Brief Cases is a new collection of Dresden Files stories which includes an original novella, from international bestseller Jim Butcher.
A Fistful of Warlocks
Some stories happen because a writer gets inspired by some wild idea that needs expression. Some stories are carefully put together as part of a greater whole.
And some stories you write because a professional friend asks you if you want to contribute to an anthology, and it sounds like a really fun idea. This is how the next tale was born—I needed a weird, weird West story so that I could contribute to Straight Outta Tombstone.
The upside of putting this project together is that the late-nineteenth century was largely a blank slate in the universe of the Dresden Files, so I was able to do whatever I wanted without being restricted by the 1.5 million words of story that had already been written. The downside was that the late-nineteenth century in the universe of the Dresden Files was largely a blank slate, so I had to start figuring out how to braid this story thread in particular into the greater story.
One of my go‑to concepts when writing earlier eras of any story is to focus on characters who are the passionate young hotheads in any given setting—those are the people who generally provide me with the most interesting choices and stories. So, for this story, Anastasia Luccio fit the bill perfectly, and I’ve always loved the character and wished she could have more stage time. I worked out her early history as a young Warden and decided that she had been instrumental in the White Council’s decades-long war with, and victory over, the greatest necromancer of the previous millennium.
This is the start of what is now in my head a four- or five-book story all its own. I don’t know that I’ll ever get to write that tale of dark old Western supernatural horror, featuring Anastasia as the magical and gun-fighting protagonist, flanked by such figures as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday of the Venatori Umbrorum, but it’s a hell of a good movie in my head.
So maybe imagine as you read this next piece that the movie begins here . . .
The American West was not the most miserable land I had ever traveled, but it came quite near to it. It was the scenery, more than anything, that drove the spirit out of the body—endless empty plains that did not so much roll as slump with varying degrees of hopelessness, with barely a proper tree to be seen. The late-summer sun beat the ground into something like the bottom of an oven.
“I grow weary of Kansas,” said my not-horse. “The rivers here are scarcely enough to keep me alive.”
“Hush, Karl,” I said to the näcken. “We are near to town, and to the warlock. I would prefer if we did not announce our presence.”
The näcken sighed with a great, exaggerated motion that set the saddle to creaking, and stomped one hoof on the ground. With a pure white coat and standing at a lean and powerful seventeen hands, he made a magnificent mount— as fast as the swiftest mortal horse and far more tireless. “As you wish, Anastasia.”
“Warden Luccio,” I reprimanded him tartly. “And the sooner we catch this creature and his master, the sooner you will have served your probation, and the sooner you may return to your homeland.”
The näcken flattened his ears at this reminder of his servitude.
“Do not you become angry with me,” I told him. “You promised to serve as my loyal mount if I could ride you for the space of an hour without being thrown. It is hardly my fault if you assumed I could not survive such a ride under the surface of the water.”
“Hmph,” said the näcken, and he gave me an evil glare. “Wizards.” But he subsided. Murderous monsters, the näcken, but they were good to their word.
It was then that we crested what could only quite generously be called a rise, and I found myself staring down at a long, shallow valley that positively swarmed with life. Powdery dust covered the entire thing in a vast cloud, revealing a hive of tarred wooden buildings that looked as if they’d been slapped together over the course of an evening by drunken teamsters. Then there was a set of gleaming railroad tracks used so often that they shone even through the dust. On the northern side of the tracks stood a whitewashed mirror image of those buildings, neat streets and rows of solidly built homes and businesses. Corrals that could have girdled the feet of some mountains were filled with a small sea of cattle being herded and driven by men who could scarcely be distinguished from their horses beneath their mutual coating of dust. To one side of the town, a lonely little hill was crowned with a small collection of grave markers.
And the people. The sheer number of people bustling about this gathering of buildings in the middle of nothing was enough to boggle the mind. I sat for a moment, stunned at the energetic enormity of the place, which looked like the setting of some obscure passage from Dante, perhaps a circle of hell that had been edited from the original text.
The warlock I pursued could take full advantage of a crowd like that, making my job many times more difficult than it had been a moment before.
“So,” said the näcken sourly, “that is Dodge City.”
* * *
The warlock would hide in the rough part of town—his kind could rarely find sanctuary among stolid, sober townsfolk. The unease warlocks created around them, combined with the frequent occurrence of the bizarre as a result of their talents, made them stand out like mounds of manure in a field of flowers. But the same talents that made them pariahs in normal mortal society benefited them in its shadows.
I rode for the south side of the tracks and stopped at the first sizable building.
“Do not allow yourself to be stolen,” I advised Karl as I dismounted.
The näcken flattened his ears and snorted.
I smiled at him, patted his neck, and tossed his reins over a post and beam set up for the purpose outside of the first building that looked likely to support human beings in better condition than vermin. I removed the light duster that had done the best it could to protect my dress from the elements, draped it neatly over the saddle, and belted on my sword and gun.
I went into the building, and found it to be a bathhouse and brothel. A few moments of conversation with the woman in charge of it resulted in a job offer, which I declined politely; a bath, which I could not enjoy nearly thoroughly enough to satisfy me; and directions to the seediest dens of ruffians in town.
The warlock wasn’t in the first location or the second, but by the time I reached the Long Branch Dance Hall and Saloon near sundown, I was fairly sure I’d found my man.
I entered the place to the sound of only moderately rhythmic stomping as a dozen women performed something like a dance together on a wooden stage, to the music of several nimble-fingered violinists playing in the style of folk music. The bar was already beginning to fill with a crowd of raucous men. Some of them were freshly bathed, but others were still wearing more dust than cloth, their purses heavy with new coin.
But, more important, the air of the place practically thrummed with tension. It was hardly noticeable at first glance—but eyes glanced toward the doors a little too quickly when I came in, and at least half of the men in the place were standing far too stiffly and warily to be drunkenly celebrating their payday and their lives.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” said a voice to my right as I came in.
I turned to find a very tall, lean fellow whose wrists stuck out from the bottom of his coat’s sleeves. He had a thick, drooping mustache, a flat-brimmed hat, and a deputy’s star pinned to his coat, and wore his gun as if it had been given to him upon the occasion of his birth.
His demeanor was calm, his voice polite and friendly—and he had the eyes of a raptor, sharp and clear and ready to deliver sudden violence at a moment’s notice.
“Yes?” I asked.
“City ordinance against carrying sidearms, ma’am,” he said. His voice was deep and musically resonant in his lean chest. I liked it immediately. “If you’re not a peace officer, you’ll need to turn in your gun for as long as you’re in town.”
“I find this ordinance irksome,” I said.
The corners of his eyes wrinkled and his cheeks tightened slightly. The mustache made it difficult to see his mouth. “If I was a woman as good-looking as you in a place like this, I’d find it powerful irksome, too,” he said, “but the law is the law.”
“And what does the ordinance say about swords?” I asked.
“Can’t recall that it says anything ’bout that,” the deputy said.
I unfastened my belt and slid the gun from it, still in its holster. I offered it to him. “I assume I can turn it over to you, Deputy?”
He touched the brim of his hat and took the gun. “Thank you, ma’am. Might I know your name so I can be sure your weapon gets safe back to you?”
I smiled at him. “Anastasia Luccio.”
“Charmed, Anastasia,” said the deputy. He squinted at my sidearm and said, “Webley. Lot of gun.”
He was not so very much taller than me. I arched an eyebrow at him and smiled. “I am a lot of woman. I assure you, Deputy, that I am more than capable of handling it.”
His eyes glinted, relaxed and amused. “Well. People say a lot of things, ma’am.”
“When my business here is done, perhaps we shall go outside the town limits and wager twenty dollars on which of us is the better marksman.”
He let his head fall back and barked out a quick laugh. “Ma’am, losing that bet would be a singular pleasure.”
I looked around the saloon again. “It seems that tensions are running high at the moment,” I said. “Might I ask why that is?”
The lawman pursed his lips thoughtfully and then said, “Well, there’s some fellas on one side of the tracks upset at some other fellas on the other, ma’am, is the short of it.” He smiled as he said it, as if enjoying some private jest. “Shouldn’t be of much concern to you, ma’am. This is a rough place, but we don’t much take kindly to a man who’d lift his hand to a woman.” A pair of cowboys entered the saloon, laughing loudly and clearly already drunk. His calm eyes tracked them. He slid my holstered gun around beneath his stool and touched his finger to the brim of his hat again. “You have a good time, now.”
“Thank you, Deputy,” I said. Then I walked to the exact center of the room.
As a Warden of the White Council of Wizardry, I traveled a great deal and dealt with dangerous men. I was comfortable in places like this one and worse, though I had noted that they rarely seemed to be comfortable with me. The only women in sight were those working behind the bar, in the kitchen, and on the stage, so I rather stuck out. There was little sense in attempting anything like subtlety, so I donned my bottle green spectacles, focused my supernatural senses, and began a slow survey of the entire place.
The energy known as magic exists on a broad spectrum, much like light. Just as light can be split into its colors by a sufficient prism, magical energy can be more clearly distinguished by using the proper tools. The spectacles gave me a chance to view the energy swirling around the crowded room. It was strongly influenced by the presence of human emotion, and various colors had gathered around individuals according to their current humor.
Angry red tension tinted many auras, while lighter shades of pink surrounded the more merrily inebriated. Workers, including the dancers and dealers at the tables, evinced the steady green of those focused on task, while the deputy and a shotgun-wielding man seated on a tall stool at the end of the bar pulsed with the protective azure of guardians.
The warlock sat in the little balcony overlooking the stage, at a table with three other men, playing cards. Through the spectacles, shadows had gathered so thickly over their game that it almost seemed they had doused their lanterns and were playing in the dark.
I drew a breath. One warlock was typically not a threat to a cautious, well-trained, and properly equipped Warden. Two could be a serious challenge. The current Captain of the Wardens, a man named McCoy, a man with a great deal more power and experience than me, had once brought down three.
But as I watched through the spectacles, I realized that the warlock hadn’t simply been running. He’d been running to more of his kind.
There were four of them.
I took off the spectacles and moved into an open space at the bar, where I would hopefully be overlooked for a few moments longer, and thought furiously.
My options had just become much more limited. In a direct confrontation with that many opponents, I would have little chance of victory. Which was not to say that I could not attack them. They were involved in their card game, and I had seen no evidence of magical defenses. An overwhelming strike might take them all at once.
Of course, fire magic was the only thing that would do for that kind of work—and it would leave the crowded building aflame. Tarred wood exposed to a blast of supernatural fire would become an inferno in seconds. Not only that, but such an action would violate one of the Council’s unspoken laws: Wizards were expected to minimize the use of their abilities in the presence of magic-ignorant mortals. It had not been so long since our kind had been burned at stakes by frightened mobs.
While I could not simply attack them, neither could I remain here, waiting. A warlock would have fewer compunctions about exposing his abilities in public. The wisest option would have been to report in to the captain, send for reinforcements, veil myself, and follow them.
I had never been a particularly cautious person. Even the extended life of a wizard was too brief a time, and the world full of too much pleasure and joy to waste that life by hiding safely away.
I was not, however, stupid.
I turned to begin walking decisively toward the door and practically slammed my nose into that of a handsome man in his mid- – – forties, beard neatly shaved, dressed in an impeccable suit. His eyes were green and hard, his teeth far too white for his age.
And he was pressing a tiny derringer pistol to my chest, just beneath my left breast.
“Timely,” he said to me in a fine German accent. “We knew a Warden would arrive, but we thought you would be another week at least.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Please,” he said, his eyes shading over with something ugly. “If you attempt to resist me, I will kill you here and now.” He moved smoothly, stepping beside me and tucking my left arm into the crook of his right, positioning the tiny gun in his left hand atop my arm, keeping it artfully concealed while trained steadily on my heart. He nodded once at the balcony, and the four men on it immediately put their cards down and descended, heading out the door without so much as glancing back.
“You’re making a mistake,” I said to him tightly. “To my knowledge, you and your companions are not wanted by the Council. I’m not here for you today. I’ve only come for Alexander Page.”
“Is that a fact?” he asked.
“He is a murderer. By sheltering him, you have become complicit in his crimes,” I said. “If you kill me, you will only draw down the full wrath of the Wardens. But if you let me go immediately and disassociate yourself from Page, I will not prosecute a warrant for your capture.”
“That is most generous, Warden,” said the German. “But I am afraid I have plans. You will accompany me quietly outside.”
“And if I do not?”
“Then I will be mildly disappointed, and you will be dead.”
“You’ll be more than disappointed when my death curse falls upon you,” I said.
“Should you live long enough to level it, perhaps,” he said. “But I am willing to take that risk.”
I flicked my eyes around the room, looking for options, but they seemed few. The fellow on the high stool had his eyes on a man dealing cards at a nearby table. The cowboys were far more interested in drinking and making merry than in what, to them, must have appeared to be a domestic squabble between a wife come to drag her husband from a den of iniquity. Even the deputy at the door was gone, his chair standing empty.
I turned to the German and said, “Very well. Let us take this discussion elsewhere.”
“I do not think you realize your position, Warden,” the German said, as we began walking. “I am not asking for your consent. I am merely informing you of your options.”
I flinched slightly at the words and let the fear I was feeling show on my face. “What do you mean to do with me?” I asked.
“Nothing good,” he said, and his eyes glinted with something manic and hungry. Then he frowned, noticing that his last words had fallen into a silence absent of music or stomping feet.
Into that silence came what seemed like a singularly significant mechanical click.
“Mister,” the lanky deputy said. “You pass over that belly gun, or your next hat is going to be a couple of sizes smaller.”
The deputy had moved in silently behind him and now held his revolver less than a foot from the back of the German’s skull.
I let the fear drop off my face and smiled sweetly up at my captor.
The German froze, his eyes suddenly hot with rage as he realized that I had distracted him, just as his fellows had distracted me. The derringer pressed harder against my ribs as he turned his head slightly toward the deputy. “Do you have any idea who I am?”
“Mmmm,” the deputy said calmly. “You’re the fella who’s about to come quietly or have lead on his mind.”
The German narrowed his eyes and ground his teeth.
“He’s not asking for your consent,” I said. “He’s merely informing you of your options.”
The German spat an oath in his native tongue. Then he slipped the little pistol away from my side and slowly held it up.
The deputy took the weapon, his own gun steady.
“You will regret this action,” said the German. “Who do you think you are?”
“My name is Wyatt Earp,” said the deputy. “And I think I’m the law.”