Tales of a Wizard: Flesh Masks Ch. 1

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. I am a private investigator in the city of Chicago. I am a wizard and warden of the White Council of wizards. I protect those who can't protect themselves from creatures most can't even begin to comprehend. I have spat in the face of many a monstrous thing, whether or not it was the smart thing to do. I have chased down FBI agents that were using enchanted fur belts to become werewolves. I've killed a loup-garou, a sort of super werewolf, with my mother's silver pentacle amulet. I've even reanimated a T-Rex to use as a means of transport to get to a madman trying to make himself into a newborn god. I then proceeded to smash his teeth in during the extremely complex spell, causing one nasty backlash that spread him over five counties. But none of those have been as just plain weird as what's happened lately.

The White Council is the governing body for all the wizards on the planet. They don't so much try to enforce the difference between right and wrong as they try to limit the power available to practitioners of magic. They have a few simple rules that all wizards must follow, or be executed. They do not make deals, and they are not merciful. If you break one of the Council's laws you are deemed a warlock and executed, sometimes on the spot. Despite their rather harsh procedures their main goal is to protect humanity from those that would harm it, whether they are warlocks or monsters.

The Red Court vampires are one of the more active and monstrous of the creatures that plague man-kind and see humanity as a massive free buffet table. The White Council has been at war with the Red Court for several years now, ever since some upstart wizard had a disagreement with one of their nobles and wound up killing her, her vampire vassals, and burned her house to the ground. Totally not the wizard's fault, whoever it was.

I clutched at my chest when that particular memory surfaced in my mind, the night that those monsters had taken her from me. Susan, her name echoed unbidden in my mind. I pushed that memory away, for fear of becoming a pining loon.

The war has taken its toll on all involved. The Red Court were feeding and turning more innocents than ever to cover their losses. While the wardens, the soldiers/enforcers of the White Council, have had heavy losses and had to start conscripting any young wizards with sufficient talent to be a threat. This is where I came in. Since I point blank refuse to do most of the morally questionable warden duties, I've been assigned to run a training camp to get new talents up and ready for battle. The fact that most of these 'new talents' were mostly rebellious teens that were barely old enough to drive, meant that training them was annoying to say the least, and a constant migraine to say the most.

"Emily, maintain your focus! If you get distracted your shield will falter and give," I yelled at a tiny, rosy-cheeked girl who looked more at home in a girl-scout uniform than learning combat spells.

"S-sorry mister, Dresden," squeaked Emily.

"It's alright, you just need more focus. You need to be able to block bullets and well as claws. Keep at it." I felt sorry for the kid. She wasn't bad, she was just young. But this war demands a certain level of callousness that these kids have to give if they want to survive. I continued down the practice line to see how the other recruits were faring. "Great work Charles, excellent fireball. Keep practicing and later I'll show you how to get them to detonate on impact."

"Awesome! Thank you sir!" replied a hulk of a kid that looked like he could've been on a football coach's recruitment poster loudly stating, 'This could be you!'

"Francis, what are you… Oh for the love of… Someone help Francis! He set his foot on fire again," I shouted hooking a thumb back at a wispy blonde-haired kid, whose right leg was currently engulfed in flames.

"I got it!" shouted Charles as he ran forward and put out the fire with the bucket of water I kept handy ever since Francis's second such incident.

"Alright it's getting pretty late. Everybody, that's enough for today! Grab dinner and then turn in!" I shouted as I turned around and headed for the picnic area we set aside for meals. I grabbed a plate of baked beans and ham slices that had been prepared for me and sat down next to one of my oldest and best friends.

"You're pushing them too hard," said Michael Carpenter, a huge man who by any rights shouldn't have been able to speak in a soft caring voice, but did anyway.

Michael Carpenter was a man that was completely ripped from head to toe. He looked like the kind of guy that could've crushed your hand into powder if you shook it, but had the mind of a saint and would've given his life to protect another without a moment's hesitation. But I suppose that's what you get with the man who I've dubbed the Fist of God. Michael is a member of the Three Knights of the Cross. Well, now two knights. The knights wander the world on gut feelings they get from on high and somehow always end up wherever they're needed most. These knights wield three different swords with a nail from the Crucifixion worked into the hilt. Yes, THE Crucifixion. These swords are: Amoracchius, the sword of love; Fidelacchius, the sword of faith; and Esperacchius, the sword of hope. Michael's sword is Amoracchius, a European style great sword with a cruciform hilt.

"I know I'm pushing them hard, but they have to be ready as soon as possible. Everyday there are fewer and fewer of us left, Michael. Hells bells, I hate even considering using these guys. They're just kids, and I feel like I'm prepping them just to throw them into a meat grinder," I said sulkily. I glanced down at my beans and found myself absently wondering, Is this really what cowboys ate constantly?

Michael placed a firm hand on my shoulder. "Have faith Harry. There will always be a way for good to overcome, even if it does not seem so." This was a common argument Michael resorted to whenever he or someone around him was beginning to feel dreary about the work ahead and didn't see a good way through.

It's not that I don't have faith in the Almighty, or whatever you wanna call Him. It's just that over the years I've developed a system that works fairly well: Do not attract the attention of anything godly, god-like, or god-ish. From what I've seen it's rarely good when an entity of that magnitude focuses its attention to a single person. That being said I do believe in continuing trends, and from what I've seen of Michael and his 'job' he has a useful habit of showing up wherever he was needed. The fact that he 'found' our hidden camp was not lost to me. Don't get me wrong I love the guy like a brother, but I'm also wary of what his mere presence could mean. It's for this reason that I doubled tonight's guard shifts, much to the groaning of the other wardens. But screw them, I like being paranoid.

About thirty minutes passed in complete silence as we ate our meals and scanned the surrounding landscape for signs of any kind of danger, and the dwindling light of the sun falling over the horizon made that very difficult. The fifteen or so recruits I was watching over made their way into their makeshift tent to lay down with pictures of dancing pears in their heads, or whatever the hell kids dreamt about these days.

"Well I've had enough of this philosophical debate," I said, voice dripping with smugness. "Go ahead and rest up, I'll take first shift with the other two wardens on duty," I grunted as we finished our meals, motioning him to the tent the recruits were staying in. If something did happen I'd want Michael positioned to best protect the kids. Michael began to walk towards the tent and was about halfway to it when the first battle cry rang over the hills.

A high pitched cry coming from a throat that couldn't have been human pierced the night and sent shivers down my spine. Almost instantly one of the extra wardens I'd placed on duty let out a shout and sent the magical equivalent of a flare into the air above where the cry came from. The now very illuminated hill side showed what looked like three or four seven-man teams of black monsters charging at their position, all from the same direction too.

I do love it when they do half the work for us.

I glanced back at Michael who had his sword out of its scabbard and at the ready for anything that might cross his path. "Michael, get to the recruits!" I half shouted while turning to meet the oncoming mini-horde. He didn't need telling twice, Michael turned on the spot and darted for the tent.

As a general rule, don't mess with a pissed off wizard, especially a warden. Fully trained wardens can be as inventive as they are ruthless if you give them a moment to realize a danger and respond to it. The flaming hell that was raining down on our uninvited guests was a testament to that. Including me, the five wardens were holding strong against the thirty or so Red Court vampires that were determined to see us dead. With a variety of shouts and cries from the others, several spells shot forward to cut down the attack. One warden was doing a passable impersonation of a fully-automatic combat rifle by firing a constant stream of red hot stars from the end of his staff. Another was chanting and holding some kind of charm while lightning strikes fell to the ground directly on our attackers. And another was doing probably the most creative thing I'd ever seen a warden do, with a shout she created a massive block of ice, about twenty feet in diameter, allowing the thermal energy that once occupied that space to be used as fuel for the others' spells, but she wasn't done. With a few more exaggerated motions she shattered the thing into a million pieces of razor sharp shards of ice and sent every single one at the charging horde. The resulting mess doesn't bear thinking on. I just opted to shoot fireballs at them. What can I say, I'm a traditionalist.

After being sure the other wardens could handle what was left of the head on charge, I broke off to take stock of what else had happened. To my slight disappointment there weren't any other forces advancing on us.

Damn, the Red Court must be getting pretty desperate, I thought to myself. If they're willing to risk a full frontal assault like that, not to mention that battle cry alerted all the camp defenders. A growing feeling of dread went down my spine as I went through the logic chain. Which means that while we were busy concentrating on the main force of cannon-fodder, we left something else unprotected. A high pitched scream broke through the night, a scream that was coming from the recruits' tent. Oh dear God, NO!

"Michael!" I shouted as I raced towards the tent even while most of those that were sleeping inside were busy running out of it. I burst through the tent flap that was the main entrance just in time to see Michael thrust his sword clean through the chest of a Red Court vampire. As he pulled the sword away the blade shone with a brilliant white light that lit the vampire's body aflame with a pure white fire, originating at the wound and spreading to completely engulf its thrashing remains. I don't call him the Fist of God for nothing, folks.

"Harry, are the others okay?" Michael asked with a worried look on his face.

"Yes, the rest of the recruits made it out fine, and the wardens are wrapping up the main assault. What-what happened here?" I asked, a slight choke in my throat over the last few words. The tent behind Michael was covered with a thin layer of blood, black and red. Behind Michael were two unmoving forms lying in blood soaked covers on their beds. I recognized them immediately, they were Charles and Francis. Their throats had been slit from ear to ear. The vampires had wanted to kill the recruits quietly.

"I was too late to save them," muttered a forlorn Michael. "By the time I got to a position to help, they were already gone. I made sure the creatures that did this paid dearly." A hardened look came over his face, "There were five, and judging from the shadows, another outside. I slew the three on the floor here and managed to wound one other before they fled. But Harry, they took one."

"What?" I asked, not really wanting to hear worse news.

"When I was fighting they took the recruit from the end bed there." He pointed at the last bed in the row. "The one I wounded was the one taking her, that's its blood there." He pointed at the black puddle at the foot of the bed. I stepped forward to look at the name-tag on the bed, it read: Emily.

These monsters' objective the whole time was the recruits. To prevent the wardens from getting the reinforcements we so desperately needed by attacking inexperienced and relatively defenseless kids and it pissed me off. If Michael hadn't been here, it would've been much worse. By the time he'd finished recounting what had happened I'd made up my mind. I wasn't going to let them get away with this. Emily was still alive and she needed my help.

I stepped forward, took out the crystal I use whenever I want to perform a tracking spell, and dipped it into the pool of blood that Michael had pointed out. Assuming that its owner was still alive, this would lead me straight to them. I stepped out of the tent through the hole the vampires had made. The sun bit at my eyes as I held up the crystal covered in the vampire's blood in front of me. I focused my will on creating the link between the blood on the crystal and its original donor, and then poured energy into that link. The crystal glowed dully, and pulled due north.

I flashed my teeth in a wicked grin, "I've got you now." I charged ahead at a dead sprint in the direction my spell indicated.

"Harry, wait!" Michael shouted as he struggled to keep up with me.

I didn't care. All that mattered to me was getting to the last of the vampires and the little girl they had taken. Michael and I ran like that for a couple of minutes. Somehow he was able to more or less keep up with me, despite the fact that Michael was built like a brawler and not a runner. You don't see me complaining though. The crystal gave a sharp tug to the left just as we ran past a massive wall of rock, suggesting that they were nearby and were probably catching their breath on the side of this cliff.

I rounded the corner, and felt my heart freeze. There, sprawled in a heap on the ground, was Emily, still rosy cheeked but now glassy eyed as well. I stepped forward to examine her and saw that there was no blood. They had simply broken her neck, a minor comfort considering all the other things they could've done. She looked almost peaceful, like a great burden had been lifted from her. She had probably proved to be more trouble than she was worth during their escape. Just behind me Michael rounded the corner, panting slightly.

"Darn it, Harry. You can't go charging ahead like that! You're going to get yourself… Mother of God," Michael whispered as he saw the young girl's body.

I was beginning to lose control. I can't stand it to see a woman hurt. I know I shouldn't want to see anyone hurt, but it's always been worse with women, especially when they're as young as Emily had been. She was just starting to find her way in this world only to have it ripped from her. It's just not right.

NO! I screamed in my head. They are not getting away with this! I will not let them go unpunished! Not now, not ever! NEVER AGAIN! I took my tracking crystal and noted that it was pointing at the rock wall next to us. They opened a Way. They have a wizard… super. Behind me Michael was finishing up Emily's last rights.

"Aparturum!" I screamed while making a slashing gesture at the wall, and felt the fabric of reality part as I opened a portal to the Nevernever.

The Nevernever is essentially a realm of pure magic that connects everything to everywhere. Wizards commonly use it to cheat and use shortcuts where conventional transport would take too long or would be too risky. Wizards also commonly use it as a handy escape route.

"Harry, wait for me!" Michael shouted as I stepped through. Michael followed me through, and we stood there assessing our surroundings. We were standing in what looked like a massive empty parking lot. There was just flat grey pavement as far as my eyes could see. A little too my right and a couple hundred feet away were three black figures, calmly walking away.

"YOU MURDERING BASTARDS!" I felt myself roaring at the three black dots. Sometimes my mouth acts without consent from my brain. The figures paused mid-step, turned around to see the furious wizard and his hulking friend with a glowing great sword, blanched and ran. I'll give them credit, vampires are fast as hell, but then again so is almost every other supernatural thing I've ever come across.

Michael and I chased after the three retreating dots as fast as our legs would allow. We continued our chase for almost a full two minutes before I noticed that they were up to something. Ahead of us a thick fog bank began forming out of nowhere. The vampires turned towards the fog and disappeared into it.

No doubt their wizard trying to get us lost, but I've still got a link to you bastards, I thought as I raised my tracking crystal to point the way.

"Harry, are you sure about this?" Michael asked upon noticing the fog rolling in.

"Just stay behind me and keep close!" I shouted back.

We plunged through the fog with my tracking spell guiding our way. Almost immediately I noticed that there was definitely something off about this fog, it seemed alive with static and the ground was shifting from grey pavement to a flat forest floor. I pushed all questions from my mind as I pursued my prey.

We broke through the fog after about thirty seconds and found myself standing in an odd looking forest. There was almost nothing on the ground, no random plants, no roots, and no fallen pinecones. The sole reason I could identify it as a forest was because massive trees sprouted from the ground and towered over us, but even these were curiously bare. The only limbs I could make out were near the very tops of the trees, like they were massive umbrellas sprouting out of the ground.

My crystal guided us to one of the larger of the trees as I realized they'd opened another Way.

"Michael be ready. I don't know what's on the other side of this thing," I said as I readied my shield bracelet and got my staff charged to be used as a tool of fiery death, or massive club, whichever I felt like.

With another slashing motion and another shout of "Aparturum" I ripped open the portal and charged through. I was mentally preparing myself to wade through a Red Court den, or to be faced with some unspeakable horror that would have ripped my sanity away just by daring to look at it, but what I got was something more like the Hundred Acre Wood. Everything was bright and colorful, the ground was a perfect green without any dead spots, and the sky was an almost uniform blue. The trees and plants were similarly vibrant and colorful. Michael landed next to me as we took in the bizarre surroundings.

"This doesn't look like any place I've ever been to. Where do you think we are?" I asked Michael.

My entire body began to tingle like when your foot falls asleep, but everywhere.

"Michael, do you feel that?"

The feeling intensified and Michael doubled over beside me, clearly in a great deal of pain. Something was terribly wrong, we needed to leave.

"Michael! Come on man, GET UP! We need to get out of here! Come on get up, we've got to-"

PAIN. Pain such that I've never felt before and hope to never feel again, wreaked havoc on my body. Every nerve ending was on fire, every bone was shattering into splinters, every cell in my body was being electrified, and my organs seemed to be ripping themselves apart and reorganizing themselves. Even my charred and blackened left hand, which had been partially melted by a vampire with ambitions of arson during a previous venture, seemed to regain complete feeling only to have it set on fire again.

I only had to endure this agony for a few seconds. I let out a choking scream that sounded more at home in a slaughter house than coming from my own throat, and was swallowed by a merciful darkness.