Magician by TheWiseTomato
Magician by TheWiseTomato
http://www.patronuscharm.net/s/592/1/

A mature Harry Potter finds himself in Dresden's world through unknown means with no way back. Not having any lingering connections to his old world, he decides to make the best of things and do what he does best-survive, with style.

Published on February 16, 2014
Updated on February 16, 2014
Action/Adventure / Crossover
Rated R
Work in Progress
87,861 words
7 chapters
Post-DH

Generated: November 21, 2017 at 7:47 PM Magician at PatronusCharm.Net
Chapter 1: Fool's Luck

“If we were in public, Mr Dresden, I'd have you killed for speaking that way to me.”

“If we were in public,” I told him, “you'd try.”  I drew myself up and glared down my nose at him, ignoring Hendricks's looming presence.  “Now.  Get the hell out of my office.”

Marcone straightened his jacket and hi tie.  “I presume, Mr Dresden, that you are going to continue your investigation with the police department.”

“Of course.”

Marcone walked around my desk, past me, and toward my door.  Hendricks followed in his wake, huge and quiet.  “Then in my own interests, I must accept your offer and aid the investigation however I might.  Look up the name Harley MacFinn.  Ask about the Northwest Passage Project.  See where they lead you.”  He opened the door.

“Why should I believe you?” I asked him.

He looked back at me.  “You have seen the deepest reaches of my soul, Mr Dresden.  You know me in a way so profound and intimate that I cannot yet fathom its significance.  Just as I know you.  You should know that I have every reason to help you, and that the information is good.”  He smiled again, wintry.  “Just as you should know that it was unwise to make an enemy of me.  It need not have been this way.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “If you know me so well, you should know that there's no other way it could be.”

He pursed his lips for a moment, and did not try to refute me.  “Pity,” he said.  “A true pity.”  And then he left.  Hendricks gave me a pig-eyed little glare, and then he was gone too.  The door shut behind him.

As Marcone left the irritatingly useful wizard's office, Hendricks rumbled behind him, “should I be sending a guy here to check up on Mr Dresden later?”

“No,” Marcone replied, preparing to expand as they trooped down the stairs of the building, only to hold the words back as he saw another man ascending the stairs below them.

“Oh, hello,” the dark haired man stated cheerfully, “you wouldn't happen to know if the office of the wizard Harry Dresden is up there, would you?”

Marcone stared into the man's over-bright green eyes for a moment before responding as Hendricks shifted behind him, feeling a strange sensation that the crime boss associated with the beginnings of the soulgaze he had shared with Dresden.  Waiting several moments for a gaze that didn't come despite the signs, he eventually responded with a simple, 'Yes'.  

The unidentified man gave them a quick grin in response before bounding up the stairs two at a time, giving Marcone time to analyse his ratty and somewhat unclean appearance.

“Wait,” Marcone called, causing the man to pause, “are you a wizard?”

The man turned and raised a surprised eyebrow.  “Yes,” he stated.  “How did you know?”

“Intuition,” Marcone replied shortly, before reaching into his coat pocket.  “Take this, and after your business with Dresden, come see me at my club.  I have an offer you may find yourself interested in,” Marcone instructed, not wasting time on pleasantries.

The man quirked an eyebrow.  “Sounds like fun,” he stated, glancing at the details on the card before continuing, “depending on what I find out within the next few minutes, I might just swing by.”

Marcone took note of the fact that the man cavalierly treated the offer that was anything but as an optional invitation.  The man either didn't know who he was, in which case he was rather uninformed about the city, did know who he was and was being a fool, or did know who he was and was confident enough in his own power that he could act the fool.  Marcone would withhold judgment for now.

The man tucked the card into a frayed pocket and began ascending the stairs backwards, “thanks for the info and the card.  I'm Harry by the way.”  Without another word he disappeared around the corner, still walking backwards.

Marcone couldn't help but feel a small twinge of amusement when he overheard Hendricks's muttered comment.

“Joy.  Because one wizard named Harry wasn't enough.”

X x X

Harry Dresden sighed as he massaged his temples.  Dealing with Marcone always left him with a headache.  He was startled out of his musings by a knock at the door.  “Come in,” he called, somewhat grouchily.

A dark haired, green eyed man stepped through the portal to his office. A dull buzz on his magical senses told Harry that his visitor was a practitioner.  He straightened and fixed his eyes on the man, noting that despite his initial assumption, he couldn't yet be out of his teens.  His hand drifted to his blasting rod unobtrusively.  

“Can I help you?” Dresden asked shortly, his patience for the day already dangerously low.  

“I certainly hope so,” the man replied with more cheer than should be legal, clearly finding something greatly amusing.  “But first, I must ask if you really are a wizard.”  

Something about his tone made Dresden scowl.  He gestured sharply, and the door that the stranger had just stepped through gusted close with a bang.  “Happy?” he inquired, feeling inordinately pleased by the surprised expression on his visitor's face.  

“Very much so,” the teen replied, before reaching into a pocket on his long baggy pants and pulling out what looked to be a rather fragile blasting rod.  Before Dresden had his own rod aimed at the now possible foe, he pointed his own rod at the ragged chair that was provided for clients and gave it a sharp flick.  

Dresden blinked, lowering his focus in surprise.  In the place of his old ragged chair now sat a rather comfortable looking padded armchair.  He made a note to swap the chair around with his own before looking back to see that the annoying grin had now become a pleased smirk.  Dresden scowled and tried to look like he hadn't just been about to attack his visitor.  “Well then,” he stated, leaning back into his own inadequate chair.  “What can I do for you, Mr...?”

“Harry,” the man replied confusing Dresden slightly before continuing, “Harry Potter.  And I was hoping you'd be able to answer a few questions I have.”

“Fire away,” Dresden told Potter, “and depending on the questions, we can discuss payment afterwards.”

Potter nodded before leaning forward.  “Ok, first question:  what part of the States am I in?”

Noticing Potter's British accent for the first time, Dresden replied, “Chicago.”

Potter nodded.  “What year is it?”

A pause. “2001.  It's January.”

“If I said the words Hogwarts, Voldemort or Crumple Horned Snorkack to you, what would you think?”

“That you've been playing around with anagrams and that you're no good at it,” Dresden promptly replied.

Potter frowned as he pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Well, that's just grand.”

“Am I gonna get an explanation for all these questions?” Dresden asked pointedly.

“Oh, it's nothing much,” Potter waved away.  “Just, you know, discovered that I'm pretty sure I've somehow crossed the boundary between dimensions to a realm where wizards advertise in phone books and get job offers from random men with bodyguards who can apparently tell a wizard by sight.”

Dresden held back a 'bullshit' at the incredulous claim at being an Outsider.  He'd had a few crazies wander into his office in his time (although they were usually non-practitioners), and he usually had enough patience to put up with them for a short while.  This time, however, he was irritated, had work to do and people to protect.  Preparing himself, Dresden looked the self proclaimed ancient malevolent being in the eye.

It was like staring into a broken mirror.  He was fractured, warped, yet still whole.  'He' was a grown man, past his prime but not yet old, patches of gray marring his dark hair, a worn, weathered face and tired, distant green eyes.  All around him was an infinite greyness, and he was drifting in the centre of it.  Sickly green light waxed and waned just out of sight as he drifted aimlessly.

The man's distant eyes focused suddenly on a far away point.  A dark wraith approached, two red slitted eyes watching from within.  In an instant it was before the man, and then it struck.  

A great and terrible battle occurred in the blink of an eye, and the grey landscape slowly began to turn dark.  The man assaulted the shadow with unparalleled ferocity, ripping and tearing without mercy.  A transparent hulking white form loomed around the man, lashing at his foe with him.  The wraith began to howl as black liquid boiled from its wounds, before attempting to flee—only for the man to draw it into himself and consume it.  

The once grey landscape had now descended completely into darkness, pressing in around the man.  He hunched over, as if in pain, before beginning to tear at his face as thousands of tiny ripples moved beneath his skin.  Sharp nails tore at skin, strips of flesh coming off in swathes.  A horrible scream rent the darkness that pressed in against him, before it was cut off abruptly.  

When he rose again, there was no evidence that he had been in any sort of struggle at all—save for a split second of distortion, his face replaced by a grinning skull with green eldritch flame burning in his eye sockets, a glittering cloak over one shoulder and a dark slender wand in his hand—before he raised his head to gaze at the empty darkness above him, focusing on the single speck of white to be seen.

The darkness weighing down upon him, the man began a journey towards the light that he knew instinctively would never end.

The two Harry's paused, still breathing heavily as they processed the contents of the soulgaze.  Dresden had never had one quite that intense and it looked like it was Potter's first time.  Dresden quickly shut off all lines of thought continuing in that direction.  

“Outsiders don't have souls,” Dresden blurted suddenly.  

“What?” Potter asked blankly.  “Outsiders?  What are they?”

“Powerful beings that are locked beyond the boundaries of our dimension, the Outer Gates.  They don't have souls and need to be summoned to enter our world.  Pardon me,” Dresden explained sarcastically, “but you don't exactly seem like a malevolent being with more firepower than half the starfleet.  Even if that isn't normal magic,” Dresden accused, pointing at the chair Potter sat on, now recognising it as an actual transformation rather than an illusion.  

“Outer Gates?  What are you talking about?  I didn't come through any gates!”  Potter responded, his annoying grin and cheerful demeanor gone.  “Last thing I remember before I got to wherever here is, is going back to a girl's place, and then waking up in a gutter two days ago!”

“Let's just...calm down,” Dresden suggested, his eyes on the blasting rod that Potter was holding as he waved his hands around wildly.  Potter gave a begrudging grunt as he sank back into his transformed armchair that Dresden was now definitely stealing for his own once Potter left.  

“You have a soul.  That's how we were able to have a soulgaze,” Dresden stated, getting his thoughts in order and ignoring Potter's mutter about how he damn well better have a soul after all the troubles he went though with it.  “I don't know where you come from, but having a soul is a plus in my book.”

“So good to know,” Potter shot back sarcastically.

“Oh, I couldn't agree more,” Dresden replied blithely, before shooting him an equally sarcastic glare.

“You gonna keep cracking jokes at the poor dimension traveler's expense or are you going to help me out here?”

Dresden frowned, not quite ready to accept the newcomers word at face value, no matter what his soul gaze had shown him.  “You really think you've come from another dimension?”

“Yeah, pretty sure,” Potter replied with a roll of his eyes.  “I popped over to Scotland and found a few noteworthy locations missing.  Seeing as this was the place I came to in, I came back here and had a bit of a look around.  I used a few spells in that time and my magic feels different.  On top of that, that soulgaze thing of yours passed right through my mental shields.  It just ignored them.  There isn't a single field of magic that works like that where I come from.”

“Ok,” Dresden nodded decisively as he decided to help the apparently magical, if deluded, man.   “Here,” he reached over to a showing of pamphlets on his desk before shuffling them around for several in particular, before handing two over to Potter.  

Potter gave the pamphlets a glance.  Their titles, So You've Been Living In A Cave, and The Laws of Magic jumped out at him.  The first was considerably thicker than the second, which was only a single piece of paper folded in two.  

“I wrote the cave one for new apprentices or practitioners who had stumbled into the craft on their own.  The Laws of Magic one is something you need to know,” Dresden stated seriously.  “I don't know what sort of magic you're used to throwing around, but if you'd used that little transfiguring trick,” here he nodded at Potter's chair, “on a person, you'd have just broken one of the Laws.”  His voice became deadly serious.  “The punishment for which is death--and I don't think you'd get a pass just because you're apparently not from around here,” he finished sarcastically, his tone disbelieving.  

Potter's eyes narrowed at the thought of someone telling him what he could and couldn't do with his magic; he'd had quite enough of that in his old world.  

Catching his expression, Dresden expanded on his explanation.  “There are only seven Laws, and unless you've gone over to the Dark Side and only transform objects, not people, I'm fairly sure you'll be able to avoid breaking any Laws.”

Potter nodded his understanding once.  “I'll make sure I'm never accused of breaking these Laws.  Just out of curiosity, who would be enforcing the penalty for breaking a Law?”

Dresden took note of Potter's distinction in his answer but replied anyway.  “The White Council,” he replied with slight distaste.  “But that's explained in So You've Been Living In A Cave.”

“Pretentious,” Potter muttered.  “Five galleons says they've all got a rusty dildo up their arses.”

Despite not knowing what exactly a galleon was, Dresden nodded with distaste.  “A spiked one,” he added, remembering his own experiences with them.  “Mostly, anyway,” he amended.

Potter rose to his feet, his mind elsewhere.  “If I there is anything else I need to know, will you be able to help?”

“Maybe,” Dresden shrugged.  “I have problems of my own that need dealing with.”

Potter turned and walked to the door, before turning partially to look back at Dresden.  “For your help...thank you,” he admitted quickly, as if it had been irritating to do so.  

“Anytime,” Dresden mocked with a gracious nod of his head.  He watched as the apparent dimension traveling wizarding Outsider left his office and decided that with his current wolf problem, he really couldn't be buggered to look into problems that were so clearly above his his pay grade.

Then he stole his chair.

X x X

Harry walked down the sidewalk feeling rather strange.  Here he was, supposedly in another dimension against his choice with no apparent way to get back, and he really couldn't bring himself to care.

His friends were all long dead, so there was no pressing issues there.  Also, Harry highly doubted the Aurors, Hitwizards or even the Unspeakables would be able to pursue him here, so that was a rather nice headache to be absolved of.  

Sure, he had lost his home, possessions, and all of his money, but those could be gained anew.  He still had his wand—both of them, more importantly, as well as his family cloak, so no truly irreplaceable items had been lost, even if he had never been able to track down the stone.

Pondering his lack of accommodation and money with which to acquire it, Harry had begun to consider which banks he could rob when he recalled the strange meeting with the businessman on the stairs to Dresden's office who had handed him his card.  Figuring it was worth a shot, he checked the address on the card and hailed a nearby cab.  

Forty minutes later, Harry was dropped off at a club by a cab driver who was sent on his way with a quick compulsion not to ask for the fare.  The club was open, despite it being one in the afternoon.  Upon entering, Harry blinked rapidly to adjust his eyes to the lack of sunlight as a tall figure approached him.  It was the bodyguard type fellow who had been with this 'Marcone'.

“Mr. Marcone has been waiting,” he told him shortly.  

Harry hmm'd a response as he was led to an unremarkable door at the back of the club, that opened up to a neat office, brightly lit unlike the club.  Marcone sat at his desk examining several files as he absently ate a sandwich.  Harry took a seat in front of the desk as his escort took up a position beside the door, giving him an uncomfortable itching sensation between his shoulders.  After several long moments, Marcone looked up.

“I am glad to see you took me up on my invitation,” Marcone greeted evenly.  “Mr...?”

“Potter,” Harry replied openly, despite being on guard.  “Although I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing here.  Can't say I've ever put much thought into the entertaining business,” he added with a nod in the direction of the club area.  

“Entertainment is hardly my primary industry, although I do make a certain profit from it,” Marcone stated after a short pause, wiping his hands on a napkin.  “I run a business that deals in slightly less than reputable trades and sometimes less than legal items.”

Harry looked Marcone in the eyes for several long seconds, before glancing over his shoulder at the guard and noting the slight bulge in his coat.  “Maybe a proper introduction would help,” Harry asked, keeping both men in sight.  

Marcone appeared amused, steepling his fingers on his desk.  “Very well.  I am known as 'Gentleman' Johnny Marcone, and I run a certain side of Chicago.”

“The north side?” Harry asked in apparent confusion.

Marcone frowned, “no, not qui--” he broke off, staring at Harry.  “Of course you would have a sense of humour.”

Harry shrugged, slightly disappointed that his ruse of cluelessness had been seen through so easily.  “You're a mobster, apparently looking to hire a wizard.  That's why you were at Dresden's office, right?”

“Correct.”

“You hire him too?”

“Mr Dresden and I...have a certain conflict of opinion on certain issues that would make a working relationship difficult,” Marcone answered after a moment of thought.  “And as I currently find myself in need of a wizard in my employ, I am willing to offer you a slightly lucrative job if you would consent to a few few questions that I might have a better idea of your motivations and general trustworthiness.”

“Lucrative, you said?  Sounds appealing,” Harry answered.  “You don't want me to turn someone into a toad first to prove anything?”

Marcone gave him a hard look.  “Mr Potter, if I hired you under the assumption that you could deliver magical services and you were found lacking, you would find yourself in a rather perilous position.  I had assumed that you have ample common sense.”

“Understandable,” Harry shrugged, seemingly undeterred by the implied threat.  “Sure you don't want me to turn someone into a toad for you?”

Marcone's lips twitched, just barely.  “Perhaps later,” he offered humourlessly, before surveying Harry for a long moment.  “You have no compunctions about working in organised crime?”

Harry snorted.  “People are sheep, and at least people like you are honest about what they do.  Besides,” Harry smirked, “I somehow get the feeling that you run a fairly clean business.”

“Indeed,” Marcone agreed, leaning back in his chair and reaching down to retrieve a single piece of paper from a draw.  “If you will look over this contract and sign, you may begin your employment immediately.”

Harry reached out to take the contract, skimming through it quickly.  He smiled when he reached the part concerning his wages and bonuses, but frowned in puzzlement when he saw that the only requirement of him was to keep Marcone safe from supernatural threats.  Perhaps he had angered a wizard?

“This looks pretty good,” Harry agreed after a short while.  “But there's one more thing I'd like.”

“And what might this be?” Marcone queried.

“A new identity.  Drivers license, bank card, passport, job history, the whole shebang.  I'm kinda new in town.”

Marcone tilted his head slightly as he examined Harry.  “Will your need for a new identity possibly interfere with my business?”

“No.”

Marcone stared at the short answer, expecting a more thorough explanation.  When none was forthcoming, he nodded slowly.  “Very well.  I'll see that arrangements are made.”

Harry beamed broadly at Marcone, causing the mob boss to frown internally.  Swift mood changes were often a sign of instability.  As he watched the wizard sign the contract provided with a flourish, he concluded that as long as the young man could help with his wolf problem, he could deal with any other issues as they came.  

“Hendricks, have a driver take Mr. Potter to the downtown offices and introduce him to Miss Blue,” Marcone instructed, before the barest beginnings of a wry grin tugged at his mouth.  “I'm sure she's getting bored.”

Hendricks gave a nod in reply before opening the door for Harry as the wizard rose from his seat.  With a nod to his new boss who was already absorbed in his work once more, Harry left the room with the odd thought that maybe he should get himself some robes so he could have them billow dramatically whenever he left a room.

X x X

Harry spent the car drive looking over the brochures that Dresden had given him back in his office; So You've Been Living In A Cave and The Laws of Magic.  Examining the Laws first, he found them fairly simple—and obstructive.

Thou shalt not kill by use of magic.  So killing without magic was ok?  And what was he supposed to do if another wizard came at him?  Hack at them with a sword?

Thou shalt not transform others.   So no repeats of Malfoy the Amazing Bouncing Ferret.  He could live with that.  There were other ways to humiliate a foe.

Thou shalt not invade the mind of another.   Keep the Legilimency to the muggles.

Thou shalt not enthrall another.   Hmmm...that could be a problem.  Imperio was such a useful spell at times.

Thou shalt not reach beyond the Borders of Life.   He had never really been one for Inferi anyway.

Thou shalt not swim against the Currents of Time.   Whoops...death penalty in the third year of school.  

Thou shalt not seek beyond the Outer Gates.   Outer Gates?  Outsiders?  Maybe this was what Dresden was accusing him of being earlier...they couldn't be too bad if he mistook him for one.

Harry threw the pamphlet out the window as they arrived at their destination, breaking him from his musings.  Looking out the window, Harry took in the view of a rising skyscraper lacking any particular identifying feature.  

Stepping out of the car and ignoring it as it pulled away behind him, Harry entered the lobby of the building, idly wondering what he was expected to do now.  His musings were interrupted by a sharp English accent.

“Hey!  You the wizard?”

Turning to the new voice, Harry was confronted by a woman who would be lucky to be out of her teens, sitting on the counter of the reception desk.  She wore a grey woman's business suit with the shirt unbuttoned, revealing a tight white blouse and a very obvious hand cannon hanging off the hip of her business pants.  Her face seemed naturally cheeky, an expression accented by the pointed studs in both her eyebrows, as well as her vibrant blue hair.  

“Miss Blue?” Harry answered wryly.  At her nod he continued, “good to meet someone else who speaks proper English.”

“I'm so glad I meet your approval,” she shot back with a South African accent as she hopped down off the counter and approached him.  “I'm called Suzie to everyone besides the Boss though.”

“Suzie Blue,” Harry tried it out.  “What can I do for you?” He grinned at the silly little rhyme.  

“Give me enough personal details to steal your face and take over your life,” Suzie replied brightly.  

Harry blinked.

“Or enough personal details to create a history for you.  Jeez wizard, thought you'd have a sense of humour,” Suzie muttered as she gestured for Harry to follow her to the elevator.  

“Why's that?” Harry asked nonchalantly as the elevator doors closed and they began to ascend.  Nauseating elevator music began to permeate the small metal box.  

Suzie rolled her eyes as she watched the floor number count rising.  “Hello, wizard?  I've got no idea what the Boss could want with you.  I figure he hired you for laughs, cause there's no way he actually believes you.”  When there was no reply forthcoming, the young woman turned to face Harry.  “Don't tell me that off—where the fuck did you go?!?”

In a single smooth action, the revolver at her waist was drawn and aimed loosely at the floor.  She jumped when a chuckle seemed to come from the air in front of her.  Upon closer inspection, Suzie realised she could make out a blurred outline of the supposed wizard.  “What the fuck?” she breathed as Harry seemed to fade into view.  

“Chameleon spell,” the green eyed wizard told her smugly as he buffed his nails.  “Works best in enclosed spaces so no one can get around you to see the sides of it.”

“Bloody fucking hell,” Suzie swore again in shock, Harry noting that she slipped  subconsciously into an Australian accent.  

“Still think I was hired for laughs?” Harry inquired mildly as his spell faded completely.

“Maybe the Boss does know what he's on about,” Suzie allowed as she holstered her hand cannon.  A soft 'ding' signalled that they had arrived at their destination.  

“So glad I meet your approval,” Harry teased as he followed her through a maze of occupied office cubicles to an office on the far side of the floor.  

“Don't push it, wizard,” Suzie warned as she produced a key and unlocked the office door, before closing it behind Harry as they walked inside.  The office was sparse, with a wooden desk and computer occupying most of the space and no ornaments on the wall.

“I have a name, you know,” Harry told her conversationally as he sank into a comfortable chair in front of her desk as Suzie sat down on the other side.  

“I'm sure you do.  But I don't want to know it,” Suzie informed him tartly as she began to type rapidly at the computer.  “What I do want to know are the salient points of your new life,”  she added before pausing in her typing and looked at him expectantly.  “Name, gender and place of residence please.”

Harry quickly marshaled his thoughts.  The best cover stories always contained twisted but unrecognizable versions of the truth, making them easier to remember then completely new identities, but still pass inspection from those who used to know the user.  However, Harry wasn't expecting to be hiding from any of his old acquaintances here.  “Harry Potter,” he answered easily.  “In case you couldn't tell by my generously proportioned breasts, I'm a male.  I don't have a place of residence at this point in time.”

Suzie made a few more rapid keystrokes.  “I'll build your identity up around this basic information, so you'll have to make sure to glance over your ID once it's finished, which should be in a few days,” she explained.  “Just make sure not to memorise too much of it.  Officials like to make a note of anyone with perfect recall of their drivers license number without checking it.”

Several minutes later, Suzie had finished compiling Harry's new life.  She handed him a number of printouts as they issued from a nearby printer, before leaning over to a chunky machine that had just finished spitting out a number of plastic cards.  Upon closer examination, they turned out to be honest to god health care, drivers license and public library cards.  “Happy birthday,” Suzie told him as she handed him the cards.  “You just turned 21.”

“You can just print these things out like that?” Harry asked with slight disbelief.

“Government's gotta buy their machines from somewhere,” Suzie smirked.  “The Boss told me to get your ID set up pronto, so they should be in the system and official by tomorrow morning.  Also, you get your signing bonus and first fortnight's pay in advance,” she told him cheerfully, laying a suitcase that had been apparently been waiting under her desk before they came in, before clicking it open.

Harry grinned brightly at the sight of the rows of bundled cash.  Suzie rolled her eyes at him.

“Don't go blowing it all at once,” she cautioned.  “It's gotta last you another month.”

“I think I can make it stretch,” Harry told her seriously.  Lucrative pay indeed, Harry thought to himself.

“Good to hear,” Suzie replied, before checking her phone as it buzzed.  “The Boss would like to see you tomorrow at nine, at the same club you met at earlier,” she informed him.  “Until then, you've got some free time.”

Harry nodded, taking it in.  He really did love earning money for himself.  It was so much more fun than inheriting it—better way of keeping score too.  Then he glanced from the now closed suitcase full of money to Suzie.  “Suzie my dear, I can't help but notice I've recently come into a nice amount of money.  Would you perhaps like to spend a night on the town with--”

“Call me 'my dear' and we're going to have problems,” Suzie told him sweetly, resting her chin between her palms as she placed her elbows on the desk.  “And I'm afraid my family would never forgive me if I went out with an Englishman.”

Harry sighed mournfully.  “Whatever shall I do with all this cash then?”

“Buy a hooker.  Find someplace to stay.  Whatever you're going to do, do it somewhere that isn't here,” Suzie told him unsympathetically.  “Some of us are still on the clock for another two hours.”

“A hooker?  Well, if you insist...” Harry replied doubtfully, rising from his chair.  “Maybe I could go have a beer or two before that though.”

“Potter,” Suzie snapped.  “If you don't stop flaunting the fact that you have time and money to burn in front of those who do not, I am going to throw this stapler at you.”

“What, you mean my full free night ahead of me and the thousands of--”

Suzie threw a stapler at him.  

X x X

Two hours later, Harry found himself sitting atop his shiny new motorbike outside an impressive looking hotel.  The bike was clearly built for speed, and was garnering a few appreciative looks from passers-by.  A bit of subtle wand work, and Harry had purchased it for so little of the original price he might as well have just stolen it.    As it was, it had still cost a nice chunk of his suitcase of money.  Still, the free leather riding gear was a nice addition.

Kicking the bike stand out and removing the key from the ignition, Harry made his way through the hotel doors and towards the reception.  The lobby floor was decked out in white marble, while a number of columns dotted around the ground floor were covered in black.  Approaching the attractive young receptionist who was watching him expectantly, he pulled out his best 'I'm a good guy' smile.  

“Good evening and welcome to the Aestiva Hotel.  Is there anything I can do for you?” the blonde woman greeted professionally.  

“I'll have your best room, thanks,” Harry returned with an expansive gesture, wand hidden within the long sleeve of his new leather jacket.  

The woman blinked blankly for several moments, before turning her gaze to her computer.  Several minutes later, and a confused declaration that he was sure he'd arranged with the management to pay upon leaving, Harry was riding the elevator to the third from the top floor.  Another few minutes after that, and he was walking through the door to his room, a veritable apartment, and the first real bed he'd slept on in days.  Kicking off his new riding boots, jacket and shirt, Harry collapsed onto the bed and was asleep in moments.  

X x X

Harry woke abruptly at eight thirty the next morning, experiencing a moment of disorientation before the previous day's happenings came back to him.  Rolling off the bed, he stumbled into the shower that he had inspected briefly the evening before, shedding his clothes before stepping under the near scalding water for a proper wake up call.

Ten minutes later Harry stepped out of the bathroom in a pair of thoroughly Scourgified jeans that he'd been wearing for several days straight now, a grey shirt and his new favourite leather jacket, pausing only to retrieve his riding boots from where he'd kicked them the night before before heading out the door.  He paid absolutely no mind to the small child with vibrant red—almost orange—hair who was loitering next to the elevators as he entered them, putting the way her unusually serious gaze followed him down to his less than stellar appearance.  

Stepping out of the hotel doors, it was a simple matter to remove the avoidance and notice-me-not charms that had allowed his bike to remain on the footpath of the busy hotel unmolested (as it wouldn't do to be weaving in and out of traffic whilst wearing charms that made drivers of larger, meaner cars ignore him).  Checking his old, battered watch, Harry saw he had fifteen minutes during rush hour to make a trip that would probably take twenty five during off-peak.  He grinned, slipped on his helmet and let his engine roar.

X

Seventeen minutes later saw Harry pulling into the club parking lot with a scowl on his face.  It appeared that his new bike would be subject to some tinkering in the near future.  Breezing into the club through a side door next to the main entrance, Harry gave a cheerful wave to Hendricks who glowered at him in reply, before moving on to the office he had visited the previous day.  Once again, he found Marcone sitting at his desk doing paperwork involving god knows what.  

“Heeeeeere's Johnny!” Harry parodied in greeting, seating himself in front of his new boss.  

Marcone paused in his paperwork, before slowly raising his head to pin Harry with what, on a lesser man, might have been called a scowl.  “If I ordered you not to call me that,” he began slowly, “would you listen to me?”

“Probably not,” Harry admitted.  “Suzie said you wanted me here at nine though?”

“Yes,” Marcone replied, after taking a moment to pinch the bridge of his nose.  “I would like you to elaborate on your capabilities as a wizard.”

“Sure,” Harry shrugged easily.  “I'm powerful, and if the wizard or whatever you've managed to aggravate comes after you, I'll squash them.  Questions?”

“Specifics, please.  I've known a great many young men supremely confident in their abilities only to see them falter at the first sign of trouble.”

Harry frowned at the doubt to his abilities, not having had to deal with that for several years now, before acquiescing.  New town, new players, after all.  “How about you tell me what you need a wizard protecting you from, and I'll tell you how I'd shut it down.”  

Marcone examined the young man across from him for several moments before replying.  “Werewolves,” he stated, as if it should reveal all.  When Harry continued to stare at him like an eager student, he frowned in annoyance and expanded.  “I believe it is a pack of werewolves attempting to kill me, in some sort of attempt to bring me to justice.  They have already killed a number of others in their attempts to do so.”

“Wizards or normals?  The werewolves, I mean.”

“Normals, I believe.  At least, from what I have seen of a wizard's power, they would have no need to resort to a wolf form in order to kill a man, even one so highly placed as myself.”

“How are their attempts made?” Harry quizzed his boss.

“Come the full moon, they place themselves as close to myself as they can before transforming,” Marcone answered, a slight feeling of satisfaction at the competent behaviour of his most recent hire rising within him.  It was good to see the green eyed wizard could act maturely when the situation called for it.  “However, their indiscriminate choice of prey once transformed has led to a number of innocent victims in their efforts to kill me,” Marcone continued.  “Only one of their attempts has come close to succeeding.”

Subconsciously, Harry growled lowly within his throat, coming close to startling Marcone with how animalistic it sounded.  “I'd set about tracking them down then.  Either through fur or blood they've left behind, or through scrying, although that's not so reliable.  Once I'd found them, I'd introduce silver nitrate to their bloodstream and watch as their immune system attacked their organs trying to purge it.”

Marcone sat back in his chair, raising an eyebrow.  “Ruthless,” he observed.

“They attacked and killed non-combatants in their little crusade, and if any of their victims survived, then we're looking at another werewolf who has no idea what they are, going around and killing every full moon.  The fact that they've done all this on a crusade against their own personal opinion of evil just makes it worse.”

“You speak like you have past experiences in a situation like this,” Marcone observed.

“Something like that,” Harry replied shortly.  “Besides that silver nitrate thing, I can also conjure flowers and make a hat out of a rabbit,” he added enthusiastically, closing the topic.  

“If I ever find myself in need of a hat, you'll be the first person I call,” Marcone told him with a straight face.

Harry gaped openly for the barest of seconds before regaining control of himself.  “So, you want me to shadow you for the next few days?  Be your magical bodyguard for hire?”

“No.  At least, not immediately.”

Harry raised an eyebrow in question, prompting Marcone to continue.

“I would like you to pursue the options you mentioned, at least for today,” Marcone told him.  “I do not plan on leaving the club today, but as for tomorrow...” he trailed off.

“Tomorrow?” Harry prompted.

“Tomorrow, I believe my assailants, having been faced with failure after failure, may attempt something...rash.  I would like you to be on hand to 'squash them',” Marcone informed him evenly.  “That is, if you haven't managed to track them down before that.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Harry agreed, rolling his shoulder around.  “Do you know if any of the werewolves left anything behind?  Fur is the most likely, unless you wounded some of them.”

“I am not aware of any such leavings.”

“Damn,” Harry sighed, rubbing at his cheek.  “I hate scrying.”

Marcone surveyed him for several moments.  “If you find yourself at a loss, I would suggest inquiring at the Special Investigations Unit.  While they were the unit tasked with responding to my report of the attack, I am unaware of what evidence they took.”

“And they'll just hand this evidence over to me?”

“Hardly.  But do you have no subtle methods of persuading them?”

Harry frowned slightly at the suggestion.  “Are they good cops?”

“Their Lieutenant, Karin Murphy, is, as are the majority of her men, sans the usual bad eggs.  Why do you ask?”

“I have a thing about doing that sort of thing to good cops.  Bad cops, politicians and people trying to get money out of me are fair game, but good cops...” Harry trailed off.  

“Understandable,” Marcone nodded, before glancing around almost furtively.  “While I don't make a habit of admitting it, I do hold a certain respect for good officers, of which Lieutenant Murphy is an example.  Additionally, Lieutenant Murphy is a friend of Harry Dresden.  If he were to catch wind of any magical coercion, I'm sure any number of werewolves would be the least of our worries.”

“Hmmmmmm,” Harry acknowledged, before shrugging.  “Ah well.  I'm sure I can always rely on my roguish charm and handsome looks to see me through.”

“Indeed,” Marcone looked back down at the small pile of paperwork on his desk.  “If that is all, I will see you here again at nine am tomorrow, hopefully with news of your success.”

Harry leapt to his feat and snapped off a mock salute at the clear dismissal, before marching out the door and leaving Marcone to fight the urge to massage his temples.  Were all wizards so aggravating?

X x X

Harry gnashed his teeth in frustration as his latest scrying attempt was met with failure.  He was reaching the end of his patience, and had spent hours trying every combination of materials he could think of.  Shattered clay cups, cracked tin dishes and even a twisted titanium bowl lay strewn about his hotel room.  He'd tried every liquid medium he could get his hands on, from tap water to champagne, to no result.

“I hate scrying,” Harry muttered to himself.  Even at the best of times, his attempts at scrying had been rather iffy.  Now, in an entirely new world where his magic didn't behave as he was used to, it was even worse.  He would give it one last try, before throwing in the towel and trying his luck with the police.  He'd always had a decent amount of luck using glass bowls and vinegar when all else failed.  

Several moments later, curses that would make a sailor blush echoed out into the hall, and an angry wizard was stumbling around his penthouse room pulling small shards of glass from his hands.  

X

Harry killed the power to his bike as he glided into an alley across the road from the precinct of the Special Investigations Unit.  Fumbling at the kickstand for several moments, he managed to nudge it into place before removing his helmet and setting it on the handlebars.  

The day so far had been a failure.  After wasting most of his time on scrying, Harry had used his room phone to call the number on the card that Marcone had given him, only to have the bodyguard Hendricks answer.  After a number of monosyllabic responses, he had been given the address of the attack on his new boss that had come closest to succeeding.  A trip across town later, and he had managed to waste even more of his day, the scene having been picked clean of anything that could possibly be used to track the were responsible.  

Harry now found himself watching the quiet entrance to the brickwork police building, trying to plan out how he would get what he needed without resorting to wand work.  He absently applied a warming charm to his jacket.  There was a heavy cloud cover above, masking the moon he would guess was just rising.  Throwing his leg off the bike, the wizard crossed the empty road to the precinct entrance, shouldering open the swinging double doors and entering the bland reception.  

Whistling irreverently, Harry approached the empty receptionist's desk, glancing around in hopes of sighting someone he could talk to.  Coming up empty, he shrugged, before ringing the small metal bell sitting on the counter and stealing one of the boiled candies sitting in a bowl next to some hideous plastic plant.

Several minutes passed with Harry slowly growing more and more irritated.  He rang the bell again, waited another minute, then rang it again.  He was about to ring it for a fourth time when the rows of fluorescent lights above him began to flicker and die, before one in two lit up again.  Slightly on edge, the wizard cast his gaze around the reception as he balanced on the balls of his feet—before freezing as a number of rapid shots of gunfire rang out, followed by a blood curdling roar echoed through the station.  Muffled shouting and rapid footsteps issued from further within the building, and Harry could just make out the tap tap tap of a small caliber weapon firing.  

Harry vaulted the desk, his wand flying into his hand.  A door marked 'Staff Only' was pushed aside to reveal an empty bullpen, various objects laying about as if they had been dropped without thought.  A shattered mug of coffee lay on the floor, a stain forming in the carpet around it.  

There was screaming now, human screaming, some of which was cut off midway through and some that morphed from terror to pain.  Advancing towards the manic sounds of the disturbance, Harry spotted a door with an opaque window set in it, through which he could make out shadows dancing across it, all of them moving away from the sounds of screaming, gunfire and low, guttural snarls.  

There was a lull in movement, and Harry steeled himself.  Holly wood pulsed warmly in his hand for a brief moment as he stepped through the door, facing the direction the shadows had fled from.  In the seconds immediately after, he was confronted by good news, bad news, and a clinical observation.  

Good news:  there would be no need to wheel and deal with SI in order to get access to whatever he would need to find the werewolf his new boss was worried about.

Bad news:  he had just found the werewolf his new boss was worried about.

Clinical observation:  there was no way in fuck that was a werewolf.  

Harry's shock at the sight of the demonic wolf like creature only lasted for a second, before his attention was drawn to more pressing matters.  The temperature of the hallway dropped dramatically, sending goosebumps crawling over his skin.  A cry of “Fuego!” followed by a rush of magic caused him to glance over his shoulder in time to see a torrent of boiling flame sweeping towards him, scalding heat flying before it.  

Rather than risk a shield in the narrow hallway with no room to dodge, Harry made to negate the oncoming fire with a flame of his own.  Muscle memory and a skill for non-verbal spells sent a column of fire racing down the long hall without real thought—where it was promptly swallowed and overwhelmed by the other gout of flame.  

Harry was given a split second to process his shock comprehend the way his spell had been steamrolled before the inferno was upon him.  He spun on his heel and Apparated back into the bullpen, avoiding a toasty fate by mere millimetres.  

There was a long, eery silence after the screaming of wounded men, rapid gunfire and the roar of the mammoth fire spell that had consumed Harry's own.  Then there came a long, furious howl.  

Goosebumps ran up Harry's spine as he berated himself for his stupidity.  If he had seen someone else do as he just had, he would have derided them as an imbecile.  

“Sure Harry,” he muttered to himself as he walked back into the scorched hallway to follow the path of destruction.  “Why don't you try negating the mother of all fire spells with a bloodthirsty wolf thing at your back?  I'm sure that will go over well.  No, don't bother Apparating out.  It's not like the other wizard might be more powerful than you or anything.  Stupid dunderhead.”  

“Who're you?” A shaky voice demanded.  

Turning, Harry took in the sight of a near hysteric young officer with a familiar figure at his side.  Battered, bruised and exhausted but not beaten, Harry Dresden approached the whole in the wall that he had apparently blown some sort of demon wolf through.  

Potter observed the other wizard as he began to work a spell involving a Snoopy plush toy and some of the blood that the wolf beast had left behind.  “You look like shit,” he cheerfully pointed out.  

“You should see the other guy,” Dresden snarked back.  “Oh wait, I just blew him out of a building.  You can't.”

“What are you doing?”  The near-panic officer questioned, eyes wide.  

“Magic,” Dresden replied shortly.

“Magic,” the kid echoed.

“Go downstairs.  Send the emergency people up here, Rudy.  Go on.  Send them up here to help the wounded,” Dresden tried to coax him, wavering slightly in place.

With one last wild look at Dresden, the bloody Snoopy doll in his hands, and Potter, his wand still held loosely in his own, the young man beat a hasty retreat, mumbling under his breath.  

Dresden began a chant of Latin to a strange tune even as his eyes drifted out of focus.  After making further alterations to the plushie while Potter watched with interest, Dresden broke the circle he had drawn around himself and allowed the power he had been building up around himself to wash out of it and into the night.  

“What are you doing here?” Dresden asked wearily as he leaned against a blacked wall, trying to regain his wind.

“I did some scrying earlier,” Potter answered with a vague half truth, “and I was looking for what I thought was a werewolf.”

Dresden snorted.  “That was a loup-garou.  Bigger, nastier, and smellier than a normal werewolf, and they only transform under the full moon, not at will,” he explained as he began to make his way out of the hall.  He wavered and nearly fell, before Potter caught his arm to balance him.  

Noting the broken handcuffs around Dresden's wrists, Potter flicked his wand at each ring, causing them to spring open and fall to the floor.  “Transform at will?  Werewolves can't do that, and that thing sure as hell wasn't anything like the full moon wolves I've seen before,” Potter argued, gesturing at the whole Dresden had blown in the side of the building as they moved through the bullpen.

“Well Mr. Dimension Traveller,” Dresden mocked back, still disbelieving of the tale, “maybe things work a little bit differently here.”

Potter froze for a moment, before a litany of inventive curses spilled from his mouth.  If Dresden hadn't been so close to dead on his feet, he would have mustered the energy to be impressed.  

“...puss filled wart on a whore's arse, you stupid dunderhead,” Potter finished.  He couldn't place any trust in his extensive knowledge of the arcane now, and the fact that he hadn't even considered this possibility was a glaring error on his part.  If his mentors could see him now...

A thought occurred to him.  While his magic felt strange, it still worked—the only difference was that he was expressing it differently, for all that the results were the same.  He considered his scrying earlier.  That had been a particularly bad session, even for him.  While the subject of his scry had been flawed, he had directed the magic the same as he would have in his old dimension.  Perhaps that was his error?  With his internal wand-work he could subconsciously correct the flow of his magic to achieve the desired results, but external magic was formed and guided outside the body, leaving him to do things as he always had with no sure way of feeling where it was going wrong.  

While the loss of the ability to scry was no great thing, whatever wards he wanted to place would be reduced to knotted bundles of reactionary spells, an inelegant alternative to the proactive wards he favoured.  His ability to enchant would also be curtailed.  This was troubling.  

Potter pushed his worries aside as they passed through the reception, paramedics looking them over briefly as they rushed past to get at the more critically injured officers.  Outside, various squad cars were arriving with reinforcements, while a number of news vans had already pulled up around the ambulances clustered around the precinct entrance.  As the two Harry's paused just outside the building, the various agencies began to take notice of them.  

“Harry,” a Hispanic woman hissed as she approached Dresden's side, a look of worry on her face.  She placed an arm around his waist, supporting him and allowing Potter to release his other arm.  

“Susan,” Dresden rasped as he placed an arm over her shoulders.  “Potter.  I can't stay here.  The police--”

“Get going.  I'll head them off,” Potter told the woman at Dresden's side.  A flick of his wand and a very temporary notice-me-not charm settled about them.  

Despite giving him a mildly suspicious look, Susan wasted no time in guiding the near insensate Dresden away from the precinct towards a parked car.  

Potter turned to face the reporters who were nearly upon him, a paramedic and uniform officer on their heels.  He snorted.  Of course the reporters would be there before the emergency services.  

“Sir!  Can you tell us....”

“What on Earth...”

“Are you the only...”

Placing a charming grin upon his face, Potter began thoroughly bullshit the press, weaving a tale of masked gang members, rabid St. Bernards and exploding gas cylinders.  The press ate it up.  After all, it was much more believable than the tales that some of the more hysteric officers were telling of a giant, man eating wolf that was impervious to bullets.  

X x X

It took more than an hour for Harry to escape the ravenous press, give his statement to the police and assure the paramedics that he really hadn't sustained any injuries.  Some time after that, and he was pulling up outside his hotel, having visited the club that seemed to serve as Marcone's office only to find him absent, along with anyone who might know where his boss could be.  

Deciding that he could just as easily report what he had learnt (namely that he was out of his depth as far as supernatural know-how went and that Dresden had some serious magical chops behind him) to Marcone tomorrow, Harry received his room key from the receptionist and endured the long elevator tip to the top floor.  Upon arriving there, he immediately noted that his door was slightly ajar, a shadow in the hall betraying movement within the room.

Slipping his wand from his jeans pocket to the sleeve of his jacket, Harry nudged open the door and stepped into his penthouse and immediately felt let down, before perking up for an entirely different reason.  

“Oh, excuse me,” the woman excused herself with an embarrassed smile.  “I was planning on being finished here before you returned.”

Harry gave the woman a shameless once over.  She was a petite woman, clad in the red and black colours of the hotel employees, the blouse she wore rumpled just enough to reveal several tantalising centimetres of bare skin above the low waistline of her business pants.  She was most likely a cleaning lady based on the cart she stood next to and the music player on her hip.  Her hair was a spiky riotous mix of various shades of red and orange, almost making it look like her hair was aflame.  If it weren't for her unfortunate similarity to one of his past girlfriends, he might have given some serious thought to convincing her to stay for a drink or three.  

“It's no trouble,” Harry assured her as he collapsed onto his couch after fetching a drink from his fridge, coincidentally giving him a clear view of the woman as she worked.  

“It's unusual, you know,” the woman commented as she worked, dusting surfaces that Harry was sure were already clean.  

“What's that?” Harry queried.  

“To see a cute thing like you on the penthouse floor.  Usually we get stuffy old men who spend half their time calling for room service so they can perv on us,” the woman rolled her eyes.

Harry, who had certainly not been subtly checking out her posterior as she bent down to adjust her shoe, put on an indignant expression.  “Have they no shame?” he asked pompously.  

The woman giggled.  “I'm sure you'd never stoop to such behaviour,” she assured him while giving him a look that told him she knew exactly where his eyes had been.  

“Well, you can't exactly blame them,” Harry shrugged his excuse.

“Flatterer.  So where do you come from?”

Harry took a sip from his drink while he considered his answer.  "I'm from out of town, I'm hoping to make a living for myself here.”

“And what brought you to this hotel in particular?” she pressed, beginning to pack up the cleaning supplies she had set out.

“Nothing really.  I got a generous advance from my new boss and decided to treat myself,” Harry answered, wondering where this was going and if it were common for the help to strike up conversations with high paying patrons in the Muggle world.  

“Ah.  That's good to hear,” she stated softly.

“Why's that?” Harry asked, his suspicious side coming to the fore.  

“That maybe we'll start getting less crotchety old men and more cute young things like yourself staying here,” she flashed him a quick smile.  Grabbing her cleaning cart, she began to push it from the room.  

“Wait,” Harry called as she was about to close the door.  “I didn't quite get your name.”

“No,” she agreed, turning to face him.  “You'll have to work to earn that.”  With a wink, she closed the door and was gone.  

Harry immediately began casting spells on the areas he had seen her working, and on his surroundings in general.  When they revealed no sign of tampering or anything out of the ordinary save higher than usual levels of ambient magic, he frowned.  His instincts told him there was more to that conversation than he was aware of, and he had long learned to listen to these hunches.  

With a shrug, Harry put the matter to the side of his mind and resolved to think on it later.  Marcone had told him that he wanted him at his side tomorrow, and he didn't think it was for tea and biscuits.  If the werewolf/loup-garou/whatever had no qualms in assaulting an entire police precinct, it's next attack on Marcone would probably be even less directed.  

A smirk made its way across the wizard's face.  It had been such a long time since he'd faced such a powerful foe.  Maybe this new dimension wouldn't be so bad.  

X x X

“Hmm,” a small voice whispered in his ear.  “Difficult.  Very difficult.  Plenty of courage, I see.  Not a bad mind either.  There's talent, oh my goodness, yes—and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting...So where to put you?”

“Not Slytherin, not Slytherin,”

“Not Slytherin, eh?” continued the small voice.  “Are you sure?  You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin would help you on your way to greatness, no doubt about that--”

“Greatness?”

“Oho, piqued your interest there, did I boy?  Perhaps Slytherin is the best for you...”

“No.  Not Slytherin.”

“A strong sentiment, yet I thought you desired greatness?”

“I don't need Slytherin to be great.”

“Such surety!”

“You said it, not me.”

“Not afraid to speak your mind, are you boy?”

“Not Slytherin.”

The hat chuckled to itself.  “I say you will not excel outside of Slytherin.”

“I say you're wrong.”

“Precocious for an eleven year old, aren't we?”

“Not Slytherin.”

“You think you know better than me, who has been doing this for a thousand years?”

“Yes.”

“Well!  If you're sure....when you fail, be sure to come see me, won't you?  I so rarely have the chance to gloat.”

“I won't.  Get on with it, you old rag.”

GRYFFINDOR!”  

Harry removed the Sorting Hat from his head to the sight of Gryffindor house's celebrations.  He smiled slightly.  The Hat didn't think he could make anything of himself outside of Slytherin?  He would prove it wrong.  

X x X

Harry was woken the next morning by a continuous slow knocking on his hotel room door.  Stumbling from his clad only in a pair of transfigured pants, he scowled at the sun he could just see rising through the window.  

“What?” he barked as he opened the door to stop the infernal knocking.  

A paper cup with steam rising from the top was shoved in front of his face.  “Boss man wants to see you,” Suzie Blue said by way of greeting.  Once again, she wore a formal business suit with her side arm prominently displayed.  

“What time is it?” Harry demanded irritably.

“Six thirty.”

Harry took the offered cup of what his nose told him was coffee with a glare.  Stepping away from the door and back into his well appointed hotel rooms, he stumbled towards the shower, Suzie inviting herself into the penthouse after him.  She spent the next several minutes examining the richly coloured rooms with their marble floors and thick dark rugs while listening with half an ear to the various crashes and curses that signified Harry rising from his sleepy stupor.  She was just starting to grow impatient when Harry emerged from the bathroom in a leather riding jacket and jeans.  

Harry silently thanked magical cleaning spells as he adjusted the clothes he had been wearing for close to a week now, locking the door to his room and following Suzie to the elevators.

“What does he want so early?” Harry grumbled as they walked down the cream coloured hall.

“Can't say I know,” Suzie shrugged in response.  “Boss keeps his own hours and expects people like you, me and Hendricks to be able to keep up with him.  Time's a factor though.”

Their conversation paused as they passed a young child with absurdly orange hair in the hall, no doubt waiting for a parent or minder to catch up, before they reached the elevator.  

“I'll follow you in my bike,” Harry offered as Suzie hit the ground floor button.  

“Not today,” she shook her head.  “You're riding shotgun.  Try not to throw up over the upholstery.”

Harry snorted.  “As if I would.”

X x X

Harry was slightly tense as he stepped out of the Jeep that Suzie had used to drive them to Marcone's club.  

“You ok there?” Suzie asked innocently as they entered the club through a side door.  

“Of course.  Why wouldn't I be?” Harry replied, acting supremely unconcerned.  

“Just checking.  I think you left a few nail marks on the oh shit bar.”

Harry sent the crazy woman driver a glare. Going fast was all well and good, but he much preferred it when he was the one doing the steering.  Further conversation was curtailed by the arrival of Hendricks, who gestured for them to follow him.  Rather than leading them to the office that Harry had seen Marcone in previously, the giant man instead lead them around to the back of the club and through a door that opened to a loading dock, beyond which was an empty car park.  

“Miss Blue.  Mr Potter.  I am glad you could make it.”

Harry turned to face his boss, noting the way he almost seemed to blend in with the shadows as he sat at a paper covered table with his back to a wall.  He was wearing a dark grey suit today, and looked perfectly awake despite the early hour as he cleaned a disassembled pistol laid out before him.  

Suzie gave Marcone a respectful nod.  “Do we knew when we should expect company?”

“Soon, I believe.”

“Am I allowed to know what's going on, or do I get to wait in suspense?” Harry asked sarcastically, raising his hand like a schoolboy.  

Marcone frowned slightly.  “Last night I engaged in discussion with a local gang.  They did not appreciate the outcome of our discourse.”  His frown deepened.  “Despite their losses, they persist in their foolishness.  However, they should not have known that I would be present here.  I would very much like to find out who told them.”

“How many are coming?” Harry asked, running over the occasions he had fought against Muggles before in his head.

“More than eight, less than fifteen,” Hendricks revealed.  “They will approach from the back if they have any brains at all,” he continued with a gesture to the car park and the high vision limiting wall beyond it.  “Mr Marcone and Suzie will take up positions on the roof and harass them.  Potter, you will stay here and draw their fire while I take them out from that window over there,” the bodyguard finished, pointing out a second story window that would create a crossfire with Marcone and Suzie on the roof.  

Marcone finished reassembling his gun, pulling the slide back and releasing it with a loud clack.  “Our guests will arrive soon.  I trust you all to do your part.”  

Harry leaned easily against the wall with a clear view of the car park as the others made to leave for their positions.  

“Mr Potter,” Marcone added before he left, “you should be aware that our aggressors are lycanthropes.”

“Got it,” Harry gave a short nod, hiding his lack of knowledge.  He really did need to remedy this as soon as possible.  

Marcone smiled.  It reminded Harry of a crocodile animage he had tangled with once.  “Good.  I'd hate for you to go into this unprepared.”

X

Their guests didn't arrive for another fifteen minutes.  When they did, it was to screeching tyres and loud music as three battered SUV's pulled into the car park and raced towards the loading dock.  Steady gunfire from the roof opened up on them as they rapidly drew closer, prompting a response from the vehicles.  A hail of semi-automatic fire erupted from them, forcing Marcone and Suzie to duck behind the low wall that edged the roof.  

Harry stood before the loading dock, completely at ease with the lead SUV barrelling towards him.  The occupants didn't bother shooting him, instead intending to crush him against the concrete wall before dealing with the bastard who was hiding up on the roof.  Harry gave a shark's smile, and raised his wand.  

The lead truck ploughed into the ground as a great force crushed the bonnet down, the rear of the vehicle going airborne.  Another flick of his wand and the metal of the car began to twist in on its occupants, for whom there was no escape.  The SUV was crushed into a vaguely car-shaped cube half its previous size as it slid towards Harry, sparks flying from where metal dragged across the bitumen.  Its momentum came to a stop inches before the wizard, who casually rested a foot on it as blood from its mangled occupants began to drip to the ground.  

A clear shield sprang up around him as gunfire from the remaining two SUV's switched to the larger threat, ignoring their harassers atop the roof for now.  Harry made no move to retaliate as his shield halted the bullets in their tracks as his attackers piled out of their vehicles and used them as cover while they wasted ammunition on him.  Only when they had all exited the cars did he respond.  

Harry directed his magic not at the nine enemies attacking him, but at the cars they took cover behind.  While they were distracted by the sight of one of their number suddenly losing a chunk of their head courtesy of Hendricks, Harry was shaping and directing metal to conform to his will.  

Two more foes had fallen to Hendricks' accurate fire by the time Harry had finished layering his spell.  With a flourish, the two cars simultaneously morphed into four irritable felines.  The short gunfight came to an abrupt end as the remaining gang members fell to the beasts, mauled horribly; one unfortunate man collapsing with a gurgle as his face was ripped off.  

The sudden silence after the skirmish was louder than it had any right to be.  All save one of the lycanthropes were dead, and the survivor would soon be wishing he could join them.  Harry took a seat on the car that he had crushed as his cats rubbed their flanks against him, maws wet with blood.  

“That was an impressive display, Mr Potter.”

Harry looked back over his shoulder at the dry voice to see Marcone, Hendricks and Suzie approaching him warily.  At the new voice, his cats growled lowly, but were soothed and directed to watch the unconscious survivor with a wave of Harry's wand.  

“I aim to please,” Harry responded modestly, buffing his nails against his jacket.  

“You forgot the bears,” Suzie pointed out, avoiding looking at either the shredded corpses lying about or the pool of blood collecting under Harry's makeshift seat.  

“I rather thought the lions and tigers were enough, don't you?”

“Are they real?” Hendricks asked curiously.  

“About as close to real as you can get with magic,” Harry shrugged.  

“Mr. Hendricks,” Marcone called, cutting across their conversation as he stared down at their prisoner, ignoring the lions and tigers that prowled around him.  “Kindly prepare our remaining guest.  Mr Potter, are you capable of cleaning the area?” he gestured to the destroyed SUV and bodies littering the area.  

“Easy,” Harry shrugged.  

“Miss Blue, please keep Mr Potter company while Mr Hendricks and I have a chat with our guest,” Marcone directed, his dollar-bill coloured eyes hardening.  

Suzie nodded as she watched Hendricks hoist the unconscious man over his shoulder before following Marcone inside.  No doubt the bodyguard would gain the answers their boss wanted shortly.  She turned to watch Harry as he moved about cleaning up the site of the fight.  Watching him transform the bodies of the gang members into juicy steaks and throw them to his cats for them to snatch out of the air was just a little bit surreal.  

After several minutes of feeding his pets, Harry grew bored with the game and vanished the remaining debris, before turning his wand on the crushed SUV.  A moment of concentration and it seemed to burst into water, drenching the surrounding area and washing the drying blood on the ground down a nearby drain.  

“I still can't believe it,” Suzie admitted, stealing Harry's attention from his work.  

“Oh?”  Harry responded.

“Magic,” she gestured at the great cats frolicking around him for attention.  They were acting like kittens; kittens with blood on their claws and around their jaws.  “Are they alive now?  I mean, if they died what would happen?”

“Well,” Harry considered.  “They should be able to 'live' a natural life span so long as they can gain energy enough to continue the spell from food and what have you, they'd just revert to base otherwise, but I'm not entirely sure at the moment.”

“Why's that?” Suzie asked, intrigued.  

Harry sent her a considering glance.  “Recently I...suffered an injury that makes me doubt my ability to keep up long term enchantments like this.  As living animals, they might last for as long as I will it, or--”

He was cut off as the four large felines around him convulsed for a moment, before collapsing and growing into a mangled arrangement of car parts.  

“Or they might revert into their base materials if I don't pay particular attention to them,” the wizard sighed.

“Can you create anything else?” Suzie continued curiously as she hunkered down to lean against the building wall.  

“Pretty much,” Harry admitted.  “I could create the biggest, baddest, meanest and smelliest bear you've ever heard of without a huge amount of effort, but it would go the same way as these guys went if I didn't maintain a hold on it,” he explained with  gesture at the piles of metal before vanishing them.  “Not that that would be a great deal of trouble, just...irritating.”

“What else can you do?  Can you fly?  Teleport?  Turn invis—no, you've already done that...” Suzie trailed off as she pressed him, looking for all the world like an eager child as she waited for his answer.  

“Oh, Suzie,” Harry laughed easily, remembering something a kind old Headmaster had once told him shortly after revealing the existence of magic to him.  “Magic is both the most wondrous thing you'll ever see and a poor substitute for the magic you witness every day.”

“Now you just sound like you're trying to be wise,” Suzie teased him with a wry grin.  

“Trying?  I'll have you know that--”

He was ignored and then interrupted as the blue haired woman checked her phone after it began buzzing in her pocket.  “Hendricks got what he could from the guy.  The boss man wants to see you in his office now.”

Harry sighed at being cut off before he could begin a proper rant.  Still, duty called.  He offered Suzie a hand up with a mocking bow only to have it slapped away before heading back inside the club, leaving the mundane loading dock with no evidence of the fight that had place there not ten minutes previously.

X x X

“Mr Potter...I find myself at a loss.”

Harry was seated across from Marcone in the man's office, sprawled lazily in the comfy chair.  On the other side of the desk, his boss regarded him with  keen eye as he leant forward, fingers steepled.

“Why's that?” Harry asked, outwardly carefree as always, but inwardly guarded.

“Were it not for the evidence of my own eyes as well as a report from Miss Blue, I would be disinclined to believe you to be anything more than a charlatan.”

Harry's face went flat.  “Oh?”

“Mr Potter.  I extended a hand to you because I believed you to be of use in my employ.  Up until this morning, I had been doubting my decision.”

“I told you that I could squash your enemies, and I did,” Harry replied evenly.

“You did,” Marcone acknowledged.  “However, it is not your ability I find to be lacking, but your knowledge.”

Harry remained silent, staring at his employer.  

“Mr Potter, did you intentionally mislead me in regards to the depth of your knowledge on the matter I hired you to deal with?”

“No.”

Marcone relaxed marginally.  The reply had been immediate but not hurried, self assured but not blusterous.  Genuine.  

“I'm glad we were able to clear that up without further misunderstanding,” Marcone told him with a smile.  

“How did you find out I had bad info about the werewolf?” Harry interrupted before Marcone could continue.  

“I have a great many sources of information within this city, Mr Potter, and I am directing a substantial portion of them to uncovering whatever they can about this untapped world that has recently been revealed to me.  It was inevitable that they would bear fruit,” Marcone revealed.  

Reaching under his desk, he pressed a button and a minute later Hendricks and Suzie filed into the office, Suzie taking a seat next to Harry while Hendricks remained standing, leaning against the door frame after closing the door behind him.  “I received a call early this morning, from a Harley MacFinn.  I believe you met him last night, Mr Potter; he is our loup-garou.  He announced his certainty that I was responsible for a number of recent misfortunes to befall him and his intention to come for me tonight.”

Hendricks and Suzie stirred slightly, while Harry considered the information.

“Doesn't seem very smart,” Harry opined.  

“I believe he was still partially in the grip of his transformation, and frustrated with his inability to reach me last night, took the opportunity to voice his aggression.  However, that is but an educated guess.”

“Sounds plausible,” Harry agreed.  “So, ambush?”

Marcone gave a nod to Hendricks, who spoke up, “I've arranged for a trap large enough to hold him to be dug on Mr Marcone's property.  If we can lure him there and trap him, we'll be able to hold him until morning when he won't be a threat.”

“If the trap doesn't work, I should be able to pin him down,” Harry volunteered.  After witnessing his ability to transform objects at will, none of the three questioned him.  

“Very well.  Miss Blue, I will leave it to you to coordinate whatever other personnel you and Mr Hendricks deem necessary to contain the beast,” Marcone concluded. “Mr Potter, if there are any preparations you need to perform, I trust you will have time to do so.”

Three nods of affirmation followed Marcone's directions.

“I will require your presence at my estate at no later than three pm this afternoon, Mr Potter.  Miss Blue will provide you with directions--”

The phone rang shrilly, cutting off Marcone's dismissal.  With a frown at the phone that only a limited number of people had access to, he lifted the phone from its cradle and pressed the speaker button, before waiting for the caller to speak.  

Mr John Marcone?” the voice questioned, as if it had been expecting a response.  

“Speaking.”

This is FBI Senior Agent Denton.  I have information that is pertinent to your immediate safety.

Chapter 2: Moonlit Gambit

“I don't trust them.”

Marcone glanced at his employed wizard, watching as the man twirled his wand between his fingers in the only betrayal of his agitation before an otherwise calm appearance.  

“Their words do make an unfortunate amount of sense,” Marcone noted.  

Harry stamped his feet to ward off the cold night air.  “I still don't trust them.  They feel like scavengers.”

Marcone, Harry and Hendricks were arrayed before the front door of the luxurious estate that the crime boss called home, all of them keeping one eye on the group of FBI agents that were talking softly together some distance away.  

“Feel like scavengers?” Hendricks asked idly as he checked his weapon, a sleek automatic rifle.  He didn't much care for the boss' newest employee, save that he could pull his weight.  

“Just a bit of gut instinct,” Harry replied, frowning at the agents.  

“As the evidence currently disagrees with your stomach, we shall assume that they are being truthful,” Marcone stated as he attached a magazine full of tranquillisers to his hunting rifle.  

“Doesn't really feel like Dresden,” Harry continued arguing, his heart not really in it.  “Helping a pack of werewolves attack someone?  How do they even know the werewolves are real?”

“The same manner in which I discovered it, I believe.  Dresden's report, in addition to the accounts of survivors of the SI precinct attack that got out before the official story was regaled to the press,” Marcone answered with a dry look at Harry.  “And Mr Dresden has remarked that he would like to kill me in order to make the world a better place in the past.”  

Harry gave a neutral grunt in reply.  

“If our federal friends are correct, we will deal with the threat as it comes.  If they are not being entirely truthful, we will still deal with whatever arises,” Marcone placated the wizard.  “Although I would not put it past Dresden to attempt to persuade us of his innocence in any case.”

Further discussion on the matter was cut off as a hand-held two-way radio transmitter crackled to life on Hendricks' belt.  Suzie's voice issued through a rustle of static.  

Watch teams are all in position.  Dogs are calm so far,” the young woman reported.  

Hendricks handed the two-way to Marcone, who replied, “good.  Stay with the men and alert us when the dogs react to the loup-garou's presence.”

Sure.”  

“Not having her back here with us?” Harry inquired as he swept his gaze over the lawns of the estate.  

“Miss Blue is not suited for this type of exchange.  Her talents lie in information dealing and exchange.  I am also...loath to expose her to the more violent elements of my business.”

Harry raised an eyebrow at Marcone's answer but made no comment.  He hadn't pegged Marcone as the type to cater for his employees in that manner.  Maybe there was more to it, but if there was it didn't concern him at the moment.  His musings were cut off by a faint ripple at the edge of his magical senses, followed quickly by Suzie's report of unrest amongst the dogs.  

“They're near,” the wizard announced, wand gripped firmly in hand.  

“Very well,” Marcone replied, before nodding to an approaching FBI agent.  “Reports place Dresden nearby.  Are your people ready?” he asked directly.  

“We're ready,” the agent, Denton, replied tersely.  “Just don't get in our way.”

Marcone smiled coldly at the man.  “Do not presume you can do this without our help.  You will need our assistance against Dresden and his allies.”

Denton's eyes flickered to the wand in Harry's hand before returning to Marcone.  “If you insist.  I'll have two of my people stay with you.  I wouldn't want you to run into the wolves without backup.”

Harry frowned at the agent's tone.  His gut warned him that this one was a predator rather than a scavenger.    

“Very well then,” Marcone ceded, tucking the butt of his rifle beneath his arm.  “Hendricks, you are with me.  Mr Potter, do remember to leave the werewolves alive for the loup-garou to dispose of.”

Harry shrugged and nodded in one motion.  He had little sympathy for werewolves who used their curse as a weapon.  He glanced at the bright moon overhead that had just begun to wane.  Even if they weren't exactly the type of wolves he was used to dealing with.  

“Wilson, Benn,” Denton barked at his people.  “Stay with Marcone and his men.  Benn, keep an eye on the young man.  We can't have an unarmed civilian caught alone by the wolves.”

Wilson, an older man with a slight paunch, and Benn, a fit young woman with a strange look in her eyes nodded their assent.  While Wilson stomped towards Marcone with a surly look on his face, Benn approached Harry in a languorous stride, before giving him a heavy once over.  

“Don't worry Boss,” Benn almost purred.  “I'll take good care of him.”

The hairs on the back of Harry's neck rose and he plastered a bright smile on his face.  “Fantastic,” he replied cheerfully, along with some poorly hid ogling of his guard's figure.  

Benn's lip curled in unhidden contempt.

“Perhaps you and your guard should survey the side of the property, Mr Potter,” Marcone suggested, his poker face betraying nothing of what he felt.

“Sounds good,” Harry agreed with a grin on his face, nodding like an idiot, before ambling off into the dark.  

Benn gave a short growl before walking swiftly after her charge, ignoring the amusement of Wilson and the last unnamed, young agent.  

X

As large as Marcone's property was, it took five minutes of quiet walking to reach a position where they would be able to see any intruders trying to make their way up its side.  Through it all, Benn had taken to eyeing Harry like a piece of meat—and not in the good way.  

A small copse of trees lined the tall walls around Marcone's estate.  It was devoid of the usual sounds of night life, leaving the grounds eerily quiet under the bright moon.  Directing his internal magic, Harry closed his eyes and cast a spell he had long since been forced by necessity to master, enhancing his senses to a supernatural degree.  

The wind brushed across his face, telling him that Benn was standing behind him and slightly to the side.  The copse of trees was completely silent, something in the night telling the creatures within that predators were about.  The wind shifted, bringing with it the scent of fur, leather, sweat and magic.  Harry let the spell go before opening his eyes, feeling the world around him become muted once more.  The scent of magic was strangely strong here, stronger than any he had smelt in his home world save around powerful wards or battlefields, where blood and fury usually overpowered it in any case.

“They're coming from the back wall,” Harry revealed, as he released the spell and opened his eyes to a muted world.  “Not from this side though.  Looks like they're circling round the other side.”

Benn gave the wizard a suspicious look as he hunkered down on his heels.  “How do you know that?”

“It's what Marcone pays me for,” Harry answered with a look around the grounds, before turning his attention to the agent and smiling.  “Now, I'm terribly sorry about this, but I didn't get this far in life by ignoring my instincts.”

Benn spun to face the wizard at his words, one hand going into her shirt and a snarl on her face.  She was too slow however, and had only time to hear a quietly murmured word before a feeling of bliss fell over her.  

X

I mean it, John.  I really do, I shit you not.  This entire thing is about them killing you.”  

What a vulgar reassurance,” Marcone said.  “Agent Denton, we have a few details to attend to.  Lower your weapon and let us be about them.

The scene Potter returned to was tense.  Dresden was on his knees before Agent Denton looking battered and exhausted yet not beaten, while Marcone and Hendricks were staring down the FBI agent backed by his two subordinates who were standing over a bound blonde woman that Potter had never seen before.  The still forms of a number of wolves littered the grounds around them, tranquillisers sticking out of them.  

Denton smiled at his subordinates return as she made her way over to stand with the other agents.  “Actually,” he said to Marcone casually, “I think there will be a change of plans.”

Before Marcone and Hendricks could fully process his words, Denton brought his pistol up and began to unload the full clip into Hendricks' massive form—only to watch in shock as Benn stepped into his line of fire and took two rounds in the stomach as she attempted to wrestle the gun from him.  

Hendricks staggered back under the blows he had taken as Wilson and the other agent sprang at Marcone, only for the mob boss to slip away from their grasping arms like an eel as a knife sprang into his hand, seemingly from nowhere, and open a nasty gash along the young agent's arm when he attempted to parry with his own knife.  

Potter flicked his wand at Denton as he struggled with the weakening Benn, a severing curse flying towards the agent's neck, only for him to heave the woman into the path of the spell and dive away, leaving his gun in her hands.  Benn dropped to the ground next to Dresden, her head bouncing once as it rolled away from her body.  

There was a brief pause as Dresden and Denton locked eyes, before the agent glanced at the prone form of the woman the other agents had been standing over earlier and smiled.  Then Denton reached into his shirt and began to change.  

Potter stilled in surprise as he watched the Muggle twist into a parody of a wolf, his mind connecting the dots with what information he had.  The FBI werewolves must have been the ones after Marcone from the start, while using their positions to pin the attacks on the lycanthropes, Dresden's werewolf friends and the loup-garou.  

Dresden, however, didn't pause for second.  Reaching for the gun in the hands of Benn's corpse with one hand and into her shirt with the other, Dresden squeezed the trigger rapidly even as the gun quickly ran dry before tossing it aside.  Two bullets buried themselves in the shoulder of the wolf-man even as he changed, skin and muscle sealing closed over them.  The werewolf howled in pain as he leapt at the bound blonde woman, only for the large, shaggy wolf that Dresden had become to lunged forwards and connect with him in mid air, jaws closing around his foreleg.  

Potter summoned the blonde woman away from the furious mess of tooth and claw, levitating her unconscious form to rest against a nearby tree.  Seeing that the larger wolf that was Dresden throw the smaller wounded wolf, Denton, aside with a toss of his jaws, Potter turned his attention to where Marcone was fending off a wolf that must have been Wilson and the other freckled young agent with a pair of expertly wielded knives.  He tossed another Imperius at the werewolf, only to feel his magic slide off the greasy, enraged bestial mind with little effect save a momentary pause in it's movements.  Frowning at his failure to bend the animal to his will, the wizard turned his attention to the agent that was still human.  

Marcone was hard pressed to defend himself from the combined attention of the snarling werewolf and the surprising competence of the young knife wielding agent, their speed forcing him to keep moving away and stay defensive lest they flank him and stick a knife into his kidney or tear a hamstring from his leg.  He took advantage of a sudden pause in the wolf's movement to strike at the agent, only for the young man to jump abruptly to the side and drive his knife between the ribs of the wolf.  The wolf snarled and instinctively retaliated, tearing out the throat of his partner in one movement, only to fall in turn as Marcone stabbed him in either side of the throat with his knives, collapsing to the ground in spasms as his life blood pulsed out.  

The two surviving men looked over the corpses of their would be betrayers for a long moment, before Marcone broke the silence.  “That's quite the skill you have there,” he commented dryly, gesturing to the corpse of the agent that had turned on his fellow.  

“It does come in handy from time to time,” Potter replied modestly, before hesitating.  “Don't mention it to Dresden, yeah?  It's a little bit highly illegal.”

“How illegal?” Marcone asked with a raised eyebrow as he wiped his knives clean on the shirt of the human again Wilson.  

“Death sentence illegal apparently.”

“Hmm,” Marcone agreed with an incline of his head.   “Let us return to Mr Dresden.  It would appear that he has overcome Agent Denton.”

Looking over to where he had left Dresden and the blonde woman, Potter saw the wizard leaning over a downed Denton, blood smeared across his mouth as he pinned the agent to the ground by his neck with bloody hands.  A Hispanic woman, the one Potter had seen collect Dresden the previous night at the SI precinct after his run in with the loup-garou, stood at his side with a hand on his shoulder despite her frightened expression.  At their approach, Dresden staggered to his feet, dropping a fur covered belt to the ground as he did so.  

“John,” Dresden rasped.  “I hate to say it, but I fucking told you so.”

“It would appear you were correct,” Marcone conceded, “but for now we have more pressing concerns.  The loup-garou cannot be far away.  I have had a pit prepared elsewhere on my estate that we can lure the beast into before disposing of it.”

“No,” Dresden argued as he leaned on the woman at his side.  “If this pit of yours can hold him long enough to kill, it can hold him till dawn.  We don't have to kill him.”

“I am loath to give a mindlessly violent animal opportunity to follow it's instincts so close to my home,” Marcone frowned.

“If we can get it into the pit, I can make sure it can't escape,” Potter offered with a glance between Marcone and Dresden.  

Dresden looked at Potter, really looked at him, for the first time that evening.  His gaze flickered between the other wizard and Marcone before clearly resolving to think about it another time.  

“That is an acceptable compromise,” Marcone approved.  

Dresden just gave a tired nod before hobbling over to the stirring form of the blonde woman, watching her with concern.  Marcone similarly approached the now sitting Hendricks, his shirt pulled up to reveal an unfastened Kevlar vest that partially hid a cluster of nasty deep purple bruises.  

Sir?  Is everything alright?

Hendricks detached the squawking two way from his belt to handing it to Marcone, who took several steps away before replying.  “Yes Miss Blue.  Mr Potter's concerns about the intentions of our FBI friends turned out to be correct, and they have met their end at the hands of a number of vicious animals.  What is the status of the spotter teams?”

The dogs have calmed down a bit but are still scared.  Some of the men are a bit uneasy too,” Suzie reported through the handset, static interrupting her voice several times.

“Very well.  Hold your positions.  Our business for tonight will be concluded soon, I believe,” Marcone replied after another step away from the wizards.  

Potter stepped away from his boss and towards Dresden and the two women whose names he was unaware of, overhearing what appeared to be the tail end of an argument.

“...don't know if I can trust you, Dresden.  For all I know, you've set all this up yourself!” the blonde woman accused.  

“Set this up?  He almost lost himself trying to protect you, and you go and accuse him?” the brunette responded angrily.  “Those agents took you hostage.  Surely you can remember that!”

“Murphy, Susan,” Dresden began to placate them.

What?” the pair of them turned and snapped at him, causing the wizard to gulp.  

The blonde woman, apparently called Murphy, clutched at her head in pain before Dresden could respond.

“What is it?” Dresden asked in concern.

“Whoever grabbed me jabbed me with a needle of something,” Murphy grimaced.  “My head is still swimming.”

“I can help with that,” Potter interrupted the discussion before it could devolve into an argument again.  

Murphy gave him a suspicious look before caving as she massaged her temples.  “Please do,” she requested.  

“Lean to the side,” Potter warned as he raised his wand.  “You won't enjoy this.”

Before Murphy could do more than start to obey and process his words, Potter gestured with his wand and tapped it's tip to the woman's stomach.  For several long seconds nothing seemed to happen, before Murphy turned green and dry heaved, choking slightly and then throwing up the contents of her stomach.  

“God,” Murphy croaked.  “That was horrible.”

“Yes, it was,” Potter agreed with a smirk.  “But you feel better now, don't you?”

“Who are you?” Murphy asked, rather than answer.  

“I'm Potter.  Harry Potter, Wizard for Hire,” Potter introduced himself with a mocking bow.

Murphy snorted and looked between Dresden and Potter before shaking her head and closing her eyes.  “I refuse to deal with two of you right now.”

Further conversation was cut off by the approach of Marcone, as he addressed Potter, “Mr Potter, if you would be able to revive the fallen werewolves?  I believe they may be of assistance against the loup-garou.”   

“That thing is coming here?” Murphy asked in a calm—too calm—voice, while the brunette, Susan, began to look interested.  

Potter walked away from the trio as Dresden began to explain the situation to Murphy and approached the still form of the nearest werewolf.  Focusing on the feel of the wolf's mind and magic, the wizard waved his wand in a deliberate motion before enunciating clearly, “enervate.”  

The werewolf sneezed violently as it jerked to it's feet, looking around in alarm.  Potter raised his hands to show he meant no threat, his wand having disappeared back into his sleeve.  Under the wary eye of the wolf, he reached forward and pulled the tranquilliser dart from its shoulder.  

After giving Potter another suspicious look and glancing over to where Dresden and Marcone were standing, the wolf beckoned with it's muzzle and led the wizard to its unconscious fellows.  In short order, Potter had revived the werewolves and removed the darts, having to dance out of the way of snapping jaws on more than one occasion before the disorientated wolves gained their bearings.  

With the wolves revived and the loup-garou only minutes away, Potter jogged back over to the group of Dresden, Marcone, Murphy, Susan and Hendricks, the wolves loping behind him.  The large bodyguard was watching the unarmed Denton with his rifle pointed blatantly at the man's head.  

“Time is running short,” Marcone announced to the group crisply.  “I think it would be best for those not concerned with this matter to leave the grounds of my estate,” the crime boss finished, his eyes glancing between Susan and Murphy.  

“There are FBI agents dead here, Mr Marcone,” Murphy informed him with ice in her voice.  “That makes it my business, regardless of what accusations are levelled against them.”

“You've seen what the loup-garou can do, Murph,” Dresden argued half-heartedly.  

“I am not going to walk away from this one Dresden,” Murphy shot back.  “I don't trust anyone here not to spin this in their favour if I'm not here.  Regardless, all of you are persons of interest in the investigation into the actions of Denton's team,” the blonde woman finished, fire in her eyes.  

Dresden grimaced at Murphy's declaration of her lack of trust in him, before steeling himself.  “If you won't leave, then you stay out of my way,” he ordered, a palpable sense of power rising around him.  

“Stay out of--” her tone was outraged.

Murphy,” Dresden's voice cracked.  “You don't have inherited silver.  You're not a wizard.  You can't take on the loup-garou.”  Seeing the outrage and defiance still on the woman's face, he continued gamely, “but that doesn't mean you can't protect the others.”

As if reading the wizard's mind, Susan began to prickle in anger.  “You better not be thinking of sending me away like an unwanted child, Harry,” the woman's tone warned of dire consequences.  

Dresden turned to face her, the blood painting his jaw and teeth causing the woman to swallow and lean back almost imperceptibly.  “No, I'm sending you away like a reporter from a fight with a giant, murderous, man eating wolf-thing.”

Seeing the brunette open her mouth to argue, Potter interjected before she could begin.  “Dresden is right,” he stated bluntly.  “If we have to fight this loup-garou thing worrying about collateral damage, we'll be too restricted to be effective.  That beast of a fire spell Dresden used on it last night didn't even wound it that badly.  If we both start throwing fire strong enough to kill at it, things are going to get hellish.”

Having glimpsed the results of Dresden's spell first-hand, Susan was subdued by the thought of two wizards throwing fireballs around like it was nothing.  

“You kids as well,” Dresden added as he looked over the pack of wolves seated around them.  Various whines and yips responded to his announcement, but he refused to relent.  “This isn't a democracy.  I let you to come with me, and you all got yourselves shot.  You're staying out of the fight with MacFinn.”

“We do not have so many allies that you can just send them to cool their heels, Mr Dresden,” Marcone observed coolly.  

“Your wizard,” Dresden returned just as coolly, “and I should have enough muscle between us to corral MacFinn between us.  If you and Cujo bring your fire-power to the table, we definitely will.”

Potter only had time to raise an eyebrow at the way Dresden referred to him, before one of the wolves paced forwards evenly, golden eyes on the staff wielding wizard.  In a ripple of skin and fur, a beautiful, wild and most importantly naked woman was standing before them.  Potter's other eyebrow joined his first, followed by an appreciative whistle and a cheeky grin as he thoroughly looked the newcomer over, his thoughts running counter to his behaviour.  Predator, he thought warily.  

The werewolf ignored him completely as she stared Dresden down, also ignoring the dirty looks both she and the wizard were receiving from Susan and Murphy as he valiantly managed to keep his eyes above her neckline.  

“You will not send me away like a teething whelp, wizard,” the woman growled as she stared Dresden down.  “My mate is too powerful for your fire alone to defeat him and I know how he thinks.  You will need me.”

“Fine, Tera,” Dresden snapped, running his hand through his hair in frustration.  “But the kids are staying out of it.”

“They will guard the women along with the cunning one and his men,” the woman stated as she cast a distrustful look at Marcone, Hendricks and Potter.  “I do not trust him not to take advantage of my mate's weakness if we succeed.”  

“I would never dream of doing so, madam,” Marcone returned mildly, the picture of a gentleman, even in his hunting vest with a rifle at his side.  

The insects and other night life around them stilled.  The sudden quietness was deafening.  

“He is here,” the naked wolf-woman spoke softly.  “And likely watching us now.  We have delayed too long.  You have earned his ire, Dresden, and must be the one to lure him from the softer prey.”

Without waiting for a response, the woman rippled once more, her form shifting back into that of a wolf.  

A low, rumbling snarl echoed through the silence around them.  The hair's on the back of Potter's neck stood on end as he turned with Dresden and the wolves to face the beast he could feel through his magic, even as the others looked around the area for the source.

The loup-garou emerged from the shadows, yellow eyes glinting madly under the light of the moon.  A twisted, mutated wolf was revealed as it emerged from the tree line, savage yellowed teeth revealed in a snarl, hackles raised.  

The group stared at the animal for a long moment, before a jolt of adrenaline surged through Potter's system in anticipation of the fight ahead.  His wand-arm began to rise, already going through the movements of a complicated spell.  By the time the loup-garou had tensed at the movement and begun to spring aside, Potter's wand was aimed in its direction as he spat out a guttural incantation.  

The loup-garou ducked low, avoiding Potter's spell completely to let it impact harmlessly on a nearby tree and using its crouch to leap at the group, only to be met mid-flight by a large fireball and a strong scythe of wind courtesy of Dresden, who looked shocked at his own spells for the barest of seconds, before re-focusing on the task at hand.  

Marcone and Hendricks opened up on the still airborne foe, large calibre bullets and tranquillisers doing little but effective all the same, while Susan and Murphy were herded back by the wolf pack, but only after the officer had stolen the subdued Denton's weapon and dragged him with them, while Tera prowled before the two men, crouched defensively.  

The loup-garou landed on its back and twisted to its feet, howling in rage and pain.  Yellow eyes narrowed at its primary foe, the staff-wielding fire hurling wizard, and it lunged at him, jaws seeking his throat—only to be forced to abort its attack yet again as something heavy whistled through the air towards it.  

Three of the trees the creature had been hiding within had uprooted themselves and were advancing upon it, heavy branches swinging through the air in an attempt to swat the beast, as ponderous root-legs sought to crush it underfoot.  Taking advantage of the loup-garou's distraction, Dresden threw another fireball, smaller this time, at it before turning and running, away from both the fight and the group defended by the wolf pack.

The loup-garou snarled in fury as its prey attempted to flee.  Ignoring the strange tree-creatures and their slow attacks, it dodged around the food that held the fire sticks and ignored the growl of the bitch-wolf that stood before them, before the scent of a threat entered its nostrils.  The not-food that had attacked it first reeked of cold, power and near-death.  The loup-garou charged at it, instinct driving it to destroy the threat and challenge, only for it to turn on the spot and disappear, leaving its jaws empty.  It turned, prepared to seek out the elusive not-food, when another blast of fire impacted on its shoulder, burning away its fur and searing its flesh.  Enraged, the loup-garou spun and bolted after the food that dared to attack it with fire, leaping over the roots and branches that seemed to rise from the ground and reach out from the trees to trip and hold it back.  

Potter watched as the loup-garou disappeared into the trees in pursuit of Dresden, who was leading it on a round-about route to the pit Marcone had prepared for MacFinn—the shortest path being right past those he had wanted out of the fight.  The wolf woman, Tera, followed swiftly, Marcone, Hendricks and Potter turning and making a direct path for the pit.  The werewolves, along with Susan and Murphy (who was still dragging a stumbling Denton along) followed them in turn, either figuring it was safer to stay together (not likely) or ignoring Dresden's warning to stay out of the fight (very likely).

The group was silent as they ran, save for harsh breathing and the rustling of the trees that literally followed them, rumbling the earth with their footsteps as they kept pace.  Susan cursed as she wrestled with the bag slung over her shoulder, before withdrawing a camera of all things and waving it over the wolves running beside them, then shifting to the mobile trees behind them.  

Ignoring the actions of the reporter, Marcone timed his stride so he fell in step with Potter.  “Keep an eye on Denton, would you?” he murmured softly, so evenly you wouldn't think he was in the middle of a fast run.  “It would be most unfortunate if he were to suffer a fate similar to his colleagues.”

Potter glanced at his boss, catching his real meaning.  He nodded once and his wand twitched in the direction of the captive agent, before returning his attention to the front.  Marcone distanced himself from the wizard again casually as they ran and watching as Denton began to run with less struggle, inwardly satisfied with his employee's competence.  He would have to think on this, Potter's seeming ability to control a person's every action, when he had time...it intriguing, and slightly concerning.

They slowed as the reached the pit that Marcone had had dug in preparation for MacFinn, no sign of Dresden or the loup-garou in sight.  

“Ambush would be the best bet,” Potter announced by way of explanation as he surveyed the area.  The pit was located in the middle of an empty swathe of green lawn, the nearest cover, another copse of trees, some distance away.  An artificial artfully ruined Greek or Roman temple stood off to the side.  

“Dresden will arrive from somewhere in the vicinity of that path,” Marcone told the group, indicating a sandy track that twisted into another of the myriad groups of trees that dotted his property.  At his words, a gout of flame flickered briefly above the tree line.  

Grunting an acknowledgement, Hendricks made his way to the trees at the edge of the ruined temple opposite the indicated path.  He hauled himself up to a low branch, rifle strap slung over his shoulder, before repeating the action until he was out of sight, hidden by the leaves.  

As Marcone led the remainder of the group over to the temple, Potter approached the pit.  It was quite deep, with muddy walls that would not allow the loup-garou to claw its way out.  Ideally, he would weave an illusion of grass over the top of the pit, but he lacked the time.  Crashing and snarling from within the trees told the wizard that their foe was close.  With a thought, he had his animated trees plant themselves around the edge of the pit, ready to drag the loup-garou in once he and Dresden were able to herd it close.  

Without fanfare, Dresden shot out of the trees with speed that an Olympic sprinter would envy, altering his course to aim for the pit.  Seconds later, the loup-garou appeared, shaking off vines that wrapped around its limbs and torso.  Gunfire erupted from the tree line as Hendricks got a clear shot, opening small wounds on the wolf's shoulders that it ignored in favour of its pursuit of the wizard.  

A ravenous beast literally snapping at his heels, Dresden pelted towards the transient safety ahead of him.  With the beast directly behind him, Potter was forced to wait for an opening, unwilling to risk casting anything that could wound the creature with Dresden in the way.  He began to circle around to the side of the pit, looking for an opening.  

As he approached the pit, Dresden didn't even begin to slow.  Aiming his staff at the ground behind him, he gathered his adrenaline, tiredness and sheer heart stopping fear of the beast only metres from eating him into a small ball and shouted, “ventas servitas!

The wizard was hurled into the air and over the pit, arms wind milling for balance comically as he flew.  He almost seemed to hang in place at the apex of his arc for a long moment, before he was landing heavily, staff slipping from his grasp.  He raised his head quickly despite the pain, hoping to see the loup-garou falling into the pit—only to catch sight of the beast dashing around its edge towards him, no allies in its way save an animated tree and his staff several feet away.  

Potter hurled curses across the pit in an effort to slow the creature down, only to have them dodged with maddening ease.  The loup-garou was within ten metres of Dresden when a smaller, snarling form hit its side like a cannonball.  The werewolf Tera sank her fangs into a muscled hind leg, diverting the loup-garou's attention long enough to Dresden to regain his feet and recover his staff.  The wizard whirled to face the loup-garou in time to see it sink its teeth into Tera's neck and toss her aside limply.  

Forzare,” Dresden growled, the runes along his staff lighting  up from end to tip in a dark red.  The loup-garou was caught completely off guard by they concussive force, the wind driven from its lungs and lifted several feet into the air.  Dresden sagged, leaning heavily on his staff after the effort required for the spell, but trudging towards the still form of Tera regardless.  

Potter suddenly disappeared from the other side of the pit, only to reappear between them and the recovering loup-garou, almost startling Dresden out of a years growth.  Putting the apparent teleportation aside for now, the staff-wielding wizard focused on the stirring form of the wolf before him.

The loup-garou prowled before Potter as he stared it down.  He could hear Dresden checking on Tera behind him, but remained focused on the threat, knowing it was just waiting for its chance.  Deciding it had found a weakness, the loup-garou charged forward, intent on its prey, giving no attention to the gesture and shout it made.  

The earth shifted, an enormous hand rising up to grasp the loup-garou and stop it in its tracks.  An arm began to extend after it, leaving a deep furrow in the ground as it prepared to throw the creature it held, only for the strength of the wolf to overpower the fingers that held it, twisting free and falling to land on its feet six foot below.  

Potter released the earthen construct, allowing it to fall back into its place as he stared the maddened beast down.  It snarled and growled at him, saliva dripping from its fangs as it gathered itself for another charge, only to pause as his wand began to hum and a blast of cold power radiated from him.  Dresden stepped up to his side, staff aglow and smoke wafting from its tip.  He slammed the staff down, a wave of his own bright, unseen power issuing forth.  

The loup-garou was silenced momentarily, ears flat against its skull, cowed by the strength of the two wizards before him.  Then its hackles began to rise, a rumbling growl beginning deep within its gut as it eyed down those who would dare challenge it.  The beast took a step forward, vicious claws extended, glinting in the moonlight.  

The show down came to an abrupt end.  One moment, the two parties were staring each other down, the next they were moving.  The loup-garou leapt towards them, determined to reach its prey.

Dresden strode forward, a silver pentacle glowing in his fist.  The loup-garou crashed into a glowing shield and bounced back, before darting around for another attempt.  It was met by a heavy branch crashing into its side as two of the animated trees advanced, unnatural, angry roars reverberating through their trunks.  The loup-garou snarled its defiance as Dresden continued to batter at it with blasts of concussive force, not knowing or particularly caring where his sudden surplus of energy sprang from.  

Potter conjured a trio of Arctic wolves to harry the loup-garou, but otherwise kept his distance from the fight, most of his attention focused on the bleeding form of the werewolf Tera.  Gently, he levitated her off the ground and directed his spell to ferry her over to the temple that sheltered the rest of the werewolves along with Marcone, Susan, Murphy and her prisoner Denton.  Part of him noticed as one of his animated trees, the one not fighting MacFinn, stilled and slowly overbalanced, crashing to the ground, but he remained focused on making sure Tera reached the temple without further injury.  

Despite his new found stamina, Dresden found himself tiring as he smacked around a creature he really had no right to be going toe to toe with.  The rounds from Hendricks' rifle had fallen silent, and the loup-garou was darting between the animated trees as they swatted at him with ease now, ignoring the much smaller white wolves nipping at its calves entirely.  It was now held back solely by the tiring staff-wielding wizard's efforts, and he began to back towards the pit in hopes of luring the animal into a charge he could hopefully dodge at the last moment.  

“Come on you ugly overgrown poodle!” Dresden shouted as he bit back a laugh at the comparison, hyped up on adrenaline, fear and exhilaration.

The loup-garou began to froth at the mouth as it danced around the trees blocking it from its prey.  It was furious, enraged beyond any manner of thought beyond the urge to consume the food that had done it such harm.  It was some thirty metres from Dresden when it began to run him down.

Dresden set himself, readying a wind spell to help propel himself out of the maddened beast's way, when he felt a hand on his shoulder.  Potter was suddenly at his side, despite having been some distance away dealing with Tera somehow.  Stupid ninja teleporting.  

“Trust me, and whatever you do, don't fight me on this,” Potter told him calmly as he stared near certain death in its snarling face.  

“No worries, I can trust you.  You look much more trustworthy than the other guy,” Dresden spoke in a rush with a nod at the loup-garou, ignoring the instinct that demanded he move, and be anywhere rather than right where he was at that moment.  

The loup-garou was scant metres from them when it launched itself towards them.  They were treated to front row seats as the beast's gaping maw opened wide, saliva flying through yellow fangs as it howled in preparation to crush their fragile bones.  Then Potter's hand tightened on Dresden's shoulder and then they were being squeezed as they were forced through an indescribably tight passage, folded in two and forced into a tiny box, before being stretched out further than their bodies could possibly manage and snapping back, and then they were standing on the other side of the pit.  

Dresden staggered, disorientated, and was quickly pulled back away from the edge of the pit by Potter.  Shaking his head, Dresden focused on the man who had just put him through some sort of magical blender, only for him to indicate to the pit.  Glancing over the edge, Dresden was greeted by the sight of the loup-garou prowling in a circle as it bit and snarled at the walls confining it.  

“Got the bugger,” Potter grinned triumphantly.  

Dresden planted his staff and leant heavily against it as a wave of fatigue hit him, but still managed to raise his fist to the other wizard.  Puzzled, Potter mirrored his action, breaking out in a bemused expression when Dresden bumped his fist against his own.  

“Yeah, we're awesome,” Dresden agreed blithely.  

The pair of wizards stared down at the loup-garou for several long moments, before the sounds of police sirens began to echo in the distance, quickly growing closer.  Potter closed his eyes and sighed, while Dresden groaned, resting his head against his staff.  And the evening had been going so well until this point.  

X x X

“Sir?” said Harry. “I’ve been thinking . . . Sir — even if the Stone’s gone, Vol-, I mean, You-Know-Who--”

“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

“Yes, sir. Well, Voldemort’s going to try other ways of coming back, isn’t he? I mean, he hasn’t gone, has he?”

“No, Harry, he has not. He is still out there somewhere, perhaps looking for another body to share . . . not being truly alive, he cannot be killed. He left Quirrell to die; he shows just as little mercy to his followers as his enemies.  Nevertheless, Harry, you have only delayed his return to power, as I have no doubt there are those out there all too willing to sell their lives to further his cause.”

“You think he'll come back,” Harry stated with certainty.  

Dumbledore observed his student with blue eyes that suddenly seemed tired.  “With a certainty I wish I lacked, Harry.”

“There's one thing I'd like to know though sir...” Harry trailed off in question.  

“Ask, Harry, and if I can answer your question in good conscience I shall.”

“Well . . . Voldemort said that he only killed my mother because she tried to stop him from killing me.  But why would he want to kill me in the first place?”

“Alas, the first thing you ask me, I cannot tell you. Not today.  Not now. You will know, one day...put it from your mind for now, Harry. When you are older . . . I know you hate to hear this . . . when you are ready, you will know.”

“He'll come after me again, won't he.” It wasn't a question.

Dumbledore nodded once, gravely.  

“And I can't do anything but wait for him to try?” Harry asked in frustration, staring imploringly into Dumbledore's eyes.   He loathed the thought of being helpless.  He'd almost rather go back to living in his cupboard and being a servant to the Dursley's than have this amazing world of magic open to him only to find himself just as helpless as before.  At least there were no illusions about his lot with his family.

The Headmaster seemed to age a century as he pondered his reply, eyes closed behind his half-moon glasses.  “While I wish I could say there would always be someone of stout heart and steady hand standing ready to defend you, I cannot possibly promise you that.  If you truly wish to master your own fate, to be able to rely completely upon yourself and avoid all helplessness, the only advice I can offer you is this:  become the best you can be, and then rise above that.  Never give in to a so-called 'inevitability', for if you ever doubt yourself, you have already lost.”

The pair of them sat in silence for several minutes as Harry pondered the Professor's words.  Be the best that you could be.  Never give up.  The young wizard found himself warming to the words as they seemed to click into place within him.  

“Thank you sir,” Harry smiled in gratitude.  

“No need to thank me, Harry,” Dumbledore hummed in reply.  “Although, I wouldn't say no to a sample of the  rather fine collection of candy you seemed to have accumulated throughout your stay in the Hospital Wing.”

“Go ahead sir,” Harry grinned at the more than a century and a half year old's shameless not-so-subtle hint for candy.

Dumbledore hmmm'd and haaa'd for several moments before settling over a box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans.  “I had the misfortune to encounter a vomit flavoured Bean in my youth, and since then I've rather lost my liking for them,” the elder wizard confided in Harry.  “But I think I'll try my luck with them once more,” he said as he withdrew a Bean and popped it in his mouth.  “Oho!” he exclaimed, delighted.  “Raspberry!”  

X x X

Potter jolted awake, blinking rapidly as a bright light was shone right in his face.  It was sometime around five in the morning, and he hadn't been allowed more than ten minutes of sleep in a row since his arrest.  

After capturing the loup-garou, he and Dresden had done their best to make the pit as secure as possible.  While Dresden had worked something similar to what he had done at the SI precinct the night before involving a conjured plush toy to bind the beast itself, Potter had gone about placing an iron grate over the top of the pit, before weaving an illusion of a small pond on it, layering several avoidance charms in for good measure.  

While the two wizards had been fighting the loup-garou, it turned out that Denton had made a desperate bid for freedom, surprising Murphy while she was distracted by the sight of magic in action and regaining his weapon, before taking Susan hostage, who had been filming .  Completely disregarding the gun pointed at her, Murphy had struck at the rogue FBI agent like a cobra, disarming him again and freeing Susan from his grasp.  Denton had attempted to shoot her in the process, only to find the gun out of ammunition.  In retaliation, Murphy jabbed him in the throat and broke his arm, before throwing him over her hip.  An awkward landing, accompanied by a crushed windpipe had led to a broken neck for Denton.  

With police at the gates and a number of government employees dead by their hands, some quick thinking had been required.  When the law made it to the ruined temple the group sheltered in, they discovered the body of FBI Senior Agent Denton, along with video evidence of how he got that way, courtesy of Susan, who grudgingly handed over her only evidence of the supernatural happenings of the night only after receiving a promise that she would get it back unharmed.  

Marcone had been arrested on general principle even before the police had the full story, as had Potter once it was revealed he was in the other man's employ, although Hendricks was spared by virtue of his injuries.  That was five hours ago, and Potter had been stuck in an interrogation cell since then.  

The door to the cell slammed open, breaking the silence of the last seven or so hours.  A burly looking detective in a black suit with a yellow Tweety Bird tie led the way, while a taller, thinner man clad in blue followed behind.

Black suit reversed a chair on the other side of the table Potter was seated at and sat down heavily, a smug grin spread across his face, while his partner sat down more sedately.  He reminded the wizard of his cousin.  “Twenty five to life.  That's what you're going away for you little bastard.  Thought you could kill a member of the FBI and get away with it?  Your boss didn't fancy doing any time himself, so he gave you up like that,” the man clicked his fingers.  

Potter looked at the man, amused.  “No, he didn't,” he replied, looking perfectly at ease despite his situation.  

“You think he'd go in to bat for a piece of shit grunt like you?” Black suit sneered.  “You're small fry you little fucker, not even worth his time to protect.”

“And I suppose he threw Hendricks to the wolves as well?” Potter asked curiously.  

“Not that one,” Blue suit spoke up for the first time.  “See, Hendricks has been with Marcone long enough that if he tried to give him up, he would ruin him completely.  You though, you're the new guy, expendable.  You probably haven't even been clued in to many of his operations.”

“Well, that's true,” Potter mused.  “I've only been working for him a few days now.”  

“And now he's throwing you away like a used condom,” Black suit laughed like he'd told a great joke.  

“Easy there,” Blue suit remonstrated his partner, before turning back to Potter.  “How old are you, kid?  I've got a son, 17, see?” the detective reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, flipping it open to reveal a picture of a freckled kid.  “You don't look that much older than him.  What are you doing mixed up with Marcone's type?”

“He pays extremely well,” Potter admitted candidly.  

“He would pay well, he only needed you to take the fall,” Blue suit revealed with a hint of disgust, while Black suit snorted beside him.  He leaned forward, before confiding in a whisper, “this is a pretty standard practice for him.  Take in a kid who might be a bit down on his luck, offer to take care of him, and then leave him to take the rap for whatever law breaking he's been up to lately.”

“He does?” Potter asked dubiously, leaning in as well.  

“All the fucking time,” Black suit announced.  “Usually by the time we get to the dipshits who fall for his little games they're in the middle of of cast-iron court case with all the evidence pointing at them.”

“What my partner is trying to say here, Harry, is that this time we got to you in time,” Blue suit explained earnestly.  Potter held back a twitch at the way he used his name, but kept his face clear and interested.  “If you can give us evidence that proves you didn't shoot Agent Benn first, we still might be able to get you off, regardless of what Marcone and Hendricks are saying.”

“Agent Benn?” Potter asked with a frown.

“She was the female agent who we found dead with multiple bullet wounds in her torso,” Blue suit revealed gravely.  “According to Marcone, you shot her when she rejected the advances you made.”

“Ahhh,” Potter nodded in understanding.  “Yeah, I'm going to have to tell you to go fuck yourself.”

“Excuse me?” Blue suit blinked.  

“Go.  Fuck.  Yourself.  Denton shot Benn when she tried to stop him from killing us, and the dogs that the other two had turned on them.  I don't know what this whole thing was about,” Potter waved his hand in an expansive gesture with an expression of contempt, “but if you're trying to make something up to pin on Marcone when there was a journalist, a P.I and a police lieutenant there to back us up on what happened, you're delusional.  And your tie looks retarded,” he added offhandedly to Black suit.

Black suit scowled heavily, while Blue suit leaned back in his chair and sighed.  “Listen you little shit,” Black suit hissed as he rose to his feet and shoved the table forwards, trapping Potter against the wall.  “We know there's more to what happened than the little story you fucks are telling, and I--”

“My my,” a new voice cut across the detective's attempt at intimidation.  “I could have a field day here.  Arrested without cause, denied counsel, deprived of sleep, attempted coercion with a side of assault—where should I begin?”

Black suit backed off and turned to glare at the newcomer as Potter looked him over.  He was an elderly gentleman, impeccably dressed, a monogrammed handkerchief in his breast pocket, a leather briefcase in one hand and a polished cane supporting him in the other.  

“Hello, Mr Potter.  I am Mr Moresby, Mr Marcone's lawyer.  He asked that I see to your release, as by all rights you should have been out of here after a quick statement hours ago,” the lawyer introduced himself, gesturing to the cell doorway in invitation.  

Potter kicked the table away, freeing himself from his position pinned against the wall.  “It was fun while it lasted guys,” he drawled as he walked past the fuming Black suit and the resigned Blue suit.  “We should do this again some time.”  With a final wink to Black suit, the wizard left the room, Moresby following behind.  

As they passed through the mostly empty police station, Potter caught a glimpse of the sunrise through the clouds as they exited the building.  

“Mr Marcone has retired to his office to attend to several pressing business matters, but asked me to convey several messages to you,” Moresby began as they stopped beside a sleek, expensive looking car.  “He has received word that the one known as 'Tera' is alive and as well as can be expected, and is currently recovering under care he has provided.  Mr Marcone also asked that you return to his estate to assist a Mr Dresden in the 'MacFinn' situation as he put it.  To that end, I offer you a ride.”

Potter turned the information over in his head for a short moment, before shaking his head.  “Thanks for the offer, but I'll make my own way over to Marcone's place.”

“Got a broomstick hidden somewhere, do you?”  Moresby asked archly, causing Potter to raise an eyebrow.  “Mr Marcone briefed me on the terms of your employment,” he explained with a quirk of his lips, “and he is no fool.  I may have my reservations, but Mr Marcone does not engage my services for any but those within his immediate circle.”

“Thanks for getting me out of there,” Potter replied, ignoring the unasked question.  “But I suppose I should be getting over to Marcone's place.”  With a quick glance up and down the near silent street for anyone watching them directly, he turned on his heel and vanished, leaving behind a gaping old man, all composure forgotten.  

X

Potter appeared several meters from the pit containing the loup-garou, the soft snap of his Apparation loud in the cold morning air.  The ground still bore the marks of the previous night's battle, patches of charred grass, upturned earth and small craters dotted about the landscape.  The figure that had been standing at the edge of the pit had whirled to face him, staff at the ready, but relaxed when they saw who it was.  

“Potter,” Dresden acknowledged with a nod of his head, before turning back to the pit.  

“Dresden,” Potter replied.  He noted that the avoidance charms he had weaved over the pit had been hammered down, although the illusion of the pond remained.  

“I broke down the mental suggestions you put up, but I'm having trouble with the veil,” Dresden said by way of introduction.  “I've never been that good with veils, and I'm too low on juice to brute force it,” he admitted grudgingly.  

“How long have you been at it?” Potter asked in curiosity as he began unraveling his illusion, mentally connecting that Dresden had identified his illusion as a 'veil'.

“Maybe twenty minutes.  The mental part took me five.  You want to be careful with those, by the way,” Dresden cautioned him with a frown.  “You might not have any problem jumping into bed with Marcone, but you want to stay off the White Council's bad side.  Mental suggestions like that are very iffy, borderline third Law.”

“You have a problem with me working for Marcone?” Potter inquired as he continued to work, deftly ignoring the reminder about the Laws of Magic.  

“I do, actually,” Dresden told him bluntly, for a moment looking rather grim in his leather duster and hat as he leaned on his staff.  “You were born with an ability above your average mortal, and instead of using it to help people, you go and throw your lot in with a man who profits from crime.”

“And why should I go out of my way to help people I've never met and have never done anything for me, Reverend?” Potter returned idly.  

“You wouldn't help a stranger in the street if they asked for help?” Dresden asked in response.  

“I might.  But I'd also be watching for the friend ready to wallop me over the head and go through my pockets,” Potter replied shortly, now stopping his work completely to focus on Dresden.

“I had you pegged as a Good Guy after I helped you out the other day,” Dresden stated offhandedly, alluding to their first meeting at his office.

“Didn't your mother ever teach you not to rely on first impressions?” Potter asked.

“My mother died giving birth to me.  Didn't yours teach you not to make assumptions?” Dresden responded dryly.

“My mother gave her life to save mine when I was a year old.  She didn't quite have the time,” Potter responded, equally as dry.  

A cloud passed over the morning sun, darkening the sky for an instant.  Then it passed.  

“I've seen your soul, Harry,” Dresden told him seriously.  “You're not the sort to join up with Marcone because a life of organised crime is the one for you.”

“You forget I've seen yours too, Harry,” Potter told the other wizard, lips quirking into a brief grin.  “And Marcone isn't the devil you'd like to believe him to be.”

“So because he isn't as bad as he could be, it makes it okay for him to sell drugs to kids and make money off a woman selling her body?” Dresden demanded.  

Potter raised his eyes to the sky, considering his answer.  “I've lived through a war, Dresden.  I survived, my friends and enemies didn't.  And you know what?  After the hundreds that were tortured, killed and lost, nothing changed.  The same sort of people were in power in the government, the same prejudices that I bled and killed to see erased remained.  After some of the things I've seen, hell, after some of the things I've done, one man running a criminal empire in a single city that could be so much worse really doesn't seem that bad to me.”

Dresden fell silent, turning Potter's words over in his mind.  While he himself was at least a few years the other wizard's senior, he couldn't help but see him as older after that little speech.  Finally, he sighed.  “I suppose the pay helps a lot too,” he said conversationally, a peace offering.  

“Oh yes,” Potter grinned, beginning his work on the illusion again.  “It certainly does.”

“How good is it?” Dresden asked somewhat mournfully, thinking of all the bills he had laying on his table back at his apartment.  

“Ludicrous.”

“How ludicrous?”

Very ludicrous.”

“Posh English twat.”

“Unrefined American heathen.”  

The two wizards grinned at the banter, the slight tension between them fading a little.  

“I can see why you wouldn't mind working for Marcone,” Dresden granted.  “But I'd never be able to do it myself.  And I figure you would have helped out with the loup-garou even if Marcone wasn't paying you too.”

“I don't know about that,” Potter replied mock dubiously.  “My Good Samaritan tendencies are strictly per dollar these days.  I've long since grown out of my 'saving people thing',” he finished with the barest hint of wistfulness.

“Tera probably would have died if you hadn't gotten her out of the fight like you had,” Dresden told him somberly, bringing a serious tone back to their conversation.  “I don't think I would have been able to deal with MacFinn without killing him, either.”

Potter shrugged, not making any verbal reply.  

“You have to show me how you did that thing with the trees though,” Dresden continued thoughtfully, rubbing his chin.  “Ents on demand?  Saruman eat your heart out.”

“I'll trade you for that trick you did with the plush toy to muzzle the loup-garou,” Potter offered.  He almost had the right thread to unravel his illusion now.  

Dresden paused, surprised at the offer.  He hadn't expected the other wizard to want to share such a valuable trick.  “Thaumaturgy?  It isn't exactly a secret forbidden art...” he trailed off, cursing his sense of fair play.  

“It might as well be for me.  I've never seen anything quite like it,” Potter confessed.  “And neither is my trick where I come from.”

The comment sobered Dresden.  “That's right.  You hide your tentacles so well I keep forgetting you come from...Somewhere Else.  I might not even be able to use your type of mojo.”

“Couldn't hurt to try though,” Potter remained optimistic.  “Worst that could happen is that it doesn't work.  And my magic does work here if only for me, even if it has been feeling...different.  Aha!” he exclaimed, having finally found the right 'thread'.  He could have taken the illusion down much more easily by just removing the spell behind it, but the illusion itself would have lingered.  Finding the right thread took more skill and resulted in a better job overall.  It was like the difference between kicking a tent over or dismantling it in order.  

With the illusion removed, both wizards peered over the edge of the pit and through the iron grate that was now revealed.  

“Hello up there,” said the grumpy naked man at the bottom of the pit.  “Not that I'm not grateful for getting me down here last night, but if you could get me out of this blasted pit?”

X

Twenty minutes later, MacFinn had been rescued from the pit and enjoyed the hospitality of a shower in Marcone's manor, while Dresden had 'liberated' a set of expensive clothes from somewhere (most likely Marcone's wardrobe, but Potter wasn't going to comment) that were ill fitting on MacFinn's large form, but still better than nothing.  

MacFinn had listened in silence seated on a couch in the parlour of Marcone's manor as Dresden introduced him to Potter before telling the story of the previous night.  Once the tale was done, he was quiet for several minutes as he digested it.  

“Thank you,” he replied at length.  “Those damned hexenwolves nearly ruined everything.  I'm glad you were able to resolve the conflict with them,” MacFinn finished with a grin that told Potter he hadn't entirely left his wolfish instincts behind when he reverted to human form.  “If either of you ever need a favour, just ask, and I'll do my best to repay the debt I owe you both.”

Dresden nodded, while Potter filed this away for future reference.  He did enjoy being owed favours.  

“You wouldn't happen to know where Tera was taken, would you?” MacFinn asked somewhat anxiously.  

“Marcone apparently has a driver ready to take you to her,” Dresden explained, looking sour at being relegated to messenger status.  Potter suspected Marcone had given Dresden the message to pass on just to get a rise out of him, but he wouldn't be the one to mention that.  

“I'd best get going then,” MacFinn said, rising to his feet.  Potter and Dresden mirrored him.  

“I'll be joining you then.  I car pooled to get here and my ride left without me,” Dresden told him.  

“I guess I'll see the pair of you around then,” Potter shrugged as they made their way out of the manor.  “I was woken at an ungodly hour yesterday morning and I don't think I've had anything past a coffee and a sandwich since then.”

With a nod to Dresden and MacFinn, Potter made his way to the garage where he had stowed his bike, while they approached the limousine that was apparently waiting for them.

Staring at his bike as he fought to keep his eyes open a minute later, Potter quickly decided against driving back to his hotel.  Closing his eyes, he turned on his heel, before reopening them to find himself in a secluded corner of his hotel lobby.  Trudging past the reception, he had almost made it to the elevator before a voice called out to him.  

“Excuse me, Mr Potter?”

Turning to the source of the voice, he raised his eyebrows in silent question, allowing the dark bags that were surely present under his eyes do the talking for him.  If the same blonde receptionist who had checked him in was fazed by his appearance, she didn't let it show.  

“Mr Potter, you received a message while you were out.  It is available for you on the message bank of your room phone,” the woman told him politely.  

Fixing a smile to his face, Potter turned back to the elevator, intent on reaching his room without further disturbance.  One interminably long elevator ride with insufferable music later, he had reached his floor.  He passed the red headed child waiting for the elevator without a second glance, almost tripped over a maid cart and weaved drunkenly past several other people before stumbling towards his door and fumbling with the keys for several moments before gaining entry.  

Shucking his boots, jacket and shirt in a trail to his bed, he struggled with his jeans fruitlessly for several moment before giving it up as a bad job and sprawling on his lovely, comforting, utterly awesome bed.  

The message on his phone could wait.  Right now, the most important thing was sleep.  It had been a long working day, and he had better been paid overtime for his efforts.  

If he had been slightly more aware, he might have spared a moment to be concerned over the fact that there was no one in this new world who might leave him a message that he hadn't just spent the past day with.  

Chapter 3: Nine to Five

The phone was ringing.  

Potter groaned, pulling his pillow over his head in a vain attempt to block the piercing sound.  

The phone was ringing shrilly, disturbing his rest.  

Potter swore and twisted around beneath the cover of his bed, bleary eyes searching for the digital clock in the darkness of the room.  

The phone was ringing shrilly, disturbing his rest, at five in the fucking morning.

Potter was going to murder someone.  Then he would bring them back to life and flay them.  Then he would parade their naked corpse through the city like a marionette.  Then he would--

“What?” Potter barked into the phone in a tone that would have broken lesser men.  

“Mr Harry Potter?” a polite woman's voice inquired as if it were a normal hour.  

“Speaking,” he replied, eyes closed in hopes that he could just go back to sleep after the call was over.

“I'm calling on behalf of the Aestiva Hotel, Mr Potter.  I left a message for you the day before yesterday, but you failed to contact me,” the woman continued in business like tones.  

“Terribly sorry about that,” Potter replied in a tone somehow bordering between cheer and venom, “but I hadn't slept or eaten for a few days and was rather looking forward to catching up on my rest.”

“I see.  Regardless, Mr Potter, this is a matter of some urgency.  Would you be amenable to a meeting at the Aestiva office headquarters this morning?”

“No,” Potter responded, jaw clenched.  “This isn't something we can deal with over the phone?  Or, you know, at a time of day that doesn't leave me feeling homicidal?”  

“It is in regards to the conditions of your stay at our hotel, Mr Potter.  There seems to have been some irregularity with your paperwork,” the woman explained brusquely, ignoring the wizards sarcasm.  

Potter's face contorted in a silent frustrated scream before smoothing.  “And what might the issue be, madam?” he asked in polite tones.  

“The method of payment, Mr Potter.  I'm going to have to insist that we meet at my office as soon as possible.”

Potter massaged his temple with the hand that wasn't occupied by a phone.  He was tired, cranky, and the sudden onset of a ravenous appetite wasn't helping matters.  “Can't I just leave a fucking IOU at the front desk or something?” he asked grumpily.  

There was a pause on the line.  “That would be sufficient, Mr Potter.  We can even have the relevant paperwork prepared for you at your convenience.”

“Oh, well so long as it's at my convenience,” Potter snarked.  

“Indeed,” the woman replied dryly in the first hint of emotion all phone call.  “Thank you for your patience.  I wish you a pleasant day.”

“Yes, you have a pleasant day too, won't you?” Potter stated mockingly.  

“Please don't forget the paperwork, Mr Potter, as  I will be obliged to perform follow up calls until you comply if you do,” the woman responded in a tone that was definitely amused before hanging up.  

“Bitch,” Potter muttered into the disconnected phone before placing it back into its cradle.  He stretched out on the bed, groaning in pleasure as he worked out several kinks in his back, before throwing the pillow back over his head.  Another thirty hours of sleep sounded like a good idea right about then.  

X

Five hours later saw Potter awake and searching through the bare cupboards in the kitchen in pursuit of food.  After discovering what appeared to be a menu, he quickly called up room service and placed an order for an English breakfast.  Fifteen minutes after that, there was a knock on his door.  The cart that was escorted in by an attractive brunette had his mouth watering in anticipation at ten paces.  He hadn't even smelled a breakfast like this in years.  

Some time later, a sated wizard relaxed back onto his couch, looking about the tastefully furnished hotel room as he digested his meal.  A sheet of paper poking out from beneath the tray his food had been brought on caught his eye.  Further inspection revealed it to be a fancily drawn contract, gold lettering on a forest green card with space provided for even the most flamboyant signature at the bottom.  After a moment, Potter realised that this was the 'IOU' the woman from the hotel had been hounding him about earlier that morning.  

“...I, Harry Potter, do acknowledge...existence of debt...Aestiva Holdings...in return for accommodation...discharged at CEO's discretion...blah blah...jargon jargon...sign here...oh, fuck off would you?”

Potter snapped his fingers, a spark leaping from them to the contract.  He watched as the paper burned, inwardly amused.  A fancy IOU like this might mean something to the Muggles and their businesses, but not him.  Rising to his feet, Potter gathered the remains of his breakfast together on the tray provided and placed it out in the hall, the ashes of the card piled neatly on the plate.  He then went about preparing for his day, a spring in his step.  After twenty four hours of sleep, he was restored, recharged, and ready to do something exciting.  With the image of his destination held in his mind's eye, he turned on his heel and disappeared with a quiet crack.  

X

Inside a familiar club, Potter approached a door that led to his employer's office.  Several young men and women were moving around the bar area, cleaning up the remaining mess from the previous night and preparing for the next.  Some of them glanced at the strange kid who had recently been hired by the boss for his other business as he weaved through the couches and high tables scattered about the place.  Approaching the entrance to his boss' office, he threw the door open without knocking and strolled on in.  

“Good morning, Mr Potter,” Marcone greeted without looking up from his dark mahogany desk.  “It is good to see you returned to the world of the living.”

“Hey Johnny,” Potter stated casually, slumping down into the chair in front of the desk.  “Miss me?”

Marcone refrained from rolling his eyes at the wizard's behaviour, but it was a near thing.  “Terribly,” he agreed with a perfectly straight face.  “Mr Potter, I need a better way of contacting you than sending Miss Blue over in the mornings with coffee.”

“Yes, you do,” Potter agreed.  “Terrible swill that stuff.”

“Quite,” Marcone stated dryly as he sifted through various paperwork.  “I would appreciate if you would organise a method through which you may be contacted in case of emergency.”

“Sure,” Potter nodded, “I'll pick up a mobile phone or something.”

“Excuse me?” Marcone sat up, giving his full attention to Potter.

“Isn't that what they're called?” Potter asked.  “Or is it cell phones?”

“Mr Potter,” Marcone began slowly.  “I was under the impression that wizards of your and Mr Dresden's calibre were incapable of using modern technology without causing it to spontaneously combust.”

“Uhh, I've never had that problem?” Potter replied in a bemused tone.

“Well, that is convenient then,” Marcone considered, before moving on.  “Mr Potter, I have a new project for you.  The more I discover of the supernatural world, the more I realise just how woefully undefended I am against it.  I would like you to remedy that.”

Potter grimaced, thinking on his current magical disabilities.  

Marcone, misreading the expression, held up his hand to forestall him.  “I realise that you lack detailed knowledge of certain beings, Mr Potter.  I am not so demanding as to ask for a defence for every possible creature or threat out there.  I merely wish for a degree of protection that will stop such a threat from waltzing in off the street.”

“There might be a bit of a problem with that,” Potter revealed, sitting up straighter in his chair.  

Marcone frowned almost imperceptibly, steepling his hands before him.  “And what might that problem be?”

“Before you hired me, I was...injured, I guess would be the best word,” Potter began, using the same tale he had revealed to Suzie after the failed lycanthrope attack.  “Normally, I could weave a horrible amount of protective wards around any given place.  Intruders would be burned, crushed, imprisoned.  I could have caused the very existence of a place to be forgotten by all who knew of it, but...” he shrugged.  “Right now I'm limited to whatever spells I can attach to the building.  They're effective enough, but they wouldn't stop me if I wanted in.”

Marcone pondered the new information, turning what he knew over in his mind.  “Where do you come from, Mr Potter?” he asked, out of the blue.  

“I was born in London,” Potter answered easily.

“They don't have loup-garou's in London then?” Marcone inquired.  

“Not that I've seen,” the wizard replied.  

“Mr Potter,” Marcone began slowly.  “Just how much knowledge do you have of the supernatural world?”

Potter took a breath, considering his answer.  “Honestly?” he asked, receiving a nod in reply.  “I probably have no idea of more than a fraction of what's out there.  What I do know is from creatures similar enough that I can match them to.”

“I am not pleased that you chose to withhold this information,” Marcone warned, anger appearing on his face.  “I hired you under the assumption that you held a certain knowledge of the supernatural world.”

“No, you hired me under the assumption that I could smack your werewolf problem around like a little bitch,” Potter retorted, leaning forward.  “I may be temporarily limited, but my power remains unchecked.  I never told you a lie, and I dealt with the problem you hired me for.”

“My instinct tells me to trust you, Mr Potter, but experience so far has shown me reason to be wary.  I cannot continue our contract in good conscience unless you stop hiding information that I need to know,” Marcone revealed, delivering his ultimatum.  

“You will not find another wizard with my powers on this planet,” Potter told him calmly, no expression on his face.  “There will always be someone stronger, and there are plenty with more knowledge than I, but you will never find another wizard capable of the things I can do.”

Marcone stared his employee down, judging him.  “The FBI agents,” he stated suddenly.  “You were able to control their actions.  You had them turn on each other and dance to your tune.  Why are you working for me, when presumably, you could work the same magic on myself?”

“I will never use that magic except on an enemy,” Potter answered immediately.  “It is a vile spell and I have seen it used to turn good men into mere puppets far too often to have any wish to do it myself.  Besides,” he grinned wryly, “making money is far more fun when it isn't just given to you.”

“I see,” Marcone replied, turning over the clearer picture he now had of Potter in his mind.  “Then, as my employee, what would you suggest?”

“You should probably hire someone who knows more about what you want to know,” Potter admitted easily.

“And what if I decide that I only need one wizard in my employ?” Marcone asked curiously.  

“You won't,” Potter answered easily.  

“Oh?  And why not?”

“Because I'm Harry fucking Potter,” the man smirked.  “And while you might find some wizard and drag him from his tower and into your business, no timid, well read scholar will ever be as awesome as I am.”

Marcone's mouth twitched.  “I see,” he repeated, before reaching into a draw and pulling out a folder, sliding it across the desk into Potter's reach.  The wizard opened it and flicked through the pages inside.  “That is a list of properties I would like you to take a look at.  Do what you can and record it in the space provided.  Return it to me when you are finished.”

“It'll take me a day or three,” Potter responded, looking through the pages.  He closed the file and tucked it inside his jacket, before rising to his feet.  

“That is acceptable.  Miss Blue has been informed of your task and will be available to aid you if you should need it.  She should be at the office building where you obtained your new identity,” Marcone said, his attention turning back to the work on his desk.  

Potter gave his boss a nod before turning towards the door—and disappearing with a snap.  Marcone twitched at the unexpected action, closing his eyes briefly before returning to his work.

A binding folder on a high shelf toppled onto its side throwing up a small cloud of dust where it sat near the only window in the office.  Marcone frowned.  He didn't recall opening that window.  Making a note to have Hendricks' check his office for bugs, he was suddenly amused by the thought of what the possible eavesdroppers must have thought of him now, calmly discussing wizardry and supernatural threats in a serious manner.  Allowing himself a rare chuckle, he once again busied himself in his work.  

X

Suzie jerked and swore, hand going to the draw that held her gun as she suddenly became aware of a presence in her office.  

Grinning widely despite the hand cannon aimed squarely at his head, Potter sat himself down on the edge of her desk.  “Hey there Suzie,” he greeted.  “How's things?”

Her heart rate slowing to a normal pace, Suzie returned her gun to the draw.  “Oh, things are great,” she replied in a sarcastic tone, flipping blue hair from her eyes.  “I've had to deal with idiots all morning, the work is piling up, and strange kid wizards are just appearing in my office.”

“You're not old enough to call me a kid,” Potter replied with an exaggerated pout.  

“You know, I'm pretty sure you've been wearing those clothes every time I've seen you,” Suzie stated, ignoring him as she examined his jeans, shirt and jacket with narrowed eyes.  “You haven't been wearing those clothes every time I've seen you, have you?” she asked in a warning tone.  

“Well, yeah,” Potter admitted sheepishly.  “These are the only clothes I own.”

Suzie stared at him, nose crinkled up in disgust.  “That's terrible!  They'd have to be bloody filthy by now.  Ugh, I don't even want to know what they smell like.”

“They're not so bad,” Potter defended his clothing.  “Besides, I have magic to keep them clean.”

“Buy some new clothes.  Seriously,” Suzie told him frankly.  “And don't say you can't afford it.  I know how much you got paid the other day,” she said, before her expression turned teasing.  “Unless the mighty wizard blew it all on booze and hookers his first night out on the town as a legal adult.”

“Oh, like I need money to pull women,” Potter groused.  “And that wasn't my first night out.  I'm not as young as you seem to think.”

“Sure sure,” Suzie waved him off airily.  “Now, what are you invading my office for?”

“Johnny told me you'd be able to show me where these places are,” Potter explained, pulling the folder he had been given from inside his jacket and throwing it down on the desk.  He waited as Suzie flicked through it.  

“Yeah, the boss man told me about this,” she replied absently.  “Most of these places are relatively close together.  I didn't expect you until later though.”

“Are you good to show me them today?” Potter asked.  

“Yeah, it's no problem.  Let me close up shop here and I'll drive you there,” Suzie replied, a smirk spreading across her face.  “You don't have any problems with me driving, do you?”

Recalling the...fervor with which Suzie negotiated the roads of Chicago, Potter narrowed his eyes at the impish woman grinning across the desk at him.  

“Of course,” he replied easily.  “Why would I?”

X

Potter stepped out of the car with no small amount of relief.  It seemed Suzie had taken his comment as a challenge to drive with even more wild abandon than their previous trip together.  

“Decent time getting here, I suppose,” Potter remarked in an uninterested tone.  “Although you could have gone a bit faster along the overpass.”  

“I'll keep that in mind,” Suzie replied, looking just a tad disappointed at his reaction.   

“So what is this place?”  Potter asked curiously as they approached the first building on the list.

They were in the middle of suburbia, surrounded by rows upon rows of near identical houses, green lawns and soccer mum vans.  Their first stop was one of those houses, albeit one that looked more unkempt and unused than its neighbours.  

Suzie shrugged as they walked up the small stairs to the door.  “I wouldn't know.”

“I thought you knew what all these places were?” Potter asked as he watched her examine the area around the front door.  

“Silly wizard.  I'm driving you around because I know my way around town.  You expect me to know each and every building the boss man owns?” she raised a pierced eyebrow.  

“Ok, now I feel a bit stupid,” Potter admitted as Suzie began to lift up the numerous pot plants arrayed around the front porch.  “What are you doing?”

“Looking for the key,” came the short reply.  “Are you going to just stand there or will you give me a hand?” she asked with a small amount of irritation.  The sound of a latch turning and the door creaking open answered her question.  

“Wizard,” Potter grinned at her cockily, slipping his wand back up his sleeve.  Stepping inside, the two of them looked around the place.  

Despite its outward appearance, the interior of the house appeared to be well used, if a little empty.  Sparse furniture along with a lack of pictures on the walls gave the house a sterile feel.  

“What does the boss want you to do with these places anyway?” Suzie asked curiously as she sat herself down in the single armchair in the living room.  

“Set up a bit of magical protection,” Potter called as he wandered through the house, inspecting doorways and walls.  

“Yeah?” Suzie replied, intrigued.  “How does that work?”

“Well, normally I'd kidnap a few virgins, gather some gypsy tears and dance naked under the moon, but I'm limited in what I can do at the moment.”

“Oh?”

“Remember how I told you I'd been injured and it was affecting my magic?” Potter asked as he returned to the living room, receiving a nod in response.  “This sort of work needs the type of magic I'm having trouble with at the moment, so I've gotta fall back on something less elegant.”  

“And what's that?” Suzie asked, growing more and more interested.  

“Pranking spells,” Potter grinned.  “Something I learned from the best.”

“Pranking,” Suzie asked sceptically, watching as the wizard began to mutter to himself as he sketched the outline of the front door with his wand.  

“Never underestimate the potential for harm of a good prank,” Potter lectured.  “Sure, this spell here might turn someone's skin yellow, but it could also spell out a message screaming 'intruder!' that resists all attempts to cover it up, and if I wanted to be really nasty, it can even peel strips of skin of its victim.”

“Fair enough then,” Suzie replied, somewhat spooked at the idea of walking through a door only to have herself spontaneously skinned.  Then a thought occurred to her, “how will you make it so it doesn't hit the people who are supposed to be here?”

“I'll tell Marcone how to 'key' people into it,” Potter explained as he continued to work.  “Then he can tell whoever needs to know.  It's simple and you don't need magic for it, but hard to stumble across.”

Conversation fell silent for several minutes as Suzie continued to watch Potter work.  After muttering a litany of foreign sounding phrases to himself and tapping the doorway in various different places, he moved on to the window in the living room.  

“Where did you learn all of this anyway?” the blue haired woman asked, curiosity getting the better of her at last.  

“I went to a school for magic users when I was eleven years old,” Potter replied after a short pause.  “Stayed there for seven years.”

“They teach teenagers how to make walking tree monsters and turn cars into tigers?” Suzie asked dubiously.  

“Not normally, no.  I was a bit of a special case though,” he replied, finishing up at the living room window and moving into the kitchen.  

“Why's that?”

“Because I devoured every bit of knowledge I thought might be useful and my mentors there knew better than to leave me with too much spare time on my hands,” came the response, the tone giving Suzie an image of a satisfied smirk.  

“So can anyone learn how to do magic?” Suzie asked nonchalantly.  

“Find it useful, ey?” Potter called knowingly, teasingly.  “Unfortunately, you either have it or you don't.  If you had it, you'd know.”

“Ah, fair enough,” Suzie replied, keeping the disappointment from her voice.  The conversation dropped off again as Potter moved to the back door, finished with the kitchen windows.  

“What happened to your accents?” Potter asked several minutes later as he worked through the bedrooms while Suzie took the chance to relax in the rather comfortable armchair.  

“My what?”

“Your accents.  You know, how you sprouted off in English, South African and Australian when we met the other day,” the wizard called impatiently.  

“Oh, those,” Suzie replied with an Irish lilt.  “I can't say I know what you're talking about.”

A pink light came whizzing out of the hallway and into the living room, hitting Suzie in the ribs and radiating a tickling sensation.  Suzie shot up from her chair, clutching at her sides as she fought back giggles.  

“That was just a light touch of what I can do,” Potter called, amusement in his voice.  

“It's a habit I've gotten into through my work,” Suzie replied with a shrug despite the fact that he couldn't see her.  “You'd be surprised how knowing someone's accent can help you.”

“Your work?”

“Information.  I've a talent for looking at a bunch of little things and coming up with something useful for the boss man,” Suzie explained.  

“What sort of things?” Potter had finished in the bedrooms and was now doing something to the hat stand in the hall.  

“Like...give me the traffic ticket records of a guy the boss wants to find and the surveillance tapes of the gas stations around those areas and I'll tell you where he's based,” she expanded.

“Sounds pretty simple,” Potter replied, not sounding too impressed.  

“If you know what you're looking for, sure,” Suzie snorted.  “But try coming up with an answer when all you have to go on is the area they distribute their product in and a vague description.  You wouldn't believe the amount of shit you have to sort through to get what you want.”

“I stand corrected,” the wizard replied amusedly.  “And that's us done here.  On to the next one?”

X

Their next destination was another safe house, and after that a small office building.  They ran through these locations in a similar manner to the first, Potter enjoying himself thinking up new ways to incapacitate possible intruders with vicious minded former prank spells.  If he couldn't weave himself a proper ward, he was going to have to become downright fiendish with his use of static spells, especially when he eventually accumulated possessions that he couldn't afford to leave unprotected.  He was sure his godfather would have been proud.  

Things continued along this vein until they reached one of their last locations of the day, a small warehouse in downtown.  While the workers at the office building they had visited had been content to leave them be, the few thugs loitering at the warehouse were apparently starved for entertainment.  

“I'm afraid this is private property yeh're intruding on here,” the leader of the four men hanging about at the delivery entrance of the warehouse grinned at the pair of them, revealing a set of yellowing teeth.  

“Shove off, you little ingrate,” Suzie snapped back with uncharacteristic force.  

“Ooh, kitty's got claws,” one of the men chuckled.  The others moved to block their entrance to the building.

“You know damn well who I am Steiner,” Suzie told the leader with a disgusted twitch of her lips.

“That I do young lass,” Steiner, the lead thug, nodded mockingly.  “But I don't know who the bloke with you is.  Just doing me job protecting Mr Marcone's warehouse, yeh see.”

“Hendricks isn't going to be happy if he has to come down here again,” Suzie warned as she let her hand drift very obviously to the gun at her hip.  

“Just like I'm sure Marcone won't be much pleased yeh shanghaied his number one into talking to a few small time yeh couldn't handle yourself,” Steiner smiled unpleasantly.  “And of the pair of us, I'm not the one who'd lose more getting into his bad books.”

“What the fuck do you think you're accomplishing here?” Suzie asked after closing her eyes briefly to ward off her forming headache.  

“I was thinking yeh could go out of yeh're way to make life a little easier for me and my boys,”  Steiner suggested, rubbing his hands together.  “Yeh do that, and maybe I won't mention the little boy toy yeh brought into one of the boss's special warehouses.”

“She could do that,” Potter began slowly, speaking up for the first time.  “Or you could just let us past and go back to sucking each other off.”

“Yeh little cunt!” Steiner spat.  “Who the fuck do yeh think yeh are, talking to me like that?” He pulled a gun from the back of his waist band, shoving it in Potter's face.

Steiner found himself staring down a thin wooden stick, grasped by the man who he held at gunpoint.  “And what the fuck are yeh going to do with that?” he snorted contemptuously.  “Poke me eye out?”

“I think the more important question, little man,” Potter began thoughtfully, “is what are are you going to do with that.”

There was no movement for a long moment as the thugs struggled to answer the obvious question.  Then Steiner let out a pitiful little shriek, drawing all attention to himself.  

In the place of his gun, a hissing snake was coiled around his hand, swaying back and forth as it rose.  Its dark brown scales seemed to shine in the afternoon sun as it opened its maw, displaying a huge pair of fangs.

“It seems you've made a new friend, Steiner,” Potter mused as the thugs looked on dumbstruck.  “Do you know what that is?  That's a Coastal Taipan, the deadliest snake in the world.  I was bitten by one once, and I was lucky to survive,” he smiled thinly.  “It was excruciating.”

Steiner began to shake, and the snake hissed loudly.  

“Careful there,” Potter warned, his tone light.  “They don't like being shaken around like that.  Maybe you should keep your arm a bit steadier?”

“What the fuck did you do?” Steiner whispered harshly, barely daring to breathe as he forcibly stopped his arm from shaking.

“I turned your gun into a deadly snake.  What are you, an idiot?” Potter smirked.  The snake in question began to pull back, readying itself to strike.  “I wouldn't say anything more, you've gone and made it angry.  Well, angrier.  Would you like me to do something about that for you?” he asked politely.  

Not daring to speak, let alone move, Steiner could only nod fractionally.  He nearly leapt back in fright while his companions muttered startled oaths when the strange kid threatening him began hissing at the snake, his tongue flickering over his lips.  He began to shake uncontrollably again when the snake began hissing back.  

“She doesn't like you,” Potter smiled, revealing a stretch of white teeth.  “I don't like you either, so I'm going to have to ask you to give her to me.  Careful she doesn't bite you.”  

Steiner took one trembling step forward, then another, before he was in reach of the crazy kid.  He leaned forward with his arm still stretched out, not willing to get any closer.  “Take it,” he pleaded.  

Potter tsked at him.  “She, not it,” he admonished, before reaching out to him.  The taipan uncoiled itself from Steiner's wrist and slithered along Potter's hand, disappearing up his sleeve beneath his leather jacket.  “Very good,” he said approvingly, like a teacher to a student.  “Run along now.”

The thugs wasted no time in fleeing, one giving him a wide eyed look as they practically ran past, Steiner at the lead and no doubt headed for the nearest bar.

“That,” Suzie began, “was the coolest and creepiest thing I've seen all day.”  She gave him a wary look.  “Where'd the taipan go?  I'm not going near you if it could poke its head out from your sleeve at any moment,” she warned.  

“What taipan?” Potter smiled, adjusting his jacket to reveal a pistol tucked into the waist of his jeans.  

X x X

“What do you think you're playing at?” he shouted, and before Harry could say anything, Justin had turned and stormed out of the hall.

Snape stepped forward, waved his wand and the snake vanished in a small puff of black smoke.  Snape, too, was looking at Harry in an unexpected way: it was a shrewd and calculating look, along with a touch of amusement, and Harry didn't like it.  He was also dimly aware of an ominous muttering all around the walls.  Then he felt a tugging on the back of his robes.  

“Come on,” said Ron's voice in his ear.  “Move – come on...”

Ron steered him out of the hall, Hermione hurrying alongside.  As they went through the doors, the people on either side drew away as though they were frightened of catching something.  Harry didn't have a clue what was going on, and neither Ron nor Hermione looked like they were about to explain anything until they had dragged him halfway across the castle to the Gryffindor common room.  As they passed an empty classroom, Harry freed his arm from Ron's grip and grabbed both his friends' arms, hauling them out of the hall.  

“What's going on?” Harry demanded, slightly freaked out by the way his friends were looking at him.

“You're a Parselmouth.  Why didn't you tell us?”  Ron demanded.  

“I'm a what?” said Harry.  

“A Parselmouth!” said Ron.  “You can talk to snakes!”

“I know,” Harry replied, a bit bewildered by the deal Ron was making over it.  “I've done it before; I accidentally set a boa constrictor on Dudley once.”

“Bloody hell Harry,” Ron moaned, holding his head in his hands.  

“What's the big deal?” Harry questioned.  “I bet loads of people can do it.”

“Oh no they can't,” Ron told him.  “It's not common at all.  This is bad Harry.”

“Why is it bad?” Harry demanded, temper rising.  “If I hadn't told the snake to back off it would have bitten Justin!”

“Oh, that's what you said to it?”

“What d'you mean?  You were there...you heard me.”

“I heard you speaking Parseltongue,”” said Ron, “snake language.  You could have been saying anything.  No wonder Justin panicked, you sounded like you were egging the snake on or something.  It was creepy, you know.”

“I was speaking a different language?” Harry asked incredulously.  “How could I possibly speak a language if I didn't even know about it?”

Ron shook his head.  Both he and Hermione were looking as though someone had died.  Harry couldn't see what was so terrible.  

“What, so I was supposed to let the snake bit Justin's head off?” he demanded.  

“No, but you stopped it in just about the worst way you could!” Ron shook his head.  

“What's wrong with being a Parselmouth?” Harry asked exasperatedly.  

“Nothing is wrong with it,” Ron began bluntly, “except that every Parselmouth for the last few hundred years has gone Dark.  You-Know-Who was one.”

“It turns you Dark?” Harry asked nervously.  

“Of course not,” Hermione spoke finally, although she looked like she would have rather stayed quiet.  “Only the very worst magics can do anything like that.  Parselmouth is just another ability.”

“If there's nothing wrong with it, then what does it matter if people know about it?” Harry threw his hands in the air.  

“It matters,” Hermione started in a sharp tone, “because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for.  That's why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.”  

“And now people are going to think you're his great great great great grandson or something,” Ron predicted.  

“Why should I care what they think?” Harry questioned with a scowl.  

“Because they'll have you as the one opening the Chamber by morning, if they haven't already!” Ron almost exploded.  

“If they think that all because I can speak to snakes then they're not worth the time to worry about,” Harry retorted.  “They think speaking to snakes is wrong?  I'm not going to let them tell me what to do.”

“Just...be careful, would you mate?” Ron told him worriedly.  “There's people out there who'll take this seriously.”  

“I'll be careful,” Harry assured his friends.  “Besides, if this is something only a few people can do, then I'm already one up on them.”

X

That evening, Potter returned to his hotel room feeling more tired than expected for the days work—although that could be explained by the shopping bags weighing him down.  After finishing his work spelling the warehouse, Suzie had taken him to a nearby shopping mall, where she proceeded to drag him from store to store, but only after stealing several hundred dollars from his pockets.  Despite the novelty of it, the Shopping Trip was still one of the most mind-numbingly boring experiences he had been through.  

The bags he now carried through the door of his hotel room were laden with clothes, as well as a brand new 'flip top' phone (according to Suzie they were all the rage) and a small number of more uncommon objects he had found in what Suzie had called an alternate lifestyle store.  A flick of his wand and the bags containing his new clothes floated into the bedroom, while his other purchases arranged themselves around the small coffee table that sat between the couch and the TV.  

Sliding down to lean against the couch with his legs underneath the table, Potter up-ended a small bag over the wooden surface.  A number of small semi-precious stones tumbled out haphazardly.  He considered the collection of stones for a few moments, before picking out a peridot and moving the rest to the side.  His inability to forge wards or weave enchantments wasn't something he could let stand.  While he could still cast magic directly, he needed to find out what had curtailed his wider magical abilities unless he was ready to forfeit his hard earned skill in those fields.  

Not likely.  

Focusing on the green stone sitting before him, Potter concentrated on a basic cheering charm, enunciating each syllable to the spell clearly and moving through the wand movements precisely, making sure the spell was as perfect as he could make it before moving on to the next step.  Holding the magic within him, Potter began to weave a matrix to hold the charm around the peridot stone.  Once he was sure all was correct, he let the matrix holding the charm flow though his wand and sent it to latch around the stone.  For a long moment, the wizard surveyed the stone, waiting for something to happen.  When nothing did, he reached forward cautiously to grab the peridot.  

His cautiousness was well warranted.  As soon as he grasped the stone, a moment of cheer spread through him, before the stone cracked and shattered; the feeling changing, briefly becoming bitter before being banished.  Examining the remaining small shards, Potter held back a sigh.  If only it were so easy.  Casting several diagnostic charms on the broken stone and monitoring charms around the table, Potter set in to work, determined to achieve some manner of progress that night.  

X

The phone rang shrilly, jerking Potter awake from his position leaning against the couch.  He had worked well into the night, and was beginning to make some progress—he could now feel his magic 'explode' when his attempted enchantment failed.  Rubbing at tired eyes, he realised that he must have fallen asleep while working; not an uncommon occurrence whenever he found some new problem to sink his teeth into.  

The phone rang again, drawing his attention.  He summoned the clunky hands free phone from its cradle and waited for it to arrive in his hand, eyes closed.  When it arrived he held it to his ear and answered with a deceptively mild, “hello?”

“Mr Potter, unfortunately it seems that you have failed to--”

Potter's eyes snapped open at the familiar voice, searching out the clock that hung on the wall.  It was five in the morning.  Again.  Viciously and with great satisfaction, Potter thumbed the end call button, cutting the unnamed woman off mid sentence.  Eyes closed, he tilted his head back on the couch in a vain attempt to get some more rest.  

The phone began ringing again and his wand was in his hand with a blasting curse on his lips.  Deciding not to start his day by destroying the room, he cast a silencer at the device, returning the room to blissful quietness.  He settled down again, preparing to get some more rest.  

It was not to be.  A hundred different small noises and distractions conspired to keep his brain from shutting down, and numerous times he swore he could hear a small bird fluttering around his rooms or rats scuttling through the walls.  Close to an hour later, he finally gave it up as a bad job and began to get ready for another day of 'warding' properties for Marcone.  

X

Potter and Suzie visited several more of locations that day, including an isolated lake house, another safe house, another warehouse, and a bar that turned out to be a front for a supply cache of some sort.  None of the men present at some of the locations gave them any trouble, and Potter in particular was subject to a number of wary glances.  It wasn't until they were on their way out of the dark smoking bar that they discovered the cause of the wariness.

“I don't see it,” one of the patrons announced loudly as Potter and Suzie made their way out, the wizard having finished his work.  

The two of them paused, sharing a glance before turning to face the gruff man who addressed the room.  “See what?” Suzie asked, a flat insincere smile fixed in place.  

“You supposed to be some sort of magic man,” he spat, nursing a jug of beer.  “Steiner and his boys been telling tall ones.”

“Would it be better if I wore a robes and a pointed hat?” Potter asked as he approached the man, real concern showing on his face as he looked between Suzie and the one who had called him out.  The barman and the other few patrons scattered about the place watched in silence.  

“I'll believe it when I see it,” the man snorted, taking another swill of his drink—before coughing and spluttering the mouthful of liquid out.  He rose to his feet, wiping a hand across his mouth to clear the substance from his lips.  “What the fuck!?!” he demanded, looking at the glass in his hand that had somehow been filled with egg yolks and yellow.  

“Oops,” Potter said apologetically.  “It was an accident, really.”

“Bloody sleight of hand,” the man swore.  “You're a pissant street magician.”

“You sure about that?” Potter asked with a sly smile, his eyes gleaming green.  

The man shook his head disbelievingly and turned away from the strange kid, facing the bar again.  Shrugging with an oddly satisfied look, Potter departed from the bar with Suzie at his side, leaving its patrons to gossip about the confrontation.  The man sitting at the bar beckoned for another drink to replace ruined one.  As he waited, he glanced into the large mirror that hung on the bar wall, partially obscured by racks of alcohol.  Finding his own reflection, his heart jumped a beat as he caught sight of the magician, eyes glowing an eerie green, standing right behind him.  He whirled around with an oath, only to find empty space and draw the bar's attention to himself once again.  He looked back to the mirror; it was empty of anything that didn't belong.  Shaking his head, he accepted the fresh beer and drained half of it in one go, trying to ignore what he knew he had seen.  

It wouldn't be the last time one of the bar patrons caught sight of the strange kid standing at their back in the mirror, grinning slyly.  Those who doubted the stories of how he talked to snakes—and had the snakes talk back—began to believe.  Word began to spread.  The Gentleman Johnny Marcone had a bona-fide Magician working for him.  

X

Like he had the previous evening, Potter sat down at the coffee table in his hotel room with his back against the couch as he stared determinedly at the collection of stones before him.  He had been forced to buy more peridot stones that afternoon, having almost depleted his collection of them in the course of his work.  Setting up several charms to record and monitor his work, he began to cast the same simple charm he had cast numerous times the previous night, before wrapping it in the same simple enchantment matrix and attempting to attach it to a small stone that was almost identical to the dozens of others that lay on the table waiting for similar treatment.  

Nearly two hours and thirty seven stones later, Potter broke out in a wide grin as the stone before him cracked down the middle.  Despite failing for the umpteenth time at an enchantment that was taught to aspiring Enchanters in their first week of learning, he was extremely pleased.  Instead of shattering into slivers as his previous efforts had, the stone had remained mostly in one piece—and he knew why.  Instead of merely allowing the matrix to attach itself to the stone, he had tried to reach out with his magic and guide it to where he felt it should be.  Granted, it was like trying to play pool with a tree trunk for a cue, but it was progress.  Progress of a sort that he was damn sure hadn't ever been made before.  It was all well and good to learn and master a spell, something he himself had done countless times—but it was something else entirely to intimately feel and guide the course of an enchantment on the level that he had just taken the first step to achieving.  He would be able to craft a matrix capable of holding spells far too volatile to hold in any existing enchantment; be able to weave powerful wards on the spot...they were advances that hadn't been seen in either field in centuries, and they were within his grasp.  

Potter grinned widely, turning over the cracked stone in his hand.  This must have been how Albus felt when he examined that first jug of dragon blood as Flamel's apprentice, how Severus felt when he modified potions that had been used for decades for the better as a mere student.  He wished Hermione were here to see this.  

His good mood vanished, a slight frown crossing his face.  He did his best not to think of his friends; it only brought to mind memories of how they died.  He flexed his fingers, working out the stiffness in them.  It was time for a break.  

Twenty minutes later, he was riding the elevator down to the lobby, making use of the new clothes Suzie had foisted on him that day.  Clad in the loose jeans that he had compromised on when the vilely cheerful woman had tried to pour him into a pair of 'skinny jeans' and a grey long sleeved button up shirt, he left the lift and made his way over to one of the women at the receptionist's desk.  

“Hello, what can I do for you this evening sir?” The brunette at the desk greeted him.  

“I'm looking for somewhere to have a good time.  Do you know anywhere good nearby?” Potter replied shortly.  

“Oh yes, there's this great pl--” she broke off abruptly, looking at something on the computer screen before her for several moments.  “Sorry about that.  There's a great place I know a few blocks over, Mr Potter, that I think will have what you're looking for.  I can give you directions if you'd like?” she smiled.

“Sure,” Potter shrugged, not really caring about the particulars.  Moments later, he was on his way.  

X

Potter impaled the twisted thing through its stomach with a spear of ice, pinning it to the wall before ducking the claw that would have taken his head off and severing it—and the arm it was attached to—from the body wielding it.  The slimy, bat like creature snarled at him, ignoring its lost limb, before its head exploded in a gory shower.  The magician turned to the creature he had pinned to the wall of the large bedroom, intending to interrogate it, only to find it slumped lifelessly, blood dripping to the carpeted floor.

He inspected the room about him, ignoring the two hookers he had killed.  It was a back room of a classy escort service, apparently one of the better ones in town.  The room was done up in Gryffindor colours and old Victorian modelling, much like the majority of the building, despite its office-like appearance from the outside.  There was only one door, and the fight had been quiet, aside from various thumps and crashes, which he didn't expect to draw any unwanted attention.  

Turning his attention to the dead creatures, Potter inspected them with a critical eye.  They were ugly beasts, with dark flabby skin and bulging eyes, stronger and faster than their frames gave them any right to be.  They had also appeared completely human as they led him to the room on one of the upper levels of the building after he chose them.  He had been completely unprepared for them to shed their skin and attack him as they had, but he hadn't survived as long as he had while at odds with the Ministry and the Dark Lord by being slow, and it wasn't the first time a prostitute had tried to kill him.

As he considered his next plan of action, Potter reflected that he really shouldn't be as surprised as he was.  He had been expecting directions to a club when he approached the receptionist, not a brothel, regardless of how high class it was.  He should have been more suspicious.  

Ah well.  No use crying over dead hooker-monsters.  

Stepping from the room into a thickly carpeted hall, Potter closed the door quietly behind himself.  He was on the fifth floor of the building, and if he was smart, he should be able to sneak out without drawing any suspicion.  

“What are you doing here alone?” a sharp voice demanded.  “Guests are to be escorted--” the woman paused, taking a deep breath through her nose.  “Is that blood on your face?”

Potter wiped his hand across his cheek and examined it.  Part of the creature that ate a blasting curse must have hit him.

The woman, an elderly lady in a slim, expensive red dress with her dark brown hair done up in an elaborate style, bustled over to him.  “We can't have you leaving here without tidying yourself up from your fun and games,” she admonished.  “Really, my girls should have taken care of you already.”

“They're a bit indisposed,” Potter admitted candidly, although inwardly he was bemused.  

“I imagine they are,” she said knowingly, as she produced a handkerchief and began to wipe at his cheek.

Potter, with manners and survival instincts ingrained from childhood and through most of his school career, didn't protest as what looked like a formidable woman fussed over him.  

“Oh, this just won't do,” the elder woman fretted.  “Here,” she licked her thumb and made to wipe the blood away.  

A euphoric, blissful sense of exultation fell over the magician as the woman before him smiled cruelly, all traces of her grandmotherly act falling away.  Another set of hands began to massage his shoulders from behind while their owner held herself against him.  He could feel her breasts pressing into his back as the unseen woman began to kiss his neck, laving his skin with her tongue.  

“Silly wizard,” the older woman taunted.  “What did you think would happen?  That you would just walk out of here after killing two of my own?” She tsked sternly, a pleased gleam in her eyes.  “You will be a useful thrall.”

A spike of rage cut through the fog in Potter's mind.  “Thrall?” he asked slowly, his heart pulsing in time with his magic.  He had been drugged, he realised vaguely.  This wasn't going to end well.

“Oh, you didn't know about the Red Court, did you child?  Such a foolish young wizard.  Our Kiss, our venom, will strip away all your inhibitions and take you to heights you've never felt before whether you want to or no,” she revealed with a smile, baring fangs that had no place in an old woman's mouth,  “and you shall love us for it,” she gloated.  “Girls, make sure he is properly addicted.  Don't release him from the effects until you're quite certain he is under control.”

“Yes Madam,” several voices behind Potter chorused.  He felt a number of hands take his arms and hold him in place securely, additional mouths plying him with venom.  

“Inhibitions...” Potter slurred, anger thrumming in his veins.  “Mistake, BITCH!”  

The magician struggled in the grip of his captors, but was unable to shake their unnaturally strong grip.  He went still for a long moment, before letting out a guttural roar and shifting.  

The women holding him place were thrown off as his body twisted and grew, limbs and torso swelling to many times their size.  White fur erupted across his body and his jaw elongated, turning into a powerful set of fangs pulled back in a vicious snarl.  The floor creaked as his weight increased exponentially.  

The Red Court Madam stared incredulously at the mammoth polar bear before her that took up the entire width of the hall.  A wave of hot air hit her as the largest land predator in the world growled, the rumbling of its chest sending vibrations through her bones.  

Potter gazed at the creature before him.  It stank of blood.  The fog in his head had cleared with his transformation into the larger form, but his instincts were still in control.  He was surrounded by predators.  Smaller and weaker than him, but still predators..and they treated him like prey.  

They dared to treat him as prey?!?

One and a half tonne of enraged carnivore lunged forwards with surprising swiftness, kicking out with a back leg as it did so.  The Madam leapt to the side, but was too slow to completely avoid the attack, while one of the women holding him was bowled into her fellows.  Potter bit down and pulled back, his powerful hind legs leaving gouges on the floor.  The Madam's right arm was wrenched from her body as she was forced to dodge away from the swipe of a massive paw that would have taken her head off.  

“Shapeshifter,” the Madam snarled, ignoring the blood dripping from the stump on her shoulder.

Potter spat her arm to the ground in disgust, seeing it transform into the same leathery, wrinkled form as the creatures he had killed in the other room.  He could feel the other attackers behind him, watching his bulk cautiously; there were three of them.  The Madam's eyes narrowed, and she gave an almost imperceptible nod.  There was the barest sound of movement from behind the magician.  

The polar bear spun with more speed than it had any right to, paw outstretched to clobber the charging creature in the chest.  It was slammed into the wall, its torso crushed into a bloody pulp.  A second creature followed on its heels, only for Potter's jaws to fasten around its waist.  With crushing force, his jaws tore through its body, bursting it like an overripe melon as blood flecked over his maw and marred his previously pristine white fur.  

The Madam was on him then, scampering over his back in her bat like form while clawed fingers scrabbled at his eyes.  Vicious scratches were torn open atop his head and neck, causing him to roar in anger and pain.  He reared up, his massive form allowing him to crush his attacker against the roof and wall.  The creature ignored its pain as it clung to his shoulders, questing for his throat with bared fangs.  

Distantly, Potter realised that the third of the creatures that had restrained him had fled, leaving the Madam to fight for herself.  Again and again, he slammed his back against the wall and ceiling, trying to dislodge the foe on his back.  Feeling the creature weakening, Potter turned his back from the wall and allowed his weight to carry him backwards, aiming to squash the Madam to the floor beneath his weight.  The creature released its grip at last, leaping out from under his crushing weight.  It shrieked in anger at the wounds it had sustained.  

The polar bear drew in on itself, before shrinking back into the form of a young man with messy black hair.  He stared down the bat like thing, waiting for its next move as his wand hummed in his hand.  

“Vile brat,” it croaked.  “You could have been first amongst my pets.  All you had to do was submit.  Now you have to die.”

The magician bared his bloody teeth as green eyes crackled with rage.  “I am Harry James Potter and I do not submit,” he snarled, voice rippling with power.  The wand flicked once and the creature found itself struggling to move, like it was running underwater, before the wand flicked a second, then a third time.  

A pair of large hands stretched out of the hall from either side of the creature, grasping her around the neck and waist before squeezing tight.  They held her in place for a long moment, before pulling apart in a sudden act of violence.  The Red Court Madam was torn in two, blood painting the hall as the hands dropped the corpse and receded back into the walls.  

Shrieks and howls began to echo from around the building.  Potter stalked down the hall, leaving bloody footprints in his wake.  His ire was raised, heart pumping rapidly as he allowed his instincts to guide him.  There was blood in the water.  

The first door he passed was blown off its hinges and into the hall.  A reflexive blasting curse reduced the door to splinters less than a second before it hit him, and blew a hole in the gut of the misshapen figure that had launched it.  Two more of the Red Court creatures rushed towards him from another room, giving Potter a glimpse of a corpse lying within.  

Potter threw another blasting curse at the first creature, adding to the blood covering the hall.  The second creature he caught mid leap, leaving her to float helplessly as he turned and dodged to the side, narrowly avoiding a claw swipe that would have carved him from hip to shoulder.  He gutted the attacker that had approached from behind almost casually, before turning back to the creature that was still hovering mid-air, watching as she tried to 'swim' through the air in frustration.  She hissed at him when she caught his gaze.

Ignoring his captive, Potter looked around the hall.  He had dealt with eight of the creatures with ease, but wading through an entire building of them was just foolish.  After a complicated series of gestures with his wand, a faint shimmer of a spell moved through the air comparatively slowly and his the creature, causing her to slump bonelessly, victim of a coma curse.  A stream a flame issued from his wand, twirling about him like a gymnast's ribbon.  A simple gesture, and the flame leapt onto the walls where it began to devour the plaster hungrily.

Not wasting another moment, Potter grabbed the slimy leg of his captive and disappeared with a faint crack, leaving the now burning building and its inhabitants behind.  

X

Awareness was forced to the forefront of her mind, leaving her with a pounding headache and blurry vision.  There was no gradual recovery, one moment she was out cold and the next she was awake.  

'She' was Cynthia, a member of the Red Court and until recently, a mid class escort at one of the brothels run by her Court, and at that particular moment, she was tied to a tree in the middle of an absolutely silent forest.  

Running over her memories, the vampire realised that the last thing she could remember was going to sleep the previous morning after a nights work.  She had been taken from her room, out from under the noses of her superiors and a building full of her kind.  She was interrupted before she could consider what this could mean, however.

“Hello there,” a cheerful voice broke the silence, as the young man it belonged to strolled out from behind a tree, a pleased smile stretched across his face.  

On principle (and hoping to subdue her captor long enough to escape from the flimsy ropes that held her), Cynthia spat at the human, hitting him square in the cheek.  She wrenched at the ropes, expecting them to snap under her strength, only to find them much stronger than they appeared.  

“That wasn't particularly nice now, was it?” the black haired man frowned as he wiped her saliva from his cheek with a handkerchief, apparently unaffected by the narcotic effects of Red Court venom.  

“Fuck you,” she snarled, still struggling at the ropes binding her.

“I'd just as soon not,” he replied dryly.  “I've seen what you hide under that human skin of yours.”

Cynthia paused her struggles to glower at her captor.  “Who are you, and what am I doing here?” she asked imperiously, looking down on the human who was still smiling at her, despite sitting on the ground while tethered to a tree before him.  

“I'm so glad you asked me that,” he answered, for all the world looking thrilled at her questions.  “Usually they spend a good five minutes cursing me before they get around to that part.  Oh, I'm sorry,” he slapped himself on the forehead.  “How thoughtless of me.  I'm Harry, Harry Potter, and you're here to answer all my questions,” he beamed at her.  “Doesn't that just sound great?”

Cynthia stared at the man for a long moment.  She was beginning to suspect he was slightly unbalanced, and she had no interest in remaining the captive of a madman whose motives she was unsure of.  She twisted her wrist around uncomfortably and began to saw at the rope with her nails.  

“Oh no, you can't do that,” Potter chided, reaching into his sleeve.  “You haven't answered any of my questions yet!” Then he drew a slim stick of wood from his shirt and flicked it in her direction.  

Cynthia shrieked in pain as her hands were sliced from her wrists without warning, as if by an invisible blade.  “Wizard!” she hissed.  

“Here's how this is going to work,” Potter explained as he hunkered down before her, a pleasant expression still on his face.  “I'm going to ask you questions, and if you answer me, I'll cauterise your wounds.  Answer me nicely, and I'll numb the pain.  Don't answer me, and I'll cut something else off.  How does that sound?”

Cynthia cursed him, and suggested several unpleasant things he could do with his mother.  A displeased expression crossed the magician's face before her left foot was cut off.  He waved his wand again and the severed appendages flew over to form a small pile where the vampire could clearly see them.  

“And I haven't even started with my questions yet,” Potter shook his head disapprovingly.  “It doesn't look like this will end very well for you, does it?”

The creature tied to the tree said nothing, snarling and whimpering at the pain.  When she quietened down, Potter tried again.  

“Are you going to answer my questions?” he asked in a hopeful tone, twirling the slim stick of wood he held between his fingers.  

“Ye-yes,” Cynthia grunted, trying to ignore the blood that she could feel leaving her body, weakening her.  

“Excellent!” Potter grinned, before waving his stick again.  Cynthia flinched, expecting to lose her other foot, only for the pain to come from the leg already injured.  The smell of burning flesh drifted around the clearing as the stump at the end of her leg burned, sealing the open wound.  “See?  That wasn't too hard.  Two more questions answered and you'll stop bleeding out, then I can start numbing the pain.”

Cynthia held back a pained curse, hoping that the sadistic wizard didn't cut her up again once she'd answered enough questions to be healed to give her 'motivation' to keep answering.  

“Now,” Potter prompted, somehow creating an elaborate armchair and sinking himself down into it.  “Let's get into it, shall we?”

X

As he watched the burning corpse of what he now knew to be a Red Court vampire, Potter contemplated what he had learned.  Vampires were real in this world, however unlike his old world there were several variations of them and they had organised themselves into coherent political structures rather remain moderately powerful nomads.  He know knew the strengths and weaknesses of the Red Court and the Black Court, as well of the existence of the White Court, although his captive had been too low level to know anything that was not common knowledge about them.

The Red Court group that he had run into apparently made their way in the world by finding humans they thought useful and addicting them to the venom that was their saliva.  He smirked slightly at this.  It had been a long time since any enemy of his had even bother trying to supplant his will.  

He frowned as he began to tidy up the clearing of the secluded forest.  So far, his hotel hadn't proven to be the best choice of residence.  They had some sort of rodent problem judging by the number of small creatures he swore he could feel around his apartment, they had directed him to a brothel that was run by distinctively unattractive hooker-monsters, and insisted on calling him at ungodly hours to hound him about payment.  Perhaps it was time to find somewhere new?

Feeling tiredness creeping back up on him after a day of work and the the nights adventure, Potter turned on his heel and disappeared with a faint snap, thoughts of a comfortable bed on his mind.  

Chapter 4: Grave Situations

Harry Potter leaned against the balcony railing as he watched the sunrise, a hot cup of tea hovering within arms reach.  He had rarely missed a sunrise since he had started living in the house nearly a year ago.  After watching the morning arrive over the great lake his balcony looked out over, he made his way back inside, passing through the glass doors that bordered the top floor of his home, doubling as windows.  

The interior of the house was one large room, with a second floor loft that stretched over half the open space and served as his kitchen and living space, opening out onto the balcony as it did.  The lower floor was his entertainment area, one wall dominated by a large media system that he had splurged on before discovering the contrary nature of technology around himself.  A number of smaller rooms branched off the main one, bedrooms, bathrooms and a laundry.  

Harry smiled as he looked over his home, sipping at his tea.  Marcone had had it built for him over the  remains of the burnt out home of a rival that had apparently run afoul of Dresden some time previously.  It had remained unclaimed due to the lingering effects of the dark magic cast by the previous owner, something that was easily cleaned up by his particular brand of magic.  The best part of it was that the house had been completely free; a bonus for taking care of the MacFinn business.  Personally, Harry just thought Marcone had gotten sick and tired of his bitching about the hotel whenever he saw him.  

These days, he spent his time running odd jobs for Marcone, performing the tasks he needed someone he could trust to carry out and generally enjoying a somewhat lazy existence.  His reputation had grown amongst the ranks of Chicago's underworld; rumours of the 'Magician' and the 'Wizard', men who could pluck a thought from your head or hurl fire around with ease becoming popular topics of gossip amongst those who believed such things.  

He had heard nothing of the vampires since his run in with them at the brothel all those months ago, but still kept an eye out for the signs of them that he had learned to watch for; especially the Red Court.  Nothing could hold a grudge like a creature that could live for centuries.  

Harry completed his morning routine at a leisurely pace, taking his time with his breakfast before heading for a shower.  An enjoyably hot shower; he might have put up with a TV, phone and radio that only worked occasionally, but after the first cold shower he had taken steps.  Some wizard he would be if he resigned himself to cold showers without a fight.  

Stepping out of the shower and into the steam filled bathroom, Harry dried himself off and wrapped the towel around his waist before approaching the fogged up mirror, toothbrush in hand.  He wiped his hand across its surface, revealing his reflection and the smiling woman standing behind his shoulder.  

The magician reacted instinctively, toothbrush held like a dagger as he spun to stab the intruder in the eye, his free hand calling the wand that sat on a nearby shelf to him.  The improvised weapon met no resistance as it passed through empty air, while his wand soared into his grip as he faced an empty bathroom, adrenaline racing through his veins.  

An amused laugh came from his back, prompting him to turn and face it.  The woman, a red head that looked vaguely familiar, was still standing behind his own reflection.  High cheekbones, delicate lips and fiery, intricately braided hair that clashed with bronzed skin gave her an otherworldly beauty as she stared at him in amusement.  “My,” she smiled to herself, holding a hand over her lips, “jumpy, are we?”

Harry glanced over his shoulder once more to see an empty room before looking back at the woman in the mirror, of whom he could only see from her bare shoulders up.  “Not at all,” he smiled charmingly in return, “just wondering how I managed to miss such a beauty in my own bathroom.”

“And such an actor too!” the woman exclaimed with a pleased air.  “You're a man of many talents, aren't you, Mr Potter?”

Harry continued to smile at the figure in his mirror despite the shiver that ran up his spine when she spoke his name.  “I like to think so,” he agreed, placing his toothbrush down on the sink. “Now, as I consider it an absolute crime to have such a beautiful woman in my house without knowing her name, may I enquire as to yours?”

“Oh, you charmer,” the woman waved him off, blushing slightly.  “Call me Zorah.”

“And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine morning, Zorah?” Harry asked with an interested expression.  

“Well, I was in the area, so I just thought I'd drop in,” Zorah replied airily.  “You know, see how you are, catch up on the gossip, bind you to my will.”

“I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that,” Harry told her politely.  “I thought you just said you were here to bind me to your will.”

“No, you heard me right,” Zorah told him cheerfully, her image flipping red hair over her shoulder.  

“I thought so,” Harry replied mildly, his expression flat, at odds with his tone.  Then his wand was raised, the incantation of a painful curse upon his lips.  

Harry James Potter,” Zorah's voice reverberated through the air.  A sharp pain cut through Harry's chest, agony rippling along his muscles.  His wand fell from fingers that could no longer grip it.  “Oh, I'm sorry,” Zorah told him with mock sympathy.  “Didn't I mention, you're already bound?”

“Don't fuck with me, bitch,” Harry snarled at the smug image in his mirror, abandoning all pretence of manners with one hand grasping at his chest.  “I will bring hell down upon you.”

“And how will you do that, when I can bring you to your knees with naught but your Name?” Zorah asked him sweetly.  “When you know not where to find me, or even who I am?”

Harry glared at his tormentor as the spasm running through his chest finally subsided.  The tanned woman in the mirror took his silence as a sign to continue.  

“Don't worry, I didn't come all the way out here just to have a chat,” Zorah revealed generously.  “I have plenty of things for you to do; you needn't worry about keeping busy.”

“You think you can turn me into your bitch just like that?” Harry snorted derisively, crossing his arms.  

“That was merely because I could,” Zorah smiled at him, revealing a hint of the malice behind her cheerful facade.  “You will obey me because you have no choice.”

“Try me,” Harry whispered, leaning in to goad the woman.  

“You will submit to me, Harry James Potter,” Zorah stated his name like a title.  “You will obey me, Harry James Potter,” she continued, yellow eyes burning in the mirror.  “You are bound to me, Harry James Potter.”  

Harry felt the world fading around him, his senses dulling with each word the woman spoke.  Colour seemed to drain from his vision as he marshalled his mind and magic in one last effort to retain his will.  He felt the magic settle just as he blacked out; his last sight the woman in the mirror inspecting him with a cruelly pleased expression.    

X

Harry came to slowly, finding himself staring at his bedroom ceiling.  His mind was blank for several long moments as he sought to recall something extremely important that hovered just outside the edge of his memory.  He smiled as it returned to him in a flash of insight.  

He needed to go downtown, to a place called Hammer's Liqueur Store and open a Way to the Nevernever.  He needed to follow that Way and sneak into the manor house that belonged to that bastard Abadun.  He needed to kill Abadun while he was distracted by the wyldfae incursion on his territory.  He needed to get out without leaving any survivors who knew of his presence and return to his house for his next task.  He needed--

He needed to murder the bitch who thought she could dominate his will.

Harry clutched at his still wet head as a throbbing migraine set in and two sets of desires warred within it.  He wrestled with the compulsions that lay upon him, bringing forth his magic in an effort to smother them.  A corner of his mind observed his struggle dispassionately, dictating to his subconscious how best to evade the greasy tendrils that sought to ensnare his will.  It was this corner that allowed him to resist the binding he was under, separated from his consciousness in the last second before he had blacked out in the bathroom.

The pain of fighting the binding was rapidly approaching his already ridiculously high pain threshold, his muscles twitching as uncontrollable spasms ran down his limbs.  When he began choking on his tongue, the isolated corner of his mind recognised that he needed to end the fight soon.  Steeling himself, Harry reached into the darkest corner of his mind and past it, drawing forth the thoughts and memories that he had long ago secured outside of his casual grasp; thoughts and memories that he had perused only once after gaining them before isolating and locking them away as thoroughly as he could.  

For a split second there was a red sheen to Harry's eyes, then his back arched and his face contorted in pain.  If he could have, he would have screamed.  

Abruptly, it was over.  Harry sagged back into the bed, coughing harshly as he rolled onto his side and he could breathe again.  He had dealt with the compulsion infecting his mind, isolating it behind the barrier he had first constructed seven years ago.  Now all that was left was to deal with the source, and for that, he needed information.  

He was off to see the wizard.  

X

Harry battered on the heavy steel door of the basement apartment, checking over his shoulder as he waited.  He had felt a pair of eyes boring into his back ever since he had left his apartment, having Apparated to his destination after regaining his wits and reordering his mind from throwing off whatever compulsion the woman Zorah had attempted to ensnare him with.  Quarantining a section of his mind to keep it safe from outside influences allowed him to fight them off without suffering directly from the consequences of doing so, but it also twisted his mind in a haphazard and bizarre manner--the hazards of studying Occlumency alongside Luna Lovegood.  

Raising his fist to hammer on the door once more, he paused as he heard the sounds of irritated, huffing exertions coming from its other side.  He tilted his head curiously as the door was slowly shunted open a few inches at a time, part of a bare female leg visible where it was braced against the wall to help open the door.  After the door opening was a shoulders width wide, the leg dropped from its position on the wall and was replaced by a Hispanic woman wearing an overlarge shirt that he had met several times before.  

"Hello, Susan," Harry greeted after taking a moment to survey her appearance with a slight grin.  "Dresden not in?"

"No," Susan replied with a level stare, her arms twitching to fold themselves under her chest before she restrained herself.

Harry's grin widened as he observed the action, knowing exactly why she had stopped.  "Mind telling me where he is then?" he asked.  

Susan stared him down for several long moments before relenting.  "He left a note saying he was going to St. Mary of Angels Church," she revealed somewhat reluctantly.  

"I think I know the place," Harry accepted, eyes defocusing as he attempted to picture the location in his minds eye.  Satisfied that he knew where it was, he winked at Susan and gave her another once over, enjoying her look of irritated resignation before turning on his heel and disappearing.  

X

Harry stumbled  to the side as he reappeared in an alley across from the enormous St Mary's Cathedral atop several bags of trash.  Catching himself against a brick wall, he brushed himself off and made his way over to the parking lot across the road where he could make out a memorable Blue Beetle.  The magician leant against the colourful car, taking in the damage that had been done to the surrounding area.  Someone--or something, given Dresden's presence--had done a number on the car park.  Several cars were completely trashed, and a number of trees lay where they had fallen after being uprooted and flung about.  The sound of boots scraping along gravel alerted Harry to another's presence.

"Potter," Dresden greeted easily, if not warmly, as he approached.  "What brings you round these parts?" he asked, affecting a bad Western accent.

"I'm chasing some information," Potter replied, pushing himself off of Dresden's car.

Dresden came to a stop before Potter, leaning on his staff.  "What sort of information, and what are you going to give me for it?" he inquired idly.

"You're still seeing that Rodriguez woman?" Potter remarked, seemingly off topic.  

"Yes," Dresden replied, drawing the word out.

"I'll get you a reservation for two, fully paid, at that new Italian place, and a nights stay at the Fairmont," Potter offered, naming the latest wildly popular acquisition of Marcone's (not that Dresden knew that) and the best hotel in Chicago, "and in return you tell me everything you know about how someone's Name could be used against them."

"You want to know about Names?" Dresden asked seriously, rubbing at the stubble on his jaw with one hand.  "Alright.  Jump in.  I'll tell you all about Names, and you can tell me why you need to know."

X

"Someone used my Name against me at my house this morning," Potter began without preamble.

Dresden nearly stalled the car as they pulled out into the heavy traffic of the morning rush.  "What were they after?" the wizard asked as he regained control of the Blue Beetle.

"I was commanded to kill someone," Potter revealed, toying with the fraying edge of his car seat.

"Is that so?" Dresden asked airily, eyebrows raised.  Unnoticed by Potter, his hand drifted down to the gap between his seat and the door.  

"Yeah.  Some guy called Abadun," Potter waved it off.  "What I want to know is how this bitch has any power over me just by knowing my name."

"If she knows your Name, then you're in a bit of trouble," Dresden warned him.  "But this could be a good chance to find out how you got to this world in the first place.  The only way to summon an Outsider is through their Name.  So as long as you haven't done anything incredibly stupid..." Dresden trailed off as he caught sight of the sheepish look on Potter's face.  "You've done something incredibly stupid, haven't you?"

"How was I supposed to know my Name could be used against me?" Potter scowled.  

"More like how could you not know," Dresden muttered.  "How many people have you told?" he sighed as he took a corner with a worrying squeal of brakes.

"Not that many," Potter defended himself.  "Less than ten in an entire year."

"Less than ten..." Dresden would have pinched the bridge of his nose if he hadn't been driving.  

"Most of them are dead though," Potter added helpfully.

"I don't even want to hear about it," Dresden grumbled.  "How long do you have until you're compelled to kill this guy Abadun?  Strange name," he remarked as an aside.

"I'm supposed to be on my way now," Potter shrugged casually.  "But I freed myself from the compulsion and quarantined it until I can deal with it properly."

"Someone Named you and you broke their control?" Dresden would have gaped if he weren't too smooth for such an expression.

"I'm Harry fucking Potter," Potter smirked arrogantly at the (slightly) gaping Dresden.  "No one controls me," he finished with a hint of iron in his voice.  

The car was silent for the next several minutes as Dresden turned over several trains of though in his mind.  "It was a woman?" he asked, breaking the silence.

"Three guesses how she got you to lower your wards to let her in," Dresden grinned at him.  "You must strive to master your base desires, young padawan."

Potter snorted.  "Like I'm going to fall for something like that.  No, the bitch appeared in my mirror as I was stepping out of the shower."

"In your mirror?" Dresden demanded sharply.  "Describe her."

"Bronze skin, hair a mix of red and orange, braided. Yellow eyes, angular face.  Exotic," Potter responded rapidly, without taking time to consider his answer.  "Identified herself by the name 'Zorah'."

Dresden turned the info over in his mind, before deciding on his answer.  "Fuck," he replied succinctly.  

"Fuck?" Potter inquired curiously.

"Fuck," Dresden affirmed.  "I hate to say it, but it sounds like you've caught the attention of a Fae," the wizard expanded.  "Summer, at that," he added.

"I've heard a bit about the Fae, something about deals, staying away from them and living in another realm.  So, 'Summer Fae'?" Potter replied, turning his head inquisitively.

"Shit.  Uhhh..." Dresden pondered the best way to quickly explain the danger a Fae represented.  "Quick version:  A race of mixed beings that live in the NeverNever, split into two distinct groups, Summer and Winter, Seelie and Unseelie.  There's also the Wyldfae, but you don't need to worry about them so much.  Fae love making deals with mortals, it's how they gain power and rise in their Courts.  A Fae is incapable of telling a direct lie, but they can misdirect like a champ.  Iron is their Kryptonite, but they don't like running water either," he revealed rapidly.  "Seeing as how the Fae that tried to bind you came in through your mirror rather than just waltz through your threshold, it's probably a minor to mid level one, something you should be damn thankful for."

"Oh?" Potter questioned shortly.

"Titania and Mab, the Queens of the Courts, could go mano-a-fae with the entire Senior Council on their own and have a fifty fifty chance of winning," Dresden told him seriously.  "Don't fuck with them."

Potter nodded slowly, taking the time to acclimatise to the idea of an enemy that outclassed him so utterly.  Dresden had filled him in on the White Council on one of the few occasions they'd had cause to talk over the past year, giving the magician a good idea of the magnitude of powers they commanded.  He hadn't survived to such a ripe old age by acting the fool, and so considered advice to stay away from beings that could curbstomp a wizard capable of kickstarting volcanos and tsunamis to be sage wisdom.  

"The name Zorah rings a bell in a bad way, too," Dresden mused distractedly.  

"If she's not something on the level of theses Queens, I can deal with her," Potter told him confidently.  "I've got a bit of a plan already."

"If you say so," Dresden replied with a hint of doubt.  "Going against anything that knew my Name isn't something that I'd relish."

"Ah," Potter drawled, "but you're not--"

"--not Harry fucking Potter, yes, you've mentioned," Dresden cut him off wryly.  

Potter shrugged unrepentantly at the look the wizard was directing at him.  "Just so we're clear," he grinned cheekily.  "I'll sort out my end of the deal before I head off to deal with this Zorah," he continued on a more serious note.  "There's just one more thing."

"What is it?" Dresden asked guardedly.  The last time Potter had used that line, he'd blackmailed him out of the last of Mac's beers with the threat of telling the man how he served them--chilled.  

"I don't suppose you know how to open a Way to the NeverNever, do you?"

Dresden rubbed his chin consideringly.  “I can't help you right now...but I have something that can.”

X

“It's a spell construct I made up,” Dresden was saying as they pulled to a halt outside his apartment with a faint protest from the brakes.  “Doesn't have too much brains about it, but it can follow basic instructions.  Mostly,” he amended with a slight scowl.  

“And it will open a way to the NeverNever for me?” Potter pressed.

“Yes,” Dresden replied confidently.  Then he hesitated, “well, there is one small issue.”

“Yes?” Potter asked in a long suffering tone.

“You'll have to wait until sundown,” Dresden shrugged.  “The spell won't survive during the day.”

“Why not?” the magician demanded.

“Cleansing properties of the sun and all that,” the wizard replied as if it should mean something.

Potter frowned at the information.  He was stretching things as it was; if he waited another eight hours or so, his plan would be that much more difficult.  His frown disappeared as a thought occurred to him.

“These cleansing properties,” Potter mused, “they can be avoided?”

“They can,” Dresden affirmed.  “But only by taking shelter within a protected dwelling.  Why do you ask?”

“I have a cunning plan,” Potter announced with a smile.

“Goddamit Baldric,” Dresden muttered under his breath.  So much for keeping his 'spell construct' a complete secret.

X

A man with messy black hair, clad in jeans and a well worn leather jacket stood outside Hammer's Liquer Store.  At his side sat several pounds of imperious alley cat, its eyes flickering orange under the midday sun.  What little foot traffic there was stepped around the pair without thought, a subtle subconscious message allowing them to avoid what they couldn't see.

"It's been a while since I've been able to stand under the sun," the cat remarked idly.

"I can't imagine it'd be high on Dresden's priorities to take something like you out for a morning walk," the man replied dryly.

The cat snorted, "Potter, please.  Like there's any chance you really believe I'm some sort of semi-intelligent pre-made spell.  I am possessing of far too an august presence to pass under such a plebeian cover."

"Quite," Harry agreed with a perfectly straight face.

"Interesting thing too, this cloak of yours," the cat continued slyly.  "You said your father created it?"

"That's what I told Dresden before he went down into the basement to get you where you couldn't possibly have heard me, yes," Harry replied easily.

"Please," the cat sniffed, repeating itself and cleanly ignoring Potter's implied accusation.  "I can feel the age and blood seeping through it.  Either you had an ancestor talented enough to craft an item to last centuries or you killed someone who did," it asserted without sounding too concerned which option was true, "but if this cloak of yours is only one generation old, I'll stay away from smutty romance for a month."

"Such surety," Harry remarked idly.  "Are you sure you want to risk that?"

"It would be a horrible fate," the cat stated pompously.  "Nevertheless, I am certain."

Harry snorted at the cat's put upon mannerisms, before the pair returned to watching the liquor store.  The cat lasted two minutes before it spoke up again.

"So how old is this cloak, anyway?" it asked absently, as if not particularly interested in the answer.

"What's your name?" Harry countered with a question of his own.

"Bob," Bob the cat replied shortly.  "How old is it?" he asked again, more insistently.

"Come on, let's go see what we can find out from Mr Hammer," Harry nodded to the man standing behind the counter of the store they were watching, ignoring the ferocious scowl that appeared on Bob's face.

A bell tinkled above the door as Harry entered the store, having slipped out from under his Cloak.  He stepped over Bob as the still invisible cat tried to trip him up by walking across his path; still able to sense the animals movements through his connection to the Cloak.  

"Howdy there," the shopkeeper greeted.  "What can I do you for today?"

Harry glanced at the man's nametag before replying with a practised smile.  "Well Nathan, I was hoping you could help me out.  The missus sent me down here to pick up a bottle of her favourite drop, but I was a mite distracted when she was telling me which store to head to.  I was hoping I could describe her, and you could tell me if you'd seen her before?" Harry finished his spiel hopefully as he slipped the tip of his wand from his sleeve.  Subtly, he cast several charms around the man in an effort to determine if he were more than he appeared.

Nathan shrugged amiably.  “Sure, there's only one other liquor store on the street, but...” he trailed off.

“Oh?” Harry inquired politely.

“You don't want to go there,” Nathan warned as his pleasant demeanor fell away, leaving a chilly expression in its wake.  “They're expensive,” he warned, head tilted to the side as he glared out of the corner of his eye.  “Horribly expensive.”

An awkward moment carried on for several seconds, before the store keep grinned again, returning to his previous happy-go-lucky expression.  “But give me a description, and I'll see if it rings any bells,” he encouraged, ignoring his previous outburst.  

“She's got her hair done up in various shades of red, tanned skin, a bit of height about her..” Harry rambled out.  “Yellow eyes,” he finished as a random aside.  

Nathan's brow furrowed in thought.  For a brief moment Harry thought he saw the man's brown eyes flash blue, but then he blinked and the instance was past.  “I can't say I've ever had the pleasure of dealing with her,” he answered, “but if you'd tell me what she wanted, I'm sure I could help you out.”

“She was after a 21 year Glenfiddich,” Harry reported, taking the opportunity to glance around the somewhat dusty shop.

“Ah,” Nathan exclaimed approvingly.  “An excellent choice.  I'll fetch a cool bottle from the stockroom.”

In short order, the sale was rung up and Harry made his way out of the shop, bottle of Scotch in hand and invisible cat trailing behind him.  Once outside, Bob turned to him.

“What was the point in all of that?” the cat asked distractedly as it watched a young woman stroll past.  

Harry looked at Bob askance.  “I now have a bottle of twenty-one year old Scotch,” he explained slowly.  “That was the point of it.”  Tapping the bottle with his wand, the magician slipped it into a pocket that should have been far to small to accommodate it.  “So,” he rubbed his hands together.  “How do we go about opening a Way?”

Bob the cat rolled his glowing orange eyes.  “First, we need to find somewhere unobtrusive where we aren't going to freak out the locals.  There's an alleyway behind Hammer's that looks promising.”

Harry nodded, and gestured for the cat to lead the way.  The alley Bob had indicated was grey, filthy, and resembled every other alleyway Harry had seen in his life.  

“You don't seem to have any problem seeing me through this supposed Invisibility Cloak of yours,” Bob remarked idly as they made their way deeper into the alley, approaching a corner that would take them out of sight of the street.

“The Cloak belongs to me,” Harry answered flatly, “and it will never veil another from my sight.”

“Okay then,” Bob murmured to himself, not taken back at all by Harry's sudden change in tone.  “This looks to be as good a place as any.”  Without further comment, the cat began to emit an orange glow, before a swarm of orange light swam out to form the outline of a doorway against the brick wall of the alley.  “Done,” the cat stated in satisfaction.  

“That's it?” Harry asked dubiously.

“Yes, it is,” Bob replied with a trace of irritation.

“It's not going to scatter me over the cosmos when I step through it?” Harry pressed.

“Not if I opened it correctly,” Bob answered, not sounding overly concerned if he had or not.

“Is it going to make me horribly ill?” the magician asked suspiciously.  

“Probably not.”

“Will it take me where I want to go?”

“Fifty-fifty.”

“Is there a chance that there's something waiting to eat my face on the other side?”

“Entirely possible,” Bob told him cheerfully.  

“Lovely,” Harry dead panned.  “Why the hell didn't Dresden just drop me by here and do this himself?”

“I couldn't possibly imagine,” Bob shrugged.  “I believe he's caught up in something himself.  There are probably damsels involved.  He'll eventually have to come to me for help, I will save the aforementioned damsels, and then they will thank me,” the cat expanded.  “That's how it usually goes, in any case.”

“I'm sure,” Harry nodded his agreement.  “Here, have a bottle cap.”

Before Bob could puzzle out Harry's strange statement, he felt the protection of the Invisibility Cloak swept from his body.  The cat hissed in pain and surprise as it was exposed to the sun's rays, before an old bottle cap hit him between the eyes, startling him into silence.  A second later and the cat was gone, along with the bottle cap Harry had thrown at it.  

Sighting the Way beginning to wobble, Harry wasted no time in stepping through it.  It snapped shut behind him, leaving the alley empty but for various items of rubbish.  Several moments later, the back door of the bottle shop opened, to reveal Nathan the shop keeper peering out.  Seeing nothing of interest, the man shrugged and retreated back into his store.  

X

Harry's first step into the NeverNever was taken in a field of waist high grass that swayed gently amidst a warm breeze.  His second step was a quick shuffle to the side, in order to avoid the shrieking gremlin-like creature that leapt at him, jaws wide and drooling as it attempted to eat his face.  

An instinctive blasting curse met the creature mid-leap, hurling it back in a blast of flame.  Harry blinked in surprise at the conflagration, before wheeling to the side as another of the small vicious creatures leapt out at him from the long grass, claws outstretched.  A thin whip of flame lopped off the thing's head, this time without causing the rest of the creature to spontaneously combust.  

A number of low growls echoed throughout the large expanse.  Harry could see more of the little bastards zipping about through the grass, hidden from sight save for the ripples in the grass left in their wake.  A quick circular gesture of his wand sent a wave of force outwards from his position, flattening his immediate surroundings and flinging another gremlin up into the air.  Almost casually, Harry drew a bead on the creature's chest  and released a well aimed piercing curse—a piercing curse that then blew the thing to pieces.  

Harry frowned at his wand, thinking over the strange reactions of his magic to this new plane—and he was very clearly not on Earth any longer.  The very colours of the world around him stood out as different in a very alien manner; yellow hues dominated the surrounding flora, while the sky slipped into royal purple all around the horizon.  

The gremlins had quietened after Harry's easy dispatching of three of their number, although the magician could still make out a quiet chattering carried by the wind around him.  He took the opportunity to further examine his surroundings.  

On one side, the field he stood in was bordered by a forbidding forest, gnarled trees looming menacingly from atop the small hill they began on.  To the other, a long hedge wall stood, stretching along and around the field save for a wide golden archway in the middle.   It was a maze, Harry realised.  He could make out the glow of a large fire against the late afternoon sky coming from the other side of the maze.  There was an insistent pull from behind his mental shields, and Harry understood where he needed to go.  

Around him, the growls of the creatures that thought to hunt him began to pick up again.  Harry dove forward at the sudden presence of one of the gremlins right at his side, narrowly avoiding a slash of dagger-like claws that would have ripped out his kidney had they connected.  He returned the favour by cutting it down at the knees, leaving it to snarl helplessly as it attempted to crawl towards the cover of the grass, only to be answered by a blasting curse to the head.  Harry examined his wand again.  It appeared that the strange behaviour of his magic was only occasional.  

With the death of another of their kind, the remaining gremlins in the area raised an outraged howl, a howl that was answered by more and more of their kind.  The ripples in the vast grass field grew more frenzied as a mob of the creatures began to circle him, edging closer with each rotation.  Harry glanced towards the golden archway that was his current destination.  It was some distance away, and the creatures were almost upon him.  The compulsion locked in the corner of his mind insisted he leave no surviving witnesses to his presence, but he wasn't personally inclined to waste his time killing each and every one of the little bastards currently circling him in detail.  He had a much better idea....he tapped his wand to his shoulder, before flinching as a current ran through his body, jolting him painfully.  

On second thoughts, he would have to adjust his plan.  It seemed his wand wasn't too fond of him at the moment.  Now, to get clear of the field...

All motion around him stopped abruptly, before a series of high pitched yips echoed throughout the suddenly silent field.  Then the beasts howled as one and charged towards him en masse.  Harry grinned in anticipation, slipping his wand back into his jacket sleeve.  His body began to swell, white fur sprouting through his skin as his fingers thickened and grew into claws.  He fell forward onto all fours with a heavy thump, before drawing in a large breath.  

One tonne of angry polar bear announced its fury to the world at large.  He charged forward, squashing one gremlin underfoot like an overripe banana and bowling several more over as they attempted to slow him.  Gashes that would have sent his organs spilling over the ground before were now mere annoyances to be shrugged off.  

Shrieks of anger erupted from the creatures as they caught sight of Harry's white fur, their attacks increasing in ferocity; yet for all their viciousness, they were little more than gnats against the raw force of Harry's charge.  

The great bear slid to a stop underneath the golden archway, shrinking in size as it returned to human form.  The gremlins, sensing weakness, surged forward, their beady little eyes unable to make out the smirk on Harry's face.  The magician gestured widely, his wand taking in the boundary of the field.  The air seemed to shrink in on itself for a moment, before bursting out in a wall of flame, rapidly consuming the dry grass of the field.  

The howls that had been full of anger only seconds ago turned to fear as the gremlins turned and tried to flee the oncoming wall of flame.  The fire seemed to have a life of its own as it surged forward to consume the little beasts, circling around the edges of the field to allow no escape.

Harry surveyed the blackened field, absently wiping a few flakes of ash from his face.  His fire spell had come easily, and acted more aggressively than he had expected.  Something else to consider when he next had the chance.  For now, he had a maze to navigate.  He scowled.  He absolutely loathed mazes.  

A burning whip erupted from the end of his wand.  Harry cracked it overhead, sending sparks flying and resisting the urge to conjure himself a cowboy hat.  He had a maze to cut his way through.  

X

“It could affect our whole future,” Hermione told Harry and Ron, as they pored over lists of new subjects, marking them with ticks.

“Ancient Runes looks fun,” Harry mused, looking over his own list.

Ron gave him a look of shocked betrayal, while Hermione beamed at him.

“I'm so glad you think so,” Hermione gushed, flipping her own list over to the Runes page.  “Some of the history behind it is intriguing, and the way you can find real Runes scattered amongst Muggle archaeological sites is just fascinating.”

Harry shared a brief eye roll with Ron before he responded.  “I suppose those bits aren't so bad, but I was more interested in the practical side of things.”

“Practical?” Hermione asked, flipping pages with a frown.  “Oh, Harry—that's not until the middle of sixth year.”

“What?” Harry scowled his reply.

“Guess the stupidly hard subject isn't worth it after all,” Ron stated brightly.  

“Oh, I don't know Ron,” Harry answered casually, in a tone that his friends unfortunately knew all too well.  “If I study ahead on the parts that matter, I should be able to puzzle out the practical side of it well enough.”  

Ron groaned in an exaggerated fashion, while Hermione threw him an exasperated look.  

“Harry,” she began reproachfully.  “Runes isn't a subject where you can just forger ahead on your own!  Making a mistake with runes is much more serious than miscasting a simple spell.  You need supervision if you want to practise advanced magic like this!”

“You mean like we did when we tried out those fire spells last week?” Ron asked with a grin at the thought of the fire spells he had taken far too much joy in discovering.

“Or when we tried object to animal transfiguration the week before that?” Harry added.  

“Y—No--I mean yes!  IF I hadn't been there Ron would have set himself on fire and you would have had to find a way to explain to Professor McGonagall where you found a mutant turtle!”

Harry grinned triumphantly.  “See Hermione?  We do have supervision.”

Hermione let out a sound that was half groan, half shriek of frustration, pulling at her hair.  Harry had used the same argument on her when he had first started moving far ahead of their classes and exploring new magic that they wouldn't be touching in classes for several years yet.  For all her cautions and protests, she never could resist the lure of new knowledge, much as Ron, for all his complaints, had caught the same bug as his two closest friends that gave the the rush that came from achieving magic that they were told was beyond them.

“I think you're underestimating the challenge that Runes presents,” Hermione began, ignoring the grins on her friends' faces that said they knew she was about to capitulate, “but if we're careful, we can likely study ahead on our own in this subject too,” she grudgingly allowed.

“Of course we'll be careful Hermione,” Ron began innocently.  “When aren't we?”

Hermione gave the two of them 'The Look' and received a pair of sincerely contrite expressions in exchange.  “What other subjects were you interested in?” she asked resignedly.

“Well, Arithmancy looks useful, and Care of Magical Creatures...”

X

Harry slashed his way through yet another hedge wall, his nose crinkling in distaste as he took in the scent of the burning gremlin that had been hiding within as it fell to the ground in two pieces.   

He examined the fire whip that was burning with unusual intensity, turning several possibilities over in his mind.  Save for its greater power and tendency to light the things he was cutting on fire, the whip hadn't exhibited any other unusual tendencies, unlike his blasting curse which had set a gremlin alight, or his failed flame freezing charm which had given him a small, if rather unpleasant burn.  He wasn't so blind as to miss the common factor between the separate occurrences, either.

The magician made his way down a long, narrow path, heading towards the centre of the maze.  Casually, he flicked his wand over his shoulder, curling the tip of the whip around the neck of a gremlin that had attempted to sneak up on him.  The creature dropped headless to the ground and he hacked a path through the next hedge wall on his next swing, revealing a large clearing, devoid of the soft grass that had carpeted the maze so far.  

Instead, dry earth pervaded the empty clearing.  Empty, that is, beside the large, dirty white mass of...something that sat squarely in the middle of the open space, ensuring that he would have to go past it in order to continue through the maze.  

Sure, he could double back and cut his way around the large thing that was probably some sort of guardian of the maze, but that just wasn't his style.

Why?

Because he was Harry Fucking Potter, that's why.  Wand raised, he took a step into the clearing.  

The creature shifted and gave a great snort, as if alerted to his presence.  A set of four stocky, misshapen legs unfolded beneath it as it got to its feet, sending mild reverberations through the ground.  It shifted its massive bulk to face the intruder, and Harry found himself facing something he never would have expected even after all his years dealing with weird shit in the wizarding world.  

The creature he faced towered above him, nearly fifteen foot tall, and had six arms to go with its four legs.  Two of its arms were occupied by a pair of wicked looking great axes that seemed to glow with an inner flame.  Harry blinked, took another look, then blinked again.  Take away the legs, arms, and great axes, and he was facing a potato.  A giant, murderous potato.  

A mocking smirk began to make its way across his face, before it was quickly wiped away as the giant killer potato gave a mighty bellow from a fang lined maw and charged across the clearing, axes held aloft like they were weightless and thirsty for blood.    

A gout of flame burst from his wand to meet it, only for the beast to leap to the side, easily avoiding the spell.  Harry reacted quickly, with a focused blasting curse that punched through one of the arms holding an axe.  The spell left a hole the size of a melon that was ignored completely.  A spell to slow movement hit the creature centre torso to no affect, followed by another cone of flame that was avoided equally as easily by the beast, barely impeding its charge.  Cursing, he cracked his fire whip into existence around the joint of one of its legs, before severing it from beneath the rabid potato monster, causing it to topple forward and lose its momentum.  

The magician dove out of the way of the stumbling monster and rolled to his feet, sending a trio of dark cutters into its side.  The curses that could leave deep gashes in solid rock were only moderate annoyances to the creature.  It regained its balance and changed direction quicker than Harry would have thought possible, closing on him rapidly.  He cast another spell, this time on the ground in front of the being.  Sharp spikes of rock began to rise from the earth, only to crumble into dust before they could impale his foe.  Cursing at the failure, Harry watched as the two axes were raised in preparation to split him in two, noting that the hole he had blown in the things arm was already healing.  

Harry closed his eyes as the axes fell—before smirking as the creature bellowed in rage as its weapons found only empty space, its prey disappearing into thin air.  Then he swore in shock as a portion of his left arm below the elbow fell from his body, splinched.  The creature turned as the scent of blood reached it, drool falling from its maw, to see its prey standing wounded on the far side of the clearing.  Levitating his arm back into place, Harry reattached it with a sticking charm, before placing it in stasis.  He would deal with it properly later.  Now, his ire was raised.  

Concentrating fully upon his task and ignoring the monster that was again charging him, Harry made a number of a quick, concise and careful flicks with his wand, muttering an incantation beneath his breath.  The tall hedge behind him began to rustle and shift, and a gremlin within it let out an agonised shriek as it was impaled by numerous thin wooden branches.  Harry sank to his knees and rocked back on his haunches, keeping his focus on the spell he was weaving.  

When he was in his seventh year, Dumbledore had taken to teaching him numerous ways to improve his sporadic control of the more complicated transfiguration and animation spells he was teaching him.  One of these exercises had included transfiguring and animating something of the surrounding environment and having it do battle with his mentor's own creation.  Despite the usefulness of the task in improving his control and concentration, Harry suspected that Albus had chosen that particular method of teaching purely because of the fun that they had in pitting their golems against each others.

As the maze guardian passed the centre of the clearing, Harry completed his spell.  There was a cracking of branches, followed by a shower of leaves and blood droplets falling on him, before a long, spindly wooden leg stepped over his crouched form.  Two more thin wooden legs joined it, revealing the amorphous body the three limbs supported.  The hedge monster scampered forward to meet its foe, leaves shaking everywhere as it chittered angrily.  

Harry's foe ignored his creation, sparing only a moment to bat it away with one axe and continue its charge, only to find the animated bush cling to the arm that had struck at it.  Two of the unoccupied arms attempted to tear it off unsuccessfully, finding that the bush had thorns that had embedded themselves in its flesh.  The hedge monster began to swarm over the creature, its spindly legs digging into the ground and setting out roots.  

Within a minute, the only thing visible in the clearing was a thrashing bush that was entrenched in the clearing.  What Harry guessed was the potato monster's blood began to spread from under his creature, and he directed it to grasp its foe even tighter.  The beast gave out an agonised roar, and Harry snapped a small ball of flame at the base of the hedge.  The flame circled around his pinned foe, before growing inwards and upwards.  The bush and the creature it contained were immolated in seconds.  

Harry smirked at the conflagration that had been his opponent.  When in doubt, burn it to the ground.  Rising to his feet, the magician beat the dirt from his jeans.  He still had a Fae to hunt down.  But before that...

With a frown, Harry removed the sticking charm keeping his left arm in place and levitated it before himself, inspecting the damage.  Fixable, but not something he would attempt in hostile territory while his magic was acting strangely.  Shrinking the severed limb, he placed it in a secure pocket of his leather jacket before tapping his wand to the stump of his arm and focusing.  He incanted a Latin phrase, and for a moment, nothing seemed to happen.  Then, the stump began to writhe and bubble as a silver substance grew out of it.  Slowly, a new appendage boiled into shape.  

Harry clenched his new fist, enjoying the strength he could feel behind it.  It wasn't the first time he had been forced to fashion himself a new limb on the spot, and it likely wouldn't be the last either.  In some ways it was a pity that prolonged use of a limb like this resulted in silver poisoning.  Examining the limb with a critical eye, he took in the flame and phoenix motif engraved in the arm.  That certainly hadn't been intentional.  

Shrugging, he put it from his mind for now and considered his location.  If this was the centre of the maze, then he was halfway to whatever it was protecting—likely the Fae Abadun.  He turned to the hole in the maze wall left by his hedge monster, and was lifted off his feet by a fist sinking into his gut.  He wheezed as his breath was driven from him, before he was grabbed by the back of his neck and hurled across the clearing, bouncing across the dry earth before rolling to a stop.  

“Who sent you?” the powerful voice of his attacker demanded, ringing with authority.  “Which cur thought to send a mortal wizard to end me?”

Harry coughed as he got to his feet, left hand pressed to his ribs and his wand held loosely in his right.  As he regained his breath, he took a moment to examine the newcomer.  

For a brief moment, Harry felt a small pulse of intimidation.  His attacker stood tall and was clad in the bronze armour of a gladiator.  He wore his helmet like a crown, intense dark eyes staring out from under it and he regarded Harry like a king would a peasant.  This was a man who rightfully expected the subservience he was due, and looked all too ready to use the short blade in his hand if it wasn't received.  “Well?” he demanded, clanging his sword against the small round shield he held and heightening the undercurrent of intimidation Harry felt.  “Tell the truth!”

The demand rang in his ears, and Harry suppressed a snarl in response.  Clearing his mind, the sense of intimidation fell away like a curtain, and the Fae standing before him was reduced to just another supernatural being that would rip his head from his shoulders if he let it.

“This is your first time in the NeverNever,” the Fae proclaimed, inhaling deeply.  “I can smell it on you.  The Wyldfae you conscripted were dealt with long before your arrival.”

Harry's head tilted to the side, betraying his curiosity.  

“You are more ignorant than I took you for, mortal,” the Fae derided, “if you are unaware of the flows of time within this realm.”

“Oh?” Harry questioned, putting on a politely interested air.  “Do tell.”

The Fae snorted.  “You shall not gain further insight from me, mortal.  You have trespassed against me, and for that I shall have your head.”

“Abadun?” Harry questioned suddenly, and for a moment the Fae was put off.

“You are aware of who I am, yet still you challenge me?  More fool to you!” Abadun proclaimed, hefting his sword and his shield.  

Harry made no reply, save to smirk as he finished mending what damage he could to his ribs before making a mocking 'bring it' gesture with his free hand.  Abadun clashed his sword against his shield and charged forward faster than Harry could dodge.  A wave of concussive force met the Fae, stopping him in his tracks.  His heels dug into the ground as he struggled to remain grounded.  

A slash of his blade cleaved the force holding him back in two, freeing him to close on the interloper once more.  Abadun's blade cleaved his foe's head in twain, only for the image to fade away into smoke.  A volley of chains whirled towards him from his side, prompting him to drop to avoid capture.  The attack was too swift to avoid completely, and he was caught across the jaw by the tail end of a chain.

Harry watched in satisfaction as Abadun cursed and held a hand to the wound that would have shattered the jaw of an ordinary mortal.

“Chains of iron?” Abadun accused with righteous fury, before calming slightly.  “No, not true iron.  I shall have your head for this wizardry,” he claimed, taking his sword hand from his face to reveal that the chains had left him with a blackened mark on his jaw that was rapidly fading.

“You're welcome to try,” Harry invited, buffing his nails on his jacket.  His foe growled, and an orange flame surrounded his sword.  A heavy sense of power collapsed upon Harry, nearly forcing him to his knees and pinning him in place.  Abadun charged once more, blade questing for his throat.  Malicious triumph shone in his eyes as he bore down upon the immobile wizard.  

Harry reached up and casually grabbed the aflame blade by the tip, uncaring of its sharpness.  The Fae wasted a moment staring incredulously at the feat, before wrenching his blade free—or attempting too.  When the sword remained firmly in the smirking wizard's grip, he channelled further fire to it, intending to burn the arrogant wizard's hand from his body.  Instead of the scent of burning flesh, the silver arm began to glow, designs and patterns upon it becoming highlighted as the heat grew.

Silver arm?

“Look into my eyes, Abadun,” Harry encouraged softly, his casual uncaring demeanour falling away.  The Fae found himself drawn unwillingly into gazing at the suddenly sickly green depths, shining with victory.  “Legilimens!”

X

Far beyond the darkest recesses of the shadowed corners in Harry's mind, a small imperfection appeared on an impenetrable, inhuman barrier.

X

Harry retreated from the mind of the Fae the instant he felt the insanity welling within it.  Having retrieved the information he needed, the magician swiftly stepped away from the now gibbering Abadun, watching in guarded confusion as he screamed soundlessly, body in spasm against the ground.  He stared in horrified curiosity as the Fae tore out his own eyes, blood from the torn sockets streaming down its face.  

There was a sharp spike of pain in his head, causing him to close his eyes and rub at his temples.  It passed quickly, and Harry cleared his head with a shake, before refocusing on the matter at hand.  This reaction to his mental probe was unprecedented, and something told him it went beyond the strange behaviour of his magic within this Nevernever.  

Abadun continued to claw at his bloody sockets, gnashing his teeth and chattering a litany of inhuman phrases that soured and twisted the very air.  Harry swore he saw a small piece of brain matter fly out at his opponent's scratching.  Mercifully, he blew of the Fae's head with a blasting curse.  

A wave of unexplainable dread washed over him.  This was no mere ill reaction between conflicting magics--his foe had been driven to tear his own eyes out by something he had seen within Harry's head—something Harry himself was unaware of.  None of his memories could have provoked such a reaction, not even those he kept bound behind a rigid set of barriers he had constructed himself and rarely dared to touch.

This was a troubling new development, and one he did not have time to ponder at that moment.  He would have to conclude his business with the Fae swiftly before he could devote his energies to solving this mystery.  

With naught but a slight frown to betray his internal conflict, Harry centred himself and focused on the details he had torn from Abadun's mind, taking great care with his magic.  As he disappeared with a faint pop, a small creature fluttered from its vantage point atop a nearby hedge wall.  What she had just observed held value, and her Queen would wish to know it.

X

Harry surveyed the lavish villa from atop a nearby hill.  It was nestled in the middle of a wide valley, and surrounded by slopes of vibrantly green grass.  Swarms of butterflies fluttered around the area, and a lark warbled its greeting from a nearby copse of trees.  

Somewhere within the villa was Zorah, the bitch who had tried to enthral him.  He wasn't going to give her another chance to try it.  Eleven inches of holly and phoenix feather sang warmly in his hand, and he smiled.  Raising his arms, Harry flicked his wand into the sky, and drew on the fire that waited.  

Strands of flame escaped from the tip of his wand, coalescing into a small sparrow.  The sparrow flew into the air, growing in size as it did.  The sparrow twisted into a swan as it passed through a swarm of butterflies, consuming them in an instant.  There was a flurry of movement down in the villa, and the multitude of butterflies in the area suddenly homed in on Harry's location with a purpose, revealing themselves to be small faeries.  A fireball from the villa was launched at the fiery swan that hovered in the sky, detonating on impact.  Instead of dissipating the construct, the swan absorbed the attack and swelled once more, throwing its wings wide and raising its head in a triumphant cry.  

The enormous phoenix descended upon the villa like a comet.  It impacted with a roar, flash roasting anything within one hundred yards.  The earth shook and silence pervaded the area for a long moment, before the faerie swarms that had been coming for Harry quickly reversed directions and fled, leaving the wizard to make his way down to the villa.  He spun on his heel and disapparated with care, having no intention of either walking down the hill or splinching himself on arrival.  

Arriving in one piece this time, he surveyed his surroundings, ignoring several burning figures stumbling around blindly.  Even if his suspicions bore out and the Fae were fire resistant enough to survive, they were no threat to him in their current state.  He wondered idly if Fae needed oxygen to survive—he hoped so.  

Harry turned about just in time to catch sight of a closing portal, one he recognised from his entrance to the NeverNever.  Bitch thought she could escape just like that, did she?  He'd see about that.  Leading with a magical shield, he strode through the portal with scant seconds to spare before it slammed closed behind him.  As he stepped into the mortal world, his shield bulged and rippled, before a column of fire crashed impacted upon it.  The flame flowed around the shield as it began to fracture, and Harry took the chance to disapparate several meters to the right.  No longer focused on maintaining his shield, he watched as it shattered explosively, overwhelmed by fire and scorching the well kept green turf around it.  

Harry James Potter,” a voice shaking with fury challenged him.  

Harry grunted as if slapped at the statement of his Name, before smiling thinly as he took in Zorah's scorched appearance, ignoring the way her burnt clothes came teasingly close to revealing her body.  Rather than respond, he sent an overpowered banishing hex at his foe.  

Zorah grimaced in pain as the force of the spell hit her like a truck, forcing her back several paces.  “Harry James Potter,” she repeated angrily, “you are bound to me, enthralled to me, indentured to me!  Cease your attacks and serve my will!"

“Fuck you,” Harry offered with an insolent smirk, before a dark look crossed his face.  “Stronger beings than you have tried to take my will.  What makes you think you have any chance?”

“I have your Name!” Zorah screeched angrily as she summoned another torrent of fire to hurl at him, composure thrown to the wind.  

“And we'll have to have a little chat about where you got that, too,” Harry responded pleasantly, even as he froze the flame solid.  Another flick of his wand and the stream of ice became an enormous python, which turned on the Fae.  

“You spoke your Name a myriad of times with such careless abandon, I thought it to be a trap,” Zorah revealed tauntingly.  “Then I realised you were merely an arrogant fool!”  She blasted the advancing snake with another gout of fire, before changing tactics and throwing waves of tiny flames whirring through the air at him.  

A thick wall of ice was Harry's answer.  The wall stopped the numerous blades of flame in their tracks temporarily, but more and more came and quickly began to wear the barrier down.  Casting his gaze around, Harry finally realised where they stood—in the middle of an empty stadium.  Gesturing with his wand, he began to rip chairs from the concrete they were bolted to and hurling them towards Zorah from all directions.  She responded by releasing a blast of fire that incinerated the projectiles and devoured the icy wall blocking her from her target, only to find that he no longer hid behind it.  

Zorah spun on the spot, bringing her arm up in time to block the wizard's attack.  Wielding his wand like a dagger, he had attempted to stab her in the back.  She smirked as she gripped his wand and snapped it like a twig—or attempted to.  Finding the seemingly fragile piece of wood unyielding, Zorah looked into vibrant green eyes and nearly began to froth at the mouth at the amusement—amusement!--she found there.  

Harry James Potter” Zorah snarled for the third and final time, “you will submit!

The last thing Zorah felt before she blacked out was the sensation of falling.

XxX

Zorah came to under a blisteringly hot sun.  While this was not normally a cause for concern, the fact that she could feel herself affected by the heat was.  

“Shitty weather, isn't it?” a disinterested voice cut through the oppressive weight of the sun.  

Scrambling ungracefully to gain her feet, Zorah pushed herself off the sand she lay on.  She swayed as she stood, finding herself standing at the top of a colossally tall sand dune.  Turning to the only other figure in sight, she shaded her eyes from the glare of the sun that shone at their back.  As he drew closer, Zorah took in the sight of the insufferable wizard who was somehow responsible for her current situation.  She conjured fire, prepared to smite him where he stood if an explanation wasn't forthcoming, only to receive no response.  

“You have no power here,” Harry stated, his gaze sweeping across unending desert, before grimacing.  “Strangely, neither do I.”

“Where are we?” Zorah questioned sharply, attempting to regain control of the situation.  As she waited for an answer, she took in his attire.  While she still wore the same burnt summer clothes she had during their fight, the wizard was now clad in some sort of druidic robe, bare of all adornments save for a bracelet that drew her eye.  

“I would guess this to be a part of my mindscape,” Harry revealed with an expansive gesture, which Zorah's eyes followed, fixed on the bracelet.  It was woven with some unidentifiable material, and a small grey tooth was held in place at the underside of the wizard's wrist.  The tip pierced the skin, suckling steadily at a tiny vein.

“Your mindscape, and you've so generously invited me in?” Zorah asked with a sly smile.  “Silly little wizard.  What did you hope to accomplish?”

“Zorah,” Harry began kindly as he turned to face her, “I'm not locked in here with you.”

A chill ran down Zorah's spine, completely ignoring the sweltering heat, as the red eyes of the wizard fixed on her own.

“You're locked in here with me.”

X

Harry watched dispassionately as the body of the Fae who had sought to enslave him withered into a husk.  The corpse fell to its knees, before a solitary breeze that carried the death rattle of thousands sanded it down, the grains of its corpse pouring to the desert floor to join the uncountable numbers of its fellows.  

The magician turned in a full circle, taking in the alien landscape.  This was not a part of his mind, yet he had entered through it.  He glanced down at the bracelet on his wrist.  A tiny eye was engraved on the tooth that fed on his blood.  It blinked at his gaze, sending his pulse skyrocketing before he brought it back under control.  He ran a hand over the material of the bracelet itself.  It was organic, perhaps strands of muscle of some unknown creature.  They were deathly cold to the touch of his fingers, yet gave no such sensation to the wrist it was clasped to.  He shivered, having never felt the overwhelming heat that Zorah had been exposed to.

He closed his eyes and focused his mind, determined to discover all that he could with the chance he had been given, as he couldn't quite see himself driving someone to insanity every time he wanted another glimpse at....wherever he was.  Mentally, Harry reached out to examine his surroundings—and choked off a scream as his surroundings looked back.  An iron cage crashed down around his consciousness and dragged him down, down, down...

XxX

Harry woke on his side with the scent of smoke in his nose.  He stumbled to his feet, wand in hand and alert for threats.  A small patch of burning grass nearby was the source of the smoke, and it would quickly die out.  Searching for his foe, he found the still corpse of the Fae laying several meters away.  The last thing he could recall was her will questing into his mind, followed by a vague sense of unease that he had forgotten something terribly important.

Zorah had not died easily.  Blood streaked across her face, leaking from the remains of her tongue and dripping from what used to be her ears.  Brain matter clung to her nails, the remnant of a crushed eyeball clasped in one hand.  Her sanity had been destroyed just as surely as Abadun's.  

Right then and there, Harry resolved not to delve deeply into the minds of any but his surest enemies.  This was a torture beyond that of the Cruciatus, and one that might still be harmful to himself as well.  He flicked his wand, encasing Zorah's remains in ice and summoning them to himself.  After several more spells to remove all trace of his presence, he disapparated with a faint crack.  

X

Harry appeared in his living room and was hit by a wave of fatigue, the events of the day catching up with him.  For some reason, the sun was rising outside again despite it still being late afternoon, yet he couldn't quite bring himself to care.  

He levitated the icicle Fae over to his dining table, setting it down carelessly before releasing the sticking charm on his conjured silver arm and detaching it from his shoulder, sending both it and his real arm to join the Fae.  Another flick of his wand and the sound of a shattering mirror filled the house.  He'd reattach his arm and fill Dresden in the next day.  He needed to rest, and think on the discoveries-and mysteries-he'd come across within his own mind.  Beyond that, nothing short of open warfare in his kitchen was going to pry him from his bed before he was good and ready.  

He'd dealt with more than enough shit for one day.

Chapter 5: Perilous Aftermath

Harry Dresden blinked as the door before him was abruptly opened partially, hand frozen in place  where it had been about to knock.  Through the gap between door and frame, Dresden could see the unimpressed face of his troublesome new acquaintance, Harry Potter.

“Yes?” Potter asked shortly, clad in his usual jeans, sans the shirt that morning.

“I was in the area and thought I'd drop by,” Dresden shrugged, his usual good natured air lacking and a heavy layer of stubble on his face.  “See how—hell's bells, is your arm missing?”

There was a long pause as Potter very deliberately looked from the stump just above where his elbow should have been, then back to Dresden, before answering with a dry, “no.  I know exactly where it is.”

Dresden raised an eyebrow at the injury, and Potter's lack of concern over it.  “Hmmm.  If I were your enemy, I think I'd still keep my guard up around you,” he stated seriously.

“That so,” Potter replied, deadpan.

“Yeah.  After all, you're not completely 'armless yet,” Dresden snorted, fighting back a snicker at his own joke.  

Potter closed his eyes, letting out a despairing sigh.  “Your sympathy is overwhelming.  And here I was thinking you would be concerned over my missing limb.”

“Why?  After all, it's just a flesh wound,” Dresden managed, before giving in to chuckles.

“For Circe's sake,” Potter muttered.  “Is there a reason you were in the area?”

Dresden's previous sober attitude returned, albeit slightly buoyed after their banter.  “I wanted to find out how things went on your little excursion to the Nevernever, and I also need to fill you in on a few things that happened while you were gone.”

“The bitch who knew my Name was murdered most satisfactorily,” Potter revealed with a predatory grin.  “While I was gone?” he continued, still half hidden behind the door.  

“Good to hear.  But you were gone for a few days, Potter,” Dresden informed him.  “Time flows differently in the Nevernever.”

“That would explain a bit,” Potter looked critically at his shortened limb.

“Do yourself a favour and find out some more about the Fae,” Dresden advised, shuffling his feet on the porch.  “It seems like you've caught their attention.”

Potter nodded, leaning into the door frame.  “So what, there a book on the Fae I can check out from the library?”

Dresden snorted.  “Yeah, cause the Fae are just gonna let accurate information about them just float about the mortal world.”

“So what would you suggest?” Potter asked, working at a tooth with his tongue.

“Look into the old legends, the folk tales.  Most of them have more than a few grains of truth to them.  If you need something specific, give me a call and we can work out a deal,” Dresden suggested.  

“I'll keep it in mind,” Potter nodded again, before pausing.  “Did you want to come in?”

“Yeah.  There are a few other things you need to know.”

Potter stepped away from the door, leaving Dresden to let himself in.  The wizard nudged the door open with his staff before entering the well-appointed and spacious house.  

“Harry,” Dresden began calmly, getting a full view of Potter for the first time that morning.  “Why are you carrying your severed arm around?”

“I was about to reattach it, before you arrived,” Potter returned just as calmly.  

“Huh,” Dresden accepted, stroking his chin.  “Carry on then.”

Potter gave a gracious bow, making a mocking twirl with his severed arm as he did so.  The magician settled himself on a deep red couch and placed his arm between his legs, wand held in the working hand.  As he began to mutter to himself and draw strange wisps of light from the limb, Dresden leaned on his staff as he observed the house—specifically, the parts that couldn't be seen.  The threshold was non-existent, although that was only to be expected.  What was not expected, was that he could feel no trace of any traditional wards, although there was something, humming gently in the background.  Dresden would warrant that whatever protections Potter had established, they were created through his own particular brand of magic and not something that he cared to test.  

The wizard's attention was drawn to a bowl full of multicoloured rocks that sat on the coffee table Potter worked at.  There was an unfocused buzz of magic about them, and closer inspection revealed them all to be semi-precious stones.  Dresden's attention was drawn back to Potter as he gave a sulphurous curse, and he took in the blood spilling from both the stump and severed limb.

“Just removed the stasis,” Potter explained with a grunt as he pressed the stump of his arm to the limb.  He traced the tip of his wand along the cut line, repeating a litany over and over.  “I'm no healer, but if I'm still conscious I can heal most injuries to myself relatively simply, if not easily.”

“How long did you leave it unattached for?” Dresden asked curiously, having noticed a half eaten piece of toast sitting on a plate next to the couch.  

“Sixteen hours, maybe?” Potter guessed as he flicked his wand at the bloodstains on the couch and on his jeans.  “This isn't the sort of work you want to do in the middle of a duel or running on an empty tank.”  

“Useful skill,” Dresden admitted as Potter flexed his healed arm, checking his dexterity by flipping a suddenly conjured coin between his fingers.  

“It can be,” Potter agreed as the coin in his hand vanished.  He snapped his wand in several directions, summoning a shirt and jacket and directing the remains of his breakfast to the upper loft.  Dresden thought he caught a glimpse of a silver arm floating into another room on the ground floor, but brushed it off as unimportant.  “So, what did you need to talk about?”

“The White Council is at war with the Red Court,” Dresden announced without preamble.  

“Ok then,” Potter blinked.  “How did that happen?”

“I killed one of their nobles along with all of her servants and burned down her manor,” Dresden admitted candidly.  

“Huh,” Potter scratched his jaw.  “Well, I'm sure you had a good reason.”

It was Dresden's turn to blink.  “Well, thanks.  You're one of the first people not to blame the whole thing on me.”

“I can't blame them if you told them the same way you told me,” Potter shook his head wryly, before shrugging.  “Why tell me though?”

“Because you're a wizard, Harry, or you appear enough like one that the Red Court won't care, even if you aren't a part of the White Council,” Dresden told him.  “I can't see you drawing any serious attention though, one random practitioner wouldn't be worth the effort in their eyes.”

“Yeah, about that,” Potter grinned sheepishly, “I might have burned down one of their brothels and killed a few of their freaky hooker monsters a little while back.”

A grin tugged at the corner of Dresden's mouth.  “Well, I'm sure you had a good reason.”

“I felt I did,” Potter agreed as he shrugged on his leather jacket over a white shirt, before rising to his feet and leading Dresden away from the living area.  

“No way they could trace it back to you?” Dresden questioned as he followed the other man out onto the verandah, taking in the view of the lake and enjoying the mid morning breeze.  

“Highly unlikely,” Potter replied, resting against the railing, likewise enjoying the view.  “I covered my tracks rather well.”

A loud crack shattered the morning calm, sending numerous flocks of birds into startled flight from the lakes edge.  Potter and Dresden were alert instantly, wand and blasting rod in hand as their gazes quested for the source of the noise.  

“Snipers,” Potter explained shortly, gesturing at a point some feet away.  Looking closer, Dresden could see a pair of large bullets suspended in mid air.  They were pointed right at himself and Potter.  

Another loud crack shattered the cries of the birds, this time the sound of two rifle reports distinguishable from each other as another pair of bullets joined the originals.  Another more literal shattering sound followed.  The four large calibre bullets fell to the deck and Potter cursed.

“Wards are down,” Potter announced, ducking out of sight behind the wooden railing.

“Shooters are down in that clump of trees, near the boat house,” Dresden replied, having seen the muzzle flash as he joined him.  

“Let's go and introduce ourselves then,” Potter replied with a smirk that bared all his teeth.  “Hold onto your breakfast,” he warned, grasping Dresden by the arm.  

Dresden stared blankly, before remembering what happened the last time Potter grabbed a hold of him like that, during their fight with MacFinn the loup-garou.  “Oh, fu--

A hard snap cut off the remainder of whatever Dresden had intended to say as they were sucked through a meat grinder, squeezed out of a tube of toothpaste and dumped into a copse of trees, behind two figures seated at a picnic table, each with a rather large rifle packed into their shoulders.  

Dresden barked off a quick 'Forzare!' while Potter twined a ribbon of of fire around the neck of the figure that hadn't just been crushed into the concrete beneath the picnic bench and beheaded it.  While the headless figure remained on the ground, the shooter that Dresden had crushed got to its feet and scuttled out of sight, moving inhumanely fast.  

“Ghouls,” Dresden cursed.

“Supernatural hitters, yeah?” Potter questioned.  At a side long look from Dresden, he shrugged defensively.  “I did brush up on a few things.”

“They're used as hitters,” Dresden agreed as he swept his gaze swept their surroundings.  “But which one of us was the target?”

“Could have been both of us,” Potter suggested, the tip of his wand twirling in a circle as it pointed at the ground, a number of leaves floating upwards in a spiral, as his eyes darted from shadow to shadow.  “Would explain why there's two shooters.”

“They'd have more backup if they were gunning for us both,” Dresden disagreed.  “Not to be too arrogant, or anything.”

A blur of movement rushed them from the side, only to impact heavily on a translucent shield summoned forth by Dresden.  The leaves that Potter had been levitating were now sharp metal discs, and he sent them spinning around the side of Dresden's shield and towards the once more fleeing form of the ghoul.  The majority of them missed, although several sunk into their foe's side and one tore clean through its leg.  

“Target of opportunity then,” Potter continued, “bumped into each other, saw us together, and couldn't resist the chance.”

“Sounds about right,” Dresden grunted as the ghoul made another pass, only to trip and stumble with unnatural clumsiness long enough for him to clip it in the side with a gout of flame.  

“Do we want to interrogate it?” Potter questioned, wand at the ready.  

“It won't have been told anything beyond who we are,” Dresden shook his head.  “Finish this before anyone else gets drawn into it.”

“Right,” Potter nodded.  “Get your shield up.”

Dresden did so without question, ready for whatever play Potter had.  Despite his preparation, he certainly hadn't expected the ghoul to come tumbling through the air uncontrollably and impact on his shield with a dull splat.  The wizard let his shield drop and sent another, heavier blast of force at the creature, while Potter made a similar action.  The result was a rather messy red smear and a number of bone fragments spread all about the small copse of trees.

The magician and the wizard surveyed their would be assassin's remains in the silence after the skirmish.  Dresden bounced on his toes slightly, on the verge of whistling.  That had been remarkably easy, especially compared to his previous ghoul experiences and stories he had heard.  He hardly even felt the drain of the magic he had used.  

“Guess you didn't hide your tracks well enough,” Dresden stated casually as they began to walk away from the site of the confrontation.  

“Guess not,” Potter frowned.  “I'll have to replace a few of my wards, too,” his frown deepened, before it was replaced by a smile.  “Well, at least I know they work now.”

Dresden turned to stare at Potter as they stepped onto a jogging path, ignoring the strange looks they garnered from passer by.  “I don't think I have a response to that,” he admitted.  Potter just chuckled.  

The pair walked in silence along the winding path for several more minutes before the roof of Potter's house came into view.  

“I won't even guess what the Red Court will try next, but if you keep your head down they might leave you alone,” Dresden picked up again.  

“You think so?” Potter asked wryly.  

“No,” Dresden shook his head, “you can always hope though.  You should know though, the longer you keep away from the White Council's attention, the easier your life will be.  They can be a real pain in the ass at times, and this war is only going to make them and their attack dogs worse.”

“I'll keep that in mind.  Shouldn't be too hard though,” Potter nodded, accepting the advice.  “I mean, it's not like they've heard about me.”

Dresden nodded in silent agreement as they rounded a final bend and came into view of Potter's house, his Blue Beetle parked out the front, before stopping dead in his tracks.  Potter stepped around the wizard to get a look at what had drawn him up short, and was greeted by the sight of a stocky old man in worn jeans and a flannelette shirt leaning against his porch.  

“Hoss!” the old man barked a greeting, apparently at Dresden, as he strode towards them.  “Was beginning to think you'd heard me coming and skipped off on me.  Why don't you introduce me to your new friend there?”

Dresden regained his composure quickly.  “Uh, yes Sir.  This is Potter.  Harry, that is.”

The old man raised an eyebrow but said nothing as the two Harrys came to a stop before him.  

“Is there a reason you're in town, Sir?” Dresden fidgeted.  “The Council here already?”

“No, lad,” the old man shook his head, the hint of an amused smirk on his face.  “You don't have to worry about that bunch of politicking old fossils just yet.  I'm here on another task, as a favour to a friend,” he explained, his gaze drifting over to Potter.  

Potter grinned brightly, bouncing on his heels.  “Well, I'd hate to keep you from your work.  I'll leave you two to catch up then,” he offered, already taking the steps up his porch.  

“Don't play coy with me boy,” the old man's voice brooked no argument.  “Your little dust up on the sports field with that Fae last night was observed.”

Potter turned back to face the old man who suddenly seemed much more focused than the grumpy figure he had been seconds previous.  “It was self defence officer, honest,” Potter assured him innocently, while Dresden winced slightly out the corner of his eye.

“I'm not here to play games,” the old man scowled.  “Introduce us properly, Hoss,” he directed to Dresden.  

“Right,” Dresden started, grimacing slightly.  “Sir, this is Harry Potter, a practitioner who arrived in Chicago about a year ago.  Potter, this is my mentor, Ebenezer McCoy.”

“Charmed, I'm sure,” Potter stated with a pretentious, overly polite tilt of his head.

Ebenezer scowled again.  “I'm here on Council business, but I've a question of my own first.  What reasons do you have to associate with my apprentice?”

“Interrogated by the parents already?” Potter fanned himself dramatically.  “And it's not even the third date!”

Dresden threw Potter a withering look and visibly forced himself to hold back a snarky comment while Ebenezer's face tightened.

“I was perfectly happy minding my own business on my farm before I was asked to come over to Chicago and see to you, boy,” Ebenezer informed the overly flippant wizard with a glare.  “Do yourself a favour and don't irritate me further.”

Potter's mocking demeanour slid away at the possible threat.  “And how do you plan on 'seeing' to me?” he asked in a casual tone, absently twirling his wand between his fingers—a wand that had been concealed in his pockets not a second earlier.

Dresden, watching the satisfied gleam in his mentor's eyes, wasn't sure whether he should laugh at Potter's misfortune or bemoan the White Council's own, regardless of the concern he knew he ought to be feeling.  He knew exactly what Ebenezer was here to do.

“Wizard Potter,” Ebenezer began sternly, “in light of the power and skills demonstrated in your confrontation with a Summer Fae, it is my duty to induct you into the White Council.  Congratulations,” the old man finished dryly, dropping his official tone.  

Dresden snickered, unable to control himself, and received a glare from Potter in return.

“Thanks,” the newest member of the White Council stated sarcastically, “but no thanks.”

“I'm sorry, lad,” Ebenezer smiled thinly.  “Did you think it was an offer?”

A chill overtook Potter's casual air.  “There was another group of self assured old men who thought they could dictate my actions to me, once upon a time,” he answered, now sickly green eyes focused unblinkingly on the older man's own.  

“Why don't we sit down,” Ebenezer offered, a shadow lurking behind his own impassive gaze to match Potter's own, “and I'll tell you exactly why you want to join the White Council.”

X

“So,” Potter began, pouring himself a generous two fingers of Glenfiddich, “what were all those compelling reasons you had prepared to persuade me to join your knitting circle?”

The three men stood on the second floor loft of Potter's house, standing around a kitchen bench.  Dresden leaned against a wall to the side, his back to a solid wall and not the windows that ran along the east side of the house, while Ebenezer stood directly across from Potter himself.  

“Safety in numbers,” Ebenezer began with a grunt.  “You're out in the cold by yourself, and the Red Court won't hesitate to take advantage of that.  Already have, unless I miss my mark.”

“Joining your club would just make me a larger target,” Potter countered.  “It's more likely that the attempt this morning was aimed at Dresden.”

“You showed particular aptitude for mind magics in your fight with the Fae,” Ebenezer continued, unmindful of Potter's arguments.  “Aptitude that isn't picked up easily, nor is it a talent weaned on beings like the Fae.  Try what you did as a novice and it likely would have been you screaming on the ground picking at your brain through your eyeballs.”

Dresden shuffled uncomfortably while Potter took a sip of his Scotch.

“Point?” the magician asked coolly.  

Ebenezer smiled grimly.  “Such a skill is most likely learned delving into the minds of humans.”

“And I'm sure you would forget all about that if I did as you want,” Potter responded sourly.  

“The White Council would never forgive a warlock,” Ebenezer answered in a hard tone, before shrugging.  “Although, I do suppose it is possible you gained your proficiency in some other manner.  I have very little input into such investigations outside of my responsibility, however.”

Potter snorted in response, but didn't appear to be swayed.  “Anything else?” he asked, almost indifferently.  

“One last thing,” Ebenezer replied, staring at Potter intently.  “The one who asked me to see to you also asked me to pass on a message.  Said it would mean something to you.”

“Oh?” Potter asked, narrowing his eyes.  “What was the message?”

Ebenezer pursed his lips in a brief grimace.  “'The Gatekeeper asks if the Sandman is enjoying his new home,'” he relayed, watching intently for Potter's reaction.  Every muscle in the younger man's body tensed, the muscles and veins on his neck standing out in sharp contrast for the briefest of moments.  

“The Gatekeeper, who is he?” Potter gripped the kitchen bench with white knuckles, his words spilling over themselves in his haste as he leaned forward with a desperate sort of focus.  No one alive knew that name.  No one.  He had killed them.  All of them.  

The older wizard smiled,  pleased.  “The Gatekeeper is a member of the Senior Council of wizards.  If you were to accept my offer, your chances of meeting him would improve.”

Potter's jaw tightened.  “Was that all?”

“No,” Ebenezer shook his head slowly, his face clear of any emotion.  “He also wanted to know if you'd had any luck in locating the missing piece of your soul.”

X x X

Severus Snape sneered at the boring rows of identical houses as he approached the door of Number Four Privet Drive, wand in hand.  The door sprang open before him as he swept across the threshold, robes billowing in his wake.  

A shaken Petunia Dursley was waiting for him in the hall, wringing her hands.  “You need to do something!  The boy and his freaki--”

“Be silent, you wretched woman!” Severus snapped, ignoring the sudden recognition in the woman's eyes.  “Where is he?”

“Forget the boy!” Petunia answered shrilly, as she hurriedly guided Severus to the dining room.  “You need to do something about this!” she demanded, gesturing wildly.  

Snape observed the ruined room.  The dining table was overturned, food and shards of ceramic plates littered the room, while the window looking out into the backyard had been blown out completely.  Pictures hung crookedly on the walls, while a myriad of cracks ran throughout the white plaster ceiling.  What drew the Potion Master's attention, however, was the portly woman stuck to the wall, mumbling deliriously.

“Well?  Fix it!” Petunia shrieked.

Snape looked down on Lily's sister with a supremely disdainful gaze.  “I do not care to waste my time tending to injuries that are more than likely well deserved,” he replied coldly.  “Where is Mr Potter?”

“The boy is gone—not that he will be staying here after using his freakishness to do this!” the horse-like woman spluttered.  “He even blew Vernon out the window!  What are you going to do about that?”

“Mrs Dursley,” Snape began quietly, a certain menace lurking behind his eyes.  “You behave like you have some degree of choice in the matter.  The Headmaster has placed the boy here, and here he will stay for as long as is necessary.  Is that perfectly clear?”

Petunia faltered beneath the gaze of the robed man, mouth opening and closing soundlessly.  A groan sounded through the broken window, followed by the sound of someone shuffling to their feet.  The woman rushed outside, and Snape forcibly calmed himself before he lost what remained of his patience and simply summoned the woman back to him.  

Petunia re-entered the house several moments later, somehow supporting an overweight man several times her size.  She manoeuvred him to the one dining chair that was somehow still standing and helped him sink onto it.  

“Mr Potter, Petunia,” Snape pressed once more, “where did he go?”

“Potter,” the obese man focused on the name.  “Where is the little runt?  He's going to get a bloody tanning for this!” His eyes focused on Snape, clearly a wizard.  “You!  Are you here to lock the little freak up, now that he's broken the law again?  And what are you going to do about all this mess, eh?”

Rather than allow the fat man to continue his diatribe, Snape gestured once around the room with his wand, summoning the numerous shards of glass from their resting places.  The woman stuck to the wall collapsed to the floor when the pieces pinning her clothes were removed.  The Muggles jumped at the noise, but made no move to help her, their attention focused on the hundreds of sharp pieces of glass that were revolving around the room.  They watched as the glass floated dangerously close to them, hardly daring to move, before Severus twisted his wand once more and the glass flew back to the shattered window, restoring it perfectly.  

“Now, Mrs Dursley,” Snape's gaze flicked to the woman once more, twirling his wand between his fingers.  “Where is Mr Potter?”

Wordlessly, Petunia pointed towards the front door, out into the night.  Snape gave the Muggles a scathing sneer as he swept out of the house, already bemoaning the loss of what could have been a night of potion experimentation, now lost to tracking down Potter.  Small mercy that he had the forethought to place his brews in stasis before leaving the castle.  

As he stepped across the lawn, the Professor prepared himself to cast what tracking spells he could on short notice—only to stop when he noticed the heavy drag marks tracked across an otherwise pristine lawn.  The trail continued over the bitumen road, leaving mud and grass picked up from the lawn in its wake.  

A trunk, Snape deduced.  Potter had retained the presence of mind to gather his belongings before fleeing the detestable Muggles.  Unusual, after being pushed emotionally to the point of accidental magic...but not unexpected of Potter, he supposed.  The trail continued over the road, and through a tangle of bushes on the other side.

Making his way across the road and opening a path through the bushes with a gesture, Snape emerged into a small park to a curious sight.  The Potter boy was seated on his trunk, leaning against what a more superstitious wizard might have called a Grim.  The enormous dog was sitting on the ground, its tail thumping against the dirt, while Potter idly scratched it behind the ears.  Despite Potter's seat on his trunk, his head was still level with the dog's own, such was its size.  

“Mr Potter,” Severus broke the night's silence with an irritated tone.  “I am quite displeased with you.”

Immediately, the dog's good nature disappeared and it leapt to its feet, fur bristling and fangs bared as it snarled at Snape.  The Potions Master glared at the mutt in return, not in the least inclined to put up with any more complications to his night.  

“Woah, Blackie,” Harry grabbed the beast by the scruff of its neck as he attempted to calm it.  “It's ok.  He's a teacher at my school.  It's ok boy,” he spoke into the mutt's ear in a soothing tone.  The dog calmed slightly, although it never took its eyes from Snape.  “Why are you here, Professor?” Harry questioned with just a hint of nervousness.  

“I am here because a foolish student was unable to control his emotions,” Snape answered disdainfully, one eye still on the quite possibly rabid beast.  “The Headmaster was quite concerned when several wards he has placed over the area activated earlier this evening,” he favoured the boy with a dry look.  “I do not suppose you know what might have caused that?”

“I was angry,” Harry answered, looking at his feet.

“I see,” Snape sneered.  “And you allow your magic to act freely every time you lose a hold on your temper?” he inquired rhetorically, before continuing.  “What compelling reason did you have for throwing such a childish fit?  Was the food perhaps not up to standards?” he prodded, well aware that it wasn't anything near so trivial.  

Harry glared at his sometimes hostile Potions teacher.  “She implied that my mother was a poorly bred dog who should have been culled before passing on her genes,” he bit out.  At his side, the mutt let loose a rumbling growl from deep within its chest.  

“So you decided to destroy the room in a fit of pique?” Snape inquired disdainfully.

“I didn't do it on purpose,” Harry gritted his teeth.  

“Ah,” Snape replied, nodding his head.  “I suppose that removes the burden of responsibility from your shoulders, in that case.”

Harry held back a snarky reply, biting his lip.  “Why are you here?” he asked instead.  As Snape raised a contemptuous eyebrow, he elaborated.  “I mean, why are you here.”

“Because the Headmaster is far too busy putting out the fires caused by your high use of magic at the Ministry.  Surely you did not think you could allow your magic to run wild and remain unnoticed by the authorities?”

“I meant why you, Professor,” Harry asked, half suspiciously.  “You hardly ever talk to me at school, and when you do, it seems like you almost hate me.”

“Potter, I know it must be hard, not receiving blind adoration from all quarters, but I'm sure you'll find a way to bear it,” Snape drawled, already tired of the conversation.  “Did you consider that I was perhaps the only one on hand capable of retrieving you with the Headmaster occupied?” he asked, a hint of the irritation he was feeling creeping into his voice.  

“Oh, right,” Harry scratched his neck self-consciously.  

Reaching into a pocket within his robes, Severus withdrew a small item.  “The Headmaster has lodgings prepared and a Portkey to them, Mr Potter,” he stated, lip curling slightly as he glanced at the brightly coloured sock in his hands.  

Harry glanced at the beast that was still watching Snape with narrowed eyes.  “What about--” he began.

“The animal will be remaining here,” Snape continued on, “as it is no doubt riddled with fleas and disease.”

The dog gave a pitiful whine.  

“With luck, the Headmaster will be able to prevent your expulsion,” Snape revealed, finding brief amusement in the way Potter's face paled.  

“They wouldn't,” Harry argued, trying to reassure himself.  

“Even after the warning you received a year past?” Snape asked with a smirk.  “I suspect that unless you show some commitment to keeping your magic under control and avoiding further incidents of 'accidental' magic, the Headmaster will have to grant some rather large concessions in order to help you.”

“How can I do that?” Harry asked, seizing on the opening Snape had offered.

“There are exercises, mental arts and disciplines out there that might aid you in your endeavour,” Snape answered vaguely, as he handed the sock to Potter.  “I suspect you might even find trace of these in the Hogwarts library.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Harry answered, somewhat glad that the normally taciturn and scowling man had refrained from glaring at him for the entirety of their conversation, as he had in the past.  “When will the Port--”

Severus smirked as the boy and his trunk disappeared mid sentence.  He sneered at the mangy cur that was still staring at him suspiciously before stowing his wand and turning on the spot.  He was done with annoyances for the evening, and Kronos help any who presumed to disturb his brewing again that night.  He disappeared with a faint crack, leaving the dog alone in the park, who shook his head in a very human fashion before turning and loping out of the park himself.  

X x X

Harry watched from an upper story window with a frown as Dresden and his mentor pulled away from his house, mulling over this latest development.  This 'Gatekeeper' knew things about him, things no living soul knew about.  It was doubtful he had learned them through necromancy, aligned with the White Council as he appeared, even before Harry took his 'foreign' status to this world into consideration.  If he was to learn more about this potential threat, it seemed he would have to play the Gatekeeper's game and join the White Council.  He scowled, rough outlines of a plan beginning to form in his mind.

His focus was drawn from his planning by the roar of a beautiful '67 Impala as it screamed around the corner of his long driveway.  He winced as its rear end drifted out and clipped a tree, shattering a tail light and leaving a badly scratched dent in a panel.  The driver continued on heedlessly, before coming to a screeching stop in front of his front porch.  The driver side door was thrown open as Suzie Blue stepped out with a heavy canvas bag slung over her shoulder.  She looked anxious, worried and her usually professional outfit had been replaced by jeans and an untucked T-shirt, the revolver that was customarily holstered at her waist stuck haphazardly in the back of her pants.  

As Suzie rushed up the stairs of his porch, Harry gestured loosely with his wand, directly the front door to open before her.  Over the last year, he and Suzie had worked together on a number of assignments for Marcone, maintaining a loose friendship outside of their work.  He wondered what had brought her to him with such haste.

“Suzie,” Harry greeted as he took the stairs to the lower level.  “You look like you're in a bit of a rush.”

“Harry, I need a favour,” Suzie stated shortly, ignoring his observation as she dropped the canvas bag onto his floor with a heavy clunk.  The magician eyed her curiously, prompting her to continue.  “I need you to help me find my sister and kill the men who took her.”

“O-k,” Harry blinked, rubbing his jaw.  “You have a sister?”

“Yes,” Suzie answered shortly.  “Marcone was supposed to be the only know who knew.”

“Do you know who took your sister or what they want?” Harry questioned his guest as he gestured for her to follow him into one of the rooms that branched off the main floor.  

“I trusted the Boss with my sister's safety,” Suzie explained as she followed her colleague into the room that appeared to be deceptively small from the outside, examining her surroundings.  The walls were lined with a bizarre collection of materials, including numerous containers holding a myriad of colourful stones, clear flasks filled with a variety of liquids (some identifiable, some not) and a workbench that was clear save for a life sized silver prosthetic etched a number of strange markings.  “In return,” she continued, “he trusts me with some of his more sensitive information—you know, things like the addresses of his safe house, bank account details as well as some of the more delicate tasks he needs taken care of.”

“And that's what the people who took your sister want to know,” Harry deduced, to which Suzie nodded.  “Why not go to Marcone with this?”

“They're watching him somehow,” Suzie grimaced, “and they told me doing anything other than getting them the information was the quickest way to get May hurt,” she revealed, naming her sister.

“But you still came here,” Harry pointed out.

“I told them retrieving what they needed required two people to do and that you were the second person,” Suzie admitted.  “You're the only person I could think of who could help me find my sister.”  She unzipped the canvas bag and rummaged around within, before withdrawing a used comb.  “This is May's brush.  You can use this to find her, right?” Suzie demanded.

“Nah,” Harry shook his head, turning to lift one of the flasks from the wall before sifting through a large box filled with a variety of bowls.

“What?”  Suzie's voice shook slightly, knuckles whitening as they gripped the brush.

“I don't do the whole hair thing,” Harry expanded, seemingly unconcerned with Suzie's stressed state.  “Hmmm, this might work...”

Suzie watched as the magician trailed off, pouring a clear liquid from the flask into a plain steel bowl.  She wrinkled her nose.  From the smell, the liquid was vodka.  

Harry stirred the bowl with the tip of his wand gently, focused intently on the blank surface.  His eyes began to droop and he pulled his wand from the liquid, but continued with the stirring motion.  The swirling vodka stilled suddenly and a flurry of images flashed across its surface for a brief moment—and then Harry drew back swiftly, just in time for the metal bowl to buckle and warp, launching its contents up into the air.  Before the vodka could fall and splatter everywhere, Harry poked it with his wand, vanishing it.

“They're on the move,” the magician muttered to himself as he returned to the box full of containers and chose one, hooking another flask from the wall with his wand in a more confident manner.

“How can you tell?” Suzie prodded, a small worm of doubt creeping into her tone.  For all that her work involved taking disparate sets of data and seemingly unrelated happenings and somehow forming them into a cohesive whole of useful information for her boss, there was logic and solid reasoning behind her work.  She couldn't help but be dubious of the way Harry was apparently searching for her sister.  

Harry didn't answer immediately, instead pouring several heavy dollops of syrup into the wooden bowl he had chosen.  “Where I come from,” he answered finally, “this sort of scrying is considered a charlatans trick, or a last resort for those without true talent.  When I was in my sixth year of schooling, I found out that that was a complete load of bollocks,” he revealed as he began to stir the heavy substance with his wand.  “All you need is a connection between yourself and what you're looking for and a sense of willpower great enough to strengthen that connection to the point that you can find what you're looking for.  In this case, the connection is that I know you, you know your sister and you want me to find her.  It's a bit more complicated than that and the material you use can help or hinder, but that's the gist of it.  Aha!”

At Harry's exclamation, Suzie scrambled forward to catch a glimpse of what he had found.  Within the wooden bowl, there was an image of a young girl who couldn't have been more than 17 with red hair trussed up in what appeared to be the back of a van.  She was busy glaring a hole in the heavy set man watching over her, and likely would have been giving him an earful as well if not for the gag tied across her mouth.  

Forming a triangle with his thumbs and forefingers, Harry raised his hands away from the bowl, resulting in the point of view rising with them.  The shift revealed a white van sitting at a set of lights in what looked to be the industrial part of town.  As the van took off from the lights, its number plate came into view, although too blurry to make out.  

“The plates,” Suzie ordered.  Harry complied, tilting the view and bringing it closer to the back of the van.  Suzie memorised the back of the plates with a grim smile.  She had them.  

At her side, Harry allowed himself a small smile.  These kidnappers seemed like just the people to relieve his frustration on, before returning to the problem of the Gatekeeper with a clear head.

XxX

“Fuck,” Suzie swore, taking in the abandoned van parked on the curb of the empty street in the warehouse district .  She'd lost them.  

After gaining the details of the plates on the van holding her sister, Suzie had Harry Apparate them to her office, where she had spent twenty minutes running them through the various systems she had created in the course of her job.  Compared to the sort of information Marcone usually had her tracking down, tracing the path of a van in a heavily populated city was simple.  Finding a small group of people after they'd abandoned the vehicle she was using to track them, not so much.  

“Hey, Suzie,” Harry drew her attention as he rifled through the front cab of the van.  “Someone fancies them self a wizard.”  He tossed a purple bound book with arcane symbols on the cover to her.  

“Is it genuine?” the bluenette asked, flipping through the pages.

Harry shrugged.  “Some of the rituals there seem more like what you'd expect from a bunch of teenagers having a séance, but  I've seen Dresden do some of the other stuff.”

“If a wizard is orchestrating this, do we need backup?” Suzie asked bluntly.

Harry snorted, shooting the book a contemptuous look.  “If they've been learning from books like that, I'll smack them down like a little bitch.”

Suzie grinned nastily, before returning to the task at hand.  “Got a way of tracking them, or am I going to have to bribe the homeless man over there?” she asked, nodding to an alleyway across the street.  

Harry's wand was suddenly resting on his open palm.  “Point me, May Blue,” he stated clearly.

The wand didn't so much as quiver, prompting Suzie to grimace.  “Try May Mossman,” she interjected.  

Harry repeated the finding spell and the wand spun several times before pointing down the street at a warehouse that stood apart from its neighbours.  He raised an eyebrow at Suzie, mouthing 'Mossman?', which she staunchly ignored.  

“The doors are likely alarmed,” Suzie observed, eyes taking in the building her sister was being held in.  “We can take the fire escape and scope the place out through the skylights on the roof.”

Without bothering to warn her and uncaring of the homeless man still watching from across the street, Harry took Suzie's hand in his and Apparated them to the roof silently.  She stumbled slightly, then regained her balance and glaring at Harry.  He winced as she did her best to fracture every bone in his hand in warning, before releasing him and approaching the skylight they had appeared next to.  The glass was too murky to see through, covered in filth that had spent years accumulating.  Suzie rubbed at it in an unsuccessful attempt to clear a view.  She turned to Harry, gesturing at the glass in mute question.  Crouching down beside her, Harry tapped the glass with his wand, vanishing it and clearing their view into the dark warehouse.  

For the most part, the building was empty, save for concrete pillars spaced out evenly and various pieces of litter and debris, as well as a number of wooden crates dotted about the floor that looked as if they'd been placed there intentionally.  In the corner of the building was what appeared to be an office.  Candlelight flickered against the windows of the small room from within, and two men leaned against the wall on either side of the office door.  

Harry muttered a spell, tapping his wand to his glasses.  His gaze flicked around the warehouse for several moments before he tapped his glasses a second time, ending the spell.  “There are three people inside the office,” he informed Suzie.  “One seated behind a desk, one sitting on the floor in the corner and one standing next to the one in the corner.”

Suzie blinked, absorbing the information.  “May will be the one in the corner, the one standing near her  is the guard and the one behind the desk is the one who orchestrated this all.”  She gave the office a critical once over.  “I need my bag,” she told him.

Another flick of his wand and the canvas bag Suzie had been carrying with her all day came flying across the street from where it had been left next to the kidnapper's van, coming to a stop floating before her.  Harry continued to watch the two guards outside the office while Suzie rummaged within the bag.  At the sound of metal on metal, Harry turned a curious eye on his companion.  When he saw what she had been hiding within the bag, his eyebrows rose to join his hairline.  

“How quickly can you get May out of there?” she asked calmly as she watched the two guards through the scope of the sleek black rifle she had just finished assembling.  She made a small adjustment to the scope and settled herself into a more comfortable position, resting the rifle on the edge of the skylight.  

“Two and a half seconds,” Harry replied, guessing the rest of Suzie's plan.  “You sure you can deal with  those two?” he asked, not questioning her ability but her willingness to do so.

“I didn't luck into working for Marcone, Harry,” Suzie replied, drawing the bolt back and pushing it home, sliding a round into the chamber with a dull clack.  “I'm not a girl scout.”

“I can see that,” Harry agreed, enjoying the way Suzie's tight jeans clung to her figure as she lay on the roof, leaning into the rifle.  “Ready when you are.”

“Go.”

At Suzie's command, Harry crouched and Disapparated, reappearing inside the office between May and her guard.  Shaking off the head spin that came from Apparating to a location outside his line of sight, Harry ignored the startled shouts of the two other men in the room and grasped May's arm, disappearing from the building.  As he reappeared on the roof, the rifle in Suzie's hand spat quietly, once, twice, and the two guards outside the office slumped to the ground, red splatters decorating the wall behind them.  

The bindings around May's hands and mouth shrivelled into dust after Harry tapped them with his wand.  The teen girl's eyes were slightly wild as she took in her new location, and a strange look passed over her face when she caught sight of Suzie packing up her rifle.  Harry ignored it as a curiosity as his attention was drawn to more pressing matters.  

“Suzie, problem,” Harry drew his colleague's attention with a frown.  

“What is it?” Suzie demanded, hurriedly stowing the pieces of her rifle.  Harry merely nodded towards May, more specifically the chunk of hair that looked like it had been removed with a knife.  Suzie cursed, looking back to the office where she could see a pair of shadows moving about with haste.  

“What the fuck is happening here?” May demanded, speaking up for the first time.  Unlike her sister, May's accent was definitely American.  

“We need to destroy that lock of hair,” Suzie stated, beginning to retrieve her rifle once more, paying no attention to her sister.  

Harry shook his head.  “I'll take care of that.  You get your sister out of here.”

Suzie stared at him for a long moment, before nodding sharply.  “Be careful.  May, follow me.”

“Not happening, not until you tell me what the fuck just--” May raised her voice, almost on the verge of hysterics.  

May,” Suzie barked, discarding all trace of her usual playful personality.  “Now is not the time.”

“Not the time?  I don't see you for months, I get kidnapped, Christ knows when I'm going to see you again, now seems like a pretty fucki--”

Harry Disapparated and reappeared in the middle of the warehouse floor, leaving the two sisters to their argument.  He was confident that Suzie could get her sister out of the area in short order, but until then he had a wizard to deal with.  Silently, he cast a spell at the corpses of both kidnappers that had been standing guard, before casting several more at the wooden crates closest to the office.  Briefly, he considered taunting the two men inside the office to draw them out, but then shrugged and decided to wing it.  Casually, he threw a spell that generated a wave of concussive force towards the office, blowing in the windows and sending shards of glass flying about the enclosed area.  

Several moments later, the man who had been standing guard over May stumbled out through the door that was now hanging askew from its hinges.  Catching sight of Harry, he raised the semi-automatic in his hands and opened up on the magician.  

Harry's wand hand twitched instinctively, and a large solid silver shield snapped into existence before him.  The bullets hit the shield with a faint pinging sound, ricocheting off the barrier and around the room.  Had he been able to see the other side of the shield, Harry knew he would find an enormous snarling polar bear embossed upon it.  

Hearing the gun run dry even as the kidnapper attempted to continue firing despite this, Harry released his hold on the shield and willed a previous spell to activate.  The corpses the kidnapper stood between detonated, hurling pieces of bone and other bloody matter across the warehouse, along with the body of the still living kidnapper himself.  The man stayed airborne until he collided heavily with one of the concrete pillars supporting the roof, slumping to the ground unconscious.  

It was then that the office walls exploded outwards in a burst of savage kinetic force, shards of wood and glass blasting across the warehouse in a deadly wave.  Harry raised his wand hand in a warding gesture before himself, stopping any debris that would have hit him in its tracks.  As the barrage came to a stop, he lowered his hand, allowing the blocked debris to fall to the ground with a clatter.  

While his attention had been diverted, the hooded figure of the wizard who had apparently orchestrated the kidnapping of Suzie's sister had come to stand in the warehouse proper, staring him down.  Harry smiled in return, the expression not quite reaching his eyes.  Finally, the other man spoke.  

“You are no Warden,” he declared.  

“Oh, bravo good sir,” Harry responded mockingly.  “What gave it away?”

The wizard gave no response, though Harry imagined if he could see his face he would have been glaring at him.  Then his foe began to gather magic to his staff and Harry rocked back on the balls of his feet, ready and waiting.  Instead of throwing fire or ice, however, his foe rapped out a pattern on the concrete floor with his staff with an expectant air.  

As it turned out, the wooden crates dotting the warehouse that looked as if they had been placed there deliberately had been placed there purposely.  The tops of the crates were blown off as pillars of flame burst from within, before turning and seeking for intruders with deadly purpose.  Several turned off to immolate the unconscious kidnapper Harry had already dealt with, while the majority turned for Harry himself.  

The first pillar, Harry sucked into his wand, purifying it, before sending it back out at twice the strength to chase the wizard who had originally set it on him.  The second and third Harry captured and directed into a small glass vial he had conjured, hurling it towards the office that hopefully held the lock of May's hair that the wizard had taken.  The fourth, fifth and sixth pillars were blasted by geysers of freezing water that resulted in sharp blasts of steam obscuring much of the warehouse from sight.  It was the seventh through to the tenth pillars of fire that finally forced Harry to Apparate away, putting some distance between himself and the flame.  Even as they turned to continue the chase, Harry was completing his preparations.  

The steam that hung in the air came alive, cooling rapidly.  The air cleared rapidly as the steam condensed around the flames into water, ignoring all the laws, rules and strongly worded suggestions of physics.  The pillars of fire were halfway to Harry when the icicles began to form, spreading over the fires to form a casing of ice around them.  Harry continued pumping power into the spell, part transfiguration and part charm, until he had four lengths of flame that were imprisoned within the ice, still burning.  

“You know what?”  Harry began rhetorically, turning to his opponent who had finally managed to deal with the column of fire Harry had set on him.  He ignored the glower he was receiving as a result of the half burnt robe the man was wearing and continued on, “I think I'll keep these.  A bit of sculpting and they'd do fantastically as bar tables.”  A tap of his wand and the ice encased flames vanished, on their way to the workroom at his house.  “Now, was that all?” he asked, turning his attention back to his foe.  

The runes carved into the wizard's staff began to glow once more as he gathered his strength.  

“Good,” Harry smirked, tracing a pattern in the air with his wand.  “Because now it's my turn.”

The magician's wand began to crackle with lightning, the wizard's staff began to smoke, and it was at that moment that a squad of grey-cloaked men and women burst into the warehouse, naked blades in hand and ready for trouble.  

As the newcomers spread out against the magician and his foe, Harry pivoted and swung his wand in a wide arc, releasing the power that was pent up within.  Instead of a bolt of lightning that would have punched a hole in a single target, a flurry of smaller branches reached out towards the newcomers.  The closest two men seized up as the electricity hit them, unable to react in time.  Of the remaining five, two barked different phrases and had the concrete floor rise up in front of them and their fellows.  As the lightning broke upon it, the impromptu wall fell forward, opening the way for two more of the newcomers to stride forwards.  

One turned for the wizard Harry had been duelling, who had taken the chance provided to put some distance between himself and the group.  The other, a pale European woman, advanced on Harry, a length of string looped loosely around her fingers.  One of her fellows backed her up, while the rest of the squad pursued his original foe, who was apparently proving quite capable of defending himself from five opponents at once.  

Despite displaying greater aggression, Harry soon found why only two of the wizards had split off to deal with himself, as he felt a constricting pressure settle about his neck.  Eyeing the knot the woman had tied with the thread in her hands, he Apparated a metre to his left, breathing easily.  Then the pressure returned, and Harry glared at the knot, ignoring a faintly smug expression worn by his attacker.  Apparating back to his original position, he seized the brief strangulation free moment and focused, drawing in his will.  His curse, as he failed to transfigure what was apparently not ordinary string in his foe's hands into a king cobra, was cut off as he was choked by an invisible force once more.

He glared at his foe, his wand snapping out in a blur as a flurry of curses flew towards his tormentor.  She dodged them effortlessly, dancing around the pulses of light and magic like it was a well practised routine.  Running out of patience (and breath), Harry conjured a blast of frigid air and ice and sent it at the woman, aiming to impair her dexterity and ability to use the threads in her hands even if he couldn't score a direct hit.  It was at that point that her fellow decided to enter the duel, stamping his foot to raise a slab of concrete and block the ice, while simultaneously firing a volley of small fire balls from his staff.  

His vision darkening, Harry gave the woman one final scathing glare before Apparating once more, this time out of the warehouse entirely.  He gasped for breath as he supported himself against a wall, ignoring the staring of the other occupant in the alleyway he had Apparated to.  

“What?” Harry hacked, clearing his throat.  “Never seen a real life wizard before?” he asked of the homeless man; the same one Suzie had pointed out as a source of information earlier, he realised.  

“Once or twice,” the old man blinked before replying, apparently willing to accept the younger man who had appeared out of thin air.  

“I'm sure,” Harry replied sourly.  He began to draw a long thread out of his shirt with the tip of his wand.  “Did you see two women come by here just before?”

“Blue and red,” the other man nodded, identifying Suzie and May's hair colours.  He watched Harry quizzically as the magician weaved the shirt thread between the fingers of his left hand.  “They took the van and left.”

“Fantastic,” Harry sighed to himself, at odds with his words.  He looked at the homeless man, only just realising how goddamn tall he was.  Then he grinned.  “Let's see how you like me now, bitch.”  Apparating once more and almost wincing at the slight pins and needles sensation he could feel inside his extremities, Harry was once more within the warehouse, his arrival announced by a sharp crack.

Four of the grey cloaks surrounded the wizard who had kidnapped May, battering at a magical shield.  Two more were over by a support pillar, one apparently tending to the wounds of the other.  The last, the pale woman who had done her best to choke him out earlier was circling the first group, likely waiting for an opening.  She spun to face him at the sound of his reappearance, thread ready in her hands.  

She spoke a mocking condemnation in what Harry recognised as Russian, her fingers blurring for a moment.  When nothing happened, she began another knot, scowling.  Harry winked at her and raised his left hand, showing off the (comparatively) basic knot he held in place, allowing him to negate her influence on himself.  She spat a curse at him and his smirk grew.  Then reached inside the grey cloak she wore and withdrew a slightly curved, rune inscribed wand and started hurling shards of ice at him.  

Harry shattered the incoming projectiles with a burst of concussive force, his smirk turning into a wild grin.  He was enjoying this, and as he returned fire with a gout of flame, it became apparent to his opponent, much to her ire.  She reached into her cloak once more, this time pulling out a small flask and raising it to her lips—only to be interrupted by an explosion that shook the building.  

The wizard fighting the others had been fighting was the one responsible, apparently, as three of the grey cloaks were thrown through the air, robes smouldering.  Two connected solidly with a wall and moaned unintelligibly, while the third didn't fly as far and rolled haphazardly across the floor, sword flying from his hands.  Despite a nasty burn across his face, he still managed to force himself to his feet, arming himself with a short, thick wand.  

The fourth grey cloak the kidnapper had been fighting was a smoking corpse that was stepped over as her killer approached Harry, his hood long gone in the fury of the fight.  He maintained a small moustache, and wore his black hair cropped short.  He came to a stop an arms length from Harry, the two unaligned wizards watching both each other and the grey cloaks as the three—four as the wounded one got to his feet--still mobile members of the squad squared up to them.  

“Lay down your foci and submit to White Council justice,” the pale woman Harry had been duelling and apparent leader of the group, ordered with a mild a Russian accent.  

“Truce to deal with the Wardens,” the wizard at Harry's side rasped out quietly, ignoring the 'Wardens.  “Then we split ways, and I'll even stay away from your little friend in the future.”

“I have a plan,” Harry nodded to himself as he tapped his wand to his temple, smiling slyly as the Wardens bristled and readied themselves for violence.  

Accepting Harry's agreement, the dark haired wizard turned to face the Wardens fully, a dark smile spreading across his face.

Then Harry reached over and slit his throat.

The dark haired wizard gave Harry a brief, surprised look before he staggered and fell, catching himself on his staff.  His free hand went to his trachea, clamping down on the bloody froth that was escaping with each gasping breath.  The Wardens watched the apparent betrayal in tense expectation, focused not on the man who was calmly watching his victim die, but on the victim himself.  Noticing the direction of their gazes, Harry observed the man.  The magician's caution was rewarded as he drew a bloody hand from his throat, heedless of the lifeblood flowing from his jugular.  

The man grinned, revealing bloodstained teeth as he raised his staff, a dark, malicious light gathered at its tip.  “Bu-burn--” he began to choke out.  An immense amount of power began to emanate from him.  

“Swords to the warlock.  Negate the Death Curse!”  the Russian Warden barked out, discarding the thread in her hands and drawing an elegant blade sheathed at her hip.  Throwing caution to the winds, the men at her side rushed him, completely ignoring Harry.  

The dying warlock thrust his blood covered hand at the charging Wardens, blasting them through the air.  He grinned in unholy delight as he drew in even more power, and his eyes flicked to Harry.  Their eyes met for a brief second and Harry stole a single thought in the instant provided.  

Burn with me.

No, Harry decided, dragging his eyes from the man.  He would not.  He reached out with his magic, grasping seven different objects around the room with the first charm he had ever learned.  He flicked his wand at the warlock negligently, the man's blood slipping from it as he did so.  

Burn with--”  The Death Curse cut off with a pained gasp as a sword pierced the caster's stomach, impaled to the hilt.  A second and then a third blade took him high in the back, driving him to his knees.  Two more blades pinned his arms to his sides.  The warlock spent his final moments mentally cursing the green eyed man who had wrought his ruin before the final two blades sank into either side of his neck, driving down until their tips exited his gut.  

As the corpse slumped to the ground, Harry became aware of the still mobile Wardens eyeing him warily, their gaze moving between the human pincushion and himself.  

“I'm, uh, not with him?” Harry half asked, half stated.  

The Russian Warden narrowed her eyes at him.  “Do not lie.  We track Master warlock and Apprentice warlock from Vancouver.  You are most powerful, obviously Master warlock.”

“No, really, I've never been to Vancouver,” Harry insisted.  “What do I need to do to prove that I'm not with that guy?  Beyond, you know...” the magician gestured at his fallen foe.  “Shish-kebab.”  

“Surrender your foci and come with us,” the woman demanded, fingers flexing like she would very much like to tie him in knots, which, given her skill with the thread magic demonstrated earlier, she likely could.  

“Yeah, look lady, that's not going to happen,” Harry replied, shaking his head.  “How about I do my thing, and you pretend you never saw me?”

The pale woman flushed in anger.  “Warlock,” she began imperiously, “you are being detained by the Wardens and taken for trial--”

Harry watched as one of her fellows placed his arm on her shoulder, whispering into her ear.  She scowled and whispered back, before listening again and then nodding reluctantly.

“But you are permitted to keep your foci,” the Warden leader continued as if she hadn't been interrupted.  “Any aggression will be answered with lethal force,” she finished with a warning.  

“I don't particularly feel like being dragged off to your home turf for whatever reason,” Harry stated flatly.  “You're going to have to do better than that.”

“This is not a negotiation.  You will come with us, and if you are truthful you will be released.  If not, you will be executed as Warlock.”  Her face might as well been carved from stone.  

Harry hissed at the Wardens, causing them to take a step back in the face of his anger.  Their demands were bringing up unpleasant memories; memories he didn't care to revisit.  “What if I could provide a reference?” he asked neutrally, bringing his anger back under control.  

“Explain,” the woman ordered shortly.  

“Ask the Gatekeeper about Harry Potter.  Until then, you can all fuck right off,” Harry took a moment to enjoy the various affronted expressions on the faces of the Wardens, before Apparating away, the last of his patience spent.  

Chapter 6: Hazard Pay

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.  

Chapter 7: Summer Cold

The suburban street was quiet, the standard morning routine of its inhabitants broken only by slight curiosity towards the white van that was parked across from the house belonging to those teenagers who were always having parties at unholy hours.  In time, children left for school, parents for work, and the street was left deserted.  

The sliding door on the van opened abruptly, a tall, heavy built man in a dark suit striding from it.  He stopped in the middle of the street, bracing the automatic rifle he carried against his shoulder.  Grasping the secondary trigger, he squeezed it gently, launching a grenade at the front door of the target house.  The blast destroyed the door, its frame, and part of the wall it had stood in, leaving a hole in the front of the house.  Several slivers of wood and glass clattered to the bitumen, having come to a halt mid air as they flew towards the armed man, who ignored them as he stood his ground.  

A girl who couldn't be more than fifteen burst from the house, lips drawn back in a snarl.  The armed man fired a burst that hit her centre mass, sending her to the ground as her features began to slough off, revealing a greasy, bat like creature with wrinkled, misshapen skin.  A window on the second story of the house shattered as a hail of bullets tore through it to rain down on the man in the street.  Unconcerned, he waited patiently, and a single round went through their skull; he watched as the corpse fell through the window and rolled across the lower level roof, tumbling to the ground.  The gunman looked down at the handful of squashed bullets lying on the ground before him.  They would have hurt.  

The street was quiet again, as it would have been for any outside observers all along.  Another figure, an equally imposing woman, stepped from the van with a similar rifle in her hands.

“Your wizard does good work,” she appraised as she knelt, uncaring of keeping her tailored grey suit clean as she inspected something on the road.  

“He knows his craft,” the man acknowledged as he rested his rifle on his arm, the pair apparently taking a break from their assault on the house.  

It was at that point that the upper level blew out in a fiery explosion, setting off a nearby car alarm.

“He could learn some subtlety, though,” the man sighed.  

“Subtlety is not something I would expect from him,” the woman replied as she produced a knife from her belt, digging the object of her attention from the road.  

“That hurts, guys.  It really does,” a new voice announced in a mournful tone from behind the pair.  Having not sensed his approach, they tensed briefly, before recognising the voice.  

“You were supposed to burn it down, not blow it up, Potter,” the man frowned.  

“Hey,”  Harry protested.  “It's burning.”

“Hendricks is right.  You blew it up,” the woman told him.

“That'll be enough from you, Miss Gard,” Harry wagged his finger sternly, which she ignored completely.

“You've chosen an interesting medium for your runes,” Gard observed, cautiously holding up an object she had pried from the bitumen.  It was a small chunk of quartz, inscribed with strange writing.  

Harry shrugged.  “I could've used something like malachite, but it didn't need to be good, just good enough.”

Gard made a non-committal sound, handing the stone to Harry carefully.  She tensed when he threw and caught it absently, giving a careless wave of his wand to summon another three stones from the ground and into his hand, dropping them into his pocket.  

“What?” Harry asked, noting her concern.  “It's not like they're going to explode or anything.”

Two SUV's burst through the flimsy wooden garage door, peeling down the street.  Hendricks brought his weapon to bear immediately, opening fire with a tight cluster of shots and taking out the rear left tyre of one of the vehicles.  It careened from side to side briefly, before its driver brought it back under control and continued to pick up speed.  

Harry reached out and grasped the second SUV with his magic, shaping it to his desire.  Its occupants were greatly shocked when their vehicle morphed into an enormous squid, tentacles grasping them tightly.  One passenger tore free immediately, screeching as it shed its flesh mask, only to be put down by another accurate shot from Gard.  Between the squid and the gunfire, the escapees of that car were dealt with quickly.  

“You were supposed to clear the house,” Gard said, glancing at Harry.  

The magician scowled.  “I did.  Thoroughly.”

“Not thoroughly enough,” Hendricks suggested, heading for the van.  “We need to finish the job.”

“You chase them down,” Harry directed, turning to the burning house.  “I'll take care of whoever sent them out as a distraction.”

Hendricks nodded as he took the drivers seat, Gard standing in the open area behind him.  She closed the sliding door as they accelerated away, leaving Harry to advance towards the house.  There had been naught but corpses left before he blew out he upper story, and the escapees had to have come from somewhere, which meant a hidden room, possibly warded.  A charm to reveal human presence within the burning building revealed it to be empty--save for a block of nothing standing in the middle of the house.  

Raising his wand above his head, Harry brought it down with a harsh gesture, channelling the annoyance he felt through his magic.  The burning roof shattered inwards, flaming beams and hot metal  spreading the fire to the so far unaffected parts of the building.  His manner greatly exaggerated, the magician flicked his wand to and fro, like a conductor guiding an orchestra of flame.  The focus of his ire was reduced to rubble, save for one section, in short order; the neighbouring houses were left untouched.

Striding across the street, Harry approached the single wall of the house that had refused to fall under his attentions.  Despite appearing to be a simple hallway drywall, the only damage it has sustained was a slight blistering of its paint.  A quick gesture and the heat of the flames were but a cool sensation against his skin, allowing him to approach the wall amidst the still burning house.  He paused some metres away from it and raised his hand towards it, as if judging something.  The wall gave off a similar feeling to Dresden's house, only nastier and more pronounced.  Extending his senses, Harry could feel what had to be wards extending below ground—he had found a panic room.

It was time to knock on the door, and Harry did so with a wave of concussive force.  The wall shuddered, but remained standing.  The magician paced around the undamaged structure, taking in every detail.  The heat of the burning house continued to show in small blisters in the paint work, but otherwise had no effect.  

The wards around the panic room pulsed suddenly, and Harry Apparated away instinctively.  He reappeared across the street, just in time to see a beam of energy lance out and pierce the ground he had been standing on.  The fire eating away at the rubble was snuffed out, wooden beams shrivelled and aged and metal struts rusted away in an instant.  Apparating back into the apparent range of the deadly ward, Harry waited in tense expectation for another attack.  Several long moments dragged by without response, and Harry remained on guard.  After what seemed to be an interminably long wait, the wards pulsed again, and the magician Apparated to the other side of the warded wall.  A second lance of energy surged towards his new location immediately, and he smiled, even as he Apparated back across the street once more.  The wards around the panic room settled once more, and Harry reached into his pocket to retrieve the rune engraved quartz stones he had stowed there earlier.  Spinning on his heel, he set about testing his newfound suspicion.  

Working quickly, Harry crouched before the panic room wall and set about planting the first two pieces of quartz.  Sealing them into the rubble with a tap of his wand, he Apparated to the other side of the wall and began to place the second pair, taking care to keep them exactly the same distance apart as the first pair.  Satisfied they were in place, he waited for the panic room wards to activate, wand hovering inches above the runic stones.  The wards pulsed, and Harry reacted.  

As a bolt of energy lashed towards him, Harry fed his magic into the runic stones, activating the connection between the four of them.  Death was half a second away when he felt his own ward spring into being, and he Apparated back to the other side of the street, before turning to survey his handiwork.  

The ward around the panic room was flickering intermittently as it fought against his own, weaker ward, and Harry took his chance.

Exploiting the split second gap in the wavering wards, Harry Apparated inside the protected wall.  Fighting the disorientation brought on by the blind jump, he fell awkwardly, the dark stairs he found himself upon proving treacherous.  He tumbled down the stairs, coming to a painful stop against a door.  Blinking dazedly, he staggered to his feet, one hand braced against the stairway wall.  The door the magician collided with suddenly opened inward, a snarling vampire standing on the other side, draws dripping with its addictive saliva.  It lunged for its distracted prey, only to be met with an instinctive blasting curse.  The spell clipped it on the shoulder, sending it tumbling arse over tit into the room beyond.  

Regaining his focus in the wake of the attack, Harry stalked into the panic room, intent on finishing the vampire.  It seemed to glower at him as he neared, but made no attempt to defend itself.  Stepping through the threshold, Harry discovered why, as he was blindsided by a second vampire; the creature had been lurking to the side of the entrance.  He was struck heavily across the ribs and lifted from his feet, wand tumbling from his fingers as he flew through the air.  His flight was brought to a premature end by a stout brick wall and he wheezed breathlessly as he slumped to the ground.  He had time to blink once before the first vampire was upon him again, claws raised high for a stroke that would take his head off.  

Muscle shifted, skin rippled and bones thickened as sixty kilograms of fragile human became one and a half tonne of angry polar bear.  The vampire's victorious expression morphed into one of surprise and fright as the sitting bear leaned forward to seize its head and a chunk of its torso in its powerful jaws, clamping down with a brutal crunch.  The prey burst like an overfull balloon, blood soaking the white fur of its killer.  

Coming forward off its haunches, the massive bear took a step towards the vampire that had thrown it across the room.  Its prey froze in place, fear and uncertainty radiating from its posture.  As easily as slipping off a coat, Harry his shed his animal form mid stride and summoned his wand to his outstretched hand, twirling it between his fingers as if to reassure himself of its presence.  

“Now,” the magician began, an ill boding smile on his face.  “Let's have a little chat, shall we?”

The vampire spat at Harry from across the room, and the magician slapped the wad of potent saliva off course with a sweep of his wand.  His smile dropped.

“On second thoughts, I can't think of anything I'd care to hear you say,” Harry told his foe detachedly.

He gestured, and a blur of light shot across the room, too fast to avoid.  It hit the vampire in the midsection, and for a moment, nothing happened.  Then the creature began to shift uncomfortably, before it screamed horrifically, steam beginning to rise from its skin as the stolen blood in its veins began to boil.  The vampire fell to the ground, writhing in agony as it bled from every pore and orifice.  Black, wrinkled skin sloughed off as its frantic movement slowed, and then it was still.  

His enemies dead, Harry looked about the room.  It was plain, bare of any adornments on its brick walls save a simple wooden shelf that was mounted on the wall opposite the stairway entry.  Perched on the shelf was a deceptively ordinary clay pot.  Its potential value was hinted at only by the runic circle of vaguely Arabic characters that ringed it on the wooden shelf, glowing a soft blue.  

Curiosity roused, Harry reached for the pot, his hand about to pass over the glowing circle, when he paused.  The use of circles, any circles, in the magic of this universe was one of the basic pieces of wizardry that Dresden had talked with him about; usually he just threw a pamphlet containing the pertinent information in his general direction.

The magician cast a stunning spell at the pot experimentally.  As it neared, the soft glow of the inscriptions that formed the circle seemed to ripple.  The spell hit the circle—and disappeared, the slightly brighter glow of the runes the only indication as to what had happened.  

Rubbing his chin, Harry deliberated for a brief moment.  With a gesture, he severed the head of a dead vampire and summoned it to himself.  Winding his arm back and bringing his leg up like he had seen Muggle athletes do in the American sport 'baseball' (a sport nearly as strange and complicated as Quodpot, in his opinion) Harry let fly with the vampire's head.  The throw was off target, but would still have crossed over the circle—if it hadn't been flung back towards the magician with double the force.  Harry Apparated a foot to the side, avoiding what could have been a serious injury as he was splattered with pieces of vampire.  As it was, he merely scowled as he flicked his wand and vanished the gore.  Vampire brain stains could be a bitch to get out of clothing.

He scowled at the mysterious clay pot.  Now he really wanted it.  Chewing his lip thoughtfully, the magician considered what manner of magic he could weave to secure his prize.  He wasn't about to let a fancy circle keep him from what he wanted.  

Considering numerous possibilities and discarding them almost as quickly, Harry stood in thought for several long moments.  He was broken from his musings as his nose twitched, a familiar smell making itself known to him.

Smoke.

His scowl deepened.  The ward must have been more effective than he assumed, disrupting whatever protections the panic room had long enough for the flames to slip through and take hold.  So much for their magical protections.  

Harry brightened as a workable solution came to him.  Working quickly, he cut the wooden shelf from the wall, leaving the protective circle in place as he levitated the pot and shelf before himself.  The more things changed, the more they stayed the same...

It was the work of a moment to charm the pot to hover at his side, freeing his wand for other uses.  Unwilling to Apparate with the mystery pot and protective circle in tow, Harry turned to make his way up the stairs and out of the panic room, a blast of icy wind preceding him.  

He smiled cheerfully, pleased with the work of the morning—he had killed some vampires, gotten to burn down a house and get his hands on something shiny from an enemy.  It had been a good morning.

X x X

“Gods,” Suzie groused, throwing herself down into a padded leather chair.  “What a morning.”

Around the table she had slumped down at, her boss and his favoured employees regarded her with various states of amusement.   

“You have had a rough morning, Miss Blue?” came the innocent inquiry, from Marcone of all people.  

Suzie's eyes flashed as she sat up to glare at her boss.  “Yes.  Yes I have,” she said testily.  

“I had not thought your work in the office to be so stressful,” Marcone remarked off-handedly.  “Is the décor not providing a calm work environment?  I can have it remodelled, if you'd like,” the mob boss finished, sounding seriously concerned.  

Suzie smothered a noise that sounded suspiciously like an aggravated scream.  

“Forget about the bloody décor,” Marcone's top information woman ground out.  “YOUR employees are the ones who need a good 'remodelling' – starting with my boot up their arse,” she threatened, glaring at Hendricks as the man who was more than twice her size fought down his amused chuckles.  “Shut it, boyo,” Suzie demanded of the big man, jabbing a finger in his direction.  

Harry snorted, and Suzie rounded on him.  

“And you!  Just because I made sure the police would have other things to worry about, it doesn't mean you can ride a gorram rhino past peak hour traffic screaming, 'On Tantor!'” she ranted.  

As the other occupants of the office room turned raised eyebrows on him, Harry shrugged defensively.  “What?  It's a classic!”

Suzie subsided into a kind of half hearted, fuming silence.  Despite the work he had caused for her, she couldn't deny finding his antics amusing.  

“Tantor's revival aside,” Marcone began, dragging the meeting back on track, “the business of the morning was a success?”

“Red Court and thralls eliminated to a man,” Hendricks confirmed.  “Base of operations left as a warning.  Harry blew it up rather enthusiastically.”  

“Burned it down,” Harry muttered rebelliously.  Hendricks ignored him, while Gard, silent so far, rolled her eyes.  

“Any police attention that might have wandered to the suburban brothel and the chase of the Red Court who fled it was diverted until after the fact,” Suzie picked up.  “Our only media presence for the day will appear on the five o'clock news as a curiosity piece about the deranged man who rode a rhinoceros along a highway.”

“Good,” Marcone nodded, pleased.  “Appropriate bonuses will be deposited into your accounts and yes Miss Gard, we will come to an alternate arrangement in your case.”

Suzie made an appreciative noise, while Hendricks nodded and Gard remained silent.  Harry sent a curious look between Marcone and Gard, but made no comment.  

“Mr Potter,” the mob boss moved on crisply,” You may leave for Russia whenever you will.  Do you require transport?'

“I can manage,” Harry shook his head.  “When do you need me back by?”

Marcone gave an uncharacteristic half shrug.  “When you have completed whatever task calls you.  I daresay we will manage well enough in your absence.”

“If you say so,” Harry answered, mock dubiously.  “Was that all for now?”

Marcone nodded, hands clasped on the table before him.

“Excellent!  Must be off then, exotic places to go, creatures of soul and horror to slay, be back in time for tea,” the Magician declared, almost leaping from his chair.  He began to saunter from the room, pausing at the door and looking over his shoulder.  “I'll bring you all back a souvenir,” he winked, before disappearing with a loud crack.

X x X

“The incantation is 'Expecto Patronum',” Remus explained as they sat in his office.  He regarded the three students before him with an even stare.  “The words alone, however, will not be enough.  You will need to draw forth an overwhelmingly positive memory or feeling and project it into your spell for any hope of success.”

“So, think happy thoughts?” Ron asked, his tone not entirely serious.  Hermione reached behind Harry to poke the redhead in the ribs.  

“Were it so easy,” Remus answered with a roll of his eyes.  “This charm is well beyond NEWT level—impressive as your grades are, I do not expect you to master this spell in the immediate future.”

“If it will help fight off the Dementors, we'll master it,” Harry told him determinedly.  

Remus smiled slightly at the declaration from his friends' son, before sobering.  “I will warn you now,” he began, “the Patronus is not a weapon to be used against the Dementors.  A fully corporeal Patronus may stop a small group in their tracks, while a mist will struggle to slow even one.  You understand this, yes?”

Harry, Ron and Hermione nodded as one, resolute in their desire to learn the spell.

“How does the Ministry control the Dementors if you can only use the Patronus for defence?” Ron asked suddenly, his brow furrowed.  

Remus paused, stepping away from the trunk he had been approaching.  “The Patronus is not the only method for dealing with Dementors, only the best manner of defence.”

“Every single text referencing Dementors in the library specifically stated that the Patronus was the only spell known to affect them,” Hermione stated with a frown of her own.  

“A skilled witch or wizard can transfigure a prison to contain them,” the professor told them.

“Professor McGonagall or the Headmaster could, but they're a bit beyond skilled,” Harry argued.  The textbooks they had found had talked about the Patronus charm like a weapon to wield against the Dementors, and the knowledge that it was only a shield, an imperfect one at that, frustrated him.  “When Magic Isn't Enough said that Dementors are one of the creatures that can leech magic from a spell.”

Remus paused, spinning his wand on his palm as he considered something.  “Have any of you read Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?” he asked, apparently off on a tangent.  “The edition in the Restricted Section I mean, not the one made publicly available for Care of Magical Creatures.”

Harry and Ron shook their heads, but Hermione nodded.  

“Dementors are included in that particular edition, with a rating of XXXX.  You recall what this entails?” Remus asked.

“Incredibly dangerous, requires specialist knowledge but a skilled wizard may handle it,” Hermione recited.  

“One would think that with no way to contain or control a Dementor, they would be given the highest rating,” Remus mused, seemingly to himself.  

Ron stared intently at their Professor for a long moment.  “One would think,” he agreed slowly.  

Harry and Hermione twigged to the byplay almost immediately.  

“Could the Patronus charm be enough to qualify Dementors as XXXX?” Hermione reasoned, well used to playing the level headed one when the boys began to get away from themselves with their theories and plans.  

“Speaking purely as your Professor and using Dementors and the Patronus charm as an example, I would say no, a charm of similar usefulness would not be enough to lower a beast from  XXXXX to XXXX,” Remus said after a long moment of consideration.  

“So for Dementors to be a XXXX beast there is a spell out there that can control or kill them,” Ron said.  

“That would appear to be sound logic,” Remus agreed.  “But I doubt it would be something as simple as just a spell.”

“A ritual, perhaps,” Hermione guessed, her eyes sharp.

“Perhaps,” Remus smiled.  

“You would need friends in very high places to be told about something like that,” Harry said, before suddenly shooting Remus a sharp stare.  “Or be an Unspeakable.”

“I'd like to think that if I were skilled enough to be such a mysterious figure my wardrobe would be rather more filled out,” Remus chuckled self deprecatingly under the considering gazes of the three children.  “But we have reached the end of the realm of theoretical discussion, and if we were to continue we would not have time to practice regardless.  Now, I have procured a boggart...”

Remus smiled inwardly as he began his lesson.  Albus had not been exaggerating when he had described the thirst for knowledge held by James' son and the boy's friends.  He would lead them carefully, a memory here, a vague reference there.  Having the three extraordinary young minds before him working on ways to fight minor daemons could lead to great things.  

X x X

Russia was fucking cold.

It might look like the country was made up of swathes of green, but that illusion of springtime was a goddam lie.  

Harry Potter, wizard out of space and time, surveyed his surroundings with a wary eye.  Around him, the city buzzed and hummed with far more activity than he would have expected at such a temperature.  Then again, for all his travelling he had somehow never made it to Russia, so perhaps this was considered a warm day for the locals.  

He drew his cloak tightly about himself as he walked through the city, drawing some measure of comfort from the traditional wizarding wear.  People from all walks of life bustled to and fro around him; dockworkers rubbed shoulders with men in suits as they all made their way to whatever destination called them.  For the moment, Harry was content to simply observe the city he had found himself in as he waited for the Wardens to find him.  

After nearly an hour of wandering, however, Harry began to grow impatient.  In hindsight, it had been foolish to expect the Wardens to know where he would be, but after the Gatekeeper's casual knowledge of things he could not have known, he had half expected it.  

He strolled casually into a side alley, half hidden by the grey lorry parked before it, force of habit compelling the magician to check for bystanders.  The alley clear, he produced his wand from inside his cloak and raised is skyward.  

Residents of Archangel looked up in wonder as they were treated to a spectacular show of light and colour; starbursts lighting up the drab grey sky in a way no traditional firework could hope to.  The short display ended with a fiery purple dragon roaring up into the clouds, before detonating in a blast that briefly tinged the sky for miles around.  

Harry flicked his want at a nearby dumpster, watching it morph into a bulky, well cushioned armchair.  He settled into it to wait, absently casting a charm to warm the air about himself.  Keeping his attention on the transfiguration to see how long he could maintain its form would provide ample distraction in the meantime.  Hopefully the local magical element wouldn't take too long.  

It was fifteen minutes later that the first Warden arrived.  He was a short, stocky man, and Harry recognised him from the fight against the warlock that had kidnapped Suzie's sister, May.  The Warden had blocked some of his spells with a wall of earth.  He was joined by a second Warden, a woman Harry also recognised, at the entrance to the alley.  

The magician grimaced inwardly.  If those two were here, odds were the rest of that particular squad were too.  Including the crazy woman who had nearly choked him out with a piece of string.  

“Warlock,” a cool voice greeted from thin air directly to his side.  “I didn't take you for one interested in frivolities.”

Harry did an admirable job of hiding how close he had come to jumping out of his skin as the air rippled and the crazy woman herself appeared.  At the other end of the alley, two more Wardens appeared in a similar manner.  

“All the best wizards have a sideline in fireworks,” Harry replied breezily, rising from his armchair and allowing it to revert to its natural form with mental relief.  “I had to entertain myself somehow.  You're all late.”

“A wizard is never late,” the Russian woman answered, seemingly on automatic.  She cut herself off with a self recriminating scowl before she could continue, flicking frizzy brown hair from her eyes.  

“Mmhmm,” Harry hummed knowingly.  “You know, last time we met, I never got your name.”

“Hmm,” the Warden leader pondered, putting on a thoughtful expression.  “That would probably be the way you told us all to...what was it again, Stevan?” she asked one of her comrades.  

One of the men holding position at the back of the alley answered shortly in what Harry assumed to be Russian.  

“That is right!” she said, snapping her fingers.  “You told us to 'fuck right off' after you slit the throat of the warlock who killed our friend.”

“You're welcome?” the magician offered with a shrug.  Despite his apparent lack of worry, he was watching the Wardens cautiously.  

“We were not thanking you, cur,” the pale woman snapped, all pretense of pleasantness crumbling away in a sudden display of anger.  “Had you not been there to interfere, Natasha would still be alive.  We will work with your to take out Red Court forces, but only because Gatekeeper and Soothsayer have told us to.  Don't for a second think one of us will take a dagger for you.”

Harry smiled at her.  It was not a nice smile.  “No fear.  I don't expect you'd have it in you anyway.  But I'll do my best to babysit you.”

The senior Warden's eyes flashed at his implication.  “I am Svetlana Pietrovich.  My squad does not need babysitter,” she spat the word like it was a curse.  “We are here to watch you, Warlock.”

Nanny,” Harry condemned, almost hissing, like it was a terrible insult.  

Svetlana opened her mouth, an angry retort on her tongue, when the stocky Warden who had appeared first coughed lightly, drawing her attention.  Her lips thinned.  

“But it is time we moved forward,” Svetlana told him, calming herself.  “Our goal is a forest to the south.  Follow,” she commanded, already walking away from the alley.  The two Wardens at the front of the alley were moving ahead of her, and Harry ambled along in their wake.  The other two wizards took up position at Harry's back, but the magician gave no sign of being discomforted by their presence or the way their hands rested at their blades as they stared at his back.

Things were off to a fantastic start.  

X x X

“That's your plan?” Harry asked skeptically.  “I mean, I like the plan, don't get me wrong.  Rushing in spells blazing sounds like great fun and I do it all the time, but that's because I'm me and I'm awesome.”

The Warden squad and harry were seated around a rickety wooden table in a small flat several blocks away from the alley where they had met.  Sprawled across the table was a large, rough sketch of a village surrounded on all sides by deep forest.  Several folders were holding down the corners of the sketch; they were filled with reports written in Russian.  For some strange reason, the sketch smelled strongly of chocolate—almost as if it had been drawn with it.  

“Surprise is our greatest advantage here,” Svetlana pointed out calmly.  She had apparently put aside her dislike for Harry the instant the briefing had begun.  “Were we to build wards or otherwise take action before the attack we would be facing nearly thirty demons anxious for blood and focused on battle.  As it is, we will hit them when they are frustrated and likely squabbling between themselves after days of confinement.”

“If you think you're up for it,” Harry shrugged.  He could have—would have—handled this himself if it weren't for the Gatekeeper's insistence he work with the Wardens.  

“I do think so,” Svetlana told him shortly.  “Before we leave, introductions,” she said abruptly to her squad, followed by a short phrase in Russian.  

There was a moment of silence around the table before the Wardens began to speak up.  

“Stevan,” a powerfully built man of average height with blond hair started.  

“Yuki,” the only other woman said with a nod.  Her bronzed skin stood out in contrast to her light blue eyes, and her bare scalp reflected the flickering light cast by an ancient fluorescent light.

“Erik,” said the short, stocky man who had blocked Harry's spells with earth manipulation during the confrontation with the warlock.  

“G'day,” the last Warden greeted more amicably.  “I'm Bruce,” the obviously Australian man said.  His skin was tanned and weathered, face half hidden by a salt and pepper beard, and he looked to be about forty.  

Harry waved at them all with a smile, giving no indication he cared to introduce himself in turn.

“The Way will be clear in five minutes.  Last minute checks now.  Potter, a word,” Svetlana directed, finding comfort in the routine of squad leader from pre mission jitters.  

Harry followed Svetlana to the small kitchenette of the flat while the other Wardens busied themselves with their various instruments.  

“Why are you here?” the Warden asked him bluntly, crossing her arms.  

“The scenery,” Harry answered promptly.  “I'd never been to Russia before.”

Svetlana's expression blanked as she stared at him.  “Our goal is to exterminate twenty seven demons summoned by the Red Court,” she told him slowly.  “Twenty seven demons against one under strength squad of Wardens and a Warlock.  If your flippancy continues to endanger my comrades, I will tear out your intestines and strangle you with them.”

Harry's smile faded as he contemplated the woman before him.  She posed little threat to him, but he couldn't help but take note of her threats on a  more subconscious level.  With her slightly frizzy brown hair and the righteous indignation simmering in her eyes, she reminded him greatly of another young woman he had once known.  “I'm here to kill demons.  If I had the choice, I would wipe them out alone, but the Gatekeeper insisted that I work with the Wardens lest they label me a Warlock.  Don't do anything stupid, don't get in my way, and I'll guarantee you and your squad will get home alive.”

Svetlana nodded slowly, grudgingly accepting.  She opened her mouth to speak further, only to fall silent as Harry raised a single finger.

“Warden...don't ever threaten me again,” the dark haired man warned, his usual irreverence falling away completely to display a hint of what he truly was.  Svetlana regarded him coolly, apparently unimpressed, before giving a short nod and leaving the kitchenette, heading back to her squad and Harry followed, the hint of a carefree smile fixed back on his face.

“So, where are we going?” Harry asked, rubbing his hands together, finding enjoyment in the way Svetlana's lips thinned.  

“It is not on any maps,” Yuki answered quietly, painting something with a small brush.  She was incredibly soft spoken, and Harry found himself leaning in to hear her.  “It was a self sufficient village with a population of eighty one people before the Red Court butchered them for the summoning ritual.”  She put the brush she held away carefully, and Harry got a better look at what she had been using it for; it was a vicious dagger with serrated spikes angling backwards along its thin blade, and on its sharp edges a bright green gloss glowed venomously.  

“That's pretty specific,” Harry noted.  “Got a man on the inside?”

“Sorta,” Bruce spoke up.  “When the Red Court summoned the demons for whatever nefarious purpose, they also bound them to the village so they didn't go wandering about and get themselves noticed before they were needed.  The bastards didn't take too kindly to that bit of mischief, and they've been taking out their anger on the local Little Folk,” he explained, fastening a feathered bracelet around his wrist.  “We got in contact with them, gave them chocolate and promised to kill the demons in return for their help scouting the place.”

“Little Folk are a type of Fae, aren't they?” Harry asked, reclaiming a seat at the table.  Stevan snorted and the magician's gaze flicked to the blond man for a long moment, before he smiled lightly.

“Wyldfae, in this case,” Bruce agreed.  “They won't get closer to the demons than they have to though, so we can't rely on them to help us when we strike.  Claim there's something wrong about them, besides the whole demon thing.”

“Like they would be use much anyways,” Erik grumbled with a heavy accent, adjusting the strap holding his sword sheath.  

“One day, a small Wyldfae will do something spectacular,” Bruce predicted, wagging his finger at Erick, “and I will be there to tell you 'I told you so'.”

“You pick lower dog every time,” Erik shrugged.  “It makes betting no fun against you.”

“Way is clear in under one minute,” Svetlana interrupted, drawing their attention.  “We have fifty three seconds to cover one hundred twenty metres on rough ground, and we will come out at the southern edge of the village,” she continued, more to Harry than her squad.  “Don't take stupid risks, watch each others' backs, and we will all go back to Arkhangelsk tower where we can rub our success in the face of the Brute Squad,” she finished, this time definitely only talking to her squad.  The Senior Warden met the gaze of each of her squad before saying something softly in Russian, and each Warden bowed their heads for a brief moment.  She jerked her head at Harry and withdrew her curved wooden focus from within her cloak.  A moment of concentration, a strong word and a quick gesture, and a portal opened up in what had been the door to a bedroom.  

Svetlana stepped through without hesitation, her squad following immediately.  Harry rolled his neck, drew his wand, and followed.  

The world on the other side of the portal was volcanic, and thick smoke hung heavy in the air.  An oppressive heat weighted down on everything, and the only source of light came from an immense waterfall of lava that rose above the smoke some distance away.  

The Wardens were already drawing ahead and Harry broke out into a swift jog to catch up, mindful of Svetlana's comments about time constraints.  He stepped sure-footedly across the rough volcanic rock despite his cumbersome robe and drew even with the more heavily armed Wardens quickly.  There was no conversation, everyone mindful of the battle waiting for them at the end of the run.  

As they approached the final stretch, the relatively even ground became a moderate incline, and Harry found himself breathing hard.  Two thin spires of rock about head height seemed to be their destination; it was confirmed when Bruce put on a sudden burst of speed, his long loping strides eating up the distance.  He knelt by the spires with a hand on each, preparing a gate back to the mortal world, and it was then that the temperature suddenly sky rocketed, an immense roar echoing across the plains.  The smoke clouds above them began to glow orange, bringing more light to the dark, rocky fields.  

Harry slowed slightly, turning to look at the source of the change.  What he saw made him stumble, missing a step and nearly kissing hard stone.  

A calamitous cyclone of fire and rock approached, a tsunami of lava driven before it.  The magician very nearly grew wings as he flew over the last few metres to the spires, instinctive fear lending him speed.  

“Whose fucking bright idea was it to come this way?” Harry demanded of the Warden he found himself waiting next to, the squad waiting tensely as Bruce worked.  

“Svetlana's,” Erik grunted in response.  

“For the love of Beltane, why?!?”

“It is only approach the vampires lack watch,” the stocky Warden explained, having to shout to be heard.  “They know what roams here!”

“Roams?  What the hell is that thing?” Harry shouted.  

“Guard pet.  This is Summer land!”

“That's a pet?” Harry hollered in disbelief.  “How the hell do you kill it?”

“Ha!” Erik barked out a laugh.  “You can't!  You run away, or die!”

A portal finally snapped open between the spires and Bruce stumbled back, holding the other Wardens up for precious seconds as the towering wall of immolation swarmed ever closer.  The magician could begin to make out forms seething and twisting within the firestorm as they swarmed ever forwards, their shrieks and howls indistinguishable from the roar of the cyclone.  

“Bullshit!” Harry roared back, suddenly burning with the desire to fight and kill in response to the base fear the calamity inspired.  He strode for the portal even as Yuki helped Bruce to his feet, steadying him.  Blessed coolness was on his skin and snow crunched beneath his boot as he took his first steps into the demon infested village, but his wand was simmering with all the heat of the realm he had just left behind.  It snapped forth like a divine judgement, eager to be let loose.  

A many limbed demon that had been casually gnawing at a human bone until the sudden appearance of the portal was caught mid leap and hurled back towards a stone hut.  The hellish creature exploded in a gory shower before it could crush the hut; the many pieces of flesh and bone boiled away the snow where they landed.  

“Everything dies!” the magician declared, already seeking his next target.

As the remnants of the demon's corpse melted into ectoplasm, its fellows became aware of the humans' presence.  An unholy cacophany of howls, screeches and chittering erupted in pitches and tones no mortal creature could ever hope to produce.  Abruptly, they fell silent, leaving the hunting cries to echo eerily for several moments before they were drowned out by an all encompassing silence.  

“One down, twenty six to go,” Yuki remarked, her soft voice unnaturally loud in the silence of the village.  

Erik slammed his staff into the ground and stamped his foot.  The ground beneath them shuddered and the Scandinavian smiled, pleased with himself.  “Twenty five.”

A winged beast with three heads and a wickedly spiked tail dropped from the sky, aiming to crush Bruce even as its tail lashed out at Stevan.  The Australian made no move to dodge, simply staring at the demon as it crushed him—or so it seemed, as the illusion shattered and the demon found itself with a clawful of nothing.  

Stevan, meanwhile, had parried the tail with his sword, and capitalised on the enemy's moment of confusion to dark in close and bury the tip of his blade into its chest.  He focused, his sword glowed, and the demon exploded into a fine mist.  The blond man sheathed his sword and turned a competitive smirk on Harry.  

The magician sniffed disdainfully.  “Hmph.  My sword was sparklier.”

“Mine is sharper,” Steven retorted, even as he looked about the village street warily.  

“Mine was--”

“That's enough about your swords, boys,” Svetlana interrupted them calmly, winding a thread of something around a finger.  “You can measure them later.”

“Only if you and Yuki do the measuring,” Harry answered, waggling his eyebrows outrageously at the female Wardens.  Despite his innuendo, his wand was still out and his stance tense.  

With deliberate slowness, Yuki turned her expresionless face on the magician, pinning him with a deadpan stare.  Then, without otherwise making the slightest change in expression, she winked.  

Erik was speaking rapidly to Svetlana in Russian, the squad leader listening intently.  When he finished his report, she motioned for everyone's attention.  They gathered closer, each of them watching their surroundings warily.  Bruce withdrew a leather pouch from his cloak, and drew a handful of its contents, throwing them up into the air.  A number of small, glossy feathers fluttered to the ground, and Harry was treated to the strange sight of an image of himself stepping out of his body to stand several metres away alongside images of the Wardens in a similar formation to their originals.  

“The demons have gone to ground,” Svetlana relayed, “save one pacing in the village courtyard.”

“Wants to be found,” Erik muttered.  

“Trap,” Harry coughed suddenly.  “Trap,” he coughed again.

“You must be a genius,” Stevan remarked with a roll of his eyes.

Harry very gravely gave him the finger.  “Let's just torch the place already,” he suggested with a shrug.  

“Your plan is flawed,” Yuki said with a shake of her head.  “The demons are bound to the village for the moment.  Burning the village will destroy the wards responsible.”

“The demons will doubtless be laying in wait,” Svetlana considered.  “Veiled, we could destroy many unnoticed.”

“And when they notice their buddies disappearing?”  Harry asked.  When he bothered to make them, he preferred a few layers to his plans.

Svetlana frowned in thought.  “Bruce can maintain a group illusion to spring the trap while you keeping us veiled,” she decided.

The Australian grimaced, but nodded.  “Might be stretching it a bit.”

“We've still got twenty odd--”

“Twenty four,” Erik corrected.

“--twenty four demons to deal with,” Harry continued without pause.  “Sooner or later we'll be in a straight fight with no advantage.  Besides me, of course,” he said with blatantly false modesty.  

“You have a better idea then?” Svetlana asked, eyebrow raised.  

“Why yes, thank you for asking!” Harry exclaimed, rubbing his hands together with a pleased grin.  

His new comrades were not terribly assured.  

X x X

“Nothing can go wrong with this plan,” Harry declared confidently to himself as he made his way through the quiet village streets.  The cold was more apparent than ever after the short jaunt over the fire plains; in the absence of human presence in the village, fragile sheets of ice had even begun to form on the stonework of the cottages.  

The cold grew the closer Harry got to the centre of the village, seeping through his robes to bite into his skin.  Harry shivered, aware that the illusionary Warden squad around him would fail to react to the dropping temperature.  Reaching the final approach to the courtyard, he paused, casting a wary eye about.  He stepped out into the courtyard proper, and the frozen earth erupted around him.  A shower of rock and ice disrupted the false Wardens, and dark shapes moved towards him with malicious intent.  

The magician let loose with one of his favourite spells, and a bright whip of flame flared into existence.  His wand raised high, the whip coiled about him like a gymnasts ribbon, cutting deeply into the gut of the first demon to leap at him.  At least two other demons were forced back to avoid Harry's attack, paying no mind to their dismembered fellow.  The air sizzled and cracked, and the ape-like demon Harry had wounded was shortened by a head.  

A second demon skittered around him, holding his attention.  Its body was bristling with arachnid-like legs, a human face nestled at the middle of its torso.  Harry cracked his whip towards it in a feint, and the spider demon flipped itself over and kept on skittering around him, a second face staring up at him from the beast's 'belly'.  The magician flicked his whip behind himself in preparation, and heard the sound of crunching snow.  He turned to see it, keeping the twisted spider in view.  A minotaur, plucked straight from Greek legend, was keeping pace with the spider demon as it attempted to sneak up behind him, a bronze battle axe held effortlessly in one hand.  

Gambit failed, the minotaur gave up all pretense of stealth and charged the magician with a bellow.  It parried the whip of flame deftly with its axe, reaching for him with its free arm.  From the other side, the spider creature shot forward, only to be met by a blast of concussive force after Harry cut the spell maintaining the fire whip.  It flew messily through the air, and Harry turned to face the minotaur fully as it brought its axe down from not a metre away.  

The bronze axe cut into thick, muscled flesh, blood welling up to mar pristine white fur.  Harry growled  at the demon, paying little mind to the blade that had given him a cut that was barely worse than a kitchen knife accident was to a human.  A blunt claw came up to belt the minotaur across the jaw, tearing chunks of flesh away and sending it reeling.  It recovered impossibly fast, already bringing the axe down for another blow.  

The polar bear's neck shot out, stretching beyond what one might expect, and grasped the arm holding the offending weapon between its jaws.  He clamped down hard and jerked his head, like a dog worrying at a bone, and a wet squelch echoed around the village.  The demon howled in pain as it staggered back, missing an arm.  Rage filled eyes glared at the great white bear as it spat the limb from its bloodied maw, regarding the minotaur with what could only be called a smirk.  

The spider demon returned to the fight, landing on Harry's back with a screech, two voices blending together.  Sharp claws on the end of its many legs stabbed into the bear, puncturing its hide and drawing blood but doing little real damage.  Harry reared back on his hind legs, seeking to dislodge the spider creature and the minotaur rushed forward, remaining hand poised like a blade as it sought the gut of the great beast.  

Harry crashed down, intent on crushing the charging minotaur under his great weight.  It barely had time to slow as it realised its peril, and then more than a tonne of angry polar bear landed squarely upon it.  It burst into mess of strange paste, and Harry turned his attention to the irritant on his back.  Alone, it did not last long.  

Shaking its ruff out, the polar bear licked the wound dealt by the bronze axe, before shedding its form.  Harry muttered a quick and dirty healing spell to stop what bleeding there was, eyeing the apparently empty village centre as he did.  There had been a single demon pacing in the courtyard, according to Erik, and Harry's gut told him in was still here.  He liked to listen to his gut; it rarely led him wrong and had good taste in steak.

Shuffling footsteps caught his ear, and he turned to face them.  From between two ramshackle houses, a humanoid figure emerged, moving without hurry.  Harry swallowed as he caught sight of it, and a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature crawled down his spine.

Skeletal, overly long limbs supported it as it made its way to the middle of the courtyard, misshapen hands dragging through the snow despite the length of its legs.  Its hide was pinched and drawn, stretched flat against its bones.  The excess skin gathered at its shoulders and hung there like a cloak; it seemed to ripple with a life of its own.  On its brow sat the object of Harry's horror:  a lightning bolt scar.  Black filth leaked from it, trailing down past closed eyes and a gaping, toothless mouth to drip slowly onto the white snow.  

As if sensing Harry's gaze, the creature stopped and turned to face him.  It opened its eyes, and the abyss stared out.  

Harry staggered and fell to one knee under an assault of emotions.  Despair, lust, joy, helplessness, curiosity, anticipation, hatred—the magician rode them all and more at the demon's will, a riotous roller coaster of emotion.  Painfully aroused one moment and nearly sobbing in misery the next, Harry felt wrath bubbling up inside himself, and he latched onto it, making the feeling his own.  He glared at the demon with the crude lightning bolt etched into its skull and spat a word:

Fiendfyre.

His wand, abandoned on the ground beside him, came to life.  A polar bear the size of a minibus erupted from its tip with a colossal roar, exemplifying the magician's wrath.  

The demon leapt into the sky, its loose hide flaring behind itself as it flew over the charging mass of flame.  The bear turned of its own volition, rising into the air to give chase to its prey.  It roared again, fiery birds of prey issuing from its mouth to seek and demon.  

Released from the demon's assault, Harry retched and dry heaved, wiping sweat from his forehead.  From within his robe, he withdrew a handful of small, semi-precious stones, arranging them around himself in a rough square.  He retrieved his wand, ignoring the heat emanating from it, and touched its tip to the stones.  As he touched the last, they began to vibrate slightly, each in sync with the other.  He turned his gaze to the skeletal demon that was still evading the fiendfyre he had rashly unleashed.  The polar bear was still the centre of the conflagration, but it had been joined by a griffin and a stingray half its size.  As the magician watched, the bear made another charge, easily dodged by the demon—right into the path of the griffin.  It managed to twist out of the way, but was unable to dodge a third time, as the stingray's tail lashed it across the back; a might blow that struck it from the sky and sent it plummeting towards the earth.

Harry turned his focus on the almost sentient flames, feeling them burning at the back of his mind.  The fiendfyre began to chase after the demon, and Harry raised his wand skyward.  

A great force began to exert itself on the fyre; it was as if gravity had decided to wake up and pay attention to the fiery creatures.  They fought the pull, their desire to consume that which they were created to devour threatening to break the tenuous hold Harry had on them.  He could feel their defiance burning at the back of his mind, and the fyre roared, sensing their impending victory.  

But this was a battle of wills, and willpower was never something Harry had lacked.  He brought it to bear, dousing the mental thread of the spell under its sheer force.  His wand cooled dramatically as he re exerted the pull on the fyre, watching it shrink as it drew ever closer.  

It was a curious piece of spell work, Fiendfyre.  In the hands of an amateur, it could rage unchecked for days, devouring its surroundings until it reached the limits of its caster's ability to maintain, the subtle mental connection between flame and caster going unnoticed in these cases.  To the uneducated, this fyre was often mistaken as more powerful, but it carried with it a danger—the moment that delicate mental balance was broken, the fyre would seek out its caster and consume them.  Harry had seen this type of fyre numerous times during the war, and it had only been due to fast responses and skilled spell work—from people on both sides of the conflict—that had prevented vast conflagrations of uncontrolled fiendfyre from ravaging the countryside.

No one wanted to be responsible for turning a country to glass, after all.  

In the hands of an experienced spell caster, Fiendfyre was considerably more dangerous to their enemies.  Its limited sentience allowed it to pursue and consume with ease—for as long as its caster maintained control.  Few first time casters ever stopped to consider what came after it had consumed their enemies, either, and their ignorance almost always led to their undoing, for it was fiendfyre's nature to consume, and what better target than the one shackling it?  

It was Dumbledore who had instructed Harry in the use of the cursed flame, the old wizard passing on his own method of dispelling the fyre, perhaps not easily, but without having to worry about the fyre seeking to consume you.  It was somewhat self defeating to dispel the fyre before it had consumed the target it had been set upon, but in this instance, that had never been the intent in the first place.  It wouldn't do to burn one's own soul fragment from existence, after all.

The fyre was no larger than a carriage now, having lost all defined form as it fought to get free of the well pulling it into Harry's wand.  The mass of flames finally came into contact with its tip and were sucked into the instrument in an instant, snuffed out like a mere candle.  

Harry rose to his feet and watched the demon stir with calculating eyes.  He had met beings that wielded emotions as weapons like that once before, and he had exterminated them all.  It was time to reclaim the first piece of his soul—he was curious to find out just how a daemon had come to arrive in this new world.

The wounded demon began to recover, shifting quickly as it realised that the ravenous fire beast unleashed upon it had vanished.  It caught sight of its human prey standing before it without care and snarled.  Its very presence caused it pain, and its thoughts, such as they were, seemed to strive against themselves in opposite directions.  

The fell creature launched another torrent of emotion at the magician, seeking to liquefy his brain through sheer overload.  Harry made no move to avoid the twisted magic as it roared towards him, and then it impacted—not with the magician, but with the glimmering wall of purple hued light that had sprung up from the stones he had set on the ground.

The demon paused, gaunt skull tilting in confusion as its attack was foiled.  The shield in front of its prey faded away and it prepared another assault, committing itself fully.  

Harry watched as the demon he faced opened its mouth impossibly wide to reveal a dark void, a whirl of negative energies forming inside it.  A terrible suspicion formed in his mind, and the demon let loose.  

A riotous aura of sheer emotion battered the area around the demon, and Harry vaguely felt the effects even through his protections.  The demon began to rise off the ground, its flesh cloak rippling in its wake, and Harry decided enough was enough.  He closed his eyes and thought of------.

Expecto Patronum.

An enormous silver figure burst from Harry's wand to canter around him, its hoofbeats reverberating through the earth.  

A calming, hopeful aura surrounded the regal stag, the tip of its antlers more than thrice Harry's own height.  It dipped its head in deference to him before turning to face the demon, rearing back in challenge.  

The demon hissed and snarled, drawing its own aura back to condense it around itself, and in that instant Harry struck.  A blasting curse took the demon high in the shoulder, destroying the joint and leaving the limb hanging by a few frayed and bloodied tendons.  

Seeing the demon clutch at its mangled shoulder, harry directed his Patronous forward.  The great stag charged, antlers lowered before it to impale the demon—only to pass through it without effect, save for further lessening of the foul creature's aura.  

The beast hissed and spat, and Harry recalled his Patronous to his side.  It stood over him protectively, bathing him in its aura, the aura that had once sent hundreds of lesser daemons fleeing.  Without fear, harry stepped out of the protection offered by his enchanted gems and advanced on the demon—no, daemon, for that is what the foul creature surely was.  

Great minds through the ages had sought to solve the puzzle of the Dementors' creation, some to find a way to kill them, other to find a way to make them better.  None had succeeded, but now Harry thought he might have stumbled across the horrifying truth.  

Souls, living, breathing souls bound to a creature of the Outside and driven mad by their new nature.  Mere demons, summoned from the NeverNever native to this realm could never support a soul in such a twisted fashion.  Only a denizen of the Outside, the void sea that lapped against all realms everywhere, could take a force so pure and warp it so terribl---

Harry howled in anguish as uninterrupted knowledge slammed into his mind, bypassing all defences.  Thoughts of the void and the Outside coursed into his mind unbidden, woven in by an unseen hand.  He latched onto the thread sinking into his mind and followed it—straight back to the daemon.  

The daemon was spasming uncontrollably in greater pain than Harry himself.  Blood dripped freely from its nose, eyes and ears, and its remaining hand carved vicious tracks across its chest.

The magician moved to sever the thread connecting the daemon's 'mind' to his, but hesitated.  The thread was a one way street from the daemon's to him, and yet the knowledge and vague memories he was absorbing were intimately familiar, like a half remembered dream.  Could this be a side effect of such close proximity to one of his lost soul fragments?

Gripping his wand tightly, Harry decided to find out.  With a gesture, a simple steel blade was conjured from nothing.  Like the wolves he had conjured to distract the loup-garou, it was magically flimsy, unreliable, even more so than his transfigurations, but here it would serve his purpose.  Slowly, he stepped closer to the daemon, even as new thoughts and concepts on the nature of the void came to him.  His soul fragment was attempted to return to him, and Harry was only too happy to oblige.  

Harry stopped next to the daemon as it lay insensate on the ground, thrashing and moaning weakly, another victim of deep mental contact with himself.  Without ceremony, the magician raised the blade, hilt pointing to the sky, and plunged it down, straight through the twisted, blackened copy of his scar on the beasts' forehead.  

One last, piercing howl issued from the fell creature along with one last burst of emotion, a wave of despair.  Black bile burst from its mouth in a foul torrent and harry fell, losing his consciousness as the daemon lost its life.  

X

“...Potter.  Potter.  Wake up, Potter!”

Harry opened his eyes, unseeing.  He blinked and the world began to come into focus, grey sky obstructed by a brunette with frizzy hair looking down on him.  

“Hermione?” he asked thickly, squinting.  There were spots in his vision, making it hard to focus on anything in front of himself.  

“Potter!” Hermione snapped.  She rapped her staff on the ground near his shoulder, runic markings along its length catching his eye.  

The magician found himself enthralled by the wisps of cold smoke rising from the runes carved onto the staff.  His left eye refused to focus and a headache was brewing, his eyes out of sync.  

A torrent of water fell onto him, and Harry sat upright with a gasp.  Wild eyed, he looked around taking in the grey cloaked figures standing around him in a loose circle, their posture defensive.  At Hermione's back, a stocky man with short brown hair looked over his shoulder at him.  Their eyes met and Harry snarled, a sudden rage blanketing his pains.  

“Dolohov,” the magician hissed.  In an instant, he shed his human form and reared up in all his ursine glory.  He brought his forepaws down behind Hermione, putting as much of his bulk between his friend the the Death Eater as he could.  Flecks of blood and spittle splattered across Dolohov as Harry roared, and he turned his shoulder to take whatever spell the dark wizard would lead with.  He drew his other claw back, ready to turn the greasy man into a red stain in the slush.  

Dolohov leapt back, away from the enormous polar bear menacing him and brought his—staff?--to bear, but made no move to attack or produce his wand.  Sensing hesitation, Harry lunged and struck, only to find himself paralysed, completely unable to move and even locked in his form.  

From beneath his bulk, Hermione stepped out from the crouch she had fallen into when he had fallen across her.  In one hand was a knot of strings, in the midst of which were a clump of white hairs.  

“Potter, get a hold of yourself,” Hermione ordered.  “I will put you down if I have to.”

Harry felt a flash of true anger, followed by confusion.  He had found himself in conflict with his friends before, but never had they seriously--

Hermione and Dolohov.

Svetlana and Erik.

Clarity descended upon him like a summer squall, peeling back the new layer of his mind that had overlaid the faces of his past onto the present.  Harry marshalled his formidable mental defences, an iron curtain falling over the chaos.  Feeling the lack of strain against her strings, Svetlana loosed the knot holding him in place.  The polar bear lowered his paw and flowed back into human form, index and middle fingers pressed tightly to the corners of his eyes.  

“Potter,” Svetlana said again, sounding cautious.  “What was that?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Harry replied with an overly cheerful grin, broad and patently false.  “My mind was somewhere else.  I'm quite alright now.”

“You didn't recognise us and tried to kill one of my squad,” Svetlana told him slowly, threads still held loosely.  

“He looked shifty,” Harry said flippantly.  “And all you Eastern European types look the same, anyway.”

“Potter!” the frustrated squad leader ground out.  “You are a danger to my people and I have no guarantee you won't lose it and attack us again.”

The blatant accusation that he might fly off the handle and attack his allies at any time touched an old nerve.  “Regardless of what you might think, I am not here to sabotage your squad,” he snapped.  “You would do well to accept my aid and keep a civil tongue inside your head,” the magician finished in a more level tone, before blinking.  That didn't sound like him at all.  “Or next time I'll let you handle the Outsider-spawn,” he added, more in line with his usual manner.  

As one, the Wardens turned to stare at the daemon corpse laying in the slush where Harry had killed it, the blade he used to do so having long since faded away.  

“An Outsider,” Stevan said skeptically.

“Outsider-spawn,” Harry corrected.

“And you killed it.”

Very deliberately, Harry looked from Stevan to the daemon corpse and back.

“How?” the blond Warden demanded.  

“I stabbed it in the face,” Harry answered airily.  

“With what?” Stevan said, frustration creeping into his tone.  

“My sword.”  The unspoken 'duh' was nearly overwhelming.

Stevan stared at the magician flatly, a slight twitch near his eye.  “You're sure it wasn't just a demon summoned in its true body?” he asked.

“He isn't lying,” Bruce spoke up.  “I can't veil it.”

Yuki gave him a faintly appraising look, and Stevan almost looked impressed.  

“Whatever it was, it is dead and the village is clear,” Svetlana said, looking faintly satisfied, like she had figured out a particularly irritating puzzle.  “You've done what you came here for, Potter?”

Harry looked at the daemon corpse for a long moment.  “Yeah, I believe I have,” he said.  

Svetlana nodded.  “Then out business together here is done.  Bruce, open a Way back to--”

A Way snapped open in the doorway of a nearby stone cottage, Bruce looking as surprised at its appearance as the rest of them.  

“Well then,” Harry said.  “Where do you suppose this goes?”

“Wherever the Red Court wanted to unleash these demons,” Svetlana said grimly.  

Harry began to grin, a creeping, gleeful smile that spoke of mischief and anticipation.  He stepped towards the portal and extended an arm towards the Wardens.

“Shall we?”