Blood Debts Book 5 of The Return
A Ranma, Sailor Moon, Dresden Files fic thingy.
By Sunshine Temple
Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma nor the Dresden Files. So here's the disclaimer:
Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC. And the Dresden Files is owned by Jim Butcher.
Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
Temporary Backup Site.
Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
C&C as always is wanted.
In The Return timeline: this takes place after Book 4 Capital Offense (in pre-revision return after old chapter 34).
In The Dresden Files timeline, this takes place after the fifteenth novel Skin Game
Previous knowledge of the Return or Dresden files is not required to read this story.
Chapter 1: Lagging Questions, Part A
The stone bunker was on fire, and it wasn't my fault. The blizzard of ice shards pelting the wooden logs that made up the trench walls on the other hand...
That was a work of art; a lethal barrier that bought me some time, if at the cost almost all of my remaining magical power.
Then the explosions hit, and then the howls of the eldritch creatures... stopped. That's when I went with plan B. With a wheeze, I slashed with my staff. Reality puckered and little tear formed, far too small for me to go through.
"Aparturum!" I cried pushing my will as I cast the spell again, this time adding something extra. The rip blew apart and I stumbled though the flashing opalescent void.
Consciousness blacked out for a moment. I woke up in time to see myself slam onto a desolate field. The ground was just cold enough to have a rime of ice that broke when I hit, and just warm enough to be a muddy mire beneath.
My staff fell from numbed hands, and my coat fluttered around me. In the distance I could hear shouting. I lifted my head to see what looked like people in green camouflage with raised rifles. My eyes closed and when I opened them again I could only see a grey cloud-filled sky.
As consciousness fled once more I realized that, in retrospect, I might have used a bit too much SoulFire in that last spell.
I awoke with a start. A thin sheet fell off my bare chest as I sat up. My eyes quickly scanned the room. With bare white concrete block walls, it was bland, almost antiseptic. I looked to my left and found a cart of medical machines. I'll admit to a mischievous grin when I saw they had been unplugged and pushed to one side.
Opposite them was a large metal table. Scooting over to the edge of my bed, I craned my neck over. I winced as pain shot down my spine then returned my attention to the table.
It looked like someone with OCD had gone through my possessions. My clothes had been cleaned and neatly folded. My wallet had been emptied into meager stacks of bills and various forms of ID.
Another pile consisted of my shield bracelet, belt buckle, my mother's silver pentacle amulet, as well as the various bits of string, chalk, salt, crystals, and Play-Doh that I had been carrying in my duster.
I frowned a bit at that. Putting all those items together seemed to indicate someone was clued into the supernatural, or they could simply have collected all the random junk that had been in my pockets.
My blasting rod and staff were put to one side. The long oak staff actually hung over either end of the table. Next to them was the old Ka-Bar knife that I had used for a long time. And next to that... I paused seeing the dull gleam of my Smith and Wesson X-Frame. The giant revolver had been a gift from Murphy and there it was on the table, complete with the remaining speed-loader of fat fifty caliber shells.
I exhaled. Was this another sign that someone had been clued in enough to realize that a Wizard's staff even more dangerous as a gun? Or had they simply put the obvious weapons together. Six feet of oak could do a lot of damage, and a blasting rod could work as a small baton or compliance device.
Either way, whoever had gone through my stuff had left me with several weapons. Once again, I looked around the room. One door was open to a small bathroom, another looked sturdy and probably went outside. I also spotted a pair of black domes in the ceiling. They were obviously cameras, which meant the room was bugged, unless they had taken the clue from the medial equipment and shut those off too.
I idly wondered if those were there to be the obvious surveillance equipment. Hells Bells, technology was such that you could make fancy cameras that were nearly undetectable. Of course high tech cameras were the exact opposite you'd want with something like me. My eyes went from the black domes to the neat pile of wizarding gear.
On the other hand, maybe those domes weren't cameras. Maybe they were... low tech. I could imagine a series of mirrors. Sort of like a horizontal periscope. Or maybe it was simpler, maybe I was being watched by people from the floor above me. I shook my head. It didn't matter if they could see me, whoever they were; they had already rifled through my stuff.
I glanced down and noted with some relief that I had a pair of pants on. They reminded me of something akin to pajama bottoms, or maybe sturdier scrubs. However, they were a couple inches short. I cracked a smile at that, whoever was running this place, whatever it was, didn't have supplies for gangly wizards.
"Hey! I'm up! Is there anyone here, or is this like some Twilight Zone thing where the place is empty?" I obnoxiously shouted. Then I Listened.
Listening is something I picked up, it's not magic, not exactly, but it does focus your mind on exclusively on hearing, on picking up every little detail. It was one of the few "quiet" things the Winter Knight mantle actually helped with. But I suppose it was advantageous for predators to be able to hear everything as they lay in wait.
For a few seconds, there was only the sound of air circulating in the ductwork. Then I felt a distant buzzing, it reminded of being under power lines on a summer day, but louder and more forceful, like being near a tunnel full of raging water.
The next sounds came from beyond the metal door. There was the clomping noise of boots on tile floor. Some came closer others went further. The scuffing stopped, and I heard what might have been a squelch on a radio. There were a few hushed words.
Then the door opened. I didn't hear a lock disengage. The door simply opened. Beyond the door was a bland grey hallway with another metal door opposite mine.
Two women crossed the threshold. Seeing them, I gave a frustrated little sigh. To the left was young Asian woman with a short brunette bob. She wore a grey uniform blouse and pants with black boots. The uniform had black piping and looked military. But from know country I was familiar with. A silver bar flashed on her collar denoting some type of rank while a black patch with grey lettering was just visible on one shoulder.
Her eyes were a muted brown and her expression hardened. She was attractive enough, but her uniform was not exactly flattering. However the way she carried herself, and the utter lack of makeup, convinced me that she did not care very much.
She bore a slightly haunted look that reminded me of cops who had spent too many years on the force and, uncomfortably, of Murphy. She looked too young to be so... burnt.
Next to her was a slightly older looking woman. She was tall, and blonde. The professional but haughty way she carried herself and her stern expression reminded me of Gard, a mercenary I knew. But looking the pale blonde over I was fairly sure this was no Valkyrie. She had long legs, and her uniform consisted of a short grey skirt and a well-filled tailored blouse and black jacket. On her collar was a pair of gold bars.
I didn't remember much about military ranks, but I figured the blonde was the more senior of the too. I looked between the two. It was obvious that the blonde was wearing the dress uniform while the brunette had the more practical... utilities, I think they were called.
The pistol holstered on the blonde's hip was also much larger than the brunette's. I glanced from the gun to my revolver and frowned. The worrying signs about the blonde were mounting.
"Mr. Dresden, is everything okay? Do you need a medic?" the brunette asked.
Medic. What had happened? I remembered something about military people when I came in. I paused, there was also something off about the brunette's accent.
"One has been dispatched," the blonde assured with a direct level gaze. I had to split my attention between her and the brunette.
That accent was obvious. And sensing too rich of a target my mouth outran my brain. "Oh man, I better hope you're really German. Otherwise I'd be too embarrassed to be taken prisoner by some Ilsa knockoff."
Then a smile spread across the blonde's face and taking an exaggerated step she clicked her heels and opened the door. "You are no prisoner, Herr Dresden."
"Ilsa?" the brunette asked her attention focused on me.
"A movie, Lieutenant," the blonde chuckled. "A particularly bad one. Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. An exploitation film about Nazis."
"Oh." The brunette blinked.
"You haven't seen it?" I quipped.
"Kids these days," the blonde agreed.
"It's a classic," I added.
The blonde simply raised an eyebrow.
Still keeping her eyes on me, the brunette cleared her throat. "Ma'am that's a bit..."
"On the nose?" the blonde idly brushed her jacket. "I suppose we can count our blessings that he did not reference a more... derivative sequel. Werewolf Women of the S.S would be far more pointed." she gave toothy smile.
I laughed, then I got a closer look at her teeth. And then my heart started to speed up; I started gauging the distance between the bed and the table with all my gear on it. I could blast them with force or ice, then grab my stuff and be out the door...
"Herr Dresden. Calm down," the blonde said her voice deepening slightly. She took another step. "You. Are. Not. A. Prisoner." she, slowly, enunciated.
"Okay, right, then why am I here? And who the hell are you? You got to rifle through my things, why not return the favor?"
The blonde gave me a measured stare. I pulled my gaze away. She then lifted her arms up. "I am going for my papers," she said as she slowly reached into her jacket with her left hand and then lobbed a leather wallet to the bed. It bounced in front of me.
I opened it and found a wad of colorful money. Canadian for some reason. And a few pictures. One was with the same blonde and three younger women. Despite their different hair colors - one had auburn hair, the other had black, and the last one had green for some reason - they all had a familial resemblance to the blonde.
The other was a picture of the blonde and a redhead with striking purple eyes. Oh, and they were all just as pale and lovely as the blonde herself. I pushed that aside and found a military ID in the wallet. Or at least something for...
"Willard International Consulting? What kind of name is that for a secret organization?"
"Often keeping a bland cover name allows one to conduct work without being noticed. Similar to why a prime magus would be a registered private investigator."
"Whatever," I read further on the card. "Captain Eve Jarvis? That's gotta be fake."
I noticed a ghost of a smile appear on the brunette's face.
"It's real, enough," Eve pushed past that. "And this is Lieutenant Kasumi Tendo."
"And what makes you think we're some kind of secret organization?"
"Well, you think I'm some kind of wizard?"
I then noticed the blonde's smile turn thoughtful. She hadn't called me a wizard, the term she had used was magi.
"Look, you seem pretty clued in on magic," I said waving at the sorted piles of my gear. "You seem to know that I'd screw with your electronics." I waved at the medical equipment. "And, oh yes, Ilsa over there isn't human."
"Bravo Herr Dresden," the blonde gave a clap. "However, you neglected to mention that the military observed you falling through some sort of portal on the grounds of a high-security base whereupon you hit the dirty snow and collapsed."
And then things started clicking together. I had been in a rush to escape the NeverNever. Opening the way had been difficult. And I wasn't sure where I would have ended up.
"Oh." Someone appearing out of thin air outside a military base would raise questions. Questions that the higher ups would want answered. I laughed.
"Ah, enlightenment," Eve said in a satisfied tone.
Still laughing, I looked over the table and then back out the hallway. "You're all, what supernatural mercenaries?" No wonder I had thought of Gard; this place could be just like Monoc Securities, which made me worry just who was running this group.
"Among other things, including training, consulting, and R&D."
"Right, whatever. You know the spooky side of the street. Or at least you can explain it away to the military. Which means, I'm not a prisoner. Unless you're dumber than you look."
The blonde took the implied threat in stride.
"But if I walk out that door," I continued.
"You'll be in a hallway," the lieutenant stated.
I sighed. "But if I leave this building..."
Eve nodded. "Yes, the military would have some pointed questions.
"And unlike you, they don't believe in magic."
Eve simply spread her hands. "While, we are more than willing to hear you out. You would not be the first wizard that we've interviewed and let go."
I looked past her. I was pretty sure she wasn't lying. But beautiful inhuman women don't need to be able to lie to ruin my life.
"And what if I walk out of here and then break out of military custody?"
The blonde's smile turned broad. "Why Herr Dresden that would be a most... illustrative... experience for them would it not?"
I exhaled, running the options. I could escape which meant these WIC guys could sell more "training" to the military. I could get killed trying to escape which meant basically the same thing but the army would get to do the world's dullest "alien autopsy" on my corpse. Or I'd stay locked up in some secret prison. Well, until Mab or someone else got pissed off enough to bust me out.
But either way these people wouldn't take the blame. By how the supernatural world reckoned hospitality they had treated me like a guest.
"Okay? What do you want?"
"Merely a few answers on where you came from and how you ended up here," the blonde assured. "You see, we're most interested in... visitors."
"I'm from Chicago. You went through my pants and my wallet," I deadpanned.
The brown-haired lieutenant smiled, and it was more terrifying than the fanged grin of the inhuman German. "Yes, but you see that driver's license number doesn't match anything in the American records. Nor does your does your Private Investigator card. Not to mention your Illinois FIOD card or carry permit. And the listed locations are not valid addresses. The building you list as an office doesn't have that many floors."
"Umm?" I blinked. "You ran a lot of records." At least she had one of my newer business cards and licenses. The older ones would have pointed to an office building that had blown up and a boarding house that had burned down.
"You've been unconscious for nearly a full day, shall we get you that medic?" the lieutenant asked her voice uncharacteristically sweet.
"The fascinating part is that if these are forgeries, well, the ID cards are too good," Eve noted. "Most wouldn't bother with a forgery of this quality unless..."
I sighed. "Unless they'd pay to have the databases altered to match. Or they'd use names that match existing records."
Once more, Eve spread her hands.
A pit in my stomach started to form. "And let me guess... you don't have any records of a Harry Dresden?"
"None that match your description," the lieutenant agreed. "There are some... persons of interest that have similar builds to you, but they are either accounted for, deceased, or in one case to old to match you." She gave me a critical look. As if expecting my face to shape shift.
"And then there's your gun." Her eyes went down to the revolver on the table. "We had the ATF contact the manufacturer to start a trace. But, according to Smith and Wesson, they never made a 50 caliber revolver with that serial number. No, it's to a little pink pocket 38."
"It was a gift?" I stated.
"That wouldn't have changed the factory records. More importantly, the serial numbers on the revolver show no defacement or regrinding marks," the lieutenant noted.
"Yes, it'd be next to impossible to modify a serial number without leaving a mark that it was changed. Not without lowering and refinishing the whole area, but then it would be measurably thinner. Which yours is not," Eve added.
"It is a shame you lost your holster," Kasumi noted with a tiny bit of amusement.
"Um-" I started.
"We might have a spare in stocks for him to use," Eve said.
I then held my tongue. It was one thing for Murphy to rag on me not having a holster but these two... It was also worrying that they were more swayed by my gun being off than my IDs, though I supposed the gun would be harder to forge...
I mean someone could make a fake gun. But an exact copy? It was like the ID, if one had the ability to do it with that level of detail, why goof up on the serial numbers?
I sighed. At least they hadn't complained that my age didn't match up to my birth date. Or that the issue date on my cards was for some future date. That eliminated time travel. Probably.
"But you guys have dealt with the White Council of Wizards before right? You can call them up? They've gotta know about me."
The two officers shared a glance.
"Oh... you've gotta be kidding me." I rubbed my forehead. "How about Mab? You know her right? The Winter Court? Queen of the Unseelie?"
Eve gave a pitying smile. "And this is why we wanted to talk to you Herr Dresden. Perhaps after the medic checks you out, you can get dressed and we can continue our discussion?"
Grumbling, I leaned back onto the bed. "Fine. But if this is all some sort of Twilight Zone headgame you'll regret it."
With all the bedside manner of a Navy corpsman, the gruff medic, Barnes I think his name was, pronounced me "Good enough" and left the room. But not before he dropped a black leather holster off with another grumble, this one about "cowboys copying the Colonel".
The two officers then exited giving me the illusion of privacy. A quick shower made me feel human. As I got dressed, I put my thoughts together.
After putting the silver pentacle amulet around my neck, I touched the ruby gem inset in the center. It was also a gift from mother. The gem glowed but all I got was an ominous hiss. It might not be proof that the officers were telling the truth, but it wasn't reassuring.
My first task was to use my contacts and confirm that this wasn't some elaborate Gaslighting. Sure, maybe none of the phone numbers would work but I had other means of summoning help. Ones that would get through, if I got desperate enough.
So, I was dressed and geared up, and still fiddling with the holster belted on my hip. And then the Ilsa knockoff and the dour lieutenant came back.
I got to see more of the facility. It was a pair of drab corridors with anonymous metal doors. The highlight was when we passed a window and I got to look out and see a dead lawn sprinkled with bits of melted, dirty snow bounded by a high fence with a forest beyond that.
The snow and the threatening overcast sky and trees nearly empty of dead leaves were at least somewhat reassuring season-wise. The part of me that knew when to run, and clashed with the predatory aspects of my Winter Knight mantle found at least the concept of escape pleasing. Though part of me was concerned about the medical examinations, surely people who'd run down the serial numbers on everything I had on me wouldn't be above taking a bit of blood.
But that view was quickly passed, and I was put into a dull conference room.
Anyway, their fancy wall display burned out a few slides in. It was an accident. Honest. Especially, since without missing a beat a perky almost-secretarial young woman named Maya pulled out a couple folders for me to look over. After a bit of that, Tendo grumbled and mentioned something about finding a slide projector and running the transfers.
Which left me dropped off in a break room. In what had to be a ham-handed attempt to reassure me, they left the door open. There was a coffee machine on the counter and I fiddled with it to get a pot brewing.
At least the beans they used smelled strong. A couple minutes passed by as I looked at the bulletin board against one wall. There were a few notices about emergency procedures. Which ranged from the expected blizzard, fire, and medical to... well there was a whole section on inter-dimensional containment.
The jargon made my head swim so I looked at the other notices. There was a pot-luck chili cook-off and BBQ competition coming up, and a signup sheet for a Company hockey team.
I looked out the door and tensed as a pair of soldiers walked approached. Unlike the two officers or the medic these were wearing full battle-rattle including armored vests, kneepads, gloves, and enough pouches to make a 90's superhero nod appreciably. Their goggles were pulled up over their helmets and they carried bulky looking rifles slung from harnesses on their chest. The guns were also appropriately large for a 90's comic book, with what looked like two barrels sticking out the front.
My tension grew as they neared past the door. One of them, a muscular dusky fellow waved while his leaner companion nodded to me. The pair then walked past, hardly making a note of the tall guy in the duster.
As the coffee maker gurgled and brewed, more people crossed the hallway. About half were in the tactical pouches and rifles dressup, while the rest were in what I considered "mercenary casual". Of the ones dressed all tacticool, the majority were wearing the grey mercenary duds, but a good fraction wore green and had Canadian flag shoulder patches. There was even a young man with a buzz-cut who went past wearing a button-down shirt and a blazer coat.
"Maybe the slideshow wouldn't have been that boring," I muttered as the pot started to fill. I inhaled, despite the weirdness, "At least the coffee smells good," I muttered turning to the machine. I opened a cupboard looking for some sugar and creamer, and found a row of mugs. Some were personalized others...
I pulled a black one out of a large stack. It had the Company's logo. It was a grey globe surrounded by the letters W, I, and C. In between each of the letters was a symbol of warding; including two variations of the Elder sign. While it lacked the stark minimalism of Monoc Securities the symbolism was clear if bluntly overdone.
"So... they've got Lovecraft and the Necronomicon too," I muttered putting the mug down.
"Oh? You made a new pot?" A new voice said by the door. It was a deep, playful contralto. I was reminded of the blonde and, neck prickling, spun on my heel.
"Easy there Tex," the redheaded woman said holding up her hands as she stepped into the room. She sniffed the air, sniffed again and smiled. Between her belt, pants, motorcycle boots, and jacket she wore enough glossy black leather to skin a cow. A violet silk blouse was under her jacket and matched the vibrant shade of her eyes. Short shiny crimson nails tipped her fingers.
"Ah," I eyed the wild red hair that spilled down her shoulders. She was one of the women in faux Illsa's pictures. She looked like the same nationality as the lieutenant, but there was more to it than that. Her features were stark with an almost sharp chin line. She looked like she could be on the cover of an 80's rock album. That familiar alabaster skin also helped with the Rock-biker look.
"Friend of Ilsa's? I mean Eve." There was also something off with how she carried herself.
The redhead smirked as she strode closer. "Sister, actually."
"Of course," filling my mug I took a step back. I was pretty sure that I wasn't dealing with White Court vampires, but that was at least in the right ballpark.
The redhead stretched up and pulled a cup off of the shelf. I will say she wore those pants exceptionally well. And it was purely out of curiosity that I looked to see what mug she had picked.
It was a good sized one emblazoned with "World's Greatest Mother". The color had faded slightly showing that it had gotten fair use, but it had also been meticulously cleaned and the way the redhead held it indicated she had personal attachment.
I slipped another gaze at her face. I could see someone wanting to...
I blinked. "I'm sorry?"
The redhead frowned. "I was saying Mr. Wizard, could you fill me up?"
"Really? Going that blunt?"
She waved the cup in front of me. "Coffee." She then pointed with at the pot in my hands.
"Oh... right." I filled her cup. "How do you take it?"
"Black," the redhead shrugged then took a sip. She stepped back and leaned onto the counter.
"Well, I'll let that slide this time.."
A crimson eyebrow lifted.
I took a pull from my mug. The coffee was good, or at least it was strong. "Your sister is German but you're..."
"Japanese." A smile. "You can call me Ranma Saotome."
A different last name than the blonde was using. And I had been among the faerie, not to mention wizards, long enough to hear a name cop-out. "I'm guessing you weren't born sisters. Adoption? Divorce?" My brother had lots of half-sisters, all with different mothers.
The redhead took another drink and laughed. It was oddly low, as if it came from deeper in her chest.
"There's also the whole succubus act. Pale skin, freaky eyes, unnaturally attractive."
"Act," the playfulness drained from the woman's voice as she set the cup down.
"Uh..." My hands flexed, and I glanced at the staff I had leaned against the counter.
The redhead tilted her head and a pair of black horns pushed their way out of her teased crimson hair. This was followed by a set of purple and crimson membranous wings popping into existence followed by a long spade-tipped purple tail snaking out the base of her spine.
Still holding the mug, my other hand dipped as the Winter Mantle's interest raged and my stance shifted. My duster parted revealing the tooled leather holster.
"Go ahead, skin it!" the redhead demanded as she lifted off the counter. "Skin that smokewagon and see what happens." Her eyes met mine.
I felt pulled into the gaze and broke contact, instead looking to her hands. Her little crimson nails seemed a hair longer.
"You don't know what'll happen," I stated placing the cup on the counter. In the same motion I swept up my staff.
The redhead grinned. Looking close I could tell she had fangs, but unlike a vampire more than just her canines were sharp.
"No, I don't know. Your kind are tricky, but you're a guest in this place, and if you try to hurt my friends, my family, you will regret it."
I raised my hand away from the revolver and put it on the staff. At least it seemed less threatening. Then my brain caught up with what she said earlier. "Tombstone really? You think I'd play for blood?"
"If so, I'd be your Huckleberry." Her grin grew as she looked up at me. Which... made the row of sharp teeth seem... friendlier?
"Look Red... I don't want to start a fight. I just get twitchy when surrounded by sexy demon ladies. You dig?"
Laughing the redhead, leaned back and picked up her mug. "Sounds like this isn't your first rodeo."
I watched her tail swish back and forth. My mind also ran the numbers. I had made deals with demons before. What? Don't look at me like that. I eventually realized that selling parts of my Name to Chauncey for info was a bad idea. Besides, the blonde and the redhead seemed too... human.
That left the Blackened Order of Denarius, Many of them could pull the succubus act. But they were really Fallen Angels pulling the strings of mortal hosts. They also tended to gain another pair of glowing eyes above their regular ones. And, oh yes, they were completely insane.
I decided to go for it. "Okay, so you're a succubus, what kind?"
I affected an air of disinterest and superior knowledge (hey - wizard). "Sure Red, plenty of things on the spooky side do the whole 'pretty lady' lure. Attract prey then eat 'em. Vampires do it, faerie do it, the Fallen do it. I know even a few ghosts who do it."
And then she pointed to her chest and said the thing I had really not wanted to hear. "Demon."
"Oh come on! You're being way too human for that. Not to mention if you'd been summoned up here you should be contained... or rampaging. And that's not even getting into how you'd have to possess a body..." I started to feel the cold anger of the Winter Knight rise up. That wasn't the only thing off about her.
"You're too high-strung." The redhead gave me a long-suffering look.
"Me? That's another thing. Demons aren't this calm. The whole Adversary, war against the Creator, thing gives them a huge chip on their shoulders!"
Sighing, she pointed to herself. "Shinto, I'm not part of your heaven-hell game."
"Well, me neither, I mean I know... wielders of holy..." I shook my head. "Look. I'm not the invading demon."
The demon's eyes flashed. "Invader? Listen Mage. I was born here, I have bled for this world. I have watched good men die fighting the many angled ones. And I will not be called down by some tourist that fell out of a hole in the sky."
The demon's tail straightened as she drew herself up. "Only one of us in this room can rightly be called an Outsider. And it ain't me."
Once more her gaze pulled me in. Hearing my own heartbeat I pulled away. It was too late. The Soulgaze hit. It shouldn't have happened. Why? Well okay. A Soulgaze is when a mortal practitioner meets the eyes of another and holds it. You see into their soul, they see into yours.
Here's the thing; the operative word is "soul". Both parties need a soul for it to work. You can have a Soulgaze with a human. You can have one with a changeling. You can have one with a White Court vampire or even a sasquatch. But you can't have one with a demon.
But apparently, with some demons, you can.
The redhead's soul... imagine a tree. Imagine it was made out of brilliant purple light. And each branch is a connection to someone else. I felt the links to daughters, to sisters, to parents, lovers, even friends. Love pulsed along the branches coming from a strong trunk. Looking down I could see the gnarled roots of the massive tree sunk deeply into the ground.
It was awe-inspiring and explained the care and love she gave that little mug. Here was someone who would do anything for her family, would give anything for her daughters. Even the tree itself was for them; the redhead's very existence was a result of that adamantine will.
Then I looked at the roots. It was not earth they were sunk into. It was a mass grave. The roots had speared flesh and greedily drained the bodies of everything they had. Death and sacrifice had been turned into love.
I broke out of the Soulgaze with a shudder. A hand went to my forehead and I rubbed my temples.
I looked up to see the demon nodding thoughtfully to herself. "You and your mate protected her. You killed them all." that toothy smile flashed again. "Well done."
"Uh..." I swallowed. It looked like I wasn't the only one to make a mountain of corpses defending my family. Hells Bells, my own mentor Ebenezar wasn't shy about the people he had killed. Nor, my occasional friend, and mercenary Kincaid. Not to mention some of the Wardens I have worked with. Nor the faerie like Lea...
Huh, I knew a worrying number of people who have filled graveyards worth of folk.
"So... what was that?" the demon asked as she refilled her mug and offered the pot to me.
I tried to re-engage my brain. I looked past her calm expression and then at how her tail stiffly hung behind her with a slight curve. I took the pot and watched as she took a slow sip and patiently waited.
"That was a Soulgaze. It happens when a practitioner looks someone deep enough in the eye."
"Huh. That why you avoid everyone's eyes like a naughty puppy?"
For a moment I almost felt a wave of amusement wash over the demoness. I exhaled.
"What'd you see with your magic peeping Tom powers?" the redhead lightly asked. I noticed her tail was swishing, and that she had resumed looking me in the eye.
"You love your family very much, and -uh- you'll do anything for them."
"You too; terrible tragedy with your mate," she looked down at her cup.
"How much... what did you see?"
Those luminous purple eyes met mine. "A father embracing an oncoming storm. An altar, a woman of... dread power. A pyramid, another altar, a knife, a mother letting a father end a war. Blood, water, frozen ground."
She kept starting me in the eye, eventually she blinked. "It's not happening again."
"Sorry, one shot's all you get."
The demon frowned. "Doesn't seem fair."
I stared. This was the first time someone had been disappointed they couldn't get another look into my soul.
"Bah, once is enough trouble." I put the pot back. "Hells... uh heck, I'm surprised I could even do it with you."
The redhead raised an eyebrow.
"You sure you're a demon? I mean like all the way. Maybe you're a scion; you know one mortal parent, one supernatural?"
She tilted her head and let her tail smack against the cabinet door below the counter. There was a shimmer and her black boots were replaced with polished silver hooves as her ankles arched up slightly.
Her pale skin started to shimmer with an almost silver opalescence. A gold tiara with a purple four-pointed star appeared on her forehead, and swelling behind it was the slicked, polished ruby mass of her hair. Another pair of black horns spiraled out of the crimson mass as the tresses pulled themselves into a polished bun.
Her features became sharper with a tiny upturned nose. Hard cheekbones with a bit of a hollow. Her lips darkened to a glossy purple and grew as her smile widened. The whites to her eyes were pushed out by the expansion of her purple irises.
A silver band holding a purple gem cut into another four pointed star encircled her neck. Below that was the pearlescent gleam of her now more sculpted pale lavender bodice.
I pulled my attention back up to her choker but the temptation was still there.
The curvy almost waspish torso was contained within the gleaming bodice that flowed and hugged her curves. A red bow with a heart-shaped center was pinned over her left breast. Okay, my gaze had lowered, but it was only to look at the crimson heart.
Her jacket evaporated as narrow shoulders were encircled by stiff black "puffs" of gauzy material. Forearms were covered in sleek slick lavender material with white piping. It was too thick to be gloves but too thin to be gauntlets. The gloves made her fingers look even longer with a seeming extra "joint" on the gleaming blade-like claws.
Spilling out over wide hips was a long pleated dark purple skirt. Moving over pale thighs set a bit apart from each other, the dark pleated material moved of its own accord, eventually settling into a shin length hem with a long slit going up the left side.
Daintily holding the cup with the tips of her long talons, the redhead sipped as she stepped forward. I noted that her hooves and shifted ankles caused her to walk with a bent-knee stance that caused her hips to sway more, especially when she slowly turned around and winked. Her tail, now much thicker at the base and over two yards long lifted and swished back and forth.
"Well, Mr. Wizard?" the redhead asked in a deep purring contralto while looking over her shoulder before leaning over to the coffee machine and filling her mug. A forked tongue came out and quickly licked a wide row of gleaming fangs. "Is this demon enough for you?"
The mantle of the Winter Knight raged up. Every base and predatory instinct that came with the position of Winter Knight wanted to take the redhead. I could just imagine that part screaming at me how she was even bending over. Then I could imagine my Id whistling and mentioning that at least this time I knew this woman was an inhuman predator.
"Okay, I might concede you're a demon," I blurted as I worked at counting primes in my head.
"What, you need further testing?" she asked as her tail swung out and, grabbing the doorknob, pulled it closed.
My attention went from the doorway to the demonic booty. "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me."
The demon gave a rich deep laugh. "Hmmm?"
Straightening up, she spun on a saucer sized hoof. She inhaled the air and her broad smile flashed. She then started circling around me towards the break room table. "Really, Mr. Wizard." she said as she moved the chairs. "You would know if I were trying to seduce you," she purred, pulling one out after pushing in another.
I am not a wise man. Okay, I am a wizard, and the root of that is wise man but... whatever. What I mean is that I'm a sucker for ladies, and more importantly I've dealt with a lot of glamorous (and Glamorous) women. From White Court vampire temptresses, to fairy queens to Fallen Angels. Granted, I've bumbled around most and killed more than a few. And the less said about what Mab and I did right after I started working for her as the Winter Knight the better.
Anyway, the short bit is that I was really confident in my ability to "Just say no" and arrogant enough to... The room dropped a few degrees as I dipped into Winter power of the White Knight's mantle. "Oh, let's see what you've got Red."
The demon's eyes flashed and I steeled myself for the mental assault. Especially as she swayed closer to me. She took a step to the side, then I took one. Ruing my pride, I focused my defenses as I took another step.
Then she grabbed my staff. No, not that one. Anyway with one hand she put her mug down and with the other ran her long claws over the polished shaft.
Okay... no more jokes. Anyway, then she put both hands on the wood. I shifted my grip and in that moment her tail whipped up and batted my arms away.
An instant later she had spun the staff around, hooked it between my legs and with a hand on my shoulder, unceremoniously levered me into the office chair behind me. In that moment a distant part of me noticed how she had positioned herself, and that this was a move similar to one the Aikido ones Murphy had used.
Then I got a lap full of purring demon.
It took embarrassingly long for me to realize the coifed redheaded had jumped onto my thighs and then wriggled in comfortably. I blame it on being dazed by the fall. There was a rustling as I felt her tail wrap around my legs while her wings unfurled and draped over my shoulders. One set of talons gently took my arm and wrapped it around her waist and while it was making sure my hand was somewhere... interesting, her other hand reached up and cupped my cheek.
Then something clicked, something that had seemed off since I'd first seen her. "Hey you're short! You're an itty-bitty little demon." I told you; I'm not a wise man. However, I did have enough sense to not comment on the two heavy pressures on my chest.
The redhead's smile froze and she blinked. "And?"
"I mean you're shorter than Murphy!" Despite the situation, I chuckled. Murphy would have laughed at this situation to, or smacked me upside the head.
"Someone I'm... close too. She's very tough."
"You're close?" she asked her eyes softening.
"Well... it's... complicated."
"And here you are with me," her talons gently caressed my face. "Poor, dumb Harry."
My free hand went up and grabbed her arm. A rime of ice started to creep out. My other hand went down and found the base of her tail.
Her eyes widened and the throaty purr resumed.
I pushed a bit more of my power and saw as the ice started to sublimate. She was strong, but I had better leverage, and with another Winter push I got her arm down. My other hand was at the base of her tail and gave a bit of a squeeze.
"I am not just food."
The demon leaned against me and I tried to not notice the silver snowflake over the red heart bow on her chest. "Clearly not,"
As I hit 1117 in my mental counting, I pulled my hand away from her loosened bodice. The lavender material seemed to sparkle with ice. "This is a test isn't it?"
Her grin returned.
"See, you're not actually doing the succubus mind trick stuff."
"Mmmm?" the demon noted as she pulled back her wings.
"You wanted to see how I'd react. If I'd give in-" I looked down at the tail around my legs. "Or flip out."
"I'll admit it was a bit of a sink or swim," the demon smirked as she unwound her tail.
"Why do inhuman women always feel the need to test me that way?"
"If it's that frequent, maybe it's the only way you'll learn?" the demoness noted as she hopped off my lap. She picked up her mug.
"And what would you have done if I had freaked out?"
The demoness gave another one of her low-pitched laughs.
There was a shimmer as the demoness shifted back to her black leather clothes, boots, normal fingers, and teased 80's metal band hair. She took her mug and topped it off. "Though I'll confess it might not have been all bad if you'd have had some fun," she winked. "But, I'll admit, you're not exactly my type."
"Well I'm also sorta... it's complicated," I grumbled. At least with Lara or even Lash, there was some pretext to their humanity.
I picked my staff back up and stood. "Still, I somehow don't think the Company would approve of such a test. At least that dour Lieutenant and your sister the Captain."
"Good thing I'm not Company, just a contractor," Ranma smiled. "More coffee?"
I shook my head. "Wait... so you're a mercenary for mercenaries."
The demon's merry grin returned. "It does allow some... flexibility."
"Huh," I put my cup in the sink and sprayed some water.
"Oh? You're telling me you're all straight lace and by-the-book Mr. Wizard?" She took a contemplative sip.
"Hey, I might work for the White Council and the Winter Queen but I'm not a puppet."
The demon nodded sympathetically, but her expression was a bit distant
"You have no idea what I'm talking about."
"Based on what you told Eve she's the Queen of the Winter Faerie. The Unseelie right? The wicked faerie? " She leaned forward. "The bad guys?"
"It's not as black and white as..." I groused then noted she was waving her tail... "Right, I'm talking to a demonic mercenary."
"And what do you do for the White Council of Wizards?"
"Warden," I answered.
"Warden of what?"
"Well a warden is in charge of a prison right?" Ranma asked.
"No, I'm not that kind of warden for the White Council."
She nodded. "Mab, she was the one in the soulgaze."
"I saw two sacrificial altars. Both stone, both had sacrifices. The first one, that was you swearing to her?"
I nodded. Of course she saw elements close to her own affinity.
"Warden, you run a prison for them? The Fae?"
"What? No not for-" I stopped and waited. Her next question would...
"And what do you do for-"
I held up my hand. "Careful, if you say her name too-"
Tail drooping, looking slightly bashful the demon nodded. "Sorry, I didn't know she was Love-Coda restricted." She tilted her head. "Will it summon her?"
"If you get her attention."
"Well, that's a way to get you home."
I chuckled. "I'd prefer to go with a less... pestering option."
The demon nodded, washing her cup. "I hear you."
"Do you? Or are you going to keep switching up your questions to throw me off balance."
The demon laughed it was a rich and charming. "Look I get it, your boss is a very powerful, very scary lady. I'd feel intimidated dealing with her too. It'd be like bugging my grandmother for some bus-fare," she remarked, opening the door. "Course, I'm not as close to my grandmother as you are to your boss-lady," she added with a little laugh.
I blinked. "Oh come on! You saw that too!" After a moment I shuffled out of the break room. "It was bad enough to have that broadcast all over fairyland..." I muttered under my breath as I followed a few steps behind her.
At least the redhead's subsequent snort of laughter informed me that her type of demon had excellent hearing.
We went through another corridor and passed a few more mercenaries. I noticed that they were all armed. Even, or perhaps, especially the trio of pale girls we passed. Ranma's face lit up as she chatted with them. I recognized two of them from the photo Eve had in her wallet; the third had lavender hair and eyed me with a mischievous smile before going on her way.
"If you're not running a prison for them, what does a Warden of the White Council do?" Ranma asked after bidding the demons farewell.
"Enforce the Laws of Magic," I replied, noticing we had entered a large concrete floored room. At first I took it for a storage room, then I noticed the vehicles.
"You're a wizard cop?"
She raised an eyebrow and waited. I got the impression that she used that expression a lot. It was a very "mom" look.
I had to keep myself from feeling embarrassed. "See, the Wardens are the combat wizards of the White Council. In peace, we enforce the Laws of Magic, go after warlocks and other black magic users. They also protect people from other monsters."
"And in war..."
I snorted at her leading statement. "Take a guess."
"Right." She nodded. "And you do that all and work for the Queen?"
The "mom gaze" returned.
"Look, it's complicated, but basically the Summer and Winter Courts get to pick one mortal champion, representative, emissary and... bruiser. Their Knight."
"Wizard cop, PI, and bruiser for a faerie queen? Impressive."
I kept a bit of relief that she hadn't deduced my other positions, such as my other warden job. That is exactly what kind of prison I was warden of. "And what about you Red? You're not just a contractor."
She smiled and pointed further down the garage. "Oh look, our ride's here."
"Come on, muscled, crew-cut mercenaries don't give respectful nods and treat just any five foot-nothing woman as a comrade-at-arms." I snorted. I had seen cops, Aikido disciples, and Einherjar give the same looks to Murphy.
She opened the door to the grey panel van. And looked at me. I could detect a hint of amusement in her eyes.
There were a couple of mercenaries by the door. They were both dressed in office casual. But they had the short hair, fit physiques and wary eyes that I had come to expect. I was also pretty sure they had some kind of discrete body armor on under their shirts.
"Come on tell me she's not just a contractor?"
The one with black hair looked to his partner. "Miss Saotome? Oh she's a plain-Jane trigger puller."
I snorted. "Right an operation with officers as suspicious as big-blonde Ilsa don't leave just anyone alone with a known wizard. Not if they're clued into magic."
He held up his hands. "Okay you got us. She's one of our combatives instructors."
I eyed the mercenary.
"Captain Jarvis is just worried about her sister," the other one said.
"Right, the sister that's the head of a whole-" I paused what was the collective noun? There were a lot and Bob, my old assistant, would harp on me whenever I used one incorrectly. But there was a generic one... Ah yes. "A whole brood of succubae?"
"Three, technically," Ranma said after she finished circling the van.
I gave her a half-lidded gaze.
"Okay, okay, you got me," the demon waved her hands. "Long ago, I worked for the Queen of the Moon as a Maho shojo complete with bows and miniskirt. I'm kinda negotiating to get back in."
The image of her fluffy demon getup floated into my mind. And stayed purely because I wanted to recall if that outfit had bows. In resignation, I looked to the two mercenaries. "She's not being sarcastic is she?"
"I couldn't say, Sir," one said with a little smile.
"Huh." I didn't know anything concrete about "Maho shojo", that is magical girls, but from what I'd heard from some of the Wardens that operated in Japan, it was basically a type of ritual magic.
Think of ritual magic like a vending machine. You put in the money, pull the lever, and out comes the treat. Or in this case you say the right incantation, do a ritual, and out pops some magical power. In either case, the treat or the magic is supplied by an outside sponsor.
Anyway "Maho shojo" were young women that were empowered by various kami, spirits, what-have-you and fought forces of disharmony and evil. It seemed odd but no stranger than a decade or so back when I had to deal with a coven of porn stars using ritual magic to kill their enemies.
Look my job is strange. Okay?
Still the sponsorship was... interesting. Red seemed like she had plenty of power. Did she really need some Moon Queen to sponsor her too? Or had she just hatted up and grabbed every power source she could grab?
I'll confess to having had similar urges. And well, given I was Mab's Knight among a great many other things...
I looked up and saw the demon's face marred by disapproval. It was not quite the same "mom gaze" as before, that one was "Explain yourself young man" this one was more "Why can't you focus like the other children?"
"Look, you were on a mission. Did you go alone? Did your buddies evacuate a different way? Or do we need to mount a rescue mission?" she asked with more exasperation that I would have expected. "You didn't ask about anyone else, so it seems like you were alone, but I don't want to assume."
"I was alone." I frowned. "How do you know I was on a mission?"
Her eyes went to my coat, staff, rod, and revolver. "Is that your walking around gear Tex?" Her grin came back at my confused response. "Oh. It is," she turned back to one of the mercenaries. "Check out Mr. Wizard, Gabe! This is his going around town outfit."
The black-haired man looked up from the report he was reading. "Sensible."
I frowned. "You didn't know I was on a mission, you were just fishing?"
"Maybe. But the important thing is... you didn't lose any buddies right? We shouldn't be looking around the wilds of Ontario for another wizard who fell through the sky?"
I shook my head. "No, I was sent alone." I had asked Mab for time to get some reinforcements but she had a way of being... insistent.
The demon gave that little head tilt and sniffed the air.
"What's the van for anyway?"
"You let a demon and a bunch of mercenaries lead you to an unmarked black panel van and only now just started to ask where we're going?"
I suffered through another "disappointed mom look" as she joked with one of the mercs about if they had any spare burlap "head bags".
"I'm trying to be diplomatic; I am a guest here. Whatever this place is," I stated easily. In truth, I felt I'd have more options on the road than in their facility. It wouldn't be the first time I've had to destroy a van or escape a moving vehicle.
"It used to be a helicopter factory or something," she said absently. "Anyway, you'd like confirmation this isn't your world right?"
"It would be nice to know if things are more Philip K. Dick or Harry Turtledove," I said.
"In that case we could have just given you a history book," the black-haired mercenary snorted.
"I dunno, if you ignore all the time travel nonsense Turtledove's not that bad," the other mercenary defended.
"We can stop at a bookstore if he insists," Ranma rolled her eyes.
"You're awfully calm about this whole 'parallel worlds thing'."
The redhead pointed to her horns. "Besides. You're not my first, or my strangest, tourist, Mr. Wizard. Anyway, I'm betting you have a whole bunch of contact numbers in that thick-head of yours?"
"Well... but If I use your pho-"
She thumped the side of the van a bit impatiently. "Right, so here's what we do, we go out, you pick a supermarket and you buy yourself a cheap phone."
At the word supermarket my stomach grumbled.
"And some grub, or you can pick a place. Then you can try calling your people. Best case, you actually do find someone and can arrange transport back home. Worst case, you don't, but then you'll know it ain't us screwing with you."
I pondered that; it was a pretty fair plan. And trusting on their part, not just that I wouldn't escape but that I also wouldn't cause a scene in public. But there was one problem.
"That's good but..." I rubbed my head. "See, my powers break cell phones. Wizard magic doesn't like technology, and cell phones get the worst of it."
"It does now?" The demon sighed through her nose. "Fine, we'll you a find a payphone." She nodded to the brown-haired merc who walked off. "Or a couple, you pick one you like and go from there."
"Yeah, I guess that'll work," I looked around the garage. I could see its past as a factory's shipping and receiving section. There were a couple more vans, a few sedans and a hulking grey armored vehicles. Those included great big truck-like beasts that SWAT teams often got surplus from the army. And, relatively, smaller trucks that resembled my brother's ostentatious ride, save far more Spartan and with the bolted on armor kits.
I eyed the van. It looked like its suspension had been reinforced and the doors and windows were thicker. "What's the hold up?" I asked after a couple minutes.
The redhead nodded to the merc who was jogging up to us. Behind him two pale demons followed. Despite seemly moving at a languid pace, they were keeping up with the man.
"Any trouble, Whipple?" the redhead asked.
"Nah, LT had expected something like this," he said tossing a blue zippered bag at her.
She caught it; there was a clink of change.
For a split second I froze. Laugh all you want, but I've had bad experiences with coins in the past.
Without missing a beat, or seemingly noticing my discomfort, the redhead simply popped the bag to her other hand and lobbed it at me. I clumsily caught it and took immediate relief that the bag was sealed. Said relief grew infinitely larger when I didn't feel any spark of magic from the banker's bag.
Look, you deal with coins holding Fallen Angels that can infect your mind with a touch and then tell me you wouldn't be twitchy over strange people tossing random coinage at you.
Holding the bottom of the bag, I carefully unzipped it. Inside was a shiny collection of gold-colored coins with a queen on one side and some kind of duck on the other, gold and silver-ish coin with the same queen and a bear and finally some all silver coins with a moose (or was it a reindeer) as the animal.
Careful not to touch the coins, I shifted the bag around but if there was a pitted, blackened ancient roman coin among the queens and animals I didn't see it.
"Mom!" one of the newly arrived demons happily cried, knocking me out of my coin based obsession.
I looked up to see a taller succubus with fine black hair and deep red eyes hugging the redhead. She had similar facial features to her mother, but they weren't as sharp. Combined with her height, they gave her an almost aristocratic look.
However that was tempered by the infectious joy with which she embraced the redhead. She looked to be in her late teens and wore a maroon dress over black leggings. She carried a long, thin bundle slung over one shoulder that had to be a sword.
Next to her was a slightly shorter woman with platinum blonde hair pulled back with a white bow. Wearing a vest and tailored slacks, she looked a bit younger than the black-haired demon, but it was hard to tell. She had a long lumpy backpack sling over one shoulder. They both looked younger than the redhead, but Ranma didn't even look thirty.
The blonde smirked as I bashfully zippered up the bag and slipped it into a coat pocket. She then slipped under the redhead's arm and leaned in. I felt almost an electric tingle. It was the magical equivalent of standing under high tension wires. And my mind immediately went to the "tree" I'd seen in the Soulgaze.
"Huh, group hug," I said when the surprisingly saccharine display broke up.
The redhead smiled without a hint of embarrassment. "Girls, this is Harry Dresden Warden of the White Council and Knight of the Winter Court," she said giving a little bow of the head. "Dresden, these are my daughters Ukyou," she indicated the platinum blonde. "And Nariko," she pointed to the black-haired demoness.
"Uh, hi," I waved. Unlike with Ranma I felt guilty looking at these two girls. Okay... more guilty. "Two? I got the impression you had more?"
A prideful smile crossed Ranma's face. "I've got three more, but they're training at the moment. That is unless you want to be mobbed by succubae," she teased.
I held my tongue and simply looked to the van. Personally, I thought having three demons shadow me was a bit much. Though if my count was right, dour Ilsa and her girls made for four succubae, Red and her girls made for six, and if I assumed the same number for the third sister from Eve's picture... Well, call it fifteen or so demons working for Willard International. Which made having only three follow me seem less worrying, though the fact that they had over a dozen demons was a whole different level of potential worry.
Ranma's purple eyes locked onto me and without breaking eye contact she gave a motion with her hand. The two humans took the driver's and shotgun seat. The daughters took the back row. Then keeping her broad smile, the redhead stepped back and motioned to the middle row.
"Yeah, let's get going," I murmured.
I was torn between slamming the phone down in fury or letting it drop in apathy. Instead, I went to the bag of French fries that I had propped up on bottom lip of the windbreak around the pay phone.
The salt and crunch gave me some solace, even though the heat had long since dissipated as evening approached. I took a sip of my drink. At least that was still cold and contemplated my next move.
Seeing that I was off the phone, Ranma stepped closer, crossing the park path. I had no doubt that she could still hear me, but at least she made a point to not hover at my shoulder. Then again, it's not like she'd heard anything useful.
I'd gone through various White council contacts, a bunch of the folks that ran the Paranet, Murphy, the Carpenters, my former apprentice and sort of boss Molly, Butters, and William the Werewolf. It might not have been a total wash. I'd left a few messages on answering machines that weren't obviously someone else.
Still, the inability to get in touch with anyone was ominous. I looked down to the South and saw the giant space-needle like thing dominating the sky-line. I definitely wasn't in Chicago and it was looking likely that I was even further. Also the people around me, well I'd only met a handful jogging or walking their dogs in the park. The air was starting to get further below freezing though I wasn't sure the temperature, since everything was in that crazy metric the Canadians used.
But they people out and about had seemed... nicer than if this was Chicago. Though the place was emptying as darkness threatened.
I wasn't without options; I still had a few more numbers to call. Though contacting Ivy might be... awkward. Her bodyguard Kincaid normally answered her phone calls. How do you talk to the mercenary you hired to kill you?
Long story, suffice to say I'd had a plan to "retire early" from my job as the Winter Knight. Mab had different ideas. And… well it turned out killing myself wasn't really my idea in the first place. Look, I told you it was a long story.
I glanced up; Ranma was waiting off to the side. She'd put her hands in her coat as if she was trying to keep warm. I'd had my suspicions. Thanks to the Winter Mantle I didn't mind staying out, and I was pretty sure demons were immune to the cold.
She glanced over me and let her eyes settle onto the fries. She sorted at the logo. "Burger King? Really? Could you be more American? Fast food, revolver, big coat, you just need a cowboy hat to complete the look."
"I don't do hats."
"Oh? You'd look good in one."
I grumbled and looked down the path to the parking lot at the west side of the park. In it was the van that had driven us. The other demons and mercs had decamped to a picnic table near the vehicle. They had even unloaded a few of their bags. It seems they had brought their own food. To the south of them was a meandering creek that ran across the park. Between the creek and the path were a couple large rocks, clearly there for decoration.
The demon flashed her teeth. "If you're gonna be a cowboy cop in your duster and six-gun..."
"Very funny." I shook my head and composed myself. Her smile looked a bit... off. And it wasn't just how broad it was or how bright her teeth were. I blamed it on having seen her demonic form. Even now, in her "barely-passing as human" guise, I could easily imagine how she really looked.
She looked at her watch. On a steel band with an analog face, it looked purely mechanical. It was an amusing bit of overkill. I mean, sure my magic ruined cell phones and computers when I walked up to them, but the rest of my tech-bane was cumulative.
Hells Bells, I've been on helicopter rides. Though the less said about those the better. In my old apartment, I had a landline phone that worked most of the time. I owned a car once. Sure, it was an original VW Beetle. Sure, the Blue Beetle stopped being blue after only a few years worth of repaints and replacements, but it was mine, and I'd had it for over a decade. Sure, it'd required Herculean efforts from my old mechanic Mike, but it had worked three days out of every four on average. Well, until it was smashed up by a monster of the Red Vampire Court.
Look, the point was that if I could use a modern car... well for a week at least. Being around me with an electric watch shouldn't be a big deal.
Ranma glanced over at the table with the others. It was fairly random but on occasions she would rotate off and one of the other girls would be near me. They were both pretty quiet, with the blonde one going into a rant about the way my burger was cooked.
It turns out she had... opinions on how to properly work a griddle, or a grill in this case. The other was almost silent and I would have called her shy if not for the distant, guarded way she watched everything.
"You got more numbers to try?" Ranma asked, watching a couple running down a park path about a hundred feet off. They were both in matching running pants and windbreakers. The woman's dark ponytail bobbed while the man's mullet swished.
"A few," I admitted. But I was already planning my next steps. The easiest was to simply open another Way to the NeverNever and simply walk through the portal.
Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. The NeverNever didn't map one to one with the real world. See, you can step through a portal walk a mile in the NeverNever then hop through another portal and find you've gone hundreds of miles. Or conversely, only a few feet.
That's because points on either side were linked symbolically. A place of darkness and evil will link to another place of darkness and evil. Or it could be as simple as a den of ruthless wyld faerie hunters linking to an office of human police investigators renowned for their ability to track fugitives.
See, the NeverNever is a land where magic and metaphor and such are just as powerful as the laws of physics, in some places they're moreso. It could make for convenient travel. Say a five minute walk between Singapore and Boston, but it was also incredibly dangerous as you could find yourself breathing acid, heated thousands of degrees, or crushed under ten gravities.
And that was just the environment, the flora and fauna, not to mention the natives, could be worse. It was also gigantic, and, worse, the links were slowly changing. My mother was one of the few mortal wizards to actually make a make a go at mapping the Ways and she had been at it for decades before her death.
Now in theory, going back to where I'd fallen though in the first place should work. Ways are supposed to be two-way like that. But I knew enough about my luck to know it would not be that simple. It never was. Still, that was high on my list of trying to get out of here.
I glanced at the demon expected her to be annoyed at my reverie. Instead she was looking thoughtful. "Mr. Wizard, you more close quarters or ranged?" she asked, her tone offhand.
Years ago I'd have a ready answer. But I wasn't the wheezy wizard I once was. Over a decade of experience, including fighting without my powers, had helped. Not to mention that I stood well over six foot tall. Pulls all the physical training over that time. Which, more recently, the Winter Knight Mantle had provided a great help on. It's amazing what happens to "No pain, no gain" when you can ignore little things like muscle fatigue. For running to be even remotely challenging, I had to use a weighted vest. A heavily weighted vest.
Still... I am a wizard. And it's not like my magical prowess and skill hasn't grown over that time. Stepping to one side and angling my back, I put a tiny bit of power into my staff causing the runs to glow the barest bit.
Looking down the path in the, opposite direction of the parking lot, the redhead nodded fractionally. "If the balloon goes up you're the heavy, I flank. The others rearguard," she said in a bare whisper.
A quartet of men approached. They wore grey off-the rack suits. And inexpensive, somber ties. The older of the men in center wore a brown overcoat almost as long as my duster. He also had a square-jaw and a bit of greying at the temples. His green eyes were flecked with bits of gold.
A slightly younger man with dark brown eyes and a blonde crew-cut stood next to him. His tie was a red that seemed almost bright compared to the rest of their dull colors. The young man seemed almost bulky and walked as if vaguely uncomfortable with his clothes. He also carried a briefcase that seemed too small for him.
Flanking them were two even younger men in dark sunglasses that were at odds with the rapidly approaching night. They looked mid-twenties at most.
"Mr. Dresden, a pleasure to catch up with you," the older man said. His accent was nasally, but it was American.
"Special Agent Lucas," he lifted his right hand while his left pulled slightly at his over coat. "If we may?" he asked me after his gaze passed over the demon.
"Sure," I said, leaning the staff on one shoulder.
Lucas opened his coat and slowly pulled out an ID he flipped it open. The action revealed a black gun in a shoulder holster.
"Special Agent Worth," the other said in a low rumble as he repeated the same action. Another shoulder holster flashed.
"FBI?" I asked. The identification document listed one as Stobart Lucas and the other as Virgil Worth.
"Information your arrival… leaked." Lucas said.
"Maybe parts of the Canadian military aren't so comfortable about mercenaries," Worth added.
"Maybe they called, maybe when we heard what was happening to one of our citizens we flew up," Lucas continued as he gave the redhead a wolfish smile.
"And what do you want?" I asked skeptically. Bad experiences with the Feds aside, this whole setup was a little too cute.
"Why, Mr. Dresden, we want to help you get home." His eyes went from the redhead to the mercenaries by the parking lot. "And out of... custody."
My neck tingled. Part of me didn't want to be here. This whole situation seemed wrong.
The redhead gave a shrug as she watched the others in the park. The jogging couple had lapped the park and there were a few others out and about. She then turned back to the parking lot and I watched as her luminous purple eyes blinked.
"What if it's not that simple?" I asked, glancing at Lucas' gold-flecked green eyes.
"Oh, we know you're a long way from home, Warden," Lucas assured. "One lawman to another, we have ways of getting you home. You have my promise that I'll get you back."
Worth nodded, while the two others were simply silent.
I pulled back. I didn't feel the pull of a soulgaze yet, but I wasn't about to try it. "Someone's informed."
"The Bureau tries its best. And we try to be more... diplomatic than certain private sector groups."
"Mercenaries. Unprofessional," Worth added.
The redhead inhaled and sniffed the air. She then looked at her fingers, then back to the Feds.
"What if I'm skeptical? I mean, it's not like I'm in a rush."
Lucas made a point of looking at the payphone and the fast food debris. "Clearly not. Still... we thought you might need a bit of convincing so we stopped by the... special archives before our flight. If I may?" he asked reaching back.
The redhead shrugged.
"Virgil," Lucas said.
The blond man opened his briefcase and pulled out a drab folder. Lucas then stepped closer and reached out. "Remember how J Edgar insisted that the Bureau hire only good little Catholics?"
Laughter bubbled from the redhead.
I took it. It was grey and the cover was "Restricted / Keyhole Tempest / Ordo Malleus World K40" Inside was... My eyebrow went up. It was a brief write-up of the Knights of the Cross and some of their contacts in the Church.
"Where did you get this?"
"From our Church contacts." Lucas shrugged. "The Papal Expeditionary."
"Apparently the big boss likes to keep the various 'branch offices' talking," Worth added.
I almost nodded. That much was true. I personally knew an Archangel that worked both with the Church, the Knights, and ran his own "spook shop". Literally. It was a group of spirits that he used to help fight evil.
The demon, however, did nod. "We've worked together before," she then grinned at the Fed. "I'll call Bishop O'Malley myself."
Lucas' own smile forced its way up. "Good, good. That would make things easier," he held out a hand. His eyes seemed to shine with mirth. Worth, for his part, glowered slightly.
I closed the folder and tossed it over. Lucas reached out and caught it in midair.
"Sounds good, I guess I'll call them directly."
"And with both the FBI and the Company vouching for you I'm sure you'll get all the help you need," the demoness happily agreed, giving Lucas a wide grin.
"Yes, well, we'll be in touch," Lucas stated as he handed the folder Worth who stuck it in his briefcase.
"And their badges?" Ranma absently asked
"I'm sorry?" Lucas asked.
"The two goons," the demon lazily pointed.
"Really, Miss Saotome?" Lucas sighed.
"Really. Now, I'm not like my sister. I can't cite the exact model and caliber of issue guns of various country's national police forces." Her grin grew even broader and the shadows deepened around her.
I tightened my fingers on my staff and felt a wave of energy wash over me.
"But even I know that the FBI carry Glocks these days." She stepped to the side and looked between me and the feds. "Now, sure, impersonating a federal officer is a crime, but I'll let that go... if you and your pack of goons stand down and tell us who sent you."
She rolled her shoulders and stepped forward and deeply inhaled. "You've got guts."
I was slightly disturbed by how she said like she was in the butcher shop admiring a fresh cut of meat.
Lucas chuckled. "You're outnumbered. You can't even call for help thanks to your Wizard friend, phage."
The demon's eyes shimmered. And a deep rumbling noise came from deep within her diaphragm. It took me a second to realize she was chuckling. It was lower in tone than even normal for her, and it seemed like she was keeping herself from going into maniacal laughter.
Eyes hardening, Lucas' hands moved to his shoulder.
The redhead smiled. There was something anticipatory about her. "Go ahead, skin it. Skin that smoke wagon and see what happens," the demon stated as she took another step closer.
"Listen Miss, I just here to talk to Mr. Dresden. I-I'm getting awful tired of your-"
At the stutter, the demon's eyes flared and she put hand up pointing two fingers at Lucas' face. "I'm getting' awful tired of your gas," she stated. "Now jerk that pistol and go to work."
Lucas's eyes shimmered, and he glanced to his partner.
"I said throw down law dog!"
"Easy there Drago," I told Worth as I reached into my own coat.
Lucas's hand flexed.
"You gonna do somethin'?" the demon demanded.
"And I was trying to be civil." Lucas gave a long exhale. When he finished his eyes were shining golden. "Let the Wizard go Miss Saotome. This does not concern you. We merely want him to go back home."
The two flanking goons rolled their shoulders and shifted their weight.
The redhead's deep laughing abruptly stopped. "That ain't my decision. You try to keep him from goin' where he wants."
Worth glared between me and the demon. "You turn him loose or we'll tear you apart."
She spared a wink at me. "We playing for blood then?"
Worth's hand touched the butt of his gun and my revolver swept out and pressed against his forehead. There was a series of satisfying ratcheting noises as I drew back the hammer on the massive fifty caliber weapon.
"You die first, get it? Your friends might get me in a rush, but not before I make your head into a canoe, you understand me?" I stated.
Worth blinked, more confused than frightened or even angry. "What?"
"Tombstone! Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp?" I snorted. "Philistines."
Eyes flashing, Worth set his jaw and glared, his chin jutting out. Some of the others in the park seemed to have noticed and were turned to us. The mullet jogger tilted his head while his partner might have grinned. Her teeth flashed white in the gloom.
Just on the edge of my vision, I could also make out a pair moving towards the picnic table with the others.
Lucas opened his mouth. Then, his gold eyes narrowing, he paused. I could tell he'd made his decision. "Men... kill the-!" he yelled the last words ending in a snarl.
Which turned into a gasping scream as a gout of flames burst from the redhead's fingers. It was a narrow almost beam-like pillar red fire, held in by purple spirals.
The familiar and horrifying sent of burnt flesh and hair filled my nose. Before me Worth's eyes also flashed golden and he began to change as his jaw began to grow and hair started to sprout on his face.
I pulled the trigger. His head blew apart and the rest of his body dropped like a potato sack, following Lucas to the ground.
The two goons in the back row wavered, their suits ripping apart as their bodies bulked up. Muscles and fur grew everywhere. Hands became paws tipped in curled claws. Mouths expanded into fang filled jaws as they howled and pounced. Similarly changing, the others in the park dashed forward leaping bounds.
Charging forward, the demon's wings, tail and horns popped into existence.
And then everything went to hell.
End Chapter 1
I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Pale Wolf, Kevin Hammel, and Ellf. Special thanks should be given to Ellf for his help in soundboarding and getting this idea off the ground. His own Dresden Files fics such as Training Daze and the Building Faith series were major contributors.
In fact, I started this project back around January/February which is in roughly line with Ellf's own stuff. I mention this because that means that I've got 12 chapters of this story already written. I've got everything but the ending couple chapters written up so, yes, this is a story that I can have finished.