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 nacken . "We are near to town, and to the warlock. I would prefer if we did not announce our presence." The nacken 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 nacken 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 nacken , and he gave me an evil glare. "Wizards." But he subsided. Murderous monsters, the nacken , 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 nacken 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 nacken 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." Excerpted from Brief Cases by Jim Butcher All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.