All hospital emergency rooms have the same feel to them. They're all decorated in the same dull, muted tones and softened edges, which are meant to be comforting and aren't. They all have the same smell too: one part tangy antiseptics, one part cool dispassion, one part anxiety, and one part naked fear.
They wheeled Charity away first, Michael at her side. Triage being what it is, I got bumped to the front of the line. I felt like apologizing to the five-year-old girl holding a broken arm. Sorry, honey. Head trauma before fractured limbs.
The doctor who examined me wore a nameplate that read SIMMONS. She was broadly built and tough-looking, hair going grey in sharp contrast to her rich, dark skin. She sat down on a stool in front of me and leaned over, putting her hands on either side of my head. They were large, warm, strong. I closed my eyes.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, releasing me after a moment, and reaching for some supplies on a table next to her.
"Like a supervillain just threw me into a wall."
She let out a soft chuckle. "More specifically. Are you in pain? Dizzy? Nauseous?"
"Yes, no, and a little."
"You hit your head?"
"Yeah." I felt her start to daub at my forehead with a cold cloth, cleaning off grime and dried blood, though there wasn't much left, thanks to the rain.
"Mmmm. Well. There's some blood here. Are you sure it's yours?"
I opened my eyes and blinked at her. "Mine? Whose else would it be?"
The doctor lifted an eyebrow at me, dark eyes glittering from behind her glasses. "You tell me, Mister ..." she checked her charts. "Dresden." She frowned and then peered up at me. "Harry Dresden? The wizard?"
I blinked. I'm not really famous, despite being the only wizard in the phone book. I'm more infamous. People don't tend to spontaneously recognize my name. "Yeah. That's me."
She frowned. "I see. I've heard of you."
"Not really." She let out a cross sigh. "There's no cut here. I don't appreciate jokes, Mister Dresden. There are people in need to attend to."
I felt my mouth drop open. "No cut?" But there had been a nice, flowing gash in my head at some point, pouring blood into my eyes and mouth. I could still taste some of it, almost. How could it have vanished?"
I thought of the answer and shivered. Godmother.
"No cut," she said. "Something that might have been cut a few months ago."
"That's impossible," I said, more to myself than to her. "That just can't be."
She shone a light at my eyes. I winced. She peered at each eye (mechanically, professionally - without the intimacy that triggers a soulgaze) and shook her head. "If you've got a concussion, I'm Winona Ryder. Get off that bed and get out of here. Make sure to talk to the cashier on the way out." She pressed a moist towelette into my hand. "I'll let you clean up this mess, Mister Dresden. I have enough work to do."
"But - "
"You shouldn't come into the emergency room unless it's absolutely necessary."
"But I didn't - "
Dr. Simmons didn't stop to listen to me. She turned around and strode off, over to the next patient - the little girl with the broken arm.
I got up and made my bruised way into the bathroom. My face was a mess of faint, dried blood. It had settled mostly into the lines and creases, making me look older, a mask of blood and age. I shivered and started cleaning myself off, trying to keep my hands from shaking.
I felt scared. Really, honestly scared. I would have been much happier to have needed stitches and painkillers. I wiped away blood and peered at my forehead. There was a faint, pink line beginning about an inch below my hair and slashing up into it at an angle. It felt very tender, and when I accidentally touched it with the rag, it hurt so much that I almost shouted. But the wound was closed, healed.
Magic. My godmother's magic. That kiss on the forehead had closed the wound.
If you think I should have been happy about getting a nasty cut closed up, then you probably don't realize the implications. Working magic directly on a human body is difficult. It's very difficult. Conjuring up forces, like my shield, or elemental manifestations like the fire or wind is a snap compared to the complexity and power required to change someone's hair a different color - or to cause the cells on either side of an injury to fuse back together, closing it.
The healing cut was a message for me. My godmother had power over me on earth now, too, as well as in the Nevernever. I'd made a bargain with one of the Fae and broken it. That gave her power over me, which she demonstrated aptly by the way she'd wrought such a powerful and complex working on me - and I'd never even felt it happening.
That was the part that scared me. I'd always known that Lea had outclassed me - she was a creature with a thousand years or more of experience, knowledge, and she had been born to magic like I had been born to breathing. So long as I remained in the real world, though, she'd had no advantage over me. Our world was a foreign place to her, just as hers was to me. I'd had the home field advantage.
Had being the operative word. Had.
I gave up and let my hands shake while I wiped off my face. I had a good reason to be afraid. Besides, my clothes were soaked from the rain and I felt desperately cold. I finished washing the blood away, and went to stand in front of the electric hand dryer. I had to slam the button a dozen times before it started.
I had the nozzle of the thing turned up, directing the hot air up my shirt, when Stallings came in sans, for once, Rudolph. He looked as though he hadn't slept since I'd seen him last. His suit was rumpled, his grey hair a little greyer, and his moustache was almost the same color as the bags underneath his eyes. He went to the sink and splashed cold water on his face without looking at me.
"Dresden," he said. "We got word you were in the hospital."
"Heya, John. How's Murphy?"
"She slept. We just brought her in."
I blinked at him. "Christ. Is it dawn already?"
"About twenty minutes ago." He moved over to the dryer next to mine. His started on the first slap of the button. "She's sleeping, still. The docs are arguing about whether she's in a coma or on some kind of drug."
"You tell them what happened?" I asked.
He snorted. "Yeah. I'll just tell them that a wizard put her under a spell, and she's sleepy." He glanced over at me. "So when's she going to wake up?"
I shook my head. "My spell won't hold her for long. Maybe a couple more days, at the most. Each time the sun comes up, it's going to degrade it a little more."
"What happens then?"
"She starts screaming. Unless I find the thing that got her and figure out how to undo what it did."
"That's what you want Kravos's book for," Stallings said.
I nodded. "Yeah."
He reached into his pocket and produced the book - a little journal, thick but not broad, bound in dark leather. It was sealed in a plastic evidence bag. I reached for it, but Stallings pulled it away.
"Dresden. If you touch this, if you open it up, you're going to be leaving your prints on it. Skin cells. All sorts of things. Unless it disappears."
I frowned at him. "What's the big deal? Kravos is all but put away, right? Hell, we caught him with the murder weapon, with a body at the scene. There isn't anything in the journal to beat that, is there?"
He grimaced. "If it was just his trial, it wouldn't be a problem."
"What do you mean?"
He shook his head. "Inside shit. I can't talk about it. But if you take this book, Dresden, it's got to vanish."
"Fine," I said, reaching for it. "It's gone."
He pulled it away again. "I mean it," he said. "Promise."
Something about the quiet intensity of his words touched me. "All right," I said. "I promise."
He stared at the book for a second, then slapped it into my palm. "Hell with it," he said. "If you can help Murph, do it."
"John," I said. "Hey, man. If I didn't think I needed it ... What's going on here?"
"Internal Affairs," Stallings said.
"Looking at S.I.? Again? Don't they have anything better to do? What set them off this time?"
"Nothing," Stallings lied. He turned to go.
"John," I said. "What aren't you telling me here?"
He paused at the door and grimaced. "They're interested in the Kravos case. That's all I can say. You should hear word in the next day or so. You'll know it when you hear it."
"Wait," I said. "Something happened to Kravos?"
"I've got to go, Harry. Good luck."
"Wait, Stallings - "
He headed out the door. I cursed and started after him, but he lost me. I wound up standing in the hallway, shivering like a wet puppy.
Dammit. Cops were tight, a special kind of brotherhood. They'd work with you, but if you weren't a cop, you were on the outside in a billion subtle ways - one of which was that they didn't let you in on the department's secrets. What could have happened to Kravos? Something serious. Hell, maybe the Nightmare had taken out a little vengeance on him, as well, as long as it was out and about. Served him right, though, if it had happened.
I stood there for a minute, trying to work out what to do. I had no money on me, no car, no way to get either.
I needed Michael.
I asked someone for directions and headed for Maternity. I took a long route around, staying away from anything that looked technical or expensive. The last thing I wanted was to blow up grandpa's iron lung.
I found Michael standing in a hallway. His hair had dried, all curled and mussed. There seemed to be more grey in it, this way, than usual. His beard had a rough, untrimmed look to it. His eyes were sunken. Mud spattered his boots and his jeans to the knee. Amoracchius's black scabbard hung over his shoulder, empty.
Michael stood in front of a big picture window. Rows of little people in rolling cradles faced the window, heat lamps making sure that they didn't get chills. I stood there quietly with him, looking at the babies for a time. A nurse looked up, and then did a double take, staring at us, before hurrying out of the room.
"Aha," I said. "That nurse recognizes us. I didn't realize we were back down at Cook County. Didn't recognize the place without something being on fire."
"Charity's doctor is here."
"Uh-huh," I said. "So. Which one is the newest little Carpenter?"
Michael remained silent.
I got a sick little feeling, and glanced aside at him. "Michael?"
When he spoke, his voice was exhausted, numb. "The labor was complicated. She was cold, and might have been getting sick with something. Her water did break, back at the graveyard. I guess it makes it a lot harder on the baby."
I just listened to him, feeling sicker.
"They had to go ahead and do a C-section. But ... they think there might be damage. She got hit in the stomach at one point, they think. They don't know if she'll be able to have children again."
He stared at the infants and said, "The doctor says that if he lasts thirty-six hours, he might have a chance. But he's weakening. They're doing everything they can." Tears started at his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. "There were complications. Complications."
I tried to find something to say, and couldn't. Dammit. Tired frustration stirred my already unsteady belly. This shouldn't have happened. If I'd been faster, or smarter, or made a better decision, maybe I could have stopped Charity from getting hurt. Or the baby. I put my hand on Michael's shoulder and squeezed tight. Just trying to let him know that I was there. For all the good I'd done.
He took in a breath. "The doctor thinks I beat her. That's how she got the bruises. He never said anything, but ..."
"That's ridiculous," I said, at once. "Stars and stones, Michael, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
His voice came out hard, bitter. He stared at his faint reflection in the glass. "It might as well have been me, Harry. If I hadn't gotten myself involved, this demon wouldn't have gone after her." I heard his knuckles pop as he clenched his fists. "It should have come after me."
"You're right," I said. "Holy hell, Michael, you're right."
He shot me a look. "What are you talking about?"
I rubbed my hands together, trying to sort through the ideas flashing across my brain in neon lights. "It's a demon, this thing we're after, right? It's a demon's ghost." An orderly, walking by pushing a tray, gave me an odd look. I smiled at him, feeling rather manic. He hurried along.
"Yes," Michael said.
"Demons are tough, Michael. They're dangerous and they're scary, but they're really kind of clueless in a lot of ways."
"They just don't get it, about people. They understand things like lust and greed and the desire for power, but they just don't get things like sacrifice and love. It's alien to most of them - doesn't make any sense at all."
"I don't understand what you're driving at."
"Remember what I said, about how I knew the worst way to get to you would be through your family?"
His frown darkened, but he nodded.
"I know that because I'm human. I know what it's like to care about someone other than myself. Demons don't - especially the thug-type demons who make pacts with two-bit sorcerers like Kravos. Even knowing that I thought the best way to get to you would be through someone close to you, I don't think a demon would have understood the context of that information."
"So what you're saying is that this demon would have had no reason to go after my wife and child."
"I'm saying it's inconsistent. If it was just a question of a demon's ghost going after the people who had killed it, then it should have just hammered on us all until we died and been done with it. I don't think it ever would have occurred to it to take a shot at someone that we care about - even if it did have my knowledge about you. There's got to be something else going on here."
Michael's eyes widened a bit. "The Nightmare is a cat's-paw," he said. "Someone else is using it to hit at us."
"Someone who can cast those barbed-wire torment spells," I said. "And we've been chasing around after the tool instead of going after the hand that's wielding it."
"Blood of God," Michael swore. It was about the second most powerful oath he used. "Who could it be?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. Someone who has us both in common, I guess. How many enemies do we share?"
He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, expression intent. "I'm not sure. I've made enemies with pretty much every creature in the country."
"Ditto," I said, morosely. "Even some of the other wizards wouldn't mind seeing me fall down a few flights of stairs. Not knowing our attacker's identity doesn't bother me as much as something else, though."
"Why he hasn't taken us out already."
"They want to hurt us, first. Vengeance." His brow beetled. "Could your godmother be behind this?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so. She's a faerie. They aren't usually this methodical or organized. And they aren't impatient, either. This thing's been active every night, like it couldn't wait to get going."
Michael looked at me for a moment. Then he said, "Harry, you know that I don't think it's my place to judge another person."
"I hear a 'but' coming."
He nodded. "But how did you get mixed up with the likes of that faerie? She's bad, Harry. Some of them are merely alien, but that one is ... malevolent. She enjoys causing pain."
"Yeah," I said. "I didn't exactly pick her."
I shrugged. "My mother, I think. She was the one with power. My father wasn't a wizard. Wasn't into their world."
"I don't understand why she would do that to her child."
Something inside me broke with a little snapping sensation, and I felt tears at my eyes. I scowled. They were a child's tears, to go with a child's old pain. "I don't know," I said. "I know that she was mixed up with some bad people. Bad beings. Whatever. Maybe Lea was one of her allies."
"Lea. It's short for Leanandsidhe, isn't it."
"Yeah. I don't know her real name. She takes blood from mortals and gives them inspiration in return. Artists and poets and things. That's how she amassed most of her power."
Michael nodded. "I've heard of her. This bargain you have with her. What is it?"
I shook my head. "It isn't important."
Something shifted in Michael, became harder, more resolute. "It is important to me, Harry. Tell me."
I stared at the babies for a minute, before I said, "I was a kid. Things fell out with my old teacher, Justin. He sent a demon to kill me, and I went on the run. I made a bargain with Lea. Enough power to defeat Justin in exchange for my service to her. My loyalty."
"And you broke faith with her."
"More or less." I shook my head. "She's never pushed it before now, and I've been careful to stay out of her way. She doesn't usually get this involved with mortal business."
Michael moved his hand to Amoracchius's empty scabbard. "She did take the sword though."
I winced. "Yeah. I guess that was my fault. If I hadn't have tried to use it to weasel out of the deal ..."
"You couldn't have known," Michael said.
"I should have," I said. "It isn't as though it was a tough one to figure out."
Michael shrugged, though his expression was less casual than the gesture. "What's done is done. But I don't know how much help to you I can be without the sword."
"We'll get it back," I said. "Leah can't help herself. She makes deals. We'll figure out a way to get it back from her."
"But will we do it in time," Michael said. He shook his head, grim. "The sword won't stay in her hands forever. The Lord won't allow that. But it may be that my time to wield it has passed."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Perhaps it was a sign. Perhaps that I am no longer worthy to serve Him in this way. Or that the burden of it has passed on to someone else." He grimaced, staring at the glass, the infants. "My family, Harry. Perhaps it's time they had a full-time father."
Oh, great. All I needed, now, was a crisis of faith and bad case of career doubt from the Fist of God. I needed Michael. I needed someone to watch my back, someone who was used to dealing with the supernatural. Sword or no sword, he had a steady head, and his faith had a subtle power of its own. He could be the difference between me getting killed and defeating whoever was out there.
Besides, he had wheels.
"Let's get going. Time's a-wasting."
He frowned. "I can't. I'm needed here."
"Michael, look. Is someone with your kids at home?"
"Yes. I called Charity's sister last night. She went over. Father Forthill was going to get some sleep, and then stay on."
"Is there anything more you can do for Charity here?"
He shook his head. "Only pray. She's resting, now. And her mother is on the way here."
"Okay, then. We've got work to do."
"You expect me to leave them again?"
"No, not leave them. But we need to find the person behind the Nightmare and take care of them."
"Harry. What are we going to do? Kill someone?"
"If we have to. Hell's bells, Michael, they might have murdered your son."
His face hardened, and I knew then that I had him, that he'd follow me into Hell to get at whoever had hurt his wife and child. I had him all right - and I hated myself for it. Way to go, Harry. Jerk those heartstrings like a fucking puppeteer.
I held up the book. "I think I've got a line on the Nightmare's name. I'll bet you anything that Kravos recorded it in his book of shadows, here. If I'm right, I might be able to use it to make contact with the Nightmare and then trace his leash back to whoever's holding it."
Michael stared at the glass, at the kids beyond it.
"I need you to drive me home. From my lab, I might be able to sort out what's going on before things get any more out of hand. Then we go handle it."
He didn't say anything.
"All right," he said, voice quiet. "Let's go."