Microfiction #6: The Good People
Set months after Battle Ground, concurrent with “Christmas Eve.”
The Good People
by Jim Butcher
I cleared out of my parents’ house before Kringle was due to arrive. Kringle was an absolute grizzly bear about his territory, and not even the Winter Lady was willing to cross that old man on Christmas Eve–especially not after the Battle of Chicago. He’d gotten laid out along with virtually everyone else who had tried to go toe-to-toe with a Titan, and he hadn’t liked it.
I closed the door firmly behind me, unconsciously giving it the tiny lift at the end of its swing that it needed to close properly. It felt like home.
I stood there for a moment with my hand on the doorknob.
My heart hurt.
I hadn’t had time, tonight, to talk to my parents, thank goodness. Just Harry. That was easier. Harry understood about the faerie mantles. He was like I was now: a wolf, a predator. He lived with that same edge, the same hunger. It was what made us dangerous.
When I spent time with my parents, my brothers and sisters, I… remembered things. Floods of memories that were attached to the emotions I felt when around my family. Memories of the person I used to be—and how I wasn’t really her any longer.
A cold, smooth voice came from the darkness in a patch of shadows papa’s tasteful lighting scheme had missed. “The person you used to be is what holds you back.”
Queen Mab stepped out of the darkness and faced me. She was wearing thick white fur robes. Her hair was a silver cloud around her, sparkling with crystals of frost. Her eyes were a pale, icy blue that was nearly white.
“Very eighties,” I said. “Did you use hairspray?”
Mab’s tone turned a little colder. “I summoned wind and ice.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sweet. I’ll have to remember.”
Mab glowered at me and then at my family’s home. “This is what keeps you from being truly ready.”
“Ready for what?” I chirped.
She gave me an icy look and shook her head. “Let the mortal die. She will not be of use to you.”
I looked at my bare wrist. “Is there some reason you’re spending time here?”
“This mission of yours is foolish.”
I whirled on Mab and willed the snow beneath my feet to bear me, and suddenly I was eye to eye with her, my nose literally a quarter inch from hers.
“I am the Winter Lady,” I said, and I spoke in the voice of Winter as I did. Crystals of ice formed on every surface for ten feet in every direction. “You chose me for the mantle. And now the mantle is mine.”
Mab stared at me. And something happened I would never have expected.
She bowed her head and withdrew half a step.
“It is your right,” she said, the words sharp with frozen, reluctant edges. Her lip twisted in disdain. “But this smacks of… Summer work.”
“How can it?” I demanded of her. I felt a laugh bubbling up from my belly and let it dance in my words. “This is Christmas, Auntie Mab.”
Mab’s eyes widened.
I leaned over and kissed her on the frozen cheek, beamed at her, and said, “Merry Christmas!”
Mab stared, blankly astonished.
I turned on a heel, strode toward the street, and spoke again in the voice of Winter. My voice came out in a quiet murmur in the physical world—but among the Fae, it resounded throughout the city.
“Good People,” I breathed. “Earn your name.”
There was a rush of wind, a brief curtain of blowing snow, and my sleigh ghosted out of the darkness, drawn by the Winter Unicorn, a vast black, eyeless beast covered in chitinous armor and crowned with a saw-toothed, saber-curved horn between a set of curling ram’s horns. The sleigh was designed to match, black and covered in swirling thorns, open to the snow.
I strode toward the sleigh, mounted it, and eyed Mab with an eyebrow lifted in challenge.
Mab exhaled a plume of superfrozen air through her nostrils. And rolled her eyes.
I folded my arms in triumph, gathered my red cloak around my shoulders and said, to the Unicorn, “Let’s get moving.”
The beast pawed the snow once and started forward through the snow, blurring the lines between the mortal world and the Nevernever, flickering in and out of shadow and reality and covering ground in the mortal world at virtually any pace the Unicorn chose.
The Battle of Chicago had devastated the city. Somewhere between sixty and eighty thousand people had died, and not even the eyes of Winter, Summer and Wyld could find all the fallen. The Eye of Balor had wreaked a trillion dollars of damage on Chicago architecture, with all the contamination and cleanup that implied. It had taken weeks to restore power to the city, and even longer to get water back into service. Government aid had been spotty at best. John Marcone had done more for the people of the city than City Hall, the state of Illinois or the federal government.
There were a lot of people in trouble.
A lot of people in despair.
A lot of people with not much.
A lot of orphans.
And I had been forced to stand by for months doing nothing. Because the power of Winter was not a kind power. It was not a gentle power. It was not a restorative power. It was not the purpose of Winter to take care of anything.
Any time except tonight.
Because tonight was Christmas Eve. And on this night Christmas and Winter were one and the same.
And tonight Molly Carpenter, who was also the Winter Lady, was deciding what to do with her power.
“Begin,” I said to Winter.
From a dozen strategic points around the city, ogres exploded out of the Nevernever, their muscular bodies bulging and straining as they carried packs the size of ice cream trucks. They were accompanied by troops of gnomes, broken into tactical teams that seized predetermined packages from the packs and rushed them to their destinations.
Elsewhere, the air exploded with a thunder of wings as great black bats, mounted by goblin riders and loaded with packages of their own, swarmed out of the night and dispersed amongst the remaining skyscrapers. Black Dogs rushed out of the night with great packs on their backs, accompanied by bands of pixies and cobbler elves.
We only had several moments, while Kringle entered the cosmic neutral territory that was my parents’ home. Because the old man could be as territorial as he damned well wanted. I was going to be kind to people and if he didn’t like it, I would introduce him to absolute zero.
Ho. Ho. Ho.
Packages went out to everyone who had lost blood relatives in the Battle of Chicago, especially to the orphans. A lot of practical stuff that people needed: insulated clothes against the Chicago winter, which Mab had arranged to be gentler than it might otherwise have been. smartphones, already paid for. Preserved food, against hard days. All of it delivered to homes and hospitals and hotels and refugee centers and homeless camps. Where people had been harmed by the battle between supernatural nations, Winter, the defender of the mortal world, went forth to bring comfort and security.
Except for the kids.
The kids got the good stuff.
Tablets. Gaming systems. Collectible cards. And books. Books and books and books and books and books.
Every gift was wrapped. And on every single gift was a tag that read, “Merry Christmas, from the Wizard of Chicago.”
The Unicorn took the sleigh through the route I’d planned so that I could oversee things. I’d learned over the past few years that the beings of Winter were excellent help—as long as they thought you might kill them if they weren’t. It was imperative to show the flag amongst them, as it were, so that they suspected that I might wipe out anyone who disappointed me.
That’s why I’d bargained for the Unicorn’s help. Anything with a mind was afraid of a Unicorn, and as a being capable of amplifying my power to ridiculous levels, showing up with him was essentially like walking into a room with a loaded shotgun and shoving it in someone’s face.
I made sure the sleigh went through most of the activity I’d planned for my people, so they knew I had my eye on them. It was simpler than killing someone to make a point.
Things were proceeding smoothly enough. There was a modicum of holiday hilarity in several places where the local supernatural crowd crossed paths with my yuletide commando raiders:
A group of goblins left Waldo Butters tied up with wrapping paper ribbon and half-covered in gifts of respect from the warrior-culture creatures who had seen him in battle.
Mort Lindquist panicked and summoned up the ghost of Bruce Lee to possess him when a Rawbones had trouble forcing a particularly large package down a chimney, and Morty karate-chopped the poor monster half to death before it could escape.
A group of particularly adventurous pixies, doubtless members of Dresden’s royal guard, broke into the ale storage at McAnally’s bar, got completely smashed and crashed into a large group of carolers to great musical confusion.
The new crew of gargoyles Dresden had guarding the castle actually attacked a crew of ogres and drove them away—then shamefacedly realized what their mission had been, and clumsily set about delivering the packages themselves, to the tune of considerable property damage.
It could have gone a whole lot worse, really.
I was feeling quite pleased with the operation when a glaring red light fell over my shoulder.
I spun in my sleigh and sat up straight as Kringle’s sled swept down out of the night sky and pulled up next to mine on Michigan avenue, hovering in the shadowy border between reality and the Nevernever, invisible to all but the most imaginative mortal eyes. His reindeer, enormous shaggy things that looked like they belonged in an Ice Age, paced in a snorting half-circle around me and the Unicorn. The lead reindeer was surrounded by a corona of fiery red light centered around its burning red eyes, not its nose.
The nose would have been cuter. This thing looked like it might casually snap its thick leather harness and rip my face off with razor-sharp hooves.
A shadowy figure with a single burning red eye sat in the sled at the tail end of the nine reindeer. They were, to him, what the Unicorn was to me. Amplifiers of his power. I mean, even though he only actually delivered to a token number of homes each year, enough to keep the magic of belief alive, he still made it to tens of thousands of locations in a single night. It took power on a level that made me uncomfortable to think about to manage that much spatial and temporal manipulation—for no better reason than to be kind, mostly to children.
Kringle was the very best evidence that Mab wasn’t as cold as she seemed.
“What, exactly,” said the dark figure in the sled, “do you think you are doing, Lady Molly?”
That glowing red eye smoldered threateningly.
If he wanted to fight, I’d fight. But by God, this was Christmas.
“Dashing through the snow,” I caroled, “In a one-horse open sleigh.”
The figure rose, and as he did, the reindeer stamped their hooves and tossed their horns. “This is my demesne. How dare you usurp my authority.”
“How dare I help my vassal do his duty? Do good?” I asked, feeling the laughter come rippling into my words again. “On Christmas?”
The figure made a growling sound. “Did you think I would not notice, from behind Uriel’s boundary line?”
“I didn’t want to do you the disrespect of not even trying to hide Christmas shenanigans,” I called to him, laughing. I wanted a cup of cocoa and called it out of nothing. “But I rather assumed you’d know if I’d been bad or good. So I thought I’d be good for goodness’ sake.”
I sipped my cocoa and looked at him over the rim of my mug, laughing at him with my eyes.
Somehow, the shadows around the sleigh eased. A tall, lean man, old and strong, wearing dark red hunting leathers, chain mail, and a great red coat with white trim sat there, his hand near a sword whose scabbard had been strapped to his sled. He wore a long, pointed hat that matched his coat. His power hid one missing eye from merely mortal eyes, along with the patch that covered it. His one true blue eye sparkled brightly.
“You cannot take my authority from me without challenge,” he said. He showed me his teeth. “This is Winter, after all.”
“I’ll deliver the rest of my things in Chicago before you do,” I said instantly. “And beat you back here!”
“Hah!” he roared. “Done!”
He waited for nothing else, seizing the reins of his team and slashing them across the dire beasts’ haunches, sending the team leaping into the air.
“Go!” I shouted to the Unicorn, conveying my Will in the word, and the beast leapt toward the area of greatest density of deliveries still in progress.
I shrieked and drew my Sword (not really a sword, per se, long story) from empty air, and drove forward in a howl of cold and snow and shadow. I howled my desire and urgency to Winter, drove my sleigh toward them, Sword flashing, sending them hurtling faster about their errands in sheer terror, filling the night with eerie cries.
Meanwhile, Kringle’s sled zoomed through the night sky. I could hear every time he took off from a new stop—when the air boomed and split as the sled broke the sound barrier on its way into the shadows.
I may have left a few welts and bruises on some of my people while I, ah, encouraged them. Because while I was on a Christmas mission, I was still working with Winter. I moved fast. I was very nearly in several places at once, in fact, the Unicorn and I moved so swiftly, bending the flow of time as best I knew how. But I was new to temporal magic and the holiday delivery business alike, and Kringle had become immortal on it.
He beat me back to the spot on Michigan avenue by fifty feet, laughing heartily as the unicorn came plunging to a panting, quivering stop parallel to his own exhausted team.
“Close enough,” he boomed. “Close enough, my Lady.” And he bowed from the waist. “Be thou welcome to spread cheer on this night, and on such nights to come.”
I winked at him and said, “Was it ever really you on Christmas, when I was a kid?”
He stared at me for a moment. Then he folded his arms and said, “My Lady, how does one win at Christmas?”
I blinked. “Win? You… you don’t win at Christmas.”
“Then tell me how Christmas is most properly done.”
I stopped and thought about it.
I thought about what Papa would say.
And found myself smiling widely.
“You become Santa Claus,” I said.
The smile that split Kringle’s face was like the rising sun.
“And you did it as a gift to your friend,” he said, firmly. “Merry Christmas, my Lady. It is work well done.” He pursed his lips and regarded the night thoughtfully. Then he said, “My Lady, would you care to accompany me on my remaining rounds?”
I felt my breath catch in my throat.
“Can we go down chimneys?”
“Plenty, and to spare,” he chortled.
“You’ve got the night off, Jeeves,” I said to the Unicorn, and hopped down from my sleigh and onto the seat of the sled beside Kringle. “Oh. I’ve got some pickups to make before morning.”
“I could perhaps manage it,” he told me, winking his good eye in an exaggerated motion, so I’d know it was deliberate.
“Woo hoo!” I shouted, and pulled my hat down over my ears.
He paused for a moment, staring intently at me with his one eye, his gaze penetrating. When he finally spoke, he spoke slowly and quietly.
“You aren’t much like the last Lady, are you,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “I am not.”
His eye flashed with a flicker of silver lightning as he smiled.
Then he shook his reins and called to his team, and off we went into the night.