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Wizards For Hire

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In hindsight, I might've jumped the gun just a little when I first ran into the strange wizard with the scarred throat and British accent in my city. Just because almost every other wizard I'd ever encountered-- to my knowledge-- had been after my neck, my uncle's legacy, my life-challenged lab assistant, or all of the above, it didn't necessarily mean he would be too, right?

I admit, there was probably a little professional jealousy mixed up in my instant dislike of the man. What was I supposed to think when a scruffy, dark-haired guy wearing jeans and a leather jacket carted a library's worth of dusty tomes into a building a few blocks down from mine-- then hung up a shingle as a magical P.I.? It was as if someone had given him a casting sheet for Harry Dresden, Wizard For Hire, and he was auditioning as my replacement. Liz Fontaine, who runs the local P.I. licensing class and has seen a little of what I do, even said he reminded her of me. I wasn't quite sure how to take that.

Scuttlebutt at McAnally's, the local watering hole for those in the know, said he carried a collapsible sword rather than the stylish hockey stick I used as a staff, but he didn't seem to be a warden, either; his spells didn't pack quite the oomph usually required of an agent of the High Council. A pity; I might not like Morgan very much, but my so-called parole officer and his ilk usually are on the general side of order, if not actual good. And when I went by his office to confirm the rumors, I definitely felt the tingle of wizardly wards; they left the taste of tea leaves and gun oil on the back of my tongue. Pretty distinctive; I'd detected it at three of the recent crime scenes Murph had called me to consult on.

Yes, I recognize the taste of gun oil. Don't ask. Potion ingredients can get a little... esoteric, sometimes.

Mr. Wyndam-Pryce wasn't there at the time, but what little I could see through the windows wasn't any more reassuring. I might've done my best to distance myself from the Morningway reputation since the death of my uncle, and Bob had sheltered me from as much as a disembodied spirit could even while Uncle Justin was still alive, but I could hardly have avoided picking up some knowledge of the Black in that household. Enough to recognize an Orb of Thessulah when I saw one, anyway, and there's just never any good excuse for using an instrument of soul-trapping magic as a paperweight. It really didn't seem so small a leap to wonder if the foreign wizard poaching on my turf might be connected to the latest supernatural crime wave.

Most of the crimes that fall under the umbrella of Special Investigations are strange by definition, but that particular batch had been real head-scratchers, mostly property crimes and kidnappings impossible to explain by mundane means committed by 'guys in bizarre Halloween costumes'. Even Detective Kirmani was doing the air quotes over that one. The evidence included little things like surveillance tapes blanked by hex-magic, to fingermarks-- not prints, marks-- on the door of a safe where you'd expect crowbar scratches, to whole alleyways that stank of brimstone when my trusty ant vomit tracking spell abruptly dead-ended halfway down them, and so on and so forth. The stolen objects had been turning up in pawnshops in areas of the city that brushed up against Undertown, but some of the stolen people were still missing, and none of those that had been ransomed were talking.

Whether said kidnappees were keeping mum because they really didn't remember, or because they thought they'd be called crazy if they told the truth, none of Chicago's finest could tell-- and for once, my 'wizard' card was making potential witnesses more nervous, rather than less so. So I put two and two together, got five, and took Bob's skull down the street in my rucksack so he could help me stake out the competition, hoping to track the warlock to the scene of his next crime. Whatever creatures were actually carrying out the crimes, they had to have a summoner to direct them, and he was the most likely candidate by far.

On that particular evening, Scruffy Wizard Mark II was in fact at the office; I spent a long, chilly couple of hours lurking on a bench waiting for him as the sun went down, wondering if I ought to have reported my suspicions to Lieutenant Murphy first-- what if the guy was in there with the missing people, doing who knew what to them? It wasn't a pleasant thought. But I didn't dare jump the gun, either. I was already known as a crackpot down at the station; one of the few things that could make that worse, and cut my income accordingly, was to be a crackpot who cried wolf.

The electric lights in his storefront went out around the usual closing time, but he didn't leave, yet. Instead, I saw a flicker of candle flame behind the blinds, a sure sign that something wizardly was going down. I used candles all the time because it was just cheaper than having to replace bulbs every time I got a little emotional, but I knew that practitioners with less power or better control were often able to handle a more normal amount of technology in their lives-- unless they were actively using magic.

I couldn't tell what exactly he was up to without getting a lot closer; though I hoped Bob, being a ghost, was having better luck. But I didn't have to wait long to find out, regardless. The front door of the shop opened half an hour later, and Mr. Wyndam-Pryce came out, dressed as reported and carrying a crystal dangling from a string. I had about five seconds to recognize one of the other popular mediums for a tracking spell before it lit with a soft glow and pulled his hand in my direction-- and then his other hand swept into a pocket and came up with a revolver.

"Why am I not surprised," he sighed, immediately heading toward my position. I'm not the best at veils, but if I'd had a little more time to prepare, I could have downed the escape potion I carried around in my pocket; unfortunately, he'd already made me, and it's not like I'm all that difficult to recognize. I decided to brazen it out, surreptitiously palming the drumstick I used as a blasting rod and shaking my shield bracelet free of my sleeve as I stood. It would exhaust me, but I could stop bullets, if I had to.

"Well, you might not be surprised, but I am," I replied nonchalantly as he approached. "I know why I'm investigating a stranger in my town-- but why the hell are you trying to track me?"

Neither of us looked at each other head-on, not exactly eager to trigger a soulgaze with an unknown opponent, but I could see enough to tell that he was exactly as advertised. Except that his eyes were blue. It was a little eerie, actually. I don't make a habit of looking in mirrors much-- they can be gateways for things I'd rather not have knocking on my soul--but you'd be surprised how hard it is to avoid all reflections. The guy could have been my slightly shorter, slightly more polished cousin, easily.

"You are Harry Dresden, then." He arched an eyebrow, his body language tense and wary.

"And you're Wesley Wyndam-Pryce," I replied, rolling my eyes. "And now that the introductions are over, maybe you could answer the question?"

Instead of replying, he tucked the crystal away in a pocket of his coat-- and pulled back out a familiar-looking crystal orb, transparent no longer. It glowed with a faint sparkle of orange and black energy, and brought my heart right up in my throat. "I presume this is yours?" he said.

I couldn't even begin to imagine how he'd detected and trapped Bob without me knowing about it-- and I had no idea whether an Orb of Thessulah could actually interfere with the workings of his curse. If I broke it, would he return to the carved skull still weighing down the rucksack over my shoulder-- or would he disperse? I didn't want to risk it.

"He'd be more likely to say that I'm his," I snarked back. "Bob's not a thing-- or a pet. And caging up a harmless spirit in that thing isn't making me any less suspicious of you, just in case you wondered."

"Harmless?" The eyebrow arched further. "Am I not allowed to defend my space from foreign entities? I didn't see that on the list of your Laws."

"My Laws?" That took me aback. "The Laws are the same for everyone, even if-- maybe especially if-- you're British," I said, eyeing the Orb again and wondering if I was quick enough to get it out of his hand before he could block me. "And for your information, even having an Orb of Thessulah treads awfully close to the Fifth Law; soul magic is very, very frowned upon. What, did you educate yourself out of a grimoire or something? I would have thought the Wardens would have found you by your age."

For some reason, that seemed to calm the guy a little; the corner of his mouth curled up and he shook his head. "Perhaps in your dimension. The only widespread magical authorities back where I came from tend to be rather on the dark end of the magical scale. Are the Laws truly universally enforced?"

"Yeah, they-- wait. Your dimension?" My eyes widened. That could mean one of two things: either he was from beyond the Outer Gates, in which case he looked surprisingly human for an eldritch abomination and I'd be far better off running now than standing around waiting for him to express further displeasure at me, or he was from some other realm separated from the one I lived in by the fabric of the Nevernever. The fae lived in that space between; but I'd only ever heard vague rumors of people claiming to be from across it before. "What are you doing here, then?"

"Surviving, apparently." His tone was very dry. "I was killed-- or so I thought-- by a warlock named Cyvus Vail, in a place that could only be reached through a door in the fabric of reality. When I woke, he was dead, I was in a great deal of pain, and the door was no longer where it had been; I would guess that my dimension was not the only one in which he attempted to meddle, and control of the door required his conscious attention. Perhaps you may have heard of the Circle of the Black Thorn?"

The hair stood up on the back of my neck-- but it was not the time to get distracted by the subject of the potential traitors within the High Council. I barely even knew anything about it; I wasn't going to tell a potentially crazy stranger that my mentor, the one wizard I really trusted, had recently warned me about a 'Black Council' stirring up trouble among the supernatural communities. At least I could scratch 'eldritch abomination' off the list, though.

"Not that I know of," I said, cautiously. "Are you trying to get home, then? Is that what all the thefts are about?" I hadn't come up with any connections between the burgled and kidnapped folk before, but would I even know if they were dimensional immigrants, if I hadn't been able to tell about him on sight?

"Is that what...?" He blinked at me, then titled his head. "I've seen you at each of the last three sites, returning after dark with your ghostly friend to re-enact the crimes. Why insist on this charade? You realize it makes me doubt everything else you have to say, as well."

"Re-enact?" I blurted. "Stars and stones, you thought...? Crap, no wonder we've been chasing each other in circles all this time." I sighed, finally stowing my blasting rod away to scrub a hand over my face. "That was me investigating. Bob happens to have the ability to transform into the source of whatever he's touching, if he chooses to. To check if what looks like dog hair actually came from a werewolf, for example, or if a squirmy smudge in a photograph happens to be the trapped spirit of an incubus child-- don't ask." I waved a dismissive hand at his instantly curious expression. "So when we heard about guys in Halloween costumes, well. I wanted to see if they'd left any evidence behind."

Wyndam-Pryce gave the orb a skeptical look, then finally-- finally-- murmured a Latin phrase under his breath and set Bob free. The compact cloud of orange and black sparks finally expanded back into the familiar, silver-haired form of the necromancer who'd been known as Hrothbert of Bainbridge during his long-ago corporeal years, and he quickly stepped out of Wyndam-Pryce's reach.

"Is that true, spirit?" the other wizard asked him, coolly.

"My name is not spirit," Bob spat at him, as ruffled as an angry cat. "And yes; it is quite true. If Harry wanted money to spend, all he would have had to do was claim the estate of his uncle; he has no need to steal from those who live little better than he does now. And what might your alibi be?"

Wyndam-Pryce sighed, and for the first time in our encounter his shoulders dropped, as though surrendering to a heavy weight on his back. "I realize you have little reason to believe me-- but my occupation in the dimension I came from was very similar to the one I claim now. I lost virtually everything that mattered to me in that world long before my encounter with Vail, and thus have very little reason to strive to go back, so long as I can still help the helpless in this world. If you are not lying to me-- then I have no more motivation than the pair of you to commit these crimes, and every reason not to. But I could not swear the same for any other beings who may have also escaped from Vail's realm before I woke. I had thought you might be directing them, but if that is not the case...."

"Hell's bells," I swore. "That doesn't sound good."

Wyndam-Pryce looked like he'd bitten into a sour lemon. "It means at least one among them must be of greater-than-average intelligence. And they would have reason to want to go home, if your dimension is truly so inimical to the darker sorts of magic."

Bob looked between us, and ruffled up even further, if that was possible. "Harry, please tell me you're not thinking what I think you're thinking," he said.

I ignored him. Because as little as I still liked the guy... if he was right, we could both use the help; and if he was a lying liar who lied, then I'd be better off staying close enough to stop him.

"Maybe we should pool our resources?" I suggested.

He narrowed his eyes at me speculatively, but didn't immediately reject the idea. "Is there a neutral location where we might discuss this further?" he suggested.

I asked him if he was familiar with McAnally's-- and he was, so away we went, Bob bitching in my ear the entire time.

Needless to say, the investigation did take all of us, in the end; which is a much longer story, full of demons that didn't require summoning circles, strange vampires that shared both the strength and vulnerabilities of the Black Court while hiding behind the beauty of the White, and some pretty colorful language from Murphy. But we got it done, and in the process, Wes and I ended up deciding that there was in fact room in town for the both of us.

Harry Dresden and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: you can find us in the phone book under Wizard. The only two in Chicago-- hell, the only two in the country. Who just so happen to have settled down the street from each other.

Coincidence? Fate? We're not sure which. And I hope we never have to find out.