Title: Tying Up the Loose Ends
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: Forget the sufficiently advanced science and the fact that Kirk and his men had swum against the Currents of Time; the fact that their particular wizard might be one I'd actually heard of might just be the most unbelievable part of their tale. 5200 words.
Spoilers: Through the PG/WN era for Dresden Files. Post-movie for nu!Trek
Notes: For jilltanith, for Day 3 in Wishlist 2012, DF/STXI, continuing the storyline begun in "The Only Logical Conclusion" and "Is There a Problem, Officer?" I was absolutely determined to wrap things up this time.
Once upon a time, a Fallen angel told me that I was born under 'a complex confluence of events, energies and circumstances.' That said circumstances were why I was born. And that as a result, I had the potential to wield power over a very scary class of supernatural entities known as Outsiders, the mere hint of whose presence turns ordinary wizards' bowels to water. In other words: Harry Dresden, Superwizard, at your service.
Personally, I had yet to see any evidence that that was true. If I had any superpower, it was luck: and not just the good kind, but terrible, horrible, no good, and every other flavor, too.
Things just happened to me. Or around me. Or to people on whose behalf I'd willingly cowboy up and pick a fight. If time-traveling government cops were going to arrive in pursuit of an evil wizard from the future? Of course the first people they'd trip over in their search would be me and the only other Warden Commander of North America.
Coincidences like that are bread and butter for my best friend, one of God's sworn warriors. But Michael has Someone to thank for that sort of interference. When a rain of frogs falls on my head, I have only myself- and whatever Darth Baddie is active that particular week- to thank for it.
...Unless, of course, I'm not the only one they're splatting all over.
If my flavor of luck is problematic on its own? My luck plus Michael's brand of coincidence tends to converge in exponential levels of mayhem. The kind that might threaten to break a millennia-old Holy weapon, drop us into a merry chase with more Fallen than had ever been collected in one place since they were just a jingle in Judas' pocketbook, or save forty-some wizardlings from near-certain death, tangentially including Michael's own daughter.
Yeah. Keeping all that in mind? It sort of put current events in perspective.
It was that last event in particular I was reminded of just then, as I listened to a spaceship captain- who'd arrived in San Francisco of all cities just when I was in town to dicker with my West Coast counterpart- expound on the tale of a foe who'd snuck aboard his vessel, stolen some kind of four-dimensional crystal involved in powering its engines, and then used the thing to create a portal to twentieth century Earth. My inner, geeky ten year old and my honed investigator's instincts were both doing the mental equivalent of breathing into a paper bag... but for completely separate reasons.
Coincidentally, Molly's trial had been the last time I'd heard from the Gatekeeper.
Coincidentally, that had been the last time I'd heard a certain other name, too.
I cleared my throat and raised my gloved left hand. "Excuse me," I interrupted him, incredulously. "Did you just say your rogue wizard's name was Gregor?"
Kirk straightened alertly in his seat and shared a brief speaking glance with his green-tinted alien friend. "Yes," he said. "Have you heard of him?"
Coincidence could go take a freaking leap. Forget the sufficiently advanced science and the fact that Kirk and his men had swum against the Currents of Time; the fact that their particular wizard might be one I'd actually heard of might just be the most unbelievable part of their tale.
Luck, right? Right.
I swallowed, exchanging a glance of my own with Ramirez. My fellow Warden looked puzzled, but generally expectant... and even a little wry, like he should have known I was about to pull another radioactive rabbit out of a hat. Frankly, I felt pretty much the same way.
"Uh. Maybe?" I said. If it really was the Gregor I'd heard of, that name been shared with me in utmost confidence, and only because I might need the information to save a young woman's life. But other lives might be at stake, now. Charity was just going to have to forgive me. "How sure are you about the timeline?"
"To what timeline do you refer?" Mr. Spock replied on his Captain's behalf, raising one freakishly angled eyebrow. I couldn't help but wonder what alien evolutionary advantage had selected for that, of all possible facial hair configurations? It was a little distracting.
"I heard one of you say it couldn't have been more than a decade since he'd arrived," I explained, dragging my attention away from the eyebrow to frown at Kirk again.
"How firm is that estimate? And more to the point..." I continued. Wizarding apprenticeships didn't exactly cover the mechanics of time travel, the better not to tempt impressionable young minds to break the Sixth Law of Magic, but it didn't take an expert to spot the inconsistency. "Why didn't you show up right after him? Why follow him now?"
Kirk grimaced, a little sheepish and a lot annoyed. "The method we used to get here wasn't very exact," he explained. "When Gregor did his disappearing act, the device he'd built exploded, flooding the ship with chronometric particles. That's the reason the changes in the timeline didn't affect us immediately; but it also meant we had to find another way to follow him quickly, before the particles started to fade. We've had some experience with temporal anomalies before, though, so once Scotty fixed the engines we paid a visit to... a particular nexus of possibility. We used it to zero in on the first major divergence point we could find between the history it knew, and ours. And that's when we went through."
Ramirez looked nearly as disturbed as I felt. "And that was now? What about all the butterflies flapping their wings in the meantime?"
Kirk snorted, blue eyes glinting with amusement. Apparently, they'll still be making movies about that catchily named theory even in an era when time travel is common enough to have known nexii. "If there were changes, they were minor enough that we couldn't track down their origins. Trust me, the timeline's a lot more resilient than you think. I wouldn't call it destiny, exactly, but fate has a way of streamlining itself into some pretty solid patterns."
"Streamlining?" I must have looked as dubious as I felt, because Mr. Scott, the engineer of their trio, spoke up to clarify.
"Think of it this way," he said, looking up from his bitty computer thing to spread his hands in front of him. "You step on a blade of grass. Grind the poor bugger into the earth." He waggled the fingers of his left hand. "But in a parallel universe, someone bumps you, and you step sideways onto another blade of grass instead." He waggled the other, crooking his fingers in a wilting demonstration. "Two separate universes, you see? But a week after you step on the grass, in both universes, someone tills it all up to plant a garden." Both hands went flat. "And suddenly, which blade of grass it was makes no bloody difference. And a distinction that makes no difference isn't much of a distinction, now is it?" He clapped his palms together, linking his fingers for emphasis.
"Blades of grass. Right." I blew out a breath, comparing that information against the pieces I already had, and turned toward the window of the motel room. The phrase reminded me uncomfortably of hearing more than one supernatural critter refer to humans as kine; there were an awful lot of things living in the dark that agreed with that perspective, for much more nefarious reasons.
I let the faint noise of traffic outside divert me from that train of thought, and twitched the drab drapes aside for a look. At the Muni stop across the street, a young woman in jeans and a sweater with a backpack slung over one shoulder was huddling in the evening chill, watching the stream of cars pass by. There was nothing about her to hint at a magical heritage- but then, Charity must have looked much the same when she was that age, during the runaway phase she'd gone through after she'd left her wealthy parents' oppressive home. You really couldn't tell a book by its cover.
If Gregor, that megalomaniacal jerk, hadn't found her, would the doughtiest woman of my acquaintance have ever met Michael Carpenter? Would she have died under a Warden's blade instead, rather than setting her gifts aside for a life as warrior, mother, and helpmeet? Or would she still have taken the 38 out to Land's End to join that gaggle of other minor talents under better circumstances? Even small talents can affect the world on a grand scale if they band together; just ask my friend Toot-toot.
But if any of those things had happened...
My mind shied away from that domino trail of potential consequences, and I spoke up again.
"I did hear of a warlock by that name. Typical charismatic cult leader type; corrupted and killed a lot of vulnerable teenagers right here in this city trying to build his own powerbase. But he appeared on the scene more like twenty-five years ago than ten. What are the odds that it's the same guy?"
Spock's alien eyebrow jerked toward the ceiling again. "Approximately point zero zero zero three percent," he concluded. "The name Gregory and its variants were among the top thousand most popular male names of this era and culture, amid a population of more than three hundred million."
Forget dictionary; did he carry an encyclopedia around in his head? No wonder he talked like a page out of a textbook. Or maybe one of those really prim British novels of a certain era. Not that, you know, I've ever read any; I blame Bob for that particular piece of knowledge.
"For the whole population, sure," I snarked back. "You're forgetting the magical community is a hell of a lot smaller. Isn't it kind of telling that he was here, in the same city that nexus of yours sent you to?"
Kirk still looked skeptical. "That's assuming he didn't change his name. Why would he wait twenty-five years? We figured it might have taken him a while to build up a power base, but a whole generation? He snuck aboard the flagship of the fleet rather than wait for a less risky ride, which suggests he felt like he had to act in a hurry; it makes no sense that he'd suddenly slow down once he arrived."
I sighed, then turned away from the window. He had a point- but he was overlooking something. "Unless someone stopped him already."
Kirk and Spock exchanged thoughtful glances at that, but didn't comment.
The Gregor I'd heard of had wanted power hasta pronto, all right- enough to think that sacrificing his acolytes to a dragon was a good idea. I'd met Siriothrax's brother, Ferrovax, so I had some inkling of just how boneheaded a guy would have to be to think he could triumph when dealing with a being that could flatten a man with a thought and ring a partial Name off his teeth like a tuning fork.
Ramirez replied in lieu of visitor intervention. "Harry, are you sure? I've been over most of the Warden records for the last fifty years, for... well. You know what for."
I knew. Luccio had been carefully keeping me out of the loop- for which small mercy I was grateful- but yeah, I knew.
"And I don't remember seeing the name Gregor on the list of past warlocks," he continued, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I doubt he would have been; it wasn't the Council that stopped him." I shook my head, then reached over to the little end table wedged between the window and the nearest bed and eyed my hosts again. "Mind if I use the phone? There's something I should confirm before I say anything else."
"That's a telephone?" Mr. Scott blurted in surprise, distracted by the sight of the nineties-era plastic monstrosity. "Bit big for that, isn't it?"
"Kicking it old school," I agreed. "The older the better. 'Disruption field', remember? High tech stuff doesn't agree with me."
Kirk pursed his mouth, ignoring the tangent. "I hope you have more to go on than just the similarity of names."
I thought I did. But- it would be better to be sure. I nodded, then picked up the receiver and dialed the Carpenter household to set about getting my answers. Luckily, Charity was home, and though her voice froze over so fast it fairly crackled when she realized what I was asking about, she did reluctantly fill in the parts I hadn't gathered for myself.
"Well?" Kirk asked impatiently after I hung up.
I took a deep breath, then let it out. "We need to go to Sutro Heights," I said.
I read somewhere, once, that the phrase 'tying up the loose ends' owes its origins to the sea. A rope 'at loose ends' is unattached and therefore neglected or not doing its job, and ropes of all kinds were pretty much the duct tape of the Age of Sail: they kept everything from flying apart. My brother is the one who owns a boat these days, not me, but I've dangled from enough ropes, metaphorical and otherwise, to really get that definition on a visceral level.
To 'tie up loose ends', one settles the final details of a matter as a sailor makes the loose ends of ropes shipshape. But this particular rope, if I was right, had spent the last couple of decades unraveling. I wasn't sure there was enough of it left to even splice new line in, much less tie the ends together.
I couldn't let myself think that way, though, or I was going to start panicking; and Wardens of the White Council of Wizards do not succumb to panic. They get their smite on. The smitee in this particular case might have already got his, but I was fairly sure I'd still be called upon to flex some magical muscle. I hit Ramirez up for all the spare cash in his pockets, then headed down with the others to wait for the next bus toward Point Lobos.
If we'd had more time, I might have encouraged Kirk and company to find something to wear besides their vivid, primary colored uniforms- but we were in San Francisco, so I wasn't too worried. There was probably a convention of some kind in town- and even if there wasn't, a little eccentricity would be nothing to raise an eyebrow at. Take a long look at, maybe: even the scrawniest of the three strangers had an accent to accessorize with, and the other two were more in Ramirez' ballpark than mine on the scale of masculine attractiveness. But they wouldn't, you know, get noticed in a way that might attract the attention of the authorities.
In fact, they pretty much camouflaged the guys in the grey cloaks by their mere presence. Nothing to see here, officer. Move along.
I'm tall enough to be a basketball player, tend to dress like I got dragged backwards through a Wal-Mart and tried to hide the results under a black leather duster, and carry around a carved walking stick nearly as tall as I am. I'm well aware of how nocuous I usually look, okay?
After a short bus ride and a shorter walk, we arrived at the Sutro Historical District. Back in the late nineteenth century, former San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro had bought several acres of undeveloped land at the edge of the city, including a promontory overlooking the Cliff House and Seal Rocks. He then turned the property into Sutro Heights, an elaborate public garden filled with decorated flower beds, statues, forests and vista points to take advantage of the breathtaking views. He built his home there too, a spacious turreted mansion set on a rocky ledge just south of Point Lobos and north of Ocean Beach. After his daughter died in 1938, the family donated the estate to the city- which promptly demolished the buildings and turned the place into Sutro Heights Park.
The property had been through a number of natural disasters over the last century. It'd also hosted thousands upon thousands of human beings in a heightened state of energy: not just the Sutro family, but the visitors who'd spent a dime to walk the gardens back when Sutro lived there, the many tourists who'd strolled up the entry road between its guardian stone lions in the century since, the families who'd laughed and played in the famous three-acre glass bathhouse on the grounds before it was destroyed by fire, and any of the famous names who stopped there on their way to the nearby landmark Cliff House.
Add to that the state of environmental flux- the sea below, the winds above, the near-constant fog- and the park made for a significant confluence of energy. But unless they've actually been there, or know someone who's been there, it's not the first place that comes to mind when people think of 'sites of power in San Francisco.' That makes it as isolated a hotspot as you're ever likely to find in a city that size. It was obvious why Gregor had chosen it for his ritual grounds. And given all the factors involved, I could think of no better place for Kirk's 'major divergence point' to happen.
Have happened. Or- will be happening? Time travel is hell on the verb tenses. I just hoped I didn't end up having to try to conjugate it in Latin.
The fact that not one of our guests had asked me where Sutro Heights was before we bought our tickets or gawked like a tourist at the landscape of the city made me even more convinced I was on the right track. They knew San Francisco. Would know it; had known it; whatever. And within my potential lifespan, too; which did strange and interesting things to my peace of mind.
My second mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, counted his age in multiple centuries and he was still going strong. He'd seen the Industrial Revolution; if I didn't manage to get myself killed in the new few years, I might see the next major change in human progress. Maybe even go aboard a spaceship myself, if that duotronics thing Scott mentioned earlier solved the techbane problem. Now there was an item to add to my bucket list!
The rain brought me back to the present, just a slight drizzle of dampness as we walked into the park. A thin haze of fog was drifting up from the sea, cutting visibility, and there was a distinct bite in the air, enough to make my duster a legitimate fashion choice. It wasn't just the temperature, though; there was something magical to it, as well.
Kirk watched me tilt my head as I tried to pinpoint the sensation, then frowned up the road between its border of trees, palmed-leafed and deciduous and evergreen all marching together. "How sure are you that this is the right place?" he said. "I've been here before; it's part of the Academy grounds in our time, and I don't remember there being anything all that unusual about it."
"It's not the place that's magic, exactly," I told him. "It's what was done here."
"I can hear it, too," Ramirez said, frowning. "After twenty-five years, that's a little unusual. You think your Gregor left something behind? I know I'm the only Warden assigned in these parts at the moment, but there used to be a lot more. We can't be the only wizards to visit since he did his thing here."
Ramirez's choice of phrase reminded me that not all wizards' Sight worked the same; I Saw things in metaphor and symbol, but he'd once told me soulgazes translated to him in musical themes. Apparently, it applied to his other wizardly instincts, too. "What exactly are you hearing? Wind chimes? The Jaws theme? What?"
He made the dun-dun, dun-dun sound of a bow scraping across the strings of a bass under his breath, then snorted. "Nothing that coherent, actually. More like- that high whine that computers make before you short them out?"
"Supernatural white noise. Joy," I said. It made sense, though, if he'd done what I thought he might've. "Mr. Scott, can you pick up those crystals of yours on that little box?"
The engineer eyed Ramirez and I, a subdued sort of anticipation in his expression, then took a few steps away from us and activated his palm-top computer again, tapping away at its display. Whatever he saw there seemed to confuse him, though; he looked up at his Captain, then gave me a frustrated look.
"Aye," he said. "I'm reading traces of dilithium- but only traces, and I cannae get a fix on its location."
Ramirez frowned. "Sounds like he set a veil- but there's no way he could have anchored one for twenty-five years. Most enchanted objects only hold a charge for a few months, at most."
I nodded. "Unless he used the crystal itself to anchor the spell, like a power source..."
"As he had done previously, when activating the temporal portal," Spock connected the dots, leaping to the front of the class.
I nodded, then proceeded into the park, wanting to be as isolated as I could get from the rest of the city before trying my Sight. It might be impossible to find what Gregor had hid there without it, if no other factors intervened; but there was no telling what else I'd See, and the unforgiving lens of the so-called Third Eye etched everything into a wizard's memory with perfect and permanent crystal clarity. Some of the things I'd Seen in the past had been beautiful- but many more utterly horrific. The less interference I risked, the better.
The quiet around us grew deeper as we walked down the road. The sounds of the city were an ever-present backdrop, but it was as though we carried a bubble of stillness with us. The rain might've discouraged some of the tourists, but it seemed a little unlikely that the place would be completely empty just at the time we chose to visit it- unless we weren't the first interested parties to arrive. I surreptitiously shook my shield bracelet out again, then gave Ramirez a cautious nod.
We passed by groomed lawns, replica statuary, and careful landscaping, all of it picturesque for a certain value of manmade beauty, but the silence remained unbroken as we approached the actual ritual site. No groundskeepers or tourists or picnicking locals emerged from the mist. There was a gazebo, a quiescent fountain, and informative signage spaced about, but no one lounging within, tossing a quarter into the depths, or taking notes for high school history papers. Just us, the fog, and what looked like it might have been the foundations of the former house or outbuilding, a cobble-built wall surmounting a terraced hillside with a crenellated top surrounding a flat, paved area.
We proceeded up the stairs, accompanied by the rush of the surf and the distant call of a few seabirds, then formed a loose circle in the open space above.
"Here?" Kirk asked.
"Here," I nodded.
"The signals are stronger," Mr. Scott said, checking his computer again, "but I still dinnae see..."
I cleared my throat, then exchanged a glance at Ramirez, jerking my chin toward the other side of the flat, paved area, where a wind-worn tree grew up and stretched its branches over the wall. "You will," I said, quietly. "Divergence point, remember? Gotta be something here to divert."
Then I raised my voice and welcomed our other guests to the party. "Olly olly oxen free! Come out, come out, wherever you are! Don't make me track you down; you know what this cloak means."
There was a subdued growl off to the side, and a hasty attempt on someone's part to shush the speaker; then the clear air rippled, and a pair of youngish guys wearing what looked like a casual recreationist's idea of medieval monk robes appeared. The veil I'd been detecting since walking into the park was still there; I could sense it- but they'd removed themselves from its influence, and it had grown a lot quieter, falling to a background hum you would never notice if you weren't expecting it. Neat trick. It was almost too bad Gregor's knowledge had been lost when Michael took him out of the equation.
"Fucking Wardens. Think you're so much better than us," one of them spat. The other had his hand clamped around his bicep, trying to calm him down, though it didn't seem to be having much effect. "You have no right to interfere with the Master's work!"
I let Ramirez reply; this was his turf, after all. His natural expression was a cocksure smile, but when it was time to get serious, he went with a cool, arrogant look that seemed to stare right through people. It sure worked on these guys; they bristled up even more at him than they had at me.
"What work? Destroying innocent people's lives? You honestly think you could pick up where your Master left off and fare any better than he did?" Ramirez snorted.
"You honestly think your way's going to save people?" the angry wizard spat. "Our mothers heard the Oracle speak before the Master left us. All your Council's going to do is sit back while the world falls into another global war! And when it comes, when all of humanity is left back in the dark ages, we'll be the ones to lead them into a bright new future!"
I refused to turn to see Kirk's reaction. If their "Oracle" had been drawn from Gregor's knowledge of the future, whatever they were talking about might well be something that had actually happened in his timeline. Global war; it wasn't hard to imagine, given how little consideration the various supernatural powers paid to collateral damage in their attempts to score points on each other during the ongoing conflicts. But whatever might or might not have happened, there were obviously still wizards in existence in the present Kirk had come from- and just as obviously, forces of law and order to oppose them. Gregor must have wanted to rejigger history to put wizards- his type of wizards- further up the power scale in the aftermath.
"And I suppose that future's one where everyone knows their proper place?" I replied, mildly.
The kid curled his lip. "Starting with grey-cloaks like you who think it's your business to stop anyone else from getting enough power to threaten the status quo. We all know that's what's really behind those Laws you're so righteous about!"
Truthfully, I'd questioned the Laws a time or two myself. But though I'd never be easy with the punishments the Council chose, I'd also seen the consequences of breaking them on the caster's own heart and mind, both first hand and in others. But that wasn't even a factor in this case- it hadn't been the Wardens who'd rid the world of Gregor.
"So that's your plan, then? Take up the mantle your Master left behind?" Kirk asked, sounding bored. "You do know he was a thief and a bully even before he got here and found a whole new bunch of gullible people to use, right? That really the legacy you're looking for?"
"You're a liar," the second kid said, letting go the first kid's arm as his own temper boiled over. "We're going to take you out, and then gather the other heirs of the Master's work and prepare for what's coming. You won't be able to stop us!"
Other heirs. That was the Molly connection I'd been sure we'd trip over ever since we got here; well played, Gatekeeper. Well played. That thought had been the final straw in convincing me to help the time travelers- and if not for that, we might not have arrived in time to stop these idiots.
The young man vanished from sight again behind that impenetrable veil- then dropped it a second later, dismantling the spell entirely. It left him clutching what looked like a pair of Kirk's futuristic guns in one hand and a box like Scott's computer in the other, wrapped up in a shroud of silvery material. Something that looked very much like a crystal rested atop that shroud, but the sheer oppressive mental heat coming off the thing made me very glad I hadn't had to open my Sight after all: it was like a little sun of contained power.
The bully snatched one of the guns from his friend's hand while I endeavored to look shocked, waiting for the next step in our plan to develop. "Magic can't stop these weapons. But I welcome you to try. I'm going to enjoy this!" he cried.
...And with a truly theatrical sense of timing, Mr. Spock- who'd circled the hill to the other side- abruptly appeared behind them, applying his fingers viciously in a method I had experienced first hand.
"Finally," I sighed. I wished them joy of their headaches. Then I crossed the pavement to retrieve the stolen objects from their hands, and turned to present them to Kirk.
The captain shook his head as he took them, a grim frown drawing his face into serious lines. "Now I think I get the Prime Directive a little better," he said. "Hard to imagine something this little could cause so much trouble."
Yeah. Personally, I was just glad it had been a something rather than a someone. I wouldn't have been able to act if I'd had to stop Molly herself or any of her siblings from, well, being. Maybe Charity would have had a magical daughter regardless? Maybe Michael still would have had the seven wonderful kids, just with a different mother? Conservation of temporal energy, or whatever it was Scott had said.
Or maybe they and all their descendants were going to die in that war the kids had mentioned, so it wouldn't have mattered either way? I decided not to dwell on that possibility.
"It will be- for them," I replied, shaking my head. "Ramirez, they're all yours."
"Thanks, man," he sighed, wrinkling up his nose. "Least favorite part of my job, bar none."
"So how are you planning to-?" I asked, turning back to Kirk.
But the park was silent; he was already gone. So was his engineer. And Spock. Whatever mechanism had sent them back to the past, they'd already reversed- and I hadn't sensed a thing.
"Dios," Ramirez said, startling.
"Hells Bells," I agreed. "Sure, leave us to pick up the check."
I didn't look forward to the next time I talked to Charity; I didn't know how I was going to explain any of this. I didn't even know how I was going to set it down in my journals without it sounding utterly unbelievable.
"Nice working with you guys," I added sarcastically to the empty air. "Catch you next time, huh?"
You never knew. They only lived a few centuries away. Maybe I would.