The decision to travel with Kuzuki had been a practical one. I wanted to avoid taking the Nevernever, given the recent mishaps it had caused in our lives, and since we didn't really have transportation, relying on Rider was the next best option. Saber's junker would only work with her in it, and the thing was an eyesore, all mismatched colors and rusted steel.
Which wouldn't have bothered me – if it were the Blue Beetle. But it wasn't, and I wasn't about to tolerate a replacement. She was a thing of beauty, a relic of a bygone era, much like Rider: a servant who, despite the show she'd put on, turned out to be a relatively sane driver. She used turn signals, kept both hands on the wheel, and actually obeyed the speed limit, which more than I could say for most of the people of Chicago.
On the other hand, the drive was anything but comfortable: par for the course, being a seven-foot tall wizard folded into a tiny sports car. My knees were poking into my chest, and I was hunched over like a high-schooler during a tornado drill, scrunched between the driver's seat and the back window.
Hindsight being what it was - maybe the junker would've been a better option.
And I wasn't the only one on edge. Murphy's hand kept tightening on her armrest, and her fingers from twitching towards the pistol at her hip. Her wary gaze was fixated on the speedometer, and on the road ahead; it seemed she hadn't forgotten Rider's entrance, and wasn't entirely comfortable riding backseat.
I was wary of Rider, too... which is part of the reason I asked her to drive us. Time with Rider gave us a chance to feel her out. Twenty minutes of small-talk gave us the chance to do that.
Personality-wise, she fell somewhere between Charity and Maggie: devoted and eager to please, with a naive outlook on life that was as cringe-inducing as it was heartwarming. She couldn't sit still, either; she had this habit of rapping her fingertips along the steering wheel, a motion which repeatedly drew my eye to her nail-polish, a shade of blue that matched her hair. The paint was chipped in places, suggesting that she did a lot of work with her hands – or had a habit of catching them in doors.
Rider's smile was pretty, but in a way that didn't quite suit her – it was an almost manic smile, one that almost too excited, and it always seemed to emerge when she looked at Kuzuki.
I didn't like that smile.
The woman in the driver's seat was supposed to be a Servant, a hero of legend, but she acted nothing like the Servants I'd seen so far. She seemed to blend in to the modern era almost too well; if it weren't for her unusually shaped ears, and the familiar tingle of magic that crackled in the air around her, she wouldn't even pass as a Servant. But despite her immense power, her coordination was apparently non-existant, and she seemed more interested in fawning over Kuzuki than she did participating in the war.
A vague suspicion nagged at me, like an itch I couldn't scratch. Her otherworldly appearance – her pointed ears, and sky-blue hair – evoked memories of the Sidhe... and while some heroes were known for their martial strength, others were known for their cunning. I felt that I could trust Kuzuki, but what about his Servant? Could I count on her in the war to come?
I was torn from my musings as the car rolled to a stop. Grunting with the effort, I managed to twist my head to the side, and caught a glimpse of a very familiar driveway.
"Here we are!" Rider chirped, grinning with all the innocence of a schoolgirl. She peered out the window, an and gasped. "My, what a lovely home. Your contact has excellent taste! Don't you think, Souichirou-sama?"
At the top of that gated driveway was a two-story stucco house, with walls the color of sandstone and a red-painted roof. Squat edges and carefully placed stones rose from the earth like sentries, surrounding a koi pond that was bisected with a wooden brige; bonsai tries, hand-trimmed and meticulously maintained, filled the fornt yard and gave it a maze-like feel.
"It is... acceptable," Kuzuki admitted, observing the garden with a speculative eye.
I nodded in agreement; Murphy followed suit. Once upon a time, few would have accused the home's owner of having good taste, but time had been generous to Mortimer Lindquist.
"If you don't mind me asking, why am I dropping you off here?" Rider asked, glancing at me in the rear-view mirror. Her expression was curious, and honest – but I found myself holding my tongue. Instead, I gave her a half-truth.
"He might be able to fill us in on what happened to the cursed kids," I said, after a moment. I glanced out the window, scratching at the stubble of my chin. "His name's Morty, and spirits are... kind of his thing."
Understatement of the century.
Once, he'd offered magical services to the mundane world, just like I did – but he didn't have a scrap of power to his name, and his seances were little more than scams to swindle whoever was desperate enough to walk through his door. Hardship changed that. He'd come into his own power, and become an Ectomancer with serious kick, enough that I'd be wary about facing him in a straight-up fight... especially now, of all times.
Because I'd witnessed that power of his Ectomancy firsthand, a power that he'd used to help reunite me with my loved ones and save a whole lot of people from a whole lot of hurt. He could channel spirits of the dead, absorbing their powers and calling on their memories to aid them in battle.
And with Servants being introduced to the wizarding folk of Chicago, there was no telling what kind of situation Morty might find himself in. My visit was as much for information gathering as it was for recon; I needed to know what Morty knew, needed to find out if he was involved in the war – and what role he'd take.
I stepped out of the car, shutting the door firmly behind beside me – and I strolled up to the passenger-side window, sparing a glance down at Kuzuki. Murphy stepped out as well, and leaned up against the door, keeping an eye on the street, her hands tucked in her pockets.
"We're probably gonna be a while," I said. "If you have someplace to be, go ahead. I'll fill you in on what we find."
"Very well, then," Kuzuki replied, in his trademark monotone. He spared a glance at the road, and then back at me. "Rider and I will be about our business. Speaking with you was... productive, and informative."
I nodded silently and stepped away from the car. As I did, Rider leaned forward in her seat, and gave me a cheery wave.
"Take care - and call us if you need anything!" She said, grinning childishly. Then, she leaned back in her seat, changed gears, and peeled out of the neighborhood in a frenzy of pumping pistons and squealing rubber.
I blinked owlishly as I watched them go... or, more accurately, as I watched the snowstorm swept up in their wake.
"Well, at least she's got style," Murphy sighed, tucking her hands into her pockets; her baby blues watched the car disappear into the distance, looking as troubled as I felt. "Dresden, I know I've said it before, but... damn. This whole 'Servant' thing is a bitch to wrap my head around."
"And that's why I was hesitant to bring you along," I replied. Ignoring Murphy's frosty look, I put my hands in the pockets of my duster and sighed; my breath was stolen by the chilly air, vanishing into the midday sky. "I wasn't holding out on you, Murph, and I'm not now. This war's a soup sandwich. There's so much going on, so many powers at play, and at least two of them are gunning for us."
"Key word being 'us'," Murphy said, pointedly. Then, she glanced up at the house. "Come on, then. We're burning daylight."
Concrete crunched pleasantly beneath my feet, with each loping step I took; Murphy's faster, lighter steps fell in beside mine. Together, we worked our way up the driveway, stepping past the Chrystler in the driveway, an older model that was polished to a sheen. I cornered a row of bonsai trees, stepped over the morning's paper, followed the cement walkway that led to Morty's front door... and paused.
One thing that wizards pride themselves on is security. Wherever a wizard's workshop is, he's got defenses set up; little gifts for any would-be intruders, such observation wards, explosive glyphs and steel-reinforced doors are par for the course.
I couldn't see it from the street – rows of pristinely-trimmed hedges obscured my view - but I noticed that Morty had such a door. I also noticed that the handle was twisted out of shape, and the door was dented inwards. Its warped frame barely managed to fill the silhouette of the doorway.
A note of dread settled in my gut, and the hairs on the back of my neck rose in time with my heartbeat.
"...Harry," Murphy whispered, a note of warning creeping into her voice. Quick as lighting, she'd conjured a pair of Barettas, and had them both trained on the door.
"I see it," I murmured, drawing my Dirty Harry Special from its shoulder holster.
"Breach and clear," she replied, her voice low and steady. "Let's move."
Years of working together paid off in moments like these. The two of us stuck close together, like any professionally trained team, and made our way down the concrete walk. I led, shield bracelet and blasting rod raised; Murphy held to my flank with the shuffling gait of an experienced marksman, her twin pistols sighted on the doorway. In near silence, the two of us crept forward towards the porch, eyes peeled.
We made it to the porch without incident, and I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. Stepping up into the entryway, we split up – one on either side of the door – and pressed ourselves flat against the wall.
A silent, tense conversation passed between us, in as much time as it took most people to blink. She jerked her chin towards the door, and brushed a hand against the frame; I nodded, tapped an ear, and raised three fingers on my left hand.
She nodded – and I lowered one finger. Then another.
I made a fist, and pushed the door inwards.
The door fell from its hinges, collapsing to the tile floor below. It let out a sharp crack as it chipped and fractured under its own weight, piercing the silence of the home like a gunshot.
We were already in motion.
I burst into the room, my blasting rod at hip-height; Murphy, standing behind me, did the same with her pistols. I strafed to the left, raising my shield bracelet as I did, and projected a wall of transluscent blue light in front of myself and the doorway.
There foyer was empty, but that observation did little to put me at ease.
I'd been to Morty's place a few times before, and I'd always enjoyed visiting. His place had a rustic, almost oriental feel to it, with minimalist furniture and symbols of worship from religions the world over. Bookshelves lined the walls, each containing rows upon rows of magical texts, modern and ancient; the living room played home to a fireplace that was always roaring, maintained by an act of thaumaturgy that converted sunlight into flame.
Today, though, Morty's home looked like a Tasmanian devil had rolled through it. The outside was relatively unscathed, but the inside? There wasn't a single piece of furniture left standing. Cabinets, crowded bookshelves and paper curtains were little more than splinters on the floor. The walls and ceiling were scored by long, straight gouges, as though they'd been sliced through with a blade. Foot-shaped imprints scored the floor, cracking the lacquered wood.
I noticed something else, too - when I'd crossed into Morty's home, I hadn't felt the usual tingle of a threshold. Whatever had come before us had torn straight through it. All in all, it looked like the work of something – someone - very familiar.
"Berserker," Murphy hissed, giving voice to my thoughts. Her baby blues were fixed on the remains of the door, eyeing the warped handle. "He's been here."
"Looks like," I grunted. "You seeing what I'm seeing?"
"A trail," Murphy replied. She peered through the wreckage with a critical eye, and stepped further into the room, pistol at the ready. "It looks like Berserker kicked in the front door, and... walked through the house, smashing whatever was in his way. But there's no blood, or any bullet holes. Are you picking up anything magical?"
"No," I replied. "But that tells us nothing. It's daytime, and the threshold was damaged when Darth Maul's ugly step-sister kicked in the door. If there were any spells cast overnight, there wouldn't be any traces now."
Murphy nodded thoughtfully, but didn't reply; a moment, I tucked my blasting rod back into the pocket of my duster, freeing up my hand. I couldn't sense anything magical nearby, and if any threats arose, I figured she'd be more than enough to handle them.
Scowling, I strode into the room. Glass and sawdust crunched beneath my boots as I stepped over the remains of a vanity mirror; my duster flapped at my ankles as I approached the main staircase. I peered around the corner, towards the second floor – and from what I could see, it was completely untouched.
I peered back over my shoulder.
Murphy was looking up at me expectantly. She'd nudged aside aside a scrap of wood with the tip of her boot, and beneath it was... a dot of dried blood.
"You think Berserker managed to cut himself with his own spear?" She asked, tilting her head to the side. "No? In that case – since his car is in the drive, I'm guessing this blood belongs to Morty."
"Huh," I said, furrowing my brow. I stepped down from the landing and knelt by the bloodstain. I pressed my fingers against the wood; the blood had seeped into the boards and dried, so my fingers came away dry.
"Occam's Razor, here to save the day," I mused. "Not that I'm complaining, but I expected a little... well, more. This room should look like a Jackson Pollock painting."
Murphy glanced around the room her lips pursed in thought. "...If you approach it like a murder scene, then... yeah, you'd expect more blood. But what if Berserker didn't come here to kill Morty? What if he was here for another reason?"
"This is Berserker we're talking about," I said, arching an eyebrow. "There's only one word in his vocabulary, which is kill, and the only way he can articulate it is with his spear."
"He's also called a Servant, which implies that he can be controlled," Murphy replied, unphased. "Think about it. Berserker punches through his front door, tears his threshold to shreds, smashes every single piece of furniture in this room... and he only cuts Morty once, just enough to bleed. This wasn't a murder – it was a shakedown. Berserker was here to intimidate him. The questions are: who gave Berseker the order, and why were they after Morty?"
I could take a few guesses. I'd originally come to Morty for information; given that he spoke with spirits on the daily, he might have had insight on what had happened to the souls of those children in the hospital room. I also thought that he might be able to tell me a little more about the workings of Heroic Spirits, and was thinking about recruiting him to our little alliance. Perhaps one of our enemies had known about our impending visit, and had stopped by his home to scare him off?
"There's one way to find out," I said, gesturing towards the trail of debris leading further into the home. "Come on, let's follow the yellow-brick road."
I climbed to my feet. Glass and sawdust crunched beneath my boots as I stepped over the remains of a vanity mirror; my duster flapped at my ankles as I strode through the wreckage, my shield bracelet held at the ready. Murphy fell into step with me, her back to mine, her eyes on our six.
The trail wound through his kitchen, and into the dining room beside it; Murphy and I took the approach with measured steps, checking our corners and looking for booby-traps. Though I couldn't sense any magical threats, we'd fallen prey to mundane ones before, and I didn't want overconfidence to send me to yet another early grave.
The trail took a right, towards his study – and towards the lab within, concealed behind a false bookcase.
I'd seen it once. Unlike mine, which was designed with utility in mind, his was a little more more grandiose; I'd been inside of it, once, when I'd consulted him on a thaumaturgy problem I'd had some months back. It was a fourteen-by-fourteen cube lined with three inches of reinforced steel, concealed above his garage – though you wouldn't be able to tell it, given that the floor was carpeted and every available surface was covered in rugs and tapestries. The place smelled like powerful incense, which was incredibly distracting, but apparently enhanced his connection with the spirits... as did that tacky crystal ball he swore he'd get rid of.
A note of worry sank into my gut. Despite his faults, Morty was a good guy – and Berserker was a death sentence, even for a wizard of his caliber.
I paused outside the study door, reached for the handle... and suddenly, a jolt of lightning raced down my spine, stopping me in my tracks.
Murphy paused, glancing at me sidelong. "Harry? What is it?"
I opened my mouth to reply – which was a mistake. Nausea hit me with the force of a sledgehammer, and my hand clamped down on the door-handle. Brass groaned and warped beneath my grip.
"Do you smell that?" I whispered softly. Something in my mind skipped and faltered, like a scratched vinyl recording, as fight of flight instincts took over; it was a primal state that I was all too familiar with.
The woman beside me paused for a moment – and then, she stiffened as well. She said something back to me: a single word, one that left her parted lips in little more than a whisper.
"Blood," she said.
I pushed open the door.
The room was illuminated by the faintest trickles of light creeping through ruined blinds; even then, those trickles were enough. The darkness couldn't mask the stench of copper, or the oily sheen of crimson that coated the room. Blood was everywhere, more blood than I imagined possible. Torn books were scattered throughout the office, knocked from their shelves, pasted to every available surface. Worse still was Morty's easy chair, the one his clients favored: it looked like someone had sliced it into ribons with a cheese grater, and its guts were spilled across blood-drenched carpet.
It brought to mind an image I'd seen before: that of a love motel room, bathed in the blood of two lovers, whose hearts had exploded in their sleep. And though I knew this particular bloodbath wasn't the work of Victor Sells – Die Alone! - that didn't make it any easier to deal with.
I stepped into the room, and the carpet squelched beneath my feet; Murphy's steps, lighter and faster, followed behind.
"God," she breathed, "this is..."
"His lab," I interrupted, continuing forward. The words came quickly to my lips, quick and hard. "The study's gone, but he might not be. We need to check the lab. There's still a chance."
The bookcase – and the doorway it concealed – were blown open. Much like the front door, this entrance was dented and mangled; however, burn marks on the carpet suggested that it had been blown open from the inside, and that it had been laced with protective wards. The sight gave me hope: if Morty had managed to get inside his lab and shut the door, that meant the blood pooling at my feet was Berserker's.
Though he might have gotten cornered in his lab, though Berserker had managed to break through the door, there was a chance that the wards had delayed his pursuit. Maybe Butters had been able to weasel his way out of the lab by opening a Way to the Nevernever.
That hope drove me forward. I swept through the doorway, ducking my head – and lowered my gaze, taking in the remains of his lab. His crystal ball was crushed to powder, shattered against the wall; tapestries were torn asunder, walls of steel and concrete. His summoning circle was broken, and in the center of it-...
I don't remember stepping into the room, but I must have – because the next thing I knew, I was surrounded by concrete walls, ripped tapestries, and the faded remains of a chalk circle.
The Winter Mantle insulated me from feeling cold, but Morty's severed hand was like ice beneath my fingertips. I knew it was his: the skull ring was a dead give away.
More than that, anyone who lived long enough in our line of work tended to develop a few scars, and Morty was no exception. A faint line that traveled from the base of his thumb to his wrist, a reminder of his stand against Corpsetaker - and it was there, plain as day, carved into the flesh of the severed hand.
But as I inspected the hand, I saw something that I hadn't before: new scars. Thin, red lines... tracing the back of the hand... like a tribal tattoo. They'd long since faded, but there was no mistaking what I was seeing.
Morty had been selected as a Master... and someone had killed him, killed him to thin the competition.
Magic surged through me, fueled by a sudden rush of anger, an anger so overwhelming that it made me want to scream. The runes on my blasting rod lit up sith-lord red, casting my blood-drenched boots into a sickly sanguine glow. My duster stiffened as it was flash-frozen by a sheet of crawling ice. Black spots danced in my vision, I could barely breathe. I felt hot, like I was on fire, like I was burning alive -
- and a hand pressed lightly on my shoulder.
"I know," Murphy sighed. "Morty was a Master, or at least a prospective one, and Berserker broke into his house. Somehow, he lured Berserker back to his lab. He sealed himself inside, and -"
"-and now he's dead," I hissed, my hands going knuckle-white around the hilt of my blasting rod.
"We don't know that. You've found a hand, not a body," Murphy replied, glancing at the object in question. "But we do know Morty: he's a cockroach, and spirits are his forte. If anyone could find a way to survive a Servant attack, it would be him."
"But he shouldn't have been attacked in the first place," I hissed. "I should have warned him! All it would have taken was a damned phone call. But I was too busy playing house. If I'd have warned him, if I'd have gotten in touch with him sooner -"
Murphy cut me off with a sharp squeeze. "I know you're angry, I know, for whatever reason, you want to shoulder the blame for what's happened. But you didn't do this, someone else did - Berserker. Stop working yourself up. You need to calm the fuck down. This isn't helping anyone, not you, not me, and not Morty. Get it together."
"But nothing," Murphy hissed. "Cut the shit. You're hurting me, Dresden."
My train of thought suddenly de-railed. Tearing my gaze away from the severed hand, I glanced at Murphy's fingertips, resting on my shoulder – only to find them frosted over, flash-frozen by the power of the Winter Mantle. And within her steely-blue eyes, I saw my reflection, I saw anger – and beneath that, I saw fear.
Sucking in a quick breath, I shut my eyes and focused. My anger subsided entirely, replaced by a health dose of terror; it was that terror, my fear for her life, that slammed against the mindless hunger of the Winter Mantle, beating it into submission.
The battle took a good thirty seconds – thirty seconds too long. As the battle reached its close, he ice coating my duster shattered like cheap stage glass, clattering to the floor. Murphy pulled back her hand, like she'd been scalded, and thrust it into her armpit; she stumbled back and away from me, pressing her back flat against the wall. Her face was pale, so pale that it practically glowed in the dim light of my blasting rod – and her eyes were on me.
"Murph," I began, hesitantly. "I'm..."
"Shut up," she grunted. Her voice pierced the air between us like a thunderclap. "I know. It was the Mantle. But that doesn't help right now."
"...I know," I replied, softly. "Murph, I'm... I'm sorry."
She averted her eyes, glancing towards the doorway. As the silence between us thickened, her anger faded - and she swallowed thickly, looking anywhere but at me. "The sun's going to set in a couple of hours, and we don't have a ride home, unless you want to open a way. Either way, we should get moving. This is a dead end - there's nothing more to find here."
"...Alright," I said, forcing myself to nod.
Reaching down, I wrapped the severed hand in silk cloth, tucking it away into one of my duster's many pockets. Then, I stood, pretending not to notice the way Murphy took a stutter-step away, keeping her eyes trained on my blasting rod.
I'd used a wide range of emotions to fuel my magic. Happiness, fear... rage. They were all equally useful, in their own ways: they sharpened the mind, giving strength to a Wizard's will. But as I opened a portal to the Nevernever, the power seeping slowly from my fingertips and into the darkness of Morty's shattered basement, my search for power touched on another emotion – a distant one, one I rarely used.