I looked at the door to the great mysterious beyond and felt my non-corporeal heart pound out a staccato beat against my chest. Uriel stood slightly to my side and behind me as I stared at it and the eternity within. The memory of that south-bound train Karrin's father had pulled me off of in the nick of time returned as I stared at the door, and the thought that I might be spending the rest of my here-after burning for my sins gave me enough of a pause to breath a short sigh.

It shouldn't have been this hard. I should have just swallowed, reached out, and pushed the door open.

Instead I sighed shakily, turned a half-step to face Uriel, and asked, "This is really it, huh? No more second-chances, no more convenient archangels whispering into ears and altering the circumstances, just the one-way trip forward."

I expected him to nod in his vaguely warm fashion and gesture me onward or else back to his side proper, as if to say get on with it or stick around, son, but Uriel did not take either of these actions. He lowered his head to his left shoulder, as if listening to an unseen speaker, and smiled. I stood and waited. After several particularly long seconds he looked up at me again.

"There is one new option. I'm sure it would be right up your alley, after-all, creating a third circumstance when the initial two are not to your satisfaction, and would certainly forestall this decision for... potentially years." Uriel pointed with his chin back in another direction as he turned from the door and began to pace away.

I quickly swallowed the lump in my throat at the unexpected change of fortune and turned to follow him.

"The spirit of intellect that you spoke with briefly at several recent points mentioned to you the true vastness of our Father's creation, yes?" He asked me when I caught up. I nodded mutely. I didn't want to say something that might disrupt where this was going. "Then you know that the world which resides outside of the Nevernever is just one of many - that your earth is the one most focused toward reality as you would define it, and that others reside within the breadth and width within the Nevernever."

That wasn't quite how Bob had put it, as I remembered, but it was near enough for me not to question the apparent gifthorse.

"A circumstance has arisen toward the deeper end of the realms, and a Wizard has been slain before his time in the middle of a struggle for hard-earned peace throughout that land. Would you take his place and guide, as well as fight for the duration of time that he has lost prematurely, until tyranny is overthrown?" Uriel finally asked.

Definitely as vague as I was used to, for that could be any number of worlds, of a near infinite myriad of possible people I would be replacing. But compared with the dreadful gravitas of the imminent decision I was faced with otherwise, I was willing to take a chance on living again until I could come to grips with my hereafter, and maybe, just maybe, I could add a little fresh karma to the scales to soften the hellfire.

"Yes," I answered.

Uriel's teeth shone as he laughed gently, which did not reassure me. "Oh, Harry. You will enjoy this, as much as any youth raised in this day and age might, compared to a wizard far older and rigidly confined. I hope you remember your Quenya."

"My what?"

A moment after uttering those two words and he reached up at a speed I could barely comprehend, pressing his right palm against my forehead, and I fell into an instant and empty slumber, to awaken many, many leagues beyond even the farthest reaches of Faerie I had ever traversed, in the distant corners of the Nevernever...

-(Istar i mor)-

The first sense I had as consciousness returned was an awareness of my surroundings, and then the nakedness I felt within them, a vulnerability that I was unaccustomed toward even during my latest session as a wandering soul.

I felt as if here, wherever here was, I could be felt not merely by the spiritual community, but that others who were yet still alive and breathing would likewise look upon my weakened self and view me for what and who I was. When I opened my eyes, I was still the same as when I had spoken with Uriel, though the surroundings were far different; a vast and shadow-casting mountain lay before me, and the sounds of drums still echoed out from its craggy walls clearly. Stretched out across the land to either side were trees and a long beaten path.

Then those who were beating said drums emerged from a gash in the side of the mountain and I glimpsed the first in a long line of creatures, short, shallow, and muck-and-tarred-skin a slick black beneath the armaments on display. They were not all that distant from the Goblins of the Erlking, if I felt like being charitable. Cruel swords and arrows and sharpened shields hung across their bodies in scabbards and quivers and over forearms, and when they spoke the tone of their voice was pugnacious and souring upon the air.

"Fool! Ape-spawn!" one of their kind cursed another in a rough tongue that I could barely recognize. "You ought be stretched and whipped a thousand times by the Balrog's own thong!"

If I had blood, it might have chilled.

Balrog? Quenya? The puzzle pieces slid then quickly into place as memories were dredged to the surface out of my younger years, spent reading before the flickering flames of a campfire at my father's side. Uriel, you son of a bitch. Don't you dare tell me this is Middle-earth, and if it is...

My thoughts flickered off as another realization hit me - and it truly sucker-punched me, to be honest, as the meaning behind his words came together. Gandalf's dead and I'm his replacement, I thought. He had fallen in the fight. There would be no Gandalf-the-White to step in and guide the hobbits now that I had arrived, to marshal the forests of Fangorn to Helm's Deep, to advise Aragorn in Gondor and lure the Eye of Sauron away from two lonely, exhausted little folk in the heart of the badlands.

Which meant that what I was looking at, and would in turn soon be looking upon me, were genuine, honest-to-Eru Orcs.

Of Mordor.

Oh, stars and stones.

I leaned over and pressed a hand to my forehead as the other rested across one upraised knee, feeling a sudden flood of emotion that could, at best, be referred to as free-spirited delight.

I was brought out of my mile-a-minute thoughts as one of the Orcs swore and drew his sword with a hiss, staring with beady yellowed eyes at my form, and having rather rapidly refreshed my memories of the stories, of the events within the books, I actually smiled back.

It was said, after all, that the Istari had veiled themselves in forms akin to the Atani, of men, and even old Sauron himself as a Maia proper when he set foot beyond Valinor had not forsaken such an option even if he chose to appear young and full of powerful life rather than aged and wiser, as the rest of those who followed after him did.

I knew it would be easier here to accomplish that act if I had the proper resources to utilize, and I had learned a remarkable degree about utilizing my resources and limited influence on the world about myself in the time since Jack Murphy had dropped me off at Mortimer's house those long days ago. I drew in my will and my breath, and all of the memories I possessed about the series, of this world I now dwelt within, and my intentions all the same, and as I rose to my feet, I exhaled the simple commandment.

"Be," I uttered.

Power thrummed from beneath my semi-corporal skin and spread out to encompass my soul whole, like sheets of liquid flame, so that a weight akin to being caught in a warm current pressed in upon my consciousness and mind and every nerve I was suddenly, and blissfully, aware of once again. My will gathered and settled into place across my flesh in the usual choice of raiment and cloth, if accurate to the period and setting, so that I was clad in black from brow to boot. In my main hand my old, worn staff formed once more, and dangling from its neck lay my mother's silver pentacle pendant and the ruby of Way-knowledge within. My first breath was a rush of sudden life, and I threw my head back and expelled it in a shout of exuberance, in a roaring-laugh of near-delirious joy and echoing challenge all the same.

Uriel was right; I would enjoy this, and dearly so.

The Orcs gnashed their teeth together at the sight of my newly gathered form, and without the Balrog at their side, they were reluctant indeed to stroll under the noon-sun and face me.

"Come on, then, your dirt-licking sons of the mud! Return to your cavernous cradling burrows, hollows and holes, or stand firm and fight me," and here I paused in the middle of my declaration, and considered what I would call myself hereafter, before the words spilled over my lips as if guided but no less true in their own way, "for I am Dresden the Black, and I reap fire from the heavens and the earth, and consume all that stand in opposition with might unseen since the age of Gothmog, high lord of the Balrogs!"

The creak of many an arrow being drawn back and the whistle as they were slung forth pierced the air in response and, almost without thought, a concentric silver oval-shield materialized before my body and caught them, cast them aside to my left and right.

Fear appeared in their eyes, then.

They had faced down one Wizard this morn, and lost their greatest ally for it, and now anew came a second that could dismiss their weaponry so easily. Moria had lessened their resolve to face such a foe, and I knew that had they been the Uruk-hai of Isengard, the challenge would have carried further, but these weak-spined wretches turned tail and fled rather than risk proving my words any truer. To be sure I thrust my staff forward and crowed victoriously, "Fuego!" and sent a low surge of flame scorching up and into the hole in the rock face they had emerged from, so that the squeals and groans of pain reflected back along the way toward me.

It felt glorious to be alive and able to distribute my spells wholly once again, and I couldn't help but relish the moment as my thoughts turned toward the Fellowship, and Saruman, and all of the events that lay ahead.

"Looks like I had better get a move on before they finish trekking down to Parth Galen and splinter apart," I said to the air, and turned from the mountain to stride across the path.

End of Chapter One.