My first impression of the guy had stuck with me pretty hard—tall, heavily muscled, with a lean, sunken face I’d always associated with religious ascetics and half-crazy artists. He had brown hair that was unevenly streaked with iron, and a beard that, while always kept trimmed, perpetually seemed to need a few more weeks to fill out. He had hard, steady eyes, and all the comforting, reassuring charm of a dental drill.
Asleep, he looked…old. Tired. I noticed the deep worry lines between his brows and at the corners of his mouth. His hands, which were large and blunt-fingered, showed more of his age than the rest of him. I knew he was better than a century old, which was nudging toward active maturity, for a wizard. There were scars across both of his hands—the graffiti of violence. The last two fingers of his right hand were stiff and slightly crooked, as if they’d been badly broken, and healed without being properly set. His eyes looked sunken, and the skin beneath them was dark enough to resemble bruises. Maybe Morgan had bad dreams, too.
It was harder to be afraid of him when he was asleep.
Mouse, my big grey dog, rose from his usual napping post in the kitchen alcove, and shambled over to stand beside me, two hundred pounds of silent companionship. He looked soberly at Morgan and then up at me.
“Do me a favor,” I told him. “Stay with him. Make sure he doesn’t try to walk on that leg. It could kill him.”
Mouse nudged his head against my hip, made a quiet snorting sound, and padded over to the bed. He lay down on the floor, stretching out alongside it, and promptly went back to sleep.
I pulled the door most of the way shut and sank down into the easy chair by the fireplace, where I could rub my temples and try to think.
The White Council of Wizards was the governing body for the practice of magic in the world, and made up of its most powerful practitioners. Being a member of the White Council was something akin to earning your black belt in a martial art—it meant that you could handle yourself well, that you had real skill that was recognized by your fellow wizards. The Council oversaw the use of magic among its members, according to the Seven Laws of Magic.
God help the poor practitioner who broke one of the Laws. The Council would send the Wardens to administer justice, which generally took the form of ruthless pursuit, a swift trial, and a prompt execution—when the offender wasn’t killed resisting arrest.
It sounds harsh, and it is—but over time I’d been forced to admit that it might well be necessary. The use of black magic corrupts the mind and the heart and the soul of the wizard employing it. It doesn’t happen instantly, and it doesn’t happen all at once—it’s a slow, festering thing that grows like a tumor, until whatever human empathy and compassion a person might have once had is consumed in the need for power. By the time a wizard has fallen to that temptation and become a warlock, people are dead, or worse than dead. It was the duty of the Wardens to make a quick end of warlocks—by any means necessary.
There was more to being a Warden than that, though. They were also the soldiers and defenders of the White Council. In our recent war with the Vampire Courts, the lion’s share of the fighting had been carried out by the Wardens, those men and women with a gift for swift, violent magic. Hell, in most of the battles, such as they were, it had been Morgan who was in the center of the fighting.
I’d done my share during the war, but among my fellow Wardens, the only ones who were happy to work with me had been the newer recruits. The older ones had all seen too many lives shattered by the abuse of magic, and their experiences had marked them deeply. With one exception, they didn’t like me, they didn’t trust me, and they didn’t want anything to do with me.
That generally suited me just fine.
Over the past few years, the White Council had come to realize that someone on the inside was feeding information to the vampires. A lot of people died because of the traitor, but he, or she, had never been identified. Given how much the Council in general and the Wardens in particular loved me, the ensuing paranoia-fest had kept my life from getting too boring—especially after I’d been dragooned into joining the Wardens myself, as part of the war effort.
So why was Morgan here, asking for help from me?
Call me crazy, but my suspicious side immediately put forward the idea that Morgan was trying to sucker me into doing something to get me into major hot water with the Council again. Hell, he’d tried to kill me that way, once, several years ago. But logic simply didn’t support that idea. If Morgan wasn’t really in trouble with the Council, then I couldn’t get into trouble for hiding him from a pursuit that didn’t exist. Besides, his injuries said more about his sincerity than any number of words could. They had not been faked.
He was actually on the lam.
Until I found out more about what was going on, I didn’t dare go to anyone for help. I couldn’t very well ask my fellow Wardens about Morgan without it being painfully obvious that I had seen him, which would only attract their interest. And if the Council was after Morgan, then anyone who helped him would become an accomplice to the crime, and draw heat of his own. I couldn’t ask anyone to help me.
Anyone else, I corrected myself. I’d had little option but to call Butters in—and frankly, the fact that he was not at all involved in the supernatural world would afford him some insulation from any consequences that might arise from his complicity. Besides which, Butters had earned a little good credit with the White Council the night he’d helped me prevent a family-sized order of necromancers from turning one of their number into a minor god. He’d saved the life of at least one Warden—two, if you counted me—and was in far less danger than anyone attached to the community would be.
Me, for example.
Man, my head was killing me.
Until I knew more about what was going on, I really couldn’t take any intelligent action—and I didn’t dare start asking questions for fear of attracting unwanted attention. Rushing into a headlong investigation would be a mistake, which meant that I would have to wait until Morgan could start talking to me.
So I stretched out on my couch to do some thinking, and began focusing on my breathing, trying to relax the headache away and clear my thoughts. It went so well that I stayed right there doing it for about six hours, until the late dusk of a Chicago summer had settled on the city.
I didn’t fall asleep. I was meditating. You’re going to have to take my word for it.
I woke up when Mouse let out a low guttural sound that wasn’t quite a bark, but was considerably shorter and more distinct than a growl. I sat up and went to my bedroom, to find Morgan awake.
Mouse was standing next to the bed, leaning his broad, heavy head on Morgan’s chest. The wounded man was idly scratching Mouse’s ears. He glanced aside at me and started to sit up.
Mouse leaned harder, and gently flattened Morgan to the bed again.
Morgan exhaled in obvious discomfort, and said, in a croaking, dry voice, “I take it I am undergoing mandatory bed rest.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “You were banged up pretty bad. The doctor said that walking on that leg would be a bad idea.”
Morgan’s eyes sharpened. “Doctor?”
“Relax. It was off the books. I know a guy.”
Morgan grunted. Then he licked cracked lips and said, “Is there anything to drink?”
I got him some cold water in a sports bottle with a big straw. He knew better than to guzzle. He sipped at it slowly. Then he took a deep breath, grimaced like a man about to intentionally put his hand in a fire, and said, “Thank y—”
“Oh shut up,” I said, shuddering. “Neither of us wants that conversation.”
Maybe I imagined it, but it looked like he relaxed slightly. He nodded and closed his eyes again.
“Don’t go back to sleep yet,” I told him. “I still have to take your temperature. It would be awkward.”
“God’s beard, yes,” Morgan said, opening his eyes. I went and got my thermometer, one of the old-fashioned ones filled with mercury. When I came back, Morgan said, “You didn’t turn me in.”
“Not yet,” I said. “I’m willing to hear you out.”
Morgan nodded, accepted the thermometer, and said, “Aleron LaFortier is dead.”
He stuck the thermometer in his mouth, presumably to attempt to kill me with the suspense. I fought back by thinking through the implications, instead.
LaFortier was a member of the Senior Council—seven of the oldest and most capable wizards on the planet, the ones who ran the White Council and commanded the Wardens. He was—had been—skinny, bald, and a sanctimonious jerk. I’d been wearing a hood at the time, so I couldn’t be certain, but I suspected that his voice had been the first of the Senior Council to vote guilty at my trial, and had argued against clemency for my crimes. He was a hard-line supporter of the Merlin, the head of the Council, who had been dead set against me.
All in all, a swell guy.
But he’d also been one of the best-protected wizards in the world. All the members of the Senior Council were not only dangerous in their own rights, but protected by details of Wardens to boot. Attempted assassinations had been semiregular events during the war with the vampires, and the Wardens had become very, very good at keeping the Senior Council safe.
I did some math from there.
“It was an inside job,” I said quietly. “Like the one that killed Simon at Archangel.”
“And they blamed you?”
Morgan nodded and took the thermometer out of his mouth. He glanced at it, and then passed to me. I looked. Ninety-nine and change…¨
I met his eyes and said, “Did you do it?”
I grunted. I believed him.
“Why’d they finger you?”
“Because they found me standing over LaFortier’s body with the murder weapon in my hand,” he replied. “They also turned up a newly created account, in my name, with several million dollars in it, and phone records that showed I was in regular contact with a known operative of the Red Court.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Gosh. That was irrational of them, to jump to that conclusion.”
Morgan’s mouth turned up in a small sour smile.
“What’s your story?” I asked him.
“I went to bed two nights ago. I woke up in LaFortier’s private study in Edinburgh, with a lump on the back of my head and a bloody dagger in my hand. Simmons and Thorsen burst into the room maybe fifteen seconds later.”
“You were framed.”
I exhaled a slow breath. “You got any proof? An alibi? Anything?”
“If I did,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had to escape custody. Once I realized that someone had gone to a lot of effort to set me up to take the blame, I knew that my only chance—” He broke off, coughing.
“Was to find the real killer,” I finished for him. I passed him the drink again, and he choked down a few sips, slowly relaxing.
A few minutes later, he turned exhausted eyes to mine. “Are you going to turn me in?”
I looked at him for a silent minute, and then sighed. “It’d be a lot easier.”
“Yes,” Morgan said.
“You sure you were going down for it?”
Something in his expression became even more remote than usual. He nodded. “I’ve seen it often enough.”
“So I could leave you hanging out to dry.”
“But if I did that, we wouldn’t find the traitor. And since you’d died in his place, he’d be free to continue operating. More people would get killed, and the next person he framed—”
“—might be you,” Morgan finished.
“With my luck?” I said glumly. “No might about it.”
The brief sour smile appeared on his face again.
“They’re using tracking spells to follow you,” I said. “I assume you’ve taken some kind of countermeasure, or they’d already be at the door.”
“How long is it going to last?”
“Forty-eight hours. Sixty at the most.”
I nodded slowly, thinking. “You’re running a fever. I’ve got some medical supplies stashed. I’ll get them for you. Hopefully we can keep it from getting any worse.”
He nodded again, and then his sunken eyes closed. He’d run out of gas. I watched him for a minute, then turned and started gathering up my things.
“Keep an eye on him, boy,” I said to Mouse.
The big dog settled down on the floor beside the bed.
Forty-eight hours. I had about two days to find the traitor within the White Council—something no one had been able to do during the past several years. After that, Morgan would be found, tried, and killed—and his accomplice, your friendly neighborhood Harry Dresden, would be next.
Nothing motivates like a deadline.
Especially the literal kind.