I found the girl while I was out on a practical training exercise with my oldest Probationary Wardens. Mason and Owen were technically far enough along in their studies that some people were encouraging me to sign off on their training, but I wasn't fully comfortable letting them off the lease yet, hence the supervised patrol. Mason had this tendency to look at the world in black and white that got away from him when he wasn't thinking about it.
Owen didn't have that problem, but he was affected by an almost debilitating fear of failing. He'd been driven to learn by that fear, but I'd started to worry it was to the point where it would begin hurting more than helping.
I was working with them on their issues as best as I could in the middle of a war. After the incident in New Mexico, everyone agreed that we needed the young Wardens as prepared as they could be, so I'd been given enough slack to keep them out of the field.
We were on the trail of several Signs. I followed behind, observing while they tracked the trail. We could nearly taste the taint of Black magic in the air like old blood. The trail of depression and hatred seethed around us to anyone with the Sight.
Five people had already been hurt because of it: one woman nearly drowned her kids from worry over finances, a couple kids nearly beat another one to death and one boy tried to slit his own wrists -- all in suspiciously significant places. Convergent locations. The incidents seemed to be coming faster, and then, the final straw for the Council, two young Wizards just vanished. That was the reason they had us out on patrol even though following the trail had done nothing before.
Mason was convinced he could find something. He had visions of promotion and...I don't know, some kind of noble, humble glory. It didn't make any sense to me, but it was probably what led us to the discovery we made.
Selena should've been hidden in all of the vile energy floating around: her small changes were like smudges on the edge of a sheet of paper already mostly submerged in ink. What she was doing should've faded through the official cracks, but Mason was sensitive enough to the Black to notice, zealous enough to follow up, and determined that it was a separate flavor than the one we were tracking. His need to prove himself capable, to show that he was ready to make the hard choices, ready to face real live warlocks meant that he noticed. Or what it meant in the practical world was that he was insane enough, in his zealotry, to open himself up and take some of it in. We'd then had a long talk about acceptable methods of tracking Signs and portents, and when something that bugfuck crazy was acceptable, which was never.
I'd called a timeout and had him sit while I examined him under my newly-minted True Sight for an hour. Even the basics of my new Sight were more advanced than the Third Eye my probies had access to, and while the energy Mason had taken in didn't seem to be doing him any favors, the rest of his magic was slowly breaking it down. Small tendrils of the other energy lifted from the undigested mass, waving in a direction that was presumably its origin.
After that, he pressed himself even harder than before. I figured he was insulted by the entire idea that I'd gone behind him and checked his work. His tight-voiced answers to Owen's comments made me want to slap him around the head once or twice, but I held my place as a silent watcher. He relaxed, eventually, but by then he'd found Selena's trail.
Of course, we didn't know it was Selena's trail then; it was just a lighter trace of Black that might or might not have had something to do with our missing Wizards and artifacts of power. It was later, when we'd run into a dead end following the main trail that we came back and followed the lighter sense of Black he'd marked, and we found a 13 year old warlock and her abusive mother.
I could actually see his world rock on its axis as "Evil Warlock/brownie points" crashed into "terrified little girl."
My own world was doing a little rocking. Christ, I thought, watching from the shadows with my two probies as the girl used her gift to convince her mother not to hit her brother when he slammed the door behind him.
My mind was blank as we all watched the drama unfolding. The mother was fighting the compulsion. I took the time to look her over: poorly died blonde hair growing out, a darker honey at the roots. Pale skin marked with acne along her cheekbones and hairline. Young. Really young. And thin. She looked like she'd just started eating normally after a long period of starvation.
The boy moved through the home cautiously, pausing once as he got closer to the kitchen door. Listening for shouting or the impact of something being thrown, I figured, having done something similar, once upon a time.
Then he moved out of the living room and went upstairs rather than into the open kitchen, leaving us watching a warlock try to convince her mother not to hurt her children.
"What are you going to do?" Owen asked.
I met his eyes eyes, took in his tense jaw. I wondered if maybe, somehow, we could leave the official business here and maybe do some good in this girl's life. I could get her to Elaine and she could probably help her better than anyone else understanding her situation and helping her fight the pull of the Black. The brother might have to go to one of Murphy's contacts in CPS.
"We have to bring her in," Mason said, dashing the niggling hope. He was a living reminder that direction in my life is always forward, sometimes over a cliff.
I nearly snapped at him but when I turned to do it, his pale face and wide eyes stopped me. He watched the young warlock do homework while sneaking nervous looks over to her mother. "Unless we were wrong?" he offered, sounding very small for a man who only had to look up a few inches to meet my eyes.
I didn't want to do it. I couldn't not do it. I closed my eyes and reactivated my True Sight, then looked at the house from where we stood, cloaked in shadows that had nothing to do with the fading light of day.
The mother was still pale and her skin had a waxen, greasy sheen. Her form had stretched in odd places and shrunk in others, giving her a distorted, demonic figure. That impression was helped by the blunted crown of horns piercing her head and the ragged claws growing from her fingers.
The magic Selena had worked acted like a leash and collar. As I watched, she tugged the leash from her daughter's hand and began clawing at her before the chain reformed. The brother had left behind the impression of a ghostly worn down child-soldier, battered and tired, in a uniform like those worn in the civil war.
The girl -- wizardess, warlock -- was literally two colors. Half white, half black. Of course. The black reached snakey tendrils into the white, looking even darker in the brilliance. It left itself open when it did though, and the brightness eased into the gaps quickly. Her soul was balanced precariously on the edge, her good intentions keeping back the corruption of the Black. But for how long?
"We weren't wrong," I said, feeling the drag of the long shift even more than before. "Come on."
We crossed the yard with every intent of making the hard life of a little girl that much worse, and I felt like throwing up every step of the way.
At least it was a woman. If it'd been her abusive asshole of a father rather than her mother, I don't know what I would've done. I didn't have flashbacks to my life with Justin often, but it was bad when I did.
The last time we'd been together, I'd burned him to death. I blessed the small favor that I didn't have to have to try and explain THAT one to the White Council twice.
I wished Eb hadn't been held up. I had allies, but his support would have won more.
"You can't be serious," I said dumbly, two days later. "I can't be hearing this." I wasn't even trying to speak in my -- admittedly awful -- Latin at this point.
"Your feelings on the matter are well documented, Warden Dresden," the Merlin said acerbically. He didn't like me and hadn't liked me as long as I've known him. He probably hated me on sight, but I couldn't say for sure since I'd been bound hand and foot by magic with a bag over my head at the time.
"The fact remains, however, that you currently have an apprentice under the Doom. You may not have another."
I sat back and watched some of those allies try to continue the argument -- sorry, the discussion -- as long as I could, but it didn't matter. Selena Martin, 13, would be convicted of breaking the Third and Fourth Laws, and nobody that was willing to save her life was in a position to do so. It was bad luck that I'd been involved in her capture and subsequent defense: if it'd been someone else, the conservatives might've given her a chance.
I left before they could render the verdict, my magic bubbling under my skin. I couldn't stay there any longer, surrounded by so much self-righteous arrogance, without letting loose with several destructive, and deeply ill-advised evocations.
When I reached my car I saw a monster in gray in the distorted reflection and gave myself a few abrasions tearing off the Warden's cloak.
A familiar voice called out, then. "Harry, wait."
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and turned to face my former lover. "Anastasia."
She was lovely in her severe, serious way: as lovely as she had the last time we'd made love. Coaxing her to be silly had been one of my favorite things in our relationship. The gray of her Warden's cloak did little for her complexion, but it made her eyes seem darker. Her hair was trying to escape the braided bun she'd tied it in, and I could feel the ghostly impression of it over my fingers.
She looked at me for a long moment and I let her. I owed her any number of concessions for not realizing she'd been enthralled, forced to be with me by a traitor's cunning. She was quiet for a long moment before her shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry."
I shrugged bitterly, eyes dropping to the dark gray cloak in my hands. "For what?" I asked. "The Council once again lives up to its reputation for prejudice and short-sightedness, and one dangerous warlock will be off the streets, leaving her brother to probably be beaten into a life of drugs and poverty."
"But hey, as long as we follow the rules exactly as we should, everything is just peachy. We can all pat ourselves on the back and sleep well tonight." I snorted, my hand fisting in the sturdy fabric.
"That isn't fair," Luccio said quietly.
I looked back toward the warehouse we'd ended up using for our hasty "trial," and then back to her. She had the decency not to look away. Eventually, she ducked her head in a silent acknowledgment. It was the only thing I'd get, I knew. It was more than anyone but my allies had ever done, acknowledging the hurt. It wasn't enough.
I held my hand out, cloak still clutched in my clenched fist.
"Harry?" she asked, eyes widening.
"I quit." When she just stared at me rather than take the cloak, I let it go and watched it fall. "The Red Court's been more quiet lately. Not much I can do as a Warden, and maybe without me under your auspice, you'll have better luck negotiating a cease-fire. Seems like the only thing I can do is help kids get killed."
She flinched. I felt bad, but it was true and I wouldn't take it back. "Maybe if I try as just Harry, I can at least help her brother."
Before she could respond -- if she had anything to say in response -- a wave of Black hit us and kept moving out, followed immediately by the concentrated, alien sense of Outsider. I lost my vision and hearing both briefly in in the psychic onslaught but my wall doesn't have a certified investigative license for nothing. I grappled my way back to the real world immediately and psychic numbness was replaced with real-time color and sound.
"That was an entry from Outside," I forced out between pants. It wasn't exertion making my heart race, but excitement, battle lust sending adrenalin pumping into my heart. Part of me trembled, remembering the look on Carlos' face after I'd taken on the ghouls, but not even that could dampen my energy.
Maybe excitement was the wrong word: perhaps it would be better to say that I was experiencing a doomed readiness that I'd grown comfortable with over my string of hopeless, impossible fights. We ran back into the site of that concentrated horror, and I had just long enough to think that Wizardry turned people loopier than I'd always thought.
It was chaos. Wardens and the few trainees who'd been "lucky" enough to watch today's trial were locked in a desperate two-pronged battle. The younger members of the audience were occupied with what was once a man and might, technically still be considered a warlock. His limbs were stretched out and bent oddly at the joints, more like the legs of a kangaroo than anything you'd see on a human naturally.
He had a shield up against them, and they were pounding away at it. It must've been hooked into something potent to take that kind of damage and still keep going, but it was obviously distracting him enough to give the Senior members of the council seem leeway with the Outsider.
The Outsider was...bulbous. It wasn't as tall vertically as me, but it managed to top most of the others in the room, and it was wide. Not all over, but especially on the top, it bulged oddly. Limbs extended and jointed like branches, but they bubbled. Whatever it had inside of it moved constantly, visible even through its skin -- an odd combination of something like grayish-blue fur and slime -- in violent and occasionally conflicting directions. It looked painful and disturbing.
My sense of the world said it shouldn't be standing even on three legs, that gravity should've brought it down immediately even if the spindly, distorted lower extremities could support that amount of weight when properly distributed. The...arms, I guess, were strangely elastic.
And of course, there was an absence emanating from it, darkening with every other bolt of magic tossed at it.
The only Outsider I'd ever had experience with before was He Who Walks Behind, and believe me when I say that it turned me into a gibbering, paranoid wreck for years after I managed to escape with my life by throwing myself at my fairy godmother and begging for help.
I still have nightmares, actually.
This wasn't The Walker, but that didn't exactly matter. An Outsider was bad news and we didn't want ANY of them loose in our world. The psychic emanations from this one were draining, nibbling at my walls and whispering into my mind that everything I'd ever thought about myself and the Council was right, and how could I expect to do anything good in the world?
I forced my shields tighter and concentrated. From what I could tell from the force of the intrusion, this one was trying to rip open a portal into our world.
I took all of this in in one quick look around the room, and then turned to Ana -- Luccio. "Help them," I hissed, nodding to the fight with the Warlock. It was both the safer and the more important fight, and she couldn't exactly hold her own right now with an Outsider
Fighting an Outsider is hard, and costly. Not least of which because they don't usually follow our world's physical laws of nature in some pertinent aspect.
We lived, mostly. I might even say we won. Mostly.
Somehow, the Blue Beetle was still in one piece when I left the shredded skeletal remains of the warehouse we'd warded for the trial. It seemed the Outsider's focus truly had been contained on us, or on one of us. That was good and bad: good because the attack was focused, which meant someone was controlling the chaos and Godzilla's older, uglier, less polite brother wasn't about to meet Chicagoland in an epic stompfest. It was bad because...well, someone was controlling the chaos. Who could summon that kind of power under the radar?
My mind went blank with dread thinking about it. It was almost enough to distract me my whole ride home from how, in the last couple of days, I'd helped kidnap a little girl who been protecting herself and her brother the only way she could and basically handed her over to die.
I was so tired that I blinked and found myself turning onto my street, having driven the route automatically and without any attention. I needed food, sleep and a shower, though the first two were interchangeable.
(I needed to call my brother. That wasn't possible.)
It was easier to let my mind go quiet than try to force myself to pay attention to a world that could spawn so much ugliness and hatred.
I was approaching my door when the other shoe dropped. A veil beside my doorknob rippled as I moved closer and even my exhausted mind noticed. I lunged, successfully pulling my blasting rod free of its confinement and nearly roasted a little girl and two probationary wardens.
It was only my experience with Molly's practicing that saved them. My apprentice is really good at veils in particular and illusions in general. She'd taken to trying to find a veil I couldn't See through yet, so she could follow me around even more, so I'd gotten used to random friendlies popping out of barely-noticeable warps in space.
I shuffled everyone into the house quickly and got Selena settled on the couch with some crackers I'd scrounged up. I was pretty sure they were only a little stale.
Then I pulled Mason and Owen both into my bedroom and pushed the door mostly closed to help cut down the noise. Then I gave them my most intimidating stare, which is actually pretty intimidating.
"They said to go for help--" Owen said, almost in control of his words, though the nervous twitches gave away his fright.
"They were going to kill her!" Mason interrupted. "She was just protecting herself, Harry!"
I looked at them both, and they went quiet. "What exactly did you expect to happen when we made the call?" I asked quietly.
"I thought...the Doom..." Owen shook his head and looked down, and I knew he'd known, on some level, what was going to happen, but he'd hoped he was wrong, that the White Council would be the Good Guys.
They are. That doesn't make them nice.
Mason just frowned stubbornly at my chin, unwilling to look higher and chance a soulgaze when I was already pissed. "We had to save her," he said forcefully. "We saw a chance to get her out and took it."
I stared down at him. "And you brought her here."
Mason finally cracked, looking away. "We didn't know where else to go."
They looked less like fully grown adults about to embark on a harrowing life policing the magical world and more like young men who had, up till now, lived comparatively sheltered lives, never having encountered something so immutable or unbending as the Council's justice. The biggest problem with the 20th century, I've found, is the false sense of security. The good guys always win and the bad guys always die: maybe it happens in the sequel, but they still die in a karmically appropriate manner.
"OK," I said. Because I wasn't immune to it myself, as evidenced by the massive trail of destruction my chivalric tendencies have left in my wake.
I considered and discarded the idea of increasing the strength of my wards after a moment's thought: the heavy-duty, batten down the hatches, damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead wards would've been safer, but it also would've stood out like a beacon and attention was the last thing I wanted to draw until I knew beyond a doubt what had happened.
I asked them to give me their side of the story before I went in and traumatized a young girl even more than I already had, because it made me feel better to watch them squirm. It was a petty revenge for putting me between a rock and the White Council, but I'd take what I could get.
"When the Outsider came, we took the chance to run. We couldn't let them execute her--"
"She’s just a kid!"
"She was protecting her brother--"
"Someone should've DONE something."
Why didn't you? was the question they didn't actually ask.
I held up a hand, stemming the jumbled, but predictable explanation. "My feelings on these matters is well documented," I said quietly. "I was being watched closely at the trial and I was tailed for ten miles after I left."
They both looked sheepish. Then Mason's eyes widened. "Hey, where's your cloak?"
It took a little arguing, but mostly they were glad to have the mess off of their hands. They left as surreptitiously as I could coach them into being and I had a little girl under a death sentence from the White Council struggling against sleep on my couch.
Mouse gave me a doleful look.
"I wouldn't turn her in," I told him, feeling faintly hurt that he could even accuse me of it.
He huffed an apology and looked from me to Selena and back as though to explain.
"I know you're worried," I muttered, crossing over and crouching beside him. I buried a hand in his fur and gave him a good head rub while I thought about my options. As far as I could see it, practically speaking, I had two: Mab or Marcone.
"Damn it," I muttered.
"It's really depressing when the mobster crimelord is the lesser of two evils," I told Mouse. He huffed again, more amused than apologetic, but licked my hand sympathetically.
I stood, stretching for one long moment. I took my time, working out as many kinks as I could. I got the feeling the next several hours were going to be frantic.
I uncovered the trap door and moved down into my lab, leaving Mouse upstairs to keep Selena out of trouble. Packing up wasn't as hard as I'd feared, mostly because one night while I was still coming down off of a potion like magical speed -- but without most of the harmful side-effects of the mundane drug -- Bob and I had had a ridiculous conversation ultimately culminating in how we could actually match some of the effects of the spells in those Potter books.
It had taken some creative problem solving -- read: a long couple of bullshitting sessions -- but we eventually settled on a certain runic code carved into everything I wanted to pack, designed to compress the physical state of whatever they'd been carved into. It worked great for wooden boxes, and anything contained in them. It was less useful for my clothes, but that was mostly because I hadn't gotten around to replacing my dresser since the time I accidentally destroyed it experimenting with potions.
"Artare." I sent my will into a wooden square which was carved from the same wood as my storage boxes, and sympathetic magic caused all the similarly marked boxes of the same dark wood to shrink to a tenth of their size and weight. Don't ask me how, exactly: it was something Bob and I had managed to figure up when I was high and it wasn't as easy for me to grasp sober, for some reason.
"Woo!" Bob said. "We are good, Boss."
I smiled faintly. "Look Ma, no explosions?"
Bob's orange eyes flickered merrily. "Explosions? Nah, not with this rune set. Implosions were more likely. Or melting."
Well, I'm glad he'd waited to tell me. "We're going to have a talk about appropriate times to mention possible implosion," I said mildly. "Later. There might be some children's programming involved."
His glow dimmed a little. "Yes, Boss...uh, not that I'm not grateful to be getting a stay of execution or anything, but why not right now?"
I smiled a little vindictively. "Because we have to move, hence the packing."
Bob's eyes flickered as he put two and two together. "Aw, not the bag!"
I shrugged, not feeling particularly bad about it. "You know it's the only way I can transport you under the radar."
I got Bob packed up with everything else, ending up with a military duffel-bag stuffed to the brim with wizard's accouterments. The only non-wizardly thing I'd added were two gallon resealable plastic bags of food for Mister and Mouse.
Then I headed up to get Mister into his carrier and get him, Mouse and Selena into the car.
Selena was still quiet -- and I couldn't blame her after the day she'd had -- but it was obvious she was getting a kick out of riding with Mouse and Mister. Mouse stayed in the front seat, half hanging out his window, and Selena slumped low in the back on my request, hopefully looking like your typical sullen teenager rather than a fugitive from Old Testament-style justice.
Driving across town wasn't too bad without rush hour traffic. It felt like forever, but that was mostly because I knew at the end of the journey I'd be selling my soul. Mostly.
I checked rear view mirror. Selena had propped her arm on Mister's carrying case and her head was lolling back on the seat, asleep. I didn't blame her. I'd barely slept at all when the Council had kept me for trial. I hadn't slept much recently, actually, with all the insanity of the Black Council and open war. I figured I couldn't say anything about her state when I bet I had identical bags under my own eyes.
It was worth staying up a bit longer, though. Selena was magical, she needed someone who could train her. Marcone could find someone trustworthy -- or Gard could. Who else did I know that would take care of her without using her that could keep the White Council away?
The faeries were the only other possible option. Seriously, only the faeries. And really, they weren't an option, with me involved. Fairies enjoyed mortal children and I wouldn't do that to this kid, not as messed up as she already was. I still had the occasional nightmare about my own Fairy Godmother.
No. I was right to be wary, but Marcone wouldn't hurt her. For all of his other -- gaping -- character flaws, he was heavily invested in the well-being of children for personal reasons.
My well-being, on the other hand...
Yeah. Wary was probably the least of what I should be, but that implied a sense of caution and planning. I didn't have time for much of either right now, not knowing how long it would take the Wardens to catch up to us.
I pulled into the parking lot of Executive Priority at 11:07 AM and sat for a moment. I still had no idea what I was going to say. Selena woke up when I turned the car off and we stared at each other in the rearview for a minute. "Showtime kiddo. I'd make a Wizard of Oz reference, but it's in worse taste than usual, and if we’re lucky, I'm the only wizard involved.”
I left my duffel in the car for now, but slipped the shoulder bag carrying Bob out and over a shoulder. I didn't think John would say no -- he's been trying to get his hooks into me for years -- but I figured I'd have a hard time enough time getting passed security with Selena without bringing in a giant, suspiciously lumpy duffelbag.
I couldn’t leave Bob.
The sun was nearly at its zenith but it was still a comfortable temperature. Well, it would be for most people. I happened to be wearing my trenchcoat which, while being incredibly useful for the protective wards I'd laid on it, was heavy and black and probably going to give me heat stroke one of these days.
I hurried Selena, still a little groggy from her nap, into the high end brothel. It was one of those days that seem to make up my life.
I felt the wards -- mostly detection: it was hard to ward a building too heavily without a threshold and Executive Priority was too much about business to be a home, even if some of the girls did live there -- as we entered and I noticed Selena shiver. I moved a little closer, letting her know I was there. Her shoulders firmed up without looking at me.
I didn't get any hassle from the head security guard once he saw my card. His eyes didn't even linger on Selena, though she was clearly underage. I was a little impressed and a lot disgusted with his professionalism. I would've been hard pressed to keep my mouth shut if someone that looked like me brought kids that looked like Selena into a place with a reputation like Executive Priority.
I told myself that getting angry at things that were convenient for me was counterproductive, and moreover, hypocritical since I was now essentially both a kidnapper as well as an accessory after the fact for a second kidnapping of the same kid.
I didn't chance the elevator with Selena. It was iffy at the best of times when it was just me and neither of us were really...calm, one could say. We were just faking it really well.
The climb was useful in that it distracted the part of me that started worrying the minute Mason and Owen had brought Selena to me. I'd known immediately what I'd have to do, and then suppressed that knowledge as deeply as I could.
Even now, I was trying to figure out what to say without really thinking about it. It wasn't easy.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in any of Marcone’s buildings, and I’d only ever been to Executive Priorty a few memorable times. Bob would say I was a prude, and I should've offered to join the Penthouse photoshoot I'd managed to interrupt.
(Actually, he had said that, and more besides, when I accidentally mentioned what had happened after I got home.)
When we cleared the stairwell and moved into the office waiting room, the secretary was waiting by the door. She didn't look surprised even though a slightly battered little girl and a man over six feet wearing a long black trenchcoat wasn't the usual thing you find even in less legit "spas."
I wondered which of the guards phoned up about us.
"He's going to help us," Selena said.
I paused. It was the first thing I'd heard her say since Mason, Owen and I had taken her from her apartment. It didn't sound like a question. I nodded anyway and the secretary opened the door for us.
Marcone was sitting behind his desk, Gard and Hendricks on either side. Stoic. Watchful. I stopped a few steps into the office. The door shut behind us with a distressing finality.
Stupid symbolism. I could tell John was waiting, and I wasn't interested in feeding this "significant" silence. "Hey, John. How've you been since the last time I saved your life?"
Marcone blinked, mentally stumbling over whatever dialog he'd been expecting and I felt better. At least I could still knock him off his stride.
"As well as you've been since the last three times I saved yours, I imagine," he said, recovering as quickly as he ever did. His money-green eyes narrowed as he looked at me and I met them squarely.
The moment was broken when Selena shifted closer to me. I set a hand on her shoulder. She didn't look at me but her hand was a fist clenched tightly in my coat. The bruises on her face looked worse under the fluorescent lighting and I made a note to make up a new batch of bruise balm.
I looked back at Marcone and tilted my head in question. He'd been gearing up to back me into a corner. What would he do now?
"Mr. Hendricks," he said quietly. Cujo looked at him blankly. "The young lady seems parched. Take her to the break room for refreshments."
There was a moment of silent communication between them and Hendricks' shoulders slumped just a little. "Yeah, Boss," he murmured.
I watched him thoughtfully as he closed the distance between us and Selena, and then focused on my temporary damsel. "This is Hendricks -- he never told me his first name. Maybe you can get it out of him in the break room? He'll look after you for a little while so I can talk to Baron Marcone."
Selena looked at me with a silent demand. I nodded just a little. Her mouth tightened but she faced Hendricks squarely, meeting his eyes briefly before looking back to the floor. I wanted to -- stand in front of her, give her something to lean on, hide behind; I didn't know what I wanted, just that I remembered being her age, my world completely shattered, alone. Nobody had helped me until it was nearly too late, and I was kneeling on the floor of a cold warehouse, and she was almost worse off than me, in that regard.
"It'll be OK, kid," I said, offering the only thing I could. "I promise."
"Interesting entrance, Harry," Marcone said mildly, after the door closed behind Hendricks and the kids. "Not quite as explosive as your usual."
I shrugged. "Well, you know, the Academy is cracking down on the rating system and we really wanted this show to open all over the country."
"Hm." Marcone leaned back in his chair and considered what he knew. He was waiting for me to speak first. Or maybe he just wanted me to stand here like an idiot for a while.
I didn't find out if he intended to speak. Gard broke the new silence between us. "The girl, she's magical," she said. "And...damaged. She should not have come into her power so early."
I looked at her for a moment and shrugged. "Yeah, well." I sighed. "That's part of the reason I'm here."
Motion brought my attention back to Marcone as he leaned forward intently, arms braced on his desk. "I'm listening."
"That job offer still open?" I asked as lightly as I could.
He went still. Gard went still. I wondered if there was a chance of getting out of this quickly, then remembered that this was my life and quick and painless had never been a blessing in it. I wouldn't say I've ever seen Marcone relaxed, exactly, but after I dropped that bombshell, he got so tense I worried a little for his blood pressure.
I briefly considered running back through our normal routine: I don't work for you, you scumbag, blackmailing bastard, etc...but...Selena. I couldn't afford to yank Marcone's tail right now. Not and make it through the night with my neck intact. "This conversation needs to be private."
Marcone's mouth twisted in suppressed anger. "Do you think I'm such a fool as that?" Gard leaned forward from her place beside Marcone, one hand moving beneath her deep blue jacket.
I held out my hands in the universal sign of 'please don't shoot me' and shook my head. "Not from your people!"
They both lost the dangerous edge, but the slight atmosphere of relaxation I'd built had definitely faded.
"We can certainly offer privacy," John said. "In fact, one could say we already have it." The room was, of course, empty but for themselves.
I shook my head slowly.
"From whom must we shield our words?" Gard asked.
I frowned a little, conflicted, and finally just told myself to stop dragging my feet and get on with it. I was in too deep already. "The White Council."
Marcone's eyes narrowed, rather than widened, in his surprise. He slowly sat back, keeping his eyes on me.
I bore the attention quietly.
Finally John inclined his head and waved me forward.
Confused and nervous but not having many options, I obeyed. Even so, I wasn't able to avoid thinking about parlors and flies. I was a step away from the desk when I felt a faint shiver of magic over my skin, and John raised his hand to stop me.
A circle closed around us, cutting us off completely from outside magical influence.
I instinctively tensed for my blasting rod.
Marcone and Gard were both ready with their own weapons. Marcone was holding a knife -- where it had been and how he'd pulled it without me seeing it was a mystery -- and Gard had her hand on the hilt of a short sword. We all stopped moving at about the same time.
Adrenalin was pumping through me, firing off all kinds of instincts that had been screaming exposed, exposed for the last three hours because of the situation.
Gard and Marcone were obviously reacting to my potential threat, so I deliberately relaxed, holding both hands loose at my sides, well away from my blasting rod. "Warning," I said. My voice was nearly normal, only a little raspy from his unpleasant surprise. I coughed, swallowed to dampen my newly dry throat, and tried again. "Warning me is good."
Gard cautiously shifted to a more comfortable stance for standing, rather than battle. Marcone set the knife on the desk in front of him. "I will keep that in mind," he said, green eyes intent on my face.
Too smart, I thought. I always did feel a step behind in conversations with John Marcone.
"This is sufficient for our talk, I trust."
I nodded, my pulse slowly going back to normal. "Yeah, yeah...this is really goo--wait," I said, realizing something. "Do you have a circle built into your floor?"
Marcone smiled faintly. "Luckily for you."
I blinked. "Lucky. For me," I said. "Right." I shook off the -- very -- short list of reasons John Marcone would NEED this kind of circle, since most of them started with H and ended in Dresden.
"What have you found out about the other Signatories?" I asked, after casting about for a way to start this conversation.
Marcone arched an eyebrow. I sighed. "I need to know where to start. What do you know about the White Council?"
John leaned back in his chair, apparently completely at ease having to look up at me. "They are the governing body for mortal magic users," he said thoughtfully. "They do not tend to employ themselves for the small-time users, but rather save their efforts for the large supernatural threats."
To themselves, was unspoken but clearly stated. I didn't even think about denying it. "OK, that's as good a place as any," I said, leaning his hip on the desk since he'd probably be standing a while. "You know they're the governing body, which indicates the existence of rules and laws."
Marcone nodded slightly. "Good. Well, there are seven Laws of Magic. The others aren't important right now. The third and fourth Laws involve mental invasion and enthrallment of one human's will to another."
I tugged absently at my shield bracelet, getting it back in place. I tried not to remember ritual and fire, and the slow, inexorable pacing of Death behind me. "Selena's mother was abusive."
Marcone's eyes narrowed, though he was otherwise excellent at controlling his response. Gard shifted slightly, drawing my attention. "Her magic responded to protect her," she said as though answering some question.
I shrugged. "I don't know," I said after a short pause. "I only saw her keep her mom in line when her brother was home."
Marcone put his hand on mine, stilling my absent fingers from playing with the different charms on my shield bracelet. "She has been removed from this situation," he said, eyes dark. "Why are you here, Dresden?"
I sighed, rolling my head to the side to work out the kinks, and forced my shoulders to relax. "She was removed three days ago," I said, and Gard's head dropped an inch in my periphery. When I looked, she was looking at me, head cocked in question. I sighed. "Yeah."
John looked between us blankly. "What does that mean?"
I licked my lips. "When practitioners break the Laws, there's only one punishment."
John went still. "She was taken...to be executed?" he said, voice completely blank. His hand fell from mine to land limply on the desk as his thoughts raced behind unreadable eyes. "You're the one who found her."
I shifted my weight. "Me and a team," I said, voice soft as I thought back to Mason and Owen's faces. "I would have...done things differently. If I'd been able."
Marcone looked at me, face unreadable. Finally, he nodded.
I sighed. "There was a trial this morning," I said, betraying the order which I've been a part of since I was sixteen with every word. I wasn't even sure if I was even a little sorry. "There's a way...sometimes. You know Molly? My apprentice?"
"She's under the Doom of Damocles right now. It's...think of it as a stay of execution."
"Until she demonstrates that she isn't a threat," I said, shrugging. "I was under mine for...12 years, I guess." God, what a long time. And I hadn't even thought about it, not really, since it was lifted. Not until Molly.
Marcone's eyes were hot. "And now, this girl..."
"Selena," I supplied.
"Selena, then...she's under this Doom?"
I shifted uncomfortably. "Uh. Not. Exactly." I smiled wryly. "I'm trying to figure out if I'm a kidnapper or a rescuer."
Marcone sat back in his chair, staring at me for a long moment. Then a huff of laughter burst from him, followed by others until he was actually chuckling.
I scowled. "Yeah, yeah, now we're both scumbags," I muttered. "Hooray."
"No, no, you...ah, Mr. Dresden..." John waived a hand and actually smiled. “You misunderstand.”
He looked almost...fond. Creepy.
"No," Marcone repeated. "I believe you are the most realistic example ever crafted for a moral absolute. Even to your own detriment, moving under mountainous burdens, with threats of all types looming from enemy and ally, you still act the knight. It's astonishing you haven't pulled a sword from a stone yet..."
I had to look away. Open admiration? From John Marcone? It was just too strange, alien in the...relationship we'd crafted from saving each other and then trying to kill each other, only to repeat it the other way over the years. He could appreciate my skills, but admiring my moral fortitude? What strange alternate dimension had I fallen into?
"Yeah, I'm Dudley Doright. Sword in the Stone's next week. So, I got the girl out during a distraction," I didn't need to bring up Owen and Mason's roles. What Marcone didn't know, he couldn't perjure himself over later. "The thing is, the White Council isn't just going to tell me I can keep her since she followed me home."
Marcone nodded after a moment's time, expression falling back into its more neutral lines. "I assume that is why you brought her to me," he said. "As Baron, I have certain privileges which you may not take advantage of as a Warden."
I tilted his head. "Yes and no," I said. "Yes, that's why we're here; no, I'm not a Warden."
John's eyebrows arched up. "Ah...and how recent is this change, may I ask?" he asked shrewdly.
I cocked a brow. "Oh, pretty recent."
"Yeah." I sighed. Marcone was watching me avidly. I winced as I forced the words out: "So I never thought I'd say this, but. Please don't let them kill me."
"You speak as though they will ask my permission," Marcone said leadingly.
I nodded slowly. "If you vouch for the kid, she's your problem. You can take responsibility for all the practitioners in your realm, technically, as Baron."
Marcone nodded and I continued. "The issue is how you got her. I was a Warden, but I'm not anymore. And we've...worked together in the past, so the lines are blurry."
Worked together. Christ. That was one way to put it. Enemies and allies in turns. Werewolves, Denarians and vampires, oh my. I shook the thought off and continued, "If I hadn't quit, they could make a case of me betraying my office. But they can't say that. They can't just attack me outright, because..."
Marcone tilted his head, something on his face -- amusement, maybe -- saying he'd already worked out what I was about to say, and was enjoying every minute I squirmed in discomfort. The rat bastard. "Because an argument could be made that I was only looking out for the best interests. Of my...my lord."
"Your what?" Marcone said, leaning forward. His amusement was palpable now. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that."
"You are a horrible person," I told him bluntly. "And a jerk. And other not good things."
Marcone snorted, propping his chin up on one hand. "Yes, yes," he murmured. "You have a way with words, but tell me...is that really the approach you want to take when you're asking me for a favor? Especially considering how you've declined my own requests in the past."
He was a bastard, but it wasn't untrue: I stood straight, hands hanging loose at my sides, and started really laying my cards out. "I said no to being your pawn. That's still not on the table."
Marcone looked at me thoughtfully. "Ah, yes. What, exactly, are you offering?"
I blinked. That easy? He let it go that easily. "Uh." John smirked faintly and my mouth snapped shut. "Jerk," I reminded myself. "Uh, yeah, so. Offering," I continued, louder. "Well, I can upgrade your wards," I said thoughtfully. "Better than you've got now--no offense." I nodded to Gard.
She inclined her head slightly, but watched me curiously. "Better?"
I shrugged. "Hm. More flexible. You've got 0 -- nice monitoring wards, but useless in most offensive circumstances -- and magical bunker, and not much between. This place, for instance: I could mesh Bilgames' Wall and a Stygian Net, to start, which would give you the Watch Tower elements and still be useful in an attack."
Her eyebrows inched up. I shrugged. I may be self-deprecating, but I'm not incapable of acknowledging when I do something well, and protective wards are something I've really worked at over the last few years. They weren't easy to lay and get right, nor were the ones I'd named the best known, which would make them harder to disassemble. I looked back at John.
Marcone cocked his head. "Go on."
I forced a strained smile. "Well, I'll help with anything supernatural you need," I said. And then frowned. "Uh, let me qualify that."
Marcone nodded. He was fighting back laughter, it was pretty obvious. "Of course."
I swallowed the first two things I wanted to say so I could hopefully keep breathing tomorrow. "Anything swings first, I'll help with," I said. "Scrying for lost people, I'll help with. I won't hurt people who haven't hurt you, and I won't make it easier for you to traffic drugs and--" I paused, having sidetracked myself by a question that I finally had the chance to ask. "I never understood why you wanted me in the first place," I said. "Knowing how much I won't do for you."
Marcone held up a hand. "I understand your boundaries in those areas," he said. "Assume I've agreed to them."
I frowned at that but consoled myself that we hadn't spit into our palms and shaken on anything yet. Yeah, a small voice piped up in my head. I could just end up dead when the council comes calling. The moral high ground will do me a lot of good, then.
Firmly bitch-slapping my subconscious back into my mental attic, I returned my attention to the conversation. "I've got my bulletproofing wards for your stuff," I said thoughtfully, casting for anything specific I could really offer. Finally I shrugged and looked Marcone square in the eyes. "Frankly, I'm game for anything except those things we're assuming you know I won't do. And I'm creative enough to come up with ideas for issues that may not have a traditional magical solution."
Marcone nodded, expression neutral. Pleasant, bland. Blank.
I hated it. "It doesn't really cost you anything," I said, to fill the silence. "I mean, the council will be pissed but...they've got other issues to deal with." The Black Council still weighed heavily on my mind, but I wasn't going to spell it out for him until I had a reason to. Let him think I meant the vampires.
"Questions," Marcone said, apropos of nothing, as far as I could tell.
"You know the value of truth, dealing with the Fae as you do," Marcone murmured. "One of our conditions will be that you only speak the truth to me." I nodded, because that was actually my standard operating procedure. When you work with words and the true natures of things, you don't want any confusion in your spell-casting.
He continued. "There are loopholes for answering though, half-truths, refusal to answer -- I want three questions you must answer entirely."
I glared at him. "I can't -- if you ask me about someone else's secrets, I can't--"
Marcone stared at me quietly and I took a deep breath, counting down from ten to fight the panic. It never helped and I didn't have time for it. If Marcone was going to be like this, I could take Selena and go...somewhere.
Where? Chicago wasn't safe for us if Marcone was against us. Eb's farm was a last resort, since I didn't want to put him between me and the council again, not when it would probably end with one or both of our heads on the block.
I'd have to take her to Demonreach while we sorted out where to go after. "I haven't committed crimes against you," I said quietly, the first decision made. I opened my eyes, calmer at least, for knowing what I would be doing specifically. "I request peace from the realm while my party and I withdraw to higher ground."
Marcone was watching me closely again. Confused, maybe? I didn't look away and finally he sighed, shaking his head faintly. "You truly are the most stubborn creature I have met, Harry Dresden. You won't take that girl anywhere."
I licked my lips. "Uh, unless you've got a good plan to explain how she got to you..."
"My liege-man brought her to me, of course," Marcone said sardonically, head tilting.
"Do keep up, Harry," Marcone murmured. "We've made an agreement: you work for me, dealing with my 'magical problems' as you so...succinctly outlined," he smirked faintly.
I sneered faintly, but really, it was just instinct at that point.
He continued, ignoring it. "In return, I will intercede before the White Council, recognizing you officially as my agent..." he spoke the words slowly, with the air of one savoring a long-sought victory.
I resisted the urge to punch him. I figured he couldn't ignore that, and we wouldn't be very convincing allies before the White Council if they approached while we were duking it out.
"For my agreement, you will answer three questions in full, with no half-truths, sworn on your name--"
My eyebrows arched sharply. "You've got more nerve than I thought--"
"With the option for two vetoes."
I stopped. Two vetoes. It was better, but...I narrowed my eyes sourly. A deal like this with John Marcone was worse than a deal with the Fae. I could say no, we hadn't agreed to the new terms, and he'd probably let me out. Maybe he'd even keep Felipe safe for me without wanting anything, with how much danger me and his sister would be in.
Did I really want to drag a frightened, traumatized kid on the run from society? Was avoiding discomfort worth pain? But still, there were secrets I bore that weren't mine to tell, that I couldn't tell, by oath. "There are some magics that still the tongue," I said slowly. "No matter what, I won't be able to talk about those things. I'll swear if the topic is one of them, and it won't be one of my vetoes."
John thought about that for a long moment, and then nodded faintly. I thought furiously. "If I use one of my vetoes on a question, the topic is off limits unless I choose to talk about it. You can't just ask again the next day."
He nodded more quickly this time, with a slight air of impatience.
Tough. I thought of any other way I could safeguard my loved ones. Thomas, Elaine. People he knew, peripherally, were in my life, but whose covers had kept them under the radar of their respective enemies -- and mine -- for years.
I searched his face for any hint of deception, any indication that he knew of a loophole that would trap me, by my magic, into betraying myself or my friends.
Gentleman John looked back at me, money-green eyes empty as a glass window. Blank as a tiger's. There really weren't many other options, and I had a little girl who I'd nearly marched to her own destruction.
"OK." I said, sealing a pact with my own personal devil.
He smiled slowly. "I'll have my lawyers draw up a new contract."
Nothing was really settled, exactly: or rather, we hadn't hammered out the (slightly) less important details like living arrangements for the kids – neither of us was willing to leave Selena’s brother in that house -- and instruction for Selena, the contract Marcone had casually mentioned after we'd roughly outlined our...arrangement. Unfortunately, all of that had to wait until after we dealt with the Wardens at the door. Selena was tucked away safely, at least.
The White Council had chosen its representatives with a flare for the dramatic. Hensley, who I'd worked with in the past -- to the pleasure of no one involved -- for his history with the area and dislike of me, and a prissy Wizard I'd met once or twice, a researcher…probably accompanying Hensley to find a loophole for him when he tried to kill me.
"I wonder if they realize how pretentious they look." I mused. Hensley was standing in the doorway in a wide, battle ready stance, his cloak rolled over his shoulder for mobility, one hand on the hilt of his sword. "I mean, the phallic imagery alone..."
Marcone looked at me incredulously and I rolled my eyes. "At least I do it on purpose," I muttered. "I'm genre-savvy."
Marcone's face smoothed back to its usual neutral lines. "Of course," he murmured. "Try not to antagonize the Wardens, Harry."
I resisted the urge to insist on a proper title for the moment, a sacrifice for a united front. Even so, I couldn't completely curb all of my natural urges. “Yes, boss.” Well, I guess I don't have to breathe...
Marcone didn't respond this time, but something in his face caught my attention. I thought about his expression as I split my attention between him and the Council's representatives. Then it came to me: he was amused! Actually amused, and not sadistically, I'm going to dangle you over a pit of werewolves and watch you squirm while I stroke me long-haired cat and hold the city for ransom amused. And he was letting me see.
...weird. I forcibly turned my attention away from the world-shaking signs that Marcone could be an actual human being about something other than kids. "Hensley," I called jovially. "Why didn't you call? I could've told John you liked the red carpet treatment."
Hensley couldn't maintain almost eye-contact with Marcone and sneer convincingly at me. I'm pleased to see two weeks' conditioning neatly brought the full force of Hensley's disgust in my direction for the best glare he could muster.
"Warden Hensley," John murmured, pulling Hensley's attention back like a tennis match. "Welcome to my realm in the spirit of treating with peaceful intent." The ritual words finalized the nature of the visit. Hensley's hand lingered on the hilt of his sword, eyes on me, before they drifted slowly to Marcone and his hand fell away.
I smiled pleasantly at the suspicious looks the researcher shot my way. Hensley caught it as he was responding to John and scowled. "Dresden, I thought I knew how low you could sink, but you managed to surprise me. I should have known you'd do something like this. A leopard can't change its spots."
"Do something like what? Are you...are you impugning my honor?"
"The girl, Dresden. We know you took her. You knew she had been sentenced, after a proper trial, for her crimes."
"An abused little girl did the best she could to protect her brother, and all you can say is 'I knew it was you who got her out with her neck in tact'? Well, you got me. I'm a fiend. A dastardly villain even. Watch me twirl my mustache while I tie Ms. Daisy to the railroad tracks unless she signs over the deed to her ranch."
"You admit you took her from her rightfully earned fate?"
Marcone cut in. "He admits nothing."
Hensley looked at him, face going blank. "If Dresden took the girl -- and we know she's here -- then sheltering him could get you in trouble, Baron. Something to consider."
Marcone smiled. "Oh, it could get me a great many things," he said thoughtfully. His considering look didn't comfort me much. "But trouble of the legal nature, at any rate, is not one of them. As Baron, it is perfectly acceptable for my vassals to look after my interests. Wizard Dresden was doing just that, collecting the child and bringing her to me."
"You regularly kidnap underage warlocks?" Hensley asked skeptically.
"I rescue children from their abusers," Marcone corrected, bland tone sharpening a hair. "Among other things."
Hensley sneered at that while I blinked, honestly shocked and a little awed by Marcone's gift for understatement.
Other things. Now the life of a mafia crimelord is other things?
"The girl was found by a contingent of Wardens," Hensley rumbled, clearly trying to regain control of his temper. "She was tried by the White Council."
Marcone nodded, face solemn. "And now your rituals are complete. The girl, Selena Martin, is a resident of Chicago, and any sentencing for a guilty verdict, which I certainly would never attempt to overturn, is mine to give by rights as her lord."
The prissy wizard cleared his throat. I looked at him and saw the girding of the loins expression and had to interject. "You should get that looked at," I said. "Flu season is coming up. Wouldn't want to mess up an invocation."
OK, implying he had to invoke magic rather than evoke it was a little petty, but a little pettiness is one of the things I hadn't ever denied myself in life. And really, it wasn't like I'd never had to invoke a higher power myself. Recent exploits with certain fossilized dino-bones and the Lord of the Hunt were only the first things that spring to mind. But I'm pretty well known for holding my own with the heavy-hitters, even without clutching someone's coat tails, while Hensley...wasn't.
So sue me. He's an ass.
Marcone interferes before Hensley can do anything but turn red in anger. "Do you have any other concerns today, Warden Hensley?"
"Is he right?" Hensley asked Bookish Warden abruptly, completely giving up the ghost of diplomacy. I should really learn that guy's name. "Can they just do this?"
Bookish nods, a frown pulling at the strangely tight skin of his face in odd ways. Marcone’s men open the door behind them in a clear invitation to leave, and Hensley turns with some reluctance. I wave at them and manage to pull another scowl before the door closes behind them.
I turned to Marcone. “That went well.”
He snorted, one hand rising to cover his mouth. I couldn’t be sure if he was hiding a smile or a frown of despair. I hoped for the frown.
After a moment, composure regained, he pulled out the contract he’d had his lawyers fax over. “Ms. Gard will be back to act as witness once she’s seen the Wardens out. Have you finished reviewing all of the clauses?”
I hadn’t, and he knew it. I snatched the contract from him and sighed, flipping to where I’d left off on the fifteenth page. The fifteenth. If only I could let Bob out to help...
I scowled at Marcone before turning back to the dense pages of text.