Chapter 1: Reach
Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden was good at getting by.
Whatever it took, and however hard the universe was determined to make it for him.
Tonight, however, the universe had decided to roll up its sleeves and stop fucking around.
It was the dead of night, and raining, and Karrin Murphy slowly and cautiously approached the figure hunched at the edge of the roof. She wasn’t trained for this, but there was no one in S.I. who was. This wasn’t their beat. But they’d called her in because no one else was getting anything out of him. The rain fell in a steady, murmuring drizzle, slowly but surely soaked her through to the skin. It had already gotten to him – even through the heavy protection of his duster, he was shivering with cold.
Murphy approached, step by slow step, her hands held up and obviously empty. She stopped a few yards away – don’t make him feel trapped, don’t make him feel pressured. Take it nice and easy. That was what the ESU officers who’d met her here at the scene had told her in a painfully short rundown of how to pull a jumper back from the edge. Here on the roof, there was no good way to make a grab – she’d have to use her own judgment, trust in what she knew of him, to know when to pull him back from the edge.
Murphy swallowed, feeling dread like lead in her stomach. She took a deep breath, and spoke over the rain.
He twitched, and she thought she saw him raise his head. He said something, or tried to, but his voice was slurred and soft, and she couldn’t make it out.
Murphy risked a step forward. “Dresden? What are you doing here?”
His voice was like a trail of ice down her spine. Murphy swallowed – she’d rarely heard that much pain in a human voice before. The memories of those times she had only made her even more afraid for him, and for whatever had happened to him.
“Are you hurt? We’ve got medics waiting on the ground. We can get you help.”
She tried to keep the note of pleading out of her voice. She had to be strong. He needed her strong.
Harry said nothing. He just stayed there, swaying, shivering, and every breath that shuddered out of him was obvious agony. Murphy risked another step forward. He heard her, and turned his head just a little towards her. Not enough for her to see his eyes, though. Not that it would matter – all the years they’d known each other, and she’d never once looked in his eyes.
Murphy shoved those thoughts out of her head. Stay positive – that was what they’d told her. No matter how uncooperative they are, no matter how damned determined, if you just reach out to someone on the edge, they’ll eventually reach back.
This was Harry, for God’s sake. He’d never not been there when she’d reached out for him.
“Harry, whatever’s wrong…I’m here. If you’re in trouble, damn it, just say something. I can’t help if I don’t know what’s wrong, but if you say something…”
He sobbed, just once, but Murphy realized he was struggling to hold back more. That even now, he was trying to be strong, but that whatever had happened was just too much, and it was wearing him down like the tide along the beach.
“What hurts?” She felt herself starting to grow frustrated, irritated, and that was bad. You needed patience, to talk someone down, and she wasn’t a patient woman. Murphy caught herself wondering why it had to be her, up here. There had to be someone else. Anyone else.
She couldn’t do this. She tried not to think that thought, but there it was.
“Harry, if you need money for painkillers…”
“It hurts it hurts it hurts…”
There was one other possibility. One that she wasn’t allowing herself to consider. And maybe that was a stupid thing to do, but if that was the case, then she didn’t know if she could help him.
But if she didn’t get him down off this ledge, no one could help him at all.
Whatever was wrong – physical or mental – it was getting worse. He sobbed again, doubling over, his face in his hands. And then Murphy realized that he wasn’t burying his face in his hands – he’d brought his hands to his face, and was scratching.
“Damn it, Dresden!” She surged forward, reaching out to grab him. In a truly miraculous twist of good luck, she managed it without chasing him off the roof.
But the painful, unearthly cold she felt when she touched his skin made her yelp in surprise and pain, pulling back. And then he was staggering away from her. Away, at least, not over. He was showing a spark of life, a willingness to fight. He was wavering in the right direction.
And she realized that he was trying to protect her.
Now she was close enough to see the blood. Blood on his face, his neck, his arms where the sleeves of his duster were rolled up. Blood on his hands, stuck under his fingernails, blood fresh and gleaming and blood already dried. She was close enough to see him trembling with pain, weakened body and soul just from enduring it.
It took him several long, deep, ragged breaths before he tried to speak again. “Karrin…” And when he did, he said her name like a prayer. But he was already contemplating the edge again.
“Harry,” said Murphy, insistently, growing desperate. “Whatever the hell is hurting you, we’ll stop it. I won’t stop until I find whatever did this and make it stop. None of us will. But we can’t help you if you don’t fucking let us! If you jump, it never gets better! It just ends. Harry, you have friends. For once, god, just trust us. Just let us help you.”
She didn’t risk looking over the edge. Six floors up in the rain and the dark, she wasn’t sure she would have seen anything even if she had. Besides, it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. All that mattered was him, and saving him, and she had to do it alone. Desperate and frustrated as she was, leaving him here was still unthinkable.
“Talk to me, Harry. Hell, nod to me. Is this magic?”
Slowly, he nodded. Murphy let out her breath in a rush. It was just as she’d feared, just what she’d been hoping it wouldn’t be. She couldn’t help him, if it was magic. She couldn’t even hunt down whoever, whatever, was responsible and make it stop, not without Dresden to point her in the right direction.
“It hurts…s-so tired…can’t…”
And the effort of speaking seemed to break him. As Murphy watched, Harry finally broke down and wept with pain.
It hurt to see him like this – shivering, soaked, bloody, weak, and hurting. She just wanted to fix him, and she didn’t know how. If this was magic, she couldn’t. Murphy could have screamed, if her throat wasn’t so locked tight with trying not to cry herself.
“This isn’t the answer, Harry. This isn’t how we do things. We don’t give up. We fix it, save the day, and we don’t leave anyone behind. After everything you’ve done, we’re not going to leave you here to hang. I’m not going to leave you. If you go over this ledge, Dresden, I’m coming down after you.”
He hesitated, then – it was cruel, maybe, to play on his heroic streak when he was suffering like this, but it was one of the only tricks she had. The official way wasn’t working. Hell, the official way didn’t have a leg to stand on where bad magic was involved.
At the least, she didn’t think he’d jump if he feared for her life, even if he no longer cared for his own.
Murphy took a slow, careful step forward, as one might approach a wounded stray dog. He tensed, but didn’t step back, not until Murphy reached out to him.
Right. No touching, it seemed. Not that Murphy was all that keen on feeling that impossible cold again…but touch was so often the easiest way they had to connect to one another, and it was one more blow to have it denied.
“Come on, Dresden,” she said, softly. “Come with me. Come back down. We’ll get you help. Just trust me.”
She tried to urge him back towards the door that would take them back into the building, out of the rain, and then back down to the ground where paramedics were waiting. It was difficult, without being able to touch him, and with Harry still trapped in a small, personal hell. But he got the point, eventually, and made a truly valiant effort at staggering along beside her. Being close to seven feet tall often only meant there was more of Harry to collapse in on himself when things got bad.
Murphy was impressed that he made it down three floors before he finally did. It was a long, slow collapse, and all the more terrible for it. He just managed to gasp out her name before his legs folded out from under him, and Murphy turned in time to see him fall.
She reached out to try and catch him, and wound up with a fistful of duster. It was enough to stop him sliding too far down the stairwell and potentially adding a concussion onto his list of problems. He tried for a few seconds to regain his balance again, but it was hopeless, and after a few seconds, he just went limp in her arms, breathing shallowly and whimpering.
There would have been no good way to go about this at the best of times, with Harry having well over a foot on her in height. Murphy knew that she should probably leave him, go the rest of the way on her own, and bring back help. She should, but she wasn’t sure she could trust him not to make another attempt to jump.
No, there was nothing for it. Murphy drew one of Harry’s arms across her shoulder, and the cold she could feel even through the heavy leather duster made her suck in her breath sharply. Murphy forcibly reminded herself that whatever she was feeling was nothing on what Harry was feeling – she was a big girl, and she could deal. She wrapped her other arm around his waist, holding him to her. It would be a way to drag him down the stairs without him cracking his head open. Even if Harry might have welcomed such an outcome, Murphy wouldn’t stand for it.
Panting under his weight, gritting her teeth against the cold stabbing into her skin life knives where she touched him, Murphy dragged Harry step by laborious step. Every so often, he was lucid just long enough to say something. “Karrin…let me die…”
“Shut the hell up, Dresden,” Murphy growled, the words making her heart twist painfully in her chest. “I’m not letting you die. Not until I’ve paid you back. For every single damn time you’ve saved mine. I always pay my debts, Harry. Don’t you go ruining that for me.”
But she didn’t know how to help him. She didn’t know what was wrong. She didn’t have any magic to fix it – Dresden was usually the one she went to when she needed magic to fix something, and he couldn’t even fight off her efforts to drag him.
Maybe all she could do was let him die.
Chapter 2: Grab
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.”
Chapter 3: Pull
They left Bob there, and lingered just long enough for Murphy to dish up some food for Mister. Then they locked Harry’s apartment up tight, and drove as quickly as they could to the hospital. Murphy drove, cutting expertly in and out of what traffic there was. Thomas, in turn, kept hold of the little bottle like it was the most precious thing in the world.
Here and now, it was.
Billy, Georgia, and Justine met them in the waiting room. “What happened? Did you learn anything?” Georgia asked, as they all came to meet Murphy and Thomas.
“Yeah,” said Murphy. “It’s not good. But it’s a shot.”
“No one else is here for Mister Dresden,” said Justine, who had already taken up her accustomed place at Thomas’ side. “Some vampires came, but then they left.”
“Mavra’s people.” Thomas’ voice was grim. “How touching, that they have so much faith in her to finish the job.”
“It’s one less problem for us to deal with,” said Murphy flatly. “Where is he?”
The doctors were less willing to let five people into the suicide watch ward – it had apparently been a fight just to let Michael stay with Harry. Fortunately, Thomas’ abilities proved to not be limited entirely to women, at least as far as charming someone silly was concerned. The desk clerk gruffly told them not to take too long, and that the next guy on shift wouldn’t be as amenable.
This wasn’t a problem. They all hoped to have this over and done with long before then. At the least, Harry couldn’t last much longer.
Finding Harry’s bed was easy enough. The ward was standing mostly empty, and Michael tended to stand out even in a crowded room. Besides, Harry was tall enough that his legs overhung the bed.
Murphy realized as she drew near that Michael was praying over the wounded wizard. It was the low, intense sort of prayer that left you in no doubt that they meant every word, and really were reaching out to some higher power with everything they had. It was the sort of prayer meant to impress no one but God.
Normally, Murphy found that sort of devotion uncomfortable to even be around. Now, however, she appreciated the effort, especially since it was being made for Harry.
“Michael,” said Thomas, quietly, as they all gathered around the bed. Michael fell silent, opened his eyes, and looked up at them with some surprise to see them there.
“He’s getting worse,” he said. There was a slight hoarseness in his voice that betrayed how worried he was, and just how much he’d been praying. “Have you learned anything?”
Murphy nodded to Thomas. Thomas, in turn, stepped forward next to Harry, and carefully uncapped the bottle. She felt their curiosity, felt them wanting to ask what had happened, but no one said anything and she was glad of that. Murphy was too busy trying to remember to breathe as Thomas dusted some of the black flakes over Harry’s body, murmuring softly in a language she couldn’t understand but which sounded vaguely like Latin.
“If this works,” Murphy heard herself say. “We should know what we’re dealing with. And then maybe we can do something about it.”
It worked. She felt it, before she saw it, as a shiver of something passing out from Harry like a ripple in a pond, growing longer and thinner before eventually vanishing into nothing. She realized it was the veil being lifted from him, because when she blinked, suddenly there it was. Mingled gasps and murmurs from the others told her that they could now see it, too.
Murphy knew they had to work quickly. If a doctor walked in and saw the strip of black barbed wire that was now visible even to the naked eye, some heated questions would probably be asked and they would almost certainly be firmly escorted out the door. After all, as far as they were concerned, it hadn’t been there before.
She knew, now, that it had always been there. It had been the cause of this whole damn night. She could see it, now, wrapped all the way around his tall body from the point where one end dug right into the flesh above his collarbone to where it ended at one ankle.
They’d done a good job of restraining him, and had managed to sedate him into senselessness, if not sleep. His injuries had been treated and bandaged, although the scratches on his face were still hideously visible even if the cuts were now clean. But no wonder Harry had been driven nearly nuts, had been driven to end it all rather than put up with another second of the pain. The wire put her in mind of nothing so much as an enormous, hungry snake slowly throttling the life out of its meal, right down the cool, slow, merciless aura of a predator she could feel radiating from it.
Which was stupid. It wasn’t alive. It didn’t even properly exist. It was just a manifestation of the spell that they’d managed to force into the real world, hopefully long enough to beat it back. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was sizing her up. And she refused to back down from it.
“Okay, you son of a bitch,” she breathed. “Let’s dance.”
She reached out, grabbed one end, and before the biting evil could force her to retreat, Murphy yanked.
She was immediately forced to grit her teeth against the pain – the cold, she had never known such cold before, what she’d felt on him before might as well have been a warm summer day. Because now it wanted to hurt her just as badly as it was hurting him. The pain went to her bones and beyond, like a million knives in her brain, all stabbing harder and harder.
Murphy kept pulling, inch by inch, wrenching it free of Harry’s skin. Every time she thought it was too much, she made herself think of him. She made herself think of him standing on the roof, looking over the edge. She made herself think of him breaking down and sobbing in pain, too tired and weak even to look tough. She made herself think of his dumbass smart remarks and the worry in his eyes that he wouldn’t make the rent and how, even when he was bowed with the weight of the world, Harry Dresden always stood tall.
There was more of the wire free now than there was binding him. Dimly, Murphy heard voices – the voices of the others – and sensed movement. Her vision had narrowed down to a long tunnel with the enormous length of wire at the other end of it, but she could see other hands grasping it. Murphy was about to scream at them all for being fools, when she realized what they were doing. They were trying to control it, to stop its free end and free length constricting her instead. It couldn’t hold all of them.
They left the rest to her, and Murphy was glad of it. She wasn’t sure she could have stopped now even if she wanted to. Each spike that tore free of Harry fueled her to keep going.
It felt like years before she finally wrenched the other end free of his leg, with a tug so hard that Murphy fell out of her chair, collapsing to the floor. She looked up to see the wire, twisting and writhing like it really was alive. She realized, with a cold, clear certainty, that it was going to come for her instead. She’d lost control, and now she was doing to pay for it.
Somehow, Murphy wasn’t afraid. Maybe she was just too tired after all she’d done fighting it, but she liked to think that it was because she’d saved Harry. She’d done at least a little to balance the scales.
Just as she was bracing herself, however, a bright, shining lance of light came arching through her range of vision. It hit the darkness of the wire with an almighty “clang” that she would later be stunned hadn’t awoken every doctor and nurse in the place. Bright, white light briefly blinded her.
When her vision cleared and her senses returned, Murphy immediately started looking around for it. There was no sign of it, however, and no sign that it had ever existed in this world. Instead, there was Michael, sword drawn and sure as hell looking like he had just cut something out of the air.
Everyone in the room was panting heavily, as though they’d just run a marathon. In a way, they had. It had taken all their strength combined to equal what Harry had managed alone, but they had managed it. One look at the wizard himself was enough to confirm that.
He was still quite unconscious, but the rhythm of his breathing had changed – deep, and a little ragged, but not pained any longer. He looked a little more asleep. What he’d been suffering through before hadn’t been sleep, but this was. As the echoes of pain slowly left him, Harry slowly relaxed.
“Did it work?” asked Georgia, looking between Harry and Murphy.
Murphy had found herself shaken by the entire ordeal, but she supposed that was only natural. She felt all right, just suddenly achingly tired. When Michael offered her a hand up, she was able to take it, and then sit down again on the chair Billy had recovered.
“I think so,” she said. “Hell, just look at him.” Murphy was, and she couldn’t help but smile. Harry got so little sleep, as a rule, that it was a strangely pleasant sight. Or maybe that was just the shock talking. She felt exhausted, down to the bone. Maybe that was only natural, coming off of wrestling with a physical incarnation of dark magic. All the same, the sudden thought that she had to be at work in four hours was an especially unpleasant one.
“He certainly looks better,” said Thomas. “And I don’t see anything.”
He didn’t sound certain, however. This time, Murphy couldn’t blame him. Michael turned out to be equally uncertain. The big man moved in closer to Harry’s bedside. He closed his eyes, left one hand atop the hilt of his sword, and moved the other to rest lightly on Harry’s forehead.
For a moment, no one moved. Everyone held their breath, waiting for Michael to tell them whatever he was seeing. Finally, he opened his eyes and turned back to face them all.
“There is damage,” he said, gravely. “But it isn’t worsening. And the evil that was hanging over him is gone, now.” He smiled, and looked to Murphy. “Well done, Lieutenant. He will need some time to recover, but I believe that he is safe, now.”
It took Murphy a second to realize that he was thanking her, congratulating her. She actually did feel faintly pleased, at this. She had done pretty well for someone still so impossibly in the dark about the supernatural world but, more to the point, she’d saved Harry. He would recover. He would be okay.
“Even hospital food will probably be the best meal he’s had in a while,” she said. Everyone laughed, and the lingering tension in the room snapped like a twig. Even if their laughter was tinged with something like pity.
Murphy really did have to go to work, and Michael really did have to go home – he still had a newborn son to attend to that wasn’t sleeping through the night. Billy had morning classes, Georgia didn’t, and so they agreed to trade off at noon. This left Thomas and Justine as the only ones free to keep any kind of consistent watch over Harry. Murphy wasn’t sure she liked that idea, but was positive that she didn’t have a better one to propose.
The day passed slowly, partly because she was exhausted and partly because she was worried. She didn’t trust Thomas, and so asked Billy and Georgia to keep her informed. She pegged them as basically good kids, and was right – they both e-mailed her a progress report when going off their shift. By the time Georgia left, Harry was drifting in and out of consciousness. By the time Billy left, he was awake, talking, and demanding to be let out of his handcuffs.
Murphy smiled as she read this. “Too bad, Dresden,” she murmured to herself. “Maybe this time you’ll finally learn what handcuffs are for.”
All of S.I. knew where she’d been and what she’d been doing last night, even if they’d only heard it through the grapevine. They made sure she didn’t have to get her own caffeine all day, which for S.I. was as good as flowers. In turn, Murphy dug into her reports with as much ferocity and focus as she could muster. She was a woman who prided herself on being able to roll with the punches and get back up, after all, even if last night had delivered a doozy of a left hook.
She was still glad to get off work and have a chance to check in on Harry herself.
Chapter 4: Cling
Michael was with Harry when she arrived at his room, but Harry wasn’t awake to know it. At the least, it seemed to be because he was still sleeping peacefully. Michael, in turn, looked up when he heard Murphy enter. He still looked tired. Murphy couldn’t blame him. It had been a long night all around, maybe moreso for someone who had to go home and explain where he’d been all night.
“He’s been awake, on and off,” he said, getting up to offer her the room’s only chair. “Just drifted off again. I didn’t have the heart to wake him.”
“Good call,” said Murphy, sinking down into the chair with a grateful sigh. “I’ll keep an eye on him for a while. Don’t worry, I brought a book. Go home and get some sleep.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. But, please, keep me informed. And don’t hesitate to call me if something goes wrong again.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just go.”
She wouldn’t hesitate to call him, if only because, besides Harry himself, he seemed the best informed about the various supernatural horrors at work here. Murphy tried not to feel jealous, or at least not obviously jealous. One day soon, she would demand answers from Harry Dresden. But that day was not today. She was not heartless, even if the events of the last few months had left her temper short.
So she just settled down to read, keeping half an eye on Harry and both ears trained for any signs of movement, from the bed or from her surroundings.
Nothing else came to hurt him. Probably at least in part because, for the moment, Harry was still primed to hurt himself. The nightmare stealing over him left small, subtle signs – a twitch, a furrowing of his brow, a whimpered exhale of breath. But it was enough to get Murphy’s attention.
“Hey,” she said softly, abandoning her book and sliding out of her chair to kneel beside his bed. Like this, they were actually on a level with one another. It was a strange feeling that she wasn’t in much of a position to appreciate. “Dresden, hey. Wake up.”
He tried to flinch away from her. She didn’t let him, just as she hadn’t let him push her away on the roof. She was here, damn it, and she needed him to know that. Murphy seized one of his bandaged hands, holding it tightly.
Unbidden, a memory came to the front of her mind. It wasn’t a good memory, and it was hazy, because it was a half-remembered dream that she didn’t particularly want to remember. But in the face of all of Kravos’ supernatural torture, there had been one good thing, one bit of relief, a sign of the torture ending before she’d apparently passed under the protection of Harry’s sleep spell.
Murphy tried to offer him the same protection in turn, there and then. She didn’t have any magic to back it up. But she was here, and wished she did.
“Dormius, dorme,” she whispered, feeling like an idiot but saying the words anyway. She reached out and brushed some sweat-slicked hair back from his forehead. “Harry, dormius.”
Maybe it was magic, maybe it was the universe taking pity, maybe it was coincidence. She still recognized the signs of waking before he properly woke up. He drew in a sharp breath, and then eyes opened, briefly seeing nothing but slowly growing more focused, taking in his surroundings. She saw his mind trying to catch up, and Murphy smiled in relief, feeling like a weight that had been on her shoulders since last night had suddenly lifted.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” she said. “About time you…”
Her attempts at a jibe were cut off when Harry hugged her, turning in bed enough to wrap his arms around her shoulders and pull her in close. Murphy was surprised enough that she let him. It certainly wasn’t as though they avoided physical contact with one another. As far as partners went, they were probably considered downright affectionate. But they were also, in their own way, incredibly distant people. Murphy knew and accepted this. There was a punch to the arm, and then there was this, the way he was hugging her and breathing like he was only just remembering how to, obviously trying not to break down and sob like he had before.
And then she realized that the ESU officers on the ground last night had been right. If you reached out to someone, eventually, they would reach back.
So she didn’t pull away. She hugged him in return, rubbing a hand lightly over his back and feeling the muscles there humming with tension. Slowly, as the seconds ticked by, he relaxed once more so that she could believe he wasn’t about to break on her again.
“Karrin…” he said, still sounding a little dazed. “Murphy, I…”
“Shut up, Dresden,” she said quietly. “You’re okay now.”
She wouldn’t let him be any other way. No matter what all the monsters and freaks running rampant in Chicago had to say about it, if Harry Dresden reached out to her, Karrin Murphy knew she would always be there to catch him.