Chapter 9

I watched out for trouble all the way back to Chicago, but it didn't show up.

The trip from Edinburgh would be a difficult one if limited by strictly physical means of transport. Wizards and jet planes go together like tornados and trailer parks, and with similarly disastrous results. Boats are probably the surest means of modern transport available to us, but it's a bit of a ride from Scotland to Chicago.

So we do what a good wizard always does when the odds are stacked up against us: We cheat.

The Nevernever, the spirit world, exists alongside our own, sort of like an alternate dimension, but it isn't shaped the same way as the mortal world. The Nevernever touches upon places in the mortal world that have something in common with it, a resonance of energies. So, if point A is a dark and spooky place in the Nevernever, it touches upon a dark and spooky place in the real world - let's say, the stacks at the University of Chicago. But the space five feet away from point A in the Nevernever, point B, is only dark and sad, not really scary. Maybe point B attaches to a cemetery in Seattle.

If you're a wizard, you could then start at the stacks at UC, open a doorway into the Nevernever, walk five feet, open another doorway back to the real world, and emerge into the cemetery in Seattle. Total linear distance walked, five or six feet. Total distance traveled, better than seventeen hundred miles.

Neat, huh?

Granted, it's almost never as little as five feet you walk in the Nevernever, and that stroll just might introduce you to some gargantuan, tentacular horror so hideous that it drives you insane just by looking at it. The Nevernever is a scary place. You don't want to go exploring without a whole lot of planning and backup, but if you know the safe paths - the Ways - then you can get a lot of traveling done nice and quick, and with a minimum incidence of spontaneous insanity.

Once upon a time, I would have refused even to enter the Nevernever except in the direst of emergencies. Now, the idea wasn't much more stressful to me than the thought of hitting a bus station. Things change.

We were back in Chicago before lunchtime, emerging from the Nevernever into an alley behind a big old building that used to be a slaughterhouse. I'd parked the Blue Beetle, my beat-up old Volkswagen Bug, nearby. We went back to my apartment.

Susan and Martin were waiting. About two minutes after we got back, there was a knock at the door, and I opened it to find both half vampires standing on my doorstep. Martin carried a leather valise on a sling over his shoulder.

"Who is the girl?" Martin asked, his eyes calm and focused past me, on Molly.

"It's nice to see you again, too, man," I said. "And don't mention it. I save people's lives all the time."

Susan smiled at me, giving Molly the Female Once-Over - a process by which one woman creates a detailed profile of another woman based upon about a million subtle details of clothing, jewelry, makeup, and body type, and then decides how much of a social threat she might be. Men have a parallel process, but it's binary: Does he have beer? If yes, will he share with me?

"Harry," Susan said, kissing me on the cheek. I felt like a pine tree in cougar country. I'd just have to hope territorial scoring of my bark wasn't next. "Who is this?"

"My apprentice, Molly Carpenter," I said. "Grasshopper, this is Susan Rodriguez. That's Marvin someone-or-other."

"Martin," he corrected me, unruffled, as he entered. "Can she be trusted?"

"Every bit as much as you trust me," I said.

"Well." Martin's voice couldn't have been any drier, but he tried. "Thank goodness for that."

"I know who they are, Harry," Molly said quietly. "They're from the Fellowship of St. Giles, right? Vampire hunters?"

"Close enough," Susan said, standing right next to me, well inside my personal space perimeter. It was an intimate distance. She touched my arm for a moment with fever-hot fingers, but never looked away from Molly. "An apprentice wizard? Really? What's it like?"

Molly shrugged, averting her eyes, frowning slightly. "A lot of reading, a lot of boring practice, with occasional flashes of pure terror."

Susan looked from Molly to me and seemed to come to some sort of conclusion. She drifted out of my personal space again. "Did you speak to the Council?"

"A bit," I said. "The duchess was at headquarters. Spoke to her, too."

Susan drew in a sharp breath. "What? She hasn't left Mexico in more than a hundred and eighty years."

"Call Guinness. She broke her streak."

"Good God," she said. "What was she doing there?"

"Being compassionate and understanding and forgiving me for challenging her to a duel in front of about a thousand fellow wizards."

Martin made a choking sound. Susan's eyes looked a little wide.

"I wanted a piece of her right there," I said, "but she was operating under a pledge of safe conduct. Council intelligence says there's all kinds of vampire activity starting up. I've got feelers out for any other word, but it will take a little time."

"We already knew about the mobilization," Susan said. "The Fellowship warned the Council three days ago."

"Nice of the Council to inform everybody, I guess. But I'll get whatever else the Council knows in the next few hours," I said. "You guys turn up anything?"

"Sort of," Susan said. "Come on."

We went to the seating around the coffee table, and Martin plopped the valise down onto its surface. He drew out a manila folder and passed it to me.

"Out of nearly a petabyte of information - " he began.

"Petawhat?" I asked.

"One quadrillion bytes," he clarified. Helpfully.

Susan rolled her eyes and said, "Several libraries' worth of in formation."

"Oh. Okay."

Martin cleared his throat and continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "We retrieved fewer than three hundred files. Most of them were inventory records."

I opened the folder and found several sheets of printer paper covered with lists, and several more that consisted of photographs of any number of objects accompanied by identification numbers.

"The objects in this file," Susan said, "were all categorized as metacapacitors."

I grunted, paging through the photos more slowly. A stone knife. An ancient, notched sword. A soot-stained brick. An urn covered in odd, vaguely unsettling abstract designs. "Yeah. Can't be sure without physically examining it, but this stuff looks like ritual gear."

I frowned and started cross-referencing numbers on the lists. "And according to this, they were all checked out of a secure holding facility in Nevada and shipped as a lot. . . ." I glanced up at Susan. "When was Maggie taken, exactly?"

"A little less than twenty-four hours before I called you."

I frowned at the timing. "They shipped it the same day Maggie was taken."

"Yes," she said. "About three hours after the kidnapping."

"Shipped where?"

"That's the question," she said. "Assuming it's connected with Maggie at all."

"Odds are that it isn't," Martin said.

"Yeah. Your time would be better employed running down all those other leads we have, Marvin." I spared him a glower, and went back to studying the pages. "If I can figure out what this gear is used for, maybe I can rule it out. For all I know it's meant for a rain dance." I tapped the pages on my knee thoughtfully. "I'll do that first. While I do, Molly, I want you to go talk with Father Forthill, personally - we have to assume the phones aren't safe. Forthill has some contacts down south. Tell him I'd like to know if any of them have reported anything unusual. Take Mouse to watch your back."

"I can look after myself, Harry. It's still daylight."

"Your weapons, grasshopper," I said in my Yoda voice. "You will not need them."

She frowned at me in annoyance and said, "You know, I believe it is possible to reference something other than Star Wars, boss."

I narrowed my eyes in Muppetly wisdom. "That is why you fail."

"That doesn't even . . . Augh. It's easier just to do it." She stood up and held out her hand. I tossed her the keys to the Blue Beetle. "Come on, Mouse."

Mouse rose from his position in the kitchen and shambled to Molly's side.

"Hold up a second, kid. Susan," I said. "Something about this is making the back of my neck itch. The bad guys knew where to find us last night. They must have some kind of tail on one of us, and we don't need to walk around with a target painted on our backs. Maybe you and Martin could go see if you can catch our shadow."

"They'll see us and pull a fade as soon as we leave the apartment," Martin said.

"Oh!" Molly said abruptly, her eyes brightening. "Right!"

I went out to get the mail and walk the dog around the little backyard while Molly, Susan, and Martin, under cover of one of Molly's first-class veils, slipped out of the apartment. I gave Mouse five minutes, then called him and went back down into the apartment.

Molly had beaten me back inside, after walking Susan and Martin out of the view of any observers who had a line of sight to my apartment's door. "How was that?" she asked. She tried for casual, but by now I knew her well enough to spot when my answer mattered.

"Smooth," I said. "Did me proud."

She nodded, but there was a little bit too much energy in it to be offhand agreement. Hell's bells, I remembered what she was feeling: wanting, so badly, to prove my talent, my discipline, my skill - myself - to a teacher. It took me nearly a decade for my hindsight to come into focus, and to realize how inexperienced, how foolish, and how lucky I had been to survive my apprenticeship with both eyes and all my fingers intact.

I wasn't too worried about sending the kid on a solo mission. It was pretty tame, and Forthill liked her. Molly wasn't much in a fight, but she could avoid the hell out of them if she had an instant's warning - which was where Mouse came in. Very little escaped the big dog's solemn notice. If hostility loomed, Mouse would warn her, and hey-presto, they would both be gone.

She'd be fine.

"Don't take too long," I said quietly. "Eyes open. Play it safe."

She beamed, her face alight. "You aren't the boss of me."

I could all but taste the pride she felt at making her talents useful to my cause. "The hell I'm not," I told her. "Do it or I dock you a year's pay."

"You know you don't pay me anything, right?"

"Curses," I said. "Foiled again."

She flashed me another smile and hurried out, bouncing eagerly up the steps. Mouse followed close on her heels, his ears cocked alertly up, his demeanor serious. He grabbed his leather lead from the little table by the door as he went by. Molly had forgotten it, but there were leash laws in town. I suspected that Mouse didn't care about the law. My theory was that he insisted on his lead because people were more inclined to feel comfortable and friendly toward a huge dog when he was "safely restrained."

Unlike me, he's a people person. Canine. Whatever.

I waited until the Beetle had started and pulled out to close the door. Then I picked up Martin's printed pages, tugged aside the rug that covered the trapdoor in the living room floor, and descended into my laboratory.

"My laboratory," I said, experimentally, drawing out each syllable. "Why is it that saying it like that always makes me want to follow it with 'mwoo-hah-hah-hah-hahhhhhh'?"

"You were overexposed to Hammer Films as a child?" chirped a cheerful voice from below.

I got to the bottom of the stepladder, murmured a word, and swept my hand in a broad gesture. A dozen candles flickered to life.

My lab wasn't fancy. It was a concrete box, the building's subbasement. Someone probably had neglected to backfill it with gravel and earth when the house was built. Tables and shelves lined the walls, covered in wizardly bric-a-brac. A long table ran down the middle of the room, almost entirely occupied by a scale model of downtown Chicago made of pewter, right down to the streetlights and trees.

My apprentice had a workstation at a tiny desk between two of the tables. Though she had continued to add more and more of her own notes, tools, and materials as her training continued, somehow she had kept the same amount of space open. Everything was neatly organized and sparkling clean. The division between Molly's work area and the rest of the room was as sharp and obvious as the lines on a map.

I'd upgraded my summoning circle, which was set in the concrete floor at the far end of the little room, a five-foot hoop of braided copper, silver, and iron that had set me back three grand when I ordered it from a svartalf silversmith. The materials weren't all that expensive, but it took serious compensation to convince a svartalf to work with iron.

Each metal strand in the circle's braid was inscribed with sigils and runes in formulae that harnessed and controlled magical energies to a far greater degree than any simple circle. Each strand had its own string of symbols, work so tiny and precise that only svartalves and maybe Intel could have pulled it off. Flickers of light, like static discharge but more liquid, slithered around each strand of metal, red light, blue, and green dancing and intertwining in continuous spirals.

I'm still young for a wizard - but once in a while, I can make something that's fairly cool.

One shelf was different from all the others in the room. It was a simple wooden plank. Volcanic mounds of melted candle wax capped either end. In the center of the shelf was a human skull, surrounded by paperback romance novels. As I watched, orange flickering light kindled in the skull's empty eye sockets, then swiveled to focus on me. "Too many Hammer Films," Bob the Skull repeated. "Or, possibly, one too many nights at the Rocky Horror Picture Show."

"Janet, Brad, Rocky, ugh," I said dutifully. I went to the shelf, picked the skull up off of it ("Wheee!" said Bob), and then carried it over to a mostly clean space on one of the worktables. I set the skull down on top of a stack of notebooks, and then put Martin's manila folder down in front of him.

"Need your take on something," I said. I opened up the folder and started laying out the photographs Martin had given me.

Bob regarded them for a moment, and asked, "What are we looking at, here?"

"Metacapacitors," I said.

"That's weird. 'Cause they look like a bunch of ritual objects."

"Yeah. I figure metacapacitor is code language for ritual object."

Bob studied the pictures and muttered to himself under his breath. He isn't actually a talking skull - he's a spirit of intellect who happens to reside inside a specially enchanted skull. He's been assisting wizards since the Dark Ages, and if he hasn't forgotten more than I ever knew about the wide world of magic, it's only because he doesn't forget anything, ever.

"They're traveling in a single group. I need to get a ballpark estimate on what they might be used for."

"Tough to tell from two-dimensional images," Bob said. "I start getting confused when there are any fewer than four dimensions." He rattled the skull's teeth together a few times, thoughtfully. "Is there anything else? Descriptions or anything?"

I opened the folder. "Just the inventory list." I put my finger on the picture of the stone knife and read, " 'Flint blade.' " I touched an old brick with crumbling edges. " 'Brick.' "

"Well, that's just blindingly useful," Bob muttered.

I grunted. "It's possible that this is just miscellaneous junk. If you don't think it has a specific purpose, then - "

"I didn't say that," Bob interrupted sourly. "Jeez, Harry. Ye of little faith."

"Can you tell me anything or not?"

"I can tell you that you're teetering on the edge of sanity, sahib."

I blinked at that. "What?"

Bob didn't look up from the pictures. "Your aura is all screwed up. It's like looking at an exploding paint factory. Crazy people get that way."

I grunted and considered Bob's words for a moment. Then I shrugged. "I'm too close to this case, maybe."

"You need some time in a quiet place, boss. Unkink your brain's do. Mellow your vibe."

"Thank you, Doctor Fraud," I said. "I'll take that under advisement. Can you tell me anything about those objects or what?"

"Not without getting to examine them," Bob said.

I grunted. "Super. Another bad inning for the wizard gumshoe."

"Sorry," he said. "But all I can tell you from here is the trigger."

I frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, those are objects of dark, dangerous magic," Bob said. "I mean, obviously. Look at the angles. Nothing is proportional and balanced. They're meant for something destructive, disruptive, deadly."

I grunted. "That tracks. Rumor has it that the war is going to rev up again soon." I ran my fingers tiredly through my hair. "What did you say the trigger was, again?"

"For something this dark?" Bob asked. "Only one thing'll do."

I felt myself freeze. My coffeeless gorge began to rise.

"Human sacrifice," the skull chirped brightly. "The slaughter of an innocent."

Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense