Read Proven Guilty Online

Authors: Jim Butcher

Tags: #Chicago (Ill.), #Dresden, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fiction, #Contemporary, #Detective and mystery stories, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Fantasy - Contemporary, #Fantasy fiction, #Media Tie-In, #Magic, #Harry (Fictitious character), #Wizards

Proven Guilty

BOOK: Proven Guilty
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Proven Guilty

Jim Butcher

Chapter One

Blood leaves no stain on a Warden’s grey cloak. I didn’t know that until the day I watched Morgan, second in command of the White Council’s Wardens, lift his sword over the kneeling form of a young man guilty of the practice of black magic. The boy, sixteen years old at the most, screamed and ranted in Korean underneath his black hood, his mouth spilling hatred and rage, convinced by his youth and power of his own immortality. He never knew it when the blade came down.

Which I guess was a small mercy. Microscopic, really.

His blood flew in a scarlet arc. I wasn’t ten feet away. I felt hot droplets strike one cheek, and more blood covered the left side of the cloak in blotches of angry red. The head fell to the ground, and I saw the cloth over it moving, as if the boy’s mouth were still screaming imprecations.

The body fell onto its side. One calf muscle twitched spasmodically and then stopped. After maybe five seconds, the head did too.

Morgan stood over the still form for a moment, the bright silver sword of the White Council of Wizards’ justice in his hands. Besides him and me, there were a dozen Wardens present, and two members of the Senior Council—the Merlin and my one-time mentor, Ebenezar McCoy.

The covered head stopped its feeble movements. Morgan glanced up at the Merlin and nodded once. The Merlin returned the nod. “May he find peace.”

“Peace,” the Wardens all replied together.

Except me. I turned my back on them, and made it two steps away before I threw up on the warehouse floor.

I stood there shaking for a moment, until I was sure I was finished, then straightened slowly. I felt a presence draw near me and looked up to see Ebenezar standing there.

He was an old man, bald but for wisps of white hair, short, stocky, his face half covered in a ferocious-looking grey beard. His nose and cheeks and bald scalp were all ruddy, except for a recent, purplish scar on his pate. Though he was centuries old he carried himself with vibrant energy, and his eyes were alert and pensive behind gold-rimmed spectacles. He wore the formal black robes of a meeting of the Council, along with the deep purple stole of a member of the Senior Council.

“Harry,” he said quietly. “You all right?”

“After that?” I snarled, loudly enough to make sure everyone there heard me. “No one in this damned building should be all right.”

I felt a sudden tension in the air behind me.

“No they shouldn’t,” Ebenezar said. I saw him look back at the other wizards there, his jaw setting stubbornly.

The Merlin came over to us, also in his formal robes and stole. He looked like a wizard should look—tall, long white hair, long white beard, piercing blue eyes, his face seamed with age and wisdom.

Well. With age, anyway.

“Warden Dresden,” he said. He had the sonorous voice of a trained speaker, and spoke English with a high-class British accent. “If you had some evidence that you felt would prove the boy’s innocence, you should have presented it during the trial.”

“I didn’t have anything like that, and you know it,” I replied.

“He was proven guilty,” the Merlin said. “I soulgazed him myself. I examined more than two dozen mortals whose minds he had altered. Three of them might eventually recover their sanity. He forced four others to commit suicide, and had hidden nine corpses from the local authorities, as well. And every one of them was a blood relation.” The Merlin stepped toward me, and the air in the room suddenly felt hot. His eyes flashed with azure anger and his voice rumbled with deep, unyielding power. “The powers he had used had already broken his mind. We did what was necessary.”

I turned and faced the Merlin. I didn’t push out my jaw and try to stare him down. I didn’t put anything belligerent or challenging into my posture. I didn’t show any anger on my face, or slur any disrespect into my tone when I spoke. The past several months had taught me that the Merlin hadn’t gotten his job through an ad on a matchbook. He was, quite simply, the strongest wizard on the planet. And he had talent, skill, and experience to go along with that strength. If I ever came to magical blows with him, there wouldn’t be enough left of me to fill a lunch sack. I did
not
want a fight.

But I didn’t back down, either.

“He was a kid,” I said. “We all have been. He made a mistake. We’ve all done that too.”

The Merlin regarded me with an expression somewhere between irritation and contempt. “You know what the use of black magic can do to a person,” he said. Marvelously subtle shading and emphasis over his words added in a perfectly clear, unspoken thought:
You know it because you’ve done it. Sooner or later, you’ll slip up, and then it will be your turn
. “One use leads to another. And another.”

“That’s what I keep hearing, Merlin,” I answered. “Just say no to black magic. But that boy had no one to tell him the rules, to teach him. If someone had known about his gift and
done
something in time—”

He lifted a hand, and the simple gesture had such absolute authority to it that I stopped to let him speak. “The point you are missing, Warden Dresden,” he said, “is that the boy who made that foolish mistake died long before we discovered the damage he’d done. What was left of him was nothing more nor less than a monster who would have spent his life inflicting horror and death on anyone near him.”

“I
know
that,” I said, and I couldn’t keep the anger and frustration out of my voice. “And I
know
what had to be done. I
know
it was the only measure that could stop him.” I thought I was going to throw up again, and I closed my eyes and leaned on the solid oak length of my carved staff. I got my stomach under control and opened my eyes to face the Merlin. “But it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve just
murdered
a boy who probably never knew enough to understand what was happening to him.”

“Accusing someone else of murder is hardly a stone you are in a position to cast, Warden Dresden.” The Merlin arched a silver brow at me. “Did you not discharge a firearm into the back of the head of a woman you merely
believed
to be the Corpsetaker from a distance of a few feet away, fatally wounding her?”

I swallowed. I sure as hell had, last year. It had been one of the bigger coin tosses of my life. Had I incorrectly judged that a body-transferring wizard known as the Corpsetaker had jumped into the original body of Warden Luccio, I would have murdered an innocent woman and a law-enforcing member of the White Council.

I hadn’t been wrong—but I’d never… never just
killed
anyone before. I’ve killed things in the heat of battle, yes. I’ve killed people by less direct means. But Corpsetaker’s death had been intimate and coldly calculated and not at all indirect. Just me, the gun, and the limp corpse. I could still vividly remember the decision to shoot, the feel of the cold metal in my hands, the stiff pull of my revolver’s trigger, the thunder of the gun’s report, and the way the body had settled into a limp bundle of limbs on the ground, the motion somehow too simple for the horrible significance of the event.

I’d killed. Deliberately, rationally ended another’s life.

And it still haunted my dreams at night.

I’d had little choice. Given the smallest amount of time, the Corpse-taker could have called up lethal magic, and the best I could have hoped for was a death curse that killed me as I struck down the necromancer. It had been a bad day or two, and I was pretty strung out. Even if I hadn’t been, I had a feeling that Corpsetaker could have taken me in a fair fight. So I hadn’t given Corpsetaker anything like a fair fight. I shot the necromancer in the back of the head because the Corpsetaker had to be stopped, and I’d had no other option.

I had executed her on suspicion.

No trial. No soulgaze. No judgment from a dispassionate arbiter. Hell, I hadn’t even taken the chance to get in a good insult.
Bang. Thump
. One live wizard, one dead bad guy.

I’d done it to prevent future harm to myself and others. It hadn’t been the best solution—but it had been the
only
solution. I hadn’t hesitated for a heartbeat. I’d done it, no questions, and gone on to face the further perils of that night.

Just like a Warden is supposed to do. Sorta took the wind out of my holier-than-thou sails.

Bottomless blue eyes watched my face and he nodded slowly. “You executed her,” the Merlin said quietly. “Because it was necessary.”

“That was different,” I said.

“Indeed. Your action required far deeper commitment. It was dark, cold, and you were alone. The suspect was a great deal stronger than you. Had you struck and missed, you would have died. Yet you did what had to be done.”

“Necessary isn’t the same as
right”
I said.

“Perhaps not,” he said. “But the Laws of Magic are all that prevent wizards from abusing their power over mortals. There is no room for compromise. You are a Warden now, Dresden. You must focus on your duty to both mortals and the Council.”

“Which sometimes means killing children?” This time I didn’t hide the contempt, but there wasn’t much life to it.

“Which means always enforcing the Laws,” the Merlin said, and his eyes bored into mine, flickering with sparks of rigid anger. “It is your duty. Now more than ever.”

I broke the stare first, looking away before anything bad could happen. Ebenezar stood a couple of steps from me, studying my expression.

“Granted that you’ve seen much for a man your age,” the Merlin said, and there was a slight softening in his tone. “But you haven’t seen how horrible such things can become. Not nearly. The Laws exist for a reason. They
must
stand as written.”

I turned my head and stared at the small pool of scarlet on the warehouse floor beside the kid’s corpse. I hadn’t been told his name before they’d ended his life.

“Right,” I said tiredly, and wiped a clean corner of the grey cloak over my blood-sprinkled face. “I can see what they’re written in.”

Chapter Two

I turned my back on them and walked out of the warehouse into Chicago’s best impression of Miami. July in the Midwest is rarely less than sultry, but this year had been especially intense when it came to summer heat, and it had rained frequently. The warehouse was a part of the wharves down at the lakeside, and even the chill waters of Lake Michigan were warmer than usual. They filled the air with more than the average water-scent of mud and mildew and eau de dead fishy.

I passed the two grey-cloaked Wardens standing watch outside and exchanged nods with them. Both of them were younger than me, some of the most recent additions to the White Council’s military-slash-police organization. As I passed them, I felt the tingling presence of a veil, a spell they were maintaining to conceal the warehouse from any prying eyes. It wasn’t much of a veil, by Warden standards, but it was probably better than I could do, and there weren’t a whole hell of a lot of Wardens to choose from since the Red Court’s successful offensive the previous autumn. Beggars can’t be choosers.

I tugged off my robe and my cloak. I was wearing sneakers, khaki shorts, and a red tank top underneath. It didn’t make me any cooler to remove the heavy clothes—just marginally less miserable. I walked hurriedly back to my car, a battered old Volkswagen Beetle, its windows rolled down to keep the sun from turning the interior into an oven. It’s a jumble of different colors, as my mechanic has replaced damaged portions of the body with parts from junked Bugs, but it started off as a shade of powder blue, and that had earned it the sobriquet of the Blue Beetle.

I heard quick, solid footsteps behind me. “Harry,” Ebenezar called.

I threw the robe and cloak into the Beetle’s backseat without a word.

The car’s interior had been stripped to its metal bones a couple of years back, and I had made hurried repairs with cheap lumber and a lot of duct tape. Since then, I’d had a friend redo the inside of the car. It wasn’t standard, and it still didn’t look pretty, but the comfortable bucket seats were a lot nicer than the wooden crates I’d been using. And I had decent seat belts again.

“Harry,” Ebenezar said again. “Damnation, boy, stop.”

I though about getting into the car and leaving, but instead stopped until the old wizard approached and shucked off his own formal robes and stole. He wore a white T-shirt beneath denim Levi’s overalls, and heavy leather hiking boots. “There’s something I need to speak to you about.”

I paused and took a second to get some of my emotions under control. Those and my stomach. I didn’t want the embarrassment of a repeat performance.

“What is it?”

He stopped a few feet behind me. “The war isn’t going well.”

By which he meant the war of the White Council against the Red Court of vampires. The war had been a whole lot of pussyfooting and fights in back alleys for several years, but last year the vampires had upped the ante. Their assault had been timed to coincide with vicious activity from a traitor within the Council and with the attack of a number of necromancers, outlaw wizards who raised the dead into angry specters and zombies—among a number of other, less savory things.

The vampires had hit the Council. Hard. Before the battle was over, they’d killed nearly two hundred wizards, most of them Wardens. That’s why the Wardens had given me a grey cloak. They needed the help.

Before they’d finished, the vampires killed nearly forty-five thousand men, women, and children who happened to be nearby.

That’s why I’d taken the cloak. That wasn’t the sort of thing I could ignore.

“I’ve read the reports,” I said. “They say that the Venatori Umbrorum and the Fellowship of St. Giles have really pitched in.”

“It’s more than that. If they hadn’t started up an offensive to slow the vamps down, the Red Court would have destroyed the Council months ago.”

I blinked. “They’re doing that much?”

The Venatori Umbrorum and the Fellowship of St. Giles were the White Council’s primary allies in the war with the Red Court. The Venatori were an ancient, secret brotherhood, joined together to fight supernatural darkness wherever they could. Sort of like the Masons, only with more flamethrowers. By and large, they were academic sorts, and though several of the Venatori had various forms of military experience, their true strength lay in utilizing human legal systems and analyzing information brought together from widely dispersed sources.

BOOK: Proven Guilty
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