Fool Moon, Page 14Jim Butcher
So there I was being strangled by a ranting, half-naked madman in the middle of the woods, with a she-werewolf dangling from a rope snare somewhere nearby. My gunshot wound hurt horribly, and my jaw throbbed from where my buddy the cop had brutalized it the night before. I've had worse days. That's the great thing about being a wizard. I can always tell myself, honestly, that things could be worse.
I stopped trying to struggle against the man who was choking me. Instead, I grabbed his wrist and prepared to do something foolish.
Magic is a kind of energy. It is given shape by human thoughts and emotions, by imagination. Thoughts define that shape - and words help to define those thoughts. That's why wizards usually use words to help them with their spells. Words provide a sort of insulation as the energy of magic burns through a spell caster's mind. If you use words that you're too familiar with, words that are so close to your thoughts that you have trouble separating thought from word, that insulation is very thin. So most wizards use words from ancient languages they don't know very well, or else they make up nonsense words and mentally attach their meanings to a particular effect. That way, a wizard's mind has an extra layer of protection against magical energies coursing through it.
But you can work magic without words, without insulation for your mind. If you're not afraid of it hurting a little.
I drew in my will, my exhausted fear, and focused on what I wanted. My vision swam with dots of color. The man on my back snarled and growled incoherently, and spittle or foam dribbled onto the side of my face. Dried leaves and mud pressed against the other side of my face. Things started going black.
Then I ground my teeth together and released my will with a burst of sudden energy.
Two things happened. First, a rush of blinding thought, brilliant and wild and jangling, went through my head. My eyes swam with color, my ears with phantom sound. My senses were assaulted with a myriad of impressions: the sharp scent of the earth and dry leaves, the rippling scratch of a centipede's legs fluttering up the skin of my forearms, the sensation of warm sunlight against my scalp, dozens of others I couldn't identify - things with no basis in reality. They were a side effect of the energy rushing through my head.
The second thing that happened was a surge of electricity gathered from the air around me to my fingertips, gripped on my attacker's wrist, and surged up through his arm and into his body. He convulsed against my back, out of control, and the strength of his own reaction threw him off of me and to his back on the leaves, jerking and flopping, his face stretched in a tight-lipped expression of shock and fear.
I wheezed in a breath, stunned and shaking, then scrambled back to my feet, only to stagger against a tree. I huddled there, watching my attacker's convulsions fade into a numb paralysis. Finally, he just stared at the sky, his lips open, his chest heaving in and out.
I studied the man a little more closely. He was big. He was really big, at least as tall as me and twice as broad. He was dressed only in a pair of cutoff blue jeans, and those looked like they were ill fit. He was in a condition best described as "overwhelmingly masculine," hairy-chested and muscled like a professional wrestler. There was grey in his hair and beard, and there were lines on his face, putting his age at well into maturity. It was his eyes that showed me the most about him. They burned green, wild and haunted, fastened on the distant sky now, but heavy with the weight of too much terrible knowledge. It couldn't have been easy to live with a curse like his.
There was a scrambling sound, a muffled thump, and I looked up to see MacFinn's noose trap hanging empty, the rope swinging back and forth. My eyes tracked down to earth to find an indistinct shape stir in the leaves, and then resolve itself into Tera West's long limbs and practical clothes. She gathered her legs beneath her and crossed at once to MacFinn, her chest heaving, her eyes vague and distant.
"MacFinn," she said. "MacFinn! You've killed him," she snarled, and her eyes snapped up to mine, bright and burning with amber anger. I could have sworn I saw her face start to change, her bared teeth begin to grow into fangs. Maybe that was just the effect of the magic on my perceptions, though, or a primitive, lizard-brain sort of reaction to Tera rising to her feet and charging toward me with a howl. There was murder in her eyes.
I hadn't gotten beaten up twice, shot, and nearly strangled to get taken out by a misguided werewolf bitch. I gathered in my dizzy, spinning will and extended my good hand toward the charging woman, flicking my wrist in a circle. "Vento giostrus!" I trumpeted.
The winds howled down from the trees and whipped into a savage circle of moving air, lifting up dried leaves, sticks, and small stones. The miniature cyclone picked the charging Tera up off the ground and hurled her a good twenty feet through the air, into the branches of a pine tree. It also hurled out a cloud of rocks and small debris, forcing me to seek shelter behind a tree trunk.
How embarrassing. It was a little more wind than I had wanted. That's the danger of evocation, of that instantaneous, ka-blowie sort of magic. Control can be somewhat tricky. All I had wanted was something to spin Tera around and then to plop her down on her ass.
Instead, rocks hammered against the tree trunk and zipped by, rattling against the trees all around in an almost deafening clatter. The wind shook the trees, tore branches from them, and cast half a ton of dirt and dust into the air in a choking cloud.
The wind died after about half a minute, leaving me choking and coughing on dust and dirt. I peered around the edge of my tree, to see what I could see.
The trees had been cleaned of their autumn colors in a fifty-foot-wide circle, leaving only stark branches behind. Where the bark had been brittle or dry, the cyclone had torn it from the trees, leaving pale, gleaming wood flesh visible. The leaves on the ground were gone as well, as were six or eight inches of topsoil - wind erosion gone berserk. A few stones, newly naked, could be seen in the torn earth, as could the roots of some of the trees and a number of startled worms.
MacFinn was sitting up, evidently recovered from the jolt I'd given him. His face was pasty and stunned as he looked around him. His chest rose and fell in uneven jerks.
There was a rustle, and then I caught sight of Tera West tumbling to the ground from the branches of the pine tree. She landed with a thump and sat there coughing and staring, her mouth hanging open in surprise. She blinked at me and nervously scooted a few inches backward over the ground.
"See there?" I wheezed, raising a hand and pointing at MacFinn. "He's breathing. He'll be all right. " My mind was still spinning from my unshielded magic attack on MacFinn. I caught the strong scent of wild-flowers and stagnant water, and felt what I was sure were the scales of a snake slithering across the palms of my hands, while something with wings and glittering, multifaceted eyes hovered at the edge of my vision, vanishing whenever I tried to look at it. I tried to shove everything that didn't make sense out of my way, to ignore it, but it was difficult to sort the false impressions from the ones that were in front of me.
Tera rose, and made her way toward the fallen man. She knelt down over MacFinn and wrapped her arms around him. I closed my eyes and wheezed until my head began to slow down a little. I focused on all the pain that was lurking in the midst of the confusion. Pain in my shoulder, my throat, my jaw, gave me a concrete foundation, a place that I knew was stable, if unpleasant. I fastened on it, concentrated, until I began to get less woozy. Once the pain returned in force, I wasn't sure I wanted to be less woozy, but I opened my eyes anyway.
MacFinn had his arms around Tera's shoulders, and she was kissing him as if she were trying to inhale him. I felt vaguely voyeuristic.
"Ahem," I said. "Maybe we should get somewhere out of the open?"
They disengaged, slowly, and Tera helped MacFinn to rise to his full, impressive height. He made her look like a slip of a girl, but he leaned against her a little as he stood. He studied me, and I kept my eyes away from his. I didn't want to see what was inside of him.
"Kim's dead," MacFinn said. "Isn't she?"
It wasn't a question, but I nodded. "Yeah. Last night. "
The big man shuddered and closed his eyes. "Dammit," he whispered. "Dammit all. "
"There was nothing you could do," Tera said, her voice low. "She knew the risks. "
"And you must be Harry Dresden," MacFinn said. He glanced at the burns on his wrist, where my magic had taken him. "Sorry about that. I didn't see Tera with you. I didn't know who you were. "
I shrugged. "Don't worry about it. But can we get out of the open? Last thing we need is a couple of runners or bikers to come back and report us to the police. "
MacFinn nodded at me. "All right. Let's go. " Tera gave me a last, wary look, and then turned with MacFinn to help him farther back into the woods. I followed them.
MacFinn's camp turned out to be hidden in the overhang of a bank of earth, heavily laced with the roots of the ancient trees above it that held it in place and kept it from simply spilling into a mound of mud. There was a small fire built at the back of the shelter the bank afforded, well shielded from sight. MacFinn made his way to the fire and settled down before it. Twilight would cast the sheltered camp into deep darkness, but for now it was only shady and out of the wind. The fire had made the place warm, comfortable. It didn't feel like we were within fifteen miles of the third largest city in the country.
Tera settled down beside MacFinn, her manner restless. I remained standing, though the throbbing in my arm made me wish I was lying down in a bed somewhere, instead of huddling in the middle of a small but genuine forest.
"All right, MacFinn," I said. "You want my help. And I want to keep more people from being hurt. But I need some things from you. "
He peered up at me, his green eyes calculating. "I am hardly in a position to bargain, Mr. Dresden. What you need, I will give you. "
I nodded. "Answers. I've got about a million questions. "
"Dark will come in less than two hours. Moonrise is only slightly more than an hour after that. We don't have much time for questions. "
"Time enough," I assured him. "Why did you come here?"
"I woke up about five miles from here this morning," MacFinn said, looking away from me as he did, staring at the fire. "I've got several stashes hidden around the city. Just in case. This is one of the older ones. The damp had gotten to the clothes, and all I had was these. " He gestured at the jean shorts.
"Do you remember what you did?" The words had an edge to them, but at least I didn't say, "Do you remember murdering Kim Delaney?" Who says I can't be diplomatic?
MacFinn shuddered. "Pieces," he said. "Just pieces. " He looked at me and said, "I didn't mean to hurt her. I swear to you. "
"Then why is she dead?" The words came out flat, cool. Tera glared at me, but I watched MacFinn for his answer.
"The curse," he said quietly. "When it happens, when I change - have you ever been angry, Mr. Dresden? So angry that you lost control? That nothing else mattered to you but acting on your anger?"
"Once," I said.
"Maybe you can understand part of it then," MacFinn said. "It comes on me, and there's nothing left but the need to hurt something. To act on the rage. I tried to tell Kim that the circle wasn't working, that she had to get out, but she wouldn't listen. " I heard the frustration in his voice, and his hands clenched into fists. "She wouldn't listen to me. "
"It frustrated you," I said. "And when you changed . . . "
He nodded. "It's how I came back from 'Nam. Everyone else in my platoon died but me. I knew the full moon was coming. And I knew that I hated them, hated the soldiers who had killed my friends. When I changed, I started killing until there wasn't anyone left alive within maybe two miles. "
I stared at MacFinn for a long moment. I believed that he was telling me the truth. That he didn't have much control, if any, over his actions when he transformed. Though it occurred to me that if he wanted someone dead, he could probably point his monster-self in the right direction before he lost control.
Note to self: Do not cut MacFinn off in traffic.
"All right," I said. "Why come here? Why to 'Wolf Woods'? Why not to one of the other stashes?"
He smirked at the flames. "Where else would a werewolf run, Mr. Dresden?"
"Someplace a little less freaking obvious," I shot back.
MacFinn shook his head. "The FBI doesn't believe in werewolves. They aren't going to make the connection. "
"Maybe," I conceded. "But there are smarter people than the FBI looking for you now. I don't think we should stay here for long. "
MacFinn glanced at me, and then around him, as though listening for pursuers. "You might be right," he admitted. "But I'm not going anywhere until my head stops spinning. You don't look so good, either. "
"I'll make it," I said. "All right, then. How did you know Kim Delaney? From her activist functions, I assume. "
MacFinn's face went pale at the mention of her name, but he nodded. "Originally. We came to know of her talents about a year ago. She told us how you were helping her control her abilities. She was helping me, indirectly, with the Northwest Passage Project. Then, last month, I asked her for her help. "
"Why did you do that?"
MacFinn glanced warily at Tera, and then back at me. "Someone broke my circle. "
I hunkered down on my heels, resting my aching arm on my knees. "Someone broke your circle? The one in the basement?"
"Yes," MacFinn said. "I don't know who. I'm not at home a lot. We found it broken when we went downstairs before moonrise, last month. "
"And you asked Kim to fix it?"
MacFinn closed his eyes and nodded. "She said she could. She told us she would be able to make a new circle, one that would keep me from . . . "
I chewed on my lip as his voice trailed off. "Last month, you were meeting with Marcone's business partner, right? Negotiations over the Project?"
"I didn't kill him," MacFinn said quickly. "He died the night after the full moon. I couldn't have made the change and done it then. And the other two nights, I made sure I was well away from human beings. I didn't kill anyone the second two nights, either. I was alone. "
"Your fianc¨¦e could have done those killings," I said, and flicked a glance at Tera West. She glared at my eyes for a moment, and then looked away.
"She didn't," MacFinn said, his tone cool.
"Let's go back a bit," I said. "Someone messed up your circle. To do that, they would have had to know about your curse, right? And they would have had to get into your house. So, the question is, who could do those things? And then the question is, who would have done it, and why?"
MacFinn shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "I just don't. I don't have much contact with the supernatural, Mr. Dresden. I keep my head down. I don't know anyone else who can make the change, except for her. " He put his hand over that of the woman beside him.
A suspicion took root in my mind, someplace dark and sneaky. I studied Tera as I spoke to MacFinn. "You want to hear a theory?" I said. I didn't wait for him to answer. "Presuming you're telling the truth, I figure someone else did the killings the night before the full moon, last month. Some gangsters in town. Then they made sure that you would be the one going berserk the next three nights by fucking up your circle. "
"Why would they do that?" MacFinn asked.
"To set you up. They kill some people, maybe just for kicks, maybe for a good reason, and then they lay the blame at your feet. Someone like me, or the White Council, comes poking around, and they go straight to you. You're notorious. Like a convicted felon. They find you over the body with a bloody knife, metaphorically speaking, and you're the one to burn at the stake. Literally. "
MacFinn studied my face for a moment. "Or you think that there might be another reason. "
I shrugged. "Maybe you are the killer. You could be trying to make it look like someone is setting you up to me and the Council. Th
e police can't prove shit against you under the mundane justice system, and using this deception clears you with the supernatural community. So you moan and pose and say 'Woe is me, I am only the poor cursed guy, and meanwhile a bunch of people end up dead. People who were standing in the way of your completing the Northwest Passage Project. "
MacFinn showed me his teeth. "You think the world wouldn't be better off without people like Marcone and his lickspittles?"
"Good word, lickspittles," I replied, keeping my voice bland. "That doesn't really concern me right now, MacFinn. Men like Marcone know the risks and take their chances. What bothers me is that a bunch of other people are getting dead, and they don't really deserve it. "
"Why would I be killing innocents?" MacFinn demanded, his voice growing tight, clipped.
"Innocents like Kim?" I said. I'm a wizard, not a saint. I'm allowed to be vindictive.
MacFinn went pale and looked down.
"Maybe you're doing it as a smoke screen. Maybe you can't help it. Or hell, maybe you really are just a poor cursed guy, and someone's using you like a puppet. There's no way for me to tell right now. "
"Assuming I'm not lying," MacFinn grated, "who would have an interest in setting me up?"
I shook my head. "That's the million-dollar question. I'd say that it was Johnny Marcone - he stands to benefit if you can't oppose his business interests in the Northwest. As I understand it, the Northwest Passage would pretty much put nails in the coffin of a lot of industry up in that direction. "
MacFinn nodded grimly. "It would. "
"So that gives him a good motive. But how did he know about your curse? And how did he pull off ruining the circle? It doesn't sound like him. He would just have your brakes fail, or maybe arrange for you to meet a couple of big men in a dark alley. It's just his way. " I shrugged. "Who else would be doing it? Can you think of anyone?"
MacFinn shook his head. "I've always been lucky. Been able to hold myself in, lock myself up. Or been able to go far away, out into the wilds where no one would find me. So that when I changed, no one would be killed. "
"That's why you were backing the Northwest Passage," I guessed. "A place for you to go in safety when the full moon comes - a really big no-people zone. "
MacFinn glanced aside at Tera, who was staring stoically into the distance. "That and other reasons. " His jaw tightened, and he looked back to the fire. "You don't know what it's like, Mr. Dresden. To live with yourself. "
I rubbed at my mouth and chin with my good hand. I needed a shave. I studied MacFinn and Tera for a moment, trying to make up my mind.
Was MacFinn telling me the truth? Was he just a victim, someone being used by a faceless villain still at large? Or was he lying to me?
If he was lying, if all of this had been his design, what purpose would he have had in luring me out here? Killing me, of course, getting rid of the only wizard who could pen up his monstrous form. That was, after all, exactly what he would have done if I hadn't have been able to shock him silly. But did that even make sense? What would he gain by removing me if I never stood in his way in the first place?
Careful, Harry. Don't get too paranoid. Not everyone is planning and plotting and lying. But I had to wonder about Tera West. A nasty scenario was laying itself out in my mind. What if the dear, sweet fianc¨¦e was tired of hubby? What if she had done the before- and after-moon killings, then set up her sweetiekins to take the fall for her? She could get rid of MacFinn and Marcone's partner all in one fell swoop.
Leaving her and Marcone alive. Marcone could have found out about MacFinn from Tera, and about the weakness of his circle from Tera as well. Tera wasn't human, not even a little. She was something else, maybe a being of the Nevernever. Who knew how her mind worked?
And then there was the group of young people Tera seemed to be in charge of. How did they fit into this? What was she using them for?
I went fishing. "How are Georgia and Billy, Tera?" I asked, my tone conversational.
She blinked. Her mouth worked for a second, and then she answered, "Fine. They are well. " She pressed her lips together, clearly desiring the conversation to end.
I watched MacFinn. His face registered confusion, and then he looked between Tera and me uneasily. He didn't know who the hell I was talking about, and she didn't seem to want to let MacFinn in on what was apparently a secret.
Aha, little miss werewolf-shapeshifter-thing. What are you plotting?
I was going to press her harder, when MacFinn and Tera both looked up at exactly the same time, out toward the woods. I stared at them like a moron for a couple of seconds, my mind still running along trails of thought, tracing potential lies, possibilities. Then I shook that out of my brain and Listened.
"Both of you along that way," Murphy said from somewhere in the distance downslope. "Ron, take your three and fan out until we're even with the feds. Then we sweep west, up the hill. "
"Christ, Murphy," Carmichael said. "We don't owe the feds shit. If they'd have showed up on time, we'd have been out here hours ago. If we hadn't got that report about the West woman in the hotel room, we still wouldn't be here. "
"Can it, Carmichael," Murphy snapped. "Pictures of MacFinn and the woman have been passed out. And you all know what Dresden looks like. Spread out and nab them. "
"You don't even know if they're here," Carmichael protested.
"I'll bet you sex to donuts that they are, Carmichael," Murphy said, her voice dripping sweet venom. "And that should tell you how certain I am. "
Carmichael muttered something under his breath, and then growled orders to his men to fan out as Murphy had indicated.
"Dammit," MacFinn snarled. "How did they know I was here?"
"Where else would a werewolf go to hide?" I sniped. "Shit. How do we get out?"
"Wind," Tera said. She and MacFinn both came to their feet. "Or fog. Can you do one of those again?"
I grimaced and shook my head. "I don't think so. I'm worn out. I'd probably make a mistake and that could kill someone. "
"If you don't," Tera said, "we will all be captured or killed. "
"You can't solve all your problems by magic," I snapped.
"He's right," MacFinn said quietly. "We split up. The first one discovered makes a lot of noise, puts up a fight, and gives the others a chance to get away. "
"No," I said. "MacFinn, you've got to stay with me. I can make the circle with some sticks and dirt, if necessary, but if I'm not there, I can't hold you in when the curse takes hold later tonight. "
MacFinn's teeth showed again. "No time to argue, Mr. Dresden," he said.
"Indeed there is not," said Tera, and then she took off at a dead run. MacFinn hissed a curse and grabbed for her as she ran, but missed. Tera flew on into the woods, rushing silently down the slope on an angle that would take her past the edge of the pursuers' line. She was noticed after only a few steps, shouts going up from three or four throats.
"Bitch," MacFinn cursed, and he started after her. I seized his arm, my fingers clamping on his bicep hard enough to make him stop and stare at me, his green eyes fierce and wild.
"Split up," I said, looking back down the hill. "If we're lucky, they won't even know that we were here. "
"But Tera - "
"Knows what she's doing," I said. "If the police nail us, there's no way you're going to be able to hold it in tonight. We go, now, and we meet at the nearest gas station to the park. All right?"
From down slope came the sounds of running men, a warning call, and then a gunshot. For Tera's sake, I hoped that Agent Benn wasn't down there. MacFinn clenched his jaw, and then ran up the slope, on an angle. Down below us, there were more shouts, more shots fired, and a short, sharp cry of pain.
Call me crazy, but those sounds, added to all the other things that had happened that day, were just too much for me to handle. I turned, cradling my wounded arm against me, and stumbled up the hill into a long, loping run. I
kept my head down, watching my feet, only looking up often enough to make sure that I didn't run into a tree, and fled.