Blood leaves no stain on a Warden’s grey cloak.
I didn’t know that until the day I watched Morgan, second in command of the White Council’s Wardens, lift his sword over the kneeling form of a young man guilty of the practice of black magic. The boy, sixteen years old at the most, screamed and ranted in Korean underneath his black hood, his mouth spilling hatred and rage, convinced by his youth and power of his own immortality. He never knew it when the blade came down.
Which I guess was a small mercy. Microscopic, really.
His blood flew in a scarlet arc. I wasn’t ten feet away. I felt hot droplets strike one cheek, and more blood covered the left side of the cloak in blotches of angry red. The head fell to the ground, and I saw the cloth over it moving, as if the boy’s mouth were still screaming imprecations.
The body fell onto its side. One calf muscle twitched spasmodically and then stopped. After maybe five seconds, the head did too.
Morgan stood over the still form for a moment, the bright silver sword of the White Council of Wizards’ justice in his hands. Besides him and me, there were a dozen Wardens present, and two members of the Senior Council—the Merlin and my one-time mentor, Ebenezar McCoy.
The covered head stopped its feeble movements. Morgan glanced up at the Merlin and nodded once. The Merlin returned the nod. “May he find peace.”
“Peace,” the Wardens all replied together.
Except me. I turned my back on them, and made it two steps away before I threw up on the warehouse floor.
I stood there shaking for a moment, until I was sure I was finished, then straightened slowly. I felt a presence draw near me and looked up to see Ebenezar standing there.
He was an old man, bald but for wisps of white hair, short, stocky, his face half covered in a ferocious-looking grey beard. His nose and cheeks and bald scalp were all ruddy, except for a recent, purplish scar on his pate. Though he was centuries old he carried himself with vibrant energy, and his eyes were alert and pensive behind gold-rimmed spectacles. He wore the formal black robes of a meeting of the Council, along with the deep purple stole of a member of the Senior Council.
“Harry,” he said quietly. “You all right?”
“After that?” I snarled, loudly enough to make sure everyone there heard me. “No one in this damned building should be all right.”
I felt a sudden tension in the air behind me.
“No they shouldn’t,” Ebenezar said. I saw him look back at the other wizards there, his jaw setting stubbornly.
The Merlin came over to us, also in his formal robes and stole. He looked like a wizard should look—tall, long white hair, long white beard, piercing blue eyes, his face seamed with age and wisdom.
Well. With age, anyway.
“Warden Dresden,” he said. He had the sonorous voice of a trained speaker, and spoke English with a high-class British accent. “If you had some evidence that you felt would prove the boy’s innocence, you should have presented it during the trial.”
“I didn’t have anything like that, and you know it,” I replied.
“He was proven guilty,” the Merlin said. “I soulgazed him myself. I examined more than two dozen mortals whose minds he had altered. Three of them might eventually recover their sanity. He forced four others to commit suicide, and had hidden nine corpses from the local authorities, as well. And every one of them was a blood relation.” The Merlin stepped toward me, and the air in the room suddenly felt hot. His eyes flashed with azure anger and his voice rumbled with deep, unyielding power. “The powers he had used had already broken his mind. We did what was necessary.”
I turned and faced the Merlin. I didn’t push out my jaw and try to stare him down. I didn’t put anything belligerent or challenging into my posture. I didn’t show any anger on my face, or slur any disrespect into my tone when I spoke. The past several months had taught me that the Merlin hadn’t gotten his job through an ad on a matchbook. He was, quite simply, the strongest wizard on the planet. And he had talent, skill, and experience to go along with that strength. If I ever came to magical blows with him, there wouldn’t be enough left of me to fill a lunch sack. I did not want a fight.
But I didn’t back down, either.
“He was a kid,” I said. “We all have been. He made a mistake. We’ve all done that too.”
The Merlin regarded me with an expression somewhere between irritation and contempt. “You know what the use of black magic can do to a person,” he said. Marvelously subtle shading and emphasis over his words added in a perfectly clear, unspoken thought: You know it because you’ve done it. Sooner or later, you’ll slip up, and then it will be your turn. “One use leads to another. And another.”
“That’s what I keep hearing, Merlin,” I answered. “Just say no to black magic. But that boy had no one to tell him the rules, to teach him. If someone had known about his gift and done something in time—”
He lifted a hand, and the simple gesture had such absolute authority to it that I stopped to let him speak. “The point you are missing, Warden Dresden,” he said, “is that the boy who made that foolish mistake died long before we discovered the damage he’d done. What was left of him was nothing more nor less than a monster who would have spent his life inflicting horror and death on anyone near him.”
“I know that,” I said, and I couldn’t keep the anger and frustration out of my voice. “And I know what had to be done. I know it was the only measure that could stop him.” I thought I was going to throw up again, and I closed my eyes and leaned on the solid oak length of my carved staff. I got my stomach under control and opened my eyes to face the Merlin. “But it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve just murdered a boy who probably never knew enough to understand what was happening to him.”
“Accusing someone else of murder is hardly a stone you are in a position to cast, Warden Dresden.” The Merlin arched a silver brow at me. “Did you not discharge a firearm into the back of the head of a woman you merely believed to be the Corpsetaker from a distance of a few feet away, fatally wounding her?”
I swallowed. I sure as hell had, last year. It had been one of the bigger coin tosses of my life. Had I incorrectly judged that a body-transferring wizard known as the Corpsetaker had jumped into the original body of Warden Luccio, I would have murdered an innocent woman and a law-enforcing member of the White Council.
I hadn’t been wrong—but I’d never . . . never just killed anyone before. I’ve killed things in the heat of battle, yes. I’ve killed people by less direct means. But Corpsetaker’s death had been intimate and coldly calculated and not at all indirect. Just me, the gun, and the limp corpse. I could still vividly remember the decision to shoot, the feel of the cold metal in my hands, the stiff pull of my revolver’s trigger, the thunder of the gun’s report, and the way the body had settled into a limp bundle of limbs on the ground, the motion somehow too simple for the horrible significance of the event.
I’d killed. Deliberately, rationally ended another’s life.
And it still haunted my dreams at night.
I’d had little choice. Given the smallest amount of time, the Corpse-taker could have called up lethal magic, and the best I could have hoped for was a death curse that killed me as I struck down the necromancer. It had been a bad day or two, and I was pretty strung out. Even if I hadn’t been, I had a feeling that Corpsetaker could have taken me in a fair fight. So I hadn’t given Corpsetaker anything like a fair fight. I shot the necromancer in the back of the head because the Corpsetaker had to be stopped, and I’d had no other option.
I had executed her on suspicion.
No trial. No soulgaze. No judgment from a dispassionate arbiter. Hell, I hadn’t even taken the chance to get in a good insult. Bang. Thump. One live wizard, one dead bad guy.
I’d done it to prevent future harm to myself and others. It hadn’t been the best solution—but it had been the only solution. I hadn’t hesitated for a heartbeat. I’d done it, no questions, and gone on to face the further perils of that night.
Just like a Warden is supposed to do. Sorta took the wind out of my holier-than-thou sails.
Bottomless blue eyes watched my face and he nodded slowly. “You executed her,” the Merlin said quietly. “Because it was necessary.”
“That was different,” I said.
“Indeed. Your action required far deeper commitment. It was dark, cold, and you were alone. The suspect was a great deal stronger than you. Had you struck and missed, you would have died. Yet you did what had to be done.”
“Necessary isn’t the same as right,” I said.
“Perhaps not,” he said. “But the Laws of Magic are all that prevent wizards from abusing their power over mortals. There is no room for compromise. You are a Warden now, Dresden. You must focus on your duty to both mortals and the Council.”
“Which sometimes means killing children?” This time I didn’t hide the contempt, but there wasn’t much life to it.
“Which means always enforcing the Laws,” the Merlin said, and his eyes bored into mine, flickering with sparks of rigid anger. “It is your duty. Now more than ever.”
I broke the stare first, looking away before anything bad could happen. Ebenezar stood a couple of steps from me, studying my expression.
“Granted that you’ve seen much for a man your age,” the Merlin said, and there was a slight softening in his tone. “But you haven’t seen how horrible such things can become. Not nearly. The Laws exist for a reason. They must stand as written.”
I turned my head and stared at the small pool of scarlet on the warehouse floor beside the kid’s corpse. I hadn’t been told his name before they’d ended his life.
“Right,” I said tiredly, and wiped a clean corner of the grey cloak over my blood-sprinkled face. “I can see what they’re written in.”