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Grave Peril

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirteen

  I drew up a chair beside the bed and sat down. Micky stared at me with white-rimmed eyes. I rummaged around in the inside pocket of my duster. I had some chalk there, in case I needed to draw a circle. A candle and some matches. A couple of old receipts. Not much, magically speaking, to work with.

  "Hi, there, Micky," I said. "Can you hear me in there?"

  Micky broke out in another fit of giggles. I made sure to keep my eyes away from his. Hells bells, I did not want to get drawn into a soulgaze with Micky Malone at the moment.

  "All right, Micky," I said, keeping my voice calm, low, like you do with animals. "I'm going to touch you - okay? I think I'll be able to tell if there's anything inside of you if I do. I'm not going to hurt you, so don't freak out. " As I spoke, I reached out a hand toward his bare arm and laid it lightly upon Micky's skin.

  He was fever-hot to the touch. I could sense some kind of force at work on him - not the tingling energy of a practitioner's aura, or the ocean-deep power of Michael's faith, but it was there, nonetheless. Some kind of cold, crawling energy oozed over him.

  What the hell?

  It didn't feel like any kind of spell I'd ever experienced. And it wasn't a possession, I was sure of that. I would have been able to sense any kind of spirit-being in him, through a physical touch.

  Micky stared at me for a second and then thrust his head at my hand, his teeth making snapping motions. I jerked back even though he couldn't have reached me. Someone trying to bite you makes you react, more than if they take a punch at you. Biting is just more primal. Spooky.

  Micky started giggling again, rocking the bed back and forth.

  "All right," I breathed. "I'm going to have to get a little desperate, here. If you weren't a friend, Micky . . . " I closed my eyes for a moment, steeling myself, then focused my will into a spot right between my eyebrows, only a little higher. I felt the tension gather there, the pressure, and when I opened my eyes again, I'd opened my wizard's Sight, too.

  The Sight is a blessing and a curse. It lets you see things, things you couldn't normally see. With my Sight, I can see even the most ethereal of spirits. I can see the energies of life stirring and moving, running like blood through the world, between the earth and the sky, between water and fire. Enchantments stand out like cords braided from fiber-optic cables, or maybe Las Vegas-quality neon, depending on how complicated or powerful they are. You can sometimes see the demons that walk among mankind in human form, this way. Or the angels. You see things the way they really are, in spirit and in soul, as well as in body.

  The problem is that anything you see stays with you. No matter how horrible, no matter how revolting, no matter how madness-inducing or terrifying - it stays with you. Forever. Always right there in your mind in full technicolor, never fading or becoming easier to bear. Sometimes you see things that are so beautiful you want to keep them with you, always.

  But more often, in my line of work, you see things like Micky Malone.

  He was dressed in boxers and a white undershirt, stained with bits of blood and sweat and worse. But when I turned my Sight on him, I saw something different.

  He had been ravaged. Torn apart. He was missing flesh, everywhere. Something had attacked him and taken out sections of him in huge bites. I'd seen pictures of people who'd been attacked by sharks, had hunks of meat just taken, gone. That's what Micky looked like. It wasn't visible to the flesh, but something had torn his mind, and maybe his soul, to bloody shreds. He bled and bled, endlessly, never staining the sheets.

  And wound around him, starting at his throat and running down to one ankle was a strand of black wire, oversized barbs gouging into his flesh, the ends disappearing seamlessly into his skin.

  Just like Agatha Hagglethorn.

  I stared at him, horrified, my stomach writhing and heaving. I had to fight to keep from throwing up. Micky looked up at me and seemed to sense something was different, because he went abruptly still. His smile didn't look mad to me anymore. It looked agonized, like a grimace of pain twisted and cranked until the muscles of his face were at the snapping point.

  His lips moved. Shook, his whole face writhing with the expression. "Uh, uh, uh," he moaned.

  "It's all right, Micky," I said. I clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking. "I'm here. "

  "Hurts," he breathed at last, barely a whisper. "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts . . . " He went on and on repeating it until he ran out of breath. Then he squeezed his eyes shut. Tears welled out and he broke into another helpless, maddened giggle.

  What the hell could I do for that! The barbed wire had to be a spell of some kind, but it didn't look like anything I had ever seen before. Most magic throbbed and pulsed with light, life, even if it was being used for malevolent purposes. Magic comes from life, from the energy of our world and from people, from their emotions and their will. That's what I had always been taught.

  But that barbed wire was dull, flat, matte-black. I reached out to touch it, and it almost seared my fingers with how cold it was. Micky, God. I couldn't imagine what he must have been going through.

  The smart thing to do would have been to fall back. I could get Bob and work on this, research it, figure out how to get the wire from around Micky without hurting him. But he had already been suffering through this for hours. He might not make it through many more - his sanity was going to be hard-pressed to survive the spiritual mauling he had taken. Adding another day of this torture onto it all might send him someplace from where he'd never come back.

  I closed my eyes and took a breath. "I hope I'm right, Micky," I told him. "I'm going to try to make it stop hurting. "

  He let out a whimpering little giggle, staring up at me.

  I decided to start at his ankle. I swallowed, steeling myself again, and reached down, getting my fingers between the burning cold barbed wire and his skin. I clenched my teeth, forcing will, power, into the touch, enough to be able to touch the material of the spell around him. Then I started pulling. Slowly, at first, and then harder.

  The metal strands burned into me. My fingers never went numb - they just began to ache more and more violently. The barbed wire resisted, barbs clinging at Micky's flesh. The poor man screamed aloud, agonized, though there was that horrible, tortured laughter added to it as well.

  I felt tears burn into my eyes, from the pain, from Micky's scream, but I kept pulling. The end of the wire tore free of his flesh. I kept pulling. Barb by barb, inch by inch, I tore the wire-spell free, drawing it up through his flesh at times, pulling that dead, cold energy away from Micky. He screamed until he ran out of breath and I heard whimpers coming from somewhere else in the room. I guess it was me. I started using both hands, struggling against the cold magic.

  Finally, the other end slithered free from Micky's neck. His eyes flew open wide and then he sagged down, letting out a low, exhausted moan. I gasped and stumbled back from the bed, keeping the wire in my hands.

  It suddenly twisted and spun like a serpent, and one end plunged into my throat.

  Ice. Cold. Endless, bitter, aching cold coursed through me, and I screamed. I heard footsteps running down the hall outside, a voice calling out. The wire whipped and thrashed around, the other end darting toward the floor, and I seized it in both hands, twisted it up and away from attaching itself at the other end. The loose strands near my neck started rippling, cold barbs digging into me through my clothes, my skin, as the dark energy tried to attach itself to me.

  The door burst open. Murphy came through it, her eyes living flames of azure blue, her hair a golden coronet around her. She held a blazing sword in her hand and she shone so bright and beautiful and terrifying in her anger that it was hard to see. The Sight, I realized, dimly. I was seeing her for who she was.

  "Harry! What the hell?"

  I struggled against the wire, knowing that she couldn't see it or feel it, gasping. "The window. Murph, open
the window!"

  She didn't hesitate for a second, but crossed the floor and threw open the window. I staggered after her, winding the frozen wire around one hand, my mind screaming with the agony of it. I fought it down, dragged it into a coil, my face twisted into a snarl as I did it. Anger surged up, hot and bright, and I reached for that power as I jerked the wire from my throat and threw it out the window as hard as I could, sending it sailing into the air.

  I snarled, jabbed a finger at it, took all that anger and fear and sent it coursing out of me, toward that dark spell. "Fuego!"

  Fire came to my call, roared forth from my fingertips and engulfed the wire. It writhed and then vanished in a detonation that rattled the house around me and sent me tumbling back to the floor.

  I lay there for a minute, stunned, trying to get a handle on what was happening. Damn the Sight. It starts blurring the lines between what's real and what isn't. A guy would go crazy that way. Fast. Just keep it open all the time and let everything pour in and really know what everything is like. That sounded like a good idea, really. Just bask in all the beauty and horror for a while, just drink it all in and let it erase everything else, all that bother and worry about people being hurt or not being hurt -

  I found myself sitting on the floor, aching from cold that had no basis in physical reality, giggling to myself in a high-pitched stream, rocking back and forth. I had to struggle to close my Sight again, and the second I did, everything seemed to settle, to become clearer. I looked up, blinking tears out of my eyes, panting. Outside, dogs were barking all over the place, and I could hear several car alarms whooping, touched off by the force of the blast.

  Murphy stood over me, her eyes wide, her gun held in one hand and pointed at the door. "Jesus," she said, softly. "Harry. What happened?"

  My lips felt numb and I was freezing, all over, shaking. "Spell. S-something attacked him. L-laid a spell on him after. H-had to burn it. Fire even burns in the's-spirit world. S-sorry. "

  She put the gun away, staring at me. "Are you all right?"

  I shook some more. "H-how's Micky?"

  Murphy crossed the room to lay a hand on Micky's brow. "His fever's gone," she breathed. "Mick?" she called gently. "Hey, Malone. It's Murph. Can you hear me?"

  Micky stirred, and blinked open his eyes. "Murph?" he asked quietly. "What's going on?" His eyes fell closed again, exhausted. "Where's Sonia? I need her. "

  "I'll get her," Murphy breathed. "You wait here. Rest. "

  "My wrists hurt," Micky mumbled.

  Murphy looked back at me, and I nodded to her. "He should be all right, now. " She unfastened the cuffs from him, but it looked as though he had already fallen into a deep, exhausted sleep.

  Murphy drew the covers up over him, and smoothed his hair back from his forehead. Then she knelt down on the floor beside me. "Harry," she said. "You look like . . . "

  "Hell," I said. "Yeah, I know. He's going to need rest, Murph. Peace. Something tore him up inside, real bad. "

  "What do you mean?"

  I frowned. "It's like . . . when someone close to you dies. Or when you break off a relationship with someone. It tears you up inside. Emotional pain. That's kind of what happened to Micky. Something tore him up. "

  "What did it?" Murphy asked. Her voice was quiet, steel-hard.

  "I don't know yet," I said. I closed my eyes, shaking, and leaned my head back against a wall. "I've been calling it the Nightmare. "

  "How do we kill it?"

  I shook my head. "I'm working on it. It's staying a couple steps ahead of me, so far. "

  "Damn," Murphy said. "I get sick of playing catchup, sometimes. "

  "Yeah. So do I. "

  More footsteps came pounding down the hall, and Sonia Malone burst into the room. She saw Micky, laying quietly, and went to him as if she feared to stir the air too much, each movement fragile. She touched his face, his thinning hair, and he awoke enough to reach for her hand. She held onto it tightly, kissed his fingers, and bowed her head to rest her cheek against his. I heard her crying, letting it out.

  Murphy and I traded a look, and rose by mutual consent to leave Sonia in peace. Murphy had to help me up. I ached, everywhere, felt as though my bones had been frozen solid. Walking was hard, but Murphy helped me.

  I took a last look at Sonia and Micky, and then quietly closed the door.

  "Thank you, Harry," Murphy said.

  "Any time. You're my friend, Murph. And I'm always up to helping a lady in distress. "

  She glanced up at me, a sparkle in her eyes underneath the brim of the baseball cap. "You are such a chauvinist pig, Dresden. "

  "A hungry chauvinist pig," I said. "I'm starving. "

  "You should eat more often, beanpole. " Murphy sat me down on the top step and said, "Stay here. I'll get you something. "

  "Don't take too long, Murph. I've got work to do. The thing that did this comes out to play at sundown. "

  I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. I thought of dead animals and smashed cars and frozen agonies wrapped around Micky Malone's tortured soul. "I don't know what the hell this Nightmare is. But I'm going to find it. And I'm going to kill it. "

  "That sounds about right," Murphy said. "If I can help, you've got it. "

  "Thanks, Murph. "

  "Don't mention it. Um, Harry?"

  I opened my eyes. She was watching me, her expression uncertain. "For a minute there, when I came in. You stared at me. You stared at me with the strangest damned expression on your face. What did you see?" she asked.

  "You'd laugh in my face if I told you," I said. "Go get me something to eat. "

  She snorted and turned to go down the stairs and sort things out with the excited S. I. officers roaming around on the first floor. I smiled, remembering the vision, sharp and brilliant in my mind's eye. Murphy, the guardian angel, coming through the door in a blaze of wrath. It was a picture I wouldn't mind keeping with me. Sometimes you get lucky.

  And then I thought of that barbed wire, the hideous torment I'd seen and briefly felt. The ghosts rising of late had been suffering from the same thing. But who could be doing it to them? And how? The forces used in that torture-spell weren't like anything I had seen or felt before. I had never heard of any kind of magic that could be slapped on a spirit or a mortal with the same results. I wouldn't have thought it possible. How was it being done?

  More to the point, who was doing it? Or what?"

  I sat there shivering and alone and aching. I was starting to take this business personally. Malone was an ally, someone who had stood up to the bad guys beside me. The more I thought about it, the more angry and the more certain I became.

  I would find this Nightmare, this thing that had crossed over, and destroy it.

  And then I would find whoever or whatever had created it.

  Unless, Harry, I thought to myself, they find you first.