When Harry stepped into the safe house apartment he had tracked his colleague to, he was greeted by a sullen May, slumped with arms folded on a ratty couch, glaring across the small room at her sister who sat at a rickety desk writing in an open file. The younger sibling gave him a single once over, before returning her focus to Suzie.

"Problem solved?" Suzie asked, lifting her head from her work.

"Yeah. No immediate danger, in any case," Harry replied. "Find out who spilled the beans on your sister?"

"I'm working on it," Suzie drew her lips into a thin line. "It could be done with considerably faster if someone would tell me how she was tak-"

"I'll answer your questions when you answer mine," May shot back, before she glanced over at Harry. "Don't think I don't have any questions for you, either," she warned.

"-but since she hasn't I now have to waste time finding out myself," Suzie finished, ignoring May completely. The tension between the two rose, Harry wisely deciding to keep his nose out of it. The last time he'd attempted to interfere in a squabble between two siblings, Hermione had nearly turned him into a hamster in retaliation.

"The Boss is sending someone around to collect May. He wants to have a word with you once she's safely back on campus, too," Suzie added to Harry.

"'Safely'?" Harry questioned. "She wasn't taken from the campus then?"

"No, she skipped classes to go shopping with a few friends. The kidnappers likely waited until she was separated from the group before grabbing her," Suzie revealed, idly twirling blue hair as she wrote.

"How do you know that?" May demanded, slightly freaked.

Suzie turned a flat stare on her sister. "I know everything," she stated in monotone. "Including the number of the school principal who caught your friends attempting to sneak back onto campus after they realised you were missing. Such concern they showed," she finished sarcastically.

May scowled slightly, but didn't deny the implied accusation.

There was a buzzing sound, drawing Suzie's attention from her work. Reaching into a draw in the desk, she withdrew a mobile phone that probably could have fit into her pocket, it was that small. After listening for a moment, she pushed one of the buttons on its surface and stowed it away again. No explanation was given for the strange call, although she did throw a rather dark look her sister's way.

Silence filled the next short stretch of time, broken only by the scratching of Suzie's pen. May stared at the wall opposite, eyes slightly widened in an expression of intensely aggravated boredom. Harry, for his part, entertained himself with the strand of fabric he had used to defend himself against the Wardens own thread magic earlier, tripping and shepherding a bug that had wandered into the apartment. As he did so, he contemplated the appearance of a magic in this new reality that appeared to be directly compatible with one from his old.

The Warden that had throttled him rather successfully before he had countered her magic had been quite skilled. Given that he had been unable to pierce her comrades defence to land a blow on her or even disrupt her concentration, he could appreciate its effectiveness. Without his ability to Apparate, he would have been forced to resort to a more damaging level of fighting in order to free himself.

What threw him the most, however, was that the European woman apparently wielded the strings as her primary focus. Not the wand that could spit shards of ice or the elegant blade that could negate magic, but a few strands of magic string. Whoever had taught her the discipline had done so with battling and subduing dark wizards (Warlocks, Harry reminded himself) in mind. Harry, when he first come across the craft, had learnt it from Molly Weasley, after watching the woman round up a pack of garden gnomes that had actually fled into the Burrow itself in an effort to escape a de-gnoming headed by the twins—the only reason she had even used such an old hedge witch's brand of magic being that her wand was across the room at the time.

Originally, the only reason Harry had developed any sort of skill with the threads was that it gave him a way to practice magic while away from Hogwarts, uncaring of its (well deserved) reputation as a branch of magic only used by near squibs who lacked the ability to wield a wand. It was only later that he built upon his skill for it after realising how much the act of practising his knots helped calm his mind in preparation for his Occlumency training. Wand magic had always been his first choice, yet here it was, in another reality, developed to a point where it could hold its own in a low intensity fight. It was...curious.

"What are you?" May asked bluntly, jerking Harry from his thoughts.

"I'm sorry?" Harry asked, eyebrows raised.

"You teleported me out of that warehouse," May pointed out. "How did you do that?"

Harry stared at his colleague's sister for a long moment, aware of the pause in the scratching of Suzie's pen. "Sleight of hand."

"Right," May replied flatly, crossing her arms.

"I'm a magician," Harry insisted, an ace of spades appearing in his hand. "Pick a card, any card."

The redhead sent him an unimpressed look.

"No?" Harry shrugged, disappointed. "Your loss." He then clicked his fingers, the card bursting into flame and falling to the carpet as ash. He ignored the glare May directed at him, apparently unwilling to put up with more of his avoidance.

There was a knock on the door of the apartment, followed by a pause and a double tap. The door opened slowly and a young man poked his head through. "Car for Ms Blue," he informed the room, ignoring the hand cannon Suzie had pointed in his general direction.

"Back to college now May," Suzie directed brusquely, stowing her work within the canvas bag she still carried with her. "Harry, don't forget your appointment with Mr Marcone."

May looked up from her borderline sulk, incredulous. "Wait, Mr Marcone? Marcone as in Gentleman Johnny Marcone?"

Suzie pinched the bridge of her nose. "May. Car. Now," she growled.

"You're in the mob? Seriously?" May continued, even as Suzie shepherded her out the door. "And you're giving me a hard time about staying in college? No wonder I haven't seen you for months, you've been too busying burying bodies and whacking wise guys..."

Harry shook his head as the sisters' one sided quarrel faded out of hearing. May was, if anything, even less restrained in her opinions than her sister. He would have to get the full story out of Suzie sometime.

That sometime wasn't any time soon. Turning on his heel, Harry disappeared with a pop, leaving behind an apparently empty apartment. A small breeze stirred within the closed room, slipping through a small crack in the sole window, carrying with it a faint scent of whiskey. Then the apartment was still.

X x X

Harry reappeared mid-stride in one of the many clubs Marcone owned, paying no attention to the double take a young man cleaning the bar made. He approached his employer's office, pausing as the door opened and Hendricks stepped out before he could reach it, Marcone following in his wake.

"Mr Potter," Marcone gave him a nod. "You've had an eventful morning."

"I've had an eventful few days," Harry shrugged in reply, falling into step with the two.

Marcone nodded an acknowledgement as he led the way from the club. "A bonus has been deposited in your account for your services this morning. I'm pleased that you were able to aid Miss Blue against my would be extorter."

Harry smiled at the unasked for windfall. "It was fun," he replied, before frowning. "Seems a bit strange though, a wizard deciding to target you out of the blue," he added, following Marcone's lead in avoiding mention of Suzie's sister.

Marcone and Hendricks shared a glance. "There has been some revived opposition amongst the families I've deposed in the past," the crime boss revealed as they entered an expansive limousine, Hendricks taking the wheel. As they pulled out into the midday traffic, Marcone continued, "the belligerence they have been showing suggests they have found themselves a powerful backer."

"You think it might be a wizard?" Harry mused, resting against the comfortable seats, facing his boss.

"The events of the morning make it more likely," Marcone stated, pouring himself a finger of brandy from a rack on the car wall. "Judging by the execution of the attempt, I do not believe him to be the main-"

The limousine was smashed sideways, hurling the two men from their seats. Metal screeched on metal as the semi that had ploughed into them kept going, forcing the luxury car from the road and into a row of outside diners, busy with the lunchtime rush. The limousine flipped as it hit the curb, landing on its side. Dazed, Harry looked through the sunroof at the shocked bystanders who were scrambling away from the crash. Through the cracked window he lay on, he could the gruesomely crushed figure of one unfortunate who had been caught beneath the limousine.

Gunfire erupted, prompting further screaming from the bystanders. Looking to the front of the vehicle, Harry could see Hendricks standing in the car with his torso out the driver side window, the butt of an automatic rifle braced against his shoulder.

"Sarden bastards," Marcone swore uncharacteristically, propping himself up against the floor of the car. There was a gash on his forehead that bled freely, despite being relatively shallow. Harry's wand slipped from his sleeve and he flicked it at his employer, sealing the cut. Marcone nodded grimly, drawing a sleek pistol from his suit jacket, before crawling out through the sunroof, Harry following behind.

The two men remained in cover behind the overturned vehicle as Hendricks ducked back down, a withering hail of gunfire slamming into their position. Something dangerous flashed within Marcone's eyes as he saw several innocent bystanders cut down.

An armed figure circled around the limousine, sub machine-gun raised as he searched for his target. Marcone shot him in the head, watching dispassionately as the corpse fell to the ground. "Mr Potter," he began coldly. "Kill the attackers. Do not allow them to harm further innocents."

Harry smiled, shark like. He Apparated to a nearby rooftop, his new vantage point giving him a clear view of the street. Four black SUV's surrounded the totalled limousine, the semi pinning it in place. Their attackers wore balaclavas and black combat gear, much like you might see in an action movie, as they advanced on their target, arrayed in a rough half circle.

Almost lethargically, Harry raised his wand, then brought it down with a flick. The semi was crushed into the ground like a pancake, the cover it provided to the attackers as they attempted to flank Hendricks gone. The bodyguard took advantage of this immediately, dropping two more foes with headshots, before ducking back into the bulletproof protection of the limo.

One of the would be assassin's pulled a grenade from his vest, earning him Harry's attention. The magician cast a sticking charm on the object, enjoying the man's panic when he found himself unable to throw the explosive after pulling the pin. The device went off, shredding its holder and leaving a bloody stain on the bitumen. The shrapnel was curiously short ranged, but the dead man's comrades had other things to worry about at that point.

Marcone dropped three men in quick succession, with calm, deliberate shots from his pistol, while Hendricks took the opportunity to free himself from the confines of the limo. Another man fell, suffering from a heart attack despite his complete lack of any sort of heart problems. Despite their casualties, the men continued to press their attack, even as one of their number began to vomit uncontrollably, choking on the substance as it refused to leave his throat.

Of the original attackers, only eight remained. Seven continued to push forward, searching for the chance to complete their contract, while one ran back to the boot of an SUV. Briefly obscured from Harry's vision, when he re-emerged from behind the vehicle he held an RPG on his shoulder. The magician stared at the device for a long moment, recalling his first encounter with its like, before acting.

The man aiming the RPG at his target frowned when it seemed to gain weight suddenly. Taking his eye away from the iron sights, he screamed when he found himself with three hundred pounds of angry anaconda in his arms. The great snake wrapped around him, its strength leaving him helpless as it broke his arms and snapped his ribs under the pressure of its coils.

The boom of a shotgun punctuating the rapid fire of automatic weapons heralded the arrival of a new combatant. The looming figure blasted two of the remaining assailants, striding towards them heedless of danger and drawing the attention of their fellows, an opportunity that both Hendricks and Marcone ruthlessly exploited. The second to last of the attackers fell, and Harry disappeared from the rooftop, reappearing behind the last. A spark of electricity arced from his wand to the back of the man's neck, causing him to drop, convulsing on the ground.

The silence after the gunfire was unnaturally loud, broken only by the crunch of boots on glass as the figure that had come to their aid approached. Without the distraction of combat, Harry took a moment to observe the woman—for she was most definitely a woman. As tall as Hendricks, with blonde hair and blue eyes, the shotgun held easily in her hands appeared deceptively small.

"Mr Marcone," the woman began, a faint accent that Harry couldn't place colouring her tone. "I am Miss Gard. You were late to our meeting."

Marcone stared at the woman for a long moment before responding. "My apologies, Miss Gard. We were...unavoidably detained."

Gard nodded in acceptance, casting an eye over the chaos. Shell shocked civilians were emerging from the ruined row of cafes to stare numbly at the damage, while others attempted to help their wounded fellows. Marcone holstered his pistol and pulled a mobile phone from his pocket, before turning to Hendricks.

"Contact Mr Moresby. No doubt we shall be forced to spend several hours in a precinct," Marcone directed his right hand man, somewhat irritably, before dialling three numbers into his phone. "Ambulance. Thank you. There has been an incident..." Marcone's voice trailed off as he stepped away, leaving Harry and Miss Gard to their own devices.

Harry eyed Gard speculatively for a moment. "Sooo...what's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" he asked innocently.

Gard looked him over, rolled her eyes and then studiously ignored him until the police arrived and arrested them on principle.

X x X

Harry ignored the lecture being given by Professor Babbling, focusing on the parchment in front of him. He had already read up on the information she was covering during the holidays, and besides, he had found something much more interesting to do. His quill scratched away, copying a number of symbols from the open book before him onto his otherwise empty parchment.

To his right, Hermione was studiously taking notes, seemingly unaware of his skiving off—save for the faintest hint of a frown around her eyes. At his left, Ron was apparently doodling on his textbook, although a quick glance told Harry he had just scrawled out an untidy trio of runes that would do something related to noise and fire when triggered. Refocusing on his own work, Harry sketched the last of eight runes on the corner of his parchment.

Leaning back, Harry considered his next step. He could do it with a flick of his wand, but that would negate the purpose of the entire exercise and make the runes he had already scribed entirely unnecessary. A thought occurred to him and he paused, considering. The young wizard grinned and began to sharpen his quill. He would need a fine point for this part.

After making the quill to his liking, Harry dipped it in his inkwell carefully, taking only the barest amount of ink into it. He then painstakingly printed a single rune onto his right ring finger, taking pains to avoid smudging it. He frowned, and then wiped the rune away, before reprinting it in reverse. Now satisfied with his work, Harry stretched his arms out across the desk before him, relieving the tension in his shoulders. As he did so, he surreptitiously tapped his ring finger once upon the parchment that Hermione was taking notes on, stamping the rune onto the top left corner of his friend's parchment. He looked eagerly at his own sheaf as he waited for a result.

Slowly, the runes he had copied onto all four corner of his parchment faded, and ink began to spread from the top left corner of the page. For a moment, Harry frowned, believing he had miscalculated. Then the ink began to shrink into words, and within a minute, he had an identical copy of Hermione's notes on his page, with more words appearing as they were written.

"Mr Potter, are you paying attention?" Professor Babbling called, breaking Harry from his sense of victory.

"Yes Professor," Harry answered quickly. "I'm just resting my hand from note taking."

Babbling returned to her lecture, as Hermione shot him a sharp glance, well aware he hadn't been doing any note taking the entire lesson. The glance turned into an outright scowl when she caught a glimpse of his identical page of notes, and her keen eyes quickly found the rune he had planted on her parchment. She smudged it off, breaking the connection between the two sheaves and halting the progression of notes across Harry's page. He grinned unrepentantly at her and began to take his own, less detailed notes. This Ancient Runes business might just prove even more fun than he had thought.

The somewhat boring lecture and the scratching of quills continued for several minutes more, before it was interrupted by a startled shout from Ron. The redhead sprang to his feet and hurled his book out the window of the classroom. It fell for several long seconds before flaring into a halo of flame, a loud thunderclap echoing off the castle walls as it did so.

Harry fought back a grin as Hermione massaged her temples while Ron quailed sheepishly under the fierce glare of their professor.

Yes, Harry thought. This Rune business might just be more than slightly entertaining after all.

X x X

Once again, Harry found himself sitting within an interrogation room, bored out of his mind. When the police had arrived at the scene of the assassination attempt, Marcone and his employees had been bundled off to the nearest police station and separated, ostensibly to prevent them from colluding on the events of the shooting—although something in the manner of the sergeant directing the proceedings told Harry there was something else afoot.

The magician had been waiting in the room for an hour and was expecting to be left for several more yet, when the sergeant who had had them separated earlier opened the door and stepped inside. He stepped away from the door and made no further move, puzzling Harry for a moment until it became clear that he was merely leading another into the room. He had a dark complexion, and as he stooped down to pass through the doorway, Harry was struck by a nagging sense of familiarity.

"That will be all, Sergeant," the tall man told the officer, facing away from Harry. As the sergeant left, the man closed the door behind him, before brushing down his expensive suit and turning to face the magician. "Hmmm," he mused, a British accent peeking through. "A bit warm in here, yes?" Casually, he raised his hand flexed his fingers. A current of cold air flew about the room, and the camera in the corner shorted out noisily.

Harry tensed, staring intently at the newcomer. His wand had been confiscated as a potential weapon, and his surroundings had prevented him from confounding the police into letting him keep it. Casually, he ripped a thread from the hem of his shirt and held it out of sight beneath the table.

"What?" the man asked, sounding vaguely amused as he took a seat opposite Harry. "Never seen a real life wizard before?" he continued, sounding like he was quoting someone.

With a start, Harry realised why he was so familiar. This was the homeless man he had encountered earlier that morning while rescuing May. The magician forced calm upon himself, leaning back into his chair.

"Once or twice," Harry replied, playing along casually. "I try to make it a habit to get their names if I run into them more than once though."

"Apologies," the man inclined his head slightly. "You may call me The Gatekeeper."

Harry's nerves charged as he leaned forward intently. "Ah," he replied, the pretence of calm gone. "I've been looking forward to meeting you."

"So I hear," The Gatekeeper responded amiably. "Already using me as a reference, too."

Harry shrugged unconcernedly. "Well, I really didn't want to go with them. Always warned not to go off who knows where with strange people, you know."

The Gatekeeper tilted his head as he examined him. After several long moments, he stated, "you're not quite what I was expecting."

"What can I say?" Harry smiled thinly. "I keep telling people that their descriptions just don't do my glamorous good looks justice, but..." he trailed off helplessly.

"Quite," The Gatekeeper replied dryly, before the faint amusement finally left his face. "You don't remember a thing, do you?"

Harry stared at the man across the table, trying to divine his intentions. It was no use—he might as well have been trying to read his old Headmaster. "Depends what you're talking about," he answered at length. "I've had a few wild nights that I can't remember much of in the mornings, so if I made any promises..."

The Gatekeeper didn't smile. "This is...problematic," he muttered to himself. He fell silent, obviously considering a matter of importance.

Harry frowned almost imperceptibly. This man, The Gatekeeper, obviously wanted something from him, something of value. He would turn this to his advantage.

"I wouldn't be so quick to jump to conclusions," Harry said lightly, drumming one hand on the table. "How about I help you with your little problem, and you tell me just where you heard the name 'Sandman', hmm?"

"No," The Gatekeeper stated with finality, his tone prodding Harry into full alertness. "I think it's better if I just show you."

There was a gentle pressure on his mental shields, and Harry had one moment to wonder incredulously at the ease with which they parted before the memory The Gatekeeper was pressing at him took over his conscious mind.

X

The beast they faced was colossal, towering above the two men. It's misshapen torso broke through the ever present storm clouds of the desolate world, numerous twisting limbs and writhing appendages reaching down through the heavens to pluck whatever it fancied from the scorched and shattered earth of a ruined civilisation.

The beast roamed without thought beyond its unending hunger, searching for whatever spark of life still lingered on the defeated world. It could feel its prey out there, burrowing in the dark in a vain effort to escape the reach of the threat that had loomed over their existence since before their stories began, when their ancestors still lived and ruled in the derelict hulks of cities that dotted the landscape. The devourer had reigned in this world for a mere five instances (centuries) and would not (could not) move on until it had ripped every last gasp of breath from this prey (planet).

Two men, known only to each other by title, watched from atop a broken mountain as the beast roamed. The man on the right was tall, far taller than his companion, and leaned against a staff that matched his height. Clad in a cloak, the hood was thrown back revealing a tanned, leathery visage, (not) marred by the presence of a terrible burn scar down the side of his face and a metal orb in the place of an eye. He watched the beast carefully, assessing and plotting, patient in his cunning. Friends respected him, powerful beings afforded him great caution and he was named The Gatekeeper.

At his left, stood a man with a wand of elder in his hand, a cloak of quicksilver over his shoulder and a stone of whispers on a chain around his neck. More than just a touch of iron coloured his once dark hair and his face was marked by a scar that ran from eyebrow to chin, its path crossing his left eye. His eyes, a blaze of eldritch green, were lined by heavy crows feet and stood in contrast to his pale face. His friends were dead and gone, the fate of his enemies was whispered of fearfully and he was called the Sandman.

An enormous milky eye blinked open in the centre of the devourer's torso. Lined with fangs, it began casting around the barren landscape for the presences it could feel gazing upon itself. It sought for but a moment before fixing on the two men, an orange pupil surfacing within the eye. Lesser men would have (and had) been driven insane by the attentions of the beast, but The Gatekeeper narrowed his eye and the Sandman growled his defiance. Circumstance (fate) and destiny (luck) had placed them into this arena and let them know just what was at stake.

Behind the two men, in the middle of the plateau they stood upon, a portal opened. Dead words floated through on a black tongue, and the full attention of the beast was roused. Its course changed, heading for the curiosity through which its Name drifted and before which The Gatekeeper and the Sandman stood guard.

The beast groaned from a multitude of unseen mouths, answering the call that came from the portal. The (nearly) dead world shook in misery, despairing that it would ever be lifted from the burden that was the abomination that tread its surface—and then The Gatekeeper began a beat against the stone mountain with his staff. The beat echoed through the void of the world, rousing the creature (planet) from its death throes for one final struggle.

An angry moan came from the beast, spreading a miasma seeking the source of the defiance. The Sandman raised his wand as the cloud of disease neared, releasing a white light that pierced and shredded the response. A vast cacophony of sound (child's laughter, lover's whisper [raw emotion]) followed, causing physical pain to the beast that thrived on the consumption (and absence) of life.

A single ponderous step brought the beast closer by miles, one of the three enormous pillars that served as legs shaking the earth as it crushed entire city blocks underfoot. Spindly appendages reached down through the clouds to lash at the earth around the beast, kicking up vast clouds of dust and debris as it sought its foes.

The Gatekeeper began to chant in time with his beat, his voice booming out across the wastes that separated the beast from the portal. The beast shrieked in pain as a myriad of blood vessels within the eye at the centre of its torso burst, welling up within it to fall in a bloody tear drop. A dark gaping hole opened in its side, releasing waves of twisted, screaming creatures that winged their way towards the source of its pain. The Sandman watched as the bald, lipless white eyed creatures flew towards them, and stabbed the sky with his wand. The dust and debris thrown up by the thrashing of the beast began to whirl and spin, a field of jagged tornadoes erupting around the foul creatures.

The spawn of the beast were shredded in moments and the tornadoes grew larger still. The Gatekeeper's chant continued to boom over the howl of the wind, striking at the beast and increasing its ire. Arcane symbols began to appear across its grey skin, burning themselves into the beast's flesh. It took another ponderous step towards the portal, ignoring the great wind funnels that grasped at its feet.

Green eyes flashed, and the Sandman spat a word that was as alien to his mind as he and his companion were to the world they sought to protect. A bolt of lightning cracked the sky, emanating from his raised wand and branching across the rapidly darkening clouds. Forks of power fell to earth, striking the tornadoes that still attempted to slow the beast's progress and electrifying them. The great constructs of wind and lightning ground themselves against the beast, shredding the outer layers of its skin.

A bellow of rage that staggered The Gatekeeper and the Sandman echoed throughout the world, blasting the tornadoes into nothing and halting the chant that sought to bind it. The cloud cover that lingered around the beast was dispelled in an instant, revealing it in its horrifying entirety. Each man kept their gaze on the torso of the beast, knowing that to risk looking into its true eyes and touch its mind was to invite madness. A pause, a repressed shudder, and The Gatekeeper renewed his chant, implacable determination leaking into his words.

One of the beast's limbs reached straight for them, revealed as they were to its true sight, seeking to crush them within its grasp. The Sandman dragged the tip of his wand across his wrist, opening his flesh and anointing the elder wood with his blood. The monstrous limb reached closer, and the Sandman reacted. A torrent of golden flame burst from his wand, leaping upon the limb and devouring it with the hunger of a starving jackal. The flame fed and grew, advancing along the limb until the beast was forced to cut its own appendage from itself lest the golden flame spread to its body.

The devourer screamed and-

X

In the interrogation room, Harry's eyes rolled back in his head as he wrenched himself from the memory that was undeniably his own, staring at The Gatekeeper with a mixture of wrath and fear. He sought to find a way to express his question, only to find himself incapable of forming a word.

"That," The Gatekeeper spoke slowly, "is our little problem."

Harry took a deep breath and closed his eyes, purging himself of emotion. His fingers formed deft knots with the thread in his hands, easing the calming of his mind. At length, he opened his eyes again, turning his gaze on The Gatekeeper who was waiting patiently, hands folded on the table before him.

Various questions flitted through Harry's mind. "How did you get that memory past my mental boundaries?" he settled on.

"You showed me how," The Gatekeeper answered succinctly.

"Bollocks," Harry shook his head. He'd trusted four people with that knowledge in his time, and they were all dead.

"You deemed it necessary," The Gatekeeper replied evenly.

Harry considered the young appearance of the man before him, comparing it to his visage in the memory. They had both appeared far older than their current years on the barren world; perhaps it was some sort of affliction? That wouldn't account for the physical wounds they both bore, however. It deserved more serious consideration at a later date.

"You have some rather unique knowledge on the state of my soul," Harry voiced, staring The Gatekeeper in the eye. "I'm curious as to how you came across it."

The Gatekeeper grinned, revealing a row of white teeth. "I'm not telling," he answered.

Anger spiked within the magician, despite his pains to remain calm.

"You are without your wand," The Gatekeeper pointed out, sensing his mood, "and your string magic, impressive as it might be, is not enough to stand against me."

Harry ground his teeth, keeping a snarl from his face through sheer force of will. "You're putting a lot of effort into pissing me off for a guy who supposedly stood with me against an otherworldly abomination," he pointed out tersely.

"I never said I wouldn't tell you eventually," The Gatekeeper told him. "Think of it as...incentive."

"Incentive for what?" Harry asked sourly. He found it vastly irritating when information was used against him like this. He much preferred to simply delve into another's mind and retrieve the information he needed.

"My offer," The Gatekeeper stated easily.

"What offer?" Harry ground out, patience nearly spent.

"The offer to become my apprentice, of course."

Harry sat back in his chair, thinking out the potential motivations behind the unexpected offer. Dresden had always warned him about the White Council; warned him of their interference and often needlessly harsh 'justice'. He eyed the dark skinned man suspiciously. "Why do you want me to join the White Council?" he asked bluntly.

"If you become my apprentice, the Wardens will not pursue you," The Gatekeeper began his persuasion.

"I am more than equal to any Warden squad you can throw at me," Harry retorted.

"The leader of the Wardens you encountered yesterday was the daughter of a Senior Council member. Regardless of your skill, the attentions of the Senior Council can make your life most difficult," The Gatekeeper said ironically. "You have also caught the attention of the Red Court. Have no doubt that they will continue with their attempts to kill you."

"They can attempt all they like," Harry snorted, inwardly weighing his chances against whatever force a Senior Council member might send against a powerful warlock. Well, he could always kill them.

"You have not yet encountered more than the most junior of the Red Court," The Gatekeeper shook his head. "Their Lords of Outer Night have been worshipped as gods for centuries and their numbers will wear you down regardless of your personal ability. Also, consider eluding both the Wardens and the Red Court. I believe you will find yourself hard pressed to maintain the standard of living you have grown accustomed to, on the waters edge of Lake Michigan."

"You've seen what I can do in that 'memory' of yours," Harry pointed out, forming quotation marks with his fingers. "You think I can't take whatever the Wardens or the Red Court can throw at me?"

"Everyone lets their guard down sometime," The Gatekeeper told him evenly. "It need only happen once. The benefits of joining with the Council during their war with the Red Court are obvious."

"Sounds like you just want another heavy hitter for this war of yours," Harry stated cynically.

"A pleasant side effect, but not my true motivation," The Gatekeeper acceded.

Harry waited expectantly, growing impatient with the back and forth nature of their argument.

"Whether you believe it or not, He Who Consumes is coming. I cannot defy him alone, and there is only you and one other in this world who hold even the ability to touch It with their magic." The Gatekeeper reached into his suit, retrieving a small envelope. He placed it on the table before Harry. "Consider this a gift in good faith."

Sceptically, Harry took the weighted envelope and broke its seal, shaking its contents out into his hand. A chill ran up his spine when he recognised it. A small ebony ring, blackened with age and devoid of its setting sat in the palm of his hand.

"To answer your original question, Sandman, I discovered the state of your soul when I watched you split it before me," The Gatekeeper revealed, his eyes staring unflinchingly into Harry's own. "It is how you came to be in this realm and how we tricked He Who Consumes. I watched you degrade your soul through the vilest of magics in order to win the time we needed to prepare for Its arrival in this world."

"You've just given me the only thing I might've joined you for," Harry pointed out, rolling the ring between his fingers subconsciously as he put aside the implication that he had apparently delved into magic he had sworn never to touch. "As well as answered the only question I had left. Why should I become your apprentice now?"

"Because if you don't you will be dead within a year."

"We've been over this part already," Harry dismissed the claim, hiding the way the hair on the back of his neck had stood up at the sentence.

"This is not a threat of force or warning of hubris, this is an inevitability.," The Gatekeeper growled, apparently at the end of his tether. "If you do not rebuild your soul you will fade and die. I cannot aid you in this endeavour unless you join the White Council."

The last of Harry's reluctant and uncaring facade fled from his expression. "I want your oath," he demanded, unbudging. "Give me your oath that all you have told me is true."

The dark skinned man nodded once. "On my blood and mag-"

"No," Harry cut across him. "Swear it by your most precious thing."

The Gatekeeper stared at Harry for several long moments, before nodding once more, slowly. "On my daughter's eyes," he began, "thrice bound and done, every word I have spoken to you today has been truth."

Harry let out a breath as silence overtook the room. Well that changed...everything.

"You have a plan?" the Sandman asked, head tilted.

"I have a plan," the Gatekeeper nodded grimly.

"Very well then," Harry stated with finality. "What do we need to do?"

"Rebuilding you soul is our primary concern," The Gatekeeper revealed, his expression unchanging. Despite this, Harry could almost feel the tension seeping from the air. "Challenging He Who Consumes with anything less than your full might is beyond foolish."

"And you know how we might go about this?" Harry prodded.

"I do not understand the magic behind it fully," The Gatekeeper admitted, "however I do know what happened. When you sundered your soul, one piece broke into several smaller fragments-"

"Hang on," Harry interrupted. "If you tell me why I felt it was necessary to split my soul, perhaps I would have a better idea of what we're facing."

"We were within It's grasp. The magic you worked broke us free. If we had not escaped, we would be suffering within It's belly and this world would be defenceless."

Harry frowned at the explanation. Confronted with such a foe, he had obviously delved into the parts of his mind that he had restricted himself from long ago in order to combat it. Locked away as it was now, he had little understanding of the particulars involved in the working, and he was disinclined to rediscover them. It was enough that The Gatekeeper knew what happened. The how was less important, at this point. "Go on," he said at length.

The Gatekeeper inclined his head. "The piece that was broken into smaller fragments scattered when we opened a portal to flee through. These pieces are what you must recover."

"You're sending me on a quest to find the missing pieces of my soul?" Harry asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Were it so easy," The Gatekeeper shook his head. "These pieces have not merely been scattered through space, they scattered through time. Each piece may not yet even be within this dimension."

"So I have to wait for each piece of my soul to arrive and pick it up at the baggage carousel?" Harry replied, incredulous.

"These soul fragments were not content to merely float through the ether," The Gatekeeper continued on. "They sought out and latched themselves onto gatherings of sentience, some of which have since been summoned to this world."

"I'm sorry, what?" Harry asked blankly.

"Demons, denizens of the Nevernever and if we're truly unfortunate, Outsiders," The Gatekeeper explained.

"How do you know this?" the younger man frowned.

"Because I destroyed a demon playing host to a soul fragment just over a year past. Interesting timing, yes?" the dark man inquired.

"That would be around the time I arrived in this world," Harry conceded.

"I believe that your diminished soul left you capable of slipping through the Outer Gates, but unable to take form once within this dimension," The Gatekeeper explained his theory. "It follows that the only place the cleansed soul fragment could go was back to you; the only compatible gathering of sentience this side of the Gates."

Harry attempted to follow The Gatekeeper's logic and only partially succeeded. "So the soul I had left wasn't enough for me to exist in this realm but give me one more small fragment and I could?"

"It is the most logical explanation. Souls cannot be divided into quantifiable pieces; there is soul, and a lack of it. What you did to yourself was an abomination and possible only because of your alien nature," The Gatekeeper replied harshly.

"I get it," Harry raised his hands in a placating manner. "I did the bad magic. Can you tell me more about these Outer Gates? I've only ever heard mention of them in the Laws."

"The Outer Gates are what defend this universe from the anti-beings that live in the spaces between dimensions. To seek knowledge beyond that is death," The Gatekeeper said with finality.

"If these Outer Gates are so swell, why is He Who Consumes such a threat?"

"You saw the portal we guarded within the memory?" The Gatekeeper questioned, to which Harry nodded. "It has been invited in. There are some doors which cannot be closed once opened."

"Who summoned It in the first place then?" Harry questioned, fighting to keep abreast of all the new information he was receiving.

"They no longer exist. They were each erased, every memory of them removed from the minds of those who knew them and their families put to death. Every trace of their existence has been utterly wiped from human record."

Harry blinked at the response. "Don't fuck about with the Outer Gates. Gotcha."

The Gatekeeper almost glowered at him.

"Ok, ok. Keep your hairnet on," Harry placated the older man once more. "So you know where one of these fragments is?"

"As luck would have it, yes," The Gatekeeper smiled. It was not a nice smile, and Harry was reminded of a fox playing with trapped prey.

"And?" Harry asked apprehensively.

"It is attached to one of the many demons recently summoned by the Red Court in a remote location in Russia," The Gatekeeper revealed. "Unfortunately, I do not know which specific demon."

Harry sent the dark man a flat stare.

"You will have to vanquish each summoned demon to recover the fragment with any certainty."

"So you're just going to point me at an enemy stronghold and tell me to have fun?" Harry asked sourly.

"I would never dream of it," The Gatekeeper replied with a stern gaze, a gaze that did little to hide the relieved amusement Harry could see in his eyes. "You will have a squad of experienced Wardens to aid you."

"Thanks," Harry said dryly. "That makes me feel so much better."

The Gatekeeper's mouth twitched. "When you are ready, travel to the Russian city Archangel. The Wardens will meet you there and act as a guide to the Red Court stronghold."

"Well, it's not like I had anything interesting to be doing in any case," Harry said resignedly, watching The Gatekeeper rise to his feet in preparation to leave.

The older man paused at the door. "I am...pleased that we could come to an agreement. It would have been most unfortunate had we been unable to reach an accord." At this, The Gatekeeper stepped through the door and left, closing it behind him.

The hairs on the back of the magician's neck rose at The Gatekeeper's parting comment. He had a feeling he would be forced to keep both eyes on the wily man if he wanted to keep up. Behind the pleasant exterior, Harry could tell the other man hardly trusted him a whit. The feeling was mutual.

The door to the interrogation room opened once more, this time revealing a familiar elderly gentleman.

"Mr Potter," the impeccably dressed man greeted, leaning on his cane. "We meet again."

"Mr Moresby," Harry greeted cheerfully. "Here to bust me out?"

Mr Moresby, Marcone's top lawyer, inclined his head as he laid out the possessions that had been confiscated from Harry upon arrival on the table. "That I am."

"Getaway driver ready?" Harry inquired casually as he stood, retrieving his jacket from the back of his chair and slipping his wand back into his sleeve.

"Ready and eager to examine your good health," Mr Moresby confirmed, checking a gold pocket watch.

"We gonna have to fight our way out, or sneak out the back way?" Harry asked, flashing a grin at an attractive policewoman and receiving a dirty look in return.

"I was of a mind to simply walk out the front door," the elder man bantered back.

"Bold," Harry proclaimed as they made their way to the front of the station. "I like it."

"Mr Potter," Moresby said by way of goodbye as they exited the station, arriving in the parking lot.

Harry gave the man a casual salute in return, before making his way to the 67 Impala that was idling nearby. Slipping his wand from his sleeve, he tapped the vehicle's shattered tail light, repairing the dented metal and restoring what he could of the indicator light.

"Suzie," Harry greeted as he slipped into the comfortable leather front seat, enjoying the comfort provided after the hard metal interrogation chair.

"Harry," Suzie replied. "Where to?"

"Closest bar you know that serves good food," Harry groaned. "I need a drink."

X

"This sandwich," Harry began in a tone akin to someone having a religious experience, "just solved all of life's problems."

Grinning, Suzie pushed a mug of dark brown liquid across the wooden table to him. Harry took the mug, tilting his head to the side at the warm brew within.

"Try it," Suzie prompted.

Shrugging, Harry took a small sip that turned into a long draw, before chowing back into the steak sandwich. Less than a minute later, he was using the last corner of bread to wipe the grease from his plate, licking his fingers clean after consuming even that. Leaning back into his chair, the magician nursed the remainder of the dark ale as he took in the room.

The dark bar had an odd symmetry about it, dotted as it was with columns inscribed with folk tales and myths. Fans so low they would cause a tall man to duck lest he be knocked about his head spun lazily, and the only source of illumination streamed in from a number of windows set high in the walls. Thirteen stools sat at the bar itself, of which only a few were occupied. The other patrons kept their heads down, mindful of their own business. Behind the bar a bald man of indeterminate age worked a wood burning stove, turning steaks and diced onions on the hot plate.

"Fill a spot?" Suzie asked, taking a small sip from a mug of her own.

"More than," Harry replied, working at a piece of meat stuck in his teeth with his tongue. "How'd you find this place?"

"I tracked the sort of people who would know it," Suzie answered, flicking a strand of blue hair from her eyes.

Harry made a questioning noise, one eyebrow raised.

"The Boss asked me to find places that 'practitioners' might hang out at," Suzie shrugged. "This is the best place for food and beer like that in Chicago."

Giving the bar another once over, Harry examined the feeling of calm that had fallen over him as they'd entered. It wasn't artificial, but it was helped along by the design of the room—repetitions of thirteen, and the room designed to dissipate built up energies.

Harry hmmm'd a response. "How'd things with May turn out?" he asked.

"Well enough," Suzie sighed, taking another sip of her drink. "I had to tell her about my job, but she took it better than I expected." She sent him a sly look, "she was more interested in you, actually."

"Oh?" Harry asked cautiously.

"Mmhmm. I think you might have a new admirer," Suzie teased.

"Fantastic," Harry groused, tipping his mug back.

"What, my little sister not good enough for you?" Suzie asked sharply, the amusement in her eyes belying her tone.

Harry rolled his eyes. While on another day he might have indulged in the banter, today his mind was on other things. "Did you find how they found out about her in the first place?"

"I know who the leak is," Suzie said with a frown, "but I don't know where they are. They've disappeared entirely."

"Think they went to ground when they heard we got her back?" Harry asked curiously.

Suzie shook her head. "Things like that don't go through the normal channels. You, Marcone and Hendricks are the only people who even know I have a sister. On top of that, the leak disappeared before we got her back."

"So you think they got what they needed, then..." Harry trailed off, drawing a thumb across his throat.

"More than likely," Suzie agreed. "I know the guy, and he can't hide from me in this city."

Harry nodded, and they fell into silence, each contemplating their own thoughts. Several new people entered the bar, the patrons already present looking up briefly before returning to their meals and conversations. At length, Harry broke the silence. "I need some time off," he stated suddenly.

"Why?" Suzie asked, straightening in her seat.

"I'm going to Russia," the magician replied.

"What for?" Suzie questioned bluntly.

"There's something I need to kill over there," Harry revealed, seeing no reason to lie.

Suzie's eyebrows rose as she considered the information. "I'll need to clear it with Marcone," she warned. "How long do you need?"

"It should only take me a day or so," Harry considered, "so give me a week. Something is bound to come up."

"I'll see what I can do, luv," Suzie drawled in an exaggerated Australian accent in an attempt to draw the seriousness from their conversation, knowing how much her changing accent could irritate him at times.

"Thanks darl," Harry replied obnoxiously in kind, ignoring Suzie's stuck out tongue.

"I'll have to get onto the Boss soon if you want to leave any time in the near future," Suzie mused. "When were you planning on leaving?"

Harry considered. "Today, if possible. What's the time difference from here to Russia?"

"Russia's a big place. You're going to have to be a little more precise, magic boy," Suzie told him dryly.

"Place called Archangel," Harry supplied.

"Archangel, Russia," Suzie concentrated, closing her eyes. "North Western Russia. Port city. GMT plus four, so we're nine hours behind."

Harry whistled, impressed. "That's some recall."

"I'm very good at what I do, Potter," Suzie told him primly, before throwing back the last of her drink. "If you want to leave today, I'll have to talk to the Boss soonest," she got to her feet. "Where can I reach you?"

"I'll be at the lake house within the hour," Harry replied, eyeing the imposing figure that had just entered the bar and was now making his way to the bar, ducking whenever he passed beneath a fan.

Suzie followed his gaze and smirked. "I'll leave you to your future conquest then."

"Sure, whatever," Harry rolled his eyes, again. Deliberately, he stared at her as she walked away, and from the swish of her hips she knew he was watching. Shaking his head, Harry collected his plate and mug and made his way over to the bar, taking a stool next to the newcomer.

"Harry," the magician greeted, placing his used utensils on the bar.

"Harry," the wizard at the bar greeted back, taking a break from the long draught he was knocking back from a mug of his own. "How's business?"

"Well, there was a hit on Marcone around lunch, so fairly well I'd say," Potter replied glibly.

"Two assassination attempts in one day for you; exciting," Dresden remarked almost carelessly. "I don't suppose they got him, did they?"

"'Fraid not," Potter shook his head in mock sympathy. "They did get four bystanders though, and sent a lot more to the hospital."

Dresden scowled, his opinion of the mob boss and his business showing clearly.

"It's alright though," Potter continued, "we killed them all."

Dresden gave Potter a flat stare. "Have you tried not killing them before?"

Potter looked at him guilelessly. "But then...they'd still be alive. And shooting at us."

Closing his eyes, Dresden shook his head slowly, as if dealing with a troublesome child. "Anger leads to hate, young padawan."

Across from him, Potter grinned. "What about those two ghouls earlier?"

"We're the good guys," Dresden argued, "so that makes the ghouls mooks. They don't count."

"You're such a speciest," Potter accused.

"Some of my best friends are werewolves," Dresden defended.

"Sure, sure," Potter waved him off, ignoring the wounded look he was receiving. "Oh, I ran into The Gatekeeper earlier," he threw off as an aside.

That grabbed Dresden's attention. "How did that pan out?" he asked intently.

"I'm going to Russia to kill monsters for him," Potter replied easily.

"Ok," Dresden blinked. "That was quick."

"I also tangled with a squad of Wardens while they were trying to kill a warlock," Potter continued.

Dresden gave him an incredulous look. "Hell's Bells Potter. I caught up with my mentor and did some grocery shopping after this morning." Then he paused, "wait, you did what?"

"I didn't know they were Wardens before I attacked them," Potter said defensively, and perhaps a little loudly, as a patron several stools down shifted away from them nervously. "And I killed the warlock, so it worked out fine."

"Potter..." Dresden almost groaned.

"Well, I'd already slit his throat, and he was trying to use the last of his life force to kill us all, so it seemed like the polite thing to do," Potter shrugged.

"Well, so long as you were polite about it," Dresden said sarcastically. "There's nothing like a rude murder to set things off on the bad foot with the Wardens. Did the Gatekeeper come to smooth things out with the Wardens then?"

"Well, no," Potter admitted. "I sort of sent them to him. I wasn't in the mood to go with them to their lair."

Dresden shook his head slowly. "I imagine they took that well."

"Actually, their leader was Russian," Potter remarked pensively, "so I'll probably run into them while I'm over there."

The wizard chuckled with dark amusement. "Warden stalkers are never fun," he said with mock commiseration. "But I'm sure you'll survive."

"She did almost choke me out in the first few minutes of the fight, and I might've told her to fuck right off at one point," Potter added, beginning to sound slightly worried. "You don't think she'll hold a grudge, do you?"

"No, I'm sure you'll be fine," Dresden assured him with a sardonic smile.

Somehow, Potter wasn't reassured in the least.

X x X

It was late afternoon and Harry was hunched over his workbench when the call came. Very carefully setting down the pliers, he slipped his wand into his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his face. He didn't care to risk a cooling charm given the delicacy of his work, and his workroom wasn't exactly well ventilated. Striding up the stairs to the house loft, he picked up the landline on the fifth ring.

"What is it?" he asked abruptly.

"Mr Potter," the cool tone of Marcone came down the line. "Miss Blue has informed me of your request. I would like to discuss it further in person."

"Where are you?" Harry asked after deliberating for a brief moment.

"Are you familiar with the Velvet House?" Marcone asked, the sound of heavy machinery in the background. At Harry's negative response, Marcone gave him directions. "It is rather hard to miss. Just look for the smouldering ruin." Without further goodbye, the crime boss hung up.

Staring at the receiver, Harry considered his options. He hadn't taken his motorbike out for a while, but he didn't feel like riding halfway across the city during afternoon traffic either. With a shrug, he turned on his heel and disappeared, leaving the telephone swinging by its cord behind him.

The magician reappeared on the edge of a construction site, unnoticed by the workers. What had once been a grand building now lay in ruins, victim of a great fire. Various figures in safety gear were turning the rubble over, searching for hazards or pieces of value, while a bulldozer cleared portions of the ground that had already been covered. Some distance away, a limousine was parked next to what appeared to be a foreman's office. Seeing what he thought to be the looming form of Hendricks through a window, Harry made his way over.

The door to the office was locked, prompting a flick of his wrist. The locking mechanism clicked open, and Harry invited himself in.

"Mr Potter," Marcone greeted without looking up, seated behind the sole desk in the office, an array of paperwork before him. To his left, Hendricks leaned against the office wall, a holstered pistol blatantly on display beneath his shoulder. In the only uncluttered corner of the room, Suzie sat on the floor with a bulky laptop across her knees, fingers flying across the keyboard, while Marcone's most recent hire examined him from where she sat on the other side of the small office.

"Johnny," Harry replied, conjuring a chintz armchair for himself to the side of the door. With the presence of both Hendricks and the equally imposing Gard, the already small room felt rather crowded. He ignored the frown that formed on Gard's face after his conjuration as she stared at him.

Marcone set his paperwork aside, turning his attention to his employees. "The remnants of my opposition have begun to stir," the mob boss announced quietly, hands folded before him. "We are going to dispose of them and find their new backer."

Harry shrugged his acceptance, Suzie kept typing, while Hendricks and Gard merely continued listening.

"A protected asset was kidnapped earlier this morning and retrieved by Mr Potter and Miss Blue. Miss Blue has since traced a number of payments made to the probable leak," Marcone expanded, mostly for Gard's benefit.

"The squealer is dead and buried by now," Suzie interrupted, not moving from her seat on the floor. "But I backtracked the money and found where it came from. You'll love this Boss; the corporation the money came from are the same lot who used to own this place," she revealed, making a vague gesture about them.

Harry frowned, mentally connecting a few dots.

"This isn't the first place of theirs that has gone up in flames like this either; the last one was about a year ago," Suzie continued. "Could be an insurance game, could be an argument within the company, but I couldn't be sure," she shrugged.

"What other holdings does this company possess within Chicago?" Marcone asked.

"Just one more," Suzie grinned. "Another brothel, middle class, hidden away in sleepy suburbia."

Harry spoke up while Marcone considered the information. "The first place that burnt down, was it around downtown?" At Suzie's nod, he continued, "and it happened about a year ago?" Suzie nodded again and Harry began twiddling his thumbs, the picture of innocence.

"Mr Potter," Marcone sighed, his tone admonishing.

"I'd like it to be known that it was entirely not my fault," Harry declared to the room at large. Hendricks snorted in amusement, and Harry pulled a face at him. "I didn't set anyone on fire until after they tried to eat me," he maintained stubbornly.

Hendricks chuckled quietly and Suzie snickered to herself, while the hint of a smile tugged at Gard's mouth. Marcone massaged a temple, eyes closed.

"Also, I'm pretty sure Dresden was the one to burn this place down," Harry continued.

"And your source?" Marcone asked evenly.

"Dresden told me this morning, just befor—ohhhh," Harry cut himself off with a sound of sudden enlightenment. "Well, this is embarrassing."

Marcone levelled a steely gaze at Harry, clearly expecting answers.

Harry scratched at the back of his head sheepishly. "There were two separate hits on Dresden and I this morning, about half an hour before Suzie came round. They decided to work together and we dealt with them."

"You didn't consider it worth mentioning?" Marcone questioned.

Harry shook his head. "I thought it was an opportunistic chance at revenge for burning the brothel down, but if they're from the same lot that paid off your leak..."

The head of Chicago's frowned, considering. "You think this new aggression is a result of your actions?"

"It certainly won't have helped," Harry replied. "Goddam vampires."

"Pardon me?" Marcone blinked.

"Oh. Yeah. The group that've been running the brothels are Red Court vampires," Harry revealed easily. "On a side note, they're also now at war with the White Council." He decided against mentioning his pseudo membership of the second group; it would only muddy the waters.

"Ms Gard?" Marcone prompted questioningly.

"Red Court vampires hide within a flesh mask to do business with mortals. They have varying levels of influence throughout the world, although their power base lies in South America, where their nobles were once falsely revered as gods," Gard answered Marcone's query, her contempt for the vampires clear. "Their saliva is an addictive venom that they use to control their thralls. A skilled mortal would be capable of killing lesser members of the race in personal combat."

"Opening up their guts sits them down pretty fast," Harry added, remembering his interrogation of the captive he had taken from his ill fated venture to the Red Court whorehouse. "They keep all the blood they drink in a sac there, from what I can tell."

"I see," Marcone said, mulling the information over. "I do not believe this new aggression is a direct result of your actions," he said at length to Harry. "The abduction and the assault were ultimately strikes at myself. The attempted assassination this morning, however..."

"The attempt could very well be unrelated," Gard pointed out. "It was carried out by ghouls, yes?" At Harry's nod, she continued, "their movements have increased since the Red Court's declaration of war. The minor talents of the White Council have been the focus of their first strikes."

"Minor talent?" Harry grumbled to himself. Gard ignored him, and Suzie flicked a rubber band in his direction. Wand in his sleeve, he batted it away and turned it into a butterfly, leaving it to flutter about the room.

"This Red Court has decided to move in on us independently, in the more likely case. Dealing with them directly will cut the legs from under those they act through," Marcone stated. "Suggestions?" he asked.

"Work our way through through their leadership," Hendricks suggested immediately. "Decimate them at the least, then assume control of their operations."

"We don't even have to do that," Suzie disagreed. "If we can find their accountant and wring them dry, I can neuter the whole operation and take their businesses for ourselves."

"Ms Gard? Mr Potter?" Marcone asked when the two practitioners remained silent.

"My suggestion would not be good for business," Gard replied with a shake of her head.

"Burn their house down and piss on the ashes," Harry told his employer bluntly, Gard's grin telling of her agreement.

"That does not seem to be a profitable endeavour," Marcone answered evenly. "Taking over their enterprise would be the most pragmatic response."

"You will not be able to treat their remaining employees like the remnant of any mortal gang you have disposed of," Gard interjected, favouring Harry's suggestion. "Their workers will be addicted to their venom and utterly reliant on it to function. More likely they will give their own lives to defend their Red Court masters."

Marcone frowned at the reminder of the way the game had changed. If he simply moved in and took over, no amount of threats would prove sufficient to keep that level of addiction under control. He would have to replace each and every worker with men and women of his own, draining resources from his established operations...

"I imagine simply burning their house down will prove to be a speedier task, in any case," Marcone said dryly. "I presume you wish to depart for Russia quickly?"

Harry nodded. The sooner he could leave for Russia, the sooner he could kill a few demons find out the truth of The Gatekeeper's words for himself.

"Very well then," Marcone said with finality. "I do not wish to give them further chance to act against us. Appropriate distractions for the law will be arranged; the three of you will carry out my retaliation," he directed Gard, Harry and Hendricks. The mob boss rose from his seat, slipping back into a summer jacket. "I shall see you all with an appropriate plan tomorrow."

A thought occurred to Harry and he grinned. This could be a chance to test out several of his enchantments against a weaker brand of foe before taking them with him to Russia. Giving a jaunty wave to his colleagues, he directed the still living transfigured butterfly to land on Suzie's nose before turning on his heel and disappearing.