I'd seen a lot of strange things since I first took out an ad in the yellow pages and set up shop as the only wizard in Chicago with a license to investigate. Giant purple monkeys throwing flaming handfuls of their own dung. Queens of Faerie going to war atop a cloudbank. Death by a porn star's Evil Eye, sort of like a souped-up, targeted version of Murphy's Law with a side helping of heaving bosoms and suggestive stage names. And of course no such list would be complete without a mention of Zombie Sue.
I would never forget the amazing adrenaline rush of barreling down the streets of my city with sixty-five million years' worth of predator roaring between my thighs. Neither would Carlos Ramirez, my fellow wizard and Warden of the White Council, who'd been with me on that climactic day, riding an ecto-fleshed tyrannosaur into battle. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that we both agreed our encounter with time traveling aliens-- apparently on the hunt for a rogue wizard transplanted from the future-- was quite possibly the strangest situation either of us had ever faced.
Ramirez didn't actually remember much of his encounter with our extratemporal visitors. They'd come into the restaurant where we were supposed to meet openly carrying strange weapons, two shaped like guns and the third some kind of glowing rectangular box, and when he'd reached for his staff to prepare a defense they'd sent him into la-la land with a blue bolt before he'd even finished gathering his will. He didn't even recall any details of what they looked like; their vivid, primary colored uniforms-- blue, yellow, and red-- had effectively distracted him from noticing any other distinguishing features.
I hadn't had much of a chance to get a look at them myself, since I'd been knocked out nearly as swiftly as Ramirez, mere seconds after I walked in the door and Forzare'd one of the attackers away from Ramirez' slumped body. The most I could say was that the one in blue had greenish skin, black hair, and pointy ears-- and was much too solid to be a refugee from the Nevernever.
Fortunately, he underestimated how quickly a wizard could recover from the weird neck thing he'd done to stun me, and I woke quickly enough to Listen in on a little of his discussion with his comrades. They'd dropped enough clues to tell me they definitely weren't from our timeline-- and one of the other two had a pretty pronounced Scottish accent.
Given the fact that the White Council is headquartered in Scotland, and that time travel is one of the Seven explicitly forbidden uses of magic, that had given me a bit of a pause. Especially considering the fact that recent events had pointed to the existence of a Council within a Council that had much blacker goals in mind for humanity. Okay, so an accent was a bit thin to build an accusation on-- but it really didn't take much, not in that suspicious climate.
What if the rogue the time travelers were tracing was himself a part of the Council, Black or otherwise? Stars and stones, even if he wasn't, and a Warden team caught up to the aliens before the aliens caught their fugitive... would they also chase down the trio's quarry, or would they simply label the three Warlocks and move on to the next fire that needed quenching? The Council's justice had been a little trigger happy since three quarters of their grey-cloaked police force had been wiped out by Red Court vampires.
On the one hand, I could understand the practicality of such slash and burn policies; on the other, the sheer waste of young lives was a constant sour churn in the pit of my stomach. And in the present case, it could be the end of us all, if the aliens hadn't been lying about the fact that their rogue wizard was poised to bring about the end of our world. I couldn't help but think we'd all be better off if I caught up to our technological time travelers sooner rather than later.
I managed to talk Ramirez into attempting to trace them ourselves first, and putting off reporting in until we had some kind of proof either way to offer the Merlin. Not that it took much; I had no doubt Morgan would say I was a bad influence on the kid, but he had more than his share of cowboy tendencies even before we rode a dinosaur together.
We had two main factors in our favor. First, that America overall was extremely under strength for Wardens, so as the local Regional Commanders Ramirez and I would be able to keep the situation fairly close. And second: that the green-skinned guy had left a smear of blood and a few synthetic threads caught on an exposed nail sticking out of the wall I'd knocked him into. It was a very tiny smear, and there were only a couple of threads-- but considering the apparently extraterrestrial origins of the man who'd shed them, I figured it would be more than enough for my purposes. The more unique a thing I was tracking, the easier it was for the magic to zero in on it.
I didn't have time for anything fancy, so I grabbed a salt cellar from the table the aliens had laid me out on and split a pair of those disposable paper-wrapped chopsticks in half. Then I unscrewed the cap of the shaker and poured a line of pale crystals in a circle around me on the restaurant's tile floor, bit my thumb, and squeezed out a drop of blood to activate it. Finally, I tied the scrap of napkin I'd used to collect the greenish blood and blue fibers around the shaft of the chopstick and closed my eyes, murmuring nonsense syllables while I focused on what I wanted to accomplish.
I could practically feel Ramirez' amused gaze on me as I worked. I paid him no mind, though; location magic was one of my specialties, as was magical improvisation. If it could be found, I could find it.
Once the spell was sufficiently set, I opened my eyes, then nudged the line of salt with my sneaker to break the circle. The chopstick immediately jumped in my hands like a dowsing rod, and I nodded to myself in satisfaction.
"Good, they haven't gone far," I said. "Radius can't be more than a few miles."
"A napkin and a chopstick? Really? Harry, we have got to talk about your sense of style," Ramirez snorted, but he fished a set of keys out of his pocket without prompting.
I grinned at him. "Yeah, yeah. You can school me after we find these guys. In the meantime, to the Carlosmobile! Away!"
He made a disgusted face at that, but the jibes had done their work, clearing the last of the cobwebs from our unexpected encounter. We headed for his clunker of a car, parked out behind the Black Pool, and began the trial and error process of seeking three needles in a very large haystack with only a rudimentary compass for guidance. One of these days, I was really going to have to work out a magical version of GPS; I'd seen how useful that could be during the hunt for the Word of Kemmler, when I'd had Butters around to work the technology for me.
In retrospect, I probably should have expected where the spell took us. If we'd just flipped open the phone book and dialed the nearest few cheap motels, we probably could have driven straight to our quarry without wasting the couple of hours we spent to-ing and fro-ing down narrow streets and around unexpected corners. It was, after all, exactly what I did when I arrived in a city out of easy driving range of Chicago: I sought out a new, temporary home base to work from. And if their technology really tracked emanations of "magic" the way their conversation had made it sound rather than anything more personal, they'd have tons of local targets to sift through just within the city limits.
Wizards might have been relatively thin on the ground in the US-- at least, wizards old enough to have any control over their power-- but there were always minor practitioners gathering in any city large enough to be worthy of the name. If our visitors had to check each one of them to make sure they weren't their time traveler-- well, they might have all the time in the world to get it right, but I doubted the Black Council's victims would be able to say the same.
Presuming, of course, that my guess about their target's assumed identity was correct. But in my experience, you can't go wrong living by the old adage: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. And when the potential fallout is dire enough? It might even be saner to simply prepare, and forgo the wishful thinking entirely.
We probably should have contacted at least the Gatekeeper at that point, before walking into the motel room the intruders were occupying. But I didn't want to risk the rest of the Senior Council-- and the army of administrators who supported them-- finding out before I had a good idea of what the consequences might be. And besides-- judging by past experience, Rashid had a tendency to involve himself in advance if I happened to need a nudge regarding events that threatened to overlap his jurisdiction. So really, I figured, the lack of warning from his direction should count as permission to do what I wanted to do anyway.
Logic: I has it.
Ramirez eased the car into the farthest space in the lot of the inaccurately named View Inn, and I unfolded myself from the passenger seat to follow the twitches of the chopstick along the line of external doors. It finally seized up on door number L, which had probably been a 7 before the screw attaching the metal digit to the door had loosened.
"This the one?" Ramirez asked as he came up behind me, extending the fingers of his left hand to ready that weblike green energy shield I'd seen him use in battle against specters and zombies.
I tucked the chopstick into a pocket of my duster and retrieved my blasting rod, grasping it loosely in the fingers of my right hand. With Ramirez covering defense, I was on offense for the evening. Though with any luck, Misters Scott, Spock, and the Captain whose name they'd never spoken in my hearing would be in more of a talking mood than they had been a few hours earlier.
"Yep," I said. Then I summoned a grin for anyone who might be spying out through the peephole and rapped the knuckles of my gloved left hand against the door.
The silence on the other side of the door took on a distinct hushed quality; then a sharp, short phrase that might have rhymed with truck rang out, followed by a flurry of words in the commanding voice that belonged to the one called Captain. He'd definitely recognized us.
Now. I had my suspicions, but there was something I wanted to check....
"Little pig, little pig, won't you let me come in?" I sang out.
The door opened, just to the extent of its security chain, and a blond man closer to Ramirez' height than mine peered out. That's not exactly short, but his gaze still hit around my chin level; he blinked, then looked up and raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin. Though you don't look much like a big bad wolf to me. I'm sorry, who are you?"
He didn't look nearly old enough to be in command of anything, much less be so confident in that brazen reaction-- but he had at least as much presence of personality as the Merlin, if not the magic to back it up. It was a little disconcerting.
Just as well my standard reaction to authority figures is to turn the insouciance up to eleven.
"Not the big bad wolf," I replied mock-politely. "But you're human; and I find that very interesting, since the friend who did a number on my shoulder obviously isn't. Which begs the question, is the wolf you're actually after also human, or something maybe a little easier to pick out of a crowd?"
"What? Aliens?" the Captain snorted. "Do you even know how ridiculous you sound? What's this really about? Are you, what, some kind of salesmen or something?"
Ramirez raised an eyebrow, rolling with the tone of the conversation. "So you didn't just invade my uncle's restaurant looking for a guy whose presence is going to 'initiate' some kind of 'cataclysm'? Huh; I guess I must have hallucinated some other attacker who looks just like you."
He narrowed his eyes at us-- they were a very vivid shade of blue, and combined with the old gold of his hair made me think incongruously of clear skies over the cornfields back on the farm where Ebenezar McCoy had ground down the worst of my rough edges as a teenager-- then stepped back and undid the chain. As the door swung open, it exposed his alien friend, standing behind and slightly to the side of him the same way Ramirez stood flanking me. Mr. Green had acquired a hat sometime since we'd last seen him, a dark knit thing pulled low over the tips of his ears, and there was something very watchful about his body language. Over on one of the beds, another human in red-- probably the owner of the Scottish accent-- hunched over some kind of technological device that projected a 3D grid of the city streets overlaid with glowing dots.
The Captain had turned to engage in some kind of nonverbal conversation with his friend conveyed by shifting eyebrows and shoulders, but after a moment he stepped back, allowing us admittance to the room. "Okay, so maybe we do have something to discuss."
He was bright enough not to invite us in. But not educated enough not to know that there was no threshold on a motel room regardless. They really were clueless about wizards, then. That didn't bode well for their chase.
The alien-- Mr. Spock, by process of elimination-- raised a sharply angled eyebrow at Ramirez and I as the door closed behind us. "How were you able to locate us so swiftly?" he asked, confirming my fear.
"Now that," I temporized, "is a very interesting story. Almost as interesting as yours, perhaps?"
The Captain's eyes narrowed again, possibilities visibly clicking over behind them. "Perhaps," he replied, easily catching my drift.
Negotiation stage: achieved. I carefully tucked my blasting rod away in a pocket and shook out the shields of my bracelet; they wouldn't know what it was, but I felt a little less naked with it ready, even with Ramirez still at my side. Then I took a breath to take stock. Some part of me, that buried part that probably kept Star Wars figurines in addition to his evil goatee, was engaging in the mental equivalent of rolling on the floor laughing hysterically and gasping the word 'alien'; the rest seemed all fired up about the new challenge.
It's possible my instincts might not be the brightest ones in the business.
"Thought so. Call me Dresden. This is Ramirez. And we tracked you using that 'organically enabled electromagnetic manipulation' your friend over there mentioned earlier."
Mr. Scott looked up from his display with a disgruntled expression. "I was expressing my disbelief at the time; but it's hard to argue with hard evidence. We saw you coming." He pointed to a pair of glowing dots on his display. "But what are all these, then? Even assuming you really are magicians, there simply cannae be that many of you around. I refuse to believe we'd never have heard of you before, if that were so."
"You'd be surprised," I said dryly. "Mind telling me exactly why you want to trace someone like us?"
"And what business is it of yours?" the Captain asked, still watching us narrowly. "I admit our introductions were a little hasty; but we got out of your hair without harming you, and now we're going about our own private business."
"Trampling all over our turf in the process," I pointed out. "We're Wardens; a fugitive wizard in our territory is most definitely our business."
"Warden? Is that not a term referring to a guardian, or prison administrator?" Mr. Spock asked, eyebrows lifted.
What, did he have a dictionary in his head? "I'd prefer the former."
"Magic cops. Of course you are," the Captain sighed. Then he extended a hand, dredging another smile up from somewhere. "How about we start over, then, and pretend the restaurant never happened? I'm Jim Kirk. And we're definitely in the market for any assistance you can give us."
I took it, manfully resisting the temptation to out-masculine his grip. "Restaurant? What restaurant?"
"What restaurant, he says," Ramirez muttered to himself, but shook the offered hand, too.
"We'll get to that," I added. "Story first. Why don't you start at the beginning? We're all ears."