By Jim Butcher
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 was still
The body fell onto its side. One calf muscle twitched
spasmodically and then stopped. After maybe five seconds, the head
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
The covered head stopped its feeble movements. Morgan glanced up
at the Merlin and nodded once. The Merlin returned the nod. "May he
"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, loud 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
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
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
"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 or less than a monster who
would have spent his life inflicting horror and death on anyone near
"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 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
Corpsetaker 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
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 was 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
"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 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