Work Header


Work Text:

"So, you think this was his own idea? Or did someone put him up to it?" Dresden asked.

"Once we get out of here, we'll find out," I said. It was the third time we'd had this conversation. I focused on the annoyance of being forced to repeat myself, rather than my growing concern. Dresden had no recollection of our previous conversations, no understanding of his condition. What had seemed a mild concussion now looked ominously like a traumatic brain injury, not that there was anything we could do about it in our present circumstances.

Dresden would not be dissuaded from his chosen topic. "I mean violating an oath taken on your name, that's heavy stuff. You think he castrated himself? Or maybe he was enthralled to think it was a good idea." He turned to accuse Gard. "Shouldn't you have been able to spot a thrall? Or a skinwalker?"

Gard glanced at me, the greenish light from her cell phone lending an unearthly cast to her features. Normally she would have bristled with contempt at repeated accusations that she'd been derelict in her duty, but she took her cue from me and simply said, "I doubt he would have agreed to the necessary ritual, and our charms were left outside, remember?"

Dresden patted his pockets, absently searching. "Right. No weapons. Stupid rules. Last time I'm ever going to one of your parties, Johnny Boy."

Dresden's anger at being caught in this trap was equaled by my own. In my role as leader of the Chicago Organization, I would never have made the mistake of accepting a meeting with an unknown person at a time and place of their choosing, and then allowed myself to be virtually disarmed. I should have realized that the same rules applied to Baron Marcone.

The informant had offered to give us information on the group that was targeting college-aged practitioners within the city, a cause that had at least temporarily united Harry Dresden and myself. The informant, a low level mage, had sworn on his true name to guarantee our safety. He'd even agreed to the presence of Miss Gard as my escort. All we'd had to do was agree to meet him on neutral ground and leave our weapons behind. Implied was that he was afraid we'd attack him for whatever harm he'd inflicted before his conscience got the better of him.

I'd been cautious, but both Gard and Dresden agreed that a meeting on neutral ground, with someone bound by their name, were sufficient precautions.

It was possible that there was accorded neutral ground somewhere nearby. But we'd never reached it. Halfway through the cramped lobby the floor beneath us had disintegrated and we'd fallen into this pit.

Dresden had landed first, knocking himself unconscious. I'd done better, managing to roll as I landed, though it was likely that at least some of the wizard's bruises came from me. Gard, of course, looked barely disheveled, and if she'd injured herself, there was no sign of it.

Before I'd gotten to my feet a cover had slid over the top of the pit, blocking out all light. Both Gard and I had cell phones, which, of course had no signal, but they gave sufficient light to explore our surroundings.

We were in a circular chamber at least twenty feet deep, and no more than a dozen feet across. The walls were lined with soldered steel plates, offering no purchase to our hands, no means of climbing to the top. The floor was timeworn concrete, with a circle of freshly carved runes around the edge. I couldn't see whatever they'd use to cover the top, but it didn't matter. Even if we somehow stood on each other's shoulders, the top would still be out of reach.

Dresden was muttering to himself over the exact wording of the mage's oath. Had he harmed us by not warning us of the pit? Certainly whomever had sealed us in here had intended harm, but if someone else had done so, would that change the equation? If our supposed informant simply allowed us to die in here, from lack of oxygen or dehydration, would that count as a violation of his promise?

"It's a baaaad circle," he drawled, in another variation of a theme he'd been repeating. For some reason he seemed personally offended by it. Then he giggled, a disturbing sound coming from a man his size. "Is a bad circle an oval?"

Even I knew the implications of being bound in a circle, though Gard had been swift to confirm my suspicions. No one could track us here using magical means, nor could she summon assistance. Any magic cast would remain confined within the circle, not that Dresden could do much without his staff or other focus items. And given his mental confusion, perhaps it was for the best that he wasn't tempted to try.

"The deadline has passed and the alarm has just been raised," Gard announced.

"I thought you couldn't contact anyone?" Dresden asked.

"It's three o'clock," I answered. "My people know what to do if they can't get in touch with me."

I had confidence that we would be found. Eventually. Hendricks would tear the city apart brick by brick if he had to. But would it be in time?

I'd left a driver and a pair of guards outside. If they'd been killed and the limo moved, it would take time to figure out where and when we'd been captured. But even if they were alive and the first to sound the alarm, this neighborhood was a warren of interconnected factory buildings, and a single hidden chamber would be nearly impossible to find.

"They may assume that we've been taken from the building, perhaps through one of the basement tunnels," I pointed out. "Focusing the search will be problematic."

"Tunnels? I don't think we're going to be able to dig our way out. Not even with a spoon." Dresden paused for a moment before confessing, "I don't have a spoon. Which is okay cause I'm not hungry."

Sullen or sarcastic when he was in what passed for his right mind, his injuries had turned Dresden positively chatty. Though as time passed, he was making less and less sense.

Dresden banged his fist against the wall, which reverberated. Steel liner backed by brick or concrete we'd guessed, not that we could do anything with that knowledge.

"The walls are new but the floor is old," I mused aloud. "Basement or sub-basement I would think."

Buildings in this part of Chicago commonly had two or three basement levels, while the abandoned network of underground freight tunnels were well adapted to the discreet movement of people and merchandise. This little-known subterranean world had proven an advantage in the past, but now the very complexity of it would work against the odds of our being found in a timely fashion.

"If I were building such a thing, I would have put it in an old elevator shaft," I said. Something they could use to brace the supports as they built the brick tower and then lined it with steel.

Whomever had constructed this had gone to a great deal of trouble. Was I his target? Or perhaps Dresden had drawn his wrath, while I was merely a bonus?

Dresden rose unsteadily to his feet, bracing himself against the wall. "I'm tired of this," he announced. Trailing his right hand against the wall he paced the limits of our prison. "Scuse me," he said, as he stepped over Gard.

As he approached I stood and moved out of his way. Gard rose to her feet as well and moved to my side.

"Outside these walls is something, right? Basement, tunnel, subway, something, right?" he demanded.

"So I believe," I said cautiously. I wondered where his fractured thoughts were taking him.

"Good enough for me." He nodded once, vigorously, then swayed on his feet.

"Viking Girl. You can still shield your boss, right?"

"Of course, but--"

Dresden turned away from whatever objection Gard had been about to make. Placing the palms of both hands against the wall he shouted "Incendie!"

At the first syllable Gard shoved me to the ground and threw herself on top of me. I squeezed my eyes shut as searing light filled the chamber. Burning heat washed over me, and I held my breath, realizing that the brain-damaged fool had tried a fire spell. No need for our enemies to kill us, he'd done their work for them.

My lungs burned. I fought the urge to breathe as long as I could, counting heartbeats. I willed myself to hold on. Just five more seconds. Then five more. Then again.

But even my will had its limits. My eyes flew open as I began to suck in the first breath. Rather than the searing gases I'd expected, I breathed in oxygen and soot, then coughed in response.

Gard rolled off me and helped me to my feet.

Where the wizard had stood there was a gaping hole in the wall, outlined by glowing red bricks. Beyond that I could see the vague outlines of an iron staircase.

Dresden was laying on the floor, half in and half out of the chamber. I rolled him over to check on him as Gard went to investigate. Amazingly her cell phone still worked, and as she left the chamber it began to ring.

"It was a trap," she told whomever was on the other end. "Unknown number of hostiles, at least one magic user. We're in a basement about twenty feet below street level, just south of the main entrance."

Dresden moaned as I shook him, then blinked his eyes open. "Told you it was weak. No wall, no circle. Your people can do the rest, right?"

"Help is on the way," I promised. I dragged him out of the chamber and propped him up behind the landing, where we wouldn't be immediately visible to anyone coming down the staircase. The weight of the Glock in my hand was as welcome as any friend. Disarming myself had included only my magical protections, a loophole that meant I wasn't defenseless should our assailant return.

Gard finished her inspection. "Hendricks has a team outside. We can go up to meet them or stay here and try to find cover. We have to assume that our enemies heard the explosion and will be coming for us."

Her gaze dropped to the wizard. "That was a foolish thing you did," she said. "Brave but foolish."

Dresden shrugged. His eyes were unfocused and he'd wrapped both arms around his ribs, either from cold or shock. "I knew what I was doing. It's not that hard a spell."

"Most wizards would disagree."

"Most wizards aren't me. It's the first spell I learned, back when I was ten. I'd forget my own name before I forgot how to cast it."

It was Gard's complete lack of reaction that clued me in to the significance of Dresden's words. The trick to interrogations is to never let your subject know when they've surprised you. Not that this was an interrogation, but I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Dresden had voluntarily revealed anything about his past.

"Not a usual course of training, I take it," I said.

"Well he was a sink or swim kind of guy."

"I would like to meet your teacher," Gard said.

"No, you wouldn't. Anyway he's dead." Dresden leaned forward, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm supposed to feel bad about it, but I don't, and that's why they don't like me. But I don't care. They don't know, not really. And I can't be sorry that the twisted fucker didn't get a chance to hurt any more kids."

Icy cold rage swept through me, then gave way to a rarer emotion. Pity.

My knowledge of Dresden was extensive, far more so than he suspected. My files included everything from a snapshot of a toddler backstage at one of his father's magic shows up through his most recent bank statement. I had a copy of Malcolm Dresden's death certificate and Harry Dresden's GED score.

But there was a gap that had never been explained. He'd disappeared from the foster care system at the age of nine and then appeared on the rolls of the White Council as an apprentice wizard at age sixteen. It was sadly not unusual for a foster child's file to be lost in the system, and the investigator had theorized that Dresden had found a permanent placement. Then once he'd come into his magic he'd been assigned to a master for training.

Sixteen was on the young side for a wizard, though his apprentice Molly Carpenter had been a similar age when she'd first displayed her talent. But to come into your powers as a child, under the guidance of a sadist? The implications were terrifying.

Dresden leaned back against the wall, apparently done with talking.

I moved a few feet back, making sure I had a clear sightline to the stairs. Without having said a word, Gard and I had both decided it was prudent to stay here, rather than forcing our way up the narrow stairs.

"How dangerous was that spell?" I asked, sotto voce.

"To cast it without preparation is rare, without a focal point is astonishing," Gard said, her voice carefully neutral while she kept her gaze focused firmly ahead. "It could be used, I suppose, to judge the strength of a potential apprentice. But had young Dresden failed to cast the spell correctly, he would have immolated himself."

Immolated. A dispassionate way to say that he would have burned alive. The question was not why someone would risk a child in that way, such monsters could be found in the mundane world as well. The question was why anyone would think that Dresden should regret the death of that monster?

What other horrors had Dresden endured during those missing years? When I'd first met him, I thought him foolish and arrogant, someone who'd never shed the petulant self-righteousness of adolescence. It hadn't occurred to me to look further. To wonder why he'd started his career searching for missing children. Why his need to protect the innocent rivaled my own.

I'd seen past the mask and I'd never regard him in the same way again. And if he knew it, he'd never forgive me.

I could only hope that he'd forget this conversation, as he'd forgotten so much else today.

The staircase rang with the clatter of boots, and I took careful aim.

"Boss!" Hendricks voice called out. "You down there?"

I lowered my gun. "Here," I replied.

Hendricks appeared on the final flight of stairs, trailed by four others. "Way out is secure," he said. His eyes found mine, then swept over us, taking in our appearances.

"Hospital?" he asked.

"Estate," I answered. My injuries would heal on their own, and as for Dresden, well, the tools of modern medicine-- x-rays, MRIs and CT scans were all useless, while his mere presence in the hospital could endanger others. "Give me a hand with Dresden, and Ms. Gard, if you would be so good as to contact a healer to meet us at the estate."

I shook Dresden awake. "Cavalry's here, time to go," I said.

"You're sure?" His voice was slurred.

"Yes. Late, I know, but you're safe now."

For once he didn't challenge my words, nor did he hinder our efforts to get him upright. With his right arm over my shoulders and his left over Hendrick's, we managed to drag him up the stairs and outside.

After so long in the near dark, the bright summer sun took me by surprise.

"Hey, what happened to our meeting?" Dresden asked. Apparently his memory had reset itself again.

"It was canceled. With prejudice."

"Oh." He paused. "Can we go home now?"

"Of course," I said. Eventually. Once he'd been seen by a healer and I'd been assured that he'd recover from his injuries. At the least the ones he'd received today.

As for the older wounds, there was little I could do. His abuser was dead, past the reach of any justice that I could mete out. Dresden would not welcome my sympathy, indeed judging by his reaction to our soul gaze, he would hate the idea that I'd gained any additional insight into his character.

That didn't mean I would forget what I'd learned. What Dresden needed from me was more than mere understanding, though he did not realize it yet. And what I needed from him was equally complex.

Today I'd filled in one more piece to the puzzle that comprised Harry Dresden. In time, I would have them all.