The two letters clutched in my hands from Harry the Outsider were crumpled to nearly nothing. I'd just seen someone half-dead fight a dragon and win. Obviously it had been stressful for me, but I persevered. I snorted at myself. The wardens were holding me back out of the 'cordoned area'; I'd wanted to go to Harry and warn him that Uuvax was coming for him. But in the end it didn't look like he needed my help.
Right after leaving Mai's restaurant I received the first letter asking me to meet him at the docks because he was in trouble. The owl carrying the letter exploded in a shower of confetti after delivering the message, scaring the living daylights out of me. Before I'd gotten over my shock, yet another owl came swooping down on me. This time I was prepared for the avian kamikaze, but not for the message it carried: 'Stay away from me; it isn't your time to die.' I was never good with mixed messages, as my dry run with women recently can attest to, so I went with my plan and headed to where I had seen Harry for the first time.
Arriving there I ran into the White Council and was held back. Even Senior Council member Listens-to-Wind had arrived and was standing beside me. He'd watched the whole battle with the Dragon without a flicker of emotion.
"Your old mentor was right about him, Wizard Dresden," he said to me, leaning on his carved staff. "This Outsider uses powerful white magic. That was a very hopeful song he used to defeat the Dragon Uuvax. She was a creature of no little power."
He was right, of course; all of us had been affected by that song. It reminded me of the best of magic, the powers of creation working inside you to make something extraordinary happen.
"You've got to let me go help him. He's not what you think he is," I appealed to Listens-to-Wind.
He shook his head, the many lines in his face pulled a little as if he was saddened. "No, no, young wizard. This needs to play out. The Merlin has his war and it must come to an end. If I let you go, you will simply die."
I was too frustrated for words. He didn't say it outright but I knew that if I moved he was capable of easily restraining me or killing me himself, not to speak of the wardens keeping their wary eyes on me. Their job was to make sure none of the vanillas came to this end of the docks but they'd been happy to keep me out as a bonus. I never was too popular with them. If it hadn't been for the presence of a Senior Council member I would have already taken on the wardens, my health notwithstanding.
I saw the Brute Squad of Archangel close in on Harry. I'd never seen them in person before. They carried enchanted weapons and strange magical foci, and were surprisingly young for being in that order. About ten of them accompanied The Merlin around Harry. It was wrong and it made my blood boil: they were just going to execute him when he sat there, having fought a being of nightmares.
"First you set him up to be killed by a dragon and now you show up like carrion to finish him off," I said with loathing and I leveled my staff at the wardens in my way. I'd just have to slip around Listens-to-Wind as well, but I couldn't stand there and watch Harry be killed.
Suddenly I found myself kissing asphalt with an oppressive weight on me. A silk gown appeared at the edge of my vision.
"Stand down, wardens. Dresden will behave while Listens-to-Wind and I are here. Please expand the cordon, make sure no one comes here." Ancient Mai's voice told me why I was flat on the ground. She had arrived just in time to cool my jets. "Up you get," she ordered me.
I groaned mentally and stood. It was now only me, Ancient Mai, and Listens-to-Wind witnessing what was happening. "This is wrong," I said to her more mature form.
Ancient Mai removed a scroll from her deep blue silk sleeves and passed it to me. I opened it to read:
The cycle will repeat. If you want to stop it, make sure Dresden is nowhere near me and doesn't die. One way or another we end it this time. I remember everything.
"What's this?" I demanded. I looked to Harry wondering if I could catch his eye somehow and understand what the warning was about. He was completely enclosed by the Brute Squad. The Merlin and he were talking but even being only thirty yards away or so I couldn't hear them. Before I could try and Listen, using my special talent, Mai began to answer me.
"This letter was passed to me by The Gatekeeper and I passed the message to Listens-to-Winds. The Honored Gatekeeper trusts the letter and we are here to make sure you don't interfere. Otherwise we would be assisting The Merlin. If your friend can fight off three Senior Council members and a Dragon, obviously he is beyond the Brute Squad," she said. I didn't know Harry had fought anyone on the Senior Council, let alone three of them, and won! Before I could ask her who he faced, Harry's harsh laugh interrupted our conversation.
"You think I am evil? You have no idea what darkness is, Merlin!" he shouted. He pressed his wand to his forehead in a quick movement and drew blood from the scar there. The Brute Squad fell back at his fast movement, expecting him to curse them.
Harry wiped the blood from his scar, pressed it into the wound on Uuvax's back and said something in that creepy snakelike language. A tall and pale wizard of the Squad didn't wait long for whatever was going to happen. He cursed, sending an invisible force at Harry and Uuvax's body. Both flew from the edge of the pier to crash into a warehouse wall. The old white paint on the building chipped and dusted them. Harry was sprawled, unmoving, but whatever magic he had invoked continued its work.
The same wizard stepped forward but the Merlin motioned him back. As if from a fresh wound blood burst out from Uuvax's body, turning black as it magically misted into the air. The vaporous substance started coalescing within moments of leaving the Dragon's body. The Brute Squad tried to burn it out of the air but it had no effect. While they were occupied, I noticed Harry moving. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I had no idea how much longer he would last. Many of his wounds had closed but he still looked weak and not injury-free.
I shifted on my feet, mentally preparing myself to run to him. It was all the indication Listens-to-Wind needed. He put his hand on my elbow, leaning on it as if his age forced him to take assistance from a younger man. That is what it looked like on the outside, inside I felt my legs lock up as though I didn't have muscle, bone, or ligaments but was made of cement. I was going nowhere.
In the meantime, the coalescing black blood mist was forcing the Brute Squad and The Merlin away from Harry. He had shifted Uuvax's body so she was between him and the warehouse wall. He had the gall to use the body of a Dragon as a cushion. However, my ire at him had to take a backseat because whatever magic Harry had cast had taken full form, and it was something that looked like a human from my angle. I probably looked as surprised as Ancient Mai beside me.
I suppose you would expect a demon-like thing to appear out of the unholy innards of a Dragon. I suppose I expected something that looked ugly and hideous, with horns, spikes, and what have you. It was the single most surreal moment of my life when the being Harry created did appear.
The being was a handsome man. He stood tall, not as tall as me but proportioned perfectly, unlike the stork that I am. The way he wore his hair and the set of his broad shoulders under a solid black cloak made me think I was looking at the quintessential male lead of Hollywood's golden era. Harry threw his wand to the being who caught it in lazy movement. I noticed Harry had a black wand I'd never seen before in his left hand.
In a broken, maddened voice, Harry declared, "Look upon He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and know darkness!"
Uh oh, the type whose name you're not allowed to take you don't want to see in person either. And when this announcement comes from someone who has just beaten a Dragon… well let's just say my danger-o-meter reaches critical mass.
"Dear Harry, I am surprised to find that I missed you," the being spoke with just the cultured charm I expected of him. Hell's Bells, even the corner of smile I could see on his face from my angle was genuine and inviting. "Although, I am worried to see you seem a little worn-out. Are you quite alright?" he continued in a warm tone that made me want to tell him all my worries. What a swell guy.
He certainly did not sound like anything dark. But then he turned just so that I could see all of him. Under the perfectly lustrous dark hair and an intelligent brow were two red eyes. A wave of terror struck me at the sight of him; the picture of a perfect gentleman from the 50's, dapper, and well-mannered, with snake-slit eyes. I have seen demons and creatures that put a shame to the word hideous. I have gazed at beings looking at which too long means being struck dead or catching leprosy. Nothing before then could compare to the man's fear-inspiring aura.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named looked around with a politely interested expression. He seemed to measure the Brute Squad of Archangel at the head of whom The Merlin himself frowned down. The being's cloak parted in the wind to show him wearing a suit jacket of rich dark cloth and a design from a different age. Of course he wore it like it was the height of style. He tapped the wand Harry had thrown him in the palm of his hand and nodded to The Merlin in greeting.
"Am I right in thinking that our mutual friend's unseemly bleeding is because of a difference of opinion with you gentlemen?" he asked, addressing The Merlin. The Merlin's face twisted in disgust but he did not say anything.
"They think I am a demon." Harry smiled, showing his bloody teeth as he leaned against the corpse of the Dragon. "They think I am a dark creature. They are here to wipe out evil: me." Harry laughed but started coughing right away. It only added to the effect of his madness.
"Oh my." The creature arched a brow and adopted a dismayed look. "Harry, Harry. If only you had joined me when I asked, you would not have to deal with such…unfortunates."
"Yeah, yeah. Just kill them already." Harry made a get-on-with-it motion.
"How droll." The creature smiled indulgently at Harry, as if The Outsider had been so witty. "I grant you they are severely lacking perspective if they believe you are a dark anything, but I would say it is your own fault for keeping such company."
Harry shot him a loathing look, while the creature continued to spread fear like a lazy wind through us. Maybe he was waiting for his limo to pull up and take him to his date with Marilyn Monroe, I don't know. He was putting me on edge and I wish he would just get on with it as well, whatever it was. The suspense was killing me, and that would really be an ignoble way for me to bite the dust.
"That old wizard there calls himself Merlin," Harry said in a conversational way. A current went through GQ evil at that and he stilled. For the first time it seemed he was paying attention to Harry. "He waited for a dragon to fight me before coming out to kill me. He is the most powerful wizard here. I guess he can call himself Merlin if he likes."
"Arrogant, very arrogant." The creature stopped tapping the wand in his palm and stared at The Merlin in open assessment. "And a coward." His voice seeped under my skin as cold nails dragging inside my flesh. It reminded me of how Harry sometimes spoke with magic, but it was nothing compared to this creature's voice. "Tell me, do you know who I am?"
"I do not need to know who you are, demon. Soon you will be dead," The Merlin spoke loudly from the head of the closed circle.
"Fool," the handsome man said pityingly. "You shall find your ignorance a painful burden." The creature did not move, but Mr. Hollywood suddenly was the darkness Harry had announced him to be. Light scuttled away from him in broad day, lines of shadows spread from him, and his clean open face showed a faint smile that was nothing but wicked.
Harry's weak voice pervaded the sudden tense silence, "And this is a true Dark Lord, the second most powerful wizard in the world. Morsmorde!" The cruel-sounding spell left Harry's wand in a spiral of green light, it exploded in the sky into emerald star shapes. The stars came together to form a leering skull with a snake curling out of its grin.
The Archangel Brute Squad gave a war cry and rushed at the Dark Lord with plasmatic swords and blindingly bright rods of magical power. One of them dressed in the garb of a samurai stepped into the shadows creeping from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and fell into darkness. His screams echoed up to us as if he had fallen into a mile-deep crevasse.
The Brute Squad specialized in combat; they adjusted quickly. A young black woman with an insane amount of agility somersaulted into the Dark Lord's web of shadows, landed on one foot in a sliver free of darkness and impaled him with her spear. The spear tip exited the Dark Lord's back, making him arch and stare at the sky. Runes carved on the spearhead and shaft glowed in pink fire. I looked to the black wizardess and saw her fingers clasped in a seal while she incanted. She was standing on the toes of one foot in the middle of the web as if she could stay there for hours.
The Dark Lord straightened, while impaled, and gave her a disappointed look as if she had dropped on his tux the cream she was supposed to be stirring in his tea. She smirked at him, thrusting her chin out in challenge, and then said a single word. The runes on the spear exploded in pink light and dust, jutting out rods of light of the same color.
When the light disappeared, the creature Harry had conjured was only standing because of the spear propping him up on the ground. Dozens of pink blades had torn through his body, branching out from the spear focus the young woman used. She shrugged with attitude and back-flipped only to land into the arms of the Dark Lord who was suddenly behind her.
Hell's Bells! There were two of him?
No, the one impaled was just an illusion!
It faded away only leaving the spear jutting into the earth. The Dark Lord was patting the wizardess's cheek while carrying her bridal style. The rest of the squad didn't dare make a move as the aura of fear emanating from him intensified so that those closest to him seemed to be using their staffs to stay standing.
"You are a magnificent witch. But you are wasting your talent. I could teach you true power. Go, think on it, and remember that I am merciful." She nodded in his arms, clinging close as though he was her father. I couldn't see the expression on her face but I guessed he had done something to her mind. Any woman who uses a spear as a magical focus shouldn't be cowed by just being caught in something's arms, no matter how stylishly clad. He set her down and she walked without harm across his shadows toward Harry. She sat down next to him with a serene expression.
"Do you have more children for me to take? There is much talent I see here, darkness in their magic that I can cultivate. Don't you agree, Harry, that the young lady would make a fine Death Eater?" He suddenly turned from addressing The Merlin's cold face to Harry.
"She's insane enough to get close to you, so yeah, fine 'Death Eater,'" he agreed and motioned He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to look behind.
A wizard of vast girth had planted his staff straight into the shadows. From the base of his staff, fire snaked like lightning through the Dark Lord's web to where he stood. The fire bloomed skyward, creating a column. The sheer noise of the spell blew me away, I took several steps back involuntarily.
I wondered how we were going to keep all this magic hidden from normal people, especially when there was a pillar of fire kissing the clouds. I asked Ancient Mai just that question, shouting over the roar of the fire.
To my annoyance neither she nor Listens-to-Wind seemed to be affected by the heat blast, they had had the foresight to conjure shimmering shields. She shrugged. "We're telling them we're filming a movie," she shouted back to me but clearly without any concern.
"Oh." It wasn't a bad explanation, really. "Do you think they'll buy that when they see Michelin Man's spell?"
She frowned at me. "Michelin Man?"
"You know, tire guy… has extra tires around his waist… you see it's funny because he's fat- oh never mind. Do you think they will really believe we're shooting a movie when they see that?" I gestured dramatically at the fire tower.
"We're shooting Godzilla, don't you know?" She smiled innocently at me, reminding me of her younger transformation.
"Well then, as long as it's a Godzilla shooting," I said fastidiously, a little miffed that they'd thought of that. People are blind to the obvious, the cover story would work. It always does.
The skyscraper of flames was shrinking and soon I saw the Dark Lord with his wand pointed aloft within the fire. All that awe-inspiring fire that should have incinerated everything was simply being vacuumed into the tip of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's wand. The ground around him was scorched but I was happy to see that Harry was sitting as unscathed as ever, even as close to the fire as he had been. I reminded myself that fire wasn't the best thing to use against Harry; he had a tendency to laugh maniacally while being burned. Very disturbing.
"Enchanted muggle weapons and fire charms," the Dark Lord said with disdain. "As enthusiastic as the fire charm was, I tire of these childish games." He strode forward, looking straight at The Merlin who stood behind the Brute Squad.
They tried to form a wall casting shields of various hues and shapes, each with his or her flair. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named thrust his wand out like a sword and sent a jet of silver light. It pierced the shield of the pale wizard who had attacked Harry earlier and hit him in the chest. He burst into millions of particles. One second he was there and the next there wasn't a thing to show of his existence.
"Holy shit!" I swore. "The demon just atomized him!"
The Brute Squad was stunned. The handsome devil didn't let them react, he made a complex motion of his wand and seven facsimiles of the seven remaining Brute Squad members appeared, facing their counterparts.
"Do enjoy outwitting yourselves," the Dark Lord said, crossing his arms and holding back.
The wizards he had conjured brought out their own magical swords, staves, and rods of glowing power and broke upon the ones who looked like them. Electric power mixed with howling winds and sprays of blood in the vicious duels that followed. Hell's Bells! I would never want to face myself in a fight for life. Every feign known, every power the same, every advantage nullified. Soon I couldn't tell friend from foe. This magic was beyond anything I had ever seen. I could only imagine the super heavyweights in Nevernever conjuring something this complicated. The power to mirror the instinct, knowledge, or even the shape of a human being, let alone seven, was more cause for alarm than a set of snake-slit eyes.
"Ancient Mai, we have to stop this. You have to let me to talk to Harry. Whatever this thing is he's invoked cannot be allowed to continue." I looked to both Listens-to-Wind and Ancient Mai. They were both equally impassive.
"Dresden. The Merlin is a wizard far more powerful than you have any understanding of. The real threat is that he will hold himself back for fear of causing too much destruction," said Listens-to-Wind.
I pointedly looked at the scorched dock, the torn up pier, the freaking yachts that the Dragon Uuvax had torn through and thrown out to the lake, not to mention her mile-long wings that were still covering the lake water and parts of the docks.
Mai smiled humorlessly. "It's never so bad that it cannot get worse."
"Exactly my point!" I said, trying to pull myself out of Listens-to-Wind's grasp, but I might as well have been fighting with a bulldozer that had me pinned.
My frustration and anger was quenched as something arctic chilled me to the very core of my consciousness. The sounds of fighting became muffled; in fact, in the dim twilight that suddenly fell around us, the duels seemed to have completely stopped. I saw a look of fright for the first time on Ancient Mai and Listens-to-Wind's faces when the very daylight was stolen. No thunderclouds rolled in or lightning crackled, it was just that the soft veil of dusk had blanketed the world… at two in the afternoon. There were faint wraiths in billowy cloaks swaying around He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Whatever spell he had cast had invaded our minds, broken through long-formed barriers to spread a disease of unexplainable menace.
I despaired. I imagined even Harry was clutching his heart. From far away I thought I heard him yell at his creature to stop the spell. This was our fear of the Dark Lord multiplied so many times that it left me incoherent. Deep inside myself I was fighting the soulful desire to just-let-go and give in.
Something crashed into the earth, again and again and again. Light flashed in front of my closed eyelids. I forced myself to watch, to find The Merlin raising his staff in the air and slamming it down like a hammer on the earth. Each time lightning tinged with purple and green struck out of the ground under the Dark Lord and his wraiths. The Dark Lord was teleporting out of the path of the lightning and kept shooting spells at The Merlin, which would get sucked into a shining disk he had conjured and held in his outstretched hand.
The Merlin was gathering the electric charge spread over the surface of the earth, or maybe he was calling it from the very core of the earth where forces of magnetism were immense, I did not have the experience to know. But the pylons of energy that exploded with each crash of his staff on the ground were soul-shaking. Between the primal terror of the powers The Merlin was wielding and the mental assault of terror from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I had fallen to my knees. I forced myself to look but soon my eyes were burned by the light and all I could make out was short periods of darkness.
"What's happening?" I hoarsely asked between the great booms and cracks of The Merlin's spells.
Very close to my ear Ancient Mai's voice came. She too had succumbed and fallen like me. "The dark one was caught in The Merlin's electromancy spells. He was blown apart but your friend has reconstituted him. That creature has now conjured something vile. There are half-rotten skeletal hands leaping out of the earth to catch The Merlin and pull him down. He is attempting to cut off those around his feet but they seem indestructible."
"It's the people he's killed. It's the sea of carnage he's left behind him. I saw this, I dreamed this," I gasped, remembering the dream I had of Harry wrapped in shadows, wielding white magic and walking over emaciated hands that grabbed at him. I didn't know I had dreamed of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. It must be something left over my broken soul gaze with Harry.
"You dreamed this?" She sounded disbelieving. I didn't blame her. I hardly believed myself. Mai continued, "The Merlin's defense is the most powerful in the world. Your friend is shouting at his creature to use the killing curse and end it, but the creature wants to break The Merlin, not kill him yet. In his place I wouldn't take chances, The Merlin has killed him once already." She paused then said, "Do you feel my hand on the back of your neck, Dresden? Look for it, try to sense the magic in my palm, it will help you fight the dark one's magic."
Slowly I did as she asked. It was like trying to breathe under sand, but through my struggle I became aware of her physical presence along with the oppressive fear. I couldn't beat the despair but I had some part of my mind again. The Merlin had stopped using the earth's electrical charge and was on defense. He was running, trying to destroy the nightmarish hands and arms under his feet. The Merlin was an old man and though he was surprisingly agile in his grand robes, it was obvious the Dark Lord was toying with him.
The black spell could not be defended against. The arms became intangible when attacked but solid when they twisted their fingers in his flesh. The Merlin was caught! He'd lost his footing and they were speedily pulling him under.
"You force me to unleash myself. Soon I will bring you the despair that bleeds off of you," he intoned, and struck the ground with his hand where he'd fallen, sending out a wave of power on the heels of a thunderclap. The Merlin's look of triumph was fierce with his now white hair falling in disarray around him. I noticed this in the split-second moment before the wave hit me and Ancient Mai swore.
It was a great working of magic, and subtle, though vast. We were no longer on the docks but had been taken in a breath to some deep desolate part of the Nevernever, the alternate dimension where trolls, fae, and some of the gods that people believe are myth exist. The Merlin had moved every living being in a limited radius around him. The oppressive menace coming from the Dark Lord disappeared as soon as the scenery changed, as if it had been flipped off. How The Merlin managed that I would love to know. There have been few times in my life I have felt as helpless as when I did under the Dark Lord's psychic attack.
The Merlin had stood looking every bit the wizard's wizard he was. Even with his pristine periwinkle-blue robes mussed and his fine white hair and beard dirtied, he looked like a true lord of magic from the lore of old days. I took quick stock of our surroundings. It was a starlit night where we had moved to in the Nevernever; it bathed the stone ruins on knolls which undulated here and there as if large creatures swimming under the earth would crest out any moment.
The overwhelming otherness of the place in how it made me tingle made me think that we were somewhere very far in the Nevernever. Away from the faeries courts closest to the mortal realm. This was a place forgotten, a kingdom of beings long past its prime or entombed in history. Besides me, Ancient Mai and Listens-to-Wind, Harry and the Brute Squad wizardess had been transported. Harry I noted was leaning against a pillar, holding the psychically damaged wizardess's hand. He was looking intently around him, brushing his hands on the silvery grass that covered everything. Where his fingers touched the blades they sparkled.
"Ancient Mai, Listens-to-Wind, please run," The Merlin said, looking at his adversary who was lost in some reverie. It looked like he was trying hard to listen to something just beyond hearing.
"Yes, dear Harry, perhaps it would be best for you to run as well. I wouldn't want my vessel to be damaged any further while The Merlin and I finally exchange words of true power," The Dark Lord said, floating the wand Harry had given to him back to Harry. "And, oh, please leave me my wand."
Harry frowned as he stood and guided the athletic woman beside him up. "You're nothing without me, remember that. Wait till the others have left as well," he said, and teleported to high ground taking the woman with him. Harry's creature raised his hand and the black wand I'd seen Harry holding for the first time appeared from thin air into his palm.
"Do not worry for us, Merlin. We will be safe," Listens-to-Wind said and chose his own hill to wait on top of. He motioned me to follow and I didn't resist. I had no intention of stepping between The Merlin and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named; and to reach Harry, I would have had to go through them.
The Merlin and The Dark Lord stared down each other, both tall and regal men in their own way. The Merlin looked every now and then to see if we had gotten out of the way. I couldn't tell for certain but it looked like he wanted us to move faster. I obliged my feeling and ran up the hill, waiting for the Senior Council members who were acting as my guards to catch up.
"Would you like to bow?" the Dark Lord asked, his voice echoing in the desolation of the forgotten Nevernever province.
The Merlin tilted his head to the right as pale white light encircled him and the Dark Lord.
"Nice." I whistled.
"That should limit the creature's teleportation," Ancient Mai said with satisfaction.
"No," Listens-to-Wind said, leaning on his gnarled staff. "That will stop it all together. It's not just a protection circle, it's also a ward. The Merlin is the master wardsmith of the White Council and this is not the first being capable of teleportation he has faced."
The Dark Lord began laughing. I was taken aback, his cultured laugh was gone; it was replaced by something harsh and mocking. "An Antiapparation ward? Is this why you brought me here? Well, let us begin."
"We already have, fool," The Merlin said. The earth around him and the Dark Lord heaved without warning and exploded. I fell back instinctively and conjured my shield but The Merlin's ward held back the cataclysm he had provoked. Rock melted and spilled, white-hot, on the walls of the circle.
"Don't tell me The Merlin just killed himself," I whispered, seeing how high the volcanomancy spell had risen within the circle. Before anyone could answer me the temperature dropped again, but this time it was a purely physical sensation; we weren't under the Dark Lord's psychic attack.
What had been a between-seasons kind of time in the Nevernever turned to winter. Frosty winds screamed into the valley, clawing at our skins. The twinkling night sky disappeared behind roiling grey clouds and it began to hail. Steam billowed from within the ward circle as melted rock slipped down its sides. Everywhere, superheated earth began to cool and blacken as great baseball-sized pieces of hail smashed in a staccato.
I raised my shield overhead, but I needn't have. Listens-to-Wind had erected a ward around us that kept us safe. It hailed so fiercely that we couldn't see three feet in front of us. There was nothing natural about the storm; hail couldn't have fallen with such speed or viciousness. It pounded the ground so hard that it felt like I was standing on the skin of a drum.
"Conjuring winter in the Nevernever, even so deep into the forgotten realms is too dangerous," Ancient Mai said with a frown. She tucked the silver-black strands of her hair behind her ear from where it had blown free in the sudden gale.
"Why?" I asked, while I tried desperately to see what was happening.
"The Queen of the Winter Fae, Dresden. Her eyes see much further than her own realm. And like attracts like. We cannot afford to have her interest peaked in our war," she explained.
Of course. Queen Mab of the Winter Fae was terrible and powerful enough to be sovereign over some of the worst terrors in the supernatural world. When one knew and feared the things that cowered in her presence, one had a hard time even imagining what she herself was capable of.
There was a great crack and a shockwave that we heard even over the machinegun fire of hail. An arch of white light preceded the sound which had me clapping my hands on my ears. Everything in the light's path was vaporized. The curtain of hail and ice was annihilated and the air cleared. Belatedly I realized that The Merlin's circle must have fallen because he erected it again.
The flat valley that we'd left them in bore evidence of the upheaval in the form of a treacherous river of black slabs of volcanic rock having been super-cooled. Their surfaces had been bludgeoned with the eldritch storm's hail. At opposite ends of this river, standing precariously on the shards left by their devastations, both The Merlin and the Dark Lord showed injuries. The Dark Lord's catwalk cloak and retro suit was burned, his posture was of a man who was struggling to stand, mirroring that of The Merlin. The head of the Senior Council was sporting several gashes across his face so that blood ran down his eyes and stained his periwinkle-blue robes. I did notice that the land around The Merlin was devastated only by the hail and ice and not the eruption of lava rock. To have such fine control over primal nature was astounding. That he could work that kind of destructive magic in a confined space and keep his immediate surroundings safe spoke of the height of his power and skill. On the other hand, the Dark Lord had brought winter and a cold so deep that it chilled the refuse of the earth's bowels. That was just a mite terrifying.
The Dark Lord moved his wand over himself, setting aright his clothes. The cloak and suit were replaced by rich emerald robes with a belt of silver rope. His injuries had disappeared, and God damn the bastard, he somehow managed to make a side parting look 'in.'
"You've shot lightning through the earth and boiled the ground under my feet. Very dramatic," he said as if he were a judge enumerating the good points, just before he gave his criticism and told you that while he was impressed your sow would not be getting the blue ribbon at that year's state festival. "Curious choice to conjure lava when presumably obliterating me with a lance of electricity didn't work. Was that the 'if you fail, try, try again' method to dueling?"
The Merlin spat blood from his mouth and tore a part of his voluminous sleeves to tie the gash on his head. "Childish taunts and a changing wardrobe will not impress me, demon."
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had crossed his hands behind his back and was looking at The Merlin as if he was just something of little note that had grabbed his attention on his walk in the park. "Clotting the blood and healing the wound will only take a simple charm. I can assist if it pleases you." His voice echoed with sincerity in the valley. He brought around his wand and rolled it between his long fine fingers; and indeed, he looked ready to help.
The Merlin shot him a look, then suddenly brought his blood-stained hand to his face. "What have you done?" he demanded, his voice tight with fury. Next to me Ancient Mai sucked in her breath.
The Dark Lord moved his wand in a complex pattern at the slabs of black rock at his feet. The glassy rock rose from the ground, pieces of it began breaking off transforming into thick obsidian pythons. They hissed and dropped to the ground to encircle their creator. Within seconds the many snakes intertwined to form a great living throne. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named sat back on the throne and hissed at the snakes while petting the heads closest to his free hand. I felt repulsed hearing the language but was determined not to let any of his psychic magics affect me anymore.
"What is this?" The Merlin demanded again, now clamping down hard on the wound on his arm, letting the one on his head run free. Even the bandage was not holding back the blood.
The Dark Lord rested his cheek on a closed fist and regarded him quietly. "Your shield at the docks concerned me. The way it absorbed spells no wizard or witch has found a defense against was quite disconcerting. I simply had to know the secret, but I knew you would be dead long before we could discuss my academic curiosity. That is why I am so grateful you brought me to this place. Your shield was no shield: it was a rift in space, superbly controlled, but after all not a true defense, just a…displacement to this place." I imagined he must have given a pleased smile to The Merlin at that point. My heart skipped a beat as I realized what it meant.
Listens-to-Wind expelled a breath. "Well, old Arthur took a risk coming here then. With this creature's magic unknown to us it was best if he kept diverting his spells into the Nevernever. Now that we're here, he can't use that technique. But I wonder what the dark one has done to him."
"You don't seem to be too worried," I said. Heck, I'd seen people more into Monday night football than Listens-to-Wind's concern about the duel.
Listens-to-Wind shared a soft smile with Ancient Mai. "Worry rocks reason like waves throw about a skiff. I must learn as much as I can from this fight, in case I have to step in if The Merlin fails."
I nodded but couldn't quite bring myself to admire his cool headedness. I was anxious and I didn't even like The Merlin.
The Dark Lord waved his wand in a shooing motion. A tall pitcher of water and a glass appeared by The Merlin who shielded himself immediately. His movements were becoming sluggish and he was bending further.
"Go ahead. I know the thirst is killing you. Forgive me, I don't have anything for the lesions, however," the Dark Lord said, sounding as sincere as my social worker from my orphanage days.
As he uttered the last words, the front of The Merlin's blue robes bloomed with red. He touched his chest with a shaking hand and even from afar I could see him clench his jaw shut. The Merlin bent over from the pain, leaning with all his strength on the staff. I surged forward to run down the hill but was caught by Ancient Mai. She grabbed my collar and pulled me down so we were inches from each other's faces. "Dresden, if The Merlin fails, I will step in. This is not a battle for children. And your living or dying makes the difference in our winning or losing this war. You will not play the hero."
Before I could shove her back and curse her the Dark Lord started speaking again, sending his voice around the valley without having to raise it. "Your elemental spells are uninspired. Why attempt to incinerate me and not curse me at the same time? As you have found I am not lacking in imagination; though using hail to deliver my curse feels juvenile, it seems to be quite taken with you. Now if you are truly the prince of enchanters you should be able to refute my playful magic. It is in part transfiguration, in part a charm. The poison will not let your blood clot, nor will it maintain the same nature, it changes with each passing second. It is an attack studied in hallowed halls of magical learning across the world." The Dark Lord snorted. "After all there is no end to the world's awe with Dumbledore's final blow against Grindelwald." He sighed deeply and sank into the living throne of rock reptiles. He splayed one hand in an inviting gesture. "Do drink the water. It will give you strength to struggle."
"Why isn't he ending this?" I asked out loud. Ancient Mai and Listens-to-Wind didn't answer; their eyes were glued to the tableau below. With a start I realized that this creature, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, was enjoying it too much to let it end so soon. I didn't know what leash Harry kept on him, only that it must have driven him to enjoy the freedom he had gained.
Ancient Mai murmured next to me, "This isn't about ending or winning the duel. This is about breaking The Merlin's pride. Your friend and the dark one he created are proving a point."
The Merlin's voice suddenly shook the hills. "You betrayed the secret of your magic as well in the mortal world. And now you shall pay for it. Feel the regret and remorse of the victims you conjured to pull me into the earth!" The Merlin raised his staff with immense effort to drive it into the ground.
The menace that had flown like a river when the Dark Lord had spelled the rotten and skeletal hands to attack The Merlin before came up full force. A great shadow slunk out and shot from the base of The Merlin's staff to the Dark Lord. There was a cacophony of screams and howls in its wake and within moments it had enveloped Harry's creature where he sat.
"That's black magic!" I shouted, beside myself in shock that The Merlin used it. A nearly tangible feeling of oiliness slipped over my skin as the gathered black magic pervaded in the air. Summoning the anguish of those violently killed is beyond abhorrent, and I had never known till that day that necromancy could even be used that way.
"Necessary evil," Listens-to-Wind said but as if it cost him something to say it.
I was getting tired of watching and waiting for it to end. As filthy as the feel of the magic was in the air it was still calling to me to mold it to my use. It is a regret of mine that I almost did so. My staff and hand was in the air before I knew it. In my mind I was going to somehow push the blackness away from me, but a portion of it just enveloped my mind.
Ancient Mai slapped me hard with a word of power. She broke the magic's influence I'd unwittingly gotten entangled in as I tried to repel it from myself. She spoke harshly in my ear, "This is beyond you, child. If you die here The Outsider and our world will continue in a time loop of conflict. Bear the burden that you feel, you're above falling to the black magic's bait. You must do your part in breaking the cycle by staying alive."
It was the mixture of Ancient Mai's explanation of the 'cycle' I kept hearing about and unexpected confidence in my abilities that helped me get my frustration under control. I was able to get my head in the game and watch what was happening in the real fight of the moment.
The Merlin's knees were bending under the weight of the transforming poison in his body. On the opposite end the echoes of the murdered howled at the Dark Lord, hiding him from view. The Merlin turned away from his adversary and looked up to Harry. "You are the source of his power. Return whence you came, Outsider!" he shouted with revulsion. Fire in a thin piercing beam blasted from the palm of his hand at Harry, even as The Merlin fell to his knees.
For his part Harry stayed standing where he had been all this time; as impassive as before. The Dark Lord appeared in front of him with a crack that sounded through the valley. The Merlin's fire washed and died against a shining silver shield with the device of a rearing snake on it. The Dark Lord's knitted brows and the snakeslit red eyes under them bled hate. I could feel the sheer depth and blackness of the loathing all the way to the peak I stood on. I felt sick all over because of it.
"You shall not harm him, his fate belongs to me. You shall not usurp my revenge!" His voice had taken on a thin and vicious quality that kindled the wounds left in my mind by his psychic attack. I swayed for a second in blind agony before steadying myself.
"So you survived that too?" The Merlin said, without inflection. However, his stooping body took away any disdain he hoped to show.
"I am not fettered with regret or remorse, least of all of those who fell to my wand. It is your last folly, Beotian," he spat and whipped his wand forward.
I saw The Merlin cling to his staff and attempt to create a shield: something hazy came into existence. The Dark Lord's spell was invisible but its nature was so deeply black no one magical could have missed its passing. The Merlin's weak shield simply winked out and the staff fell from his hands. He fell to his knees, reaching for the staff.
The Dark Lord teleported next to The Merlin. Listens-to-Wind and Ancient Mai surged forward, I one step behind them. He stood there, looking down on him, ignoring the three of us who ran toward him. We struck a magical circle ten feet from The Merlin. The Dark Lord's face was set in a frown, the way his eyes twitched gave the impression he was disgusted with what was by his feet. "You could create a shield to swallow un-shieldable spells, you could call the earth and bend it to your will, you could steal the spells of others and make them your own. But now do you remember, Merlin, do you remember how to even conjure a flame?"
The Merlin thrashed over to his stomach and his hand curled into the torn up asphalt shredding his skin. It was terrible seeing a man of his stature reduced to crawl on the ground, fighting pain inside him that was so great that he was losing any sense. The Dark Lord waved his wand over The Merlin, sending a yellow spell.
The Merlin sighed with relief as his fit subsided. He looked up at the sky blankly and said, "I can't remember. It is… The spells are at the tip of my tongue. I cannot remember. I will break through this psychic curse of yours. I resisted your mental attacks before."
"Yes, yes," the Dark Lord agreed softly. "But tell me: do you remember the magic of the mind that would aid you to overturn my enchantment? Do you truly believe that you can teach your mind how to command your tongue to do magic without even the memory of how you did it the first time in your life?" He shook his head. "Come now, I had to release you from Dumbledore's spell just now so you could live and know how pathetic you are. If you could not beat him, do you truly think you can beat me?"
Something hard settled in my throat with pity for what had happened to The Merlin. This was a man far greater in the knowledge of the mystic than I was, and here he lay, stolen of what he was. I hated Harry's creature, I hated Harry for conjuring him, and I hated The Merlin for not listening to reason and letting things come to this.
I placed my hand and staff on the magic circle to break it. I was going to pit everything I had inside me against the circle and break the will of the creature holding it.
"Stop it, you fool! This is a ward set to destroy everything in its path when it breaks!" Ancient Mai shouted. I pulled back as if burned and began to despair.
With a crack Harry appeared beside the circle, dried blood staining his skin and hair. He looked down on The Merlin emotionlessly.
"Harry, you have to stop this. There's no coming back from this," I said. Inside I knew that it was already past the point. They would never stop hunting him, but the alternative was that Harry killed the entire White Council. I didn't know what to do, but I had to stop what was in front of me.
Harry didn't look at me or say anything. He simply stared at The Merlin's wild face trying to remember centuries of magic. "And you called me evil. I didn't even know he could do this. Some fates are worse than death," he said.
The Dark Lord frowned but then smiled that faint wicked smile he had. "You've developed a taste for conquest, Harry. It is not too late. This world will not let you exist. But by my side you could make it bow to us."
"You never learn." Harry shook his head, and it gave me some hope that he was still reachable. But he dashed it a second later. "Finish this," he said.
The Dark Lord turned the Merlin's face so that he could look in his eyes and pointed his wand at his head. The Merlin went still and his face became slack. He was going to die with dignity even if he was on his knees. There was a blur in the air and suddenly The Gatekeeper was standing beside Harry, outside the circle.
"Stop and I swear I will give you what you want," he said. "Or else I will force the cycle to repeat." Behind Harry the air distorted and a great yawning arch appeared, made of stone. Inside it a door of heavy oak covered in Arabic writing came into existence. At the same time, a magical circle came to life around us. We were trapped in front of the archway. Suddenly I wasn't too happy about The Gatekeeper's presence.
It was damned annoying not to know more about the 'cycle.' But for once I took the mature route and kept my silence. Once the situation was diffused I'd get answers.
Harry looked up from The Merlin to stare suspiciously at the Gatekeeper. "Your words carry little meaning, Gatekeeper Rashid. I warned you this would happen even though you said your people wouldn't come for me. Instead they attacked me, and worse they kidnapped an innocent and threatened her life. She's just a little girl, Rashid. And now you're going to throw me back to the Outside? This time I will remember, what do you think will happen when I come back?"
"I was wrong, and so were my people," the Gatekeeper said, in a pained voice. "I trusted in reason; not fear."
At that suddenly Harry smiled. "You remind me of someone who loved me once. He always trusted badly. Do you really want to repeat time again?"
The Dark Lord suddenly sighed, drawing attention back to him. "Another one who would betray you, another one who fears your power. Will you make the folly of trusting him when even being the champion of the light didn't protect you from treachery before?"
Harry looked for a long time at He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, then turned to The Gatekeeper. "He has a point," he said wearily. He must have wanted to agree to an accord before the Dark Lord spoke.
The Gatekeeper bowed a little so he looked at Harry not quite in the eye but close. His thin frame towered over Harry's. "Both you and I wish to break the circle. Blood will not break the circle, even if we keep Dresden alive. I will teach you what you want. I will show you the way back to your realm. I am tired of this lock in destiny, weary of being enslaved to whatever this fate is. I swear, thrice I swear, before Allah, that if you turn your wand and creature away from the wizards here and now, I will be your teacher and aid you in your quest. These are the greatest oaths I can give you, I will be bound not matter how much I might want to betray you."
Again the reference to me! This much I gathered that Harry had been trying to go back to his world, and somehow my dying would cause time to repeat, which would mean Harry wouldn't get to go home. Well if a butterfly flaps its wings in China and a Tsunami hits Texas, then maybe a wile wizard dying in Chicago means an Outsider doesn't get to go home and a lot of other wizards die in a very bloody rendition of 'Let's do the time warp again.' And this is why I didn't go to college. Magic makes a whole lot more sense than science.
"That is not a decision of yours to make, Rashid. The White Council will never stop…" The Merlin growled before the Dark Lord lazily pointed his wand at him, sending a jet of light that cut a slice into The Merlin's cheek. The Merlin took hissing breaths, slapping his hand on the new wound.
Ancient Mai moved closer to Harry and The Gatekeeper. She said, "We have most of the standing Senior Council here. Let us call a vote. Perhaps we should have listened to The Gatekeeper in the first place and offered peace."
"Never," The Merlin spat from the ground, coming to his feet with strength born of fury. "I carry three votes of those absent plus mine, four against three–" The sound of The Merlin's voice suddenly cut off, we could see him speaking and breathing hard through his nose but we could not hear him. Some spell by the Dark Lord had silenced him.
"I don't ask you to trust me, Harry. I ask you to trust your experience and your power. Look at them, they will never rest, they will never agree to this 'peace' truly. They will bide their time and lock you away," the Dark Lord said with what sounded like heartfelt sadness. "This impotent Squib will even allow his underlings to 'cut a deal.'"
"Oh, I have a solution for that!" I raised my hand cheerfully, cutting off whatever Harry and Listens-to-Wind were about to say.
The Dark Lord looked at me with an arched brow and curious smile. Hell's Bells! That 'trust me' façade of his must have been magical somehow because I felt a burst of confidence in the man. Feeling like he would indulge his favorite nephew, I mimed with my fist against my head to knock The Merlin out.
"Oh," he said. "Yes, simplicity is often overlooked." A red spell illuminated the Merlin's body and he crumpled to the ground from the spell the Dark Lord had cast. Ancient Mai cried in dismay.
"So this is what you choose," The Gatekeeper said with steel in his voice.
"No," said Harry. "He's just asleep." He frowned at Ancient Mai and his eyes narrowed, he clenched his wand tighter and everyone tensed. "You look very familiar," Harry said to her.
Ancient Mai's hair cascaded forward as she gave a shallow bow. Her smile didn't reach her maroon eyes. "I resemble my mother. You raped her, tore her wings, and sang her to death recently."
Harry looked sheepish and smiled nervously. "Yeah…the singing was a little awkward for everyone, wasn't it?"
The Dark Lord looked blankly at Harry. "Not for the first time I regret marking you as my equal. Having you as my nemesis is embarrassing."
I felt goose bumps at his words, thinking Mai was going to lose it there and then. Instead she laughed lustily and turned to me. "I should have expected him to say something like that, knowing he is your friend. Outsider, perhaps I should thank you for avenging my father, even though I meant for my mother to kill you."
Harry smiled as well. "I'll take your thanks if you end this war with me. I want my friends safe, and I want The Gatekeeper to keep the promise he is ready to make. I will also set this old man free."
The Senior Council looked to each other.
"Aye!" I shouted. "Do it, for God's sake, this one is easy!"
"I vote for peace with The Outsider and those under the protection of his friendship. I will also honor The Gatekeeper's promise of knowledge to The Outsider and not stand in the way. Let there be peace," said Listens-to-Wind.
"That is a bit much, we cannot have him know our magic," Ancient Mai said. But with a silent look from The Gatekeeper she acquiesced. "Aye, since he is simply looking for a way out of our world, I can accept this."
"Aye," said The Gatekeeper. "In absence of the other members and as the most senior member present I vote by proxy for Martha Liberty, The Soothsayer, The Merlin, and the late Lafortier." With that he swept his staff in a wide circle and the Gate he had summoned disappeared.
Listens-to-Wind turned to me. "You shall bear witness that this day, The Senior Council with full vote passes the motion for peace with The Outsider, with the understanding that The Gatekeeper will be aiding The Outsider in his quest for knowledge."
"Witnessed," I said and let out a bone-weary sigh. "What happened to your eye?" I asked Harry, seeing the patch he was wearing.
"Courtesy of The Soothsayer," he said with disgust. "I accept your terms, Gatekeeper; but like I said before, break your word and I will become him." He pointed to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named by his side.
Suddenly the abject fear that had emanated from the Dark Lord on the mortal side spilled anew. It was already night but to me it seemed we had gone to a place where there was nothing but blackness. For a moment I was terrified the gate to the Outside had opened and we'd all been pulled through.
And then the Dark Lord spoke in a sibilant tongue, absent of his charm, and laced in blackness. "And remember well the face you see now is not the one I had at the rise of my true power. Dear Harry fears me as I was when his blood flowed in mine. So beware that I was merciful today; but I wait to annihilate any who break him. I marked him, I made him, and he is mine to undo."
Harry swayed and shouted, "Enough!"
The white stag made of swirling magical light that I had seen once in my home erupted from his wand and circled us all, beating back the darkness. When it reached the Dark Lord, he flicked the animal's antler and it disappeared like a reflection on the surface of disturbed water. Harry's eyes widened at that and he pointed his wand at the Dark Lord. The creature attempted to mirror Harry but his wand-hand would not rise to aim at him.
The Dark Lord sighed. "It seems the bonds haven't weakened." He shot Harry a smile filled with pride at him. "Perhaps I can now understand Dumbledore better. It truly is a pleasure to see your student grow and come into his own."
"I'm not your student!" Harry snapped. The Senior Council and I shot each other a look. I didn't want to think about what would happen if Harry lost control over his summoned creature.
The Dark Lord walked to Harry and put a hand on his shoulder, leaning down to stare in his eyes. "It would disappoint me if you told that lie to yourself too. You are everything today because of me. Every power, every title, every victory, and every loss flowed from me. Can you deny that?" he whispered.
Harry's jaw worked but he did not say anything and just glared up at the Dark Lord with loathing. My stomach dropped when I noticed, despite the height difference, how similar the two looked.
"I'll never forget," Harry said finally. "Time for you to go."
The circle around The Merlin fell; I kinda had hoped the Dark Lord would disappear along with it but that wasn't the case. No one dared approach The Merlin while both Harry and he stood near him. I cleared my throat none too discreetly and motioned with my head at the creature, who gave me another favorite-uncle beaming smile. Bastard almost made me titter nervously, which meant I was a second away from saying something sarcastic and dangerous enough to get me killed.
"I have words for this man before you call me the next time to finish what you are too afraid to do," the Dark Lord said to Harry. He spelled The Merlin awake and kneeled down to stare unblinkingly into The Merlin's chilly blue eyes.
Unexpectedly Harry pressed his wand at the base of the Dark Lord's neck. The creature began to fade, but not before he said the words he wanted to, with magic that crawled under flesh: "You are no Merlin, you are no Slytherin, you are not even an Albus Dumbledore. And now you are no longer a wizard. Do not dare take a name so far above your station, worm!"
Everything was frozen for a few seconds after he disappeared, until Harry broke the moment by beginning to shuffle to my side.
The Merlin looked to him with loathing and demanded, "What happened? Why aren't you attacking him?"
Ancient Mai turned to me abruptly. "Wizard Dresden, please inform The Merlin of the situation and bring him to my hotel, he will be cared for there. Listens-to-Wind must attend to the injured in the mortal realm. I have to make certain the mortal authorities do not become too concerned about the destruction of their dock, and The Gatekeeper–" She looked around and was unable to find the enigmatic wizard. "The Gatekeeper has already left on business."
They all left me with the head of the White Council glaring at me for an explanation. Harry reached up to pat my shoulder with a bloody grin. His other arm was curled around the black wizardess from the Brute Squad. She smiled vacantly at me; I have no idea when she showed up. I cursed Harry for getting the girl in the end, and then I cursed my luck, the gods, and most of all Ancient Mai.
And this is how The Outsider, my namesake, became a constant fixture in my life to The Merlin's never ending pain. And he just had to tell The Merlin that it was my idea to knock him out and remove him from the vote.
Is it a wonder then that in a few years' time when he invited me I was actually looking forward to traveling to his world to mess up his life?
A.N. Please Read
This completes the story. I want to write more of this, but it will be under a different title and in episodic form. Not an overarching storyline. There are so many characters in this that need more exploring and I don't want to forget them, so I will just write scenes for them now and then for fun.
What an epic journey of writing this was! It was a lot of fun for me. Thanks for reading. I know I changed in the time I started and the time I am ending this. So I am happy that you stayed with it this long despite all. I am sorry about the irregular updates; it was the best I could do with unreliable inspiration and real life time constraints.
I chose the most detailed plot amongst the many plotlines I introduced to finish. It was the conflict with the White Council I picked, with an addition of the Dragon Knight angle. I wanted to give you all an ending because knowing my life it will be impossible for me to get through all the plotlines in a timely manner. But as a reader I know what a pain it is not to have an ending, so this is my best shot. Hope that it was a good send-off because of Voldemort.
Many friends helped along the way. Thank you to all. Amongst the most notable are the HP/Dresden Files writing circle on DLP that started two/three years ago with myself, Shezza, Jon, and Vash. In the second group is Syaoran who stayed so patient for this last duel having brainstormed it with me two years ago. And finally Tinn who manages to make me look like a decent writer despite my gerund curse, my comma malaise, and for being the cultured fangirl she is.
Lastly, a message from Roqariel Anane: \m/
(For the uninitiated that is the 'sign of the horns')