I was dreaming.
I stood in a grassy plain under a clear blue sky. The sun shone brightly overhead. I saw a farm somewhere in the distance, but couldn't make out the details of it – the place was faded, like an old, sepia-toned photograph. Smoke rose from a small cottage, curling into the air. Horses clopped through fields of wheat, free and untamed.
I saw a girl. Her blonde hair was long and straight, pulled back into a simple braid. Her emerald eyes were innocent and light, her smile warm. She wore a dress the color of lilacs, homemade if the stitching was anything to go by. She couldn't have been much older than Molly was, when I'd first made her my apprentice – maybe fifteen years, tops.
I saw fire, blazing in the distance. The sky was blackened with soot and smoke. The wails and moans of the dying pierced the still air, filling me with terror. Fathers, mothers, sons and daughters were perishing in the blaze, begging for salvation with their last breaths.
I saw Hell, and felt despair.
But I wasn't seeing them alone. Saber's younger self turned towards the inferno, her face bathed in the orange light. She glanced back at the farm, longingly… and then, she turned away. Closing her eyes, her expression hardened into something determined, something far beyond her years.
Before her, a sword emerged from the earth, impaled in a marble stone. All sound faded, except for that of her leather boots, scuffing softly against the grass. She approached the edge of the stone altar, resting her delicate hands atop the hilt of a golden blade.
"Kid," I whispered, my gut dropping, "Don't…"
With a mighty pull, she wrenched the sword from the stone, and held it aloft; it burned brighter than the setting sun. The sight of the blade made my heart beat with awe and sorrow. It was a pain like I'd never known before. I wouldn't look away – I couldn't. The sword in her hands called to me. Through destruction it would bring purity, and through sacrifice it would bring salvation.
It was the symbol of a King's authority - and as the girl picked it up, she left herself behind.
I opened my eyes.
Everything was blurry; it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The lights had been shut off, but the television was still on; one of those older models from the early nineties, it flickered silently in the corner of the room, casting everything else into shadows that ebbed and flowed.
Maggie was beside me, wrapped around my arm. It seemed she'd fallen asleep, too. She grumbled something under her breath, curling into my duster, her mousy locks splayed over the worn leather.
A hand pressed lightly into my shoulder. Resisting the urge to pass out, I searched for its owner, coming face-to-face with a familiar pair of green eyes. I stared for a few moments longer before recognition dawned.
"Saber," I mumbled, wiping at my eyes with my wrist. "What time is it?"
"Half-past midnight," she replied, keeping her voice low. She spared a glance at my daughter, then continued. "I thought I should wake you. The movie has already ended; Murphy has retired, as have the Carpenters."
"Mm," I replied, as eloquent as usual. "Thanks."
"Think nothing of it," she returned, tucking her hands into the pockets of her workout hoodie. "It wouldn't do to fall asleep here. You'll be much more comfortable in an actual bed."
I let out a slow breath. "Gotcha. Give me a sec. Gotta get up."
Slowly, as quietly as I could, I sat up; Maggie mumbled something under her breath, but her half-woken protests stopped as my hand found her hair and began running through it. A moment passed, and once I was sure she'd fallen back asleep, I began to move. Fabric rustled as I worked my way out from beneath my daughter's grasping limbs, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I managed to make it to my feet, leaving the couch behind.
But as I left, she shivered.
Pausing, taking in the sight of my daughter, I frowned. Grabbing a nearby comforter, I laid it over Maggie, tucking her in. The massive swathe of fabric swallowed her whole, and as it did she breathed a contented sigh. Something lanced through my chest, yet another emotion I didn't have a right to: something prideful and content.
"You're a good father," Saber said softly. "You really ought to give yourself more credit."
I didn't wasn't really sure how to respond - being complimented by a woman with B-Rank Charisma tends to have that effect - so I shrugged. Running a hand along my stubbled jaw, I walked over to the television and shut it off; as the light finally died, I picked up my staff and backpack.
"Harry, it's late," Saber warned, furrowing her brow in disappointment. "You need your rest."
"Not tonight, I don't. Nevernever time dilation," I replied, stifling a yawn in my fist. "My sleep cycle's out of whack. There's still work to do. I can hit the sack when I'm done."
Saber raised an imperious eyebrow, glaring up at me like a disappointed schoolteacher. Despite the difference in height, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't little intimidated. After a moment, though, her glare faltered, and she let out a resigned sigh. "…I don't suppose there's any way to change your mind, is there." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Nope," I said, smiling wryly. My feet found their way into a pair of slippers – I couldn't feel the cold, but there was no sense in tracking dirt into the house. "Sorry to disappoint."
"Stubborn and foolish," she muttered, disappointment thick in her voice. "One of these days, you will learn to respect your limitations."
I shrugged, leaning up against the doorway. "I mean, you're not wrong, but I've still got work to do. Want to come with?"
Saber furrowed her brow and glanced away, looking thoughtful. Silence fell between us for a moment, though I wasn't quite sure why; after a moment, she nodded once. "Your proposition is… acceptable. I shall accompany you to your workshop."
"It's not much of a workshop, but it gets the job done," I replied, shrugging genially. "Come on, then. Ladies first."
I stepped aside, gesturing half-heartedly towards the open door. Saber stood there for a moment, looking entirely out of place – and was it just me, or did her cheeks look a little… red? No, it had to be a trick of the light. Kings didn't blush.
Then again, neither did Murphy…
"…You coming?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I - yes," Saber replied. Looking distinctly uncomfortable, the King of Knights cleared her throat and walked stiffly out of the room, definitely not meeting my eyes.
Shelving my confusion, I passed through the open doorway and closed it behind me with a soft click.
We entered the garage.
It was cold – colder than it had been when I'd entered earlier, cold enough to make my breath mist. The frigid air snapped me right awake, brushing away any lingering hold that sleep had on me.
The overhead lights were off, but that wasn't any trouble for either of us. The circle I'd inscribed on the garage floor, roughly five feet across, was emitting its own light, glowing a soft blue; my second daughter's wooden skull sat within it, its eye-sockets glowing faintly. Green tendrils of ambient magic crawled along the floor from the skull to the reagents near it, occasionally pulsing. The beat was slow, tediously slow; I had to resist the urge to tap my foot. Ilya was doing the best she could, and she was probably faster than me to begin with. There wasn't any sense in pushing her.
Morty's severed hand was lying in the center of the circle. The cold air was preserving it, keeping it fresh. Reagents surrounded it, resting within the circle at key points, connected by lines of chalk, fishing line and diamond dust. His ring, gleaming a dull silver, hovered in the air above the circle; it spun aimlessly, like a planet off its axis.
Saber paused just outside the doorway, taking in the scene. After a moment, she spoke – and her voice was hard. "Harry? Please, forgive my suspicion, but what sort of sorcery is this? This looks… dark."
Oh, right. This must have been why she was so flustered earlier. Running my hand through my hair, I let out a soft sigh. "Well, as you know, Murphy and I went to see an informant today. Unfortunately, we couldn't find him. However, we did find his hand. We're enchanting his ring with a tracking spell."
The ring spun, ever so slowly, the skull engraving on it plain as day. Saber paced around the circle, eyeing the ring and the carefully placed spell components.
"His name is Mortimer Lindquist. He's an ectomancer – like a medium. He communicates with the spirits of the dead and helps them find peace," I continued. "The children recovered by Chicago PD were missing their souls. I figured that he might have seen or heard something through the spiritual grapevine."
"Yet, he is also a Master," Saber replied, pointedly eyeing the severed hand.
"Was," I replied, shaking my head. "His Command Seals have been used or removed."
"Then he is likely –"
"Dead," I responded, shortly. "Yeah. But there's a chance he's not, and Murphy and I like to hedge our bets. If he is alive, he's still in danger, and we're not gonna leave him undefended. He's a friend, and he's done a lot of good for a lot of people."
Saber gave me a stern look – and after a moment, it softened.
"I see," she murmured. She knelt by the side of the circle, tracing its edge with a finger; pulling it back, she gazed intently at the skull beside her. Her eyes seemed to glow – whether that was a trick of the magelight, or an aspect of her powers as a Servant, I could only guess. Then, she glanced up at me. "And... why is Ilya...?"
"Helping? It's father-daughter bonding," I explained, smiling sheepishly. "Not to mention, she's good with this kind of thing. Better than I am, anyway, and I'd like to think I'm pretty good. I guess she got it from her mother."
It was the first time I'd spoken about Lash in a long, long time. She was a fallen angel who'd taken a backseat in my mind, intending to lead me down a path of temptation, only… she didn't. She couldn't. We'd ended up working together, and somewhere along the line, we'd become allies. Friends, even. Maybe something more. Disaster struck, and she'd sacrificed her soul to save mine. She shielded me from the brunt of a psychic attack with her own consciousness, paying the ultimate price.
Her act of selfless sacrifice was an act of love, and love is one of the most powerful emotions there is. Magic or not, love is an aspect of creation, a power that can overcome any obstacle, even death itself.
"So she really is your daughter," Saber replied.
"Yeah. She is," I said. Because in the empty space that once housed Lash, she left behind a fragment. That fragment, blessed by her sacrifice, became a seed – and that seed became Ilya.
"You love her?" Saber asked, quietly. "Even though she's not your true heir? Even though she's not..."
"...human? Like Maggie?" I finished. "Even then."
It was a no-brainer. What kind of father would I be if I didn't love my kid? It might have taken me a little while to wrap my head around the idea of having a soul-baby, but once the idea sunk in, it was there to stay. She was mine, no questions asked.
"And is it true that you have a vampire for a brother?" Saber asked. She wasn't looking at me, nor had her tone changed, but I suspected that my next words would be very important – if not for her reassurance, then for my personal health.
"Half-brother," I corrected her. "We share the same mom."
"But you love one another," she pressed. "Despite his origin."
"Well… yeah. Though neither of us is really… touchy-feely like that," I replied, scratching my head. "Well, he is. Kind of."
"…I'm afraid I don't understand," Saber replied, her arms folded across her chest.
"He's… he's open in his affections, just not with me." Not anymore, anyway. The only person he really opened up to was Justine, and even then, he hadn't spoken to her in over a year. Thomas was a White Court vampire who fed on emotions; he'd been tortured into near-insanity, and needed time to recover – to come to terms with his inner demon in a way that didn't harm the people around him. The Fellowship of St. Giles was pretty good about helping vampires with their addictions, and I'd had enough pull with them to stop them from killing him on sight, so I sent him their way. He'd been a self-imposed exile ever since, keeping his distance until he could come to terms with his darker half.
I caught Saber staring, and shook my head dismissively. "Nevermind. The point is, he's family. He's got my back, and I have his. It's that simple."
Saber hummed thoughtfully. "...and as one who fights against evil, you're able to keep these… relationships, without compromising your station?"
"Yeah. It isn't easy, but we make it work." I replied, scratching the stubble on my chin. I furrowed my brow, shooting a quick glance at my Servant, a faint sense of unease welling in my gut.
"Saber?" I began, choosing my words carefully. "Why do you ask?"
"It's nothing," she said, shaking her head. And with her arms relaxed at her sides, and her weight shifter onto her back foot – with that serene expression on her face – she might have been able to fool most people, but not me. After all, I'd spent years cold-reading Murphy, and she had emotional concealment down to an art form.
At some point, the conversation had stopped being about me. I wasn't sure when, exactly, but it had.
"Saber," I said. She didn't meet my eyes, so I tried again. "Arturia?"
Saber glanced up at me, her gaze searching. Apparently, she found what she was looking for; she closed her eyes, and let out a slow breath.
"I... had a son," she began. Her words came slowly, as though they were carefully selected. "He was a... good man, despite his flaws. An honorable, brave knight, who defended Britain with his every breath."
"Mordred," I responded, recalling her legend. The details were a little fuzzy – time does that to a man's memory – but I could remember the name, at least.
At the sound of her son's name, Saber winced. I pretended not to notice.
"Yes. Mordred," she said. "He desired the throne, as well as my affection. Yet, I could not give him either. He was illegitimate, you see. For all his virtue, I could not accept him. His birth was a product of dark magic, and was a plot designed to usurp the throne and place it in the hands of those who opposed my rule."
I took a moment to process that. Reading about tragedy is one thing, but hearing about it from a person who lived through it? Who experienced it firsthand? That's another entirely.
"I… denied his right to the throne, because it was not his place to rule. I denied him the love of a father, as well, because taking him under my wing would have weakened the throne, and in our hour of strife... infighting was not something Britain could afford," she murmured. She folded her arms beneath her chest, and bowed her head. "It… wasn't what I wanted, but it was what was needed of me. Sacrifices had to be made in the name of a brighter future, and our relationship was one such sacrifice."
Saber let out a slow breath. "But, as fate would have it, my rejection made him an enemy. Britain fell to pieces as a result, and he... in the final battle, we took up arms. We fought, and…"
I knew how her story ended; a parent had killed their child, and a child had dealt their parent a fatal blow. Briefly, a note of anger welled in my chest, and I had to bite back a sharp retort. The thought of any parent killing their child was horrifying to me, no matter the reasoning – and even though the child wasn't mine, that didn't change the nature of the beast. A part of my vindictive subconscious even drew an uncomfortable parallel between my Servant and Nicodemus, who had both sacrificed their children in the name of a greater cause.
The look on her face nipped that train of thought in the bud. Saber had shut her eyes, as though pained, and dropped a hand to her stomach; it was the look of someone who was filled with regret. And despite what she'd done, I wasn't in any position to judge her, not really. After all… I'd killed Susan, hadn't I? She was losing herself, yes, and she'd begged me to end her suffering, begged me to end the suffering of the Red Court, but that didn't change the fact that I chose to carry out her wishes.
A pregnant silence fell between us, one I wasn't sure how to break; in the end, I took the direct approach. Stepping closer to her, I placed a hand on her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. The anger I'd felt had long since vanished, and in its place was a note of fatigue.
"Saber. Are you alright?"
She nodded. "Yes. I'm fine, now. Yet… a part of me wonders if things could have been different. It's… bitter-sweet. Seeing the life you live, the lives of the people around you… it is an existence that I once believed impossible."
I opened my mouth to reply -
"Yeah, I know! We're pretty awesome."
- and nearly jumped as my daughter's voice pierced the silence; as it was, my hand left its perch on my Servant's shoulder, and dove for my blasting rod. Saber, to her credit, didn't react – though I knew she'd been startled as well. The redness in her cheeks and the fury in her eyes gave her away.
The mood had been thoroughly shattered – which I was actually kind of grateful for. However, it seemed like I was the only one.
"Ilya," Saber warned, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "This was a private moment, and by interrupting it, you have betrayed the trust of myself and your father. It is unbecoming of a proper daughter to behave in such a manner."
Wow. Talk about a tongue lashing. Ilya, though, seemed unphased; giggling, she zipped away from Saber, hovering near the ceiling. "Daughters aren't supposed to do a lot of things! Didn't stop you from becoming a King, did it?"
There was a standoff between the two of them. Saber's hackles were raised, and her hand opened, as though searching for a sword – but after a minute, she closed it, lowering it to her side. Sighing, the tension eased from her shoulders. "No, I suppose it did not."
"Ilya," I said, stepping forward. "How's it coming?"
"It's finished! Chief, we are a-go!" She crowed, ignoring Saber's soured mood entirely. At that statement, I did, too.
"Stars and stones, you work fast," I said, blinking owlishly. "Merlin, that enchantment would have taken me another… six hours, at least."
Ilya glowed under the praise – literally. "Yeah, I'm good. Stop gawking and try it on already! You have to break the circle first, though. I can't cross it. You know – magical container and all."
"Sure, kiddo. One sec," I said. I stepped into the circle, smudging it with my foot as I did. Immediately, the magic within the circle dispersed; the floating ring immediately dropped, and out of sheer reflex, I lunged forward and snagged it before it hit the ground. As I did, Ilya immediately flew out into the garage, between Saber's legs, and did a quick series of loops and spins that would have put the Blue Angels to shame.
"Put it on, put it on!" She pleaded.
I was always a sucker for a woman in distress; my daughter was no different. Sensing that further delays would leave her catatonic, I surrendered. The loop of worn silver was too small for my ring finger, so – swallowing my distaste - I slipped it on to my pinky finger. My daughter's laughter was well worth it.
"Yes!" She exclaimed, hovering over my shoulder. "Okay, so, you've played Hot and Cold, right? Wait. You have – I remember. The last time was… oh, gross. Elaine, really? I did not need to see that."
Groaning, I buried my face in my palm, and tried to ignore Saber's look of abject confusion.
"Ilya," I all but begged, "There are some of my memories that no kids your age should have access to. Please, do yourself a favor and shelve them. There's a time and place for everything, and now is not the time."
"Well, when's the right time?"
"Preferably never," I grunted.
"You're no fun." Was it possible for skulls to pout? No? Maybe it was just my imagination. "Anyway, this ring is kind of like that. If you're facing the right direction, the ring's gonna glow. The closer you get, the brighter it glows. When you get really close,it'll light up like a flashlight."
As the conversation shifted away from my private life, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. Saber, I was sure, had noticed. Despite the faint flush creeping up her neck, she said nothing, apparently content to preserve my dignity. I was grateful, but still… 'Dammit, Ilya.'
"It's connected to Mister Lindquist by… think of it like a spiritual thread," she continued. "As long as he's alive, this thing can guide you to him."
Clearing my throat, trying to sound casual, I made a distinct point not to look at Saber. "Alright, then. What's the range?"
"No limit!" She announced. "It needs to be charged, and it uses more power at longer ranges. If it starts to die, just feed it some juice and you're good to go."
I twisted my wrist this way and that; as I did, it seemed to glow marginally brighter, emitting a tingle that raced through my fingers and up my arm. It was like a shot of coffee to the nervous system, jolting me right awake; not only did we have confirmation that Morty was alive, but we had the means to track him down.
"So… what do you think?" Ilya asked. She was hovering close to my shoulder, her eyes wide and bright.
"…What do I think?" A grin split my lips, and my hand tightened around the hilt of my staff. "I think it's game time."
"Game time?" Saber echoed, raising an eyebrow.
"Game time," I repeated, nodding sharply – and even then, I was in motion. My earlier hesitation forgotten, I slung my backpack about my shoulders, buckling it across my chest, and began searching for my boots. "Morty's alive – we know that much – but we don't know how long he'll stay that way. We have to move. Now."
"This could be a trap," Saber replied, furrowing her brow. "We'll need to be cautious. And we should let our allies know where we're going, too."
"On it," I said, whipping a slate-grey Nokia out of my pocket and holding it out for my Servant's inspection. "This thing's about as low-tech as they come, and it has a reputation for indestructibility. Charity picked it up while we were out – and according to her, it should hold up just fine."
"I slave over a hot circle for hours, not even a thank you, and you leave as soon as I'm done?" Ilya gasped. Clearly, she'd been spending too much time around Charity, too. As I finished lacing up, I knelt beside her.
"Duty calls, Padawan," I quipped, even as her flaming eyes widened with concern. Placing a hand atop her skull, I grinned. "Don't worry, we'll be back before you know it. And I'll be sure to thank you properly then."
Then, I stood, and shot a quick glance at my Servant. "Saber, are you ready?"
"Yes, Master," she affirmed. Throwing back her shoulders, she held out a hand out to her side; Caliburn appeared within her palm in a flash of light. "Your orders."
"You're driving, and I've got some calls to make while you do," I stated. "We've got places to be, and a missing man to find."
I slapped the garage door opener. With a groan, and more than a few clanks, the metal began to move. As it rose, the winds outside grew louder, hissing and moaning as they worked their way in. Snow and sleet, thick and choking filled the swirling night air, and the moaning turned to a fierce howling; my duster was whipped up behind me, caught by the breeze.
It was my element – and I embraced it with a smirk.
[Bob Talks Magic: Ilya Dresden]
Spirits of intellect are interesting beings. They are of Sidhe origin, and are typically aligned with the element of air. After all, it is through breathing that one speaks, and through the wind that music travels; it carries scents, tastes, and even men as they journey to new places. As a consequences of their heritage, they do not possess souls. This means that they do not possess free will, and throughout their act within their pre-designed limitations.
Ilya is an exception to this rule. Though she is a spirit of intellect, she is of Fallen origin, and as such does not have a set elemental alignment, or a connection with either of the Sidhe courts. Her personality, and her spiritual appearance, appear to be amalgamations of the various women that have influenced Harry Dresden throughout his life. In addition, she possesses knowledge of magecraft that most masters would be envious of, and is free to use these magics without being restricted by the will of a Court or Heavenly Being. As Fallen are timeless by nature, she will likely live far beyond her peers; this is merely speculation, however, as no instances of such a birth have ever been recorded.
Despite these advantages, she lacks a body of her own, and exists entirely as a semi-corporeal spirit. Without shelter, direct sunlight will purge the magics that comprise her; she is also vulnerable to being summoned by her True Name, and faces many restrictions corporeal humans would not face, such as being unable to cross in or out of a closed circle. The wooden skull constructed by her father reduces these drawbacks, giving her a place to rest and recover during the daytime, but when it comes to ensuring her continued safety and well-being, it is a stopgap measure at best.
"Ilya's very sweet, once you get to know her. I just wish she'd watch her tongue around the children - and frankly, the Top Gun references are getting a little out of hand. I'm not sure which person she inherited those from, but whoever it was really needs to seek psychiatric help." - Charity Carpenter