This is the sequel to my previous story, God's Eye. It will not make sense if you haven't finished that one.
Not for the first time, I woke up hoping that I would be in my Chicago apartment only to find myself lying in a bed that would have took up my old bedroom twice over covered by sheets worth more than ten years salary as a private investigator. I had been dreaming about my old life – a bad habit that I never quite seemed able to shake. It was stupid, but part of me kept expecting someone to pop up, say "april fools," and toss me back into the comfortable familiarity of my second-hand furniture in the little apartment I shared with dog, my brother, and a oversized tomcat who deigned to allow me into his presence. I missed needing money. I missed paying bills. I missed arguing with my brother about doing the dishes and puttering about in the sub-basement lab and its cluttered chaos.
I missed my old life. I missed being Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. I missed the time before I'd become the "Lord Warden, God of Magic and Chaos – Dre'su'den the Ha'ri." I held up my pale hand, examining the inky black veins beneath my now porcelain skin. I knew from experience that my blood was now a shadowy substance flecked with starlight, forever altered by the ritual of ascension I'd underwent to save my life – a lesser version of the Darkhallow that had stranded me in the past.
The long-term effects of saving my life were still unclear, but suffice it to say that I was no longer the Wizard I had once been. I was now a "god" – whatever that meant. Note the lowercase "g." I wasn't going to be able to start slaying the First Born of Egypty any time soon, but I was damn sure that I could go toe to toe with any individual member of the White Council's leadership and at least have a chance of coming out on top. But that power came at a price, and with obligations.
I was the "god" and sovereign of Nekheb, but that meant that I was suddenly responsible for ruling an entire Empire. Countless men and women looked to me as their ruler and protector, convinced that I was capable of doing anything I wanted. All things considered it was probably not a great choice to entrust the leadership of your intergalactic empire to a man who failed eighth grade civics.
Even my name was no longer my own. The hieroglyphs that now represented me felt alien, unnatural – especially the quail chick. No amount of allegory was quite enough to have me reconcile the quail chick and vulture that were now part of my written name. I barely recognized it and I'd been there when first Ul'tak had mangled the phonetics of my name into the proto-Egyptian language of the Goa'uld.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, sitting up as a familiar shape wandered into the room. Amun, the former Eunuch and head of my household staff, strode in to my palatial apartment with near insufferable pride. Nearly a year in my service had only served to convince the man that he was in service of the greatest power in the universe, regardless of my repeated insistence that I neither wished to be worshipped nor deserved his prayers. I could never quite shake the sense that he was humoring my eccentricities as he served as my butler and manservant, in spite of and often ignoring my continued insistence that I'm more that capable of both dressing myself and finding food.
I gave up trying to convince him that I didn't need domestics about two months in. All that my continued protests achieved was to further convince him that I very much was in need of him and his seemingly invisible army of servants. I'd had a small contingent of fairy folk cleaning my Chicago apartment who'd been less capable of seeing to my needs in secret than his armada of maids seemed to be. My clothing seemed to have been laundered and hung almost as quickly as I stripped out of them – not that Amun would have ever tolerated me dressing or undressing without his assistance. In truth, I wasn't sure if I could actually get into or out of the complex costume of the Goa'uld Lords unassisted but that wasn't the point.
I managed to draw a line in the sand when it came to the "groom of the stool." Divine Lord Warden or not, some activities were single player events. I'm not sure if that was something that fell into the realm of "old fashioned" or "newfangled" but suffice it to say that the "groom of the stool" was given a generous pension and the position was done away with.
I stood up from my bed, cinching the silk belt of my sleeping clothes as I lazily sauntered over to my breakfast, fully aware that by the time I'd scarfed down my morning meal that Amun would have selected the clothing he felt was best for me to wear that day. I was reasonably certain that I'd had next to no input in what clothes I'd worn for the at least the past two months.
As usual, Amun's idea of a proper breakfast was a feast fit for any three state dinners. And like always, only a handful of items turned out to be things that I found even remotely appetizing. It was the sort of thing I would previously have found to be decadent, even disgustingly wasteful – but the head of my household and I had found a balance between his need to give his god a lavish offering and my hatred of wasting food. The food that I did not eat was to be taken to the front gates of the place and distributed to the poor. It had the unintentional side effect of being interpreted as a sacrament by the priestesses, but since the only real fallout was that people thought that wasting food was a sin I hadn't gone out of my way to discourage their interpretation. Hopefully some homeless people got a decent meal out of it. I took a plate of the things which appealed to me, a couple of meat kebabs that reminded me of beef, though I knew they were from a local reptile, and a porridge that tasted of honey and cinnamon.
Sitting down at the head of my table I tucked in to my meal, using folds of something vaguely like naan en lieu of a spoon to get the porridge into my mouth. The local custom of Nekheb was to eat with one's fingers rather than a knife, fork, and spoon. I was about halfway through my meal when there was a soft rap at the door, and a caramel skinned beauty wearing tattoos and piercings, but not a damn thing else, poked her head into the room. "My Lord Warden, you look well today."
My back stiffened as I was approached by Muminah, High Priestess of the Lord Warden. I was terrified of Muminah. I was afraid of all the priesthood of the Lord Warden, if I was entirely honest. Muminah was a true believer. She had been a devout worshipper of Heka before me, and had transferred that loyalty to me when I'd slain her previous master. She was willing to do anything for me, and I mean anything.
Heka had raised his priestesses from childhood as fodder for the system wide Genius Loci he'd created as a way to monitor and control a star system's worth of wards and defenses. He'd spent centuries getting women to willingly sacrifice their lives after knowing his flesh, corrupting them into willing weapons. I knew at least one woman who Muminah had killed, I'd felt the sacrificed woman's lips upon me when the dark god of magic had possessed me. I'd forbidden human sacrifice and forbade the clergy from killing except in self defense, but I lived in fear that one of the Priestesses would misinterpret something I said and start a jihad in my name.
Lash, the shadow of a fallen Angel, had done her best to feed the clergy of the Lord Warden a functional set of morals that would ensure my power base by taking liberties with her translation from English to Goa'uld. It had not been till after she was removed from my mind, along with the parts of my soul infected with Heka's memories, that I would realize precisely how calculated her translations had been. The Goa'uld language was limited, but not quite as limited as she had implied. I wasn't entirely sure if the dozens of languages I found myself able to fluently speak was a byproduct of her deal with the Metatron or a fringe benefit of ascending to godhood, but I was astonished by how completely she'd managed to twist my words to suit her purpose of establishing my power.
"High Priestess Muminah. To what do I owe this visit?" I replied, doing my best to keep my tone neutral. I did not want to encourage or discourage her behavior until I knew what she was actually doing. Too many offhand statements had already found their way into the salacious mix of fiction and philosophy that the clergy was cobbling together in an effort to please their new god.
"My Lord Warden. I have a question of faith from your flock that I do not know your will to answer." The priestess bowed in supplication, crossing her arms over her chest.
That… boded poorly. Muminah never came to him with that sort of a question unless it was something soul crushing. What happened to the souls of the still born? Why do bad things happen to good people? The sorts of questions that nobody could have the answer to, not truly. I'd done me best to answer her truthfully, telling her when I didn't have an answer and explaining that nobody ever got to know everything in life. Some questions, especially those that felt the most unfair, weren't questions that had answers or ever would have answers. "Questions about what?"
"Your stories to the children." Muminah replied.
"My stories to the children?" I raised an eyebrow in surprise. Chronos' invasion of Nekheb had resulted in a number of unfortunate war orphans. A child raised in the foster system myself, I had been unwilling to abandon the children who'd been left without families as a result of my war. I'd taken in the children, doing my best to see to their needs and their education. Managing the needs of a kingdom hadn't left me with a lot of time for foster parenting, but I had gone out of my way to tell them a story every night for the past year. I had a lifetime worth of history, movies, books, and comics to pull from and an audience for whom Luke Skywalker was an entirely new experience.
"The conclave of priestesses has been deliberating on it for some time." Muminah asked. "The War of the Stars, the Spider Man, the Super Man, the King of Arthur, the Aladdin and his Genie, the Beauty and the Beast, the Davy Crockett, the Abraham Lincoln and the rest of your stories? Are they truth or allegory? We cannot give sermons on their teachings if we do not understand their truth."
I blinked, nonplussed. "You're asking me if Star Wars is real?"
"Yes, Lord Warden." Replied Muminah.
I bit back the sarcastic response that I really wanted to give, thinking 'not now Harry if you actually say that, you're going to end up with a cult of Kal'el on your hands' as I gave a more measured reply, hoping against hope that I wasn't going to end up making things worse. "Some stories are true, some only have elements of truth in them, and some are outright lies. Even the stories I tell that are based on true events have been told and re-told so many times that they only give an impression of what happened rather than literal truth."
"And the Jedi?" Muminah asked hopefully. "Were the Jedi real?"
I smiled. "You like them?"
"Yes." The priestess replied, blushing. "I am, fond of the tale of Luke."
"Yeah, Luke is pretty darn cool." I replied grudgingly. "But, no. That story is one of the ones that has more fiction that truth."
"Err, not quite boss. You're drawing distinctions that don't really count." Chimed in an opinionated voice from my dresser, as a pair of orange lights flickered into view. Bob the skull was my spiritual advisor, both literally and figuratively. He was not actually a skull, but rather a spirit of intellect inhabiting the piece of enchanted bone.
"Between reality and fiction?" I blinked in confusion as I turned to the skull.
"What? You think that your universe is the only universe? Harry, come on. Creation is totally freaking huge. Room enough for you and Luke Skywalker to both putter your way around the galaxy." He rolled his eyes. "Look, I'm not a faith guy. I don't know what happens with a lot of things. But I know a shell game when I see one."
Muminah looked like a child who'd just been told that there were going to be two Christmases this year. I groaned, realizing just how much damage Bob's correction was going to do in the long run. It had not gone unnoticed by the priestesses how Bob the Skull was essentially my primary source for any information I didn't know offhand. If I wasn't around and Bob said something or if Bob said something that corrected a factual error in my own speech, they had more or less decided to accept that as the gospel truth.
That was part of the reason that Bob was in my room in the first place. I was afraid that if I left the spirit of intellect to his own devices he'd end up re-instating the practice of sacred prostitution or establish some sort of Eyes Wide Shut style ritualistic orgy. Bob might have centuries worth of magical theory under his belt, but for someone without biological urges he somehow managed to have both the libido and emotional maturity of an entire platoon's worth of teenage boys. Given the obligate nudity of the priestesses, leaving him unattended in their presence felt deeply unwise.
I switched to English to chide the skull. "Just remember that we live in this universe, ok Bob. Once interdimensional travel becomes an actual thing, then I'll start worrying about the men with goatees. Until then ixnay on alkingtay to the iestesspray."
"Really boss? Pig latin? It's not like she speaks English." Bob replied. "And you don't let me have any fun. Honestly…"
"Shut up Bob." I replied harshly, a shiver running up my spine.
"Oh come on Boss - If you're not going to use your harem at least let somebody have some fun." Bob replied in irritation.
"Shut up unless you want to let Mab know exactly where you are." I snarled, the everpresent awareness of Traitor's Bane feeding me the specifics of a the Winter Queen's sudden presence in my realm. "She just entered the Throne Room and I don't want her to hear you."
"Meep!" Bob replied, eyelights dissolving as he hid in his container. I'd never quite gotten the specifics of his feud with Mab, but Bob had been forced to flee fairy in a hurry. If there was anything that got him to comply, it was the threat of an imminent visit from the Queen of Air and Darkness. I tossed a blanket over the skull and motioned for Amun to dress me. He'd removed my night clothes and put me into the regalia of a System Lord, complete with crystal foci, in less time than I used to take to put on a pair of blue-jeans.
I kept track of her with the monstrous Genius Loci of Nekheb, Traitor's Bane. The spirit did not like the Queen of Winter, she was a powerful entity – powerful enough to do grievous harm to the solar system it was entrusted with protecting. It was willing to tolerate the intrusion, however, given the Queen's state of alliance with Harry. And Harry could be reasonably certain that the Queen meant him no imminent harm. That she was able to enter the palatial stronghold of Nekheb without an invitation meant that she would be bound by the laws of hospitality, and for a Fairy Queen violating those laws was not even remotely an option.
That she didn't intend to murder me in the imminent future was only a minor comfort, all things considered. Mab's arrival could only mean a couple of things, few of them good. My best-case scenario was that she had arrived to discuss our mutual war upon the god Chronos. The Titan had only a shadow of his former magical might, but his willingness to employ outsiders and dark things from the worst parts of the Nevernever greatly complicated the process of re-taking the worlds that had once been Heka's from their new overlord. While we had agreed upon the necessity of taking out the outsider aligned god, we'd had several major differences of opinion when it came to both allies and strategy.
Most recently I'd drawn the Queen's ire by starting a war with Moloch at what had been intended to be a meeting to discuss the terms of an alliance. Moloch's idea of how to "celebrate" the arrival of a potential ally had been biblical, as in old testament style levels of messed up. I actually had trouble even describing the things his people had done without feeling on the verge of vomiting. Call me a chauvinist if you will, but I get especially mad when someone hurts a woman.
And I don't give a damn what you call me, if you're willing to rape a woman to death before tossing her into an oven with her newborn baby girl I'm going to put whatever is left your ass in a pine fucking box. The Moloch had managed to escape with his life, but just barely. His Jaffa had not, nor had anyone else who'd willingly participated in the ritual feminicide.
Now I had two wars for the price of one.
Ul'tak, the head of my armies, had not been thrilled at the additional stress upon our already stretched out armies, but he'd been at the meeting as well. Neither he nor the Ancient Jaffa had questioned why I'd done what I'd done.
Mab had not been pleased, nor had she understood. The lives of individual mortals aren't the sort of thing that the Queen of Air and Darkness troubled herself with. In her mind I'd sacrificed the long term benefit of thousands of capable troops for the short term satisfaction of "saving some chattel." We'd had words after that. They had not been friendly.
So, I was understandably on edge when I walked into the throne room to find the Queen of Air and darkness standing in my court, looking through a book bound in what looked disturbingly like human flesh based off of the tattoos. She was seated upon a throne of ice she'd summoned to be slightly taller than my own, and flanked by a pair of armored trolls.
As I entered the room, the Fairy Queen looked up at me. Her opalescent blue lips quirked up into a smile as she saw me, her eyes twinkling with a gleeful malice that was painfully obvious. "Lord Warden. It is good to see you."
"Queen Mab." I replied, seating myself upon the throne. I was painfully aware that Muminah had followed me from my apartment, intending to add my meeting with the Queen of Winter to the volumes of scripture held by the priesthood of the Warden. "I had not expected you so soon."
"So soon after you treated me with such discourtesy, you mean." Mab tutted disappointedly. "I have killed for lesser insults. I did warn Moloch to curtail his usual honors, but I it would have been better for you to have seen the greater picture."
"He was murdering children." I ground my teeth. "Raping women. It was wrong."
"And how many children do you think will die from a prolonged war? How many women will be raped as Chronos' troops pillage your worlds?" Mab shook her head. "You are not some gumshoe in Chicago any more, Warden. You must see the bigger picture or you will sacrifice your entire kingdom in your bullheadedness."
I sighed, Mab was treading back on old ground to get me mad. She wanted me to say something foolish that would allow her an upper hand when she asked for what she really wanted. I wasn't in the mood for games, "Did you come to just have the same argument again, oh Queen of Winter or do you have a greater purpose in coming? My godmother has led me to believe that the entry to Nekheb from the Nevernever is a bit distant for anyone to consider traveling here for a social call."
Mab laughed, it was a harsh and grating sound. "Warden, you have no idea. The place that lies on the other side is a land of nightmare. Your Godmother's payment was far too little for the service she is forced to render. But you are right, I have not come here for old arguments or idle banter. I have a task for you."
That got my attention.
When I had been a teenager I'd entered into a foolish deal with my Godmother. Yes, I have a literal fairy godmother and she is god damn terrifying. That debt had then been traded to the Queen of Winter, three favors owed before I would gain my freedom from her debt. Two had already been paid. Once I completed the third, I would be free of all obligation to the debt once owed my Godmother.
I would be free.
I tried not to look too eager as I felt on the verge of bouncing out of my seat and whooping in excitement. "What task?"
The Queen of Air and Darkness walked down from her throne to a wide stone table that sat between our thrones. She opened the book bound in human skin, tearing a page from it and casting it across the diorite surface of the table. Seven symbols around a world marked with a laughing skull – a gate address. Not to anywhere pleasant judging by the source material.
The Queen of Winter put down the book, rubbing her thumb across the spine in a way that couldn't help but be deeply unsetting considering the material it was stitched from. "You will leave this planet, with a retinue of three, and go to the address I have given you at the appointed time. You will not return to Nekheb for at least seven days."
"That's it – just go to a planet?" I replied, incredulous. "No impossible task? No crazy artefact you need me to recover? No mystery to investigate? You'll excuse me if I'm skeptical."
"And yet it is no less what I require of you, Warden." She replied, smiling broadly.
I shook my head. "No."
The Winter Queen chuckled, leaning back against the wide stone table in a way that accentuated her impossible curves. The pattern of black vines along her blouse grew and wriggled as she moved. "You think that you can deny me wizard?"
"That was the deal Mab. I get to pick which jobs I do for you and don't do." I shook my head. "I've done two jobs thus far. I know that whatever you've got lined up for my third must be big enough that it merits losing your hold over me. So unless you're planning on telling me why I need to be on this specific planet at that specific time – I'm out."
"Warden, you wound me. This is not a favor for which we bargained. This is simply friendly advice from one who has your best interests at heart." Her predatory feline gaze made me feel distinctly uneasy. I was glad that my eyes no longer betrayed emotion, my pupils would have been dilating with fear.
"You're not even paying me for this one?" I snorted. "Gee whiz, now I really want to go."
Mab's predatory grin never faltered. "You will go Warden, as the Queen of Summer has negotiated for safe passage into your kingdom. Even your godmother will not be able to stop her agents from arriving in full force."
"Ok, I'll bite. Why am I worried about the agents of summer coming here?" I sighed. It wasn't as though fairies showing ever meant anything good, but the Summer's agents were generally less malevolent than those of winter. I'd been enjoying relative popularity from both fairy courts, given that the legal route to fight the Goa'uld was through me and my armies.
"Because the Solstice is a week hence, and Queen Titania knows both that you are responsible for the death of her daughter and that to avert her daughter's death risks cataclysmic paradox." Mab replied. "As she can't avert them without risking the destruction of a quite substantial portion of history, she has elected to take her revenge upon the Goa'uld who set things in motion instead."
"What?" I screeched. "How!"
"I would have thought that part was obvious." Mab shook her head, sighing in exhaustion as though she were talking to a simpleton. "She knows that you are responsible, because I have told her that you are responsible."