I should have known something wicked this way came the minute the mysterious detectors started going up around the boundaries of my city.
We'd all seen the news by then-- or heard it, for those of us who have trouble with TVs-- about the big robot battle in Egypt, too much of an international incident for the government to cover up the way they had the previous 'industrial accident' in Mission City. But I hadn't connected 'sufficiently advanced science' to 'the fundamental energies of creation and life itself', not yet. I was still stuck on the concept that the mechanical constructs on the news were aliens; it seemed more likely that they were experimental war machines gone rogue, like oversized Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots, than genuine intelligences from another planet.
I know, I know. You'd think a guy who lived with a Foo dog, had brownies cleaning his apartment, regularly walked to work through the fringes of Faerie, and had a vampire for a brother might be a little more open-minded. But there are things wizardly private detecting and Warden work really don't prepare a guy for, even if his name is Harry Dresden, and an invasion of extraterrestrial sentient robots is one of them.
It didn't help that virtually everyone I was on good terms with in the community-- Warden, werewolf and wyldfae alike-- considered them a mundane hazard: exotic and highly dangerous, but best left to mortal authorities.
We couldn't have been more wrong. Luckily, they underestimated us as well.
Magic's been around as long as there've been sentient beings on Earth to use it. Legends of wizards and mages-- and in older times, gods and demigods-- exist as far back as we have written and oral records. But as far as I know, no one's ever figured out exactly how humans developed the ability to tap into it, or how it came about that life on this planet generates such a multi-purpose, endlessly renewable energy source in the first place. It didn't originate behind the Outer Gates or in the Nevernever; as powerful as their residents are, the most coherent of the ancient literature suggests that they didn't even know we were here until we caught their attention. It's not our souls, either; Soulfire can feed it, but it's an entirely separate wellspring, as I've had cause to discover. And it's not the simple bioelectric charge of our nervous systems. It's something else altogether.
Something, I would later discover, that all started with a meteor crash in what would one day be Nevada and continued with a construction project in Egypt millennia later. In 17,000 BC. The hand of Primus was already meddling in human affairs long before Eve offered that apple to Adam.
But back when those columns with their red blinking lights started going up along every major artery into every major city, all I knew was that they offended every practitioner with enough magical ability to manipulate the environment. They sent out fields that prickled against the skin like malevolent, thorny wards out to a several hundred yard radius. The junior Wardens in my area fielded dozens of calls in just the first few days, and the Paranet lit up like a Christmas tree all around the country.
They were turning up in Britain, too. And every other country mundanely allied to the United States of America. And while they interfered with any magic around them, they didn't seem to be magical themselves-- they didn't 'taste', for lack of a better word, of any particular flavor of power-- and a simple circle was enough to defuse them.
They were something important, because every government installing them was very quick to replace any detector we took off the grid. But the Senior Council had filed them as an irritant, and not a threat in themselves: even if they were meant to be the modern version of 'witch finders', they were easy enough to avoid. The order went out to ignore them, apart from a few careful research projects. So I added them to my pewter map of Chicago, set up a personal ward at both home and office that would resonate on the same frequency just in case, and reluctantly went back about my business.
Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I hadn't let it go. If we might have been able to do something about the casualties in D.C. If the subterfuge with the Xantium would have been necessary. The lives lost before the detectors finally went off in Chicago could have been drastically reduced, if not avoided altogether. But that would have meant crossing lines the White Council set down back in the days of the original Merlin; it would have just been me, along with maybe a handful of my allies.
And if I had... I might not have been where I needed to be when the hammer really came down. Right here, in my city. Where only one other wizard lives in residence. Two of us, to protect millions.
Like I said. The hand of Primus has been meddling in human affairs for a long, long time.
I'll have to ask Michael about that, one of these days. It adds interesting implications to the fact that wizards often work hand in hand with the Knights of the Cross, but never take up a Sword themselves. Do God and Primus play chess together? I have to admit, I'm a little afraid to find out the answer.
The wards roused me from a dead sleep the day the sky came crashing down on us. There'd been a surge of supernatural criminal activity ever since the reports started coming in about the chaos at the National Mall two nights before, and I'd run myself and Molly ragged trying to rein it all in. It took me a few minutes to recognize the angry prickling along my nerves for what it was, then stumble out of bed into a pair of creased, worn jeans and scoop a mostly-fresh shirt up off the floor. By the time I'd shoved my feet into a pair of sneakers, my Dogosaurus Rex was on point, teeth bared in a snarl as he waited by the front door.
A second surge of prickling energy made me twitch, and I kicked the rug aside to gain access to my subbasement lab. "Sorry, boy," I apologized to Mouse, then pelted down the stairs to throw the cover off my scale map of Chicago. "Gotta find out where they're headed."
Better than four square miles of the city center were represented by tiny metal figurines magically attuned to its actual features; I generally used the model for scrying purposes, and that morning was no exception. I took a deep breath, roughly centering and calming my nervous energy, and brushed a finger over the representation of one of the detectors to tune myself to its frequency.
Two small boxy shapes-- small in comparison to actual vehicles, though I got the impression they were larger than ordinary cars-- limned in red were making a beeline through the city toward the downtown area.
"Stars and Stones," I breathed. "They're for the robots?"
That had all kinds of surprising implications; I'd really thought, until that moment, that the detectors had something to do with the Black Council or another clandestine government group meddling with magic. Though, the presence of the robots themselves wasn't that much of a surprise, given the army that had arrived in D.C. around thirty-six hours before. At least, according to the map, there were only two of--
Every muscle in my body suddenly seized at once just as the two vehicles rolled to a stop near the model of Trump Tower. The entire perimeter of the model city suddenly lit with a sullen red glow, and the trigger nudge of the wards kept up a continuous fire for several seconds, frying my nervous system like a taser. Yeah, I'd have to rethink that warning method in future. Dozens of the things had just crossed the city limits, and whatever they were there for probably wasn't benevolent.
I'd heard what kind of wreckage even a few of them tended to leave behind when they fought in public. I bared my teeth as the spasms faded from my system, then struggled back to my feet and wobbled up the ladder. I placed a few quick calls, mostly to people much better suited to see to civilian evacuation than an offensive wizard, then shrugged on my working gear. It took only a moment to don my duster, load it up with my blasting rod and a heavy duty pistol, and retrieve my staff from the umbrella stand. I had braided force rings on every finger, handy for fending off massive robot feet rather than getting stomped in a close quarters struggle; my upgraded shield bracelet clasped around my wrist; and a few extra goodies I'd been working on over the last couple of years tucked away in hidden pockets. They weren't exactly field ready, but if I was lucky they'd serve as aces up my sleeve.
Harvest our resources, would they? Invade my city? Fuck that noise.
I wrenched the door open, Mouse growling impatiently at my side, and headed for the center of the invaders' activity. One of the pair that had arrived first at the tower had to be the arrogant asshole from the news, and it would be my pleasure to check his ego for him. You might say I'm kind of a specialist in that.
I parked the Beetle within sight of the clot of screaming, pointing pedestrians and emergency vehicles and looked up, searching for a glint of moving metal. Even braced for it, they were a jaw-dropping sight. I'd been right; there were two of the aliens up there, each dozens of feet tall if I wasn't misjudging the perspective, one all sharp angles of rusting silver and the other a majestic, faded red. They were strangely humanoid, like many of their species-- bipedal, with two glowing eyes, moving parts that resembled jaws, and other recognizable facial features. The red one even had a beard. A spike of doubt embedded itself into my thoughts, for perusal later: if they'd only come to Earth six years ago or so, why had they so clearly copied their forms from organic models? Were they human-built after all... or, scarier thought, was this not the first time they'd visited?
I'd get my chance to ask that question later. But in the bright light of that Chicago morning, with screams ringing in my ears and an army of mechanical monsters swarming toward me, was not the time to hesitate. I gathered myself and Listened for just a moment, forehead furrowed as I tried to narrow my perceptions to just the upper spire of the building and not the crowd surging around me.
Either they weren't speaking much, or they were mostly using radio communications, because I was only able to pick out a few words. But those few words were enough to send a chill through my veins: Seal off the city.
That was what the army was for. Grimly, I pulled a metal bracer from one deep pocket of my duster, a metal arm-guard I'd spent several days etching with symbols to align it with electrical currents. Electricity was not my preferred element; I usually worked with fire, and defaulted to wind whenever fire was inappropriate, so use of the others tended to require more preparation. I'd seen some of my allies use shocks to enormous effect, though, and when the robots had first started showing up in the news it had occurred to me that combined with one of a wizard's natural weaknesses, it might prove an effective weapon against such foes.
I slipped the bracer on over my right arm, the one I usually used for offensive spells, and aimed it up toward the figures pacing so far above.
I took a deep breath, focused my will to a laser-sharp point, and shouted my chosen spellword.
I staggered as the energy left my system, shooting up the side of the building. Luckily, I'd guessed right: I was rewarded by the sight of the two forms jerking erratically, then sagging with ponderous, staticky groans. I held my breath for a long moment, hardly daring to believe that it had worked-- then lurched backward, instinctively lashing out at the crowd behind me.
"Ventas Servitas!" I gasped, hoping I'd acted soon enough.
The wide-aimed wind nudged the gawkers away like a massive pillow, clearing a space in front of the building. Then two massive, multi-ton forms crashed down, twitching and leaking corrosive fluids. The silver one, who'd already had some sort of cranial damage before the fall, lay quiescent; but the red one turned its head slowly toward me.
"The good... of the many...." it rasped, in a weary old man's voice. Then it fell still, the glow fading from its eyes, whether dead or just shut down I couldn't tell.
Regardless, taking down the leaders hadn't solved the real problem. A moment later, a shadow fell over the scene-- and I looked up into the underside of a massive, alien ship. Others followed behind it. I took a harsh breath as they started dropping explosive shells on nearby bridges and overpasses and raised my bracer again.
I had a lot of work left to do. I hoped Murphy and Marcone were clearing the streets as planned. And that Molly found me soon.
I pointed up at the ship and gathered my will again. "Hexus!" I screamed with all my strength.
Then, as it began to sink toward the street, I started running toward my next opponent.