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.

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Temporary Backup Site.

http://www.fukufics.com/fic/

 

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C as always is wanted.

 

Chapter 14: Midnight Appetizer, Part B

 

 


            The van slowed down and stopped. Still edgy from the potion, I looked around. We were in front of a gate. High razor wire stretched out in either direction. Radios crackled as the mercenary driving and his companion riding shotgun talked with the soldiers manning the gate.


            I blinked at their splotchy grey-green uniforms. I also blinked when they shined flashlights into the van and got a look at each of us. These were Canadian troops. And I was a bit self-conscious at how I was dressed in just my armor and duster.


             Also the men standing around the gate were split into multiple teams, one group behind metal barricades and an idling APC to one side with its lance-like cannon aimed straight at us.


            I could feel the apprehension coming from the soldiers. Especially after members of their team gave the van a sweep with some familiar-looking scanning equipment.


            Concentrating on holding my powers, I listened as the radio chatter got a bit more heated. Having everyone's radios fry due to an antsy succubus wizard would be... awkward.


            After a few tense moments, the sergeant manning the gate nodded and motioned to let us pass. I looked out across the broad expanse on the other side of the fence. We were on some kind of a military base, probably an airbase of some kind. To one side I saw helicopters taking off and landing as troops waving glowing wands directed them.


            At the end of that line a giant beast of a chopper descended. It had twin rotors front and back and the backwash rocked the van as it landed. I looked over and saw Nariko press her lips together.


            "It looks like the Canadians are taking this pretty serious, eh?"

            My niece's red eyes blinked for a second. "Yes," she said, pointing a bit further afield.


            Following, I looked up and saw a helicopter hovering above the second row of landing pads. It wasn't quite as big as the transport helo that had just landed, but its engine still throbbed as its blades beat down at the ground.


            A long sling hung from beneath it and a crew of soldiers worked to attach it to a collection of metal struts surrounding a long tube of metal. It was only after the sling was secured and the helicopter took to the air that I realized what it was.


            "That's an... big gun," I stated, flatly.


            "155mm howitzer," Nariko nodded. "Probably one of the newer M777s."


            "They're bringing artillery?"


            Nariko's expression darkened. "And urgently... given they could tow the piece behind a truck."


            "They're probably doing that too," Cecilia added. "Military sorts love the belt and suspenders approach."


            "Then they should let the Company use our assets too," Nariko said.


            Cecilia shrugged. "The Canadians feel that they should be the ones firing heavy ordinance in populated areas."


            I mumbled something in vague agreement as I thought. There had been situations in the past where I had wished the authorities had believed me. There were even a couple times where they had. Okay... those were magical authorities, but still.


            When I called in a Code Wolf on a bunch of necromancers all competing in order to become a new dark god in Chicago a few Halloweens ago, the White Council played the cavalry and sent a Warden strike team to help me.


           Granted... that was after the Council had suffered a major defeat against the Red Court so the strike team was a bit... short-handed. Stars and Stones, things were so bad that they drafted me into the grey cloaks on the spot. Still, the White Council came when I called and provided backup, such as they could.


            Mortal authorities on the other hand.... Well there was one time that Murphy offered to do just that on a previous Denarian attack. This was back when she was still a cop and ran Special Investigations, a branch of the CPD that dealt with "unofficial" problems. I'd made the judgment call back then that people who weren't trained into the supernatural world would face too dangerous of a learning curve.


            Denarians should not be someone's first exposure to the supernatural.


            As I watched the helicopters lift off and buzz about, I wasn't quite so certain that I was wrong. Across the long runway that divided the base I saw a low-slung hangar open and watched as a jet was pulled out by some sort of motorized cart. It was hard to make out, but something dark and bulbous hung from each of the sleek, twin tail, grey plane's wings.  It looked to be about the size of a fighter jet, or maybe a bit bigger. Its glass canopy looked like it sat two people - I don't know much about military jets.  I had enough problems with flying in civilian aircraft.


            The van had slowed and was going through another check point. This one was more thorough, but I didn't pick up the tinge of nervous apprehension among these troops.


            Though that was probably because I could feel a couple of my nieces among the perimeter team. I also felt something that might have been a ward. Or it may have simply been the buzzing of getting even closer to the source of their Jammers.


            The van stopped. The doors opened. I jumped out, my hooves hitting the concrete surface. The smell of jet fuel infiltrated my nose and the hum of engines pounded against my ears and chest. Light blue hair whipped around in the night breeze. I took a moment to look around the base before Nariko gently pushed me towards the concrete building in front of us.


            Feeling my other two sisters, I stepped through the steel door. I wasn't sure what I expected. Maybe a dark cavernous room with a sinisterly-lit table in the center surrounded by uniformed officers with rows of medals on their chest and smoke curling from cigars and pipes. Maybe a giant monitor on one wall displaying a map and satellite feeds and in front of that rows of technicians in some sort of mission control.


            And to be fair... for all I knew, the mercenaries had a room like that.


            But it wasn't here.


            Instead the inside of the hangar was... a hangar. The lights were bright, but that was so maintenance people would be able to see as they worked. And there was a map to one side, but it was paper and had been tapped up to a wheeled whiteboard. There were also a few technicians and people operating computers and other bits of esoteric machinery.


            I exchanged a nod with a harried-looking Dirac. Nariko's prodding became less than gentle as she pulled me away from the delicate electronics. Pouting a bit, I rubbed my hip and went towards the center of the room.


            My sisters stood in front of the taped-up map. Eve was talking on a radio while Ranma flipped through a folder of photos. I felt their focus and apprehension. Between them Butters and Doctor De Cotes were making notes. He worked from a clipboard while the older research scientist used her tablet PC.


            Flipping through notes, his nimble handmade annotations and after consulting with De Cotes, he would occasionally hand a print-out to Eve. I watched as the blonde would take the missive and read out the information to whomever was on the other end of the radio.


            As we approached, Cecilia cleared her throat. Glancing back Ranma smiled, but she also nudged De Cotes, who shut-off her computer. Eve also ended her radio chat and turned to face us.


            "Sorry for interrupting your date," Ranma said with a little cough.


            "Well, I heard my little brain trust found Tessa," I gave a toothy grin. "I suppose that's worth an interruption."


            Butters gave an awkward smile and straightened his black vest and white mantle. The cape-like garment had a red cross over his heart. It wasn't quite the same as Michael's knighting gear but it got the point across.


            "First off, the Russians were wrong. They saw a bunch of different distortions at various locations and thought that Tessa was 'testing the grounds'." Butters's voice carried in the hangar surprisingly well. "They got it backwards. Tessa wasn't looking for the best spot."


            It clicked into place. "They were making it?"


            He nodded. "Yeah, they were tuning the ambient magical energies to make this the best spot." The knight pointed to the big map. His finger was just to the south of the town of London Ontario, a bit over a hundred miles from Toronto.


            I stepped closer to the map. He was pointing to what looked like a hospital. Eve then indicated another section of the board. There an aerial image had been blown up of the area. It was taken by some sort of night vision and thermal equipment but there were lots of notations and overlays of roads and other items. "The Park Institute?" I asked, frowning. There was also a forest to the south of it, and below that a trio of ponds.


            "The nearby Western University has found some artifacts between the Westminster ponds," Butters pointed to the three bodies of water with a frown.


            "Oh?" I gave a little sigh as my tail went limp


            "They haven't' really dug in the areas, they're still conducting negotiations with some First Nations folks."

 
            The tip of my tail flicked about in apprehension. "Okay... but there's plenty of hospitals, factories, ponds, rivers, waterfalls, forests, and libraries in the area." My hand swept over the larger map.

 

            "And this is among the list of locations," Eve agreed as she gestured over the big board. There were a lot of blue and red marks on it. "However-" she looked meaningfully at Butters.


            The shorter man nodded. "But from her notes.... this... Shest woman, she rambles about 'rumblings in the earth.' So, we cross referenced places that were doing excavation work."


            The blonde demon's smile turned frosty. "And the Park Institute is having their foundations shored up by a Quebecoise construction company."


            "One that got a bunch of new trucks full of.... equipment driving in these last couple of days," Butters added pointing a group of tractor trailers in the picture.


            I sighed and looked at the ponds. "Three is a powerful number. And there's a lot of... raw material to work with."


            Butters shuddered in memory of Lomar.


            "What about your... magic defectors?" I asked Eve.


            "Drones and scouts seem to indicate something is up. Thus..." her eyes went to the big map covered with pins and marks.


            "Thus, you felt this was serious enough to call in everyone," I finished. My attention when back to Butters. "What about you? Any word from the Home Office?"


            The doctor frowned at the photos. "It feels like where we'd have a boss battle... but that's just a hunch," he eventually said with some reluctance.


            "Butters?" I asked. When dealing with a Knight of the Cross hunches were often more than just hunches.


            "There's no arrow in the sky... I looked," he added in a quiet voice before turning to me. "It's a hospital, Harry. What do you thinks gonna happen?"


            "Tessa hasn't started attacking yet..." I eyed my blonde sister.


            Eve nodded, "We wouldn't be talking here. As it stands, we have some time to get organized."


            "Not if Serenity's late brining in Hino," Ranma grumbled.


            I blinked, but our blonde sister simply smiled. "We'll have time for the ceremony, and to consult you," Eve told me.


            "What do you think, Miss Wizard?" Ranma asked.


            I growled. "It... fits. But there could be a backup site?" I sighed. A few years back I had to deal with an Outsider incursion. They had decided to try their summoning at three separate locations at the same time.


            "We have plans for that," Eve nodded to someone behind me.


            Sidestepping I turned and saw a diminutive figure emerge from the shadows. Maroon eyes glinted.


            "Is that why you're having my team stand back?" Lady Pluto asked


           "You have the most rapid response capability, and concerns of a second summoning site are reasonable," Eve stated, nodding to me.


            The young woman with the ageless eyes sighed. "It won't be the same for them, not without Ami."


            Butters strode forward. He was a pretty short guy, but even he was taller than Lady Pluto. "We've met before."


            "Yes, after Dame BlackStone's training," Pluto bowed her head. "Pleasure to meet you again, Sir Knight."


            "And what are you doing here?"


            The green-haired girl swept her hand over the map. "Ensuring privacy."


            Butter's eyes widened. "Tessa can't?"


            Ah, so that explained the strange ward I felt on the way in.

            "The Denarians aren't to be underestimated," I stated. I knew that Anduriel, the Fallen working with Nicodemus Archleone, could use shadows to spy on anyone. Well, it was a bit more complicated than that, but it was still a formidable capability. One that took a being like Mab, or Odin, or a group of Angels to counter.


            I don't know if Tessa's Fallen, Imariel, had similar capabilities. And I didn't know what Lady Pluto really was, but I was pretty sure if anyone could secure us from Tessa I'd lay good odds on her.


            "Bringing out the big guns, Sis?"


            "Now more than ever." Eve smiled.


            I could see the logic of that. One downside was that if Tessa was aware of the additional security that would clue her in that we were planning something.


            "Wait, what won't be the same without Ami?" Butters asked.


            "The Pattern Silvers have a teleport capability. But as a group," Ranma explained.


            "Really? Cool!" Butters said. I had to agree with him. Actual point-to-point teleporting would be a lot better, more precise, and less dangerous, than traveling through the NeverNever.


            Then again, I was reluctant to try traveling through the NeverNever here. The fact that my Mother had never explored this far meant that the ruby she gave me, that I wore around my neck, couldn't give me a roadmap to follow.


            Every time I tried using my mother's ruby she sounded... worried about how far out I was. This whole place was pretty Swiss-cheesed dimensional-wise. More than that, just stumbling around blind in the NeverNever was suicidal on a good day, doing it in a place where reality might come undone was too far, even for me.


            Though I was sane, a lot of my enemies... weren't.


            "I'll have to substitute for Ami; we can still do it though." Pluto gave a shrug as if teleportation were some minor parlor trick.


            "We'll hold the Pattern Silvers in reserve until we confirm that this is the sole site, find a secondary site," Eve paused for a moment. "Or if we require additional forces."


            Pluto tilted her head. "Ah, speaking of additional forces, Miss Aino is here with Dame BlackStone's mercenaries."


            Ranma sniffed the air. "Quite the coincidence. Looks like the gang's all here."


            The doors opened and a... procession entered. The company mercenaries and Canadian soldiers in their battle-rattle were expected. Even that cold-eyed Jacob fellow was chatting with some army officer who walked with a bit of a cowboy swagger. The latter mentioned something about Option Lanark being ready and Option Cold Lake on Standby.


            Behind them came the rest of Serenity's team. Most were wearing their articulated armor with bow and ribbon accents. A blonde with piercing blue eyes that seemed to flash with a hint of red was leading a tall, muscular man in a suit. He had an eye patch and carried a bulging duffle bag of gear over one shoulder. Next to him was a similarly dressed dusky young woman. Carrying a near identical bag, she had long dark hair that fell over half her face and shoulder.


            Though the last two arrivals were what got my attention. Serenity stepped in. She wore an armored getup that seemed to draw some inspiration from the blouse and skirt uniform she wore when I last saw her. Her hair was pulled back into a severe braided bun and the queen carried her own polished wooden staff and a golden scepter adorned with a silver crystal of some kind.


            Next to her was Lady Mars.


            And she had a... different uniform. She wore a red pleated skirt tied with a bow in back and a white kimono jacket without any adornment. A couple of white and red hair ribbons were tied in her ebony tresses.


            She was dressed as a Shinto priestess. And from the way she carried herself, it seemed she actually was a miko. I wondered if she was more of the modern incarnation that helped around in shrines and preformed some rituals and cleansings or if she was more akin to the shamanistic roots of the position. She had beads wrapped around one wrist and carried a set of bells and a lit candle.


            Curious, I followed Ranma as she vectored in as those two walked up.


            Ranma bowed her head. "Rei, thank you for doing this."


            "It'd be rude of me to not." Lady Mars exhaled. "And it wouldn't be right to push someone away that asks for help." She pointedly said, studying the demon. "But what changed your mind?"


            "Him." Ranma pointed to Butters.


            Mars studied the unassuming-looking man. I felt a flash of something deep and steady. The kind of power that I felt whenever Michael, a retired Knight and good friend, used when on a job. Faith.

 

            "Ah," she smiled slightly and bowed her head to Butters


            "Having a Knight of the Cross show up, made me think we should use our own resources." My sister sounded... embarrassed at that.


            "Gonna ask for some Ofuda next?" Mars asked.


            Ranma rubbed her chin. "Would they work on a Denarian?" she asked me.


            I paused. Ofuda were charms, wards, that were written on strips of paper. They were used in exorcisms and purifications. "I dunno. Problem with the Fallen is that they're in there with their host's consent."


            "So, even if the charm was powerful enough..."


            I shrugged. "You can't evict someone that's been invited. Maybe it could weaken their connection, but I don't know."


            "Rei?" Ranma asked. "You saw Tessa. Thoughts?"


            Lady Mars snorted. "I didn't have time to do anything but fry the mantis freak."


            Serenity cracked a smile. "The great DarkStar asking for our expertise."


            Looking more embarrassed, the redhead chuckled. "I know when to consult an expert." Glancing between me and Serenity, she looked thoughtful for a moment.


            The redhead shrugged. "I might have something to ask you later, but for this Rei's a lot better at Shinto stuff than I am, and the four of you all are better than me at magic."


            "Even me?" Butters asked.


            "You have been tutored by one of the best in magic theory," I noted.


            "You?" Lady Mars asked with a bit of smirk.


            "Er... someone else," I coughed. "But it's the same guy who taught me a lot of the stuff I know." I really didn't want to explain to a bunch of magical girls that I had been taught a lot of my magical knowledge by a talking skull. Or that said skull used to work with one of the most notorious necromancers of the last few centuries.


            Of course, my other magical teachers were... a crazy blood-thirsty fae, a former Warden turned warlock who tried to enslave me as a teenager, and... the Blackstaff: the Wizard Council's assassin, black-bag, and wetworks man.


            Yeah, giving these girls my curriculum vitae, might not reassure them. Especially since, I'm now a big sidhe succubus with the demonic wings, tail, and horns.


            Stars and Stones, this was the Queen of the Moon and her personal guard. They were remnants of an empire that worked with BlackSky. They'd at least have more formal training than the hodgepodge I had gotten. At least I hoped so.


            Lady Mars' gaze seemed to look through me. She turned to Serenity and gave a nod. Serenity for her part looked a bit relieved.


            "You wanna help?" Ranma asked.


            "Yes, I think Rei's got a ceremony that should work," Serenity said.


            "Great!" Smiling, Ranma patted Rei on the shoulder and turned around.


            Jacob looked up from his conversation with the cocky Canadian officer. The older man nodded, and I could swear I saw warmth touching his faded green eyes.


            "Right," Ranma clapped her hands. The sound cut across the hangar like a shot. Everyone went silent.


            "I'll keep this quick," the redhead scanned the room, her gaze pausing on each and every one of us in turn. "Our enemy is Polonius Lartessa, a thousand year old sorceress with a Fallen Angel in her pocket. She's leading a group of fellow Fallen and is being helped by the Brotherhood of the Moon: at least a hundred lycanthropes with military equipment," Ranma's booming voice then softened.


            "Their aim is to summon an ancient elder god, probably more than one. They came here expecting easy pickings, thinking they could defeat whatever we threw at them, that they could hurt us, take what they want, and run." Her eyes narrowed.


            I wobbled, feeling the connection to my sister throb. Glancing, I saw my other sisters, nieces and many of the humans in the room have similar reactions.


            The redhead grinned, her teeth flashing white. "Allies, comrades, friends, family, she could not have been more mistaken. She will not escape. Not this time."


            I nodded. I could understand Tessa's motivation. Nicodemus had killed her daughter. I had done some pretty nasty stuff to rescue my daughter. What would I have done to get revenge if Maggie or Bonnie were murdered? I shivered.

 

            I thought about the things I had done to save Maggie... how far would I go if I only had revenge to motivate me?


            I knew how to do the DarkHollow, which was similar to what Tessa had done at Lomar. But... my understanding only went so far.    Still, if I ever went around grabbing every bit of power I could, without regard to the consequences...  well that I was all demony only made that a more terrifying concept.  Supposedly, I had a very scary demon empress grandmother...


            The twisted part was that if Tessa had taken another path to get her revenge... well, I wouldn't have trusted her enough to join her, but I would have watched and made popcorn.


            My sister exhaled, the tension going out of her wings and tail as she stepped to the side, yielding the floor "But first, a small service." She made a motion with her hand and every demon in the room took a knee.


            As I followed a bit behind the others, I noticed the Company mercenaries and Canadian soldiers had shifted their stances, clasped their hands behind them, and bowed their heads. The magical girls had formed an honor guard around Lady Mars. As she stepped in front of everyone, they pulled back. The only people not participating were the two mercenaries Lady Pluto had hired.


            Lady Mars looked out at the assemblage. And I could feel the power around her. Not the aggressive, crackling elemental power from before. This was the heavy, bedrock power of Faith.


            "Thank you all for coming," Lady Mars said. The bell she carried gave a single perfect musical ring.


            Out of the corner of my eye I noticed someone I had forgotten. He was easy to overlook. The Knight of the Cross and bearer of the Sword of Faith stepped forward. In one smooth motion, he knelt down and drew Fidelacchius. The blade of light flashed in a holy chorus. He then flipped the Sword and offered the hilt to her.


            For a moment, Lady Mars stared. The blonde magical girl in golden armor slipped up and took the candle from Mar's hand. Then a smile not quite her own crossed the priestess' face as she took the Sword.


            "Thank you, Sir Knight," Lady Mars said as she raised the Sword. "We beseech Amaterasu Omikami for her blessing on this endeavor, that we may be cleansed and protected."


            The glowing Sword flickered; the pure white surface rippling as if aflame. Lady Mars began chanting in Japanese. The color shifted to gold and dawn burst from the Sword filling the fresh, pure light of sunrise.

 

***************


            My horns tingled as I walked through the echoing room. Eve and the other officers were by the big board going over maps and resistance photos. Watching everything, Ranma stood a bit off to the side, leaning on the pillar and making the occasional comment.


            I noted they gave her suggestions due consideration. I guess after Lady Mars' lightshow even the Army guys were on board with the plan. I'm not sure what the effects of Mars' blessing were, but sunshine does have all sorts of connotations of renewal so it couldn't be bad. It was a good sign that some of the higher powers of this world were on our side.


            I nodded to Lady Pluto, who had brought the other magical girls to talk to the good lieutenant. It sounded like Lt. Tendo was working on communications for when they teleported in. She had my sympathies. Magic was hell on electronics. Especially things like cell phones, though modern radios weren't much better. Well, military tech was hardened for extra interference... but it was also more fancy computer-wise.


             I waved to Cecilia and her girls who were going through stocks of weapons, ammunition and equipment and going to each squad and checking their load outs. I noticed there were a lot of flares, chemical glow sticks, mechanical watches, and other bits of retro tech being passed out.

 

            . I suppose I should have been surprised by mercenaries having stocks of old weapons just in case, but I had visited Monoc Securities's HQ.  Donar Vadderung, Monoc's CEO, dozens of armories, enough outfit an army in equipment of the century of his choice.

 

            Having some crates of old Vietnam-era single-shot grenade launchers was mild in comparison. I noticed Misako turn up her nose at them, but she still accepted one and had Ukyou take another.


            I then saw Nariko hovering over Butters and smiled as I approached.


            "No, it's not too tight," Butters assured as Nariko adjusted a strap that ran around his thigh.


            The diminutive swordsman was wearing something that looked like a grey climbing harness. Really, it went well with the rest of his tacticool gear. It even gave a nice contrast to his white mantle. It also distracted a bit from how the only weapon he carried was his Sword.


            Sure, it's not like a Knight needed more than that, but the other active Knight of the Cross, Sanya, used a frickin Kalashnikov alongside his Sword Esperacchius. And I did kinda wish Sanya was here.


            Butters was great, but in my experience you could never have too many Knights of the Cross. Though I suppose I'd already met my quota of holy knights teleporting in to save the day at Lomar.


            Adjusting his glasses, Butters gave me a baleful expression. "Harry, I'm sorry I ever laughed at you complaining about the helicopter training."


            "Ah, so you heard how the spear-tip's deploying?" I gave a smile and patted him on the shoulder. "You'll be fine, have some faith."


            Nariko straightened up a bit and looked him level in the eye. "You will not fall, Sir Knight. I will get you safely down."


            Staring into her red eyes, he nodded. "Thanks."


            "Any spare equipment you need? Like eyewear?" she asked.


            "I've got a second set of glasses," He said patting a zippered pouch.


            "Cased?"


            "Uh, yeah."


            "Good. Got a case for the ones you're wearing? You'll have to take those off when we drop."


            "Actually... " Swallowing, Butters forced a manic grin and pulled a pair of sport goggles out of his vest. "Lost my glasses on my first... mission. Figured something like this could help."


            "Prescription?" I asked.


            Butters gave me a flat look.


            "Very good," Nariko cheered.


            "Look at it this way, you might be jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft. And you may be depending on a Sith demon for a safe landing."


            My niece tilted her head at me.


            "But at least you'll be able to see the ground coming up to you," I offered.


            Butters frowned. "I'm.... not sure that's better."


            "It is," Nariko promised.


            "How do you think I feel?" I asked. "You know how bad I am with flying. And um... especially when my knight friends are with me. At least we're not on a helicopter."


            The doctor shook his head.


            "Look, I'll be good. And it's not like I can magic up a flight spell."


            Butters' cross look returned.


            "That was more of a float spell... and... that flying carpet never worked."


            "I was talking about the wings."


            "Oh, well, we don't have time to make you into a succubus."


            He sighed.

 

            I laughed. I was joking.  Honest.


            "We'll need to secure your Sword." Nariko frowned. Her scabbard was tied down to her vest and the side of her armored skirt. But Butter's Sword was just a hilt


            "Tied down pouch?" Butters offered.


            "That'll do... but we can't lose it."


            "I think that priestess would have my head if I did," Butters chuckled.


            Nariko gave a reluctant nod. "And what about you Auntie?"


            "Me?"


            The dark-haired girl tapped my staff.


            "Oh... I just figured I'd just grow my armor around it and lock it across my back or something." I glanced down at my duster. It did cover most of my back, save for the slits near the mantle where my wings went out. My tail used the slit that already existed in the back of the duster. "Eh, I'll figure something out."


            Nariko gave a skeptical glance, but went back to adjusting Butter's harness.


            Avoiding her gaze, I spotted the tall man with the stark, scarred face. His duffle had been opened on a tall table and he was checking over his gear. He had a long dark ponytail shot with silver, grey at his temples and a trimmed grey beard. A sable eye patch that gave him a rather piratical air.


            Working alongside him was a young woman with skin and hair that was a touch darker than his. Both were in the process of putting on sets of dark armor with black tacticool vests and accessories. It reminded me a bit of Butter's gear but more... well, both mercenaries were more physically impressive than the short knight.

 

            Hells Bells, between her lithe figure and his broad shouldered muscular gruffness they could be in a comic book. Though I suppose the orange accents to their armor and raw number of pouches helped with that impression.


           She looked up. I could only see one of her eyes, her hair covered the other, but that was enough for me to turn away.


            "Hey, Loba check in with the creepy green-haired girl, then get our marching orders from Ilsa over there," the old man said gesturing towards Eve.


            "Hey! That's my nickname for her," I stomped a foot.


            "Sure thing, Viejo," the young woman said as she holstered a slab-sided pistol, secured an iron wand, and sheathed a couple double-sided fighting knives. She then brushed past me.


            "Kids," the man said as he filled a tiny cup with some aromatic coffee out of a steel flask. He then pulled out a second tiny cup.


            "She doesn't look young," I said after accepting his offer.


            "I'm not just talking about her," His left eye tracked the room. "At least the soldiers are operator types and thus are a bit older, still... there's plenty of kids here. Those ritual magic users, bunch of the demons." He took a sip. "You."


            "I'm not...."


            "Can it. You're not the only White Council Wizard here."


            "Is it that obvious?"


            "You wag that tail more than an eager puppy," he noted, inspecting a gleaming revolver. It looked like a giant old-west gun, but it was all polished steel, including the grips, and, oddly enough, looked hand-tooled and finished.


            I tried not to blush. "She looks like her mother," I noted.


            "I'd say the same 'bout you." He put the cup down.


            This time I failed.


            After checking the gun, the older man smirked.


            "She's tall too; she have a growth spurt?"


            "Her last one, just like you had."


            "Just like we had," I corrected.


            The older man, nodded. "So, what can I do for ya, one Dresden to another?"


            I blinked at the older, but still, clearly, Harry Dresden. "Sorry, I'm still dealing with the whole evil twin thing."


            "You're the demon," he amiably noted.


            "You're the eye-patch and goatee wearing mercenary with the sinister garment," I picked up a black and orange armored mask that was on the table. "I mean really? Deathstroke?"


            "Slade's perfectly fine," the other Harry grumbled. "Besides, you ain't got room to talk being all Blue Beetle via Killer Frost. Though the Winter look does suit you. Reminds me of a couple protegees of mine."


            I crossed my arms; I didn't want him to distract from the issue.


            "Ah." He shook his head. "Mab then? What pit were you in that got you desperate enough to grab that rope?"


            "Maggie," I said simply.


            His smirk vanished. He simply nodded. "I can think of worse Queens of Winter to ask, but I can also think of better."


            I snorted. "Yeah, well, the Winter Lady I like wasn't in office at the time."


            "We always were impatient." His eye twinkled. "Winter, Summer, seems like there's always a couple Ladies that I could work with."


            "Well, the Winter fae already sent their emissary to this shindig: Me." I stated. Sure, Lea was lurking about, but she had her own agenda.


            "You brought some friend with you," he noted glancing to Butters before checking his own sword. It was a heavy affair with a silvery blade that was similar to a Warden's sword.  It wasn't Luccio's make, but whoever made it was familiar with the Commander of the Warden's methods.


            "How do you know he's not local? That we're not local?"


            "You ain't from this world Hoss," he stated. "And I recognize that hilt. Now, the Fidelacchius I know ain't no lightsaber," he looked up and eyed me.


            I turned away. I really didn't want to get into a Soulgaze with myself. My sisters aside, most people who had looked into my soul weren't exactly pleased with what they saw. Well, Butters handled it well. And Ranma wanted to get another shot...


            Still, I wasn't exactly keen to find out why Harry Dresden's soul had upset so many people so much.


            The older man cleared his throat. "That Sword is also Kusanagi, one of the Imperial Regalia of Japan."


            "Uh yeah..."


            He sheathed his sword and slipped the scabbard on his hip. "Items that are key to the Imperial Family. In fact, only the Emperor and certain priests can see them."


            "That's how the story goes..."


            "And not only are the Imperial Family descendants of... Amaterasu, but she bequeathed that sword to said descendents."


            "Huh.... that's true," I had done some research and did find that many of the bearers of the Swords could trace their lineage to various royal families. Shiro, the previous wielder Fidelacchius, was descended from last king of Okinawa, Michael from Charlemagne and Sanya from Saladin. If I had to make a bet I'd put odds on Butters being of the line of David.


            "And you had a magical girl, an avatar of Mars, who is a war God, a priestess of Amaterasu, a solar goddess, wield that sword, which is now a blade of light in a ritual to invoke her blessing before battle." Old Harry made a thoughtful noise. "I can't tell if you're more clever than you let on or the luckiest SOB alive."


            "I'm a gangly succubus with pointy ears and ice armor. What do you think?"


            His gaze briefly met mine. I turned away.


            "Wile E. Coyote, Suuper Genius," we both said in unison. Though his voice was much deeper and gruffer than mine.


            He laughed. "They do say: history is made at night." He gaze fell on me. "Character is what you are in the darkness."


            "Buckaroo Banzai? Really?" I asked


            "It's a classic," he crossed his wiry arms.


            "I could say the same thing about Flash Gordon."


            His eyebrow went up in a "Yeah, so?" gesture.


            "Okay, story-time gramps; what's made you... you?"


            The older man eyed me, well one eye did. He rolled a shoulder and looked around the hangar. "You ever work with a man called Kincaid?"


            "Yeah, and he's not just a man."


            "Right." He gave a tiny nod. "You ever hire him?" he asked, almost as if ashamed.


            "Couple times." I admitted, as my tail started to flick to the side.


            "Big spender. He don't work cheap," the scarred, older wizard gave a bitter laugh. "How'd you pay?" he asked checking over a bulky-looking rifle. It was piled along with a shotgun and a few black pistols.


            "Second time it was him paying me back for a favor."

            Grunting, Old Harry adjusted some magazine pouches, and clipped on one of those black polymer-framed pistols to a black thigh holster.


            "I helped rescue Ivy, the Archive."


            "Ah," he nodded and tightened a strap of the armor plating over his chest. "Lemmie guess Hoss, other time wouldn't have been clearing out a Scourge of Black Court vamps?"


            "Oh." And my tail went limp with realization. A decade ago I hired Jared Kincaid to do just that. The mission, killing Mavara and her vampire minions and servants, consisted of myself, him, Murphy, and my grandfather Ebenezar on spell support. He locked down Mavara's sorcery while the three of us went in.


            Which was a mighty handy trick when dealing with a powerful sorceress.


            After the fight, Kincaid gave me a bill and three days to pay. It was a... breathtaking amount. "How'd you pay it?" I asked the older man... the older me.


            He squinted. "How'd you pay it?"


            "Thomas."


            His expression softened. "He was a good brother," he said with regret.


            I shivered, getting only some of the feelings the older wizard let slip. "He was kicked out of the White Court at the time; it took all of his savings."


            The man simply nodded.


            "Thomas didn't bail you out?" I asked with a frown.


            "He wasn't available at the time, but he got Justine out."


            "You going to elaborate on that story?" I asked.


            "No," he stated.


            My tail froze, and a shiver went up my spine. "Okay... but without Thomas... You owed him. You owed Kincaid."


            "That I did," the older man nodded and adjusted a holster in a cross draw rig. Unlike the rest of his gear, it was tooled leather with runes, instead of plastic kydex, Kevlar, or ceramic. It also held that handmade revolver. Which was a decided contrast from the rest of his black military-looking guns.


            "He didn't try to kill you for not paying?"


            The man snorted. "And waste talent like that? Naw, that'd get a bunch of people upset, including a couple girls he didn't hate. And then there's the others that wouldn't take it kindly, not the least of which includin' the BlackStaff."


            I nodded. My grandfather, our grandfather, Ebenezar McCoy was the BlackStaff. He also hated Kincaid.


            "And besides, killin' me wouldn't get him back his money, would it?" I asked.


            He nodded.


            I stared as realization hit. "You started working for him."


            His aloof expression turned almost guilty. "I'll give Kincaid this. He never once tried givin' me a job he knew I wouldn't do. Maybe, he figured I was too stubborn."


            "But still... you killed for him,"


            "In a couple hours, I'm gonna be killin' for you, Hoss," he stated, not looking up. "Besides, I had to pay off my debt."


            "And after you paid him off?"


            The older man shrugged. The bit of guilt evaporated. "I kept at the job."


            My tail started to lift up and twitch.


            "Don't get high and mighty with me, Missy," he grumbled and stepped forward. Despite my height, he was still nearly half a foot taller. He was also broader in shoulder. He could loom with skill.


             "I know who you work for. You wear your queen's mark around your neck. And I know of your Family." He made a thin smile.


            "What's that about my family?"


            He raised an eyebrow. "Hoss, you're a granddaughter of BlackSky. Empty Night even I've heard stories about her."


            I grumbled.  Looks like I had another scary grandparent to read up on.


            "I also know what you'd do without all of that. What choices you'd make if you had to save Maggie, but couldn't call on your queen."


            I froze. Taking up a Denarian coin, or triggering a major necromantic spell were the start of my alternate plans if Mab wouldn't let me become the Winter Knight in order to save Maggie. Of course if I did the DarkHollow... well I wouldn't be much better than Tessa would I?


            "I don't break the Laws of Magic for money."


            Genuine mirth bloomed on his face. The older man threw back his head and laughed. "Hoss, do I look like an idiot?"


            I glared up at him. "You look like a knockoff Deathstroke."


            "So you said, and from the newest BlueBeetle I'll take that as a compliment," he smirked. "No. Violatin' the First Law's too much trouble. I don't need Wardens after me."


            "And they just let you kill people?"


            "I don't need magic to do that." He idly rested one hand on the hilt of his sword, and another on the pistol on his left hip. I noted that it wasn't on the bespoke revolver in its special holster.


            "I bet the Merlin just loves you."


            "We've 'ad our disagreements." He snorted. "Nepotism only goes so far. But he should have expected that I'd follow in my mother's footsteps. He knew his daughter liked to skirt the edges of the Laws. Course like he's got room to talk about voilatin' the Laws."


            I blinked. He was talking about Ebenezar... as the Merlin, the head of the White Council. Okay my grandfather was no slouch. The guy was Senior Council. So yeah, it was possible he could one day be the Merlin. But for that to happen... well there were quite a few other Senior Council members in line before him. Not to mention Arthur Langtry, the current Merlin, would have to kick it first.


            Though that was only half of the story. Grandfather was the BlackStaff. The one wizard the Council allowed to break the Laws of Magic. What does it mean for the White Council of Wizards if the Council's assassin ended up taking over?


            My grandfather only took the Senior Council post reluctantly, during the War against the Red Court, and to prevent Langtry, the Merlin I knew, from putting another of his Cronies in charge. What kind of disaster would require Ebenezar to become the head of the Council? Did every other Senior Council member get killed?


            The cynical, suspicious part of me whispered a darker question: Had Ebenezar been forced to bump off traitorous members of the Council? Was it a coup? My Ebenezar was currently part of the Grey Council, a nebulous secret group fighting the corruption within the White Council.


            Refilling his tiny coffee cup, the older wizard sipped and watched my mental train go around in circles with bemusement. If this was how others felt when interacting with me... well no wonder I was so hard to get along with.


            I took a swig from the tiny cup before me. "How can you drink this frou frou stuff?" I asked after gagging


            Old Harry eyed me and snorted. "You're the Winter Knight and in House BlackSky, this reflexive shunnin' of the finer things don't suit you."


            I put the cup down. "Right, like you'd turn your nose up at Burger King?"


            He snorted. "Course not Hoss, but that means I won't complain if someone puts a fine steak in front of me."


            I pouted. "But... will you wear the crown?"


            "Damn straight, how else will I embarrass my little girl?" He chuckled, then went to adjusting armor and checking his boots.


            I laughed. His Maggie was at least ten years older than mine. "You're older than me."


            "Wow, you must be a detective," he drawled.


            I huffed. "What I mean is that you're from my future. Well... a future."


            He reached out and poked one of my horns.

 
            "Hey! If this is about the Sixth Law violation."


            He gave at thin grin. "I ain't the one that time traveled. That's your scary green-haired friend, and while I like to keep my nose clean as far as the Council is concerned..."


            I crowed my arms. He might be an alternate me, but he was an assassin.


            "But it don't have nothing to do with the Laws of Magic."


            "What then?" I asked.


            "Hoss, I think we've diverged a bit much. Empty Night, we went our separate paths when you paid Kincaid's bill and I didn't. And I sincerely hope that my experience in the Vampire Wars wouldn't yield clues to help you at this point in our life."


            "Wars? Plural? This has to do with why you referred to Thomas in the past tense?"


            His eye narrowed.


            "There you two are!" a deep contralto purred as my sister neared. She had been talking to Lady Jupiter. The leggy brunette handed her something that looked like a white plastic watch with gold accents and left with a wave.


            Pocketing the wrist-watch, my sister ran over and popped up between us. She glanced at the gear arrayed out on the table, then at the gear Old Harry had already strapped on, and finally, after giving him a long sniff, looked him in the eye.


            "I should have known our Pattern D Prime would gravitate to Puu's Pattern H Prime."


            I sighed. These mercenaries did love to catalog and label everything. Though I suppose calling Practitioners "Primes" was a bit neat. It had pizzazz.


            "Oh no," Old Harry said as he turned away from my sister's purple eyes.

            "Aw, but you seem so... interesting," she purred with a mock pout while her tail swished. "Just one Soulgaze?


            "Nope," He shook his head. "If let you get your claws in me you'll never let go," he said giving me a pointed look.


            I turned from my doppelganger to my sister. "Hey!"

 

***************

 


            I hate helicopters. Not without reason. Good reasons even. The problems my powers cause with technology aside, I almost got horribly injured the last time I used a helicopter in combat, and a very good friend of mine did get horribly injured and almost died on the operating table.


            So, I had more than a bit of trepidation as the various mercenaries and soldiers were assigned to their helicopters and transports. As I finished stowing my gear, I rooted around the hangar snagging a few odds and ends for spell components. I even managed to get a can of Play-Doh from one of the hangar mechanics that he had stowed in his locker. Apparently, he got it for his kid, brought it inside because he was worried about it getting frozen, and had forgotten about it.


            What? Play-Doh is a very useful spell component. Look, think about it: thaumaturgy is all about creating connections via identical, similar, or related objects. Well, bits of clay that came from the same container make for perfect links. Also it's cheap and common as dirt.


            As I was working on ways to keep stuff from falling out of my pockets, Butters stood by me. The composed knight was a far cry from the terrified man with the Oktoberfest polka-suit cowering from zombies.

 
            I watched Ranma go from group to group and quietly chat with each just as they were gearing up and moving to their helicopters.


            By now the engine noise was starting to get loud, even from within the hangar. And then my sister came up to us. Her daughters followed in her wake and Butters stood to one side as Nariko hovered by him. Wearing sport goggles, he carried a helmet and an oxygen tank was strapped over one shoulder with an attached gas-mask.


            "So... time for us to get to the 'chopper?" I said, with what might have been a bad Austrian accent.


            The redhead blinked, and "the look" returned.


             "We're not taking a helicopter," she stated.


            "Look the line doesn't work if you replace 'chopper with another word," I pouted.


            We weren't going by helicopter, but... my stomach plummeted as she pulled me out of the hangar and towards...


            Well, it was a plane. She hadn't lied when she told me that earlier. It was one of those big ones with the four engines hooked up to propellers, and the long straight wings, and a big ramp in back.


            As we strode towards the transport, I'd like to say that my duster whipped back dramatically behind me. I mean my sister's hair rippled ominously in the blowing air, and Butter's white mantle fluttered. Instead...my coat tails got a bit tangled on my staff and tail. Grumbling, I adjusted my duster and reluctantly belted it around my waist.


            It was hardly a "the Right Stuff" moment, but at least I didn't trip. Though... that might have been because one of the loadmasters helped me step onto the ramp.


            They also helped me find some... well technically it was seating. There were things that folded down that I could sit on. The bottoms to the seats were a pair of hard poles with a bit of fabric between them. So while the seating was too small, at least it was uncomfortable. And instead of backing, the seats had a webbing of some sort of red nylon material. I had to take care to make sure neither my wings nor my tail got caught in that.


            Ranma may have spotted my apprehension as she sat down next to me, and slipped a set of ear muffs over my ears. They didn't really fit, but the gesture was nice. Butters, looking a bit green, sat down to my right, further away from the back ramp I noticed, with Nariko to his right. He was busy checking the helmet, mask, and air tank rig he had been saddled with.


            Despite the ear protection, the engine noise became oppressive as the plane started to spool up and taxi towards the runway. There were a series of whines and clunks as the ramp closed. I glanced over and saw my nieces settling in. Some had a bit of apprehension and nerves: Ukyou, Nabiki, and to a lesser extent Akane. They were the sane ones. Nariko was stoic and focused on guarding Butters.


            Meanwhile Misako's eyes shone and she caressed her grenade launcher like a hunter petting a favorite bird-dog on the drive up to the hunting lodge. Her tail flexed with a palatable eagerness. At least she wasn't talking to the gun... much. Her other, simpler, grenade launcher was slung over one shoulder and she seemed to be pointedly ignoring it.


            I centered myself and worked on controlling my powers. Crashing the plane's avionics or knocking out the engines with my magic would be... bad. Though I did watch with a bit of jealousy as Ranma connected Butters into the audio system of the headsets they wore.


            The engines screamed and I was pulled to my left as the plane shot down the runway. We tilted there was a lurch and then... airborne, and my stomach was left on the ground.


            It turned out, I liked flying. At least under my own wing power. But being stuck in a creaking, shaking windowless tube? That wasn't fun. It also wasn't fun being unable to communicate with anyone because of my magic.


            Instead I concentrated on what I did know. Of course we were taking a plane. It was faster than the helicopters, and we were the first group dropping in.


            Once down, our first task would be to knock out any anti-air capability the Wolves or the Denarians had, either by destroying directly, or alerting the artillery teams where they should hit. Which explained all the flares, smoke grenades, and the like everyone had loaded up, those were backups in case even hardened radios wouldn't work.


            The plane started to level off, that made my stomach feel a bit better. Cut off from the communications channel, I would have felt lonely save... I was still feeling my sister and my nieces.


            I glanced over and saw Butters give me a smile before Nariko slipped on his helmet. With the black visor and breathing apparatus it looked... well, I guess it was fitting that a Sith succubus was the one dressing up the Jedi knight.


            And if Butters could keep it together when he didn't even have wings, what reason did I have to be...


            Okay, honestly, I was a bit nervous at the whole thing. I presumed the transport was going to stay out of range of the anti-air systems the mercenaries and the military  thought the Wolves had. I'm sure it was a very educated estimate based on past capabilities of the Brotherhood, what was stolen from the French, and that magic was hell on electronic systems such as the teeny, tiny computers that made up modern missile-brains.


            Still it was all a guess. I mean the Canadians were flying in artillery guns. And as long as they used old-school fuses in the shells, they'd explode just fine, anti-tech magic or no.


             What if the Wolves had something like that that? Okay, I didn't know if a howitzer or whatever could hit an aircraft. But maybe they had a big dumb rocket or some other nasty surprise would knock us out of the sky.


            Which... I realized with grim bemusement was why there were only the eight of us getting ready to jump. I glanced over at the loadmasters checking our gear and then further forward to the pilots.


            Hells Bells, at least we could fly. That gave us some chance to escape a damaged plane. Maybe not a good chance, but it was something the transport's aircrew didn't have.


            I mulled those thoughts over as the others kept talking about... something. I don't know maybe they had some sort of radio uplink back to the hangar or to their base. As I focused on keeping my magic contained I did reflect that my techbane had one advantage; it kept me from being micromanaged.


            I absently felt my ears pop as the air pressure around me started to ease down.


            Well... if Mab wanted to talk to me she didn't need a phone or a radio. Which sort of made the lack of contact with her since I was hurt at Lomar a bit... suspicious. Oh sure, Lea had met me, but that just meant Mab knew what I had done.


            And... well, that made my stomach do interesting things. I added that to the list of... complications I'd have to deal with when I got back to Chicago. My worries were interrupted by a klunking noise followed by the wind kicking up. Glancing over, I saw the rear ramp of the airplane begin to open.


            Oh.


            Hazard lights flicked on, bathing the interior with an eerie glow. The loadmasters were now wearing safety ropes that clipped them to tracks on the ceiling. We.... were not. The brood stood up and began shuffling towards the gaping door.


            Beyond was a whistling blackness. Above, I could make out pinpricks of stars and below the various lights of Southern Ontario.


            My nieces did final checks on their gear. Misako seemed especially paranoid at making sure her grenade machine gun was strapped on. There was a thunk as the ramp locked into place.


            My sister had slipped over and had a brief conversation with one of the loadmasters before unhooking her headset and handing it over. The other girls followed. Purple eyes met mine and Ranma flashed a grin.


            Staring out at the night sky, Butter's breathing quickened, which gave a deep respiration noise. Nariko put a hand on his shoulder and clipped her harness to his, pulling the two into something like an embrace.


            As the final checks went on, the lights switched over to green and there was a harsh buzzer that managed to pierce the wind and engine noise.


            Ranma made a cutting motion and her daughters went towards the gaping door. I followed and watched as four of them practically bounded off the ramp. The succubae began to fall and I watched as their shrinking forms became dimmer. I could just make out when their wings deployed.


            Nariko was a bit slower as she had to coordinate her steps with Butters. And then those two went over the edge. Ranma met my eye again as I shuffled towards the precipice. I looked down. I could see the lights of homes and towns but nothing of the ground itself.


            I looked back at my sister, and it struck me...


            I was a succubus wizard being airdropped as part of a military strike to prevent a lunatic, her Fallen Angel buddy, and a bunch of wolfmen from summoning some sort of big scary critter as part of a revenge scheme, and said critter wasn't even what they thought they were summoning.


            There was a time when I was just a private investigator who used a little bit of magic now and then to help clients find lost wedding rings and the like.


            Honest.


            I stared out at the empty sky below us. "I'm a wizard" I shouted. "I failed flight school!"


            I noticed irritation flash across my sister's eyes. Guess she wasn't a fan of that movie.


             I had a moment to ponder that before her leg blurred and she snap kicked me. There was pain in my upper thigh where she hit me, but that was easy to ignore. Because I was screaming while falling out of a plane. On reflection, part of me wondered if she actually was a fan of Buckaroo Banzai and was offended at me mangling the line.


            I mean John Parker only said line that after he was plummeting towards the ground, and my sister could be quite the stickler.


            As I rolled over I caught a glimpse of the aircraft and saw my sister swan dive off the ramp.

 

***************

 


            I spun, flailed, and tumbled in the darkness. What I didn't do was panic. Sure I'd like to claim that was due to me being a wizard long experience with the frightening and uncanny.


            And perhaps, unsurprisingly, being a wizard did give me some experience at falling in pitch black darkness with only a few specks of light in the far distance. So... I suppose I had had worse. Sure, I was much higher up now, but I wasn't falling in the NeverNever. And this time...


            Instincts and training kicked in as my wings slowly spread. They caught the air and arrested my rotation, then I let my right wing go a bit further out and managed to right myself.


            Wind buffeted my hair as an icy cold blast air stung my eyes and made my lungs ache. Sure, I was a being of Winter, but I didn't like having my saliva freeze, let alone my eyes. The latter I knew from personal experience.


            Let's just say my queen didn't like her ability to repay a debt being questioned.


            Still... I was flying, and right side up. Flexing, my wings caught the air. I guess it was more accurate to say I was gliding. I looked around and... Dang.


            I had no idea where I was. Okay... I swung around until I saw a cluster of lights. I also felt an ominous hum in my horns. Right, if that was London, Ontario, then the target should be right by it.

 
            My musing was interrupted by a figure rocketing past me before wheeling back up. I glanced over as my sister pulled up alongside me. In my night-vision her hair was the same dark grey as her uniform, with her skin being a lighter grey. Only her eyes showed a bit of color.


            She gave me a smile. Ah, right, her teeth were white in the gloom.


            Trimming her wings, she shed altitude even faster. I followed her descent. Below us, sparse fields gave way to blocky warehouses, a freeway lit by the occasional car, a few more warehouse and then to a twisting warren of suburban houses.


            By that point we had lost enough altitude that I got a bit of vertigo as we raced over the dark homes. I felt like I could grab a rooftop if I leaned down with my arm. On the upside, I was able to get my bearings. We were nearing the Westminster ponds which meant our landing zone was...


            Another upside was that flying was much more pleasant when I could see where I was going. Another bonus was that this time my magic wouldn't kill myself and everyone else in the sky.


            My sister pulled in her wings and dropped down towards the large green field that had suddenly appeared below us. Smiling at the burst of speed that came with the near free-fall, I followed her and waited for the redhead to swing her body forward and flare her wings back out. Slowing, she landed on the grass with bent knees and took off running without breaking strike.


            I repeated her maneuver. When my wings spread, I realized my mistake. Yes, I had larger wings which would retard my fall, but I was also heavier and, worse, since I had tried to catch up to her I had pulled back my wings further and had been dropping faster.


            Hitting the ground, my hooves dug into the sod. There was an all-too-brief illusionary moment of stability, and then I tumbled forward. Wincing, I pulled myself back up and folded back my wings. The pain wasn't bad, even if my staff had hit the back of my head when I landed.


            My sister was immediately at my side. "You okay?" she quietly asked pulling me down into a crouch. "Looks like you came in a bit hot."


            "Yeah... just a little rattled," I whispered back. My hand felt the comforting weight of my revolver strapped on my hip. Huh, holsters, how about that?


            She nodded. "Good, check your gear make sure nothing got loose, then come on."


            I followed her, sifting through the pockets of my duster and the other stuff hanging from my armor. I didn't do a complete inventory, but everything seemed there.

            I glanced around noting we had landed in the athletic fields in back of a local school. A line of houses was in front of us. I blinked my eyes. Night vision was still pretty spooky. The colors were muted, but I could see everything. I wondered if this was what those fancy night vision goggles were like, well, with less green, and probably much better peripheral vision.


            The others had already formed up behind a shed in the wooded backyard of some house that butted up to the athletic fields. Ukyou was doing something with a radio. I suppose that was one advantage of me being the last on the ground gave them.


            Butters had already been unhooked from Nariko and had shed his gas mask and helmet. He looked a bit wobbly but gave a smile when he spotted me. Moving up to him, I returned it feel only slightly jealous that he had had an easier landing than me.


            "Confirm, all units on the ground. Commencing insertion," the blonde said into her radio before clicking it off.


            Ranma slipped up and pointed to Akane and Nabiki. The two blue-haired girls nodded and dashed ahead of us while Ukyou and Misako drifted to the back and a bit to the side. That left myself, Ranma, Butters, and Nariko in the center.


            It was in that rough formation that we leapfrogged through a row of houses, across a residential road and cut past the parking lot of a small apartment complex. I wasn't sure what trouble my sister expected to find in sleepy suburban Canada in the middle of the night.


            Then again if the Wolves were really paranoid, they'd have some defense in depth, and put out sentries and scouts to watch for… well this exact kind of infiltration. My horns tingled as we neared the woods that surrounded the Westminster Ponds.


            The easternmost pond was to the north, through the stand of trees before us. This time Ranma was on point, her nearly invisible dim form was crouched a few trees into the forest.


            She waved an arm to me, a gesture I felt more than saw. With a bit of trepidation I lopped over to her. The pressure on my horns increased to an unpleasant buzz. It reminded me of the Jammers the mercenaries used, but more... sharp. It was also oddly familiar.


            The redhead looked deeper into the woods and I followed her gaze. Now my skin started to tingle. There was the slightest bit of... well, it would be a pretty crappy tripwire if it were one that could be seen. An unpleasant scent tickled my nose. Though it wasn't really a smell in the normal sense.


            Ranma turned to me.


            "Yeah, it's a trap... well, more like a fence," I said.


            "Alert? Damage?" Her voice was so quiet even my succubus ears could hardly hear her. "Can it sense us now?"


            "One sec." I suppressed a sigh as I opened my third eye. The Wizard's Sight is a powerful tool. It allowed a Practitioner to see most all magical effects and see things as they really were. Of course, it came at a cost, anything Seen won't be forgotten. It would stay fresh and vivid.


            Still, it looked like the Denarians had taken precautions and I should really figure out what this thing actually was. Bright colors suddenly burst into my vision. I glanced over and saw my sister: stark predatory beauty, purple wings and claws, crimson and coiled power.


            With effort, I looked forward. A beating blue line ran through the forest. The energy was anchored to stones that had been buried among the leaf litter, about one every hundred feet.


            Sickly green threads hung from trees that straddled the blue line. Each thread linked a tree to the line, forming a jagged palisade. As I watched, I saw each beat of the blue line suck a bit of life from the trees.


            Okay... I wasn't aware that you could do necromancy on plants. Sure, I knew in theory one could do necromancy against any living thing. And I suppose using trees to power your fence was one way to do it. Sure it'd kill them, probably sooner rather than later, but I doubt Tessa cared.


            If anyone tried to cross the fence they'd break one of the threads, causing the blue line to discharge. It was a pretty handy way to both hurt any intruders and to alert Tessa to their location. Hells Bells, I'd bet anyone trying to disturb the trees would set it off too. That made for a rather tall fence.


            I spent a bit more time examining the fence and the outlying area. Just because you saw one trap, that didn't mean there wouldn't be a second one. I exhaled. I didn't see anything else, but that could mean that it wasn't active yet. Or it could be hidden even better.


            I did keep my attention focused on what was in front of me. Something… unpleasant, and heavy tingled edges of my senses to the north, west, and south-west. I really didn't want to use my Sight on Tessa's summoning ritual. Even the preparing steps was something I didn't want to See.


            I closed my Sight and blinked. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I could see the sigils carved into the threes and the anchor stones. The magic threads themselves shimmered just on the edge of my vision.


            "Yeah... it's a tripwire and an electric fence," I whispered. Okay, it probably wouldn't be electricity it zapped you with, but it'd be nasty. "Good news is that we haven't set it off."


            She nodded.


            "I can also feel the ritual... the edges of it at least."


            My sister made an inquisitive look.


            "More good news is she hasn't triggered the summoning," I added.

            "We have time," she breathed out. "Okay, Miss Wizard, any ideas on how to get us in?"


            "Without flying over?"


            She gave me the "look".


            Right, you don't make a tall fence against an enemy with helicopters and flying demons without having a spell to watch the skies. I reached into my duster. "Well, I might have an idea."


            Ranma looked at the plastic can I pulled out my pocket and smirked.

 

***************

 


            Magic is all about connections and moving energy. The necro-fence moved energy from the trees to a line that ran the perimeter of the site. I gave another sigh, realizing that the whole thing could act as a magical circle.


            Said circle would act as a boundary separating whatever was going on inside the circle from the ambient magics around it. Circles could also be used to collect energy, imprison or bind... say summoned creatures, and other fun things.


            Back to my point, magic was all forming connections and moving energy with said connections. Now, thaumaturgy was specifically about using similitude to make connections. Break a piece off of something and that little piece, at some level, was still a part of the whole.


            I had called Butters over and quickly explained the situation to him. The Knight might not have much magical talent, but he was a genius at the theory, and it was good to have someone to bounce ideas off of, even if he couldn't see much in the gloom.


            Then I explained my idea on how to get through the fence.


            Naturally, he boggled.


            "Harry... you're talking about using Play-Doh," he hissed.


            "You have a better idea?" I sincerely asked.


            He exhaled and thought it over. "Digging would take too long."


            "And the tree roots are part of the necro-fence."


            "Right." He seemed pained. "There's always just blowing the damn thing and going through. Cut it in a mess of places and they won't know where we're coming in."


            Glancing over at my sister and nieces, I nodded. They had spread out and taken some cover, but I could feel that idleness didn't suit them. And we were on the clock.


            "Harry, this is pretty delicate work." His statement was a not so subtle reminder that my own skills were more in long-term enchanting, using thaumaturgy to find objects, and combat evocation, and less in extemporaneous high-precision work.


            "Right," I motioned for my sister.


            Ranma seemed to appear between us. She glanced at the fence then back at us. She wasn't impatient, not exactly, but I could feel the eagerness about her.


            "I'm gonna try to cut a hole in the fence. If I screw up, and it goes off, take out a bunch of the anchors," I explained as I pointed out the stones that channeled the blue energy. "That'll knock it down so you can cross. It'll be a mess but..." I shrugged.


            Her purple eyes looked to me. I knew what she was thinking. Ideally, the fence should be cut in multiple spots along the perimeter. But me cutting a hole required us to bunch up so we could all cross in quick succession.


            Giving an encouraging smile, she reached over and hugged me. I had a moment to bask in the contact before she slipped away; the eager, hungry feelings receding with her.


            "So... no pressure," Butters said with a slight shiver.


            "I've gotten through worse," I assured him as I inspected the necro-fence.


            There.


            Twenty feet to my right was one of those anchor stones, and twenty feet to the right of that was an area where the jumbled trees thinned a bit.


            I motioned and slipped closer. As I kneaded the Play-Doh in my hand I started muttering a spell. It would be tight, but there was an area where if I removed four threads I could slip though the necro-fence. I suppose that was one advantage of being the tallest one here. If I could fit through, everyone else should have an easier time.


           Butters followed. "Still gonna need to hold the clay up somehow." He glanced at the leaf litter. "Plenty of sticks about, could use them as props."


            I looked to him with approval. That wasn't a bad idea. The fence's magic probably wouldn't notice the ground being pierced by deadfall from the very trees used to build the necro-fence.


            "Not bad, but I wanna close the fence behind us." I said opening my palm revealing four blobs of Play-Doh. With a punched mid-section and bulbous ends, they looked a bit like green peanuts.


            Butters nodded.


            I held my staff over them.


            "Wait..." he hissed. "Do the spell separately for each one."


            I blinked. That would cost more energy and time but... Stars and Stones, he was right. "Arboras laqueus," I whispered putting a bit of Soulfire into one of the peanuts.


            I then repeated the spell three more times. Instead of doing all four at once, this made it so that each of the four was cast with a unique, if similar, spell, A different sliver of my soul went into each casting.


            "Good call," I smiled. Butters was right. This way helped give each bit of clay its own unique identity. And I really didn't want to cross the wires on this spell.


            I stared at the handful of peanuts. Each glittered and flashed with silver light. A pair of tiny silver lines went from each of the lumps to the tip of my staff. Concentrating my will, I raised the staff and the clay lifted out of my hand.


            Okay... slipping closer to the necro-fence I licked my lips. This was the most delicate part. Soulfire can enhance spells, it was like magical rebar. Or in this case like a magical superconductor.


            Now that I knew what to look for, I could make out one of the green pulsing threads was right in front of me. Grabbing a floating peanut, I aligned it to the thread and nudged it forward. Just before it touched the green line I raised my free hand.


            If this didn't work, this was when I'd set off the necro-fence.


            I held my breath as the little bit of clay slipped into the thread. There was a silver fizzle as the line passed through the green Play-Doh. And...


            The necro-fence held. The pulsing blue circle hummed; the green feeder lines pulsed with their steady beat. The only difference was now one of the green threads looked like it had swallowed a peanut.


            I exhaled. "Okay. Next part." I extended a claw and with a delicate flick cut through the peanut's pinched middle. I felt like I was cutting the red wire on a ticking bomb.


            Clay parted. There was no discharge. The two new pieces began to drift revealing a gap between them.


            My tail swished and I grinned. The green thread went into one half of the peanut and magically reappeared on the other cap. "Now, that's a bit of thaumaturgy."


            "Good job, but don't get cocky," Butters whispered.  I knew he couldn't see the workings that made up the necro-fence,  but he could deduce I hadn't screwed anything up,  given the lack of alarms going off releasing necromantic energies.


            "You've gotta do it three more times, and then reel them apart to enlarge the hole," he continued.


            I frowned, that was not exactly the plan as I had explained to him. Honestly, I had been planning to extend the silver threads and separate this pair of clay bits before tackling the next thread. "Yeah... it's easier to do it your way."


            I swallowed and willed the next peanut into the air. Butters was right. This was delicate work, not exactly my forte. But to my advantage it was steady work. The real challenge was getting the clay to intersect the trip lines without setting them off.


            Something that got a bit more complicated the further into this I got. It turned out I did have to widen the hole a little bit, if only to have room to reach the two threads on the far end of the necro-fence.


            But after what seemed like far too long, and with what felt like a bit of sweat freezing down my back. I had four pairs of little clay lumps bobbing in the air. I felt the focused attention of my sister and nieces on me and their approval.


            Controlling my breathing, I eased my staff in the middle of the cloud of Play-Doh. Then I slowly, gingerly extended the silver lines that linked the end of my staff to the pieces of clay.


            The hole in the necro-fence grew as the clay pairs separated. This part was a bit trickier than I expected. I had to keep tension in the green threads as I rolled them over, all without them hitting the ground or each other.


            Eventually, I had a ragged hole large enough for me to shamble through. I raised my arm and gave another wave.


            Again my sister appeared at my side. After looking over the floating bits of clay, I could tell she wanted to give an appreciative whistle. She settled for a hug. "Quick work, good job" she whispered.


            I glanced at the white watch on her arm. I'd only been doing this for a few minutes? Huh… I pulled my staff up to the top left corner of the hole and willed the silver threads to the edges to maximize the open space.


            The others had eased closer.


            "Right, see where the bits of clay are. Do not step past them," I quietly instructed. "Keep your arms and wings and tails inside the ride at all times. Do not step on the ground right under the clay. Touching the circle would be worse than the threads. Don't hit my staff either. Got it?"


            The others nodded and Ranma simply dove through the hole. The necro-fence ignored her. A few yards on the other side her wings popped and she landed before vanishing into the woods.


            Most of her daughter rapidly followed in a bout of acrobatic agility that just had to be choreographed. I grumbled about cheating martial artists. There were only three of us outside the circle. Nariko nodded to Butters who was studying the locations of the bits of Play-Doh.


            "Can I have a leg up?" He asked looking a bit bashful. I could see his concern. He wasn't exactly a clumsy man, but he didn't want to set off the fence, not after all the work we'd done.


            "Aunty, if you'll help on this side I'll do the other," Nariko offered.


            I nodded and the red-eyed young woman leapt though the hole. However instead of disappearing into whatever combative formation her sisters had taken up she turned and stood at the far side of the necro-fence.


            It didn't take much to help lift Butters up and through the hole. It helped that Nariko was fairly tall so she could reach though the hole. Sure, with the staff I only had one hand free, but he really did need just a step up and a bit of stability. Also it was nice to get a bit closer to him.


            I shook my head once he was through. My smile vanished when I realized that I was alone on the far side of the fence. And I still had to get myself, and my staff through.

 

***************


            I tried not to grumble as I slipped through the forest. At least hooves were rather quiet. It would have been embarrassing if I were the most noisy person in our little expedition. Though I suspected that once Butters got more training with the Carpenters and more experience under his belt, the little guy would give me a run for my money.


            Getting through the necro-fence turned out to not be as hard as I feared. Sure I was alone, but I had made a Dresden-sized hole. And Nariko and Butters were on the other side to help me cross. It was Butters who pointed out that they could use my staff to help stabilize me so I didn't hit anything.


            Then came the laborious process of closing the hole back up. First, I had to reel in the silver threads on my staff to bring the Play-Doh pairs back together. Then, I used a pair of claws to mush the twinned lumps back together.


            Finally, with a bit more Soulfire I plucked each lump off its green thread. That was the most awkward part of the whole process. Sure we were all clear of the fence, but it would have been just my luck to set the damn thing off when I was trying to cover our tracks.


            I dropped the lumps of clay back into their can and pocketed it. And with that we were in.


            Exhaling, I followed the others deeper into the forest.


            Ranma halted us and waited. I couldn't really see my sister in the distance, or much of the others. Seemingly satisfied with the silence, the redhead motioned and then our dispersed formation became even more dispersed.


            Nabiki and Akane peeled off and ranged to the south-west, hugging closer to the necro-fence And a few minutes later Ukyou and Misako split off heading about due west.


            I knew they were being sent off to scout two of the three ponds. Just as Nariko and Butters were going to bear to the north-east and check out the third body of water.


            Having slipped under a veil, I closed to Ranma. My sister silently slipped through the woods; though I could use our connection to get a range on her. I could also feel the slight apprehension from my nieces as they went about their work.


            Ranma halted within sight of the edge of the tree-line. A finger of cleared land had been cut out of the woods to serve a couple of baseball fields. The fields were still there, but the overhead footage had shown the construction company was using the area to store their vehicles, supplies and trailers.


            Easing next to my sister, I blinked as I made sense or what I was seeing. I could smell the musky scent of wet-dog and feel the wolfmen and their human servants. Servants, allies, subordinates or were they just wolves that were still in human form?


            I saw my sister jotting down notes on a map, seemingly ignoring my disquiet.


            Either way, I my tension grew as I watched a few dozen people working and unloading the tractor trailers. Not only was there the sickly-sweet feeling of black magic in the air tingling my horns, but I was struck by the worry...


            If I could smell the wolves, could they smell me? Sure, my veil was supposed to cover that. But how good were their senses? Still, I took some time to watch them unload, and our presence didn't cause any hue and cry to be raised.


            The wolves worked largely under leafy netting and tarps. Given the old fashioned looking mortars and machine guns and other bits of equipment, it reminded me of a WW2 or Korean War movie. Well, one with werewolves, of course.


            A few of the pieces had been setup. Including a couple of nasty double barreled cannons that had their own motors to control them. There were also rocket launchers that looked like bundles of pipes welded together.


            "I think we found the stuff they stole from that Army base," I murmured.


            "It's not all French," Ranma whispered back as she finished up her shorthand. "How much of this would work once the magic goes off?"

            I shrugged. "I dunno, it looks simple, but I'd have to check and see how many electronics and the like. Also radar and the like can last... for a bit. But... all this stuff is inside the necro-fence. That can't be good."


            She nodded and slipped her notes into a pocket.


            "Still, they covered it up, that shows they expected some attack."


            Still the camouflage was a bit clumsy. Wouldn't someone notice trees when there were no trees before? And what about thermal or whatever fancy sensors the mercs and army are using? Then again, maybe the necro-fence obscured that stuff too? I could also see equipment being shuttled to the area in the center of the ponds.


            "Come on," Ranma ordered.


            I followed her as she slipped back to the south, once again going deeper into the woods.


            We weren't alone for very long. Butters and Nariko returned shortly. The black-haired girl handed some notes to her mother while the knight looked visibly shaken.


            "You okay?" I asked him.


            Nodding, he tugged at a canteen on his harness. "This... this is definitely the place." Butters swallowed then took a drink.


            "The summoning?"


            "It's like Lomar," he whispered. "The ponds are like... pumps to a central ritual." He shuddered, I knew the feeling. The whole area felt creepy and even at this distance the tension of the mounting summoning was palatable.


            I was about to ask more when my other nieces returned. There was the scent of blood on one of Nabiki's knives. And the young woman seemed a big embarrassed.


            Ranma nodded at that but took two more sets of notes from the four girls.


            "We got away clean," Akane insisted.


            "But they'll note two sentries are missing before long." Nabiki frowned.


            After Ranma hugged Nabiki, Nariko pointed to the other girls and started setting up a perimeter.


            "Clock's ticking anyway," Ukyou said.


            "And we spotted mantis girl and some wannabe succubus," Misako noted as she tapped her grenade launcher.


            So... Tessa and Rosanna. That was at least two Denarians. I exhaled. This was it. Sure there could be another summoning site, but Tessa was too prideful to use her own presence as part of a misdirection. Besides, she wanted to be present for the summoning, to take control of the big creepy crawly.


            "The guys in robes at our pond were finishing up and there were more wolves being moved to the south," the blonde explained pointing to a spot on her map before going off with Nariko.


            "Right, it looked like our group was nearing unloading their supplies too," Pulling back her sleeve, Ranma glanced at her wrist. "We're running low on time as it is," she said before going back to compiling the four maps she had received.

 
            I frowned. That wasn't the beefy grey and black mechanical watch she had taken to wearing around me. It was white, and looked... delicate. It was also the thing Lady Jupiter had given her earlier.


            "They're bunched up and rushed, the wolves should have distributed their defenses first," Misako shook her head, and then joined her sisters in the perimeter.


            "I'm pretty sure Tessa cares more about the ritual going off than security," I said.


            "Her loss," Ranma murmured. "Circle time, Sis," she absently said.


            Sighing, I used my staff to cut a circle in the loamy dirt. Then with a bit of blood and will I energized the circle. I also inhaled and gave a few calming exercises to keep my power from flaring


            Satisfied that my tech-bane was contained, my sister pulled out a radio. It was a bit chunky and nowhere as sleek as the headset she normally wore. She clicked it on and frowned.


            The redhead grumbled and motioned to Ukyou. The blonde tried her radio. Then Nariko. After that it didn't take long to confirm that all their radios weren't working. Even Butters wasn't able to contact anyone outside.


            Ranma's tail drooped slightly. "Well, Plan B then."


            I eyed the various smoke grenades and flares and other bits the brood carried. They could mark the targets the old fashioned way. But then Tessa and the Wolves would know they had incoming.


            "That's Plan C." My sister smirked. She then pulled back her sleeve, once more revealing that watch. "This is Plan B."


            I stared at the blinking digital face on the watch. The familiarity clicked. "One of the magical girls gave you that."


            She nodded and pushed a button on the side, and it flipped open.


            What I had first taken for flimsy white plastic, was actually a ceramic material that looked more solid. Looking more closely, or as well as I could in the dark gloom, the gold accents were of a higher quality; it wasn't some cheap toy.


            The orange gem and Jupiter symbol on the center of the inner face were also a clue.


            And then Ranma spoke into the watch. "This is Pathfinder Red, over."


            "Really, with the codenames?" Lady Mars' voice came out of the watch. It was tinny and hard to hear, but it was there.


            Oh, it was a communicator watch, like something out of Dick Tracey or Johnny Quest, but it was one that Serenity and her girls used, so it was magic.


            Ranma gave me a triumphant smirk as she talked into the watch. "It's more of a nickname. Anyway, this is the site. We've even spotted the big bug. Repeat, this is the site. Ready for target intel?"


            There was a brief pause. "Okay, I'm ready," Mars replied.


            I waited in my circle as Ranma started reciting coordinates with clear, deliberate enunciation. After a couple entries she would pause and have Mars recite them back. All this power... all these resources and they were talking using a girly, sparkly trinket. And then it hit me. My sister was more than a demon; she was also a magical girl!


            "Magical communicators aren't blocked?" Butters asked.


            I shrugged. "It's Pattern Silver tech, or Lunarian magic if you prefer."


            "And the tech-bane only affects non-magical stuff?"


            I gave another non-committal gesture. "Maybe."


            "But the chance of it working was worth carrying a watch," Butters agreed.


            "Knowing my sister, she'd got one of her girls wearing a spare." I snorted. "Two is one, one is none," I said in a sing-song voice that got me a flash of irritation from Ranma.


            Okay, maybe chatting during an infiltration of an enemy ritual while your sister was trying to give targeting data wasn't the best of ideas.


            She eyed me. "Make with the magic, Miss Wizard. We might have enough time to do some earth magic to get some type of trenches dug."


            "Tessa might sense that," I offered. Also if I stepped out of the circle I might knock out their communications link, Lunarian magic or not.


            "Try to do it quiet-like then." Purple eyes bored into me. "I'll take the risk of us being somewhere a bit more protected from shrapnel over tipping her off a few minutes ahead of time."


            Nodding, I broke the circle. I really hoped that the Canadians had put their best, most experienced gunners on this. I mean, people who knew how to do more than just put in GPS coordinates and pull the string, or however they triggered those big guns.


            I stepped a bit away from my sister who was finishing up giving coordinates.


            Crouching down, I held my staff horizontal. "Geodas," I whispered as I pushed downward with my will forcing earth to part directly below my staff. I then shuffled to the side drawing out a shallow trench.


            Distantly, I head Lady Mars's voice return with a final check. Of course there was more to it than these two. I remembered Lieutenant Tendo. No wonder she was liaising with the Pattern Silvers. I bet her radios worked. And using those, she could contact the Canadians, who would then call the artillery teams.


            Who would then... lob shells packed with high explosives right at us. My tail drooped a bit with the realization, and I put a bit more power into my spell. I really hoped my babbling didn't cause Ranma to transpose a digit or something.


            And that wasn't just for my own hide. Hells Bells, there's residential buildings all around us and a flippin' hospital due north. At least it was night so the school just south of here should be empty.


            Still, I was struck by the sudden desire to know how far away those guns were and how accurate they were at that range. I vaguely remembered something about how artillery had to fire a couple shots to get the range dialed in before they could really have accurate fire. But I wasn't sure if I was remembering right.


            I could just imagine Eve shaking her head and telling me that's what I got for reading comic books growing up instead of military history books, war memoirs, and manuals for military material. Hells Bells, she'd probably lecture me about the trench I was making.


            I mean I didn't know how deep to make it, or wide. It had to be big enough to fit all of us... and spread out seemed to be better. Right? And my apprehension grew as Ranma and Mars synchronized their watches.


            I could have made a joke about all the old war movies that had that corny bit, but given I was in the middle of an example of why having precise timing could be a matter of life and death...


            "Okay," my sister exhaled after Mars gave her a time. "Thanks Rei."


            "Someone on this end had to answer the communicator. And you've got Makoto's and Mina's."


            "Not just that, but thanks anyway." Ranma laughed. Her expression sobered. "Be seeing you."


            "And you," Mars quietly returned.


            By now I had stepped into the trench and had moved my staff vertical as I ran it along the walls shoring them up and widening the slit in the earth. My fangs tingled as I tried to keep the force confined to a narrow area. It was getting exhausting. I dunno… maybe a lot of little slits would be better than one big trench.


            My sister flipped the communicator closed. "Right, you heard the Lady, we don't have much time."


            "Uh…" I stated, still grappling with the idea that I'd be in the middle of an artillery strike. It sounded like a better idea back in the hangar. For one, the forest we were in seemed a lot bigger up on the big map than it did when you were actually inside it. And I kind of wished I'd made my trenches a bit deeper.


            Ranma hopped down into the cavity. It came up to her chest and was wide enough to turn around it. "Not bad..." she nodded.


            She flexed her hands and crouched down. I felt a throb of concentrated power and the crumbling dirt wall in front of her stated to solidify and shift. "Keep it up, Sis," she hissed.


           I put more power into the spell and watched as the trenchline slowly grew and squared off into something more solid. The edges were lined with almost parapet-like crenellations and the ends of the trench expanded with their own little perpendicular sections, kind of like a stubby letter I.


            Ranma exhaled, and I noticed her hands had extended into claws and her hooves had dug into the packed dirt of the trench-slit's floor. Stones had pulled up to edge the tops and corners of the miniature fortification.


            "And you told me to be low-key," I grumbled.


            "Hey, Sailor Earth here." She glanced at her watch and hissed before signaling her girls to come into the trench with her.


            Grumbling, I turned and saw Butters had climbed down. He adjusted his glasses as he peered about, mostly using his hands to feel the sides of the trench. His eyes had adapted to night vision, but he was still human.


            I could tell his mind was taking in the implications of my sister having us expend the time and effort on such a structure. "I guess it's better to be in this than out of this."


            "Unless there's a direct hit on us," Misako happily said as she squeezed past to take up position at one of the perpendicular edges of the trench. "That's something even Mom couldn't walk away from."


            Well, that was a cheerful thought.


            Butters simply swallowed, steeling himself.


            "No matter how this goes, there's gonna be a lot of death," I whispered to him as my nieces busied themselves. Which I supposed was better than waiting down however much time we had left in introspection.


            "We're not even offering a surrender," he murmured.


            "You okay with that?"


            Butters stared out towards the central ritual site. "Not really, but... I was at Lomar; I helped in the aftermath. I can understand why the Canadians are doing this." He sighed. "They'd be bombing this place regardless. At least this way we can make sure their shooting's more accurate, that Tessa hadn't roped any civilians into this..."


            I nodded. We both knew Tessa hadn't picked a place of power next to a hospital because she wanted to have prompt medical care available to her minions.


            We settled into an awkward wait. My eyes scanned the forest. My ears twitched with every sound, expecting Tessa's insectile shriek to pierce the night. Or a blast of hellfire to slam into the trench. Even a pack ravenous of loping wolves would have broken the tension.


            Then I felt a bust of... excitement from my sister as she mouthed the word "Now" and flicked her arm. It was so quiet I could barely hear it. Butters hadn't heard it.


            Acting on instinct, I yanked him down to the bottom of the trench. And empowered my shield. With a focus of will I pushed it so that it covered the whole trench. I had withstood some pretty nasty stuff before, including explosions, but I wasn't sure about a direct artillery hit, still, it was better than not having it up.


            A quartet of booming explosions overlapped with slight delays. It sounded like they were coming from all around us. The earth shook and my teeth rattled. Lights washed over us and the trees shook.


            There was a bare, bare instant of what might have been silence. At least the pounding on my ears had dialed down to a mere whining ringing.


            The sky opened up.


            These explosions were no longer distinct; direction was impossible to discern. Flashes, debris, blowing, tearing trees, skull-pounding noise. It felt like we were inside a storm-cloud in the middle of a thunderstorm.

 

***************

 


            I suppose one upside of the massive headache the barrage gave me was it made it emphatically clear that we hadn't all been killed by a shell landing short, or long. Also keeping up a shield of that size was taxing even to me.


            The forest... well, it wasn't gone, but so many of the trees had been stripped out. their branches and bark that they looked more like stretched, flayed corpses than anything else.


            A piercing skull-splitting noise cut across the eerie calm that had followed the barrage. Ah, there was Tessa's insectile rage-filled scream. That was then followed by mournful howls all around us. The pitiful cries turned wrathful but were underscored by secondary explosions to the North.

 

            Well... guess the artillery hit their anti-aircraft equipment. As I clambered out of the trench, I heard a distant droning that got steadily louder. Then a wave of necrotic energy screamed past me and, horns tingling, I stumbled to the dirt. Horns throbbing, I rolled over and saw my nieces were shaken and even Ranma had paused to blink.


            Only Butters seemed unfazed. "The necro-fence," I gasped.


            "Old man you musta taken it down," Ranma said as she helped me up. "Come on, there's not much time," she slapped me on the back.


            Spreading in a line, we ran forward. I was sure my nieces had some sort of formation to where they were. Though I hung back to keep next to Buttes, who was also being escorted by Nariko.


            Still, the little guy was making good time. But I supposed you couldn't become a Knight if you weren't determined. I could feel his resolve. That was reassuring, especially given the whole "running towards the Denarian ritual".


            Sure, I was doing it but... I'm.... me. I glanced down at my body-hugging ice-blue armor and spell-reinforced duster. Well, close enough. Still this was....

            Okay Butters had jumped through a portal not knowing where it would go. And if he hadn't arrived at Lomar...


            Another explosion caused my head to shake. For a terrifying moment, I was worried that the Canadians had decided to resume the artillery barrage. Fortunately, it was just an ammunition truck the wolves had blowing up.


            Helicopters shot over head, some seemed low enough that I thought tree branches would start coming down. A few seemed to slow as they passed over various locations and bright green beams of tracers spiked down.


            Other helicopters hovered to allow troops to rappel down, some simply slowed and disgorged demons that popped out in quick descending arcs. A couple of the birds ducked down below the tree lines in what I hoped were deliberate landings.


            The cacophony grew louder when we neared the edge of the tree-line. As the woods thinned out I was able to see the hospital to the northwest.


            And now Butters slowed. Fire reflected off of his glasses. To the northwest the Institute was aflame with flashes of gunfire popping up around the hospital grounds. A chorus of howls answered the gunfire and I could just make out a helicopter bobbing down and opening fire as some sort of slab-sided armored vehicle skittered through the hospital's parking lot.


            "I guess we underestimated the size of the Brotherhood of the Wolf," I noted.


            Butters flashed me an irritated glance.


            "You wanna go there and help? I understand," I hissed, looking a bit closer to home. Angry red light and sickly green energy suffused the buildings and other... things that made up the central ritual area.


            A dark pressure washed over us and a queasy feeling grew in my gut. Tessa's hateful screech rose up again. It may have been wishful thinking on my part, but I detected a hint of trepidation and... triumph on her part. Stupid Denarians.


            "I want to, yes," Butters hand clenched the hilt of his Sword. "But I have to get to her first... I mean that's where you're going."


            And then the grove thinned enough for us to see the sloping ground below us. In the back stood Tessa's twitching mantis form. Rosanna had been conversing with her and my sense of... aesthetic found something almost offensive about one of the Fallen taking on a succubus-like shape. I could see more shadowy Denarians working feverously as the imposter succubus ran off to some other task at Tessa's behest.


            However, my attention was on the crowd of wolves that had been coalescing. A panicked, if hulking, rabble was being organized by a truly giant black-furred wolf-man with flashing gold eyes and a heavy book hanging from his thick neck on a chain.


            "Nariko, if you can, raise the Silvers start calling in targets of opportunity," Ranma ordered as she summoned a pair of obsidian orbs in her hands. "Ukyou, help spot with flare grenades."


            The platinum haired succubus looked a bit skeptical but nodded. However her grenadier partner was eager.


           "Misa!" Ranma pointed to the giant wolf with the book hanging over his neck at the head of the now charging wolves. "See that guy! Fuck him and everyone near him." And then she launched a sphere of purple-wreathed black fire.


            Grinning, Misako leaned into her stance and depressed the trigger to her grenade launcher. There was a hammering, thudding noise as she emptied a belt of 40mm grenades.


            Bodies tumbled down as green-tinged explosions swept aside the wolves before us. Somehow their hulking leader managed to survive the onslaught, but I was a bit distracted as I had been swept up with my sister in our counter-charge; I hardly had time to cast the spell I had been readying. Two of Ranma's daughters held the left flank while two took the right and Nariko was in back with Butters.


            A pair of black orbs slammed into Tessa almost knocking the mantis girl's legs out from under her. Legs smoking, she nimbly regained her footing.


            Tessa's eyes locked on Ranma "You. Interfering. Traitorous. Spawn!" she screamed in incandescent rage that caused the wolves near her to yelp in pain.


            Tessa bent her fingers and beam of Hellfire burst forth. The livid, angry energy was almost as bright as an artillery shell. My sister dodged but it still hit her straight in the chest. I expected armor to char, for her flesh to boil, at least for her own flaming aura to react.


            Instead there was a heavenly chime and the Hellfire burned off in a flare of golden light. And the Denarian was flat footed. Gaping, she all but ignored me. "How in the Adversary's meddling name did you do that?" she snarled.


            By now Ranma, her armor still smoking, had slipped in and wrenched Tessa's extended arm and snapped her elbow joint the wrong way.


            "Fuck you, that's how." Ranma answered as she slipped a leg around the tiny Denarian and threw her onto the ground.


            Hellfire wreathing her like an incandescent aura, Tessa screamed. I would have made a comment about how Tessa used to complain that Ranma didn't talk the last time they fought but... It wasn't really my place to say that. Either way, Tessa launched herself up to try and gut my sister.


            But that's when my Veil dropped, and the end of six feet of Ozarks oak smashed Mantis-girl's skull. It wasn't a clean hit, but in my defense: she was a fast little thing.


            Now as Veils go. I'm... okay. Teaching Molly how to refine her own innate talent with Veils resulted in me learning a lot on how to be better with my own. Still, I was nowhere near good enough to escape the notice of someone with over a thousand years of experience, and a Fallen Angel providing backup. Well... unless said someone had been enraged to an irrational tunnel-vision.


            "Hey Mantis-girl!" I cheerfully said as I pressed the end of my staff into the small of her back crushing her to the ground "Remember me?"


            She tried to squirm out but managed to turn and face me. There was a spark of recognition in her eyes. Hells Bells, Tessa was strong. Even without any leverage she almost escaped.


            "Here's a hint: Forzare!" I cried as a wall of force shot out from the staff. Chitinous armor cracked and blood spurted out as I tried to crush her like a bug.


            Then I noticed the worried expressions on both Butters and my sister's faces. Though in fairness the redhead was also trying to dismember Tessa with those eyebeams of hers.


            And then the Denarian exploded.


           Wings flailing, I was knocked backwards in a tumble. Somehow I had lost my staff. Blearily, I glanced over and oh... Ranma must have protected Butters from the blast. Or maybe it was the other way around.


            The Denarian rose from the crater in a jerky motion as she ripped my staff out of her back. The wood groaned in her talons as she studied the carvings. My sister came in for another attack, but this time Tessa raised a shield with her other hand. And then the giant wolfman, Vuko I think his name was, lunged at her.


            "Lartessa, the summoning, we have to-" Rosanna started, her scarlet skin splattered with blood and ichor. She then spotted Butters. Though to her eyes he wasn't a middle aged medical examiner polka player.


            No... she saw a Knight of the Cross with a Lightsaber. With a Sith demoness standing next to him. Nariko smiled thinly as she lifted her katana.


            Studying all this mantis-girl turned to me. "Dresden..." The armor around her head began to split, revealing her disturbingly youthful heart-shaped face. "Lasciel had you for years... to no avail; they have you for a fortnight and you sign your soul over. The Webweaver is slipping."


            "Maybe you just suck at the whole Faustian bargain thing," I smirked stomping closer. Ice started growing out from where my hooves hit the dirt. I flexed my arm and the icy gauntlets began to expand and grow runes similar to those on my blasting rod.


            She snarled.


            "You also suck at the revenge thing. Normally I'd sit back and cheer someone trying to take out old Nickel-head. Maybe give a few pointers, but you have to royally screw up to get me involved."


            "You gave up your humanity to stop me," she laughed. Her lips pulled back into a crooked grin. "I win."


            I made a show of glancing around at the helicopters and gunfire. It seemed that things were getting more under control at the hospital. At the very least the explosions to the north had died down.


           Though most of the combat was a bit further away where Rosanna, still leading Butters and Nariko on a merry chase, seemed to be trying to rally the remaining Denarians and Wolves. Vuko and his cadre were busy trying to fend off Ranma. At least Vuko was large enough to shake off having massive chunks of flesh ripped out.


            "Really? This isn't the part where you say 'You'll never stop me', or 'You and what army?' Because... " my tail flicked up towards the sky.


            Her giggle returned. "Stop me? I already did it."


            Oh. Empty Night.


            "Wizard, all your plans," Tessa grinned flashing white teeth.


             "All your interference," she continued, glancing at the soldiers and demons fringing the wolves. Sniper and mortar fire had started to tell and her fellow Fallen were retreating, but Tessa's reaction was a dismissive shrug.


            "All your sacrifice," The Denarian contemptuously looked me over. "All for naught."


            "Just kill her!" Ranma swore as she dodged a blow from a giant, smoldering wolfman. Even from this far away the smell of burnt fur filled my nose. Vuko might be the size of a mini-van but he was almost as fast as my sister.


            To my left one of the ponds suddenly stilled. Explosions, flares, and cold stars were reflected by the smooth-as glass surface. There was a snapping tearing noise as the edge between the depths of the sky and the water below began to crack.


            I don't mean the water had frozen and cracked. It wasn't even the air above the water was shearing apart. No, the idea of reflection, the concept of a mirrored image broke down.


            And something came... through.


            I'll give the Canadians and the mercenaries credit; they didn't even pause to count tentacles. The second something started sloughing though the crackling, expanding portal they opened fire.


            "They rise!" Tessa cried, a mad edge to her voice. A magic shield also flared to life around her.


            Heavy Gatling guns laden with tracer figure gouged into a burbling rubbery hide that shimmered like some alien sky. Whirls and motes of lights twisted on the creature's skin as if it still reflecting the starlight of its native dimension. Seemingly ignoring the weapons fire, sinewy arms that ended in hooked tentacles tore into the dirt as it pulled forward, out of the portal.


            As it dug in, the loamy ground seemed to grey and the thing's hide became more... vibrant. Or at least the colors became more pronounced. Hues that had no place on a sane palette scratched into my eyes. I was reminded of the livid angry colors of a poison arrow frog crossed with the flickering changing colors of a cuttlefish.


            Hells Bells, the gigantic lumpy thing almost looked like a cross between a frog and a squid, though it was... more... I may have giggled as I was struck by the familiarity of the colors. Sure, none of the shades were like those on the cultist Mal de Veste's hideous suit, but "paisley plaid" was close enough.


            I then heard another keening noise and glancing to the east saw a second squid-frog lumbering forward. This time a barrage of rockets blew into its skin. Plaid chucks bounced away in a spray of orange goo.


            A squashed head-like appendage peeled back like some sort of cephalopod-flower nightmare and a pure beam of paisley flickering antic energy shot a helicopter out of the sky. Its partner joined in clipping another aircraft.


            Well... at least we kept Tessa from summoning something out of all three pools.


            I watched as the helicopter spun and tumbled landing in what I hoped was an empty field, and not, say, a residential neighborhood. The light to Tessa's shield flickered a bit... and I realized it was down to just the two of us.


            So... even wolf-men, Vuko, my sister, and the other Denarians were smart enough to pull back in the light of this insanity.


            Something almost like... worry colored Tessa's petite face. I wasn't sure what she had expected to summon but giant plaid squid-frogs wasn't it.


            "You save your box tops, you send in the money, you wait six to eight weeks for shipping, but the toy's never as cool as they made it sound in on the back of the box," I glibly said, without... okay maybe my voice did crack a bit.


            "You! You did this," Tessa hissed as she worked her hands creating a complex spell. I recognized many of the symbols forming around her from my readings. She was trying to bind the creatures.


            "You got me, this is all my fault," I added with a strained laugh. The sounds of combat had gotten quieter.


            Of course part of my attention was far away, back at the airfield where we had staged before this little mess. The Canadians had jets there; jets that on reflection were carrying bombs. And if those planes weren't already in the air they'd be screaming down the runway.


            How much time did I have before the government decided to cut their losses?


            As I bent down and used my tail to try and flip something up into my hand, I glanced over and saw Butters and Nariko exchanging sword blows with Rosanna's glowing whip. The trio moved around a bit of rubble that had once been some type of outbuilding. The scarlet demon girl was impressive, being able to hold off against both a Jedi and a Sith. It helped that her little hooves were especially nimble. Though I suppose Butters was holding back.


            "Rosanna you don't have to do this!" Butters cried. "Look at all Tessa has wrought in her mad quest for revenge. How many of her kin, your kin have been destroyed, and look at that!" The knight demanded pointing his glowing Sword at one of the giant frog-squids. "Stand down... please."


            The Denarian paused, a sad look crossing her face. "It's too late!"


            Nariko's sword flicked and blocked the whip. Lightning crackled and fought against the Denarian's power.


            "It's never too late, at least let us fix this, how long have you known Tessa? Is this how she normally acts?" Butters pleaded.


             Rosanna looked sad. And I couldn't help but snort. From what I'd seen Tessa was always a bundle of rage-fueled crazy and Rosanna knew it.


            "Please." Butters leveled his lightsaber. "Don't take my compassion for weakness," he said stepping around as Nariko watched his flank.


            Red eyed widened and the succubus flipped her sword and used the flat to push the Holy knight aside. There was an explosion as Rosanna's torso ripped apart and she flopped down in a bloody heap before she tried to scramble back up.


            More gunfire hit against Tessa's shield, some of the heavier rounds actually piercing the energy barrier.


            "You're being oddly silent. No pithy comments?" Tessa leered as the continued to cast her spell; I felt waves of compulsion shoot out and try to harness the giant creatures.


            Both squid-frogs yowled as their plaid skins rippled and seemed to suck more of the life, the color, out of the world. Though that could have been less to do with Tessa's efforts and that despite pulling back the Canadians, the mercenaries, and the demons were starting to concentrate their fire on them.


            One group that was still a bit close was a squad of mercs following... Well, there's a familiar flash of orange and black. I saw a tall broad-shouldered man in black armor draw a long sword and start hacking at some of the hulking wolves.


            The blade shone with a silver gleam that was almost like a Warden's blade, but not identical. I mean a hired assassin using the same weapon as a Warden of the White Council would be  wrong.


            In his other hand the masked man held that shiny handmade revolver. He thumbed back the hammer, took precise aim, there was a cracking boom, and in a burst of antic blue light a willowy avian Denarian that had been rallying the wolves fell in a tangle of leaves, limbs and black, pumping ichor.


            Next to... well... Old Man Harry was the lithe armored form of his daughter. She took a pointed stance with a shimmering shield in front of her and a shouldered battle rifle. Her iron wand was clipped to the front of the gun like a thin bayonet. Said wand was projecting the shield. Working in concert with her father, she took off any targets that the sword-slinging wizard missed, when she wasn't directing the occasional pot-shot my way.


            The remaining company mercs had taken support positions and were methodically clearing forward with them on point. Which I supposed was how they had trained with my sister and her daughters.


            The older Dresden caught my gaze and for an instant I looked at him eye to, well, eye. It was kinda creepy how half of his mask was just blank.


            I gave him a mad grin and gestured.


            Tessa was right about one thing, I had been oddly silent. For one... she had missed that I'd retrieved my staff. But with my alternate self here....


            The version of me that liked dressing up as a super villain grinned. He aimed his revolver and.... okay, my sisters are right. I should really spend more time at the range. I'd like to say I'm a... fair shot.


            But let's be honest.... I don't practice nearly enough. Too busy doing other things, being a detective, being a wizard, being dead, working for my Queen.


            Old Man Harry? Apparently, he doesn't have that problem. Apparently, he made the time. The damn showboat practically fanned his revolver, at twenty yards, one-handed. Sure, the first hit caught Tessa unaware, but she then started dodging and weaving. Enchanted bullets hit her shield and shattered the energy barrier, shorting it out,


            Oh.... and the damn fancy cappuccino-drinking man learned how to reload.... while carrying a sword in his off-hand. Growling, I readied my staff and readied my own spell.


            "Glacivallare!" I cried as I slammed the end of the staff into the ground. Runes flared and a wedge of stone about ten feet long, half a foot wide, and twenty feet tall shot up under Tessa's feet.


            There was a snapping noise as the edge of the wall caught the Denarian's leg and her ankle bent in the wrong way. She fell on the side of the wall closest to me and for a moment was on the ground.


            Lips pulled back, I launched myself at the distracted Denarian. My claws sunk into her armor, but she fought like the rabid little wolverine she was.


            She kicked, clawed, and burned. But thankfully my coat and my armor managed to help me. Though water was pouring off of me in dozens of little, and not so little gashes, I managed to get my tail around her torso and started using the bladed fins to  pry apart the exoskeleton on her back, while also palm striking her nose and casting ignus straight in her face.


            Okay, first off it was her fault for not snapping her mantis armor over her face again. But... maybe blasting a miniature sun in her eyes wasn't the brightest of moves.


            She screamed louder than whole pile of demo charges going off in a cave. It was louder than the bellow of one of the Forest People playing host to a Denarian. Her cry of pain was almost as bad as the unshielded mental blasts my spooky Island Deamonreach gave when it tried to communicate.


            Though with Alfred I didn't bleed from the ears. But... that might have been due to her managing to blast me off of her in a pretty impressive arc. I'd like to say that I used my fae and succubus agility to nail my landing, but honestly I was lucky to hit the ground.


            Pulsing, angry crimson energy emanated from Tessa in flickering waves. It helped cover up the sheeting blood that poured down her face. She lifted her head up and two glowing angelic eyes stared at me. Oh... so I had Imariel's attention. Wonderful.


            My attention turned to Old Man Harry and his Maggie, and Butters and Nariko. Both groups were closing in.


            "There they are!" I cried.


            Though I could feel the trepidation on Butter's part. The knight's attention was split between the burning hospital, the bleeding Denarian, and oh yes, the pair of giant, and plaid, eldritch horrors. "Yeah... hard to miss," he said not playing along.


            "There who are?" Old Man Harry asked, willing to spare a moment.


            "There! Evil Pure and Simple by way of the Eight Dimension!" I cried theatrically pointing to the building-sized monsters.


            Sparing me an annoyed glance at my classic reference, Butters looked back at the frog-squids. One which was being hit by some heavy rifle fire, grenade fire and a whole slew of magical attacks. The other was being pounded by helicopters.


            Nariko was at his side.


            He licked his lips. "Uh... maybe... thanks for the help Nariko but... I can handle it from here."


            Nariko simply pointed with her sword. Her mother, her sisters were still fighting.

 
            "Maybe they should pull back, I mean... we're hardly slowing them down."


            I fired waves of magical fire out of my gauntleted hand. I then I switched to force and will, all to try to knock Tessa back down and saw a familiar mad-gleam on my niece's face. It was one I had seen on my sister.


           Nariko hit the Pattern Silver Communicator on her wrist. "Beachhead. Priority! Grid N4 832 210. Grid N4 832 211. Immediate suppression!"


            Old Dresden stopped and, despite his mask, I could have sworn I saw the color drain from his face. Though the feelings emanating from him were blatant and clear


            They were close enough that I could just hear a hesitance on the voice on the other end, maybe a reluctance, maybe a desire to help.


            "Uh-" Butters tried to say before Nariko knocked him over. She shot a bolt of lightning from her sword straight into the air. "Danger Close!" the demon screamed cutting across the battlefield.


            She then said a quick prayer to Amaterasu and put her body over his.


             My other self had also taken to ground with his daughter, both their shields flaring as they pumped in extra power existence. Everyone else seemed to be taking cover, but I wanted another shot to get Tessa from closing in.


            The good news is that I impaled her right in the chest with an icicle as thick as my wrist. There was a crunch as it broke through chitin, blood sprayed out, and she fell.


            The bad news: that's when the artillery hit. Again.

 

***************

 


            Standing was a mistake.


            I was blown over when the sky exploded. Tessa on the other hand, well someone was nice enough to force her to her knees when the air filled with high explosives.


            Thus, I woke up to being viciously kicked in the side. I suppose I should count myself lucky that I had woken up. But... given my stomach was being cut apart by Tessa's taloned feet, I wasn't feeling so lucky.


            My mouth tasted of ashes and blood. Unfortunately, it was my own blood. I coughed and it came out in a dark blue spray.


            The Denarian's anger radiated out in steady waves. One of the first things you learn as a Practitioner is that emotions are powerful. However, they have to be shaped by will and control.


            So while Tessa really, really believed in the righteousness of beating me to death she, at the moment, lacked the control to leverage it. I suppose mantis-girl wasn't used to things not going her way. Though, it doesn't help that the last time she was pissed off was when her daughter got murdered. Which... was the whole reason we were both in this world.


            Then again Tessa did seem to be content with disemboweling me on the installment plan.


            Still, she should have just killed me. Then again, mantis-girl liked to play with her enemies, make them suffer. Meanwhile I had plenty of experience at suffering. Laughter burbled past my lips, along with a bit of blood.


            Tessa paused for a moment and her insectile-armored heat tilted.


            "My sister's beat me worse than this," I laughed as I raised an arm. "Forzare!"


            The Denarian dodged but the wave of force still clipped her torso and sent her flying over the lip of a berm.


            Gasping, I pulled up. A oily, fishy but almost minty smell filled my nose and I gagged. This time the blood that came out wasn't so dark. That was good… right? At least the gashes on my torso were starting to freeze over as layers of armor regrew.


            My hooves dug into the sides of the crater I must have been blown into. I could now see...


            Ah, the summoned monsters had retreated from the barrage. Not back to wherever they came from, but each squatted in one of the ravaged ponds, making them look even more like a nightmarish combination of amphibian and cephalopod.


            Both had been damaged with tears and gouges in their rubbery, plaid hides. The one to the North looked like it had lost a hooked tentacle arm. However, much of their spongy, reeking matter was still present. Though orange fluids were leaking out.


            And even squatting in water the pair lorded over the blasted terrain. The ponds had been diminished and water had been splashed everywhere. They deflated and expanded a bit, looking even more toad-like.


            It was like if a Macys Thanksgiving Day parade float could be made out of nightmares and bad mojo. With each croaking pulse the grounds around the squid-frogs greyed out a bit more and looked almost crumbly.


            By some miracle, the hospital was still standing. So, good targeting on the Canadians' part. It wasn't even on fire anymore. However, the grouping of buildings in between the ponds had been blown to kindling.


            As I ran up the lip of the crater I looked for my staff. I seriously considered getting a strap or something. My head cleared a bit, amazing what not having your face pummeled will do, and my horns tingled with familiar sensations.


            Good. I could feel that my family had survived, and as I jumped over the crater lip with a scream of "Parkour". I also spotted Butters and Old Man Harry moving about. My pleasure at seeing them alive was diminished by the hunger flaring in my chest as I flapped my wings.


            Tessa had done a fair bit of damage and it was only fair that I pay her back. My claws flicked out, and I landed a bit clumsily. Still one of my hooves managed to catch Tessa's right leg just above the knee and I fell upon the little Fallen angel host.


            I could hear my sister's admonishing tone as I clawed and grappled with Tessa. There was no finesse no skill. Our talons were out and what proceeded was a dirty and messy fight with a lot of biting and clawing. Blood and ichor flew as ice armor and exoskeleton ripped apart.


            Honestly, I felt like I was buying time, keeping Tessa occupied. Well... part of me felt that way. The Winter sidhe succubus part was focused on taking down an enemy and feeding when she could.


            Every moment Tessa was trying to beat me in a bout of rage-fueled anger was a moment when she wasn't trying to gain control of the blimp-sized monsters she had summoned.


            I slashed open her forearm and then burned out her shoulder, but that came at the cost of a shattered knee. Still, I was hanging on. But... I growled in frustration no matter what I did Mantis-girl could heal it.


            And as for the frog-squids they took a barrage that wiped out a super wolf army and just needed a little sit down before they started bounding across the countryside. I'm sure if I wasn't busy head-butting a Denarian I'd come up with some scheme to banish the summoned.


            But... at the moment I felt like all I could do was keep Tessa' attention, let my friends and family evacuate, and wait for those bomber jets. Hopefully that'd be enough. And hopefully, I'd have enough power to call up a shield.


            As I kneed Tessa in the neck, she slipped in the mud and I fell on her. "Geodas!" I screamed.


            A hole was punched into the mucky ground just behind the Denarian. Dodging a blast of Hellfire that lit up my hair I laughed once more. There was an idea, when the bombers come I should just make a hole and pull myself in after it.


            Tessa charged and I angled my arm; the runes and prongs over my gauntlet had grown back. "Pyrofuego!" I cried as blue fire lit up the murky gloom. Flames caught Tessa in the chest and pushed the Denarian back until she nimbly rolled just short of being pushed into the hole I'd made.


            Still bemused by my "bury yourself" idea, I pulled myself back up and flicked mud off of my wings and tail. It wouldn't be the first time I'd taken refuge in what could very well be my grave.


            Then my horns flared in pain as I felt sky breaking once more. I glanced over and saw that the squid-frogs were agitated. Well, maybe that was because a pair of armored vehicles were lobbing missiles at them from the hospital parking lot. The vehicles rapidly reversed as the frogs turned and antic, but paisley, beams shot from one of them. It was like being attacked by Disco. The creature's fire missed as a group of helicopters used that chance to harass them from a different angle.


            However, my attention was on the incipit teleportation that was now making my stomach heave. Then mantis-girl so helpfully blasted at me with a broad gout of Hellfire. For a moment Tessa's malevolent glee was matched by my own dread as I reinforced my shield. Despite the magical protection, I still felt like I was melting and roasting.


            Then the air to my left ripped apart and we realized that this portal was silver-tinged. The waves of Hellfire stopped as Tessa watched five figures coalesced out of silver light.


            Four young women in articulated metal armor with shiny little skirts appeared. Accented with colorful bows, ribbons, and golden tiaras, the quartet went to their knees two flanking either side of a tall woman in silver armor and pale blue eyes.


            Despite myself, I swallowed. I hardly noticed as my ice armor shed its outer layer and then grew thicker in an attempt to remove any mud and freshen my look. My hair fluttered as it straightened and a bit of the muck fell away. I felt a heavy power of... something.


            Something old. Layers of powerful and intricate enchantments. I was reminded of the complicated, temporally-interlocking wards that made up my scary island. And given that said island was a supernatural supermax prison, the comparison left me feeling... disturbed. The entity before me was a person, yes, but she was also a magical construct of vast complexity.


            Even the two squid creatures seem to pause, tilting their tentacle fronts towards the woman in silver.


            Tessa tilted her head as she studied the tall woman in the armored gown. "I've seen you before... what in the Adversary's meddlesome name are you?"


            Pale lips quirked into a smile as Queen Serenity leveled her scepter. "Polonius Lartessa. In the name of the Moon, I will punish you!"

 

End Chapter 14

 



            I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Kevin Hammel, and Ellf.


            And... here we go.  Two chapters left.


            In the Return Revision project:  I'm almost done with the last chapter of what's going to be the first book.  So expect to see the posts of The Return: "Brooding Responsibility" in a couple weeks at the most.