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Proven Guilty, Page 19

Jim Butcher

Chapter 31~32

  Chapter Thirty-one

  We listened to Daniel's recounting of the attack. It was simple enough. He'd heard Molly moving around downstairs and had come down to talk to his sister. There had been a knock at the door. Molly had gone to answer it. There had been an exchange of words, and then Molly had screamed and slammed the door.

  "She came running into the living room," Daniel said. "And they broke down the door behind her and came in. " He shivered. "They were going upstairs and Molly said we had to distract them, so I grabbed the poker from the fireplace and just sort of jumped them. " He shook his head. "I thought they were just costumes. You know. Like. . . really stupid burglars or something. But the Reaper grabbed me. And he was going to. . . you know. Cut me with that curved knife. " He gestured vaguely at his wounded arm. "Molly hit him and he dropped me. "

  "With what?" I asked him.

  He shook his head. His thin, awkward, adolescent features were hollow with pain, weariness, and a kind of lingering disbelief. His words were all slightly stiff, wooden, as if reporting events in an unappealing motion picture, rather than actual experiences. "I couldn't see. I think she must have had a bat or something. He dropped me. "

  "Then what?" I asked him.

  He swallowed. "I fell, and bumped my head on the floor. And they grabbed her. The Reaper and the Scarecrow. And they carried her out the door. She was screaming. . . " He bit his lip. "I tried to stop them, but Hammerhand chased me. So I ran out the back and up into the tree house, cause I figured, you know. He doesn't have any hands. Just hammers. So how's he going to climb up after me?"

  He looked to Charity and said, shame in his voice, "I'm sorry, Mom. I wanted to stop them. They were just. . . too big. " Tears welled up in his eyes and his thin chest heaved. Charity caught him in a fierce hug, squeezing him hard and whispering to him. Daniel broke down, sobbing.

  I got up and walked to the far side of the room. Forthill joined me there.

  "These creatures," I told him quietly, "inflict more than simple physical damage. They rip into the psyches of those they attack. "

  "This happened to Daniel?" Forthill asked.

  "I'd have to take a closer look to be certain, but it's probable. Kid's gonna have it tough for a while," I said. "It's like emotional trauma. Someone dying, that kind of thing. It tears people up the same way. They don't get over it fast. "

  "I've seen it too," Forthill said. "I haven't brought this up yet, but I thought you should know that Nelson came to me earlier this evening. "

  I nodded at the cot that had been occupied when we came in. "That him?"

  "Yes. "

  "How'd he strike you?" I asked.

  Forthill pursed his lips. "If I didn't know you sent him, I would have thought he was having a bad reaction to drugs. He was almost incoherent. Very agitated. Terrified, in point of fact, though he would not or could not explain why. I managed to get him calmed down and he all but fainted. "

  I frowned, running the fingers of my right hand back through my hair. "Did you have the sense that anyone was following him?"

  "Not at all. Though I might have missed something. " He essayed a tired smile. "It's late. And I'm not as spry as I used to be, after ten o'clock or so. "

  "Thank you for helping him," I said.

  "Of course. Who is he?"

  "Molly's boyfriend," I said. I glanced across the room, at the mother holding her son. "Maybe Charity doesn't need to know that part, either. "

  He blinked and then sighed, "Oh, dear. "

  "Heh. Yeah," I said.

  "May I ask you a question?" he asked.

  "Sure. "

  "These creatures, these phages. If they are what you say, beings of the spirit world, then how did they manage to cross the house's threshold?"

  "Traditional way," I said. "They got an invitation. "

  "From whom?"

  "Probably Molly," I said.

  He frowned. "I have difficulty believing that she would do such a thing. "

  I felt my mouth tighten. "She probably didn't know they were monsters. They're shapeshifters. They probably appeared to her as someone she knew, and would invite in. "

  Forthill said, "Ah. I see. Someone such as you, perhaps. "

  "Perhaps," I said quietly. "Makes it the second time someone has used my face to get a shot at Michael's family. "

  Forthill said nothing for a moment. Then he said, "It occurs to me that these creatures killed without compunction in your previous encounters. Why would they carry Molly away instead of simply murdering her?"

  "I don't know yet," I said. "I don't know how my spell managed to bring them to Molly. I don't know precisely what these things are, or where they hail from. Which means I can't figure out why they've been showing up, or where they might have taken the girl. " I waved a hand in a frustrated gesture. "It's driving me insane. I've got tons of facts and none of them are lining up. "

  "You're tired," Forthill said. "Perhaps some rest-"

  I shook my head. "No, Padre. The things that took her won't rest. The longer she's in their hands, the less likely it is we'll ever see her again. " I rubbed at my eyes. "I need to rethink it. "

  Forthill nodded at me and rose. On the other side of the room, Charity was covering her exhausted son with a blanket. Even Alicia had surrendered to fatigue, and now only the adults were awake. "I'll leave you to it then. Have you eaten recently?"

  "Sometime in the Mesozoic Era," I said.

  "Sandwich?"

  My stomach made a gurgling noise. "Only if you insist. "

  "I'll see to it," Forthill said. "Excuse me. " He went over to Charity and took her arm, leading her out as he spoke quietly to her. Now that her children had been cared for, she looked like she might come apart at the seams. They left the room together, leaving me in the dimness with Mouse and a lot of sleeping kids.

  I thought. I thought some more. I picked up all the facts I knew, turning them every which way, trying to figure out something, anything, that would let me put a stop to this insanity.

  The phages. The answer was in the phages. Once I knew their identity, I could begin to work out who might be using them, and what I might do to learn more about them. There had to be a commonality to them, somewhere; something that linked them together, some fact that could provide me a context in which to judge their motivations and intentions.

  But what the hell could they have in common, other than being monsters who fed on fear? They'd shown up randomly in a bathroom, a kitchen, a parking lot, a conference room. Their victims had been disparate, seemingly random. They had all appeared as figures from horror movies, but that fact seemed fairly unremarkable, relatively speaking. Try as I might, I could find nothing to join them together, to let me recognize them.

  Frustrated, I rose and went over to Daniel's cot. I called up my Sight. It took me longer than normal. I braced myself and regarded the boy.

  I'd been right. He'd taken a psychic flogging. The phage had been worrying at his mind, his spirit, even as it had threatened his flesh. I could see the wounds as long, bleeding tears in his flesh. Poor little guy. It would haunt him. I hoped he would be able to get a little rest before the nightmares woke him up.

  I stared at him for a good while, making sure his suffering was burned indelibly into my head. I wanted to remember for the rest of my life what the consequences of my screw-ups might be.

  I heard a sound to the side and glanced up without thinking, turning my Sight upon the source of the sound-a restlessly stirring Nelson.

  If little Daniel had been the recipient of a savage beating, Nelson's spirit had been in the hands of Hell itself. His entire upper body was disfigured under my Sight, covered in hideous, festering boils and raw, bleeding burns. The damage was worst around his head, and faded gradually as it descended his torso.

  And each of his temples bore tiny, neat holes, sharp and cauterized, as if by a laser scalpel.

  Just li
ke Rosie.

  Chains of logic cascaded through my brain. My head swam. I shoved the Sight away from me, and my ass fell straight down to the floor.

  I knew.

  I knew why my spell had sent the phages after the Carpenters.

  I knew why Molly had been taken. I could make a good guess at where.

  I knew what the phages all had in common.

  I knew who had sent them. The realization terrified me with a fear so cold and sharp that it literally paralyzed me. I could barely clap my hand over my mouth to keep from making whimpering sounds.

  It took me a while to force myself to calm down. By the time I did, Forthill had returned bearing sandwiches. He settled down on a cot, clearly exhausted, and went to sleep.

  I ate my sandwiches. Then I went looking for Charity.

  I found her in the chapel, sitting up high in the balcony. She stared down at the altar, and did not react when I came up the steps to her and settled down on the bench beside her. I sat with her in silence for a minute.

  "Charity," I whispered. "I need to ask you something. "

  She sat in stony silence. Her chin moved a fraction of a degree up and down.

  "How long?" I murmured.

  "How long since what?" she asked.

  I took a deep breath. "How long has it been since you've used your magic?"

  Chapter Thirty-two

  I couldn't have gotten more of a reaction if I'd shot her. Charity's face turned sheet white, the blood draining from it. She froze in place grasping the edge of the wooden pew in front of her with both hands. Her knuckles turned white, and the wood creaked. She gnashed her teeth and bowed her head.

  I didn't push. I waited.

  She opened her eyes again, and she wasn't hard to read. Her thoughts and emotions were clear on her face. Panic. Desperation. Self-loathing. Her eyes flicked from one possibility to another. She considered denying it. She considered lying to me. She considered simply walking away.

  "Charity," I told her. "Tell me the truth. "

  Her breathing quickened. I saw her desperation growing.

  I reached out with one hand and turned her face toward me. "Your daughter needs you. If we don't help her, she's going to die. "

  Charity flinched and pulled away from me. Her shoulders shook with a silent sob. She fought to control her breathing, her voice, and whispered, "A lifetime. "

  I felt some tension ease in me. Her reaction confirmed that I was on the right track.

  "How did you know?" she asked.

  "Just putting lots of little things together," I said. "Please, Charity. Tell me. "

  Her voice was rough, half strangled, as though the breath that carried her words had been tainted with something rotten. "I had some talent. It showed just before my sixteenth birthday. You know how awkward that kind of thing can be. "

  "Yeah," I said. "How'd your family take it?"

  Her mouth twisted. "My parents were wealthy. Respectable. When they had time to notice me, they expected me to be normal. Respectable. They found it easier to believe that I was a drug addict. Emotionally unbalanced. "

  I winced. There were a lot of situations that could meet someone with a burgeoning magical talent. Charity's was one of the worst.

  "They sent me away to schools," she said. "And to hospitals disguised as schools. " She waved a hand. "I eventually left them. Just left them. I struck out on my own. "

  "And fell in with a bad crowd," I said quietly.

  She gave me a bitter smile. "You've heard this story before. "

  "It isn't uncommon," I said quietly. "Who was it?"

  "A. . . coven, of sorts, I suppose," she said. "More of a cult. There was a young man leading it. Gregor. He had power. He and the others, all young people, mixed in religion and mysticism and philosophy and. . . well. You've probably seen such things before. "

  I nodded. I had. A charismatic leader, dedicated followers, a collection of strays and homeless runaways. It rarely developed into something positive.

  "I wasn't strongly gifted," she said. "Not like you. But I learned about some of what happens out there. About the White Council. " The bitter smile returned. "Everyone was terrified of them. A Warden visited us once. He delivered a warning to Gregor. He'd been toying about with some kind of summoning spells, and the Wardens got wind of it. They interviewed each of us. Evaluated us. Told us the Laws of Magic, and told us never to break them if we wished to live. "

  I nodded and listened. She spoke more quickly now, the words coming out in a growing rush. They had been pent up a long time.

  "Gregor resented it. He grew distant. He began practicing magic that walked the crumbling edges of the Council's Laws. He had us all doing it. " Her eyes grew cold. "The others began disappearing. One by one. No one knew where they had gone. But I saw what was happening. I saw Gregor growing in power. "

  "He was trading them," I said.

  She nodded once. "He saw my face, when I realized it. I was the next one to go. He came to take me away, and I fought him. Tried to kill him. Wanted to kill him. But he beat me. I remember only parts of it. Being chained to an iron post. "

  "The dragon," I said.

  She nodded. Some of the bitterness faded from her smile. "And Michael came. And he destroyed the monster. And saved me. " She looked up at me. Tears filled her eyes and streaked down her cheeks, but she did not blink. "I swore to myself that I would leave that behind me. The magic. The power. I had. . . urges. " She swallowed. "To do things only. . . only a monster would do. When Siriothrax died, Gregor went mad. Utterly mad. But I wanted to turn my power against him anyway. I couldn't think of anything else. "

  "Hard to do," I said quietly. "You were a kid. No real training. Exposed to some nasty uses of power. "

  "Yes," she said. "Without Michael, I would never have been able to leave it behind me. He never knew. He still doesn't know. He remained near me, in my life. Making sure that I was all right. And. . . he was such a good soul. When he smiled at me, it was like all the light in the world was shining out at me. I wanted to be worthy of that smile.

  "My husband saved my life, Mister Dresden, and not only from the dragon. He saved me from myself. " She shook her head. "I never touched my power again after the night I met Michael. We married soon after. And in time, the power withered. And good riddance to it. "

  "So when Molly's talent began to manifest," I said quietly, "you tried to get her to abandon it as well. "

  "I was well aware of how dangerous it could be," she said. "How innocent it could seem. " She shook her head. "I did not want her exposed to the things that had nearly destroyed my life. "

  "But she did it anyway," I guessed. "That's what really came between the two of you. That's why she ran away from home. "

  Charity's voice turned raw. "Yes. I couldn't get through to her how dangerous it was. What she might be sacrificing. " She made no effort to stem or hide her tears. "And you were there. A hero who fought beside her father. Used his power to help people. " She let out a tired laugh. "For the love of God, you saved my life. We named our child for you. Once she realized she had the talent, nothing could keep her from it. "

  Christ. No wonder Charity hadn't much liked me. Not only was I dragging her husband off to who knew where to fight who knew what, I was also setting an example to Molly of everything Charity wanted her to avoid.

  "I didn't know," I told her.

  She shook her head. Then she said, "I have been honest with you. No one else knows what you do now. Not Michael. Not my daughter. No one. " She drew a Kleenex from her pocket and wiped at her eyes. "What has happened to my daughter?"

  I exhaled. "What I've got right now is still mostly guesswork," I said. "But my gut tells me it all fits together. "

  "I understand," she said.

  I nodded, and told Charity about the attacks at the convention, and about how Molly had gotten me involved. "I examined the victims of the first two attac
ks," I said quietly. "One of them, a girl named Rosie, showed evidence of a land of psychic trauma. At the time, I attributed it to the phage's attack on her. "

  Charity frowned. "It wasn't?"

  I shook my head. "I found an identical trauma on Nelson. " I took a deep breath and said, "Molly is the link between them. They're both her friends. I think she was the one who hurt them. I think she used magic to invade their minds. "

  Charity stared at me, her expression sickened. "What? No. . . " She shook her head. "No, Molly wouldn't. . . " Her face grew even more pale. "Oh, God. She's broken one of the Council's Laws. " She shook her head more violently. "No, no, no. She would not do such a thing. "

  I grimaced and said, "I think I know what she did. And why she did it. "

  "Tell me. "

  I took a deep breath. "Rosie is pregnant. And she showed physical evidence of drug addiction, but none of the psychological evidence of withdrawal. I think Molly took steps when she found out her friend was pregnant-to force her away from the drugs. I think she did it to protect the baby. And then I think she did the same thing to Nelson. But something went wrong. I think what she did to him broke something. " I shook my head. "He got paranoid, erratic. "

  Charity stared down at the altar below, shaking her head. "Is it the Council then, that took her?"

  "No," I said. "No. What she did to Rosie and Nelson left a kind of mark on her. A stain. I think she forced Rosie and Nelson to feel fear whenever they came near their drugs. Fear is a powerful motivator and it's easy to exploit. She wanted them to be afraid of the drugs. She had good intentions, but she wanted her friends to be frightened. "

  "I don't understand. "

  "Whoever called up these phages," I said, "needed a way to guide them from the Nevernever to the physical world. They needed a beacon, someone who would resonate with a sympathetic vibe. Someone who, like the phages, wanted to make people feel fear. "

  "And they used my Molly," Charity whispered. Then she stared at me for a moment. "You did it," she said quietly. "You tried to turn the phages back upon their summoner. You sent them after my daughter. "

  "I didn't know," I told her. "My God, Charity. I swear to you that I didn't know. People were dead, and I didn't want anyone else to be hurt. "

  The wooden pew creaked even more sharply in her grip.

  "Who did this thing?" she said, and her voice was deadly quiet. "Who is responsible for the harm to my children? Who is the one who called the things that invaded my home?"

  "I don't think anyone called them," I told her quietly. "I think they were sent. "

  She looked up at me, and her eyes narrowed. "Sent?"

  I nodded. "I hadn't considered that possibility, until I realized what all of the attacks had in common. Mirrors. "

  "Mirrors?" Charity asked. "I don't understand. "

  "That was the common element," I said. "Mirrors. The bathroom. Rosie's makeup mirror in the conference room. Plenty of reflective steel surfaces in a commercial kitchen. And Madrigal's rental van's windshield was reflecting images very clearly. "

  She shook her head. "I still don't understand. "

  "There are plenty of things that can use mirrors as windows or doorways from the spirit world," I said. "But there's only one thing that feeds on fear and uses mirrors as pathways back and forth from the Nevernever. It's called a fetch. "

  "Fetch. " Charity tilted her head, her eyes vague, as though searching through old memories. "I've heard of them. They're. . . aren't they creatures of Faerie?"

  "Yeah," I said quietly. "Specifically, they're creatures of deepest, darkest Winter. " I swallowed. "Even more specifically, they're Queen Mab's elite spies and assassins. Shapeshifters with a lot of power. "

  "Mab?" she whispered. "The Mab?"

  I nodded slowly.

  "And they've taken my daughter," she said. "Carried her away to Faerie. "

  I nodded again. "She'll be a rich resource for them. A magically talented young mortal. Compatible energy. Not enough experience to defend herself. They can feed on her and her magic for hours. Maybe days. That's why they didn't just kill her and have done. "

  Charity swallowed. "What can we do?"

  "I'm not sure," I said. "It would be nice to have your husband along, though. "

  She bit her lip and sent what might have been a hateful look down at the altar. "He's out of reach. Messages have been left, but. . . "

  "We're on our own," I said.

  "We must do something," she said.

  "Yeah," I agreed. "The problem is that we don't know where to do it. "

  "I thought you just said that they had taken her back to Faerie. "

  "Yeah," I said. "But just because I tell you Ayer's Rock is in Australia doesn't mean you're going to be able to find the damned thing. Australia's big. And Faerie makes it look like Rhode Island. "

  Charity clenched her jaw. "There must be something. "

  "I'm working on it," I said.

  "What will. . . " She paused and cleared her throat. "How long does she have?"

  "Hard to say," I told her. "Time can go by at different rates between here and there. A day here, but an hour there. Or vice versa. "

  She stared steadily at me.

  I looked away and said, "Not long. It depends on how long she holds out. They'll get all the fear out of her that they can and then. . . " I shook my head. "A day. At most. "

  She shook her head. "No," she said quietly. "I will not let that happen. There must be a way to take her back. "

  "I can get to Faerie," I said. "But you've got to understand something. We're talking about opening a path into deep Winter. If I'm strong enough to open the way, and if I'm strong enough to hold it open while simultaneously running a rescue operation against at least one ancient fetch who ate my magic like candy earlier tonight, we're still talking about defying the will of Queen Mab. If she's there, there's not a damned thing I can do. I don't have enough power to challenge her in the heart of her domain. The whole damned White Council doesn't have enough power. On top of that, I'd have to know precisely where to cross over into Faerie, because I'd have only minutes to grab her and get out. And I have no idea where she is. "

  "What are you saying?" she asked quietly.

  "That I can't do it," I told her. "It's suicide. "

  Charity's back stiffened. "So you're willing to leave her there?"

  "No," I said. "But it means that I'm going to have to find help wherever I can get it. Maybe from people and things that you won't much like. " I shook my head. "And it's possible I'll get myself killed before I can even make the attempt. And even if I get her out. . . there could be a price. "

  "I'll pay it," she said. Her voice was flat, strong, certain. "For Molly, I'll pay it. "

  I nodded. I didn't say the next thought out loud-that even if we did get the girl back, there might not be much left of her mind. And she'd broken one of the Laws of Magic. She could wind up on the floor of some lonely warehouse, a black bag over her head, until Morgan's sword took it off her shoulders. Or, maybe worse, she could already have been twisted by the power she'd used.

  Even if I could find Molly and bring her home, it might already be too late to save her.

  But I could burn that bridge when I came to it. First, I had to find her. The only way to do that was to learn where the fetches had carried her through to the Nevernever. Geography in the Nevernever isn't like geography in the normal world. The Nevernever touches our world only at certain points of sympathetic energy. The portion of the Nevernever that touched an empty and abandoned warehouse might not be anywhere near the area of the spirit world that touched the full and busy child-care center across the physical street from the warehouse. To make it worse, the connections between the mortal world and the Nevernever changed slowly over time, as the world changed.

  There could be a thousand places in Chicago where the fetches might have dragged Molly back to their lair. I had to find the corre
ct one. And I had to do it before dawn, before the rising sun scattered and dispersed the residual traces of her presence that would be my only trail.

  I had about two hours, tops, to get my aching body back to my apartment to bathe and prepare for a spell that would have been dangerous had I been rested and entirely whole. Tired, hurting, pressured, and worried as I was, I would probably kill myself on Little Chicago's trial run.

  But my only other option was walk away and leave the girl in the hands of creatures that made nightmares afraid of the dark.

  "I'll need something of hers," I said, rising. "Hair or fingernail clippings would be best. "

  Charity said, "I have a lock of her hair in her baby book. "

  "Perfect," I said. "I'll pick it up from your place. Where's the book?"

  She rose. "I'll show you. "

  I hesitated. "I don't know if that's wise. "