Rating: A healthy PG-13
Spoilers: Heavy book references in this one, a few book characters appear later on. No plot spoilers, however. TV references: Storm Front, Birds of a Feather, Things that go Bump
Chapter Length: 4144 words
Summary: An unusual epidemic has hit Chicago and Harry's in the thick of it.
Author's Notes: Another long chapter, apologies for the delay in posting it. I have borrowed a book character, Ramirez, who first appears in Dead Beat, because he's awesome. I've fiddled with him to fit the TV verse.
My phone got a very good work out. I called Kirmani first and convinced him to hold Nick Myers as long as possible, even if it was a flimsy charge. I didn’t know what Myers was doing – if anything, but I didn’t want to run the risk of him hurting someone while I was stuck at home and nobody else was looking.
Morgan made a series of calls after that. I didn’t get a lot of what he was saying; it was mostly non-sensical. Something about an ochre grasshopper. I have a Council codebook lying around somewhere but it’s out of date and I didn’t know what he was relaying to the people on the other end of the line.
“Does the eagle fly at midnight?” I asked him, when he hung up on the third call.
“Reinforcements are on their way,” he replied.
Truce called, Morgan was less hostile towards me. In the wizarding world, your word counts as a legally binding contract. No one breaks it and if you do, you might as well throw yourself on your sword and get it over with. You’ll never work in this town again. He let me move freely around to gather up everything and talk to Bob.
Half an hour later there was a knock on the door. Two people were on the other side – a man and a woman. A boy and a girl, really. The girl I recognized as Amber. I’d met her when my apartment was temporarily transferred to Hell. It happens.
“This is your reinforcement?” I asked Morgan. “Baby wardens? They don’t even have their swords yet!”
“Hey, I’m not just a pretty face over here,” the boy said. I hadn’t met him before. He was probably in his very early twenties and had a confident, cocky air to him. He gave me a hand to shake. “Ramirez. Carlos. Cavalry.”
“Dresden, Harry,” I returned. “Dead man walking.”
He grinned. His looks were dark (one of Bob’s romance novels might have called him ‘swarthy’) and he had an open, friendly face. He had a tube slung on a strap around his back, one of those ones artists use to transport rolled up artwork. The cap was off and a simple, sturdy wood staff poked a few inches out of the top.
“Hello, Harry,” Amber greeted me, in her calm, smooth voice. She gave me a shy smile and a wave.
“Hey,” I returned. “How’s it going?”
“I understand the fate of the universe may depend on my ability to do a spell,” she replied. “So, great.”
“Come in,” Morgan commanded. They immediately came in. I closed the door behind them. “We should begin.”
Morgan shuffled the babies back into the lab and I followed after them. We’d set up for the spell already. The table had been pushed to one side and a map of Chicago was spread out on the floor. I’d marked my apartment with a pin on it. Bob was waiting for us, standing with his hands clasped neatly behind his back.
“Amber,” I reminded him, pointing. “And Ramirez. This is Bob.”
“How do you do?” Bob said, politely.
“Hey,” Ramirez replied.
Amber just nodded and smiled to him. We left her there to talk to him and learn what to do without us staring at her.
“Seriously, where is the rest of the cavalry?” I asked, in the hall outside the lab.
“We were the only ones available,” Ramirez explained. “There are...’other matters’.” He made little quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “We’ve got the least seniority. So, we do all the scutwork. Slime, rodents, cats up trees, that sort of thing.”
“This doesn’t count as big?” I demanded. “This is big!”
“This is big in Chicago,” Ramirez allowed. “But, like, in the whole world and all its sub-worlds? It’s...mildly off-putting.”
“Wow,” I said, imagining what might be happening elsewhere. This was why I did what I did. Someone needed to handle mildly off-putting while the wardens handled the crises of the world. Mildly off-putting still meant deadly. “I’m going to make coffee.”
“I’m in,” Ramirez offered.
“Do you want to come and make sure I don’t poison anyone?” I asked Morgan.
He didn’t dignify me with an answer. He just blinked at me twice, enough to make me feel about two inches tall and then went back into the lab. Ramirez was grinning. He seemed to do that a lot. We went to the kitchen and I started the coffee brewing.
Ramirez chatted easily without much prompting. He was from L.A. He had been chosen to be a warden and started his training in California but his regional commander had been killed in battle.
“You should have seen his Death Curse, man,” he related. “Took everyone out and brought down the building too. We all would have died if he hadn’t done it.” He shook his head, a wistful look of awe on his face. “Anyway, the new commander didn’t have enough experience to take on trainees, so we got split up and sent elsewhere. I got sent here, to Morgan.”
“Lucky you,” I muttered.
Carlos grinned again. “He’s not so bad if he doesn’t hate you.”
“I wouldn’t know what that’s like,” I said.
We got the coffee brewed and brought mugs to Morgan and Amber. Morgan accepted his without taking his eyes off Bob (who he seemed to be eyeing as though he expected him to attack Amber in some way) and gave me an absent nod of thanks. Amber looked a bit wide-eyed. She took her mug from Carlos but didn’t drink it.
“I don’t want to be jumpy for this,” she explained.
The coffee was gone quickly by those who were drinking it – we were all at that same stage of lack of sleep. Amber set herself up on the floor by the map and meditated while we drank. Her features relaxed and when she opened her eyes, she looked distant.
“Alright,” she said. “I’m ready.”
I gave her the lock of Catalina’s hair and there was some shuffling between me and Morgan about who was going to man the map.
“My ghost, my spell, my hair, my map,” I told him. “I win.”
He sighed and backed off. I knelt on the floor by Amber. Carlos knelt on the other side, eyes eager and curious to see what was going to happen. Amber mumbled some quasi-Latin and zoned out completely. Her eyes got a glossy look. She looked from left to right a few times, as though lost, and then settled back in her posture.
“I’m in your apartment, Harry,” she said. “Oh, this is weird. I can see me and you guys, but like we’re ghosts. Okay, give me a second.” She abruptly lost her otherworldly look and jumped a little. “Sorry, I dropped it. Let me try again.” She got it going once more, only to lose it on her way out of my apartment. Another try and another fail. “I’m sorry, it’s really slippery. I’m sorry.”
“If it were simple, I would do it myself,” Morgan said, calmly. “That is why I called you here. I wouldn’t have asked you to do if I didn’t believe you could.”
Amber nodded, reassured and closed her eyes again.
“And we’re not even paying attention, are we?” Carlos added, jovially. “So...how about those...” He cast his eyes around. “...Etrus...cans?”
“...They certainly are a...dead civilization,” I agreed, playing along as best I could.
Amber laughed and relaxed, starting the spell once more.
“Etruscan?” I whispered.
Carlos pointed to a book that had fallen to the floor during my rearranging of furniture. ‘Etruscan Language and Culture’. “I blanked.”
I shrugged and we waited silently for Amber to get the spell going again. This time, she seemed more still and when her eyes opened, they were looking at something we couldn’t see.
“I’m leaving your apartment, Harry,” she announced, a minute later. She pulled on the air like she was following an invisible string.
“Front or back?” I asked, readying a pin in my hand.
“The shop part, where your sign is,” she replied. “I’m following the spell down the street to the right. Turning at the first corner.” I put a pin on the street corner. “It’s really hard to concentrate with all these people moving around.”
“Keep your mind focused on the path of light,” Bob advised. “The people cannot see you, pay no mind to them.”
“I’ve passed the first intersection,” Amber continued to narrate. “And the second. I’m turning left on the third.” I put another pin in the map. She kept talking and I kept pinning for the next few minutes. She occasionally got lost, but backtracked to the last pin when I gave her directions and she found her way again. She started to sweat and soon it was running down her face. I looked to Bob to see if we should stop her, but he shook his head that she was fine. “Okay...the light is really strong here. I think it’s there.” She pointed ahead of her, with a hand shaking from the effort of the spell.
“That doesn’t help us, babe,” Ramirez reminded her.
“Sorry, it’s about halfway up the street, on the left,” she elaborated. “I’ll know it when I see it. Should I go inside?”
“Yes,” Carlos and I said.
“No,” Bob and Morgan said.
“Uh...what?” Amber asked. Her whole body was starting to shake now.
Everyone looked to Bob for advice. “If there is a ward on the threshold of the building, she could be hurt,” he said. “Her psyche will be attacked and it will rebound on her physical body.”
“Can’t she check for a ward?” Carlos asked.
“It’s too dangerous,” Morgan dismissed it. “She is straining herself as it is.”
“I think I could do it,” Amber said, reaching forward in the air.
“No,” Morgan said. “Return to your body.” I bet that’s an order he doesn’t get to give very often.
Amber’s eyes widened suddenly and her head snapped back as though someone had given her an uppercut. Ramirez caught her as she fell backwards. Morgan knocked a few pins out of place as he trampled the map to get to her. “Amber?”
“I’m fine,” she said, blinking up at the ceiling. “I dropped the spell. I got distracted. That’s definitely where the spell is coming from, though. There were a half-dozen or so faint sources and one very strong one.”
“A half dozen or more is a lot of people,” Ramirez said, looking to Morgan with worry on his face. “We shouldn’t go in there outnumbered.”
“The strong one is most likely an active spell, while the others merely have spell residue on them,” Bob announced.
“We have no choice,” Morgan told Carlos. “There’s no one else to help.”
“So, does that mean only one person is still being kept asleep?” I asked Bob.
“We could wait, couldn’t we?” Carlos insisted. “Or Dresden could...”
“It would appear so,” Bob answered. “Unless one person is able to keep a group of people in a permanent dreamstate. It would take a very powerful sorcerer to keep it all going, though. Rather like trying to keep several plates spinning on poles at the same time.”
“No,” Morgan said, firmly. “Dresden is not going to - “
“Was that a popular pastime in your day?” I asked Bob.
“Guys?” Amber’s voice cut through the conversation. We all looked to her. “Could I have that coffee now?”
While Amber recovered herself, Morgan, Carlos and I argued about whether or not I should be allowed to come. Carlos was in favour of it, insisting they needed the help and Morgan was opposed, insisting I was a liability.
“You can’t leave me here,” I pointed out. “What if I skip town?”
“I’ll find you again,” Morgan replied, simply. “You know you can’t hide.”
“Maybe not, but the Council will be pretty pissed if you lose me,” I said.
“We’re short-handed as it is,” Carlos added. “You always say that in an emergency, you have to use every resource available to you. It seems to me that Dresden is a resource.” Morgan glared at him and opened his mouth to say something, but Carlos cut him off. “And, you said that going into any situation unprepared is stupid and dangerous. We don’t know what we’re facing. An extra hand is good planning.”
Morgan scowled. There’s nothing worse than having your own advice thrown back at you. In the end, it was Amber who was the deciding vote. She quietly suggested she’d feel better if I came along. In the face of both his students rebelling, Morgan reluctantly agreed to let me come, so long as I promised to follow his lead.
“I’ll do my best,” I said. “But it’s sort of knee-jerk reaction to do the opposite of whatever you say.”
I grabbed my hockey stick and my backpack, tossing a few things I thought I might need in it. The wardens were having an emergency wardens-only huddle in the hallway and that left me alone with Bob.
“Thanks for your help,” I said to him. He politely inclined his head to me. He was still being distant, despite my best efforts to get him to relax. “It’ll be alright, you know.”
He nodded and twisted one of the rings on his fingers. “I know.”
“I’ll come back,” I said.
He forced a smile at me and nodded again. “Be careful.”
Getting us all into Morgan’s little car was a challenge. I stuffed my legs under the dashboard again and it would have been very helpful if my hockey stick folded. It ended up sort of under one of my legs, over the other, through the gap in the front seats and very close to Ramirez’s stomach. If we crashed, it was definitely going to break a few of his ribs. His staff was across his and Amber’s lap. Amber favoured a small anthame with a jeweled hilt as her weapon of choice, which went with her more subtle spellcasting style. It fit in her pocket and we didn’t have to worry about squeezing it in with us.
“When we get out again, a hundred clowns are going to come out after us, right?” Ramirez grumbled, slinging an arm over Amber’s shoulders to give them more wiggle room. “You need a bigger boat, boss.”
The street Amber had indicated was located in the student ghetto, around the University of Chicago. The building itself, when we arrived there, looked to be abandoned. It was in bad repair with chipped brick and dirty windows. There was a very flimsy ward over the door that Morgan and I unraveled easily while Amber and Carlos took point. Morgan threw a veil over us all as we entered the building.
There wasn’t much to see on the first level. It used to be a shop, I would have said. There was a dusty sheet covering a counter and there were shelves around the walls, where spiders had taken up residence. The light was fading outside and very little came through the grimy windows. I lit my pentacle and it shone helpfully through the gloaming. We had to move in a fairly tight group. Morgan’s veil, while very good, couldn’t stretch over long distances.
The storeroom had a door with a faint glow coming through the cracks. It opened onto stairs, which went down to a little hallway, which had an open doorway at the end of it, where the glow of candles could be seen. We all crouched in the doorway and looked around.
In one corner there were five or six pallets made up on the floor. Four of them were occupied by sleeping people. A guy sat not too far away from them, grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle. Across the room from him, a girl sat, chanting, with a blank look on her face. Another girl knelt in front of her as we arrived. She took hold of the hair in the first girl’s hand and started to chant in time with her, quiet at first and then growing louder. After a few moments, the second girl got the blank look and the first girl lost hers. She blinked a few times, stood up and stretched, then walked over to a pallet and collapsed onto it, falling asleep almost immediately. The second girl continued to chant.
“They’re handing off the spell,” I whispered. “That’s how they’ve been able to keep it going continuously.”
“I can see that,” Morgan whispered back.
“I was just stating it for the viewers at home,” I muttered.
“They don’t look very culty,” Carlos said.
They didn’t. They didn’t have matching outfits or tattoos as far as I could see. There were no symbols on the wall, no blood on the floor. They looked like kids. They couldn’t have been much older than Amber and Carlos. They were probably university students. It seemed odd.
“There’s something in the corner,” Amber said. “In the circle.”
Behind where the girl had been chanting (and now in front of the new girl) there was a ring of squat, thick candles burning. I hadn’t noticed the shape in it, because it wasn’t so much there as not there. Light seemed to avoid it and it was just a black shape where the universe should be.
“Demon?” I wondered.
“Perhaps,” Morgan agreed. “It seems trapped for now; we can deal with it later. We’ll start with the boy.” He pointed to guy with the herbs. “Take him down quietly. Once he’s out of the way, we can attempt to break the girl’s spell. If we wake the others up before then, we run the risk of breaking her concentration and killing whoever is on the receiving end of the spell.”
I would have liked a plan with a little more detail, but I had no time to ask questions before everyone else was moving and I had to move with them to stay in the veil. We walked slowly and quietly. The herb grinding guy looked up and around as we neared. Carlos, Amber and Morgan surrounded him. Amber poised her hand to cover his mouth, Carlos got ready to hold him down and Morgan raised his sword. They all nodded ‘one, two, three’ together and two seconds later, the guy was unconscious from a light blow of energy from the sword. His gasp was muffled by Amber’s hand and his flailing stopped by Carlos. None of the sleepers stirred. I felt vaguely like I was in a James Bond movie, only with less scantily clad women.
Herb Guy dealt with, we moved on to Chanting Girl and the circle. Inside the ring of candles was another circle of symbols written in chalk. I looked up at the thing inside it and felt immediately uneasy, though I could barely make out what it was. All four of us stared at it for a bit, mesmerized, until Morgan shook his head free and put us back on the right track.
“We will deal with it later,” he repeated. “Whatever it is.”
I knelt in front of Chanting Girl. She was too busy chanting to take any note of us. She looked through me.
“So, how are going to do this?” Carlos asked.
“I’ll take over the spell and stop it,” I decided. “That way if it messes up my brain and I die, you guys can still do your job and I won’t be any worse off than I will be at dawn anyway.”
Nobody made an argument, which, really, they could have done to be polite. I took a deep breath and Listened to the chanting, picking out the words and slowly putting them together. Once I had the chant, I listened to her rhythm and matched it, chanting softly and then louder as I grew more confident. I took hold of the hair in her hand and a faint image appeared in front of me. With each word, the image became more opaque, until I was fully surrounded by it. It was a shipwreck, in the middle of a storm. I could see a child floating on the wreckage. I could feel the spell slowly moving from Chanting Girl to me, until, suddenly, all the weight was on me and I had to struggle to adjust and keep it steady.
I could hear words in my head, Spanish ones that I couldn’t understand. It didn’t matter, because there were images to go with them. I could see a woman’s worry for the child, who was blue and lethargic. I could see her struggling to keep above the cold water. I could see her exhaustion and her will to fight to keep her child safe. The child was Rosario, the words told me, and I concluded I was in Catalina’s head.
I knew that one of Catalina’s worst fears was drowning. She wasn’t a strong swimmer. The worst fear was any mother’s fear – losing her child. I could have put that together from what I saw, but I didn’t have to, because I could see those concepts in her head. It was a really, really trippy experience.
I realized quickly that I was the storm, I was the waves and the ocean. I was everything in the image. A little Will on my part made things happen. A wave crashed where I told it to and the wind howled when I sent it blowing. So, I started to reverse things. I lessened the storm, until it was a drizzle. I let a little sunlight through the clouds. I brought a fishing boat in and made it signal to Catalina that they had seen her. I warmed the toddler up. Catalina’s mind did the rest. She handed Rosario up to the fishermen and let herself be pulled over the side of the boat too. I told the men to get some blankets around her and she added some hot coffee to go with them. The rain stopped and I hadn’t told it to. Then, with what felt like a kick to my stomach, she pushed me out of her head and I snapped back to reality.
In reality, as it wont to happen around me, chaos had broken out. I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but Herb Guy was back on his feet and all the sleepers seemed to have woken up. Everyone was running everywhere. Amber was doing her best to keep me from harm’s way while also trying to round up the kids. They didn’t seem to be fighting us, so much as trying to get past us. The only guy who seemed actually antagonistic was a guy with a bunch of Celtic knot work tattooed around his upper arm. He was slinging spells left and right.
Standard warden operating procedure when dealing with a crowd of wizards, I found out, was to draw a large circle on the floor with chalk (Morgan’s task) and herd everyone towards the circle (Amber and Carlos’) task, then to keep everyone in the circle (also Morgan’s task). I joined in the chaos and did a little rounding up myself. The main objective for most of the kids was to get through the door to the stairs. Carlos had cast some sort of spell that resembled large blobs of green jello-y light floating in the air by the threshold, blocking the exit. As soon as any of the kids hit it, they slowed down to a snail’s pace and he was able to pull them free and send them over to Morgan. I picked up particularly tiny girl with blue streaks in her hair and carried her under my arm to the circle while she kicked uselessly at me.
The fight didn’t last long. I helped Morgan keep the kids in the circle once they got there and we soon had everyone but Tattoo inside. He was still slinging spells with abandon, mostly at Amber who was trying to take him down, but could only dodge what he was throwing at her. She finally managed to shoot a blast from the edge of her knife – a blue, thin, precise ray of energy. Tattoo stumbled backwards and the heel of his foot hit one of the candles.
“Amber, the circle!” Morgan called, urgently.
Amber was already diving for the candle, but it tipped over before she could get to it. Melted wax spilt out over the symbols of the inner circle and though she managed to get the candle upright again, it didn’t help. The thing inside it seeped out like smoke. The circle was broken.