliberately, and covertly reshaped for the purpose.

  Who had been extensively prepared by one of the Sidhe.

  “Maeve,” I said in a panic. “Don’t! You’re killing yourself. You haven’t won. You just can’t see it.”

  Maeve cackled in delight. “Can’t I?”

  “Being able to choose to tell lies isn’t a freaking superpower, Maeve,” I said. “Because it means you can always make the wrong choice. It means you can lie to yourself.”

  Maeve’s smile turned positively sexual, her eyes bright and shining.

  “Two plus two is five,” she said, and rotated the gun sideways, the barrel still pointed at my eye.

  Mab moved her little finger.

  Karrin’s hands flew out from behind her back in a shower of broken chips of black ice. She tore her little holdout gun from a concealed ankle holster.

  “No!” I shouted.
<
br />   Two shots rang out, almost simultaneously.

  Something hissed spitefully past my ear.

  A neat, round black hole appeared just to the side of Maeve’s nose, at the fine line of her cheekbone.

  Maeve blinked twice. Her face fell into what was almost precisely the same expression of confusion Lily’s had. A trickle of blood ran from the hole.

  And then she fell, like an icicle in a warm sunbeam.

  “Dammit, no,” I whispered.

  Deep blue fire gathered over the fallen Winter Lady. It coalesced with an ugly howl into the outline of a serpent, which coiled and then lashed out in a strike that carried its blazing form fifteen feet, to the nearest corner of the ruined cottage . . .

  . . . where Molly, behind her veil, had been crouched and waiting for a chance to aid me.

  The serpent of Winter cold plunged into her chest, shattering her veil as it struck, and my apprentice’s expression was twisted in startled horror. She didn’t even have time to flinch. It struck, and she fell back against the side of the cottage, her legs buckling as if the muscles in them had forgotten how to move.

  Molly looked up at me, her expression bewildered, confused, and she barely managed to gasp out, “Harry?”

  And then she, too, collapsed to the ground, shuddering and unconscious.

  “Oh, God,” I breathed. “Oh, God.”

  Molly.

  Chapter

  Fifty-three

  Two Queens of Faerie lay dead.

  Long live the Queens.

  Everyone was shocked, still.

  I turned to the retinues of the fallen Queens and said, “Let Fix go. Now.”

  They released the smaller man, and he went at once to Lily’s side, his face still wrenched with grief.

  “You will put down anything you took from my friends,” I told the fae in a level voice. “Then you will withdraw as far down the hill as the wall will allow. If I see any of you try anything violent, you will never leave this island. Am I understood?”

  I didn’t look like much, but Mab was looming right over one of my shoulders, and Demonreach over the other, so they took me seriously—even the rawhead. They all moved away, breaking into two groups as they went.