Senator Morgan’s voice cracks as he says it. His hand shakes as he sweeps a stray bit of hair out of his eyes. He is very pale, and sweating profusely. His eyes are wide, and terror shines out of them like beacon fires. But he’s still hanging on, despite it all.
“I’m here.” CB sits down on the couch next to the senator. “Right here.”
“You might not want to be.” Senator Morgan speaks slower than he usually does, concentrating on the words he wants to say. “I don’t know how it works. You might get caught in it.”
“Well, I’m here right now. We’ll see what happens next.” CB hates this. He’s not good at providing comfort, and he knows it. This man is about to die horribly, and he’s stuck sitting next to a guy who has hated him for decades. “You want a cigarette?”
The senator tries to laugh, but it comes out as a wheezing grunt. “I quit twenty years ago. I’m not going to let this be the reason I start again.”
“Let’s not do that,” the senator says. “You all know now. You know. That’s enough for me.”
“Yeah,” CB says. “All right.”
The senator nods once. “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I feel something cold. It’s… paralyzing me. I can’t move my legs. It hurts like hell. I thought paralysis wouldn’t hurt. That doesn’t seem fair.”
He’s starting to babble, but CB lets him talk. What else can he do? He looks at the hallway door. Street Ronin is down there, checking in with Robert.
“I regret nothing,” the senator says, rage and defiance overflowing every word. “I regret nothing. I regret—”
His face locks into a frozen mask of pain.
“Toby.” CB stands, leaning over the man, peering into his eyes. “Toby, you still with us?”
The senator’s breaths are coming in short, shallow bursts, the way you breathe when your ribs are broken.
He’s never felt so helpless. There’s nothing he can do but watch the man die.
“Oh my God!” It’s a woman’s voice, directly behind him. CB whirls around and sees Jenny, dressed in her nondescript black body armor, staring at her uncle in shock.
“Jenny?” All CB can think is that Toby wouldn’t want her to see this, but he can’t bring himself to move. And then CB realizes that Jenny is supposed to be on the Nautilus. How did she get here?
Jenny stares in bewilderment at the man sitting in rigid agony on the couch. Then her expression hardens.
“David! He’s here. Do what ya gotta do.”
A man steps around the corner. For a moment, CB recognizes David Bernard as he takes in the room and moves forward. Then, for a moment, he doesn’t recognize him at all, seeing instead a man whose skin shifts into shadow as much as he radiates a golden light that fills every corner.
CB takes an involuntary step back as the man (just a man, he’s sure it’s a man) stands before the senator.
“Is it too late?” Jenny’s voice is steady. Detached. Professional.
“No.” Dammit, it is Bernard. It’s definitely his voice, though there’s something strange about it. Something he can’t place. “Not too late.”
Bernard stretches out his hand, and the golden light gathers around his fingers, even as purple darkness seeps into the edges as if the light were bruised. He places his fingers on the senator’s forehead and face. He presses down slightly, and the senator arches his back, face upturned as his mouth opens in a soundless, but very real, scream.
“Hey!” CB steps forward, his good arm outstretched. The world around him spins, then he’s flying across the room, smashing face-first into a concrete wall. The air rushes out of his body, but he manages to keep on his feet. He staggers as he whirls around. Hands grab his arms and push him back.
“No, CB.” His vision clears a little. Jenny stands in front of him, gripping him firmly. “No. I know it’s weird, but David is here to help.”
CB stares at Jenny’s face until she comes into focus, then glances over at Bernard. His fingers are still pressed into the senator’s face. The senator is still screaming soundlessly.
“It doesn’t look like helping.”
“David said it would hurt.” Jenny’s voice has lost a little of its detachment, and some of her worry and fear leaks through. “For a little while, until he can push it away.”
“Push what away?”
“I don’t know!” Jenny says. “I’m not the magic guy. He’s the magic guy. Trust your doctor.”
Finally her words start to break through. “Right.” CB looks at Bernard again, and forces himself to relax. “Right. OK. I’m good, Jenny. I get it.”
She sighs in relief, letting go of him, then joining him against the wall. Street Ronin enters the room, looks at Bernard standing over the senator, and leans against the doorframe, watching quietly.
“Anyone else coming?” CB asks.
“The Feds,” Street Ronin says. “Agent Hu came with those two. She’s going to meet Agent Grant and coordinate some other assets. Red Shift, Vigilante, and Regiment are all working on something with Robert.”
“That’s too bad,” CB says. “It’d be nice to have Regiment and Vigilante on hand when we try to assault an evil wizard’s tower.”
“Yeah,” Street Ronin agrees. “Looks like we managed to snag our own wizard, though.”
“It’s been a really weird day,” Jenny says.
“Yes,” Bernard says. His voice has that strange edge to it again. “It certainly has.”
The senator goes limp. CB tenses again until he sees the man’s chest rise and fall in slow, deep breaths. Bernard adjusts the senator so that he’s lying on the couch instead of sitting upright.
“There’s a bed in the back,” CB offers. The senator looks better—he’s not in any obvious pain. Whatever Bernard did seems to be working.
Bernard shakes his head. “We can’t move him much. Not at this point.” He spreads his hands wide, and the tips of his fingers glow gold-purple again. He traces a circle around the senator’s sleeping form. The lines hang in the air for a moment, then burn away as they fall to the floor.
“There,” Bernard says. He relaxes, and the gold glow and shadows fade, making him look much more like himself again. “That will help for a time.”
“For a time?” CB asks.
Bernard nods. “I can’t save him. I can only keep the spell at bay. For a time. What I’ve bought you is time.”
“Right,” CB says. “OK. I can work with that. How much time?”
Bernard frowns. “A few hours? A day at most, but probably closer to a few hours.”
“A few hours,” CB repeats. “A few hours to do what?”
“This is an active ritual,” Bernard says. “So they have to keep doing it until it works. If you want to save the senator, you’ll need to… well, do what you were already going to do. Assault the evil wizard’s tower.”
CB stares at Senator Morgan, then at the others. He reaches into his flannel shirt’s breast pocket and slowly pulls out the mashed-up pack of cigarettes. Only one left.
“Sounds good to me,” he says. “But I’m gonna need to go shopping first.”