Authors: Jim Butcher
Titania nodded, her expression turning thoughtful. “What think you of the men who come here to meet with one another?”
“Uh,” I said, feeling somewhat off balance. “What do I think of gay guys?”
“Boink and let boink, more or less.”
“Meaning it doesn’t have a lot to do with me,” I said. “It’s none of my business what they do. I don’t go over in their living room and get my freak on with women. They don’t come over and do whatever they do with other guys at my house.”
“You don’t feel that they are morally wrong to do so?”
“I have no idea if it’s right or wrong,” I said. “To me, it mostly doesn’t matter.”
“And why not?”
“Because even if they are doing something immoral, I’d be an idiot to start criticizing them for it if I wasn’t perfect myself. Smoking is self-destructive. Drinking is self-destructive. Losing your temper and yelling at people is wrong. Lying is wrong. Cheating is wrong. Stealing is wrong. But people do that stuff all the time. Soon as I figure out how to be a perfect human being, then I’m qualified to go lecture other people about how they live their lives.”
“An odd sentiment. Are you not ‘only human’? Will you not always be imperfect?”
“Now you’re catching on,” I said.
“You do not see it as a sin?”
I shrugged. “I think it’s a cruel world. I think it’s hard to find love. I think we should all be happy when someone manages to do it.”
“Love,” Titania said. She had keyed on the word. “Is that what happens here?”
“The guys who come here for anonymous sex?” I sighed. “Not so much. I think that part’s a little sad. I mean, anytime sex becomes something so . . . damned impersonal, it’s a shame. And I don’t think it’s good for them. But it’s not me they’re hurting.”
“Why should that matter?”
I just looked at Titania for a second. Then I said, “Because people should be free. And as long as something they want to do isn’t harming others, they should be free to do it. Obviously.”
“Is it?” Titania asked. “It would not seem to be, judging from the state of the mortal world.”
“Yeah. A lot of people don’t get that,” I said. “They get caught up in right and wrong. Or right and left. But none of that stuff matters if people aren’t
Titania studied me intently.
“Why are you asking me about
, of all things?” I asked.
“Because it felt appropriate. Because my instincts told me that your answers would tell me something about you that I needed to know.” Titania took a deep breath. “What think you of my sister?”
I debated for a second: polite answer or honest one?
Honest. It’s almost always best to go with honest. It means you never have to worry about getting your story straight. “I thought Mab’s wrath was pretty bad until I found out what her affection was like.”
At that, I think Titania almost smiled. “Oh?”
“She nursed me out of bed by trying to kill me every day for eleven weeks. She scares the hell out of me.”
“You do not love her?”
“Not by any definition of the word I’ve ever heard,” I said.
“And why do you serve her?”
“Needed her help,” I said. “That was her price. Sure as hell wasn’t because I like the decor in Arctis Tor.”
Titania nodded. She said, “You are unlike the other monsters she has shaped for herself over the centuries.”
“Uh. Thank you?”
She shook her head. “I have done nothing for you, Harry Dresden.” She pursed her lips. “In many ways, she and I are alike. In many more ways, we are entirely different. Do you know what my sister believes in?”
“Flashy entrances,” I said.
Titania’s lips actually twitched. “In reason.”
“Reason. Logic. Calculation. The cold numbers. The supremacy of the mind.” Titania’s eyes became distant. “It is another place where we differ. I prefer to follow the wisdom of the heart.”
“Meaning what?” I asked.
Titania lifted her hand and spoke a single word, and the air rang with power. The ground buckled, ripping my circle apart and flinging me from my feet onto my back.
“Meaning,” she said, her voice hot and furious, “that you
Birds flew shrieking in every direction as if released from a centrifuge. Titania raised a hand, and a bolt of lightning fell from the tornadic sky and blew a smoking crater the size of my head in the ground a yard away.
to come here! To ask for me to interfere in my sister’s business! You who gave my Aurora an iron death!”
I tried to get up, only to have Titania grab the front of my jacket and lift me off the ground. With one hand. She held me straight up, over her head, so that her fist was pressed against my chest.
“I could kill you in a thousand ways,” she snarled, her opalescent eyes whirling with colors. “I could scatter your bones to the far corners of the earth. I could feed you to my garden and make you scream the entire while. I could visit torments on you that would make Lloyd Slate’s fate seem kind by comparison. I
eat your heart
I hung there over the furious Queen of Summer and knew, knew for certain, that there was not a damned thing I could do to save my own life. I can do things, sure—remarkable things. But Titania had no more to fear from me than a polar bear does a field mouse. My heartbeat became something close to a solid tone, and it was all I could do not to wet my freaking pants.
And then something really unsettling happened.
Tears filled her eyes. They came forth and spilled over her cheeks. Titania seemed to sag. She lowered me to the ground and released me.
“I could do these things. But none of them,” she whispered, “would give me my daughter back. None of them would fill the emptiness within me. It took time, but Elder Gruff’s wise counsel helped me to see that truth.”
Hell’s bells. Elder Gruff had spoken on my behalf? I owed that guy a beer.
“I am not a fool, wizard. I know what she had become. I know what had to be done.” More tears fell, shining like diamonds. “But she was mine. I cannot forget that you took her from me. I cannot forgive you for that. Take your life and leave this place.”
I sounded a little unsteady to my own ears when I spoke. “If the Well is ruptured, your realm stands to lose as much as the mortal one does.”
“The wisdom of my heart tells me to
you, mortal,” Titania said, “whatever my reason might say. I will
“No? What does your heart tell you is going to happen if those things in the Well are set free? They’re immortals. The fire in the fail-safe might keep them down for a while, but they’ll be back.”
Titania didn’t turn to face me. Her voice was weary. “My heart tells me that all things end.” She paused. “But this thing I will tell a Winter Knight who believes in freedom: You must learn greater discretion. The power you have come to know and fear has a name. One should know the proper names of things.”
She turned and walked toward me. My body told me to run like hell, but I told it to shut up, that my legs were shaking too hard anyway. Titania leaned up onto her toes and whispered, very close to my ear.
she breathed. “Speak it carefully—or it may hear you.”
I blinked. “It . . . it
With that she turned and began walking away. “Fare thee well, wizard. You say that people should be free. I agree. I will not shackle you with my wisdom. Make your choices. Choose what the world is to be. I care not. There is little light left in it for me, thanks to you.”
A relatively small flock of birds, only a few hundred, blurred by between me and Titania. When they had passed, she was gone.
I stood there, letting my heart rate slow down, along with the spinning clouds. I felt like crap. When I’d killed Aurora, there hadn’t been much in the way of a choice—but I’d still taken someone’s little girl away from her forever. I felt like a man in a rowboat with only one oar. No matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t really getting anywhere.
But at least I had a name now, for the force the Ladies had told me about.
And it was
The rain that had been held back abruptly began to come down in a torrent, and I sourly suspected that Titania had made sure I was going to get drenched. She hadn’t killed me, at least not yet. But I knew she sure as hell didn’t like me.
Night was coming on fast, and when it got here, all hell was going to break loose. And that was a best-case scenario.
I bowed my head, hunched my shoulders against the rain, and started out of the Magic Hedge.
whistled down a cab and went to my next destination: Graceland Cemetery.
The place was actually kind of busy, it being Halloween and all. Graceland is one of the great cemeteries of the nation, the Atlantic City of graveyards. It’s filled with monuments to men and women who evidently had too much money to throw around while they were still alive. There are statues and mausoleums everywhere, made from granite and ornate marble, some of them in the style of ancient Greece, some obviously more influenced by ancient Egypt. There’s one that’s practically a full-size temple. The actual style of the various monuments ranges from incredible beauty to absolutely outrageous extravagance, with artists and tycoons and architects and inventors all lying silently together now.
Walk in Graceland and you can find yourself lost in a maze of memories, a cloud of names that no one living could attach to a face anymore. I wondered, passing some of the older monuments, whether anyone ever visited them now. If you’d died in 1876, it would mean that your great-great- or even great-great-great-grandchildren were the ones living now. Did people visit the graves of those who had been gone that long?
No. Not for any personal reason. But that was all right. Graves aren’t for the dead. They’re for the loved ones the dead leave behind them. Once those loved ones have gone, once all the lives that have touched the occupant of any given grave had ended, then the grave’s purpose was fulfilled and ended.
I suppose if you looked at it that way, one might as well decorate one’s grave with an enormous statue or a giant temple. It gave people something to talk about, at least. Although, following that logic, I would need to have a roller coaster, or maybe a Tilt-A-Whirl constructed over my own grave when I died. Then even after my loved ones had moved on, people could keep having fun for years and years.
Of course, I’d need a slightly larger plot.
My grave was still open, a six-foot pit in the ground. An old enemy had bought it for me as a form of murderous foreplay. That one hadn’t fallen out the way she had expected it would. But apparently whatever mechanism she used to secure the grave and to have it (illegally) left open was apparently still in place, because when I got there, I found it just as gaping and threatening as it had always been. A chill rolled up my spine as I read my headstone.
It was a pretty thing, white marble with gold-inlaid letters and a gold-inlaid pentacle:
HERE LIES HARRY DRESDEN.
HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING.
“Well,” I muttered, “once, sure. But I guess I’ll have to go best two out of three.”
I looked around. I’d passed several groups that might have been Halloween haunted theme tours, and a gaggle of kids wearing expensive black clothing and grim makeup, smoking cigarettes and trying to look like they were wise to the world. A couple of older people seemed to actually be visiting graves, putting out fresh flowers.
I paused thoughtfully over my own grave and waited until no one was looking. Then I hopped down into it. My feet splashed into an inch of water and another six inches of mud, courtesy of the drizzling rain.
I crouched a little lower, just to be sure no one saw me, and got into my bag again.
My hands were shaking too much to get the bag open on the first try. It wasn’t the cold. It wasn’t even standing at the bottom of my own grave—hell, when I’d been a ghost, my own grave had been the most restful place in the whole world, and there was a certain amount of that reassurance that was still present. I still had no desire to get dead; don’t get me wrong.
The scary thing was imagining what would happen to all the people I cared about if I died in the next few minutes. If I was right, this next interview might get me everything I needed. If I wasn’t . . . well, I could hope to wind up dead, I guess. But I had a bad feeling that wizards who pissed off people on this level didn’t get anything that pleasant and gentle.
I made my preparations quickly. Earth and water were all around, no problem there. I’d have to hope that what little air I had was right for the calling. Fire would have been an issue if I hadn’t planned ahead. I needed to represent one other primal force, too, something that would call to the exact being I had in mind:
If working the spell from your own grave on Hallo-freaking-ween wasn’t deathy enough, I wasn’t sure what would be.
I stood on one foot, and with a gesture and a word froze most of the water in the grave. I put my free foot down on the ice and pulled my other foot out of the part I’d left as mostly slush. Then I froze that, too. I didn’t have any problems slipping on the ice—or rather, I did slip a little, but my body seemed to adjust to it as naturally as it would have to small stones turning underfoot on a gravel road. No big deal.
Once the water was nice and solid, I got out my other props. A bottle of cooking oil, a knife, and matches.
I took the knife and drew a short cut into the skin of my left hand, in the fleshy bit between my thumb and forefinger, over an old scar where I had been hurt at the bidding of a Queen of Faerie before. While that welled up and began to bleed, I reached up and slashed off a lock of my hair with the same knife. I took the lock and used the freshly shed blood as an adhesive to hold it together, and dropped it onto the surface of the ice. More death, just in case. Then I poured a circle of oil around the hair and the blood and set it quickly alight with the matches.
Fire and water hissed and spit, and wind moaned over the top of my grave. I braced my hands on either side of it, closed my eyes, and spoke the invocation I’d chosen, infusing my voice with my will. “Ancient crone, harbinger!” I began, then raised my voice, louder. “Longest shadow! Darkest dream! She of the endless hunger, the iron teeth, the merciless jaws!” I poured more of my wind and my will into the words, and the inside of my grave rang with the sheer volume. “I am Harry Dresden, the Winter Knight, and I needs must speak with thee! Athropos! Skuld! Mother Winter, I summon thee!”
I released the pent-up power in my voice, and as it rang out I could hear birds erupting up from where they sheltered all over the graveyard. There were shouts and cries of surprise, too, from the tourists or the Gothlings or both. I ground my teeth and hoped that they wouldn’t come my way. Getting killed by Mother Winter wouldn’t be like being killed by Titania. That might at least have been huge and messy—not really a fight, but at least a proper slaughter.
If Mother Winter showed up and wanted to kill me, I’d probably just fall into dust or something. Mother Winter was to Mab as Mab was to Maeve—power an order of magnitude above the Winter Queen. I’d met with her once before, and she’d literally knitted up some of the most powerful magic I’d ever seen while carrying on a conversation.
The echoes of my summoning bounced around the graveyard over my head a few times and then . . .
And then . . .
And then nothing.
I sat there for a moment, waiting, while the burning oil hissed and sputtered on the ice. A running tendril of oil ran out to my blood and hair, and a tongue of flame followed a moment later. That part was fine by me. It wasn’t like I wanted to leave a target that juicy lying around for someone to steal, anyway.
I waited until the fire burned out entirely, and quiet settled over my grave again, but nothing happened. Dammit. I wasn’t going to figure out what was really going on tonight by carefully sifting all the facts and analyzing how they all fit together. Not in the time I had left. My only real chance was to get to someone who knew and get them to talk. Granted, going to talk to Mother Winter was about half an inch shy of trying to call up Lucifer, or maybe Death itself (if there was such a being—no one was really sure), but when you need information from witnesses and experts, the only way to get it is to talk to them.
Maybe my summons hadn’t been deathy enough, but I hadn’t wanted to kill some poor animal just to get the old girl’s attention. I might have to, though. There was just too much at stake to get squeamish.
I shook my head, put my tools away, and then the ice just beneath my toes shattered and a long, bony arm, covered in wrinkles and warts and spots, and belonging to a body that would have been at least twenty feet tall, shot up and seized my head. Not my face. My entire head, like a softball. Or maybe an apple. Stained black claws on the ends of the knobby fingers dug into me, piercing my skin, and I was abruptly jerked down into the freaking ice with so much power that for a second I was terrified my neck had snapped.
I thought I would be broken for certain when I hit the ice, but instead I was drawn
it and down into the mud, and through that, and then I was falling, screaming in sudden, instinctive, blind terror. Then I hit something hard and it
, even through the power of the mantle, and I let out a brief, croaking exhalation. I dangled there, stunned for a moment, with those cold, cruel pointed claws digging into my flesh. Distantly I could hear a slow, limping step, and feel my feet dragging across a surface.
Then I was flung and spun twice on the horizontal, and I crashed into a wall. I bounced off it and landed on what felt like a dirt floor. I lay there, not able to inhale, barely able to move, and either I’d gone blind or I was in complete blackness. The nice part about having your bells rung like that is that mind-numbing horror sort of gets put onto a side burner for a bit. That was pretty much the only nice thing about it. When I finally managed to gasp in a little air, I used it to make a whimpering sound of pure pain.
A voice came out of the darkness, a sound that was dusty and raspy and covered in spiders. “Me,” it said, drawing the word out. “You attempt to summon. Me.”
“You have my sincerest apologies for the necessity,” I said, or tried to say to Mother Winter. I think it just came out,
“You think I am a servant to be whistled for?” continued the voice. Hate and weariness and dark amusement were all mummified together in it. “You think I am some petty spirit you can command.”
“N-n-nngh, ow.” I gasped.
“You dare to presume? You dare to speak such names to draw my attention?” the voice said. “I have a stew to make, and I will fill it with your arrogant mortal meat.”
There was a sound in the pitch-darkness. Steel being drawn across stone. A few sparks went up, blinding in the darkness. They burned into my retinas the outline of a massive, hunched form grasping a cleaver.
Sparks danced every few seconds as Mother Winter slowly sharpened her implement. I was able to get my breathing under control and to fight past the pain. “Mmm . . .” I said. “M-Mother Winter. Such a pleasure to meet with you again.”
The next burst of sparks gleamed off of an iron surface—teeth.
“I n-need to speak to you.”
“Speak, then, manling,” said Mother Winter. “You have a little time left.”
The cleaver rasped across the sharpening stone again.
“Mab has ordered me to kill Maeve,” I said.
“She is always doing foolish things,” said Mother Winter.
“Maeve says that Mab’s gone insane,” I said. “Lily concurs.”
There was a wheezing sound that might have been a cackle. “Such a loving daughter.”
I had to believe that I was going to get out of this somehow. So I pressed her. “I need to know which of them is right,” I said. “I need to know who I should turn my hand against to prevent a great tragedy.”
“Tragedy,” said Mother Winter in a purr that made me think of rasping scorpions. “Pain? Terror? Sorrow? Why should I wish to prevent such a thing? It is sweeter than an infant’s marrow.”
It is a good thing I am a fearless and intrepid wizardly type, or that last bit of sentence would have set my flesh to crawling hard enough to carry me across the dirt floor.
I was kind of hosed anyway, so I took a chance. I crossed my fingers in the dark and said, “Because Nemesis is behind it.”
The cleaver’s rasp abruptly stopped.
The darkness and silence were, for a moment, absolute.
My imagination treated me to an image of Mother Winter creeping silently toward me in the blackness, cleaver lifted, and I stifled an urge to burst into panicked screams.
“So,” she whispered a moment later. “You have finally come to see what has been before you all this time.”
“Uh, yeah. I guess. I know there’s something there now, at least.”
“So very mortal of you. Learning only when it is too late.”
“You aren’t going to kill me,” I said. “I’m as much your Knight as Mab’s.”
There was a low, quiet snort. “You are no true Knight of Winter, manling. Once I have devoured your flesh, and your mantle with it, I will bestow it upon someone worthier of the name. I should never have given it to Mab.”
Uh, wow. I hadn’t thought of that kind of motivation. My guts got really watery. I tried to move my limbs and found them numbed and only partially functional. I started trying to get them to flip me over so that I could get my feet under me. “Uh, no?” I heard myself ask in a panicked, cracking voice. “And why is that, exactly?”
“Mab,” said Mother Winter in a tone of pure disgust, “is too much the romantic.”
Which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Mother Winter, right there.
“She has spent too much time with mortals,” Mother Winter continued, withered lips peeled back from iron teeth as the sparks from her cleaver’s edge leapt higher. “Mortals in their soft, controlled world. Mortals with nothing to do but fight one another, who have forgotten
they should fear the fangs and the claws, the cold and the dark.”
“And . . . that’s bad?”
“What value has life when it is so easily
?” Mother Winter spat the last word. “Mab’s weakness is evident. Look at her Knight.”