Cold days, p.6
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       Cold Days, p.6

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  I recognized the thing. It was a rawhead, a creature that assembled itself out of the discarded bones and flesh of slaughtered hogs and cattle. Then they started eating whatever they could catch, usually starting with pets, then working their way up to schoolchildren, and finally hunting down adults. If you caught them early, you should shut them down hard—but no one had caught this one.

  As I watched, it rose, slowly, up to its full height of well over ten feet. Its jaws had come from more than a couple of different creatures, and they spread open in a slow, wide gape, into a mouth as wide as a waterslide tunnel. More liquid pattered down out of the rawhead’s jaws onto the floor, and its breath rasped in and out in a slow, enormous wheeze.

  On the left, the second figure drew back its hood. It was maybe only eight feet tall, and mostly human-looking, except for the thick coat of yellow-white fur that covered it. It was layered in so much muscle that it could be seen even through its pelt, and its eyes were burning, bloodshot orbs shining out from beneath a cavernous brow ridge. It was the Winter Court’s version of an ogre, it was a great deal stronger than it looked, and if it wanted to, it could pick me up and drive my head into one of the icy walls, then hammer my spine in like a piton.

  “I’ve been waiting to see that expression on his face all night,” the Redcap said to Sarissa. “Isn’t it priceless? What’s going to happen next? I’m so interested.”

  Taking on a little friendly training and a grumpy malk was one thing, but going up against three of the nastier creatures in Faerie all at once was probably a losing proposition. Maybe I could survive it, if I was fast and good and a little bit lucky.

  But Sarissa wouldn’t.

  I had only one real chance: instant and overwhelming aggression. If I could knock one of these bozos out of the fight before it even started, that changed the odds from impossible to merely daunting. It meant that there might be a chance of saving the girl.

  Of course, it also meant that I would break Mab’s law. I’d bragged about opening a Way, and if push came to shove, I probably could—but not before the rawhead and the ogre closed in on me.

  Just then there was a sound: a shriek, a blast of cruel trumpets that sounded as if whoever blew them was being beaten with a salted lash. It took me a second to realize that no instruments were playing. Instead, high up on the constructed replica of my favorite chair, at my left shoulder, crystals were thrusting themselves up out of the ice, and screaming as the ice changed form. They rose into a half dome of spikes and frozen blades, and shuddered as the center of the new outgrowth shifted again. Wisps of arctic blue and green and purple buzzed and whirled within those sharp spikes, sending out a wild coruscation of colored light. The aurora was mesmerizing and blinding at the same time, and little disco balls hoped that they could grow up to be half as brilliant one day.

  Mab stepped out of the solid ice as if passing through a gauzy curtain. She was in formal wear, a robe of opalescent white, belted with joined crystals of ice. A tall crown of more ice rose from her brow, and her white hair spilled down around her like snow atop a mountain. She was distant and cold, as pure and lovely and merciless as moonlit snow.

  She stood for a moment, staring out at the cavern. Then she sat, the motion slow and regal, and the ice within the spiked dome reshaped itself into a seat beneath her. She settled onto it, and the ice screamed again, shrieking out a second tortured fanfare.

  Every head in the cavern turned to her. The Sidhe all around me knelt at once, including the Redcap and his buddies. All over the chamber, other beings of the Winter Court did the same, and suddenly only a very few people were standing upright. I was one of them. So were the Erlking, Kringle, and Eldest Gruff, though each of them stood with his head bowed in acknowledgment of Winter’s ruler. I took my cue from them, but kept my eyes open.

  I spotted Maeve standing only forty or fifty feet away, on an icy deck that had been formed to look like a paperback that had fallen from one of my bookshelves. Maeve was in a perfect position to see the conflict between the Redcap crew and me, and she hadn’t bowed either. She was sipping something ice blue from a champagne flute, and ignoring her mother’s presence entirely—but I could feel her malice, burning toward me even though she wasn’t looking directly at me.

  Mab studied me and my playmates for a solid minute, saying nothing, and in that silence you could hear the fluid dripping from the rawhead’s various bits onto the icy floor.

  Maeve turned to her mother and sipped at her blue champagne. She said nothing, and her features were entirely smooth and relaxed, but you could just smell the way she was smirking on the inside.

  And only then did I really get it. Maeve’s first attempt to get me to start a fight at court had been a distraction, then. She’d wanted me to focus on her, to unnerve me with her high-voltage psychic sex moves. That way I wouldn’t be thinking clearly enough to avoid it when the Redcap sprang his surprise.

  Mab stared down at the Winter Lady for another silent minute. Then she smiled and bowed her head very slightly toward her daughter, the gesture one of acknowledgment.

  “Well played,” Mab murmured. She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t have to. The ice rang with it.

  Her eyes shifted to me, and though she was too far away for me to make out any details, I somehow knew exactly what the expression on her face meant: I had allowed myself to be drawn into this mess. I would have to be the one to get me out of it.

  I was on my own.

  Mab turned her gaze back to the rest of the room. “On this day of celebration of Our newest Knight’s birth, We give you greetings one and all, you lords and ladies of Winter. Welcome again to Our home. We can see that the celebrations are already well under way.” She settled back on her throne and placed one finger against her lips, as though she were fascinated with the scene before her. “We pray you, do not let Our entrance further disrupt them.” She lifted a languid hand. “It is Our desire that you continue the festivities.”

  Oh, fun.

  I turned back to face the Redcap, keeping his wingmen in my peripheral vision, and tried to think of something, anything, that would get both me and Sarissa out of this mess.

  The rawhead gathered itself into a crouch again, clearly ready to pounce. Its mismatched set of claws and talons gouged at the floor in anticipation. The ogre flexed its hands open and closed once. It sounded like a popcorn popper. The Redcap already had his feet underneath him again, dragging Sarissa effortlessly up with him.

  And I was wearing a tux.

  Hell’s bells.

  Clearly, if I wanted us to survive the evening I had to step up my game.

  Mab’s voice came out as a throaty purr. “Music. Let Us see a dance.”

  Chapter

  Seven

  The odds here were long. Way long. All three deadly faeries stood ready to move, and no matter which of them I took on first, Sarissa’s outlook wasn’t good. The music began, low and quiet, with a slowly, slowly rising presence.

  I needed some kind of edge, a game changer.

  In fact . . .

  A game changer was exactly what I needed.

  Faeries are always underhanded and tricksy, true, and I’d overlooked that a few moments before. But there’s something else about faeries that runs absolutely bone deep: They love to play games.

  “Why don’t we make this interesting?” I said out loud. “I trust you wouldn’t object to making a bit of a game of our dispute?”

  Oh, the room got intense then, as maybe a thousand throats all inhaled at the same time. I could practically feel the air grow closer as all of those beings leaned very slightly toward me, their suddenly sharpened interest filling the cavern. The tempo of the music changed with it as well, now all suspended strings and muted percussion.

  I felt a surge of emotion run through me, one that I knew was not my own—it was too pure, too primal, and it made my body do that thrumming thing again: Mab’s approval was fierce.

  “But, wizard,” said the Redcap.
We’re already playing a game. One cannot change the rules simply because one is losing.”

  “But one can change the stakes,” I replied. “What if you could get more out of it?”

  The Redcap narrowed his eyes. “What more could you have to lose than your life?”

  I gave him what I hoped was a patronizing smile, and then said, “Wait. Why am I talking to the tool instead of the person holding it?” I turned my back on the Redcap, gulped, and faced Maeve. “I’m offering you a prize, Winter Lady. Are you willing to hear me out?”

  Maeve’s eyes sparkled more brightly than the jewels on her . . . midriff. She came to the edge of the platform and stood watching me.

  “If he wins,” I said, jerking my head back at the Redcap, “I’ll go with you. Willingly.”

  Maeve tilted her head. “And if you win?”

  “Sarissa goes free. You leave peacefully.”

  Maeve thrust out her lower lip. “Peacefully. That’s hardly ever any fun.” She lifted a hand and idly toyed with her hair. “As I see it, I already have a prize, mortal. I get to see Mother watch the steam rise from at least one fresh corpse, here in her own court.”

  “You’re absolutely right, Maeve,” I said. “And you’ve got me in a pickle, and it was cleverly done.” I winked at her. “But what fun is the game you’ve already won? Why settle for so ephemeral a prize, however worthy, when you could take Mab’s Knight from her in front of all of Winter?”

  That one sank home. I could feel the sudden surge of ambitious lust that went racing through the Winter Lady, and the seething hatred that went along with a swift glance toward distant Mab on her throne.

  Maeve’s mouth curled up in an expression that bore as much resemblance to a smile as a shark does to a dolphin. She snapped her fingers, the sound almost as loud as a small-caliber gunshot, and two Sidhe hurried to her side escorting a dazed-looking athletic young man. Maeve didn’t wait for him. She simply sat. The Sidhe shoved the young man to his hands and knees, and Maeve’s slight weight settled across his broad back.

  “I’ll give you this much, Mother,” she said, without looking toward Mab. “You do pick the most interesting mortals to serve you.”

  Mab’s smirk said more than any words could have. Otherwise, she neither moved nor spoke.

  “My lady . . .” began the Redcap, behind me.

  “Hush,” Maeve said absently. “I want to see what happens. What did you have in mind, wizard?”

  In answer, I reached up and with a couple of quick tugs undid my tux’s tie. It wasn’t one of those preassembled ties. It was made out of a single band of pure silk, sized perfectly to wrap around my throat, with a couple of wider bits left over for handholds. I held it up, making a bit of drama out of it as I turned in a circle, and said, “Out of respect for our host and her law, there shall be no bloodshed.”

  Then I tossed the tie to the icy floor halfway between myself and the Redcap.

  I looked up at Maeve and gave my chin an arrogant little lift. “’Sup, Princess. You game?”

  Maeve lifted one hand and idly began tracing a fingertip over her lips, her eyes bright. She looked at Red and nodded.

  “Okay, chucklehead,” I said, turning to face him. “How about you let the yeti there hold the girl while you and I dance?” I gave him a broad grin. “Unless you’re afraid of little old cockroach-swatting me.”

  Red’s upper lip twitched. If he hadn’t been one of the Sidhe, and at a party, and in front of all of his dearest frenemies, he would have snarled at me.

  He beckoned the ogre with one hand, and the thing lumbered over to him. He thrust Sarissa into its huge, hairy, meaty arms. The ogre didn’t get the girl around the neck. It simply wrapped its hand over her skull, like some hairy, spidery helmet, and held on. The smoky glass chopsticks in Sarissa’s hair clattered to the ice, and her eyes got even wider.

  “If the wizard uses his magic,” the Redcap said, “break her neck.” He eyed the ogre and said, “Without ripping it off.”

  “Yuh,” the ogre said. Its beady eyes glared at me.

  The Redcap nodded and turned to face me, his eyes narrowed.

  Yowch. Nice move on Red’s part. Though I’m not sure he needed to bother. I’d never been able to tag one of the Sidhe with a really solid hit with my magic. Their defenses against that kind of thing were just too damned good. But I’d been counting on using it indirectly to help out in the fight, and the Redcap had just taken that option away from me.

  Sarissa gave the Redcap a glare that might have peeled paint from a wall, and then said, her voice rasping, “Harry, you don’t have to do this for me. You can walk away.”

  “You kidding?” I said under my breath. “You think I’m going to go to all the trouble of finding a new PT guy? Hang tough.”

  She bit her lip and nodded.

  I dismissed the girl from my thoughts, as much as I could, and tried to focus. I was still better off than I’d been a few moments ago. Now, instead of a three-versus-one fight that would probably kill me and certainly kill Sarissa, I had a pure one-on-one. If I lost, Sarissa wouldn’t make it, and I would either be Maeve’s chew toy or dead. (I was hoping for dead.) But if I won, Sarissa and I both got to walk away. It wouldn’t keep something like this from happening again, but we’d live through the night, which was by definition victory.

  Of course, now I had to win without using magic in a strangling-cord duel against a faerie who was faster than me, and who had centuries of experience in killing mortals. Oh, and I had to win it without drawing blood, or I’d be guilty of breaking Mab’s law—and I knew how she would react to that. Mab wasn’t evil, exactly, but she was Mab. She’d have me torn apart. The only mercy she would show would be by doing it all at once instead of spread over weeks.

  Long story short, nobody there was going to help me. At times it sucks to be the lone hero guy.

  I had one advantage: I was used to competing out of my weight class. I didn’t have a whole ton of training in unarmed combat, but I did have considerable experience with being in dicey situations against homicide-oriented people and things that were bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me, and motivated to end my life: I knew how to fight an uphill battle. The Redcap knew how to kill, but by maneuvering me out of using my magic, he’d tipped some of his hand: He was being cautious about me.

  Sure, he was a predator, but in nature predators generally go after the weak, the sick, the aged, and the isolated. Solitary predators almost exclusively hunt by attacking from surprise, where they have every advantage in their favor. Hell, even great white sharks do that, and they’re just about the biggest, oldest predators on the planet. I’ve seen a lot of things that hunted people in my time, and I regard them as a professional hazard, part of the job. I know how they operate. Predators don’t like to pick fair fights. It runs counter to their nature and robs them of many of their advantages.

  The Redcap had tried to limit what I could do in a bid to scrape together any advantage he could, as any predator does. That told me that he probably wasn’t used to this kind of open confrontation.

  He was nervous.

  I was nervous, too—but I was on familiar psychological ground and he wasn’t. Maybe I could use that.

  I undid the top button of the shirt and shrugged out of the jacket as if nothing at all were about to happen, taking my time. I tossed it at one of the watching Sidhe. He caught it and folded it neatly over one arm, never looking away, while I calmly undid the cuffs of my shirt and rolled up the sleeves. I stowed the cuff links in a pocket.

  I stretched and yawned, which might have been taking the pantomime over the top, but what the hell? In for a penny. I smiled at Maeve, inclined my head very slightly to Mab, and turned to face the Redcap.

  “Ready,” I said.

  “Ready,” the Redcap echoed.

  The music abruptly stopped, and in the silence Mab’s voice came from everywhere. “Begin.”

  I rushed forward faster than I ever could have done before I’
d become Mab’s Knight. It was damned close. The Redcap was quicker off the mark, but I had longer arms. He snatched the nearest end of the silk an instant before I grabbed my end. As my fingers closed, he snapped it back out of my grip, and then dropped his weight straight down, his back leg coming forward into a crescent-shaped sweep about six inches off the icy floor.

  I turned my forward stumble into a forward roll. I went over the kick, tucked in tight, and came up to my feet smoothly—but the motion had carried me past him, and I knew that with his speed and grace, he’d already be leaping toward my back.

  I spun to him, one hand at the level of my throat to intercept him if he was already close enough to get the tie around it, and lunged back toward him with my right arm raised to the horizontal, hoping to catch him across the neck in a clothesline.

  I’d misjudged. He was moving so fast that all I got was motion blur, and he hadn’t swept the silk tie at my neck—he’d aimed for my upraised left hand. The silk snaked around my wrist, and I caught it in my hand just in time for him to slip to one side, dragging my arm in close to his body. He used my forward momentum and my trapped arm to rob me of my balance and spin me in a circle, hauling at my arm with all his strength.

  His strength was considerable, and his technique was sound. He suddenly reversed, using my own motion against me, and dislocated my arm from its shoulder socket with a loud pop and a flash of red-hot pain.

  “Harry!” Sarissa screamed, grabbing uselessly at the ogre’s wrist. It was as thick as her own leg, and the ogre didn’t even seem to notice her struggling.

  The Redcap kept hold of my arm, my wrist pulled up against his sternum and still trapped in the tie. He smiled broadly and walked backward in a small circle, the pain and the leverage forcing me to scramble along the floor in front of him. A gale of lovely, cold laughter went up from the Sidhe like a chorus of frozen chimes.