Authors: James Hunter
Tags: #Men&apos, #s Adventure Fiction, #Fantasy Action and Adventure, #Dark Fantasy, #Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, #Thrillers and Suspense Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mystery Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mage, #Warlock
I placed the keycard on the reader. The locks disengaged and I pulled the door open on oiled hinges. Time to show whoever was running this circus why taking kids was a big no-no.
A gen-u-ine winter wonderland lay behind that metal door, like the set of Santa’s workshop only about a thousand times creepier. Thick powered snow covered every square inch of the cavernous floor—pristine, unblemished, and sparkling like a thousand gemstones, so bright I could hardly look. But when I put foot to the snow, there was no crunch underfoot. It was as solid as a winter lake, but with better traction. Massive icicles jutted from the floor and ceiling, natural columns, catching a few trickling shafts of sunlight from above and breaking them into a smorgasbord of color—gold and red, azure and deep purple, just about everything else in between.
Neato Toledo, not that I’m the kinda guy to wax poetic or anything.
Against the far wall was a sight far less lovely. A cage, holding a slumbering kid of eleven or twelve, all wrapped up in thick blankets, his brown hair poking out. Ben’s grandson. Next to the cage sat a massive throne, all lacy curves and flowing lines, carved of ice in a thousand shades of blue and white. Swirls and flourishes ran over the surface of the chair, dancing with delicately wrought pictures of men and women being tortured.
A man, sawed in two. A woman, drawn and quartered. A couple being torn apart and eaten by gnomes. Pictures inside of pictures, until the eye lost count. The fae are so friggin’ creepy—can’t just have a pretty frozen paradise. No, they need to go and remind you that they’re all homicidal jackasses.
“Quite amazing, isn’t it?” said a voice from behind us.
I spun, calling up an energy shield, preparing for an assault. I shouldn’t have worried about it. The guy standing behind us, just inside the metal door, looked a breath away from turning to dust. Old, old, old. A long wispy beard of hoarfrost, similar to the ice gnomes, trailed down to his belly. Pale-blue skin so ancient it wasn’t even wrinkly, just thin as cheap toilet paper and stretched tight against a lean skeleton. Gaunt, this guy, every bone obvious on his frail and desiccated body. Nearly naked, save for a dirty cloth caked with ice covering his nether regions—thank God for small miracles—and leaning heavily on an old shepherd’s crook of plain dark wood.
This guy didn’t look like much of a threat. Shit, part of me wanted to walk him across the street, maybe help him find his seat at the Golden Corral, and then get him hooked up to his oxygen tank.
“Took me two centuries to make it, you know.” He paused, wheezing. “A reminder of my greatness while I waited out my exile.” And then he was gone, a breeze of wind fluttered past, and I spun again to find him sprawled on the throne, a skeleton king dead in his chair.
“I know well how I must look to you,” he said, “much like I look to the rest of the fae, I imagine. Old, harmless, mayhap? A lion without teeth or claws?” He chuckled.
“Even the mage underestimates me. He sees only a weak old man, that one. He brought in the harpy to make you suffer. Idiot idea. Didn’t trust me to do the job, myself. As though some winged spirit whore could best me.” He scoffed. “Ever since the high fae ousted me, usurped my kingdom. Everyone thinks me weak, but I’ll show them all. Take back what’s mine.”
“Oh shit,” I said putting the pieces together in my mind: old man, ice-cave, shepherd’s crook, stolen kingdom.
His tale wasn’t much more than a shadow of a legend; told, retold, and practically forgotten hundreds of years before I was even a glimmer in my pop’s eye.
Once upon a time, long, long ago—or so the story went—Winter had a nasty king, a merciless creature more brutal and dastardly than all of his kin and kith combined. He was a tyrant with a terribly heavy hand. Basically, the king of pricks. One cold day the King of Winter ventured out of his icy lands to visit the Black Lodge, home to Arwan the Horned, Protector of the Unfettered Fae.
While en route, he ran across a gentle and noble spirited
—part horse, part rooster, all genetics-experiment-gone-wrong—and slew the beast because he was a colossal dick. But in doing so, he pissed off the wrong fairy, Gyre-Carlin, Mistress of the Unfettered, and a violently protective wildlife activist. She didn’t take kindly to the Winter King offing ol’ Horsy McRooster-face, so she swore revenge, orchestrated a massive uprising, and eventually drove the evil king into exile, end of story.
Except, maybe it wasn’t the end of the story. I had a feeling that said ousted king was the old fogey sitting before me.
“You’re Old Man Winter,” I said.
“Give the meat monkey a cracker,” he cackled, still unmoving. “Aye, and Jack Frost too. Used to be I ruled all of Winter. Sadly, my power has somewhat diminished. But with this new vessel …” he tilted his crook toward the boy in the cage, “I shall be young again. Powerful enough to redress old grievances.” He smiled, his teeth sharp points of black ice.
“Look Mr., err, Winter, I guess. This doesn’t have to get messy,” I said. “Give us the kid and we’ll up and ditty-bop our asses right outta here, no problem. Leave you to hang out in the fae retirement home, watching your shows all afternoon. Whatever. Bygones be bygones and all that.”
He laughed again, the sound as raspy and dry as old leaves, his body quivering. “Such a petulant child. So disrespectful. Let me tell you about bygones, young man. In bygone years, I’d have frozen off your fingers and toes, blackened your arms and legs with frostbite, and left you nothing more than a useless lump of flesh. A torso, forever suffering, never dying.” He laughed again.
“Wow,” I said, “sounds like you were a real people person back in the day.”
“Look here,” Ben interrupted, “I don’t care who you are. We aren’t interested in playing any kind of game with you. I’m here for my grandson, and you’ll return him now, or face the full weight and wrath of the Guild of Staff.”
Another choking round of laughs. “Nonsense, Benjamin Altschuler, we all know it is just you and this … this …” he waved his feeble hand in my direction, “washout down here. The Guild did not approve of your incursion.” He thumbed his nose. “No, you are down here because you are desperate.”
“Hey there, Golden Oldies,” I said, “I’ve been desperate plenty of times, and it usually turns out poorly for the other guy.” I pulled out my revolver—big ol’ mean-looking son of a bitch—and pointed it at him. I knew it probably wouldn’t fire, but maybe he didn’t.
“Now I know you supernatural folks don’t give a shit about mortal weaponry. Understandable, since most mortal weaponry doesn’t even function out here in the fae boonies. But this? This is a special peashooter,
. Bullets are cold iron, Jack, and last time I checked, you fairies don’t much care for cold iron.”
I thumbed the hammer back. A revolver doesn’t have a safety, only a double action trigger mechanism. With the hammer back, it meant the trigger was only a hairsbreadth away from sending lead down range … well, in this case the gun probably wouldn’t
fire—might explode in my face. But in principle, hot lead was only a hairsbreadth away.
“Posturing, young man. We both know your aptly named
won’t work down here.”
He waved his shepherd’s crook. A portal at the far end of the room shimmered into being, an opalescent sparkle running across the surface of the air in rippling waves. On the other side was an alleyway I knew well, one outside a banging bar and blues house back in New Orleans, right in the French Quarter.
“Yancy Lazarus—former wet-works man of the Guild of the Staff—I
you. You’re angry, disagreeable, prideful, self-confident, despicable. You’ve even resorted to compelling one of my minions.” He swung his arm lazily through the air, and the binding I’d placed on Stumpy fell away.
“You,” he said, looking at my former gnome tour guide, “are dismissed. Go see to your fallen brothers and sisters out in the chamber.”
The gnome bowed and scooted out of the room, chattering angrily at me the whole while.
“Yes,” he redirected his gaze at me, “really quite deplorable. I very much like those things about you. They remind me of myself as a young man, and they are exactly the kind of traits I cultivate in my own hired help. I have no quarrel with you, nor even with your friend here.” Old Man Winter nodded at Ben. “He is simply a casualty in something much greater.”
He paused, drumming his fingers against his crook,
. “Change is coming, the old way of doing things will soon be done with and you … you, Yancy, are exactly the kind of talent we’d like in the new order. So walk away, back through the portal.” He waved a hand toward the shimmering gateway. “Or stay here and die. It matters not.”
I glanced at Ben, his shoulders tight, his face bunched up in anger and fear. If I left he’d be dead, no question, and the kid with him. If I stayed, there was a good chance we’d all end up dead. Despite his crusty and frail appearance, Old Man Winter was a literal force of nature to be reckoned with—maybe not at the top of his game, but probably still throwing around enough power to hand Ben and I our collective asses.
“Yeah, okay,” I said after a second, holstering my iron, and putting my hands up in resignation. I walked toward the portal, keeping my eyes on Old Man Winter the whole while.
“Smart too,” the old fae said. “Willing to see the winning side and play accordingly—even better. I’ll be in touch, Lazarus.”
“Yancy,” Ben said, panic creeping in. “You can’t leave me down here … my grandson, he’ll kill us.”
“He’ll kill me too if I stay. Nothing personal, Ben. At least I tried, more than the Guild would do.”
I edged past Old Man Winter, keeping well clear, hands still up, no sudden movements to trigger an attack.
“I guess I know where your loyalty lies,” Ben spat. “To yourself. Fine, I can do this alone.” He spread his feet and lifted his hands into something vaguely resembling a fighting stance. After a moment a small orb appeared above each open palm: one a bobbing ball of purple-red flame, flickering from color to color. The other, a faint blue mist that smelled like the breeze of a new spring day.
. Those weren’t regular Vis constructs. The power in each little orb was fae magic, the friggin’ things were Tokens … kinda like a loan I guess, probably from someone high up in either the Spring or Summer Courts. I let out a low whistle—Ben must’ve called in a huge favor to get those puppies. He must’ve known more than he’d let on when he’d told me about the kidnapping.
"Listen,” Ben said, “I am young and strong. You cannot frighten me. Surely you know who I am?” He intoned the words, his voice caring the rhythmic quality of an ancient Native American chant. “Do you not feel how warm my breath is? Wherever I breathe, the plants grow and the flowers bloom. Where I step, the grasses sprout and snow melts away. The birds and the animals come to me. See how long my hair is? Your hair is falling out now, Old Man. Wherever I travel I bring the sunshine and you cannot stay. Do you not know me, Old Man? Do you not hear my companion, the Fawn? She is the South Wind.” He held up the hand with the blue orb. “She is blowing on your lodge. It is your time to leave."
Rage contorted Winter’s mug, screwing up his paper-thin lips and nose, his ice-chip eyes honed in on Ben.
I edged closer still to the portal, seemingly forgotten for the time being. That’s the thing about creatures like Old Man Winter—they simply don’t understand how someone could act against their own best interest. Beings as old and powerful as he rarely take the time to try and see from another perspective; for them, everyone acts in exactly the same fashion they themselves would. He dismissed me because he assumed I was like him—willing to turn tail to save my own skin. I edged closer still.
“Defiler,” the fae being swore, “you would dare to bring tokens of Spring here to my home? Dare to incite the words of my enemy, Kokopelli, Young Man Spring? You would bring the breath of Lady Fawn here? You will suffer a never-ending winter,
.” He said the name with the force of a bomb, the words reverberating in my chest. “You will live entombed in ice, frostbite gnawing at every patch of flesh, every limb, every bone. You’ll watch me raise this child.” He waved toward the cage. “I’ll teach him to hate you, flesh of your flesh will torture you night and day, until I kill him before your eyes and take his body.”
I was close to the portal now, close enough that a solid leap would carry me through to the other side, back to the Big Easy. I was also damn close to Old Man Winter, close enough for a down and dirty cheap shot, right to the kisser. I reached into my coat and brought out one of my two pocket aces: a Ziploc bag full of iron filings.
Old Man Winter thrust out his crook, a beam of arctic light zipped toward Ben like a lightning bolt. Ben’s globe of flame danced and weaved, blooming into a sheet of flame like a bonfire on a cool summer’s eve, cutting the room in half with Ben on one side, Old Man Winter and me on the other. The beam of frozen death fizzled on contact, steam leaking off and freezing into a soft rain of sudden snow.
Timing couldn’t be any better. I leapt, not toward the portal and safety, but toward the distracted Old Man Winter. I conjured a column of air—heated with a faint pulse of flame—opened the Ziploc bag, and let my gust catch up the fine shavings into a mini whirlwind of fae doom … well, fae discomfort at least. Like I’d ever bow out of a fight when a friend and a kid were on the line. Gramps was gonna find out what this ‘washout’ could do.
The Old Man turned as the cloud of iron dust bowled into him, each speck igniting with a blinding flash of white as it struck frail skin. He stood from his chair, arms and legs whipping back and forth, lashing about with his crook. Gust and gales of freezing air swirled and danced as he howled in rage and pain. We wily human folk might be outgunned in the magic and muscle department, but damn if we aren’t tricksy little hobbitses. Maybe I couldn’t kill this glorified snowstorm, but he’d be feeling the burn for a good long while. Score one for team awesomesauce.