"Behold the Lord High Executioner
A personage of noble rank and title--
A dignified and potent officer,
Whose functions are particularly vital!
To the Lord High Executioner!"
--Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado
Age: 118 / Year: 2002
Donald Morgan made a deliberate fist with his right hand, then his left. Fingers, check, all present and in working order. He methodically went through every joint in his body, finding everything accounted for. So why did he feel as hollow and lifeless as the corpse before him?
One hundred eighteen years.
Sometimes he felt so old he marveled that his bones hadn't ground to powder, his muscles hadn't atrophied into useless ropes of grizzled sinew. Yet here he remained, idly wondering how someone celebrates a sesquicentennial and how he continued to inhabit the broad-shouldered body of a man a fraction of his age.
Humans aren't meant to live this long. Not by a long shot.
Age: 12 / Year: 1896
The body lay in state, focal point of the great arena. The processional line had begun well over two hours ago, but only now was it broaching the halfway point, where he and Warden Luccio stood. It seemed the entire membership of the White Council (and a not inconsiderable number of Accorded dignitaries) had gathered here in Constantinople to honor the death of the Merlin, and it seemed every official--no matter how minor in standing--wished to take a turn eulogizing the fallen leader.
An eternity passed, carried on the backs of rich, rolling Latinate syllables. Some of the delegates spoke with the eloquence of Cicero, yet a disappointing number failed to stir their audience, despite the rich source material of the life of Mustafa Aydin. They droned on in what increasingly became a matter of personal vanity than a meaningful remembrance of the great Turk. Some fourteen speeches into the memorial, Morgan found himself hopelessly bored, distracted by the slightest provocation. All around him, the exotic faces and costumes of a hundred different cultures jockeyed for his attention. The brown wool of his robe was stiflingly hot and intolerably scratchy, and he tried his best not to fidget.
Warden Luccio gave him a stern look and angled her head deliberately in the direction of the latest speaker, radiating disapproval. Morgan ducked his head, chagrined, and glanced aside at the other apprentices near him to see if any had noticed the rebuke. To his relief, most of his peers were either obediently watching the speaker or looking at something else entirely and hadn't witnessed the exchange. The girl immediately behind him, however, had.
She regarded him with an expression part sympathy, part quiet amusement, and she rolled her eyes in a demonstration of solidarity, which made Morgan frown and draw himself up in a more dignified posture. At that, the girl's shoulders shook almost imperceptibly with silent laughter, and she covered her mouth to hide her smile.
She was a strange-looking creature. He dimly remembered being introduced to her a year or so ago, when she and a number of others were brought on as apprentices: Janice or Genevieve or Jillian or similar. She had a striking face, her nose a little too long and her mouth too wide to adhere to conventional standards of beauty. Her oversize brown robe looked somewhat comical on her skinny, coltish form, and her bushy blonde hair was tamed into twin braids, but her cloudy grey eyes sparkled with utterly inappropriate mirth. Morgan turned his back on her as deliberately as Luccio had him a moment before, fixing his attention on the speaker, though he couldn't help but overhear the amused exhale he received in response.
The line continued to move at a crawl until finally, he reached the coffin. Luccio bowed her head and murmured a brief prayer in Italian, crossing herself, then laid a hand on the Merlin's. For a moment, her eyes carried the full weight and sadness of a century of experiences, then it was gone again, as her stoic attention returned to the speaker.
Being relatively new to the Council, Morgan had only seen the Merlin before on a small handful of occasions. However, it was unsettling how little this man resembled the powerful, confident figure he remembered. The physical features were all the same, certainly, but he had no recollection of the big Turk favoring the stifling, high-collared fashion he would soon be cremated in. This clothing beneath his robes of office was impeccably starched and pressed. In death, he looked disapproving and stern, a marked contrast from the charismatic, compassionate leader he had so briefly known.
Morgan couldn't suppress the shiver that went up his spine at the thought. It was not so much the traditional rude awakening that he, too, would age and die, but instead the dawning awareness of how profoundly death changes the way a man is remembered. Already, the memories of the man as he had been in life were losing clarity, subverted by the more immediate vision of a pallid, expressionless face with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks.
As the ancient, rheumy figure at the dais drew her speech to a close, and the assembled wizards applauded, the girl drew up behind him. She studied the Merlin's bloodless face, his folded hands, and frowned. To Morgan's mute alarm, she cautiously extended a finger and lifted aside the Merlin's high collar… revealing a savagely mutilated neck.
Morgan had known that he had fallen while battling a scourge of Black Court vampires, but that knowledge hadn't prepared him for the sight his fellow apprentice revealed. The girl inhaled sharply, eyes wide, and hastily withdrew her hand, concealing the gore once again. She met Morgan's gaze for a brief, terrified moment, then hastily returned to her seat.
For the rest of the service, Morgan was much more able to focus on the speakers. He listened to the content of their words, studied what aspects of the Merlin's life and philosophy they chose to emphasize. He paid particular attention to the elder wizards, in line for the newly vacated position on the Senior Council, and the Senior Council members themselves, each a candidate for the new Merlin, and found a single commonality: some concealed it better than others, but the eulogies were more campaign speeches than anything else.
He mused on the wonderful and terrible power death held, to move men to action and to raise the stakes of a particular moment in history. A dead man's legacy was written by his survivors, and to command such power over the hearts and minds of future generations was a daunting prospect. It was dangerous game, controlling the dead.
And suddenly, he found himself thinking again of the girl who, for a brief moment, shattered the illusion of the Merlin's groomed corpse and reminded him of the true reality of his death, and therefore of his life as well.
He spotted her easily in the crowd. She too was watching the speaker, a slight frown creasing her forehead, but after a moment she seemed to realize she was being watched. She looked around, sighted him, and offered him a curious look.
Using subtle movements, mindful of those around him, he jerked his head in the direction of the casket. The girl bowed her head in polite deference to the fallen wizard, then looked once more at Morgan, still mildly puzzled. Morgan craned his neck forward to indicate her, then inclined his head in a gesture of thanks.
The girl quirked her head and gestured to herself, as if unsure if she were understanding him correctly. When Morgan nodded in confirmation, she smiled back, warm and genuine and slightly bashful. Then he felt Luccio's grip on his wrist and a finger tap the back of his hand, effectively ending the conversation.
After the service was over, he found the girl in the midst of the general hubbub outside, as a team of Wardens orchestrated the mass exodus to all corners of the globe via the Nevernever. He did not know what possessed him to follow her. She and her mentor, a stout woman with ginger hair and a blustery demeanor, were in the first group, bound for the Northeast corridor of the United States.
"Jillian!" he called, his voice made somewhat wretched by the simultaneous need to be heard by her and to not disturb those around him. Predictably, she did not respond. "Janice! Jenny!"
She turned, evidently just generally curious about the strange shouting boy, and not because he'd actually gotten her name right.
"What's your name?" he asked, when he had her attention.
She goggled at him, then laughed. "Judith Umber!"
"You're a very peculiar person, Donald!" Judith said, before turning back and following her teacher through the rift.
Age: 31 / Year: 1915
He thought of her in the trenches. As he and his men exchanged volley after volley, as the whistle of mortar shells made their blood run cold, as the bodies of men he'd fought beside piled up in the No Man's Land, as his fellow soldiers laughed darkly and spoke at length of the girls waiting for them at home, he thought of her.
It wasn't something he was proud of, especially as they had never made romantic overtures. She was a friend, a fellow Warden, a partner-in-arms. If she knew, she'd probably laugh at him for not picking a proper girl to daydream about: Warden Falcone has a fabulous pair of legs, and Warden McKinsey has a face that would launch several hundred ships at the very least, if not the full complement of a thousand, and please try to choose someone that looks less like a horse next time, Donald.
An angry spray of gunfire rent the dusk air, the sound resonating deep in the trenches. Morgan inhaled slowly, eyes closed, and tightened his grip on his weapon. The Germans must be feeling particularly excitable tonight. In the distance, growing ever louder, he began to hear a steady pounding, beating in time with his heart. He steeled himself for battle.
That's when the screaming started.
It was not unusual to hear screaming on the battlefield, where men were confronted with pain and death and terror the likes of which they could never have previously imagined. But ordinarily, it was limited to a few voices at once, not an entire unit.
And rarely were the voices so abruptly silenced.
Morgan felt a chill up his spine. It must have been some clever band of troops, Morgan decided, that had snuck past their enemy's defenses, routing them in moments. But when the same thing happened a second time, he began to doubt his initial assumption. Then it happened a third time, then a fourth, coming ever closer: swift death, presaged only by the sound of drums.
Before shipping out, Morgan had been cautioned by Captain Kostikos not to do anything to reveal himself or the true nature of his abilities. However, he decided the risk of discovery was no match for the mysterious, deadly force cutting a swath through the battlefield.
Cautiously, he conjured a small shield and peered over the parapet, then inhaled sharply at the sight. It was a vast army, thousands strong, clad in the uniforms of every nation on the front, but the silhouettes were wrong. Some were missing great chunks of flesh from their legs, their arms, their torsos, even their heads. They should have been dead. Yet still they lumbered on, bloodied beyond repair, transfixed by the steady beat hammered out by a lone drummer, standing near the front of the legion. And most terrifying of all, a tall, robed man strode through the carnage along their flank, heedless of the bullets that ricocheted off his invisible shield and back at the soldiers that fired them.
As Morgan watched, the army reached their next trench. The soldiers below were ready, tearing into them with machine guns and lobbing grenades into the heart of their ranks, but the immortal soldiers kept coming, as unstoppable and remorseless as death itself. The men died screaming.
"Holy Jesus," a soldier beside him stammered. Wilkinson. Morgan hadn't noticed him arrive. "Sweet Mary, mother of God. What the hell are those things?"
"You don't want to know," Morgan murmured. He clenched his teeth, and when he spoke again, his voice was pure authority. "I need Tompkins up here, now! Everyone else, stay down."
"Talk to me, Private," Sergeant Randall grunted. "What do you know?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Morgan said. "But I know how to stop them. Just trust me on this--I need Tompkins."
"You'll explain it to me, or you'll explain it to a judge," said Randall. "What's going on?"
"The only judge I'll be talking to if you don't listen to me is Saint Peter," Morgan snapped. "Now with all due respect, get the hell down and get me Tompkins. There's not much time."
Randall glowered, but he stepped down, giving Tompkins his place on the fire-step. Tompkins was a scrawny lad, who looked much younger than his twenty-four years. However, he was the best shot Morgan had ever seen. He looked terrified.
Morgan put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I need you to kill their drummer," he said, "not just wound him. I need him stone dead, and I need it to be done with a single shot. At no point can he see you. Can you do it?"
Tompkins stared at Morgan, who met the boy's gaze for a brief moment. "Yes," he said.
A scream went up from the far end of the trench. The drum pounded ever louder. "Then go!" Morgan said.
Tompkins scrambled atop the fire-step, steadied himself, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The drummer dropped, dead before he hit the ground. But just as Morgan predicted, the undead soldiers did not. Freed from the necromancer's control, they went berserk.
There were two ways of destroying undead thralls, Morgan recalled: massive trauma--which was unthinkable at this scale--or cutting off the flow of energy animating them. While a number of the undead continued their assault on the far side of Morgan's trench, an even greater number turned upon each other, and a small force oriented on an even greater target: the necromancer. He cried out in rage as the living corpses descended upon him.
He succeeded in holding them off for a short time, then in desperation, he blindly ripped a hole to the Nevernever and fled. The moment of the rift's closing echoed chillingly across the battlefield: their power source cut off, the army froze, then fell to the ground like puppets whose strings had been severed. The night was abruptly silent.
Morgan patted the boy's arm. "Well done, Tompkins. Good man."
Tompkins stood staring, fixed rigidly to the spot. "W-what the h-hell were they?" he stammered.
"They're dead," said Morgan. "That's all that matters now."
"They were dead before," Randall spat, retaking his station. "Is this going to happen again?"
Morgan swallowed. It certainly wouldn't happen again, not like it had tonight. If anything, it would be worse. The necromancer would be better prepared, and he would never again have so obvious an Achilles' heel. Perhaps he would choose a different field for his maraudings, one less likely to have a wizard in attendance. But just in case…
"Salt," Morgan said, at last. "Bury some with the bodies. Ideally, there should be a ring of salt around them, but I don't know if there's enough salt in the ocean to give such a treatment to so many. A dab in the mouth should do the trick."
"You're mad," said Randall, shaking his head. He climbed down from the parapet and strode away, calling to the men, "Salt! Get me salt, Gentlemen!"
As his fellow soldiers busied themselves with their task, Morgan climbed out of the trench to investigate the damage. Leaving the protective fortifications was always a danger, even at night, but he wagered that the survivors on both sides would be laying low in the wake of the attack.
He didn't have far to go before he found one of his own among the fallen undead army. Private Jebediah Whitcomb of Guilford, Surrey, had died only two days ago. His uniform was a mess of blood, a bullet hole just to the right of his sternum. Morgan hunkered down and closed the man's unseeing eyes. There were footsteps behind him, but he didn't turn around.
"Private Morgan?" a voice hazarded. Wilkinson again. "I don't know how, but… you saved our lives tonight. Thank you." Morgan exhaled, bowing his head. "I, er… I brought you salt. Randy's putting together another three squads to get the job done, and sending word to the support trenches."
Morgan took the proffered sack and pried open the man's jaw--apparently being reanimated by a necromancer didn't restart the clock on rigor mortis--and with great reverence, he sprinkled a pinch into his mouth. In Morgan's mind, it was somewhat akin to the ancient custom of placing a coin in the mouth of the dead, so he might pass into the Underworld unmolested. None would tamper with this man's peaceful slumber.
"God, that was Jed," Wilkinson stammered. "Jed was gonna try to kill us."
"It wasn't Jed," said Morgan, standing. "Something evil was controlling his body, making it do his bidding. Jed had nothing to do with it." He looked Wilkinson in the eye for a brief moment, then back across the darkened battlefield. He thought of Judith on the day he met her, reminding him in her unique, uncompromising way to look past the presentation of the fallen Merlin's body and remember the man as he truly was.
"Salt," he murmured, moving to the next body. "Lots and lots of salt."
Age: 19 / Year: 1903
Luccio's gentle teasing about Morgan's performance after the service ensured that the next time he saw Judith at a Council meeting, he was too self-conscious to do or say anything, and therefore pretended not to have noticed her. She seemed determined to get his attention, but he was just as determined to avoid another humiliation. The second time, however, he gave in.
Over the next few years, they saw each other a number of times at various Council functions, yet they never had the opportunity to actually speak. They made a point to acknowledge each other across the wide, cavernous meeting halls, often with a combination of subtle gestures that became their own private semaphore, but no actual words passed between them. All he knew was her name. He passed one meeting idly imagining what she must be like outside of the Council meetings, her family background and the areas of magic that most interested her.
Judith was not the only person to receive this treatment, certainly. He was just as curious, if not more so, about the histories of some of the older, more esteemed members of the Council. Among some of the other Apprentices, it was rumored that Martha Liberty had once been a slave in America, but had escaped her captors and later helped other slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Some whispered that the hermitlike Ebenezar McCoy was responsible for the eruption at Krakatoa the year before Morgan's birth.
Some asserted that Luccio had been a model for a number of artists in her youth, and a sculpture with her likeness could be seen in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze. Morgan wasn't quite certain if he believed any of it, but he would pity the poor sculptor that depicted Luccio in an unflattering light. It was difficult to imagine her as anything else but the meticulous, exacting, iron-haired hawk of a woman with the build of a blacksmith. Morgan could never summon the nerve to ask her.
At nineteen, Morgan and Judith were placed in the same Warden training group. Finally, they had the freedom to converse, yet after seven years of silence, he had no idea where to begin.
Judith burst into giggles at the somewhat desperate look on Morgan's face. She held out her hand. "Let's take a walk," she said.
Age: 72 / Year: 1956
He'd fought for Britain in what politicians called "The War to End All Wars," but a mere score of years later, a new generation of men was drafted into its grisly sequel. Not long after, Allied scientists unleashed "The Weapon to End All Wars," but as the passing years steadily wore down the Allies' postwar elation, and tensions between the Americans and Soviets remained high, it became clear that the bomb had failed to live up to its promise.
As it had been since before the dawn of history, the steady death march continued apace, with first prize going to the side who, for however brief a time, could engineer the most extravagant method of mass-murder. A small faction of the Council began to argue for wizards to reveal themselves openly, claiming mankind's power had eclipsed its wisdom to wield it, and the world as a whole could benefit from the teachings of men who had possessed such devastating potential for centuries. However, the motion was hastily put down.
The Council had concerns of its own. Over time, its leadership had done all in its power to identify the growing influence of necromantic energy, cutting down adversaries before they could establish a toehold. But now Kemmler--thought to be bested in the wake of the Great War--had returned, and was once again gathering power in Eastern Europe.
"Despite our boldest efforts," Judith addressed the Council, in flawless Latin, "Kemmler and his students remain a threat, to mortal and wizard alike. The work of Leandra Kotopoulos and Klaus Schneider has been pivotal in the fight to limit Kemmler's sphere of influence, but the fact is undeniable: we are treating the symptoms, not attacking the cause. If we are to effect real change in the war against the necromancers, we must change our thinking."
She glanced at Simon Pietrovich beside her, noted vampire expert and keeper of the research facility at Archangel. He nodded for her to continue.
Morgan never tired of seeing Judith speak out for the causes she believed in. Though she was always brimming with passionate energy, a new mission gave her an extraordinary vitality of the like Morgan had seldom seen. For a time, he had jokingly called her "Saint Jude," after the patron of desperate cases and lost causes. The nickname delighted her.
"Years ago," Judith continued, "mankind harnessed the energy of the atom. That technology has since been used both to lay waste to two cities and to provide the citizens of the earth with inexpensive, reliable power. Consider it: the most basic, fundamental unit of matter, capable of unlimited creation and unparalleled destruction. The source of atomic energy is neither inherently good nor evil--it is what man chooses to do with it that defines the outcome.
"How many times have we seen warlocks twisting the powers of life, using benevolent sources of magical energy for evil? Could we not entertain the notion that perhaps the powers of death, necromancy, could be used for good?"
"You talk of upsetting the natural order," Bhal Charan interrupted. "A dangerous game, Umber."
Pietrovich quickly stepped forward. "All of magic tampers with the natural order in some capacity, honored Merlin," he said. "But that is not our intention. We seek to study necromancy on a purely theoretical level, so that we may better understand its workings."
Judith nodded. "In order to ensure Kemmler and his disciples are truly destroyed, we must explore the magic that allowed him to return in the first place, and hypothesize what systems he might develop in the future to ensure his immortality. Only when we truly understand the powers Kemmler has at his disposal can we be confident of his defeat." She found Morgan in the crowd and gave him a significant glance, then returned her focus to the Senior Council. "Otherwise, we risk our Wardens' lives for nothing."
Charan frowned thoughtfully. "Let us put this to a vote. Wizard Gutierrez?"
"You make a solid argument," said Jorge Gutierrez, a swarthy bear of a man. "We cannot proceed as we have before. You have my vote, Pietrovich."
"Mine as well," said Martha Liberty. "The sickness of Kemmler and his disciples cannot be permitted to continue."
Arthur Langtry scowled. "In three centuries, I have seen nothing but evil from those who would tinker with death. I vote against this madness."
"My people do not fear death as yours do," Listens-to-Wind mused. "I find it difficult to believe that only evil can come of it. I vote to allow Umber and Pietrovich license to explore its implications."
"Too many times, I have seen the best intentions go sour," said Ancient Mai. "Too many times, I have seen the warlord become the barbarian he seeks to defeat. I cannot support this action."
Charan looked from Judith to Pietrovich and back in contemplation. "And you, Rashid?" he said.
"I abstain," the Gatekeeper said, the deep hood hiding his features.
Charan nodded. "We must always look to the lessons of the past for guidance, but in this case our old methods have failed," he said. "We will need new ideas if we are to conquer this foe. Simon Pietrovich and Judith Umber, by four votes to two, your petition is granted."
Age: 19 / Year: 1903
They proceeded at a leisurely pace, Morgan and Judith. She'd grown into her gangling limbs somewhat, her movements taking on a more feminine grace, though there was still an awkwardness about her appearance. Like Morgan, she was exceptionally tall--even taller than a number of the boys her age.
"It was the first time a boy had ever chased after me," Judith admitted, amused. "Or at least, the first time he wasn't chasing after me, trying to scare me with a frog or a beetle he'd caught. I'm glad to know it was crippling shyness preventing you from responding to me the next time we saw each other, and not something I'd done. I was worried you might have been offended when I called you peculiar."
He smiled apologetically. "Things are seldom what they seem."
"Skim milk masquerades as cream," Judith hummed to herself, in agreement.
Morgan stopped short. "The Pinafore?"
Judith beamed. "Why, yes!"
"You know Gilbert and Sullivan?"
"You needn't sound so surprised. They're as popular in America as they are in England." She drew herself up haughtily. "We Colonials are not entirely unlettered savages."
"Pardon me," he amended quickly. "I meant no offense--"
"None was taken," said Judith, placing a quelling hand on his arm.
Morgan laughed and took her hands, studying her. She had a nice smile, he decided. "When I was young, my father took me to see the D'Oyly Carte production of The Gondoliers," he explained. "I've been a follower ever since. But in all the histories I imagined for you, I don't believe a knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan manifested once."
"Then things truly are seldom what they seem," she said.
"So they be-- Frequentlee," Morgan quoted.
Age: 77 / Year: 1961
The scale of the endeavor was breathtaking.
Thirteen of the most powerful thaumaturgs in the world, selected for the compatibility of their magic, formed a greater circle around the building. Three score wizards--Morgan and Judith included--stood poised to infiltrate on all fronts, while a further two score stood by in the various places it intersected the Nevernever. A single Warden that questioned whether these measures were overkill was immediately dismissed from the strike team. Nearly all those present had seen battle before. The mission was too vital, too delicate to risk green troops.
In perfect unison, a slow, steady chanting began among the outer circle. Morgan felt the electric tingle as the magic ring passed through him, ever shrinking, designed to key in on Kemmler's power signature and shut him down, the product of Judith and Simon's diligent research. On his left, Captain Schultz and Warden Luccio traded grips, then drew their swords.
"Now!" Schultz cried, and thrust his blade through the doorjamb. The wards flared angrily along the edge, then for a moment they fizzled out, just long enough for Morgan and Luccio to pry the door wide open. Wardens poured into Kemmler's fortress in a grey wave.
The necromancer was prepared for them, however. He hadn't clawed his way to the top of the villains' food chain by failing to anticipate his enemies. An army of specters and animated corpses and even a number of enthralled Black Court vampires met them, and Morgan knew they would fight without awareness of weariness or pain or the barest instincts of self-preservation.
"Erdstoß!" Morgan shouted, and an onrush of corpses was felled by the wave of earth that surged beneath their feet. Schultz and Luccio darted forward, their exquisitely choreographed swordplay in perfect concert, and made short work of a dozen or so bodies.
One thrall charged Luccio from behind, but Judith made a grabbing motion in the air, and it was rocked off balance long enough for Luccio to whirl around and skewer it. Flanking them, Morgan hacked down body after body, his style more choppy and brutal but no less effective.
But the wizards did not have the upper hand for long. The momentum of their rush was countered by the sheer, obdurate strength of Kemmler's army. A lucky specter managed to get through Morgan's guard, scoring a deep groove down his right forearm that nearly made him drop his sword.
Luccio cried out as Schultz fell beneath an onslaught of enthralled vampires. She rushed to his defense, only to catch part of the spray of arterial blood as the beasts ripped open his throat. She faltered, momentarily paralyzed, but then she surged at the creatures. Roaring out a challenge, she cut down the Captain's killers with ruthless efficiency, using both sword and needle-thin evocations to devastating effect.
"Forward!" she rallied, pain racking her voice, her sword raised in defiance.
The door at the far end of the room flew open, and three robed figures charged into the fray: Kemmler's students. Before the wizards could react, the first Kemmlerite hurled a ball of blue light at the nearest Warden. She was dead before she hit the ground.
Morgan and Judith launched themselves at him. He was short and wiry with a pinched, ratlike face and a mean little grin. He danced out of the way of Morgan's first earth wave and sent a second ball of light at Judith. Morgan managed to catch it on his staff, which abruptly blackened and cracked on the point of impact.
Without missing a beat, he smacked the end of his staff against the wall, breaking off the weakened piece, and lunged forward, impaling the Kemmlerite against the wall on its jagged end like a specimen in an entomologist's collection. Before he could think to level his death curse, Judith slashed his neck with a sweep of her sword.
"Make way!" came a voice from behind Morgan, and the Wardens parted like the Red Sea. The Merlin, flanked by Simon Pietrovich and his former student Justin DuMorne, entered the melee. He held up his hand, intoning a series of rolling syllables in some ancient, near-forgotten language, and all the creatures remaining in the path between him and the door at the far end of the entrance hall simply dissolved into a rank, organic sludge.
The three strode through the carnage, paying no heed to the fragments of bone that crunched under their feet, and disappeared through the inner door. They were hunting larger game. Morgan watched them go, and felt a pang of worry.
Judith touched his arm. "Remember the plan," she said. "We all have a part to play." Morgan nodded and looked to the remaining Kemmlerites.
Nearby, Wardens Stubbs, Fitzpatrick, and Cho wrangled with one of the remaining two necromancers, a round-faced Asian girl. Holding off the Wardens with a shimmering silver shield, the girl began muttering a guttural chant, and the group was immediately engulfed in black smoke. However, when the smoke cleared a moment later, she lay on the floor, dead, and Fitzpatrick was wiping blood from his sword with the edge of his cloak.
The last of the three Kemmlerites, a tall, broad-shouldered man with Aryan features, went down a lot harder. He took the lives six Wardens before Mroczkowski finally bested him.
And finally, the raiding party's work was done. The surviving wizards could only wait with bated breath for news from the others. Most busied themselves ministering to the wounded and accounting for the fallen. Luccio knelt beside Schultz and bowed her head, her short, iron-grey hair falling forward to hide her face. Her hand gripped his with white-knuckled force.
Charan, Pietrovich, and DuMorne were gone a long time. Worryingly long, considering they were three Wardens of the White Council against a partially crippled yet still deadly necromancer. But just when a small team of Wardens began preparations to go in after them, Pietrovich and DuMorne appeared, bleeding and exhausted and reeking of smoke. Together they told the story in vivid detail of how, cornered within his own sanctum sanctorum, Heinrich Kemmler died for the last time. And how with his Death Curse, he had taken Bhal Charan with him, annihilating the Merlin and the entire contents of his laboratory in a gout of unholy fire.
Silence dominated the hall. They all expected to pay a price to take Kemmler down, but to lose the Merlin…
"And Kemmler's servant?" Luccio managed. "The spirit, bound in a skull?"
DuMorne glanced warily at Pietrovich, who did not return the look.
"Destroyed," he assured her.
* * * * *
Many things changed after that battle. The Council elected Arthur Langtry as the new Merlin, a move that surprised many of the more progressive-minded voters, and they snubbed the obvious choice of Simon Pietrovich to elevate the similarly conservative Aleron LaFortier.
The new Merlin seemed eager to reach out to Pietrovich's supporters and bring them into his camp. Luccio assumed Schultz's position as Captain of the Wardens, and Morgan…
He opened the card. In Judith's flowing hand were the verses,
"His object all sublime
He shall achieve in time--
To let the punishment fit the crime--
The punishment fit the crime!"
Morgan smiled, despite himself. The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan's finest.
Judith declined a position as a Regional Commander of the east coast of the United States, which irritated Morgan, especially when she claimed the offer was the Merlin's way of trying to separate her from her research associates in the Soviet Union. He called her paranoid and she called him blind, and they didn't speak to each other for weeks. In that time, DuMorne too refused his place in the spotlight and instead retreated from the public eye.
It should have been their individual moments of greatest triumph.
Age: 102 / Year: 1986
The young man glared at the Wardens guarding the room with all the impotent fury of one who was brash and resentful and seventeen. If the thorn manacles at his wrists caused him pain, he didn't let on.
"I think I can help him, Donald," Judith had said, some three years ago. "Alexei has a promising talent--he just had the wrong teacher."
Wrong teacher was right. The boy's first master had received his schooling from a book written by Heinrich Kemmler.
"We can't give up on him," she argued. "He's not a lost cause. When something is broken, you don't just automatically throw it away. First, you have to try and see if it can be fixed."
Fixed. Like Alexei had fixed that young warden trainee--Tracie--preserving her ebbing life with the dark, necromantic powers he had forsworn when he became Judith's apprentice. But he was no master of the art; his efforts were only a partial success. The rush of blood from the gaping wound in the girl's belly slowed to a trickle, and for a moment, her terrified whimpering ceased. Alexei let out a laugh, part relief, part disbelieving triumph. Then Tracie's eyes went wide.
She started screaming.
"Minds and souls are rather more complex than gadgets, my dear," he said.
She stilled. It had been years since either of them had used such a term of endearment.
"Even so. I have to try."
Morgan felt a bitter smile tug at the corner of his mouth. There was no humor in it.
"Of course you do. That's what makes you you."
Tracie Reardon, 19, was still screaming hoarsely three days later, unable to break free of the horrors that assaulted her mind and turned her existence into a waking nightmare.
"It could even be an opportunity for us," she argued, before the Senior Council. "Kemmler's writings continue to surface decades after his death, despite our efforts to track them down and destroy them. Alexei's unique background may help us to solve this puzzle and put an end to Kemmler's memory for good. There's so much we stand to gain from him."
Tracie's left wrist and her throat were a mess of self-inflicted lacerations, where she had attempted to end the madness herself. But Alexei's spell held firm, keeping her indelibly fixed to this plane of existence, unable to die. No ordinary blade could sever the link.
Morgan placed a hand on the hilt of his sword, and felt only profound loss. Designed to cut through enchantments, his blade was anything but ordinary.
He had never expected to be asked to spill innocent blood in the course of his duties.
The doors at the far end of the room opened, and two more Wardens entered. One carried a black hood, which he passed to Morgan. Morgan, in turn, handed it to Alexei, sparing the boy the indignity of having it forced upon him. The young man took a moment to steel himself, then met Morgan's eyes for a brief moment.
"Sorry you must clean up mess," he said, his accent thick, then put on the hood. The team of Wardens took him by the elbows and frog-marched him into the main hall, where a hundred other wizards awaited the charade that would be his trial.
Judith would fight. She always did. But she would lose.
Morgan remembered the raid where they first found Alexei, the horrors his Kemmlerite master had unleashed before the Wardens took him down. He thought of the decades-long struggle against the necromancers, the entrenched loathing all wizards had for those who would commit such heretical crimes against the natural order. He bristled at the arrogance one must possess to believe he could cheat death, to play God at seventeen…
He had difficulty sympathizing with Judith's point of view.
* * * * *
One by one, they stood to utter a single word: Guilty.
The Merlin met Morgan's eyes and nodded gravely, and three hundred silent wizards looked on as Morgan approached the edge of the condemned warlock's circle. His sword came free of its sheath with barely a whisper, and he felt his own magic rush into it like water filling an empty vessel, until man and sword resonated together with the same thrumming power.
Outside of this moment, the world was shifting and unreliable. Inside, once the sword was drawn, the pronouncement of the seven greatest wizards of his time rendered those distinctions into sharp contrast: right or wrong, good or evil, life or death. It was almost comforting.
He raised his sword. Judith would never forgive him.
* * * * *
Afterwards, Morgan found Judith sitting alone on the stairs outside. She held a small box, and was absently poking at the trinkets within. Her eyes were red and her cheeks were pale and wet with tears, but her voice was calm and steady.
"If you want to sit down, you'll take it off first."
Morgan didn't have to ask what she meant. He unbuckled his sword belt and lay it on the ground a short distance away.
For a long moment, neither of them spoke. In the west, the setting sun painted the clouds a vibrant orange, and a flock of migrating crows traced whirling, looping patterns in the sky. Finally, Morgan broke the silence.
"I'm sorry, Judith," he said.
She closed her eyes, spilling fresh tears. "Sorry for what, Donald?" she said, bitterly.
He sighed. Ah. So that's how this conversation is going to go. "I'm sorry Alexei was put into a situation he couldn't handle. I'm sorry he made a decision that caused those around him so much pain, and ultimately cost him his life."
Judith snorted softly. "His life… That wasn't his decision; that was yours. You were the one who chose to condemn a man who may yet be saved."
Morgan stood, exasperated, and faced her. "I exercise the will of the Senior Council, Judith! You think they make these decisions lightly? Do you presume to believe yourself wiser than the seven eldest and most powerful wizards of our age? I am honored to serve them."
"What gives them the right?" she said, slamming the box shut. "Why do they get to decide who lives and dies?"
"It needs to be done, and you know it," Morgan said simply. "The Council brings order into what could be chaos."
Judith shook her head angrily. "Someone needs to speak up. Someone needs to challenge them, counter them. There needs to be a balance."
"Judith! Stop. Listen to yourself."
She surged to her feet, facing him down. "Donald, he was seventeen! A child."
"He was old enough to understand the choice he made, and the repercussions of that decision."
"Exactly," Judith snapped. "He chose to try to save the life of a young girl he barely knew, knowing he was signing his own death warrant."
It was the last straw. "Good intentions aren't always good enough! He didn't save her life; he prolonged her death!" he roared. "The girl went through torture for days on end. He demonstrated a complete disregard for the laws of magic, not to mention the very forces of nature. He. Was. Guilty."
Judith's jaw clenched as she bit back what must have been a blistering retort, then she shook her head. She took a moment to compose herself, and began again in a more level tone. "I understand. The things you must tell yourself to rationalize what you do, to live with yourself. To end a human life, however twisted or evil, without irreparably scarring your own soul… You have to believe in it with every fiber of your being." Tears filled her eyes, choking her voice. "I understand."
Morgan exhaled heavily. "Judith, this is not about me," he said, taking her hand, but she pulled away.
"I can't stay here. Not now." She brushed away tears, under the guise of tucking a stray curl behind her ear, then faced Morgan again. "Simon has asked me to return to Archangel. Further research."
Morgan nodded sadly. "Congratulations. For how long?" he asked. She shrugged.
"It's a permanent position. As long as I want it."
"I see," he said, numbly.
For a while, they simply stood there, both knowing it was the end. Morgan had the distinct impression that she wanted to embrace him, but she couldn't bring herself to touch him. They knew each other too well to say anything more.
Finally, the door to the hall opened, and Simon emerged into the autumn air.
"Good evening, Warden Pietrovich," Morgan said.
The elder wizard acknowledged him with a nod. "Morgan." He then turned to Judith. "Yuden'ka, I'm so sorry. If only I'd been on the Council… I promise you, once I'm elected, I'll do everything in my power to make them see reason."
Judith nodded. She started towards the elder wizard, then paused. She eyed the sword, lying on the ground a short distance away, and turned to him. "Donald Morgan. Don't let them make you into something you're not."
Morgan drew himself up, every inch the soldier. "Judith Umber. Best of luck in your new life."
She smiled sadly, then moved to Pietrovich's side. He drew a few arcane symbols in the air, and the two vanished from sight.
Morgan picked up the sword belt and buckled it back on, with great care. There was still work to be done.
Age: 116 / Year: 2000
The boy was dangerous. He was coarse and arrogant and disrespectful. And he was Morgan's latest assignment.
Morgan couldn't fathom why he hadn't been executed on the spot twelve years ago, when he had been found at the scene of his murderous crimes; why McCoy would throw his weight around at the trial and steal the boy from the Council's grasp, after seeing how completely Judith had failed at the same thing two years before. Compounded with the boy's odious lineage--son of Margaret LeFay, infamous warlock and consort to the White King--and the sinister circumstances rumored to surround his birth…
Dresden may have fooled the old man with the appearance of being on the straight and narrow, but like Alexei, he was a time bomb. And once again, it would be up to Morgan to clean up the inevitable mess.
He could almost hear the ticking.
The couple had been killed with black magic, clearly enough: the Mafioso and his whore. Chicago was a big city, but he only knew of one resident with the power to pull off the murder, and with the ostentatious, vulgar disposition befitting the manner of the pair's death. He was in the phone book, under "Wizards."
And Morgan would bring him to justice.
Age: 118 / Year: 2002
Archangel was dead.
There was no other way to describe it. The building had stood for centuries, a bastion of magical wisdom and strength. At the time it was built, centuries ago, its single tower seemed to defy gravity as it soared into the stratus, brushing the heavens. When he'd visited the fortress years before, the structure had seemed to hum with an unseen energy, the hallways pulsing with life and the spirit of innovation. It was the foremost center for magical research in the world.
Morgan shoved aside the charred form of a fallen Red Court vampire with the toe of his boot and continued on his search. The largest collections of bodies were near the main doorways, where row after row of vampire warriors had fallen in a single-minded effort to breach the sanctums within, and wizard after wizard died defending the fortress. Behind him, a pair of young Wardens lifted the corpse and hauled it to the growing pile outside, where it would be incinerated.
In the end, Morgan didn't have far to look. The Hall of Elders lay just beyond--once a gallery of sculptural monuments to the great heroes of the White Council, and now a mass grave for its invaders. It looked as though a miniature atomic bomb had gone off inside. Fallen vampires lay three deep in places along the perimeter, burned to death. Of the beasts nearer the center, only ash remained.
The pair of figures at the epicenter were human, however, if barely recognizable as such. Fire had seared away portions of skin and hair and clothing, and the intense heat seemed to have warped their limbs, but they were familiar enough. Back to back, they reached out in a defiant declaration of power, unafraid of the fallout of the power they were unleashing. Their death curses. Together, in their final breaths, they had destroyed some three dozen vampires.
Morgan stumbled as he knelt down before the smaller figure. The long, feminine limbs were familiar--too familiar--but he had to be certain. With clumsy fingers, he pushed aside the remnants of her collar and revealed the long, gold chain beneath. Her mother's locket gleamed brightly, one of the few things in the room that wasn't charred black.
His vision blurred. Damn soot kept getting in his eyes… He rubbed it away with a vigorous swipe of his hand.
He was no stranger to death. In his century walking the Earth, he had buried more than he could count. He had seen courageous young men and women bleed and die for Queen and Country and Council, seen mortal friends fall victim to the ravages of time and illness and the vagaries of fate. But it was a part of life. Men lived and died, and that was the way of the world. In one hundred and eighteen years, he'd had plenty of time to come to terms with it.
But he hadn't spoken to her in sixteen years, despite knowing she was there. All that time, wasted. He'd imagined her ensconced in the vast libraries of Archangel, exchanging ideas with some of the greatest minds in magical research the world over. She would bury her sadness in her work and one day emerge glorious once more, ready to share some brilliant new insight with the magical community at large. She would be magnificent, blazing as bright as a star…
And she was. For a moment, surrounded by the great heroes and leaders of the Council's rich history, she and Pietrovich were twin suns, and they had made their adversaries burn.
His gut clenched beneath a deluge of emotions too large and unwieldy for one man to bear: agonizing loss, oceans-deep regret, petty bitterness, and growing steadily in his belly, a furious, mounting hatred for the man who had awakened so ravenous and insatiable an enemy.
It was Dresden. If only he had kept his kept his infuriatingly thick skull out of Council politics, if only he had left the damn vampires alone, or deferred to a higher authority on the Council for guidance. Dresden had lost his love to the Red Court, and now the entire Council would suffer as a result. How many fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, siblings, lovers died today? The arrogance, to believe his own misfortune could so much as scratch the surface of the yawning chasm of despair that brought Morgan to his knees.
Dresden was responsible. Dresden would pay.
* * * * *
The object of Morgan's ire called the day after his trial for the Winter queen began. Even Morgan was surprised at how short a time it took for the coward to come begging for help.
"He wants to speak to McCoy," Branson murmured, his hand over the mouthpiece. Morgan took the phone from the young Warden's hands.
"You've failed, then, Dresden," Morgan stated. "Stay where you are until the Wardens arrive to escort you to the Senior Council for judgement."
"I haven't failed, Morgan. But I've turned up some information that the Senior Council should have. And I need help," he wheedled. "This is getting too hot for one person to handle. I need some information and some backup if I'm going to sort this out."
He certainly didn't need any help starting the war, Morgan thought viciously. "It's always all about you, isn't it?" he spat. "You're the exception to every rule. You can break the Laws and mock the Council; you can ignore the trial set for you because you are too important to abide by their authority."
"It's got nothing to do with that," Dresden backpedaled. "Hell's bells, Morgan, pull your head out of your ass. The faeries' power structure has become unstable, and it looks like it might hit critical mass if something isn't done. That's bigger than me, and a hell of a lot more important than Council protocol."
Morgan snapped. "Who are you to judge that? You are no one, Dresden! You are nothing! For too long you have flouted the Council's rule. No more. No more exceptions, no more delays, no more second chances."
"Morgan," he pleaded, "I just need to speak to Ebenezar. Let him decide if-"
"No," Morgan said.
"No," he repeated. "You won't evade justice this time, snake. This is your Trial. You will see it through without attempting to influence the Senior Council's judgment."
"Morgan, this is insane-"
"No," he growled. "The insanity was in letting you live when you were a boy. DuMorne's murderous apprentice. Insanity was pulling you from that burning house two years ago." He gripped the phone tightly and fought to keep his emotions under control. In a low, deadly voice, he continued, "Someone I dearly cared for was at Archangel, Dresden. And this time your lies aren't going to get you out of what's coming to you."
He hung up the phone. "That will be all, Branson," he rasped. "Thank you."
The young man hastily excused himself, and Morgan buried his head in his hands, making a fist in his hair. Fingers, check: one two three four five.
One hundred eighteen years. She was gone.
Age: 121 / Year: 2005
Judith found him in the wake of the vortex, his jaw broken and his exposed skin chapped bloody. She'd recovered before the two wardens, but as soon as she'd gotten to her feet, she'd almost wished the great lizard had devoured her. She hadn't yet recovered her strength from reviving the EMT the night before, and the additional backlash of the thwarted Darkhallow left her feeling brittle and lifeless. For the first time in decades, she felt her true age.
"Simon..." she murmured, touching his cheek. "Simon, we must be away."
"Failed," he croaked, his lips cracked.
"No. Kemmler's men were denied the Darkhallow. We succeeded where it truly mattered." She looked around nervously, feeling terribly conspicuous. A few yards distant, sheltered by a heap of rapidly dissolving dinosaur ectoplasm, the young Hispanic warden stirred fitfully, let out a low moan of pain, and subsided once more into unconsciousness. "Can you walk?"
"I must," he managed, around his broken jaw. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and cautiously, painfully, brought him to his feet. She clung to Simon's cowled robe as he shakily parted the barrier to the Nevernever.
"He was there last night. I felt him," she said. Pietrovich closed his eyes, bowing his head with a weariness that went beyond exhaustion.
"Come, Kumori," he rasped, and together, the two disappeared through the rift.