Man masters nature not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic failed: because it has looked for no spell to cast over nature. – Jacob Bronowski
“Can I help you?” The man’s enunciation was precise. The tones of the country of his birth held on, long after his removal from those lands. His last customer of the day, browsing still long minutes after the shop had been locked to further patrons looked up from fingering a creamy sheet of parchment.
“Yes,” he responded. The jolt of a taser struck, the owner’s fall dislodging a flutter of sample scraps as he collapsed to the floor.
JJ clicked over to the next picture, the projection screen, as always, impartially presenting gruesome death. “Theodore North. Owned and operated a store specializing in stationary and custom calligraphy. He’s the third murder in four months.”
“How are they connected?” Prentiss asked.
Rossi answered as the screen was changed to show a full set of the victims as found. “All have been discovered in occult derived settings. The level of torture indicated by their Medical Examiner led them to consult us before there was another killing.”
Spencer frowned, leaning into the table to get a clearer look. “Is this the best picture we have? The writing isn’t in focus.”
“It’s the best we have for now,” Hotchner stated, just entering the room. “Chicago PD will have more complete files available when we arrive.”
The FBI team was gathering their usual quota of strange and resentful glances. There was nothing a cop hated more than having to admit that they couldn’t solve their own cases. One of the detectives approached, on the short end of the height range for a cop, offering her hand to Agent Rossi.
“Detective Connie Murphy, thank you for coming.”
He nodded sharply. “Special Agent David Rossi.”
He indicated the other members of the team in turn. “Aaron Hotchner, Agents Prentiss, Morgan, Jerome, and Dr. Reid.”
“Welcome back to Chicago.”
“Back?” Morgan asked, distaste coloring his speech.
“I do my homework,” Murphy offered in defense. “I just wish you hadn’t needed to return professionally.”
“You have a space ready for us to setup?” Hotchner’s question deflected anything Morgan may have said, his discomfort sidelined in favor of their business.
“This way please,” Murphy directed, leading them to the conference room.
“Three murders. Two men, one woman. One Hispanic, one black, one white. One American, two of foreign birth. Three people with no professional, social or accidental connections.”
Prentiss stood, arms crossed, in front of the case board. Murphy, still wary and working on her impressions of the profiling team, leaned against the wall next to the room’s exit.
“We’ve gone through their lives with a fine-toothed comb,” she acknowledged. “Still, no connections we can find.”
“Highly unusual,” Spencer mused. “The ritual style of the kills, the specific methods used on each victim, these indications would uphold the assumption of a serial murder. The difference in victimology…”
As Reid trailed off, Hotchner confirmed, “Typically a serial murder targets a specific victim type. A look, a physical average, even a professional standard.”
“He’s murdered a set,” Rossi interjected.
“A set?” Murphy asked.
“Replacements,” Prentiss clarified. “Stand ins for some cast of persons associated with the reason he’s killing.”
“The question is,” Rossi concluded,” who is left to complete it?”
“So how do we find this guy?”
“Rituals have meaning,” Spencer offered the detective. “If we can determine why he’s killing this way, then that may help identify the unsub.”
He turned his main focus to the Chicago native and away from the case board. “Detective Murphy, I need access to much clearer pictures of the crime scenes. A translation may help.”
“Translation?” She moved closer to the board, joining Dr. Reid as he crossed the room to within touching distance of the pictures.
“This string of symbols here,” he explained, “appear to be Old English. These may be some Welsh and what might be Norse runes are in the next line.”
“Huh,” Murphy vocalized. “I didn’t believe him.”
“Him?” Rossi questioned. He was followed shortly by Hotchner’s, “Him who?”
“Department consultant,” Murphy began.
“How well do you know him?” Prentiss’ interjection immediately put the detective on the defensive.
Murphy answered flatly. “Dresden’s done a lot of good work for this department, so I really don’t appreciate the implication.”
“Detective Murphy?” Spencer’s soft inquiry was enough to draw her attention and disturb the glare she was leveling on Prentiss. “It’s our job to ask,” he explained with a vaguely apologetic tone. “Perhaps I could speak with him directly about his thoughts on the case?”
Murphy had been on the job too long to fall for the defenseless academic routine that Reid was projecting. However, his involvement in the case meant that the FBI would be talking to Dresden eventually. In response, she pulled one of her own business cards from a pocket. With a few quick strokes of a pen to the back of the card, then offered it to Spencer.
“He can usually be found at his office.”
She said nothing else before walking out of the room.
“Defensive,” Prentiss observed to the quite room.
“Reid,” Hotchner began, “follow up with this consultant. Morgan, go with him.”
He turned to the others, “JJ, see if Garcia can dig a little deeper into our victims. The last scene is still intact, we’ll be there. Call if you discover anything pertinent.”
Morgan glanced over as Reid continued to fidget. He would look at Derek, start to speak, and then fall silent.
“Okay, genius,” he finally prompted. “What’s going on in that brain of yours?”
Spencer considered his words one last time. “I think you should wait outside while I speak with Mr. Dresden.”
“Splitting up really hasn’t worked for you in the past.”
Reid flinched, before taking a deep breath. “Dresden’s a wizard of the White Council.”
The cars behind them screeched and honked in protest as Morgan turned the vehicle to the side of the road and slammed it into park.
“What did you just say?”
Spencer heard the constrained fury but couldn’t believe his coworker would hurt him. “Harry Dresden is a wizard of the White Council.”
Reid spoke carefully. “Someone in Chicago is killing with magic which is going to involve the Wardens.” He glanced over, fascinated by the play of knuckles beneath skin as Derek’s hands clenched on the wheel of the idling vehicle.
“I know what happened to your family,” he admitted quietly.
“How?” Morgan almost growled.
Addressing the question sideways, Spencer offered a sacrifice of his own secrets and privacy. “My mother’s care is far from cheap. The money we had left after my father deserted us went for her.”
He could feel the heavy pressure of Derek’s gaze, but kept his blind focus through the windshield. “College isn’t cheap either. Multiple degrees, particularly the PhDs I have, can be financially crippling and scholarships only go so far. So when I received an offer to finance any education I wanted, as long as I also learned their subject of focus, I looked into it. The Venatori Council helped me to be placed in the BAU specifically to watch for crimes that weren’t merely occult, but were,” Reid shrugged, “real.”
The calm, almost mathematically even breathing beside him had Spencer turning in his seat. Morgan was staring out the front window, hands no longer clenched around the wheel, but flexing as they hung limp with wrists balanced atop the leather.
“Last time we were in Chicago,” he began, noting Derek’s flinch, “I was going to tell you. But…”
Derek turned his head to fix Spencer with a hard look and raised eyebrow. “But?”
“Your mother asked me to wait.”
It was phrased as a statement, but Spencer’s nervous tone and the hitch in his voice made it sound like a question. Derek didn’t reply at first. He shifted his focus from Spencer to the front window before shaking his head with a rueful twist of the lips. Still silent, he shifted the vehicle back into drive and eased into traffic.
“Uh, Derek?” Spencer finally prodded.
The black man snorted. “And here I was wondering why she insisted I bring you to dinner before we left town this time.”
Hunched over the crime scene photos on his already cluttered desk, Harry Dresden muttered to himself.
“That is Eihwaz, not Ehwaz.”
The carefully enunciated rebuke came over his shoulder, Bob’s lean drawing him well within any consideration of personal space.
“Ya mind?” Harry drawled, head turned just enough to see his companion’s face. Bob merely raised an eyebrow in reply. Clearly, he very much didn’t mind. He also didn’t budge an inch.
Bracing himself for the sensation, Harry stepped through his former teacher. He brushed the energy off with a shake reminiscent of a wet dog before pulling a book from the shelf. Bob took the opportunity for a closer inspection of the images.
“It’s clearly intended to be a summoning spell. Yet, the language and symbols are entirely garbled.”
“I know that, Bob,” Harry sighed with irritation. “Murphy wants the best translation possible.”
“And she gave it to you?”
Harry’s glower had no effect on the ghost’s humor. Bob simply turned back to the photos. “This section here,” his incorporeal finger went through the page, leaving a tracery of red and gold fire to indicate his interest. “This has promise. Is there a clearer sample?”
Harry’s face flashed with a moment of guilt. He turned away quickly, rummaging on the shelf with aimless disregard as he grunted a response.
“May I see it?” Bob asked with supercilious patience.
Harry froze and turned, face creasing with reluctance. “Uh,” he began before his eyes focused on vague movement outside the glass. “Clients,” he exclaimed thankfully.
“This isn’t finished,” Bob warned, even as his presence dissolved.
Harry took a moment to slide the evidence into a folder before turning to meet the new arrivals. The black man, taller of the pair and dressed as casually if neater than himself, glowered at his home. The other, thin and lanky with an aspect that practically screamed academic, seemed to take the whole space in with barely a glance.
“Harry Dresden?” he asked politely.
“Yes,” Harry acknowledged, suddenly wary.
“Dr. Spencer Reid,” the man offered, stepping forward to shake hands. “This is Agent Morgan, we’re with the FBI.”
“Agent Morgan,” Harry acknowledged, repressing the instinctual hesitation. It was met with a nod and crossed arms. He recognized the set of the man’s features. It said quite clearly that he may not have found anything incriminating yet, but he would continue to look.
Shaking off the memory of years of receiving that exact same look, Harry focused on the younger man. “What can I do for the FBI?”
“We’ve been asked to consult on Detective Murphy’s investigation,” Spencer explained. “I was hoping to see the crime scene photos she gave you to translate.”
“Of course,” he replied. Then, after starting for the file, asked, “Uh, can I see some ID?”
Both men offered it, a trace of amusement showing on Morgan’s part. “Sorry,” Harry apologized, lifting the file from its partial fall of reference material.
“It’s fine, Mr. Dresden,” Spencer reassured, taking the file. His brow furrowed as he flipped through the first few photographs, skimming the handwritten translations already completed.
Spencer looked up, acknowledging Derek’s impatience.
“It’s gibberish,” he explained. “Legible, certainly, but nothing should combine Norse, Old English, and Gaelic in this fashion.”
He flipped another sheet and froze. “Oh dear,” Spencer uttered.
Dresden and Morgan spoke at the same time, curiosity and concern combined.
Reid looked up, meeting the edge of Harry’s gaze for only an instant. “I know why the unsub’s in Chicago,” he blurted out. Then, more composed, he removed that particular photo from the file. “Thank you, Mr. Dresden, for your assistance.”
Spencer hurried, moving across the room to Morgan’s side. “Your assistance has been particularly helpful.”
“I didn’t,” Harry began to object as the men unceremoniously departed. “Well, okay,” he muttered. Looking on the bright side, he didn’t have to hide that particular shot from Bob any longer. The question was, why would the FBI recognize or be concerned about a line of inscription focusing the intent on Rhothbert of Bainbridge?
“Okay, genius,” Morgan interjected as soon as they had reached the privacy of the agency vehicle. “What’d you find?”
Spencer was looking at the crime scene photograph carefully, lips moving as he reviewed a section. “The unsub,” he finally clarified, “isn’t going to achieve any result with magic.”
“Duh,” Derek retorted. ‘
“No, really,” Reid objected. “His theory is flawed, but the purpose is clear.”
“He’s trying to summon Hrothbert of Bainbridge.”
“And who, or what, is that?”
Spencer hesitated. “He’s the uh, subject of an Old English cautionary fable about magic. He’s also…”
When Reid trailed off, Morgan glanced over. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
“He’s a necromancer bound into eternal service to the Morningway family.”
“Eternal as in ghost?” Derek asked, face tight with anxiety. “So why’s this unsub in Chicago? English legend, makes more sense to summon him in England.”
“Dresden is the last surviving member of the Morningway line.”
Reid was silent until Morgan finally asked. “Does Hotch know anything about…” His vague gesture could have indicated the city around them, the traffic blocking their way, but was purely in regards to a world they both knew existed just alongside normalcy.
“No,” Spencer answered quietly. “We’re it.”
“Okay,” Morgan sighed, triggering a speed dial and the speakerphone on his cell phone.
“Dungeon of knowledge,” came Garcia’s chirpy response. “Speak penitent and receive my wisdom.”
“Baby girl,” Derek started. “I have a challenge for you.”
“Lay it on me, hot lips.”
Reid blushed on Morgan’s behalf as the other man continued speaking normally. “I need anything and everything you can find on an English legend about Hrothbert of Bainbridge.”
“Ooh, a quest,” Garcia purred. “Give me twenty.”
As she disconnected, Derek met Spencer’s gaze. “We’ll catch this guy.”
“Detective Murphy,” Hotchner called, “the profile is ready.”
The detective moved to the conference room, trailed by the tall form of Harry Dresden. Kirmani spoke before the FBI agents could object. “Should he…” he started to ask.
“Dresden stays,” Murphy cut him off. A hard look around the room reinforced her dictate.
Rossi nodded, sealing the decision with his approval. “Dr. Reid,” he prompted. “Please get us started.”
“Okay, um,” Reid stuttered, gaze slipping quickly past Dresden slouched against the far wall. “The unsub laid out for us why he’s killing in the evidence left at the crime scenes. Particularly,” he gestured, “this portion here that has been repeated with each of the victims.”
“Yeah, but it’s nonsense,” Kirmani interjected.
“Not to the unsub,” Prentiss corrected the cop.
Spencer explained, “The unsub believes what he’s doing to be effective. That provides its own type of sense.”
When he paused, Hotchner gestured for him to continue. Sharing a look with Morgan, Spencer began speaking again. “The unsub is killing to power a ritual.”
“What kind of ritual?” Murphy asked, paranoia and distaste dripping from every syllable.
Morgan offered the reply. “He believes that murdering these particular people in this fashion will bring him a powerful spirit.”
“Excuse me?” Kirmani drawled, unable to believe what he was hearing from the FBI agents. “You aren’t suggesting that he’s killing people to raise a ghost?”
“We’re not suggesting it, no,” Prentiss answered.
“We’re telling you that’s why he’s doing it,” Rossi added flatly.
Hotchner, belaying Rossi’s antagonism, explained. “Detectives, reality is completely irrelevant to this type of unsub. They are organized, but they are also deep within a delusion. In this situation, the delusion is very specific. If it had been broader, or there were less indications as to the altered mindset, we would not have been able to present a profile this quickly.”
Aaron watched them, Murphy’s silence and Kirmani’s grudging annoyance. His gaze flickered past the sick amusement hiding under Dresden’s features, before he shifted to Reid. “Continue, Dr. Reid.”
Spencer’s hands fluttered for a moment before he slid them into his sweater pockets. The fabric pulled and stretched, the only outward sign of discomfort as the profiler spoke calmly. “In each scene, the unsub gave us the name of his target, from which we were able to tie him to a historical occurrence.”
“And a ghost story will help us catch the guy?”
Hotchner raised an eyebrow at Murphy’s dry question. He answered, “In a word… Yes. Our Technical Analyst was able to access the necessary information from the British Archives. Go ahead, Garcia.”
Waiting patiently on the other end of the phone, Penelope slipped quickly into the data she’d found. “Okay… I’ve got here that Hrothbert of Bainbridge was the supreme bad-ass sorcerer of the dark ages, at least for the British Isles. First recorded reference to that name in folklore surfaces in 1152, though his ghost story isn’t dated until the 1400s. You’ve either got a very old ghost story being retold, or a very old guy turned into a ghost.”
Garcia thankfully couldn’t see the eyes rolling at her commentary. Even if she could, she probably wouldn’t care. There had to be humor to relieve the parts of this job that had her researching facts much worse than old stories.
“So, campers, in 1473, our story begins… A fostered squire supposedly returns to visit his parents at Bainbridge Keep. On arrival, everyone was dead excepting the sorcerer and his wife. I dug further and here is where it gets both hot and creepy.”
“The story continues with the expected medieval morality court. Our boy, Hrothbert, it seems had a pair of apprentices. The first was the previously mentioned wife. The second was her twin brother… According to what I’ve found, he was doing them both.”
Rossi shook his head as Hotchner sighed heavily. “Garcia, is this pertinent?”
“Oh, absolutely supervisory one… See, before he slaughtered the whole town, he killed the brother to bring the sister back to life. This is where it gets creepy. Apparently, the wife killed herself after finding her husband in bed with his male apprentice. Ummm…”
“Garcia, honey,” Morgan prompted.
“I had a name, just a moment ago. Okay, moving on. I’ll find that again. So, wife kills herself, bad-ass uses the lover to bring her back to life. Then, wife kills herself again, no reported reason but I’m guessing probably depressed about her brother… or, you know, having married a gay guy during a time period with no divorce. This time, with no other useful apprentices to kill, we have every living thing in a square mile channeled into the wife.”
Garcia took a deep breath, “And this, my friends, is where creepy turns into way gross. I’ve got two scans coming through to you now. The first is a portrait that supposedly is of our ghost and the doomed apprentices. The second is from the legal stage of today’s story. According to what I’ve found, the ghost was trapped in his own skull after having symbols carved into it while he was still living.”
Prentiss grimaced. “It’s a good thing this is just a story.”
“I know,” Garcia responded quickly. “But wouldn’t this make a great movie?”
“Wrap it up,” Hotchner prompted.
“As you wish, my captain. The moral of today’s lesson. Murder is bad, but revenge never stops. Our poor squire petitions for the trapped soul, but is denied. The siblings had a more powerful family. My guess is your killer thinks he’s some sort of descendant of the squire. And, jackpot, there are the names I had earlier. Winifred and Harold of the Morning Way.”
The slamming of the door echoed breaking the heavy silence that had fallen for a few long seconds, cutting off anything that Garcia was still going to say. Murphy was stony-faced as the FBI agents looked her way, but Dresden was gone.
“Thank you, Garcia,” Hotchner concluded, cutting the connection before she could add anything else. “Reid, Morgan, bring Mr. Dresden back.”
Spinning the computer to share its screen with the rest of the room, one of the images sent by Garcia was open. A woman, lovely and obviously privileged sat on a low stool with her jewel-tone gown spread out around her. Her dark hair was in a complex set of curls and glittering stones. Behind her, there were two men. The first was clearly not her brother. He stood with his right hand on her shoulder. The piercing pale shade of his eyes seemed to stare out of the screen, watching, while the unrelieved dark of his clothing only emphasized the extreme white-blond of his hair. And there, next to the husband on his left side, was the brother. Tall, dark-haired, long-limbed with a captured grace and potential.
“I’d say that he just might be in danger of completing our unsub’s set.” Hotchner concluded, while Harry Dresden’s eyes stared out of a centuries old portrait.
The office door slammed open, ricocheting back into its jamb as a burst of magic rattled it closed and locked.
“Hrothbert of Bainbridge, I summon you!”
The bellow of command rebounded off the uncovered surfaces of the workplace, resonating back into the areas deemed living space.
In a burst of red-gold light, the afore-mentioned appeared. His features twisted into prissy indignation, he began, “Really, Harry, there is certainly no need…”
But he was cut off before he could finish his sentence.
Bob’s head jerked back as if he had been corporeal enough to be slapped. Wary now and worried, he watched Harry closely.
Dresden paced, up and down the length of the front office. As he did, faint blue sparks twitched at the ends of his fingers.
It seemed ages as the silence deepened. Harry’s pacing drew the air in the room taught. Finally, he spun on his heel, staring at Bob.
“Winifred was a Morningway.”
The simple statement was almost whispered. Yet, the intensity of his voice couldn’t be denied. Wincing, Bob closed his eyes and leaned his head back for a moment. But there was no entity who would answer the prayers of one such as he. He straightened in a micro movement that seemed oddly formal. Hands hanging free at his sides moved so that fingers could interlace behind his back.
Holding Harry’s angry gaze, Bob finally nodded in one short motion.
“Did you ever love her,” Harry accused with a question. “Or was that part of the fairy tale made up to cover you fucking her brother?”
Amazingly, Bob’s pale complexion colored slightly. His mouth twitched, then opened as if ready to reply but then found himself unable.
Harry’s name was spoken before he could demand an answer. Spinning in place, he scowled. “Morgan, how incredibly inconvenient to see you.”
The warden moved from inside the door to cross the room towards Harry. “Your domestic squabbles are none of my concern, Dresden. As a Warden of the White Council, my responsibilities eclipse your petty disputes.”
“Right now, Morgan,” Harry replied, emotion making him reckless. “I don’t really care.”
In an instant, the warden’s sword was at Harry’s throat. They were well-matched in height, but the pressure of the blade had Harry’s head tilting back to avoid the razor sharp edges.
“Have a care, Dresden…”
In what seemed to be a continuing theme, Morgan’s further words were cut off by a demand from the door.
“Drop the sword and put your hands up!”
Morgan froze as Harry’s eyes flicked to the side. Reid stepped into the line of sight, weapon out but lowered. It hadn’t been his voice which had spoken.
Lowering his sword, the warden turned slowly with his arms out to the side. He spoke slowly, with assurance. “You would not shoot me.”
Agent Derek Morgan stared at the other man, temptation roiling behind his eyes. His finger twitched before sliding away from the trigger. “Nothing,” he paused, “would give me more satisfaction.”
Seeing the truth in those eyes, the warden nodded. With one last warning to Dresden, “Cooperate fully with the investigation. The Council has no desire to see this inquiry spread,” Morgan vanished.
Spencer frowned, looking over the room. “He disappeared.”
Derek holstered his gun, still scowling. “Yeah, he’s good at that. Mr. Dresden.” Turning his attention, the agent began to address their reason for following the other man. “You and your companion…”
And Derek’s voice trailed off. “Uh, Spence?”
Spencer had already holstered his weapon. “Mr. Dresden, Sorcerer Bainbridge.”
Blinking, Morgan looked at Reid. “What?”
Spencer shrugged, looking to Harry. “Mr. Dresden, we have a few questions.” After a pause, he added, “For both of you.”
Exhausted, confused, and still twitching at the fingertips, Harry dropped onto his couch at the side of the room. “You’re not the only ones. You might as well speak to them, Bob.”
Clearly biting off the urge to let Harry have the brunt of his temper for his Uncle Justin impersonation, Bob turned instead to the FBI agents. Nodding in greeting, his lips had that twist of superior knowledge as he greeted, “It has been a long time, has it not? I trust it is Doctor now, young Spencer?”
Reid nodded, silent. The look that Morgan sent his way promised a very long, very in depth conversation later.
“And Derek Percival Morgan,” Bob continued, turning to face the other agent. “The last time I saw you, you were barely seven years old.”
From the couch, Harry lifted his head off the back to ask, “What?”
When it didn’t seem Bob was about to clarify these new revelations, Harry turned his confusion and frustration to the FBI agents. Morgan, a man growing more familiar by the instant, was standing with his arms crossed glowering at Harry’s ghost. Spencer, Dr. Reid he corrected himself with a shake of the head at the kid’s obvious youth, turned to face him.
“Mr. Dresden,” Spencer began.
Harry held up a weary hand. “Can we drop all the mister crap? If you know his name,” he pointed at Bob, “then I’d say we’re a few steps ahead of strangers.”
Spencer seemed uncomfortable, but shrugged his agreement. “Derek and I are the only members of the BAU team assigned to this case who are aware of its,” he paused, “particularly complicated nature. The person that is committing these crimes is doing them without true magic, but in such a way that it endangers the secrets of the Councils.”
“Councils, plural?” Harry asked. “You,” he pointed at Reid, “are definitely not with the White Council. And you,” he pointed at Morgan, “I have no clue.”
“I,” Derek retorted, shifting his glower to Dresden, “am waiting in the car. Spence, don’t talk all day.”
Spencer looked away for an instant, flushing lightly at the familiar jibe as the other agent left. Harry looked between the door and the doctor, feeling things click slightly in his head.
“It’s very important that you return to the station with us. We have reason to believe that your life is in danger.”
“Kid,” Harry sighed, standing up. “My life is always in danger.”
Spencer turned his persuasion from Harry to Bob. “The scion of Squire Jameson is the murderer we’re tracking here in Chicago.”
All the animation, all the life if he’d had any, sank out of Bob’s features. “Harry,” he spoke tunelessly. “Please, if you bear me any residual affection, let them protect you. This is not a matter for magic.”
Harry wasn’t completely appeased from his earlier tirade, but the plea was clear enough to give him pause. “I can take care of myself.”
“The unsub is mundane,” Spencer broke in quietly. “Self defense against him would be considered a violation of the first law of magic… A violation I don’t believe you can afford.”
Harry looked at the agent, then shifted his gaze to Bob. There was sorrow in that cold, pale stare. Sorrow and the deep heat of regret bound by time.
“Fine,” Harry settled. “I’ll go. But,” he pointed with a forefinger at Bob, “you are going with me.”
With the inclination of his head, Bob’s manifestation disappeared in red and gold smoke from the feet up. “Thank you,” he whispered, lower body already dissolving, just before swirling completely into a mist that streamed into the eye sockets of his skull.
Harry blinked rapidly, silent for a long moment as he lifted Bob’s skull. Placing it in the travel bag used only for this purpose with a care that belied his earlier anger, he inquired, “So what’s your story?”
“I’m a member of the Venatori Council,” Spencer admitted.
“Ah,” Harry nodded to himself. “Books and flamethrowers.”
Spencer shrugged, “Not my division, but we do what we can.”
“You’ve met Bob, before.”
It was obvious enough that Spencer stared at Dresden for an instant longer than polite. Finally, he clearly decided to answer the question. “Justin Morningway wanted access to the archives for research. Sorcerer Bainbridge’s knowledge was the coin he paid.”
Scanning the apartment for anything else that he would require, Harry gathered this information into his worldview. It was possible that research had been exactly what his uncle had intended to use against the White Council.
“You seem kinda young to have been involved.”
“I have a perfect eidetic memory,” Spencer concluded. “And we need to go now.”
Derek watched the pair, FBI and wizard, exit the front shop doors. Damn, but this case was clinging to what felt like his last nerve. Their last to trip to Chicago was bad enough, but here were the even darker secrets of his childhood pushing to the surface.
“C’mon, Reid,” he whispered, urging them with his mind into a faster pace. The sooner this unsub was in custody, the better.
Their offices were a haven, away from the barely controlled insanity of magic.
Derek just wasn’t sure how it affected things to know that Spencer was part of that. The young man, orphaned by circumstance, balanced on the edge between reality and most people’s fantasy. That the fantasy was real only made it all the more dangerous.
But, then again, he’d finally met someone who would understand everything from his past.
The thought passed in a flicker, banished to the part of his mind that dealt with the personal. A part securely locked away during this case.
“Dammit, come on…”
It wasn’t quite a whisper this time. Nearly a demand, Derek shifted in his seat. Perhaps he could hurry them along with a bit of well-placed physical escort.
The screech of tires coming to an abrupt stop hurried his exit from the FBI vehicle. The sharp ozone scent of a taser hung in the air as he crossed behind the car. Barely pulling his leg out of the street, Derek cursed as the vehicle that had halted so quickly spun wheels to pull away.
And, fuck, that was Dresden’s head lolling against the passenger window.
The shout caused the younger agent, stiffly climbing from the concrete of the sidewalk, to look up.
“I’m okay,” he answered, not nearly as loud as Morgan was quickly at his side. The quick run of hands, checking for broken bones or bodily fluids were pushed away.
“It’s the unsub,” Spencer clarified. “He has Dresden.”
“I saw,” Derek nodded. “What?”
His gaze shifted to the bag Spencer was cradling carefully as he stood. Spencer glanced down, face twisting at the feel of the sharp dimensions of a skull that had been shoved into his grasp.
“Jameson might have given him up for this…”
The devotion exemplified by Dresden’s sacrifice of himself for an eternal being prodded at Spencer’s memory. There was something in the Venatori files that made sense with this new factor, but he just didn’t have the time to stop and find it in the copious files of his knowledge.
“Come on,” Derek prompted. The hurrying hand he kept at Spencer’s back was gentler than would have been expected. “Someone’s going to have to pull Dresden’s ass out of the fire.”
“This is bad,” Prentiss summed up.
“Exactly,” Rossi responded. “If the unsub finishes his set here, there’s no telling where or when he’ll reappear.”
Kirmani, sensitive as ever, interjected. “But, if this is the guy’s delusion, won’t it end with Dresden?”
Hotchner’s glare chastised the police detective. “An unsub of this type is rarely satisfied by their own actions. Even if Mr.
Dresden’s death bought a short period of inaction, eventually the delusion will reassert itself.”
“And at that point,” Morgan summed up. “It starts all over again, more dead bodies as he builds a new set. Only that time, there’d be less to go on.”
“So how do we get him back?” Murphy asked, practicality at the forefront.
Reid allowed himself to be ignored, staying at the side of the room. The sigils on the dark blue bag that Dresden had so urgently handed over clearly had a purpose. No one had questioned what he carried, much less even noticed. The object inside, the blunt edges of bone, warmed under his fingers. He wondered if it was the edge of fantasy that it shivered with vibration.
“That’s it,” Hotchner finally directed. “Garcia has two possible addresses for our suspect. Rossi, Prentiss, you’ll take the first. Detectives Murphy and Kirmani will accompany me to the second. Morgan, Reid, there is a property belonging to the Morningway family on the outskirts of the city, check that. Any team that makes contact, observe and wait for backup.”
Spencer glanced across the vehicle when Derek spoke. The agent’s hands were wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. Lights off, they parked outside the range that the mechanical noises would be heard.
Biting back the question as to how Derek knew, Reid only nodded. “Hotch is going to need specifics on location.”
“We’ll get it,” Morgan confirmed. “You gonna leave him in the car?”
Spencer glanced down at the bag he still carried. “Should I? He might be helpful.”
“And if the team shows up and sees him? That’ll be hard to explain.”
“Yeah,” Spencer sighed quietly. “Sorry about this,” he whispered, settling the wrapped object carefully into the foot well.
When they were standing outside, the early night air cool with a breeze, Morgan locked the vehicle doors. Reid smiled, shaking his head at his obvious nerves. Derek simply patted him on the shoulder.
“Come on, genius.”
The property seemed to be in an atypically cared for, yet abandoned, state…. At first. Then, there were the faint signs of human presence.
Morgan laid his hand on the hood of the car. Familiarly, it was the one that they had seen on the street. “Still warm.”
Spencer nodded, pulling out his cell phone. He huddled into himself, Derek scanning their surroundings as he called the team. Hotchner took the information, confirming that his location was empty. Knowing he would call Rossi and Prentiss, Reid disconnected.
“Do we wait?”
He asked it hesitantly, unsure of Morgan’s response. Protocol and procedure said they waited. It said backup was required, necessary and advised. But, there was something teasing at the back of Spencer’s mind.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Derek finally answered. His whole body shivered for an instant before a deep breath seemed to re-center him. “There’s something going on here, Spence. Something that wasn’t at the other crime scenes.”
Nodding, Reid moved with him as they entered the residence.
The halls were quiet. They echoed with the sense of emptiness and neglect. This was never a home, never anything but a cold collection of walls and roof.
Morgan jerked his head, Spencer covering him as they proceeded around corners. There was light, flickering and faint at the end of the hall. The slow progress down was methodical. There was no way to know if the unsub was armed. They knew he had been willing to use a taser on his captive. They knew earlier victims had been eviscerated with sharp objects.
But there was no way to know if the unsub was also armed with a gun.
The open arch led into a large open space. Wood floors, vacant except for a shrouded piano on a dais at the far end. A ballroom.
And in the center, lashed to the floor in some fashion, was Harry Dresden. A gag, obvious as he shifted his head futilely, was tied tight enough to strain the skin at the sides of his mouth. His limbs were outstretched, ending at the points of a design drawn carefully on the floor.
Spencer gulped, eyes widening as he made out portions of the design from here. “This pattern… it’s not gibberish.”
“I know,” Derek confirmed quietly. His hands wanted to shake. Only the discipline and training wrought into him by the FBI kept the tremors away. His mind remembered this setup. This was what separated the choices available to him as he was now from the lives of people like Dresden.
“We can’t wait for the team,” Morgan summed up.
Spencer nodded. With a shared glance, they stepped into the room. Covering opposite sides, they paced off the length of the room. There were no entrances, no cover, beyond the halfway point. Turning back to keep his view on the entrance they’d come through, Morgan jerked his head.
“Reid, get him loose.”
Spencer stepped up, meeting the slightly panicked eyes. Dresden could barely shift in his bindings. Bindings that seemed to be wooden, arisen from the floor itself.
“I can’t enter the circle.”
“What?” Derek asked.
“I can’t enter the area… I’m null, damn it. I don’t have any talent and he’s gotten these markings correct.”
The panic was beginning to edge into Spencer’s voice. He kept it low, but it was definitely there. For the insanity they dealt with on any number of cases, very rarely did they face true power.
“I thought he couldn’t do this.”
“He’s…” Spencer’s eyes carried an empathic regret when he admitted, “he’s channeling it through Dresden. I have no idea how, not without research. There’s no telling how long he’s been working on this, how many of his ancestors dreamed of having a Morningway at their mercy.”
Morgan took a deep breath and then jerked his head towards the archway. “Cover me.”
Switching places with Reid, his weapon now aimed as he watched for their unsub, Morgan stepped closer to the markings. “Talk me through this, Spence.”
“Are you certain?”
“My father’s an asshole, but I was born to this world before...” Derek’s voice trailed off, then hardened into business. “What do I do first?”
Spencer breathed deep, mind scrolling back through years of alternative training that had no practical use for him. He kept his weapon steady as he found the information he wanted in the encyclopedia of his memory.
“Step inside the outer circle at the southernmost point. Cross to the eastern candle and step through the second containment circle at the…” Spencer’s voice paused.
“At the…?” Derek prompted.
“The sideways infinity with the crosshatching through it.”
“The resolve at the end of the first aspect,” Morgan huffed out, following the direction. “You can be technical, I had four years of this shit before it became useless.”
Spencer nodded, an action unseen as he was turned away. “Enter the final circle, without touching the pentagram. If you erase the sigils beside his wrists, the shackle should return to the floor.”
Morgan’s foot moved, a quick swipe smudging the chalk away. Dresden screamed, the sound muffled by the fabric gag, but the wood withdrew… both from around his wrist and the spike that had gone through it. The wood reverted to the floor, Harry’s blood gleaming wetly on the surface.
Frowning, at the sound that may alert their unsub and the clear pain wincing across Dresden’s features, Derek paced a deliberate trail of steps around the bound man’s body. He paused, meeting the wizard’s eyes when he reached the other arm.
Dresden seemed to brace himself, nodding slightly as he clenched his teeth down on the gag.
This time, as the wood withdrew, it was a low groan of agony that was mostly muffled.
“He can’t get up.”
Derek looked up, meeting Spencer’s glance over his shoulder with a dull, “what?”
Harry’s resigned grimace from the floor asked the same question, but he held still for the time. He couldn’t see the sigils surrounding him, the Venatori could, for the moment he had to wait. Not that he had ever been any good at that.
“The possession markings. You need to disturb them.”
Reid had turned back to cover the arch. Morgan glanced at the floor, at Dresden, then back at Spencer.
“Uh, Reid?” he finally prompted. “I didn’t get quite that far…”
Spencer turned, attention shifting as he gestured with the hand that no longer cupped the bottom of his weapon’s grip. “The runes, backwards alphabetically, erase the…”
His further explanation was delayed as a figure appeared at the arch.
Derek’s warning was too late. The man had barely stepped into the light, arm raised, too quick for Spencer to turn back and re-aim. The retort of the pistol echoed in a room designed to both embrace and spread the sound of celebration and fun.
But this wasn’t a joyous sound. His movement kept the bullet from piercing his heart, but Spencer was slumping to the floor, bloodstain spreading across his left shoulder.
“My father warned me that we would never have the power of the Morningway’s,” the unsub spoke as he stepped closer. “But we have other talents.”
At first glance, he was the type of man you wouldn’t worry about. But how many of the very human monsters they hunted actually showed their true self… He was unassuming, taller than average, but shorter than obvious. His hair was mousy, carefully and neatly combed. Nothing about the discount store polo shirt and worn jeans would have drawn even a moment of attention on the street.
In this room, armed with the look of a fanatic, pistol out and ready, he was a threat. No less for the potential danger they couldn’t see.
“Jameson, listen to me,” Morgan tried, moving slowly back around the inside of the circle.
“Why?” The unsub asked. “My family has faced this injustice for more than five centuries… Don’t tell me that the mundane authorities are going to make it all better.”
“What you’re doing,” Derek reasoned. “This isn’t going to make it right.”
His first hope was dashed. The unsub had gotten close enough to Spencer to knock his weapon away. And he’d clearly nicked something in the younger man’s shoulder. Anytime the agent moved his hand from the staunchest pressure, blood seeped freely around his fingers.
Morgan stalled for time, for inspiration, hoping that the unsub wasn’t watching his feet as he crossed out the runes in the appropriate order with his shuffling step.
“If not the FBI, Jameson, you can make your case to the White Council?”
“The Council,” Jameson scoffed. “It was the Merlin who damned my family. He who sold his children to that devil… and then refused my forefathers the right to their revenge.”
“That was a very long time ago,” Morgan enunciated clearly. He waited, watching for the unsub to make a mistake. For his aim to waver, for him to turn away, anything that would make an opportunity.
“Memory is all we have,” the unsub growled. “Revenge is finally in my grasp.”
He refocused his aim, purposefully lowering it to Dresden. Morgan stepped aside, taking out the last of the signs and almost dancing past the boundaries of the circle. Dresden rolled to his feet, head moving out of the blast range as the bullet dug a deep gouge into the wooden floor of the ballroom. He’d sat up as smoothly as an acrobat, clutching his wounded wrists close to his chest.
But as he moved to step out of the circle, it flared a deep purple.
Jameson’s laugh echoed in the ballroom, slipped from the restraints of sanity. “It’s too late!”
The moment of distraction was all Morgan needed. In a lunge, he’d knocked the pistol from the unsub’s grip and forced him to the ground.
“The sacrifice is given!”
“Shut up,” Morgan growled, cuffing Jameson’s hands behind his back. Immobilized sufficiently for the moment, Derek scrambled across the slick floor to his coworker’s side. “Come on, Reid. Not like this.”
Spencer groaned, letting the other agent prop him upright to try and slow the bleeding. His sweater sacrificed to start and bind the wound.
“Uh, guys? Little help here?”
Dresden’s voice cut into the tight knit moment. Derek and Spencer both turned to the circle, watching with wide eyes as it began to fill with pale smoke. The wizard was beginning to look panicked, clutching his still bleeding wrists in opposite hands even as he paced the interior for a way out.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Spencer whispered, distraught.
“Bullshit,” Derek refuted. “He’s fully trained. The drain will kill him.”
“It’s not a drain, not any longer.” Reid met Morgan’s concerned glance. “It’s a transportation portal.”
“Fuck,” Derek responded. Rising to his feet, he crossed to the circle and began to pace it’s outer edge. Outside, the faint echo of sirens could be heard. “Okay, wizard, how do we get you out?”
The smoke, filling past knees and quickly rising to his hips, echoed the pale desperation on Harry’s face. “You don’t,” he spoke with a false calm.
“Bullshit,” Derek again asserted. “Transportation spell. No focus, right?”
Dresden’s eyes narrowed. His chuckle was bitter and self-congratulatory in the same moment. “I knew I recognized that ‘you’ve done something, I just have to figure out what’ look.” He paused for a moment, face tightening in pain as the smoke hit his wrists before finishing with, “Didn’t know Morgan had any kids.”
Faced with the other man’s possible death, or worse, Derek gave in just a bit. “He probably wishes the same. I’m not exactly home.”
The short exchange triggered an instant of thought in Spencer’s head, mute witness so far to the implacable events unfolding. “Home,” he concluded. “Dresden!” His holler broke the intent look built between wizard and might have been. “Focus on home!”
Harry closed his eyes, tilting his head back for a last breath of clear air. As the smoke swirled up to cover the last of his body, the tight lines around his eyes spoke of a deep internal focus.
And then the circle was gone.
But so was Dresden, the vapor that had encompassed him, and all but the last of the chalk markings on the floor.
The rumble of running feet echoed down the corridor, carried with the other agents calling for them.
“Where’d he go?” Derek asked, moving back to Spencer’s side to try and get him to his feet. Jameson lay still, bound on the floor and occasionally laughing to himself.
There was a dark hint of knowledge around Dr. Reid’s normally straight forward gaze. “Home.”
“I remember enough that home isn’t a place,” Derek refuted, as the demands of their profession began to spill into the room. Calls for an ambulance were well-placed as Spencer was paler than usual from blood loss.
“To whatever he considers home,” Reid corrected, as they were moved apart by duty.
“I don’t accept this,” Murphy flatly stated, still angry.
“Be that as it may, detective,” Hotchner attempted to calm her. “The case is resolved. While Mr. Dresden’s statement would be preferred, I am accepting the word of my agents that he was able to flee the scene when they arrived.”
“Absolute crap,” she responded. “Harry wouldn’t run away.”
Aaron sighed. “Sometimes, Ms. Murphy, people just need to get away after an experience like this.”
She turned her back on him, not the first time it occurred and certainly not to be the last. But the case had been solved, the suspect in custody, and the collateral damage as limited as it could be. His gaze darted over Dr. Spencer Reid, his arm in a sling and heavy bandaging on his shoulder. The careful hovering of Agent Morgan was unlikely, but not a complete surprise to the team of profilers as they traded small grins and directed each other’s attention at the pair.
Aaron turned, his attention shifting more fully onto Agent Derek Morgan. “Yes?”
“Just, thank you. The recommendation meant a lot to me. Interim or not, man, this will give me a chance to spend some time with my family.”
Hotchner nodded tightly, sorry to see such a valuable member of their team go. “You earned it, Morgan. And you’ll be working hard here. There’s noise coming up about heavy mafia influence moving into the area.”
“Hey,” Derek spread his arms. “It is Chicago.”
Penelope seemed unashamed of the tears rolling down her cheeks. “I still don’t see why you have to go? It’s not going to be the same, first Derek and now you?”
Spencer ducked behind his hair, one hand dipping into the rucksack slung around his neck. A sack that no one ever seemed to notice was bulkier than usual. “I need a break.”
“But you’ll be all alone!”
Garcia was short enough to see the flush that darkened pale cheeks. “Unless,” her mind clicked over rapidly. “You wouldn’t be taking this leave of absence anywhere near Chicago? Maybe near the new Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago office named Derek Morgan?”
“I’m really going to miss you, Garcia,” Spencer admitted.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she exclaimed, drawing him into another hug. “Be good to each other.”
Spencer rattled the key in the door, slipping past the wards as a whisper against his skin. With the wizard so far from his residence, the power of the protections was greatly lessened.
Another thing to go on his lengthening list of to do. Reid sighed as he removed the skull from its bag and set him on the table.
“Okay, sir. It’s safe to come out.”
Manifesting from smoke that poured out the eye sockets of his former cranium, Rhothbert of Bainbridge rather unnecessarily straightened his waistcoat.
“As I have said, young Spencer, you hardly need to address me as sir.”
“I didn’t think calling you Bob would be appropriate.”
Regret darkened the specter’s features. “No, I thank you for the consideration. But, perhaps, Robert would be a pleasant moniker for our association.”
Spencer nodded. “The Councils are in agreement. I will retain protective custody of all Wizard Dresden’s possessions until his return.”
There was an unusual hesitation in the sorcerer’s manner. “Do we know when this will occur?”
“The Venatori are researching, but it’s hard to tell.”
Robert, as currently named, nodded decisively. “Then we shall strive to maintain Harry’s domain during his absence.”
Spencer, trying his best to comfort the centuries dead, added “He was safe there.”
“The chatelaine, I presume?”
Nodding to the raised eyebrow, Spencer allowed him to finish his conclusions.
“I always suspected his education to be beyond the usual,” the ghost concluded. “I assumed him to be a Council spy. White, not Venatori, of course.”
“The Venatori don’t spy,” Spencer objected.
“No,” Robert continued. “You observe and record.”
Reid shrugged an acknowledgement, “Those records still say he was safe there.”
As Spencer turned away, Robert’s face creased in pain. His prayers, unlikely to be answered, still drifted on the wings of thought.
“As safe as anyone ever was with me,” was cast into the empty silence of a wizard’s home, when that wizard was far from it.
early Fifteenth century
Pain. Heat. Pressure.
The urge to scream cramped around itself and caught. His voice refused to respond. His muscles were locked, body constrained by magic. Trapped, caught, unable to fight or flee.
It lasted for seconds, hours, eons. He couldn’t tell.
Until, suddenly, it was over. Cold water closed around him, instantly beginning to soak into his clothes as his aborted screams transformed into furious bubbles.
The absence of agony was its own pleasure as Harry followed the bubbles and moved to the surface of the water. At least he wasn’t hurting. And, though cold, it didn’t feel like the portal had dumped him in Lake Michigan.
Treading, his boots moving sluggishly through the water, Harry picked the closest shore and started an awkward stroke to bring himself closer. Blessing his height, he soon reached an area to place his feet on the shifting muck found at the bottom of natural water sources.
Streaming water, Harry waded for the shore. Only to stand, still hip deep, staring around himself.
Trees, but not like trees he was accustomed to seeing. These were big trees. Very. Big. Trees. Trees with a dense undergrowth and well established trunks. These were trees that didn’t feel like city trees.
“Oh, shit,” Harry muttered to himself, wondering exactly where he was.