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On the Edge

Chapter Text

Fortunately for both of them, the paramedics seemed to have decided that they were taking too long to get down, and one met them on the first floor landing. He obviously noticed how cold Dresden was, but as a paramedic in a city on a knife edge, it probably wasn’t the worst thing he’d seen on a late night. Together, they managed to cart him back down to ground level, and he was too weak to get away from them both.

Murphy’s first impression upon limping back out into the dark and the rain was of flashing lights. A ambulance was parked nearby, its lights flashing even if the siren was blessedly quiet. She wasn’t sure Dresden wouldn’t try to bite his tongue and drown in blood with too much additional stimulus to whatever else was ravaging him.

Police lights mingled with hospital. A short ways down the block, she spotted some of the Special Investigations crowd. Even hazy as they were in the dark, she knew them immediately by sight. Whether they’d come to offer her some help, because they were concerned about Dresden, or just to keep the streets clear, she was grateful for their presence.

She was less grateful for Thomas, Justine, Michael, Billy, and Georgia, because as soon as they saw her and who she was dragging along beside her, they tried to move in to help. Murphy leveled her most ferocious glare on them, the sort she used to make uppity new recruits stand to attention. It worked, if not by intimidating them than by letting them know how bad things were. They stayed back and let her hand him off to the paramedics. They bundled all six feet and change of him into an ambulance, and the warning to sedate him wasn’t even out of her mouth before Dresden started weakly trying to fight their attempts to strap him down. Doing so was protocol, in the face of what had obviously been a suicide attempt. Murphy wasn’t sure what good painkillers or anesthetic would do against whatever bad magic was ravaging his body, but she thought then and there, looking in on him helplessly, that it couldn’t make things much worse.

She wanted to ride with him, and offer what help she could to him and the unfortunately unaware doctors. Murphy wasn’t sure she could offer any more help, however. Logically, she realized it was more important to tell his friends what had happened, so that maybe they could put their heads together and fix this mess without him.

Murphy nearly tossed logic out the window when Harry screamed. She wasn’t sure anyone else heard it but her and the medics, but only because he was too weak. It was with a supreme effort of will, one that she had last exerted not to scream in the face of overwhelming pain, that Murphy turned away and let them close the doors.

The others had at least proven to have the decency to wait where she left them. Murphy took a moment to square her shoulders and straighten her spine before she marched back over to them.

Thomas waited only as long as it took for her to be within earshot. “What on Earth is wrong with him?” he demanded. He was obviously shaken, even as he tried to hide it.

Murphy heaved a sigh. “I don’t know. All I got out of him was that it was some kind of bad magic. But even I know that does almost nothing to narrow it down.”

“It’s something,” said Michael. “This way, we know there’s something we can do. We can fix this, and help him.”

In other words, Harry hadn’t actually been trying to kill himself. He wasn’t in his right mind, and hadn’t actually decided to end it with a flying leap. Anything he was doing now was fueled by the magic, and the pain it was inflicting on him.

She understood. That knowledge was a comfort to Murphy, as well.

“I suppose magical attacks can often only be countered with a magical defense,” Thomas mused. He laughed, a bitter undertone to the normally pleasant sound. “Normally, of course, I would propose we seek Harry’s advice, but…”

“But that’s not an option,” Murphy cut him off tersely. “I’m only in the market for actual options, Thomas. Things we can do for him.”

“Actually, that’s not such a bad idea,” Billy piped up suddenly. “Harry might be out of commission, but maybe he’d started working on a counterattack to this thing before it got too bad.”

“You mean check back at his apartment?” asked Murphy. “Hm. If we can get in, it’s worth a shot.”

“I know a few small tricks of my own,” said Thomas with a smile. “Nothing on his level, of course, but maybe enough to tell us if we’re walking into some wards.”

“If that’s what we have to work with, it’s what we have to work with,” Murphy sighed. “All right. I’ll go with you. The last thing we need is to get this mess tangled up with breaking and entering charges.”

“Oh, captain, it’s such a pity you don’t believe in me.”

Murphy resisted the urge to slap the smug off his face. Harry had warned her in passing not to touch Thomas if she could help it.

Michael, perhaps attempting to diffuse the situation, held up a hand. “Whoever worked this evil on Harry might have wanted to weaken him for an attack,” he said. “I will go and wait with him at the hospital.”

“And so will we,” said Georgia. She exchanged a look with Billy for confirmation – he nodded. “I don’t know how much help we’d be finding a cure for this. But we can definitely keep watch.”

“I think I should go, too,” said Justine, speaking up for the first time. “Out of everything that wants to hurt Mister Dresden, aren’t vampires the biggest threat? I couldn’t help anyone fight them off…but I know a thing or two about them.”

It was a good, solid plan. Even if she would have preferred anyone else than Thomas to accompany her, Murphy was forced to admit that, when it came to magic, he was probably her best bet with Harry down and out. “All right. Follow them, tell them whatever you have to so you can stay close to him. We’ll be in touch. Thomas, come on.”

Not without some reluctance, Thomas left Justine in the care of the other team, and followed her to her squad car. Murphy said nothing more to him than she absolutely had to, as she started up the car and drove through the rainy night to Harry’s apartment. She knew that Thomas fully appreciated the severity of the situation when he didn’t even make a smart remark about what the rain had done to her top.

*  *  *

This late at night, there was very little traffic. They made good time to the apartment, but Murphy parked a block or so away. There was no point drawing any more attention to themselves than they absolutely had to. The rain was still coming down, but it was hardly the worst storm she’d ever weathered, for the sake of a case, or one of her own.

“So you know the way to Mister Dresden’s apartment?” Thomas asked idly.

“We work together. Why wouldn’t I?” Murphy growled.

“Have you been by to arrest him that many times, then?”

“You’d be surprised. Or, hell, maybe you wouldn’t.”

The occasion that Murphy was thinking of, however, was nothing like that. It surprised her that it had actually been a few years, since that day where Harry had been in such an awful state that she’d had to drive him back to his apartment so that he would finally get some sleep. She’d thought he’d been at the end of his rope, then, so utterly pitiable that she couldn’t help but throw him a bone.

He might as well have been at the top of his game compared to how he was now. The feeling was the same, however – she finally had a chance to help him, and so Murphy would do everything she could.

She kept a lookout when they reached the door, while Thomas went ahead to try and pick the lock. “Hm…no wards,” he said, sounding more than a little surprised. “I’m surprised at him.”

“You think whoever did this is messing with his magic, too?” Murphy asked.

“It’s entirely possible. Then again, perhaps he just built in an exception for us. I would have expected that for you, Lieutenant, but I didn’t know he liked me that much.”

Murphy gritted her teeth. “Good for you. How’s the lock?”

“Unlocking. Patience, Lieutenant. I know you’re anxious – so am I. But some things can’t be rushed. Especially since there’s something waiting for us on the other side of the door.”

Murphy swore softly, wondering if it would be worth it to go for her gun. “What do you mean?”

“I hear something on the other side. It knows I’m here, and it sounds quite…insistent to get out.”

She panicked, briefly, her mind racing through all the potential gruesome possibilities. Then she stopped, remembering just whose apartment they were breaking into.

“You mean Mister?”

Thomas paused, making Murphy want to kick him. “‘Mister’?” he asked in disbelief.

“Dresden’s cat, you moron. He’s probably pitching a fit that he’s gone. Dresden probably didn’t feed him before he decided to jump off a roof.”

“It sounds far too big for a cat.”

“Mister is far too big for a cat!”

“Are you sure that’s what this is?”

Murphy let out a long sigh, sent a prayer to whoever might be listening to save her from inattentive fools, and then turned to join Thomas at the door. She put her ear against it, not expecting to hear anything at all – Dresden had invested in a very big door after that one night years ago. She did, however, and it sounded exactly like the frantic scrabblings of one very big, very freaked out cat. Murphy had been to Harry’s apartment enough times to recognize Mister, even if her visits weren’t always social calls.

“Keep going. It’s only Mister. If you don’t believe me, I’ll even go first to save you from the ferocious beast.”

She thought she saw him smile in amusement, but what counted was that Thomas bent his head to continue picking the lock. In another minute or so, Murphy heard it click. He stood up and stepped aside so she could go in first.

Murphy didn’t hesitate, except to brace herself. Then she opened the door, and wasn’t in the least surprised when the giant grey blur that was Mister raced out to collide with her legs.

The cat looked from her, to Thomas, and then set up a chorus of loud yowling. He turned, raced back down the stairs and into the apartment, then turned and looked back at them. His eyes the only visible thing in the apartment.

Murphy felt her way slowly down the stairs, Thomas following behind her with more surety in the dark. “Damn it. We need a light in here,” Murphy growled. Even with the door open, it wasn’t letting in nearly enough light for her to see where he’d left the candles or the lanterns.

“I’ve got it,” said Thomas, and she saw a slightly paler shadow moving through the darkened room. He probably felt her staring at him, and paused just long enough to look back at her. “I have very good night vision. That’s hardly a crime.”

“It’s sure as hell suspicious,” said Murphy flatly. She waited, however, tapping her foot, as Thomas rummaged around. She had no way to prove if he was really looking for a light, and that pissed her off. Mister, however, seemed content to hover by her legs – she could feel his tail brushing against her pant’s leg as it twitched.

Finally, after what felt like far too long but what she sensibly realized was probably only a few minutes, Thomas produced some candles and matches. These he lit, and the illumination they cast was dim, but enough to let them move around without tripping over anything.

Murphy saw immediately that this was a very good thing, because right there in the floor was a tripping hazard she’d never known to be there before. She saw a great big trap door, hanging open, the rug that would normally cover it still tossed aside. “What the hell?”

Mister, however, who seemed to have been waiting for his cue, dashed to the opening and raced down the ladder placed at the edge. Murphy made to follow him, but Thomas was suddenly beside her, flinging out an arm to stop her.

“Let me go first,” he said. “Dresden might have been lenient with his wards, but I don’t think his lab will be quite so easily penetrated.”

Lab?” Murphy demanded, disbelieving.

“Lab, yes. Every self respecting wizard has one. Do you mean to say he’s never shown you?” She practically heard the smug smile in his voice. “How strange. I suppose this is something of an opportunity for you, then.”

This time, resisting the urge to slap the smug off his face was much, much harder. Rationally, however, Murphy realized that Thomas was speaking sense. If there were any nasty traps down there for intruders, better he go first.

Thomas went down the ladder. After a few seconds, he called for Murphy to follow him. She did, and was almost immediately hit by a rush of bitingly cold air that made her wince. She wavered, briefly, wondering if this was the same cold that seemed to have such a death grip on Harry. After a second, and seeing Thomas and Mister waiting impatiently at the bottom of the ladder, she determined that it was probably just the natural cold of a Chicago sub-basement. What was affecting Harry had seemed far more…malevolent.

As soon as Murphy was fully in the basement, her feet on the floor, the cold became the least of her concerns. A pair of orange lights at the far end of the room didn’t look like candle flames. Then Murphy looked, and saw that they weren’t. She saw that they were two pinpricks of light shining in the empty eye sockets of an honest-to-god human skull.

By the time Murphy had the presence of mind to go for her gun, the skull had turned its gaze on them and started to speak.

“It’s about time! I’ve been going crazy locked in here! Where the hell is Harry?!”

“At the hospital,” said Thomas, who of course wasn’t bothered in the least by the talking skull.

“So, he’s alive? Great. Awesome. That wasn’t looking so definite for a while.”

“He’s alive, thanks to the good Lieutenant here.”

The skull turned on the spot to stare at her. “Heh. Murphy, right? Sorry we had to meet like this. Believe me, I’ve heard loads about you. Feel like I know you already!”

“Wish I could say the same,” said Murphy, who still hadn’t quite managed to bring herself to lower the gun. “Listen…”

“Call me Bob. Harry does.”

“Of course he does. Listen, Bob. He’s alive, but I don’t know how much longer that’s going to last. We’re blind without him to tell us what’s wrong with him. Can you fill in the blanks?”

“Sure can!” said Bob, nodding enthusiastically. “Um…this probably won’t ring any bells for you, Murphy. But, Thomas. Remember Mavra?”

Thomas winced. “I’m not likely to forget her. Why? Don’t tell me she’s back in town – I thought she left with most of the other vampires, before hostilities escalated.”

“She did. You don’t always need physical proximity to someone to beat them senseless with a curse. Murphy, Harry mentioned a few weeks ago that you brought him in to look at one of your guys. Mickey Mallone. Ring a bell?”

“Of course,” Murphy said. Happy as she was to finally be getting answers, she didn’t like where this seemed to be going.

“Harry called it a ‘barbed wire torture spell’, and even if it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, it was a pretty accurate name. Because that’s basically what it entailed – molding some dark energy into a big piece of barbed wire and jamming it in someone’s soul. Tears them to pieces, bit by bit – there’s nothing really there to pull out, so there’s nothing they can do to save themselves.  Nasty stuff.”

“And that’s what’s happened to Harry?!” Murphy demanded.

“Yep. I might not have much else going for me, but I can see things like that. That mess at the mansion probably opened him up to retaliation, even if Mavra got away. You know how it is – do unto others, and they can do unto you right back.”

It sounded about right. She was sure Harry had mentioned something to that effect to her in the past. It didn’t matter, though.

She knew, now, where she’d recognized his symptoms. She knew, now, when she’d last seen a man in this much pain. She could only hope that he’d recover as well as Mickey Malone was. What mattered was that now they had an idea. Now they knew what was happening. And they knew that it wasn’t unstoppable. Harry had saved Mallone from this very same curse.

“How do we stop it? Harry did, there must be something we can do!”

“I wouldn’t recommend his methods. He told me it was just a matter of getting a grip on the wire and pulling. But he’s a wizard. You two? Not so much. Bet you couldn’t even see it.”

Bob had a point – Murphy had known that something was wrong, but only because of Harry’s behavior. She hadn’t seen anything wrong with him that he hadn’t done to himself.

She’d come too far to let a little thing like her lack of magic slow her down, though.

“Can you let us see it? With a spell, or something?”

Bob thought on this, rocking back and forth on his shelf, teeth chattering in what was apparently a nervous gesture. Murphy was losing patience – to her surprise, Thomas lost his first. “Bob! You work with Harry down here. You probably know it even better than he does! With everything you know, with everything he keeps, are you really going to lie to us and say there’s nothing? When she pulled him off the roof of a sixth story building?!”

The passion in his voice, the anger, surprised her. Thomas hadn’t shown that much reaction all night. Maybe he’d just been doing a damn good job of hiding it.

His outburst did the job, however. Bob winced. “Okay, okay. Can’t blame me for being cautious. I mean, Murphy, I know you’re good people. Thomas, you didn’t actually leave him to die, so there’s that. But neither of you are wizards. Giving non-wizards the Sight, even temporarily? Bad idea all around. But!” he added hastily, as Murphy gave the hand holding her gun a significant twitch. “But, but, but! Desperate times, desperate measures, and all that! I think we’ve got something. Check the third shelf up. Behind the mouse footsteps.”

To Murphy’s deepseated frustration, Thomas was the only one who could reach that high. He pushed aside an apparently empty plastic container, and came down with a small jar of what looked for all the world like sprinkles, the kind you’d put on ice cream or cake.

“We don’t have anything that could give you the Sight. Harry made sure to get rid of all that Three-Eye from a few years back. But toss a little of that on him, and you won’t need it. For this spell, at least. It won’t do anything to stop it, but it will take away that aspect of it that keeps it hidden from Sightless mortals. From there…well, if you want to grab it from there, good luck. I wish I had any other suggestions. Give me some time, and I could probably come up with some. But if he was thinking about jumping…yeah. I’m not sure we’ve got time. Even if I could, if we don’t fix him up, there’s not going to be much left to save. We’ll run with this.”