Authors: Jim Butcher
Tags: #Harry (Fictitious character), #Illinois, #Rulers, #Chicago (Ill.), #General, #Fantasy - Epic, #Epic, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Dresden, #Wizards, #Kings, #Fantasy fiction, #Occult fiction, #Queens, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Fantasy - Contemporary, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Etc
Table of Contents
ALSO BY JIM BUTCHER
FURIES OF CALDERON
A NOVEL OF THE DRESDEN FILES
A ROC BOOK
Published by New American Library, a division of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, En gland
Published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Jim Butcher, 2008
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATA LOGUING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Butcher, Jim, 1971–
Small favor: a novel of the Dresden files /Jim Butcher.
1. Dresden, Harry (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Wizards—Fiction. 3. Chicago (Ill.)—Fiction. I. Title.
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For the forum-going fans at jim-butcher.com. I’m pretty sure
your bosses would be upset if they saw your posting stats,
guys, but I won’t tell if you won’t.
Many folks deserve thanks as usual, particularly my family, who has to put up with my insanity during deadline crunches; my agent, Jenn, who has to make excuses to my editor when I’m late; and my editor, Anne, who in turn has to make excuses for me to her bosses; plus the Beta Asylum, who have the ongoing task of pointing out warts on my babies. The lunatics.
This time I have to add new folks to the list—the local and visiting players at NERO Central, who were good enough to step around me during various roleplay and combat actions, while I finished off the last few chapters of
in the corner of the tavern.
inter came early that year; it should have been a tip-off.
A snowball soared through the evening air and smacked into my apprentice’s mouth. Since she was muttering a mantra-style chant when it hit her, she wound up with a mouthful of frozen cheer—which may or may not have been more startling for her than for most people, given how many metallic piercings were suddenly in direct contact with the snow.
Molly Carpenter sputtered, spitting snow, and a round of hooting laughter went up from the children gathered around her. Tall, blond, and athletic, dressed in jeans and a heavy winter coat, she looked natural in the snowy setting, her cheeks and nose turning red with the cold.
“Concentration, Molly!” I called. I carefully kept any laughter I might have wanted to indulge in from my voice. “You’ve got to concentrate! Again!”
The children, her younger brothers and sisters, immediately began packing fresh ammunition to hurl at her. The backyard of the Carpenter house was already thoroughly chewed up from an evening of winter warfare, and two low “fortress” walls faced each other across ten yards of open lawn. Molly stood between them, shivering, and gave me an impatient look.
“This can’t possibly be real training,” she said, her voice quavering with cold. “You’re just doing this for your own sick amusement, Harry.”
I beamed at her and accepted a freshly made snowball from little Hope, who had apparently appointed herself my squire. I thanked the small girl gravely, and bounced the snowball on my palm a few times. “Nonsense,” I said. “This is wonderful practice. Did you think you were going to start off bouncing bullets?”
Molly gave me an exasperated look. Then she took a deep breath, bowed her head again, and lifted her left hand, her fingers spread wide. She began muttering again, and I felt the subtle shift of energies moving as she began drawing magic up around her in an almost solid barrier, a shield that rose between her and the incipient missile storm.
“Ready!” I called out. “Aim!”
Every single person there, including myself, threw before I got to the end of
, and snowballs sped through the air, flung by children ranging from the eldest, Daniel, who was seventeen, down to the youngest, little Harry, who wasn’t yet big enough to have much of a throwing arm, but who didn’t let that stop him from making the largest snowball he could lift.
Snowballs pelted my apprentice’s shield, and it stopped the first two, the frozen missiles exploding into puffs of fresh powder. The rest of them, though, went right on through Molly’s defenses, and she was splattered with several pounds of snow. Little Harry ran up to her and threw last, with both hands, and shrieked merry triumph as his bread-loaf-sized snowball splattered all over Molly’s stomach.
“Fire!” I barked belatedly.
Molly fell onto her butt in the snow, sputtered some more, and burst out in a long belly laugh. Harry and Hope, the youngest of the children, promptly jumped on top of her, and from there the lesson in defensive magic devolved into the Carpenter children’s longstanding tradition of attempting to shovel as much snow as possible down the necks of one another’s coats. I grinned and stood there watching them, and a moment later found the children’s mother standing beside me.
Molly took after Charity Carpenter, who had passed her coloring and build on to her daughter. Charity and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye—well, in point of fact, we’ve hardly ever seen eye-to-eye—but tonight she was smiling at the children’s antics.
“Good evening, Mister Dresden,” she murmured.
“Charity,” I replied amiably. “This happen a lot?”
“Almost always, during the first real snowfall of the year,” she said. “Generally, though, it’s closer to Christmas than Halloween.”
I watched the children romping. Though Molly was growing quickly, in a number of senses, she reverted to childhood easily enough here, and it did me good to see it.
I sensed Charity’s unusually intense regard and glanced at her, lifting an eyebrow in question.
“You never had a snowball fight with family,” she said quietly, “did you?”
I shook my head and turned my attention back to the kids. “No family to have the fight with,” I said. “Sometimes the kids would try, at school, but the teachers wouldn’t let it happen. And a lot of times the other kids did it to be mean, instead of to have fun. That changes things.”
Charity nodded, and also looked back at the kids. “My daughter. How is her training progressing?”
“Well, I think,” I said. “Her talents don’t lie anywhere close to the same areas mine do. And she’s never going to be much of a combat wizard.”
Charity frowned. “Why do you say that? Do you think she isn’t strong enough?”
“Strength has nothing to do with it. But her greatest talents make her unsuited for it in some ways.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, she’s good with subtle things. Delicate things. Her ability at handling fine, sensitive magic is outstanding, and increasing all the time. But that same sensitivity means that she has problems handling the psychic stresses of real combat. It also makes the gross physical stuff a real challenge for her.”
“Like stopping snowballs?” Charity asked.
“Snowballs are good practice,” I said. “Nothing gets hurt but her pride.”
Charity nodded, frowning. “But you didn’t learn with snowballs, did you.”
The memory of my first shielding lesson under Justin DuMorne wasn’t a particularly sentimental one. “Baseballs.”
“Merciful God,” Charity said, shaking her head. “How old were you?”
“Thirteen.” I shrugged a shoulder. “Pain’s a good motivator. I learned fast.”
“But you aren’t trying to teach my daughter the same way,” Charity said.
“There’s no rush,” I said.
The noise from the children stopped, dropping to furtive whispers, and I winked at Charity. She glanced from the children to me, amusement evident in her face. Not five seconds later Molly shouted, “Now!” and multiple snowballs came zipping toward me.
I lifted my left hand, focusing my will, my magic, and drew it into the shape of a broad, flat disk in front of me. It wasn’t a good enough shield to stop bullets, or even well-thrown baseballs, but for snowballs it was just fine. They shattered to powder on my shield, revealing it in little flashes of pale blue light as a circular plane of force centered on the outspread fingers of my extended left hand.
The children laughed as they cried out their disapproval. I shouted, “Hah!” and lifted a triumphant fist.
Then Charity, standing behind me, dumped a double handful of snow down the neck of my coat.
I yelped as the cold ate my spinal cord, jumped up out of my tracks, and danced around trying to shake the snow out from under my clothes. The children cheered their mother on and began flinging snowballs at more or less random targets, and in all the excitement and frivolity I didn’t realize that we were under attack until the lights went out.
The entire block plunged into darkness—the floodlights illuminating the Carpenters’ backyard, house lights in every nearby home, and the streetlights were all abruptly extinguished. Eerie, ambient werelight reflected from the snow. Shadows suddenly yawned where there had been none before, and the scent of something midway between a skunk and a barrel of rotting eggs assaulted my nostrils.
I yanked my blasting rod out of its holder on the inside of my coat and said to Charity, “Get them inside.”
“Emergency,” Charity said in a far calmer voice than I had managed. “Everyone into the safe room, just like in practice.”
The children had just begun to move when three creatures I had never seen before came bounding through the snow. Time slowed as the adrenaline hit my system, and it felt like I had half an hour to study them.
They weren’t terribly tall, maybe five-foot-six, but they were layered with white fur and muscle. Each had a head that was almost goatlike, but the horns atop them curled around to the front like a bull’s rather than arching back. Their legs were reverse-jointed and ended in hooves, and they moved in a series of single-legged leaps more than running. They got better air than a Chicago Bull, too, which meant I was dealing with something with supernatural strength.
Though, thinking about it, I couldn’t actually remember the last time I’d dealt with something that
have supernatural strength, which is one of the drawbacks of the wizard business. I mean, some things are stronger than others, sure, but it wouldn’t much matter to my skull if a paranormal bruiser could bench-press a locomotive or if he was merely buff enough to juggle refrigerators.
I trained the tip of my blasting rod on the lead whatsit, and then a bunch of snow fell from above in my peripheral vision, landing on the ground beside me with a soft thump.
I threw myself into a forward dive, rolled over one shoulder, and came to my feet already moving laterally. I was just in time to avoid the rush of a fourth whatsit, which had knocked the snow loose just before it dropped down onto me from the tree house Michael had built for his kids. It let out a hissing, bubbling snarl.
I didn’t have time to waste with this backstabbing twit. So I raised the rod as its tip burst into scarlet flame, unleashed my will, and snarled, “
A wrist-thick lance of pure flame leapt from the blasting rod and seared the creature’s upper body to blackened meat. The excess heat melted snow all around it and sent up a billow of scalding steam. Judging by the tackle hanging between the thing’s legs as the steam burst up from the snow, it probably inflicted as much pain as the actual fire.
The whatsit went down, and I had to hope that it wasn’t bright enough to play possum: The Carpenter children were screaming.
I whirled around, readying the rod again, and didn’t have a clear shot. One of the white-furred creatures was running hard after Daniel, Molly’s oldest brother. He’d begun to fill out, and he ran with his fingers locked on the back of the coats of little Harry and Hope, the youngest children, carrying them like luggage.
He gained the door with the creature not ten feet behind him, its wicked-looking horns lowered as it charged. Daniel went through the door and kicked it shut with his foot, never slowing down, and the creature slammed into it head-on.
I hadn’t realized that Michael had installed all-steel, wood-paneled security doors on his home, just as I had on mine. The creature probably would have pulverized a wooden door. Instead it slammed its head into the steel door, horns leading the way, and drove a foot-deep dent into it.
And then it lurched away, letting out a burbling shriek of pain. Smoke rose from its horns, and it staggered back, swatting at them with its three-fingered, clawed hands. There weren’t many things that reacted to the touch of steel like that.
The other two whatsits had divided their attention. One was pursuing Charity, who was carrying little Amanda and running like hell for the workshop Michael had converted from a freestanding garage. The other was charging Molly, who had pushed Alicia and Matthew behind her.
There wasn’t time enough to help both groups, and even less to waste over the moral dilemma of a difficult choice.
I turned the rod on the beastie chasing Charity and let it have it. The blast hit it in the small of its back and knocked it from its hooves. It flew sideways, slamming into the wall of the workshop, and Charity dashed through the door with her daughter.
I turned my blasting rod back to the other creature, but I already knew that I wouldn’t be in time. The creature lowered its horns and closed on Molly and her siblings before I could line up for another shot.
“Molly!” I screamed.
My apprentice seized Alicia’s and Matthew’s hands, gasped out a word, and all three of them abruptly vanished.
The creature’s charge carried it past the space they’d been in, though something I couldn’t see struck its hoof and sent it staggering. It wheeled around at full speed, kicking up snow as it did, and I felt a sudden, fierce surge of exaltation and pride. The grasshopper might not be able to put up a decent shield, but she could do veils like they were going out of style, and she’d kept her focus and her wits about her.
The creature slowed, head sweeping, and then it saw the snow being disturbed by invisible feet, moving toward the house. It bawled out another unworldly cry and went after them, and I didn’t dare risk another blast of flame—not with the Carpenters’ house in the line of fire. So instead I lifted my right hand, triggered one of the triple-layered rings on it with my will, and sent a burst of raw force at the whatsit.
The unseen energy struck it in the knees, throwing its legs out from under it with such strength that its head slammed into the snow. The disturbance in the snow rushed around toward the front door of the house. Molly must have realized that the deformation of the security door would make it difficult, if not impossible, to open, and once again I felt fierce approval.
But it faded rather rapidly when the whatsit that had been playing possum behind me slammed into the small of my back like a sulfur-and-rotten-egg-driven locomotive.
The horns hit hard and it hurt like hell, but the defensive magic on my long black leather duster kept them from impaling me. The impact knocked the wind out of me, snapped my head back sharply, and flung me to the snow. Everything got confusing for a second, and then I realized that it was standing over me, ripping at the back of my neck with its claws. I hunched my shoulders and rolled, only to be kicked in the nose by a cloven hoof, and an utterly gratuitous amount of pain came with a side order of whirling stars.
I kept trying to get away, but my motions were sluggish, and the whatsit was faster than me.
Charity stepped out of the workshop with a steel-hafted ball-peen hammer in her left hand, and a heavy-duty contractor’s nail gun in her right.
She lifted the nail gun from ten feet away and started pulling the trigger as she walked forward. It made
sounds, and the already seared whatsit started screaming in pain. It leapt up wildly, twisting in agonized gyrations in midair, and fell to the snow, thrashing. I saw heavy nails sticking up out of its back, and the smoking wounds were bleeding green-white fire.