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: 4394 words
Summary: An unusual epidemic has hit Chicago and Harry's in the thick of it.
Author's Notes: This is the most exposition I think I have ever written and I really hope it ended up being coherent. We're on the home stretch now, thanks to everyone who is keeping up with this despite the delays in posting. Enjoy!
It was a few seconds before anyone reacted. It felt more like a minute. The demon-smoke-thing seeped out of the circle and everyone watched. Then time snapped into its usual speed and things moved far too quickly.
Something resembling an appendage (let’s say it was an arm) swept Amber aside like she was a rag doll. She slid across the floor and into the wall, hard. She didn’t move. Ramirez let out an angry cry and raced towards her.
“Ramirez, stop!” Morgan barked.
He stopped, as suddenly as if someone had turned him to stone. Morgan had them well-trained, I have to admit. I wondered if he gave them biscuits as a reward. Another appendage slammed down where Ramirez would have stepped next and missed him by a few inches. He jumped back from it.
Yet another appendage swiped at Tattoo, who was crab walking away from the circle as fast as he could go. He flattened himself to the ground and the arm-thing swept over him, into the wall. Dust shook loose from the ceiling. Tattoo got to his feet and made a break for it. I ran after him. Ramirez’s spell was weakening, but still slowed Tattoo enough for me to grab him by the hood of his vest. He snarled and cursed and squirmed until I gave him a bop on the head with my hockey stick. He was dazed after that and I dragged him back to Morgan’s circle.
“Stay there and think about what you’ve done,” I told him.
Morgan was ready with some blood on his finger and touched the circle as soon as Tattoo was inside. It closed with a pop, trapping the kids. Morgan raced into the fray and I had to stop to get my bearings. Lack of sleep + jumping in and out of people’s heads + physical exertion = a very tired wizard. The last bout of head jumping had left me with a feeling like I wasn’t quite in my body. I couldn’t afford to be slow and I slung my backpack from my shoulders, ripped it open, pulled out a sports bottle and took a swig from it. The energy potion I had made earlier in the week ran through my veins like a little Kentucky Derby was taking place and there was a happy, cheerful symphony in my head. Everything snapped into focus and I instantly felt like leaping a few buildings in a single bound. In lieu of that, I raced into the fight.
Ramirez and Morgan were already battling with Smokey the demon’s many appendages, trying to keep him from moving too far from the circle. Ramirez was like a cat – he leapt, he ducked, he swung, he flipped, he rolled and he dodged with balletic agility. His staff swung around his body efficiently and poked and slammed into the demon in little teasing taps. Morgan favoured a simple, more measured approach. His sword glinted in the candle light as it arced through the air, throwing out spells and hacking at limbs. I joined in with my usual attack plan – do as much damage as possible without getting killed. It’s not pretty, but it works. Most of the time.
There was a lot of noise. Smokey roared with fury. Morgan yelled out directions. The kids screamed and gasped. The symphony in my head drowned most of it out. I ducked and dodged easily, almost like I knew what was going to happen before it happened. Energy flowed into my staff with effortless Will. I cheerfully decided that energy potions were the best potions ever and should be put into some sort of potion hall of fame.
The longer Smokey was out of the circle, the more solid he became. He was a towering thing, something like 9 feet tall, and had horns that curled around his pointy ears several times before sticking out like tusks by his mouth. Every time one of his arms came my way (which was frequently, considering how many arms he seemed to have), I got a jolt of panic through me. The kind of panic that sends you running for a place to hide. The panic blasts grew stronger the longer he was out. We fought for a long time and the longer we fought, the harder it became not to cut and run.
Morgan finally managed to doge his way through flailing limbs and over to where the circle had broken. He pried up the hardened wax and tossed it away, then pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket and started to fill in the gaps. Ramirez and I did our best to distract Smokey from him, but when you have that many arms flying around, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Morgan had to retreat, but he left the chalk behind. Ramirez dodged in next, sliding through the demon’s legs and did some more work on the circle before rolling out of the way again, leaving me a gap to take my turn. I ducked under an arm and slid the rest of the way on my knees.
I looked to either side of the hole for a guide on how the symbols should look and drew them in as exactly as I could. It was hard to be precise with a demon looming over me. I connected the bottom line of the circle again and then retreated. I wasn’t quick enough to avoid an arm though, and I got slammed into the same wall as Amber. I didn’t have as far to slide and my right arm took the brunt of it. There was a very nasty crack that sounded like it should have hurt, but I couldn’t feel anything. I dropped my hockey stick, unable to direct my fingers to hold on it anymore.
“Crap,” I muttered, then got up again.
Ramirez and Morgan were slowly battling Smokey back into the circle. I cradled my arm to my chest, picked up my staff with my other hand and shot off a few blasts. Smokey roared and swung, but finally his whole body was in the circle. All three of us moved in after him. I reopened the wound I had made on my finger earlier in the day. Ramirez raked a fingernail across his gums to get some of his blood and Morgan swiped at a cut on his cheek. We all touched the circle and it lit up, sending a green shield of light up to the ceiling. Morgan and Ramirez righted the other candles that had been overturned in the fight.
“Flickum bicus,” I commanded holding out my good hand. The candles lit up and another layer of shield crackled to life.
Smokey dissolved into black smog again, bashing uselessly at the walls of the circle and roaring. Ramirez was on his way to Amber before I had time to even think about what to do next. Morgan and I followed him. She was in a crumpled heap where she’d landed, but stirred when Ramirez touched her shoulder.
“Did we win?” she asked, groggily.
The three of us were panting heavily. We looked at one another and shrugged that we probably had.
“’Course,” Ramirez decided.
“That’s good,” she noted. “I like it when we win.”
With both Smokey and the kids in their respective circles, there was time to relax a little and tend to wounds. Amber didn’t look good.
“I’m fine...” she answered when I asked her how she was doing. She blinked at me.
“...Harry,” I filled in.
“Harry,” she agreed, vaguely. “I knew that. Don’t tell Morgan I didn’t know that.”
She had a nasty bump on her head and her neck seemed to have been wrenched quite badly. We didn’t let her move at all, even though she kept insisting she was fine. Eventually, she admitted in whisper to Ramirez and I that she was having trouble feeling her toes. She didn’t want Morgan to know that either. I didn’t know whether it was because she was afraid he would be angry with her, or that she didn’t want him to worry or that she just didn’t want to bother him when he was busy.
Morgan was doing...stuff. I didn’t know exactly what that stuff was, but he did it with a purposeful march in and out of the room and I didn’t doubt that there was stuff happening, even if I didn’t know what it was. Every time he passed by the circle, the kids would shrink back from him. He had a look of perpetual fury on his face and, having been on the receiving end of that fury on more than one occasion, I could understand how the kids might have found him intimidating. Tattoo was the only one who didn’t react. He was sitting calmly and looked like the whole thing bored him. The other kids had left a noticeable gap between them and him, huddling together away from where he sat. Morgan came over to talk to Amber a few times, checking see how she was doing.
“I told you not to tell him!” she hissed to Ramirez, after Morgan had left again.
“I didn’t!” Ramirez objected. “You know how he is. He just knows things.” Solemn looks of mutual agreement passed between them.
There was no calling an ambulance for her. We couldn’t let people into a room with a bunch of magic kids trapped in one circle and a smoke demon trapped in another and try to explain how she’d ended up injured during the inevitable battle one has when they have a group of magic kids and a demon in the same room. Nobody seemed worried about this except for me, so I assumed there was some sort of warden procedure for this sort of thing. We couldn’t move Amber for fear of doing more damage to her neck. I pulled a blanket from one of the pallets in the corner and settled it over her.
Ramirez was manning the First Aid kit I had in my backpack. His style of healing seemed to be that more is more. After applying no less than five Band-Aids and a lot of anti-biotic cream to a gash on Amber’s forehead, he broke the ice pack so that it got cold and I let Amber have it for her head, since that was the gentlemanly thing to do. My arm was swelling with every passing second, but I was still grooving the symphony in my head and I couldn’t have cared less. I was still up for a few more rounds of demon bashing. Hell, I could have run a few marathons. While bashing demons.
“Sit down, Harry,” Ramirez ordered, for the third or forth time.
Every time I sat down I felt like I should get up again, but once I was up, I didn’t know what to do with myself and Ramirez would order me to sit down. He was losing patience with trying to heal me. He splinted my arm by wrapping gauze exactly five billion times around two wooden rods on either side of the broken bone. I sat there and twitched. I might have put a bit too much coffee in the energy potion.
“That was awesome,” Ramirez said, enthusiastically, as he wrapped. “The fighting? The fire spells and stuff. I’ve never seen anyone fight like that.”
“With the flailing and the panic?” I said. “That’s patented Dresden Kung-Fu.”
He grinned. “Seriously. Everyone says you’re dangerous or whatever, but nobody ever says that you’re talented. I suppose you wouldn’t be dangerous if you weren’t talented.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think.” I gestured with my chin to the doorway. “That spell you did with the jello? That was water magic, right?” He nodded. “That was cool too.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I know.” He tied a sling around my neck with six tight knots. “I told you I wasn’t just a pretty face.”
He gave me another grin and pronounced me healed. Then he leaned over to check on Amber, who murmured that she was still fine. “They should be here for you soon, babe.”
“’They’?” I asked.
“Medical people,” he answered. “They’ll take her to headquarters and get her fixed up. Don’t want to risk taking her to the hospital and missing something important because the equipment screws up.”
“I didn’t know you had a headquarters,” I said.
“’Course. Where do you think we keep the Bat-Signal?”
“I thought you guys had some sort of wrong-doing alarm implanted in your brains.”
“That’s just Morgan,” he corrected. “I think he’s a robot. One day, some supernatural badass is going to punch him in the chest and come out with a hand full of wires.”
“I can hear you, Ramirez,” Morgan said.
“Sorry, boss,” Ramirez called. He turned to me, widened his eyes and mouthed ‘robot!’
The medical wardens arrived soon after and put a cervical collar on Amber’s neck, which made me feel much less worried for her. I imagine it probably made her feel better too. The two wardens, plus Morgan and Ramirez, carefully got her up on a triage. I was useless with my one arm.
“Harry?” she asked.
“I’m here,” I said.
“Good luck,” she said.
I smiled. “You too.”
They carried her out and Morgan trailed after them. Ramirez followed them as far as the door, teasing her and saying goodbye. He came back and we both turned our attention to the circle of kids. By this point, we’d ignored them so long they were starting to really freak out. One girl was weeping loudly, another just shook and Herb Guy was systematically chewing off all his fingernails. They all look petrified. Except for Tattoo. He met my gaze and was apparently unimpressed by me.
“I want to punch that one,” Ramirez muttered.
“When does the interrogation start?” I asked.
His eyes moved to the doorway, where Morgan reentered and stalked over to the circle. The kids, minus Tattoo, all scooted back again.
We positioned ourselves around the edge of the circle. Morgan and Ramirez just stared, so I joined in and stared too. The kids started to squirm under our frank gazes and then, as one, they all burst into explanations. Except for Tattoo. He just rolled his eyes at them.
“Silence,” Morgan commanded, after letting them natter for a few seconds. They all fell silent. “Who is the leader here?”
Eyes all went to Tattoo. He didn’t make any motion to speak. The guy sitting next to Weepy, who had an arm around her, spoke up.
“I’ll speak for us,” he said. He was clean cut and looked like he’d just stepped out of a cologne ad. “You can ask me your questions.”
“Who are you?” Morgan asked. “Your group.”
“We’re sort of a...club, I guess,” Cologne Ad answered, uncertainly. “We’re all students at the university. Jamie started it.” He nodded towards Tattoo. “We all have the gift, for magic? So we all started meeting to sort of...hang out. Just to have people who were like you to talk to, you know?”
“How did you go from hanging out to summoning demons?” I asked.
All eyes once again went to Tattoo, but Cologne Ad continued to field the questions. “We were doing a bit of stuff, nothing dangerous, just seeing what we could do. Jamie had a book and he wanted to try this summoning spell. Most of us thought it was too dangerous so we said no. But Jamie and Nate did it anyway, by themselves.”
“Which one of you is Nate?” Morgan asked.
“He’s...dead,” Cologne Ad answered. Weepy started to weep harder and he shushed her. “After they summoned him – the demon, they kept him in the circle, the outer one. But he can do things...he says things right into your head. Makes you panic and do stupid things and the more you panic, the stronger he gets. He broke out of the circle and attacked Nate. We got him to the hospital, but he died in the ER. We told them he was mugged.” He seemed to be waiting for us to have a response of horror or shock or something to this information, but none of us said anything. “So...uh, Seana looked around in some books and came up with an inner circle that was stronger. She drew it up for us and we got him from the candles into there, and then put the candles around him again.” He had been nodding towards a girl who was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Wave the flag, Maroons!’ on it and had a picture of the University crest. I assumed she was Seana. She was also the one who had been chanting when we came in, before handing it off to Chanting Girl. “And it was better, because he couldn’t get out, but he could still talk to us and make us panic. Make us do stupid things. He said he’d kill more of us if we didn’t help him.”
“Okay, why didn’t you just send him back?” Ramirez demanded. “Unsummon him?”
“We tried!” Formerly Chanting Girl Seana burst out. “I looked everywhere, in every book I could find and we tried everything and we couldn’t get him to go! He’s stuck here.”
“He said he wanted you to help him,” I said. “How?”
“He needed to...feed,” Cologne Ad picked up again. “He sort of feeds on fear. That’s why he makes you panic. He made Izzie so afraid, she nearly broke the circle for him.” Izzie was Blue Streaks. “So, we had to come up with away for him to feed, but not on us. So Seana looked through some more books and she came up with the nightmare idea. Izzie works at the hair salon and she got us some hair to work with. Her step-brother, Nick?”
“The nurse,” I said.
“Yeah...he was floating in the ER when they brought Nate in. He knew we were lying. He was worried about Izzie and he wanted to help-”
“I didn’t tell him what we were doing,” Izzie broke in, quickly. “He doesn’t know what happened exactly. He doesn’t have the gift. He just wanted to help me, so I asked him to get the ingredients for us. The ones Seana came up with.”
“So they couldn’t be traced back to you,” Morgan filled in.
“Yeah,” Izzie admitted. “And because he had the money to buy them. We’re students. We don’t have money. I figured, he wasn’t doing anything bad with them, so he wouldn’t get in trouble. He doesn’t know what we were doing, honest. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“So, you had the hair and the herbs,” Morgan said, ignoring her. “Who started the spell?”
“I did,” Seana said. “I came up with it. If anything went wrong, it would have been on me. The plan was for the demon to feed off the fear in us, from the nightmare. It was just until I could come up with a way to send the demon back. He stopped feeding on us once we started the spell and we let him have enough to keep him happy, but not too much so that he’d get strong enough to get out. That was the plan.”
“But Jake died,” I said.
“That was all my fault!” Weepy wept. She was supermodel gorgeous, or she would have been, if she didn’t have tears and mucus running down her face. “He was getting tired and I was trying to keep it from killing him, but the spell slipped and the thing he was dreaming about killed him instead. I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to...” she sobbed harder and Cologne Ad petted her hair and gave her a kiss on her forehead.
“We were gonna stop,” Seana said. “But as soon as we did, he started to feed on us again. Cody just cracked – he went absolutely insane! All he did was sit in a corner and sob. We were afraid...we thought he might try to hurt himself.”
“Where’s Cody?” Morgan asked.
“He ran,” Cologne Ad answered. “With some of the others. There were 13 of us to start with, including Nate. When the spell on the policewoman broke, some of the others just ran. They knew you were on to us and they left.”
“But you stayed,” Ramirez said.
“We couldn’t leave the demon here,” Cologne Ad said, in a voice indicating that should be obvious. “What if he got loose? Besides...we’re so tired. None of us have slept much and it’s got way out of hand. The more we tried to fix it, the worse it got. We figured if you were coming to stop us, then... it would be over.”
“Why didn’t you come for help?” Morgan said. “Before it got out of hand?”
“Who were we supposed to get help from?” Cologne Ad replied. “There was only a couple of us who knew about the Council at all. If we told you what happened, you’d have killed us. There was no one else to go to.”
Ramirez and Morgan both shifted a little and gave me quick glances. I didn’t say anything. The symphony in my head was starting to quiet and there was a faint twinge of pain starting up in my arm. I put it to the back of my mind.
“We’ve gotten a little ahead of the story,” I said. “What happened after you started the spells again?”
“I got more hair,” Izzie picked up. “I couldn’t tell who belonged to the different pieces though; they all get swept into a pile together. It was random. We started the spell on the Spanish lady, but he didn’t let up on us. The demon. He wanted more. So, we started the spell on the older lady, too.”
“She went so fast,” Chanting Girl said. She had a faint Southern accent. “And the dream was so bad. I had her and I had to fight for it not to kill her. But she didn’t fight back, not very much anyway. She gave up and I couldn’t stop it in time.” Her face was tight with horror at the memory.
“And we kept having to add more people, because the more tired we got, the less the spells worked,” Cologne Ad continued. “And Dana got so tired. She just started sobbing in the middle of her shift and that’s when the younger woman died.”
“Dana ran too, I gather?” Morgan asked.
“Yeah,” Cologne Ad confirmed.
“You said ‘shift’?” Ramirez said. “You had some sort of schedule going for this?”
“We had to hand the spells off so people wouldn’t get too tired,” Seana explained. “And then, when the sun came up in the mornings, the spell would degrade and we’d have to top it up again. So, I came up with a plan to keep it all going and giving everyone time to keep up with classes or whatever. It didn’t last long, though, we all had to stop going to school. We slept here and ate here and everything. Dan brought us stuff.” She indicated Herb Guy.
“I couldn’t do the spell,” Dan said. “I’m not talented enough. So I made the potions for the hair and was on lookout and stuff. It was Chris and I, before he ran.”
“We couldn’t sleep really, either,” Chanting Girl added. “Everyone got nightmares.”
“You were messing with the universal consciousness,” I explained. “Everyone felt it, not just you.”
“We thought it was just the demon messing with us,” Chanting Girl said.
“So, in the end, all of us were going day and night trying to keep up with all of it,” Cologne Ad carried on. “Then Keating sort of jolted out of his spell and it threw everyone else off their rhythm too. Except for Seana, she managed to keep hers going. Keating said that someone had come into the policewoman’s dream that wasn't really a part of it, he was real. He was doing magic and stuff inside it. He helped her wake up and it kicked Keating out. Then everyone panicked and some of them left and...” He looked exhausted and about ready to just start sobbing along with Weepy. “It’s over now.”
There was silence again, except for Weepy weeping and the demon roaring in the background. It lasted for awhile, while everyone soaked in all the information. Ramirez looked stunned, Morgan looked furious. I just felt exhausted.
“One final question,” Morgan said, eventually. “Why did you summon the demon in the first place?”
Tattoo rolled his eyes and pulled on one of his shoelaces. “Because I could.”
“People died,” I snapped.
“Straights,” he counted, in a bored voice. “Look, I can do things other people can’t. We can do them, we all can. All you guys do is come up with laws so we never use them. It’s stupid. What’s the point in having powers if you never get to experiment with them?”
“Do you really think bringing a demon into the world is the best way to experiment?” Morgan asked.
“I wanted to see if I could do it,” Tattoo replied. “And I could.”
“Can I punch him now?” Ramirez demanded.
“Later,” Morgan said.
“What’s going to happen to us?” Seana asked.
“The Council will decide,” Morgan answered.
The kids all nodded, apparently resigned to this fact. Except for Weepy, who just wept. I was still trying sort out in my mind what to feel about them. They were stupid, but they were kids and when you’re a kid, you’re stupid. You make stupid mistakes. When you’re a magic kid, your stupid mistakes tend to be a hundred times worse than if you were a normal one. They were also fairly responsible; they tried to fix the problem. They were trying to help their friend, even if he was a sociopath. In the end, all I could come up with was disappointment. A lot of kids with a lot of potential who would now likely have no future. Life is stupid, sometimes.
“Madre de Dios,” Ramirez muttered, which pretty much summed up what I was feeling.
“What now?” I asked him.
“Council’ll come,” he replied, with a shrug. “Clean up the mess.”
“The Council will come here?” I repeated. “While I’m here?” He nodded. “Madre de Dios.”
That wasn’t going to be fun.