Blood Debts Book 5 of The Return
A Ranma, Sailor Moon, Dresden Files fic thingy.
By Sunshine Temple
Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma nor the Dresden Files. So here's the disclaimer:
Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC. And the Dresden Files is owned by Jim Butcher.
Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
Temporary Backup Site.
Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
C&C as always is wanted.
“I heard the news today, oh boy.
The Canadian Army had just won the war.
Squid Toady things were burned away
But I just had to look
Having wrote the book..."
-J St C Patrick
Chapter 16 Just Desserts, Part B
There was nothing quite like a shower, a meal, and a little nap to make someone feel human again. After arduous physical and mental exertion, merely being fresh and clean felt decadent.
Of course, the first thing I did in the bathroom was floss and brush my teeth. At least it was the regular kind of toothpaste. Mint would bring back unpleasant memories for years to come. That action drove home that I wasn't exactly human. It got a bit more obvious when I stripped off my duster and let my armor sublimate away.
Still, all that awkwardness, complete with mocking reflection, was over. I redressed in some slacks, western shirt, boots and my, freshly cleaned, duster. Then came breakfast and being loaded into the waiting anonymous vans driven by slightly less anonymous spook-type folks.
Of course once we arrived at the park, there was a lot of waiting. Turns out we were early. My hand drummed against my staff as I waited, leaning against a tree. At least the park was pretty enough.
And the two magical girls arrived on time.
There were a few agents ghosting about doing spy stuff. A couple of my nieces were also there: Ukyou looking dashing in a white suit while Misako sat on the lip of the fountain and periodically tried skipping stones. It should be noted that the girl, clad in a green dress that reminded me a bit too much of the coloring of the squidtoads's paisley plaid nightmare, was doing this in a drained fountain.
I think she did it just to annoy Lady Mars, who wore a black and red suit-skirt that complimented Ukyou. After seeing Mars in action earlier today, I wasn't sure why Misako was antagonizing her.
Okay... that's a lie. I knew exactly why my niece was doing it. Still, Misako had the capacity to be nice; she had helped me get ready.
My older doppelganger turned back to me and gave an irritated sigh. He had also washed up and changed back into a severe dark grey suit that, with his sable eye-patch, made him look like quite the cutthroat businessman.
Though given how much an assassin of his caliber could charge, I suppose that impression was accurate enough.
Old Man Dresden's irritation lessened when he saw his daughter similarly tapping her wand against the set of large duffle bags she was watching. Maggie, not my daughter but a version of what she could be, had changed into a burgundy knit dress over black tights and running shoes. Her dark hair spilled in front, covering half of her face.
A bit further into the twenty foot diameter fountain Lady Pluto futzed with her staff. It was back in one piece and on a close inspection on the drive over I couldn't even spot the seam from where Tessa had snapped the magical implement. Misako for all her wiliness to antagonize Lady Mars, was careful to keep from throwing her pebbles anywhere near the diminutive green-haired magical girl.
Either the diminutive magical girl had perfectly repaired her garnet-topped focus item in a couple hours or she had a set of spares that she'd swap out whenever her current staff broke.
I wasn't sure which answer was more disquieting.
But she had paid for those two wizard assassins, so I didn't have room to complain.
"You look fulla questions, Hoss," the older wizard noted as he smoothed down his suit in the breeze that managed to flow over the high fencing that separated us from the rest of the park
At least my duster wasn't flapping about. I wasn't sure about the stylistic changes Cecilia and her girls had put into the garment when they fitted it to my frame, but the ability to belt it at the waist did help.
The park was closed for renovations. A lot of the trees had been moved and there wasn't so much grass as barren soil. But the fountain in the center was nice. There was some equestrian statue, rearing on its hind legs on a plinth in the center. And it being empty meant that Lady Pluto didn't have to stomp around in water up to her shins.
"I've got more than a few," I admitted.
Dresden's eye twinkled. "I might answer. Dependin'. You might not like the answer."
Maggie sighed. "Don't tease her, Dad."
"What's short, green, and spooky paying you?"
"What's it to you?" he asked with a smile.
"Just curious." I rolled my shoulders. "Money from this world might as well be counterfeit. I suppose she could have an account or somethin' in your world."
"But that means she moved assets over there and has a paper trail and the like. Which means she's working in your 'verse or planning to. I dunno how happy you'd be with that signal."
"Pretty and sharp," he chuckled.
I may have blushed along with my sigh. Misako had complimented my choice in clothes, even if I couldn't quite get my shirt tucked in the way I normally liked. At least I was never a stickler for doing all my shirt-buttons.
"There's always gold or diamonds." A pointed boot of mine kicked at his bags. "You brought enough stuff that a few pounds wouldn't be noticeable. Though... what is the exchange rate?"
"Back my way? About 88 marks per gram."
"What's this Euro nonsense? I want American!"
"Isn't this Canada?" Maggie asked.
He sighed. "Call it twenty-five hundred per ounce."
I did the math. "Yeah ten pounds of gold is nothing in a bag like that."
"That is true."
"But she didn't pay you off in gold."
The wizard tapped his silver-headed cane. "And why not?"
"Like you'd work for something so common."
"It could have been a lot of gold," Maggie countered.
I tapped my lip. "No... you can get gold, without having to go to another dimension to fight squid-monsters and Fallen Angels. I'm thinking you asked for something only Lady Pluto could give you."
"Ah," he gave a satisfied nod.
"And I'm betting it's more than interdimensional postcards."
He made a noncommittal, but skeptical noise.
I had to agree with him. Sure, I could trust Pluto had the ability to make sure letters got from one world to another, but I wouldn't bet money that the scary, not-really-a, little girl wouldn't be reading them.
Maggie rolled her eyes. "Stop teasin' her, Viejo."
"Let me have my fun, Loba," he replied. "You know how rarely I get to tease pretty demon ladies."
The girl snorted and shook her head.
"Information. That's what you're getting from her," I stated, leveling my gaze. At least in these boots the big man couldn't loom over me.
He still tried, but after a moment the wizard turned and studied the small magical girl as she worked on the plinth in the center of the fountain. Well... it looked more like Pluto was literally going through the motions with her staff.
"Ain't she a Guardian of some sort of Time Machine?" he drawled.
"Yeah, but you don't like pissin' off Grandpappy Merlin. So... no violating the Sixth Law for you." I might have poked the older Dresden with my staff.
"But if a certain someone gave me information..." He looked thoughtful. "I'm pretty sure you've been taught that prophecies and warnings from the future have to be carefully structured to avoid causing all sorts of causality issues."
I snorted. "Why does it have to be future stuff? I'm sure there's plenty of past and present events in your world that you're dying to know the answer to."
"She's got you there," Maggie smirked.
The older Harry Dresden nodded. "So, you itchin' to know what I asked her?"
I paused. It was tempting. However, given my doppelganger was pretty close-lipped about his past, he probably wasn't willing to tell me what was so important to know that he'd risk his and his daughter's life fighting giant squid monsters.
Rubbing my chin, I pondered then shook my head. "Oh, I'm curious, but I've spent enough time with Ivy to know how dangerous that temptation can be."
He nodded, seemingly impressed.
Now, I frowned. This guy had to know Ivy, the Archive of all mortal knowledge, as well. Hells Bells, Kincaid is the Archive's bodyguard. And this one-eyed merc spent years working for Kincaid to pay off a debt.
So... that left a few nasty options. Maybe Old Harry was after information that Ivy didn't know, something no mortal knew. That could be pretty... creepy.
Worse, his world might not have an Archive, at least not anymore. The Archive, that is the mantle of knowledge, is passed down from mother to daughter, with the daughter inheriting after the mother's passing. Except... Ivy, at least my world's Ivy didn't have a daughter; she's too young. Not to mention Ivy's own mother... well it's best not to think about that. Still, I don't know what would happen if the Archive died before she had a daughter.
Well, there was a less scary option. Maybe Old Man Harry wasn't willing to pay the price for getting information out of Ivy. Or perhaps Ivy couldn't tell him. When my daughter was kidnapped, Ivy wasn't able to tell me where Maggie was.
The well-dressed man chuckled at my disquiet.
"Is the Archive doing well?" I finally asked.
He nodded while his daughter snorted. "Yeah, Ivy's doing great," she said eyeing me. "You're afraid to know what Viejo wanted answered?" she teased.
"I think your father went through a fair bit of work just to answer a question." I turned to him. "And if he's anything like me, there's a few things, a few people, he cares enough for to risk himself, and his daughter, for. The real issue, isn't what question he asked, or even what the answer was, but why he needs that information."
He averted his eye just enough to avoid a Soulgaze.
"The real question is who you two want to save," I stated.
"Bravo," he clapped.
"You going to answer? And how can I help?"
His smile grew. "Oh, Hoss, you're so eager."
"We can always use another perky soul-sucker seductress," Maggie smiled.
"Perky?" I may have lifted an eyebrow. I then looked down. Ah, while my top wasn't overly tight, and while I wasn't as endowed as my sisters. I was still a pretty demon lady. Though looking further down, past the lingering swell from my "breakfast" I saw that a good pair of pants didn't do anything to hide my long legs.
Well, at least my duster kept things from being too blatant in back, though... I had tied it off around my waist. A finger went back to my lips and I pulled it away and looked both at the color on the tip and then on the nail.
While my lips were normally a glossy blue, they weren't normally sparkly. Same went for my nails. "Damnit, Misako!"
The orange haired girl looked up and waved.
Lady Pluto looked up from scribbling on the edges of an access door on the plinth in the center of the fountain. She shook her head and went back to her make-work.
"Don't let teenage girls dress you." Old Harry shook his head sadly.
"You don't want my help?"
He took a moment to watch Pluto. "Hoss, we've been working this rescue for a while. The little Miss over there's just giving me a piece of the puzzle. Besides, you can't just run to some other world, you've gotta go back home first. Besides, I've got Winter help," he added with a cool smile.
I crossed my arms over my chest and huffed. Part of me did ponder the kind of rescue that was a long term prospect, under what situation was this person hostage? As for Winter help. I frowned. Well, he wasn't the Winter Knight. And he did seem on good terms with the Ladies of Summer and Winter. However, he was pretty skittish about Mab, which was silly.
Lady Pluto had sauntered over to us, staff leaning on her shoulder.
"Well, I guess we should go," Old Dresden said as he put on his black wide-brimmed hat.
I held up a finger. "Look, you helped with this."
"We were being paid," he amiably remarked, as he hoisted up one of the large bags.
"Your questions will be answered," Pluto assured. "We should go."
"Hush you." I waved my hand at her.
The girl looked cross. "Dame Blackstone, we have been lucky. As... complicated as things have been, they could have been much worse. And I would prefer not to press my luck, not when there are extra wizards here."
I eyed her. "Is Murdock really that bad?" Ranma and Eve had told me about the gleeful manipulator who had orchestrated... well he'd been the one who had arranged for Ranma to become a demon in the first place. And from that change....
Yeah, that guy had set a lot of things in motion.
"Worse," Pluto stated. "He's been off our radar, which means he's up to something."
Old Man Dresden shook his head. "Young pups and their schemes."
"Really? You love secret plots as much as the next wizard."
Pluto sighed, impatient.
He held up a hand soothingly. "It's okay, we're going. I'll be happy with my payment."
"I can still help." I eyed him. "Look, evil-mirror Dresden. Whenever you do stage your elaborate heist or whatever your rescue scheme is, I'm pretty sure a Winter wizard sihde succubus would be an asset."
He glanced down at Maggie. The teen ran a hand through the hair that concealed half her face with a little flip. "Sure Dad, the Ladies might not be able to help, even if they want to," she said, taking her own bag.
They began to follow Pluto back to the fountain.
The older wizard though for a few paces. He tilted his head and his attention seemed far away as he pondered. "Aye, the older Queens can keep 'em from acting if they choose. It would be handy to have a backup asset," he allowed, stepping over the lip of the fountain.
"Gah, all that and I get a maybe? Why are you so stubborn?" I glared and stomped a high-heeled boot.
He chuckled. "That's rich."
I continued to glare as we neared the plinth, specifically the access door that Pluto had been fiddling with."
"Look, we're both loggerheads, and we're both able to out-stubborn the temptations from a certain Web-Weaver."
I exhaled. He was talking about Lashiel. He had spent time with her Shadow in his head too. "She got a raw deal," I sighed.
Old Harry frowned and his comment was cut off by Pluto opening the door.
The access door's hinges creaked. Instead of a cramped room full of pipes, pumps, filters or whatever was stuffed in the base of fountain statuary there was an iridescent green portal that neatly filled the door-frame.
"After you," Pluto stepped back and gestured towards the doorway.
"Well... bye, I guess." I paused. I didn't have much practice dealing with – myself. Though I suppose talking to my Id or, more recently my reflection counted for something. I reached out and pulled both Dresdens into a hug.
Maggie made a surprised noise while Old Harry complained a bit about it being too tight. Still both returned the gesture while Pluto looked on with a bit of impatience.
"Damn huggy demons," she murmured.
The hug broke apart and Old Man Dresden shook his head. "You're gonna be okay, Hoss."
"I'm not worried-"
He cut me off. "Yes, you are, but that's fine. Go back home, reconnect with your daughter, er daughters, lean on those Knights. Just be careful, it might take time for your friends to get used to you."
"After the Winter Knight thing..." I frowned.
He patted me on the shoulder. "See, if they can accept you being the Winter Queen's leg-breaker, they can be okay with you all demony."
He shrugged. "Hey, if you don't like it maybe you should have thought through demandin' to be made a demon. They'll accept you or they won't."
"Just try to use a bit of tact, we can be pretty intense."
I blinked at him and Maggie stared.
"What? I'm older, that means I know more, especially about my own problems." He tapped his cane on the ground and shifted his bag. "Anyway, the scary little girl is waiting patiently."
"Right," Maggie hoisted her gear and crossed the threshold.
"I am functionally a teenager," Pluto stiffly said.
Old Harry laughed and I could tell he wanted to pat her on the head. Instead, showing a bit more judgment than I would have, he simply gave me a final nod and walked through the glowing portal.
"They're back home?" Eve asked as the van pulled away from the park.
I adjusted my legs. Those damn pants of Misako's had creaked ominously as I sat down. "Well, little Miss Pluto sent them on their way, and she went through the portal with them.
"To help with their payment?" My sister ventured from her position riding "shotgun".
I nodded. Of course Eve had figured it out too. I wasn't the only detective in the family. Swiveling in the bench seat, I turned to Lady Mars who sat next to me. "Is that normal for her?"
The black-haired girl sighed a bit. "Is anything normal for her?"
"Nevermind," Mars shook her head.
"There's a bit of a split between the Pattern Silver teams," Ukyou said from the back bench where she and Misako sat. The coiffed girl nodded at me then whispered something to Ukyou.
"Half of us are still in Japan dealing with problems there," Mars stated.
"Ah, the rest of the planets?" I ventured. "So, like Ladies Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn?" Before the battle I had overhead something about Mercury, Ami, not being… available. One of the many briefings my sisters had put me through did warn me about "Mistress Mercury". Apparently, she was another part of Murdock's schemes.
"And Serenity's daughter," Mars added before looking back out the window.
"Thanks for all your help," I said and bowed my head a bit to her.
She blinked at the gesture. "That's Usagi's nature." Mars tried to sound casual but she did enjoy the compliment.
"Sure, and her blowing up a squid monster was great. So was Pluto finding some extra help, but I'm thanking you in specific." As she turned I gave her a smile. "We wouldn't have won without you."
"Well, yes." The barest hint of a flush colored her cheeks. "Still, I'm not the one who was insane enough to get eaten and blow the monster up from the inside."
Looking down, I coughed. "I didn't exactly plan on that... but once it happened I tried to make the most of it." Really, once a monster from beyond the stars was trying to eat you, your options were a bit limited.
"You really are Ranma's sister." Mars made a thoughtful noise. "Maybe you should take after your more restrained sisters," she nodded to Eve. It was a bit of a formal gesture.
"You should have spent more time with her when she was a human," Eve said as she watched the intersection as the van made a long left turn.
Mars gave a slight smile and nodded her head.
The rest of the drive passed rather peacefully. Well, I might have complained a bit about how I was a totally responsible adult back in Chicago, with an office, yellow page ad, business cards, and everything. Yes... the business cards were new and the office was temporary.
But that my old workplace burned down wasn't my fault.
Hells Bells, my life had been re-established after "dying" to such a level that I had even got a jury duty summons. Imagine that, a mortal government summoning me. Though I suppose that was mob-boss Gentleman Johnny Marcone manipulating the system so I would end up serving on a jury of a guy who turned out to have been railroaded into murder charges by the White Court. Said abuse of the justice system was courtesy of a particularly annoying young vampire named Tania Raith
Sure, the guy had been a bruiser for the Chicago Outfit, hence why Marcone pulled those strings, but the guy was innocent. Okay, Hamilton Luther really did kill Curtis Black. However given Luther only killed Black, a White Court Vampire, because he found Black feeding on a little girl, I wasn't willing to vote to convict the guy.
I guess I could talk to Marcone about getting all new paperwork. Though I wasn't exactly keen on getting in debt with the mobster just to change the name on some leases, licenses, and business cards.
Oh, Empty Night, I was going to have to change all that stuff. I couldn't well pass myself as Harry Dresden, at least not to the people that care about business cards, that is vanilla mortals.
I might have distracted myself about the pain in trying to transfer my lease and business registration. And then there was my Private Investigator's license. And yes my family had to have some experience in helping people get paperwork after the succubus change, but that was only good for their world.
The irony there was enough to make me want to kick the seat in front of me, but that would just get Eve angry at me.
Well, I had a friend, or at least someone that liked me, on the Senior Council who helped me get my official declaration of death reversed. Maybe Rashid could work his bureaucromancy again. I would prefer owing the mysterious Keeper of the Outer Gates than Marcone.
Anyway, instead of mulling over all that, I may have spent the remainder of the car ride complaining to Misako about her fashion choices for me today. I was so busy civilly debating her spurious argument that she was merely teaching me the importance of bras and other foundation garments that I hardly noticed we had dropped Rei off.
Even worse, was Misako's assertion that I was to blame for these clothes. Like I was all into extra-tight pants. That was more my brother's and eldest sister's style. And as for those boots, sure I liked cowboy boots, and I liked being tall, but there was no reason for me to want to make myself look even taller, just because I was seeing off guy-me who was my old full height...
Eve was her quiet self during the drive, though she seemed a bit more withdrawn than usual. Maybe she was distracted, but I expected at least some dry commentary from her with regard to my fashion faux pas.
The van stopped and I realized we had passed through the checkpoints and were home. That is we were out in front of the house where Ranma and her family lived, which was across from Eve's house. There were a few company vehicles already parked on the street.
"Thank you, Agent Taveres," Eve said to the driver as we all climbed out of the vehicle.
Getting out of the left side of the van, Taveres, a stout muscular man, reached in and pulled out a brownish tan backpack.. With dusky skin he was short, not as short as Ranma, but not much taller than Butters. Still, he was fit and dressed in that slacks and polo contractor chic that the mercenaries seemed to adopt when in semi-public
"Ma'am," the quiet young man nodded.
Eve glanced at her watch. Which I think was an affectation. If I had to place odds, I'd wager she had an excellent ability to keep track of time. "It looks like Ranma hasn't started her class, so you have time to change and attend."
For once the sober man smiled. "Ma'am," he repeated and walked off while Ukyou and Misako sauntered off. The blonde went towards their house, while her coiffed mate sauntered towards the dojo.
That left the two of us.
Eve had smoothed her dark suit and was flipping through some papers in one of her thick leather valises. Which I would also bet had some sort of explosive lining. Her lip quirked a bit.
"And how are you doing?" I asked.
Looking back, she met my gaze. "Pardon?"
"You're lingering, alone with me, and you've been quiet on the drive over."
Her head tilted slightly.
"Quiet for you." I may have flared a bit of irritation. "We're family, you don't have to wall yourself from me."
Her smile was slight, but had just a little bit of brittleness. "Well, it's a bit selfish but... notice that you don't have any new nieces."
"What's that..." I winced. "No one on the D Program got hurt?"
"There were two members on a helicopter that crashed. KIA. Another will probably lose a leg, but I know Agent Song, she'll probably take a medical reassignment."
I nodded. The D Program had a few limitations. Sure, it was one thing to say you were willing to be turned if you were mortally wounded, but one of the brood still had to find you between getting wounded and expiring.
"Uh, how bad were the casualties?" I asked. I had seen several mercenaries and Canadians go down, not to mention the helicopters that crashed and vehicles that got melted.
Eve's blue eyes had a moment, just a moment, where they weren't perfectly steady. "About a dozen killed, twenty more casualties, some of those probably won't make it."
Anyone else would have seen a blonde woman giving an even statement. Maybe feeling a bit of sadness to her words, but she was prime, polished, professional. It was only because she was family; that I was empathically bonded to her, that I could feel her weariness and emotional vulnerability.
I leaned forward and wrapped my hands around her.
There was a tiny flicker of surprise, but Eve returned the hug. Slightly shorter, especially with me in higher heels, she was able to lean her head on my shoulder. I felt the connection between us as my sister let some of her barriers drop.
"Are you going to be okay?" I asked.
I felt the confusion from her, followed by a blend of amusement and pleasant surprise. "Of course," she gave a sigh that was partially a purr and pulled back out of the hug. "I have my family. I have you all, but thank you for asking." she bowed her head to me.
I returned the gesture.
"Will you be okay?" she asked. Her outward appearance was back to all-business, but I could feel a slight concern to her, as well as the afterglow from the hug.
"Uh, yeah?" I ran a hand through my hair. "I mean it was real awful being chewed up like that and the whole battle was..." I blinked. "Well, I mean Tessa's gone and we've stopped Outsider squid monsters from stomping about my world and yours."
"Yes, this hasn't been your first rodeo," she remarked. "But that's not what I'm asking."
I tilted my head.
"You're going back to your city. You'll be alone."
"Oh," I understood her unvoiced question, and her silent offer. "You don't have to come with me, I'll be fine," I said in a tone that wasn't at all like crying: "But I'm a big girl!"
However, I might have bit my lip in worry. Look, it was a bit of a scary thought. To be honest, I hadn't really thought much about... well... what I'd do after I'd won. Winning itself was big enough of a challenge.
"You'll have to deal with what you did, what you became to beat Miss Latessa. But you don't have to be alone," Eve said.
"Yeah... not the first time I've grabbed power to win without understanding the consequences."
Eve made a thoughtful noise, but I could feel the worry behind her cool facade.
"I'll be okay," I assured her as I looked around the street. The neat houses around us were quiet. I could hear, and feel, some activity around the dojo. I suppose if I Listened I could know more of what was going on, but I felt Ranma's presence there and that was enough.
Still, I ran one hand over the other; it was... odd. Ever since I had fallen through a hole in the sky and landed in half-frozen mud, I'd had a mission. First, figuring out where the heck I was, then, figuring out why the heck I was here, and finally, how to solve the problem of a revenge-crazed Fallen Angel host.
Eve sensed my indecision and anxiety. "I have to go back to base and help oversee the quarantine, cleanup, and the like. You could come, if you like. It's a bit dry, but would be helpful to make sure we're disposing of everything properly," she offered.
I tilted my head, and considered. Sure, Sanya and Butters had secured the Denarian coins, but what they were going to do with those coins afterward was a valid question.
Normally, they'd be handed over to the Church and kept secured. Eventually, they'd escape and go "back into circulation", that's how it worked with those damned things. But lately, the coins seemed to be getting out of the "penalty box" a bit too quickly.
At least that's what Michael and I had found the last time we had tangled with Denarians. That was the same operation that had seen the retired Knight come back for one last mission. And had actually been Mab and Marcone tricking Nicodemus into losing his personal army, ruining his reputation in the supernatural community, and, oh yes, murdering his daughter.
Which... was what got Tessa out looking for revenge.
Still, what Sanaya and Butters were going to do with their baggy full of Fallen coins was a problem for later. I suppose I had a place designed to secure supernatural things, but, given what else was locked down under my spooky island, I really didn't think stashing Denarian coins there was a wise idea.
Either way, the coins weren't my sister's problem. It showed remarkable wisdom that these mercenaries were happy to get the damn things off their planet. Instead of doing something like trying to harness their power, study them, or some other foolishness.
If only more people acted sensibly when tempted with vast supernatural power.
Even without the coins, there was still a huge mess on that battlefield. I hadn't heard any news today, so I had no idea what lies were being spun. I had seen a zombie T-rex stomp through Chicago and fight a literal army of zombies get covered up by blaming an outbreak of bread mold so I wouldn't be surprised either way.
Now, Eve did have a point, keeping me occupied might be for the best.
I tapped my knuckles. "Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll talk to Butters and Sanya first, see what their plans are."
Eve's lips quirked. "I believe they're in the dojo." She reached out and gave me another hug. "Talk to you later," she said afterwards.
I watched my sister turn and head towards her house. I guess she was getting something before going back out. Maybe picking up one of her daughters, or maybe a book or a gun or something to bring in to work.
Shrugging, I went the opposite direction and crossed the driveway. My boots rang on the stone walkway leading up to the front door of the Saotome residence. Though I suppose technically it was owned by the Tendos.
Crossing the threshold, I pulled off my tall boots and walked through the foyer. My nebulous plans of going upstairs and changing were canceled when I felt Sanya, Ukyou, Cecilia, and one of her daughters, the one with turquoise hair, in the kitchen.
"Is Eve ready to go back to base?" Cecilia asked.
"I think so," I could feel her apprehension and worry. I glanced at my two nieces, they were busying themselves at the stove. Sanya stood at the kitchen island deftly dicing things with a knife.
"How's Desiree?" I asked my tail drooping as I walked up to my sister.
"Better," Cecilia leaned on me. "I'll be going down to see her in a moment. Hazel, Isabel, and Kristen are with her in the medical wing."
I put my arms around her, then added my wings to the embrace. "She'll be okay, we can heal pretty much anything, in time," I reassured. The amount of damage I could soak up now did make me feel funny, but even a normal succubus could heal a lot.
"I can go and visit with you," I offered. "I mean, I was just out seeing off Scary-Assassin me and Maggie."
Looking up, Cecilia smiled. "That's sweet, you can come later today or tomorrow morning, before you go."
My tail drooped a bit. "I do have to go back, we all do."
"I am in no rush," Sanya said.
Huh, that was interesting. Normally, Knights of the Cross were made aware of their next mission with bracing clarity.
"Bit of vacation with pretty demon girls could be nice." He used the blade to brush a bunch of diced shallots into a bowl. "Food is good," he added flashing Ukyou and Meredith a smile.
"Oh, I'm just getting started," Ukyou grinned back.
"Some more time would be helpful," Cecilia said as she slipped out of the hug and gave me an apprising look.
I felt a bit self-conscious. Not by how I was dressed, which was pretty normal for this family, but by how her gaze seemed to go through me. "Eve is worried about me too."
Cecilia leaned in. "You are very young," she whispered. "Normally, a new succubus spends time with her family to stabilize and grow."
"Even one made by the sister process?"
"Eve still dotes on her big sister and moved in next door." Cecilia's response was playful, but there was a bit of truth and hurt to her statement.
"That's for mutual defense and..." I frowned, my sister's whispering was right. Sure, Eve could go out on her own now. But how long did it take for her to get that mature? Cecilia had been forced into living on her own, and even then she had her daughters to take care of.
And even if Eve could live by herself, it's not like she had the inclination to do it. Succubae were social, pack-pack based. And I would be the only succubus of my kind when I got back home.
"Oh," I muttered as Cecilia whispered something else. Lost in my own thoughts, I missed what she said, but that was okay. The idea of having her say something that I didn't consciously hear was familiar somehow.
Well, at least Thomas was similar to me. I got the feeling that I was going to have to lean on my incubus-style vampire brother pretty heavily.
I won't deny that a part of me wanted to stay here, stay with my sisters. Hells Bells, I'd love it if someone could come with me. A little part of me wanted Mother to come and help teach me, guide me but...
Mother was dead. And my other mother was only human. I blinked at that thought. It was factually correct. In this specific case, Nodoka Saotome's species was a limitation, but it still felt wrong to frame it that way.
Cecilia leaned her head back on my shoulder. "We've done all we can to help you, but we worry. You're strong-willed, stubborn and that will help, but it could also hurt you," she quietly said.
"What you've done to help me," My eyes widened as my memory flashed back to when my three sisters had turned me. All three provided their energy and tried to help me visualize the change, for what good that did.
But Cecilia was doing something in addition to that. "You were whispering in my ear!"
The lavender-haired demon gave an innocent smile, but her eyes glinted. "Ah, you remember, now."
"What did you do?" I growled as I took her arm and pulled her out of the kitchen into the hallway.
Cecilia's gaze went from my eyes to my hand. My sister was amused. "You begged us to turn you. You demanded demons remake your body without even bothering to find out what gender you'd become."
She wagged her finger as if I were naughty. "I looked into your soul."
Despite my ire, I felt guilty. Other than Ranma, no one else exactly enjoyed Soulgazing with me.
"And that confirmed things, confirmed fears." Cecilia started me down. "I was afraid I'd lose my little sister to madness because she'd be too in denial to realize she wasn't human, too stubborn to adapt, too prideful to ask family for help."
"That didn't give you the-"
She cut me off. I felt a slight buzzing in my horns as she flexed a bit of her power. "I did what I could, Sister. And given that you, a wizard -someone extraordinarily skilled at the visualization, mental control, and faith required to cast magic- couldn't bring yourself to see yourself as a succubus, believe that you should be a succubus…"
She spread her hands. "I'd say what I did was necessary."
"But what did you do? What did you whisper?" The anger had boiled out of my voice and I was left with uncertainty, a feeling of vulnerability.
Butters was right. I didn't think through this whole "demon" plan, and I had screwed things up. My tail curled behind me.
Cecilia took my hand. "You're a passionate person, dear sister. I merely helped you with that."
"This isn't the first time a supernatural woman tweaked my emotional state without me knowing about it." This time I glared at her.
"And? I was helping you."
"And I had an apprentice who thought she could just cure drug addiction in her friends by implanting phobias in their minds. She was trying to help them too. Instead it got her declared a warlock with the White Council, put under a probation where if she slipped up she'd lose her head, and, oh yes, she drove one of her friends, to madness and badly hurt the other."
Cecilia's lip curled back and her stance shifted. "Your apprentice was sloppy," she hissed. "Clumsy."
I blinked. I knew what my sisters were, the empathic thing made it obvious they weren't human. However with Ranma and Eve it was easy to keep in mind how different they were. They radiated the sleek power and control of the trained predators they were.
Cecilia... she was a demon. Okay, it sounds dumb. But this was the first time she really acted demonic. Her eyes seemed to read me and her sneer became a bit approving.
"Is that the difference? Molly was bad at using mind magic to fix her friends but you're good at it," my mouth was dry.
Cecilia slipped closer, her expression softening. "No. The difference is that you consented to having your mind transformed. I doubt your apprentice asked her friends if she could help them."
"No, she didn't."
"As I said sloppy," Cecilia shivered. "Also, instilling a phobia to keep someone from doing something they're addicted to causes a mental break. The imposed will conflicts with the true self. Mental trauma is a result."
"Uh... yeah that's what happened, and why messing with someone's mind is Black Magic." I glared at her.
"I did what I did to reduce your mental trauma." Cecilia gave a playful smile, but her eyes were cold. "Do recall how I became a demon, Sister."
I stared. Cecilia had been human, but she had been taken by Alexia. She had been taken and transformed, warped and twisted. Made to love a parent that saw her only as raw material.
I'd like to think Cecilia would find her experience, her daughters' experience so revolting that she'd never repeat the sins of her mother. "Then what did you do to me?" I asked.
"You are passionate, emotional, but you also repress. Your stubbornness is an asset; it gives you great strength and resilience, but it can also cause denial. I helped your emotions, helped keep you from denying what you had become."
Her eyes looked into mine in that direct way succubae preferred. It was still a bit disconcerting, given I had a lifetime of avoiding such gazes, but it helped confirm she was telling the truth.
"I wouldn't..." I looked down at my body. My tail whipped around; my wings had folded against my shoulders.
"Ranma did. She denied who she was and it nearly cost her eldest daughter her sanity. She was so in denial she didn't even know the new demon she made was her daughter."
"Oh?" That seemed... Okay, I knew Ranma was once human, that there was a time before she had the whole "demon mom" thing. But it was hard to think about her that way. "You still messed with my mind."
Cecilia tilted her head. "You were being turned into a succubus, into our sister. Your mind was going to be changed. Better for you to accept yourself now than have some mental break fester."
"Fester?" I paused. Magical brainwashing had the whole problem of your mind knowing it should be doing things one way, but, instead, being forced to act a different way. That extra mental pressure, that extra wrongness built up and was why madness was a common result of brainwashing.
But what Cecilia was saying...
"Hells Bells, you were worried I'd be walking around with a succubus brain, succubus instincts, but my inner self would be too stubbornly human and I'd drive myself nuts?"
Cecilia gave me "the look".
"You thought I'd sabotage my own brain, Black Magic style?"
"Were my fears unfounded?" She spread her hands. "How have you been acting since the change?"
"Come on, sure I might have been silly and.... pretended to flirt, but that's not bad I mean I'm a pretty young de..." I worked my jaw. "Oh."
Smiling, she reached up to cup my cheek. "Don't pout. It's not like we had to rub your horns or treat you like a true baby succubus."
"What?" I snorted. "I've graduated to big girl pants?"
"More that a certain degree of mental flexibility is required to accept the change." Her eyes flashed. "And the change cannot be denied. A brittle mind will break."
I frowned. Mind Magic was the same way for wizards. Older, curmudgeony wizards grew set and built up a mental resistance that resisted overt control. Sure, they could still be influenced, as the Senior Council found out to their detriment due to a the actions of deep cover mole, but they couldn't be outright controlled... as said mole demonstrated with the younger Wardens on the Council.
"I've seen it happen," Cecilia's voice was soft. "Sometimes Alexia would let one of us have the illusion of resistance. Give them spark of who they were... and let the pressure build until it crushed their minds."
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
Her smile flashed again. "Others simply collapsed when Alexia's influence was removed. So many of my girls, of Ranma's girls too, are special."
I winced. "But... they're all great girls. I mean they recovered."
Her gaze returned. "Yes, they are happy; they are whole... now; they are growing. But..."
"They are not who they once were." I frowned after completing her thought. I pondered. The conclusion hit me and my tail stiffened. "Oh."
"Yes, if I had merely wanted a happy succubus sister, I wouldn't have needed to do anything."
Her eyes bored into mine, the lavender irises softly luminescent. "I could have stayed silent during the change, and afterwards when my baby sister fell ill, well... she'd get better."
I shivered. That was the curse of my new species. Our minds could be fragile, vulnerable. But if broken... they could be reformed, but it wouldn't have been...
"I would have died."
Cecilia tilted her head and she smiled with a flash of teeth. "Butters would have mourned the loss, but he's a good man. He'd have helped us with our poor sister. Though I'm glad he didn't have to bear that burden."
"He was sent to... to help me," I sighed. "More than just talking me out of murdering Tessa. More than futilely trying to keep me from becoming a demon."
"Could you imagine a newborn succubus with your power? Confused, without a firm identify, but with memories full of hurt."
I thought to my daughter Bonnie, a spirit with the knowledge of a Fallen Angel. She came into existence in such a state of innocence but burdened with terrible knowledge. "Yeah."
"I love you." Cecilia hugged me. "I'm not strong like Eve and Ranma. They assumed you could power through it. Even though Eve abandoned her humanity to save her soul, and Ranma did likewise to save her daughters."
"I love you, too," I blinked, still confused.
"But I know what it's like to be broken and if I could keep you from breaking, I would."
I thought of Cecilia giving me those pamphlets, talking to me about my emotions, my urges, explaining that I had options other than ascetic self control, working with Lea to send me on that date. I hugged her back. "I'm still... I don't like that you messed with my mind."
"I really don't like that you kept it secret from me." I eyed her. "Should I be happy I'm able to dislike it? That you didn't make me wide-eyed and thankful?" My tone was light but there was a bit of hurt under cutting it.
"If I were going to brainwash you, having you less clumsy would be my priority. She took my arm again. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
A little growl slipped past my self-control. "You were that afraid I'd screw up?"
My sister just gave a sad nod. "I didn't want to lose you."
Sighing, I pulled her into another hug. "I don't like it. I'm also... look be careful. You know how dangerous we can be, how we can abuse our powers."
She shivered a bit in the embrace. "You sound like you're speaking from experience."
"I..." My voice caught. "Yeah, a couple times. I once used a bit of mind magic to help Murphy sleep after some nasty mental trauma, even eased the memories a bit. Among the Council it's considered a mercy and not violating the law."
"But it could be abused," Cecilia stated.
I shrugged and squeezed her again.
"What was the other time?" she asked, pulling out the hug.
I looked down. "I had my own memory erased. I had my apprentice do it to me so..." I bit my lip. "So, I wouldn't know; so my Queen wouldn't know I had arranged for my own assassination."
"Before you became the Winter Knight?" Cecilia's arm snaked back around my side. "You didn't want to become her... monster?"
My gaze was still low. I could see my tail swishing as it curled around my long legs. "Yeah. I mean. I wasn't in my right mind at the time. Someone had cheated but..."
"I'm sorry," Cecilia repeated and I could feel the regret and sympathy in her voice. There was also an undercurrent of worry.
"I've got no plan like that here!" I waved my hands.
"Oh, I'm not worried about that." She laughed. A bit more regret filled her. "I've been keeping my ride waiting too long. We will talk later," my sister promised, reaching up to give me a quick hug before going towards the foyer.
After putting on her shoes, she waved as she slipped through the front door.
Waving back, I turned and made a surprised noise as Sanya had seemed to appear next to me. At least the knight had left that knife in the kitchen.
I regained my footing. "Um, how much did you hear?" I asked in a quiet voice.
I crossed my arms and tried to give him "the look".
The Russian shook his head with a bit of regret. "She should have told you."
"Yeah, that might have made me think twice about the change."
His teeth flashed in a mirthful smile. "Are you sure? Is that the line when it comes to turning into pretty demon?"
"It would have been nice."
"She could have told me afterwards, instead of hoping I didn't figure it out." My tail started to ease and swing back behind me.
The Knight glanced down then back up to me. "She was scared for her baby sister."
"Doesn't make it right."
Sanya nodded again and put his arm over my shoulder. His strong fingers ran over the folded membranes of my wing. "No, she should have told you. She took away choice."
I smiled. That was what it came down to for the Knights of the Cross: Protecting the ability of mortals to choose. Even the likes of Tessa and Nicodemus were offered a choice. Neither took it; each sided with their Fallen.
"I still chose this," I swept a set of long alabaster fingers tipped with blue nails over my tall, sleek form. "My sisters warned me I wasn't thinking it through. Butters warned me, but I still demanded the change."
As he led me back to the kitchen, Sanya followed my gesture.
"Well, being the demon. Not the Winter sidhe succubus stuff," I amended.
Sanya laughed. "That was your choice as well."
I tilted my head.
"Come Dresden, you knew what would happen if you did not drive the change yourself. The Mantle would do it." Sanya shook his head and let go of me. "Besides, Knight Mantle is not thinking being. Is power, instinct, and primal urges. It does not know how to make pretty demon lady."
His hand slipped down my shoulders and brushed against my tail. "Uh..." I twisted around to face him, slightly flush. "But... if it wasn't the Mantle. Who turned me?" I frowned, even Cecilia wouldn't go that far. Plus she was genuinely surprised by how I looked.
Sanya grinned. "Who else?"
Raising my hand, I opened my mouth. Then I slowly closed it and pondered. I had screwed up the change. At the time, I couldn't see myself as a succubus; couldn't truly believe that I should be one. But I also didn't want to die. Neither did the Winter Mantel.
But the Mantle was just fine with me turning into a predator. Problem was, the Winter Mantle didn't know how a succubus should look.... and even if it did it wouldn't embellish. Stars and Stones, I came out of the change with lipstick and eyeliner.
"I am such a moron," I sighed, my tail drooping, and tapping one foot on the floor. It gave a sharp ring.
Shaking his head, he moved closer and I almost had to shift a step back. "You try to do the right thing. You don't think all the way through, but you try the right thing."
"Yeah... at least it wasn't as bad as the whole Winter Knight change."
"Ah, so no broadcast of you consummating the change?" Sanya frowned. "Yes, for the best, they did become your sisters, no?"
I coughed again. Yeah... becoming the Winter Knight was intensely primal and Mab, being Mab, broadcast the whole thing to all the fae. Though I'll admit part of me wouldn't mind ... I blinked and tilted my head. Sanya was saying something.
"Sorry, I missed that?" I asked, arching my back a bit as I stretched. Damn Misa and her too-tight pants.
Sanya laughed. "I said: It's not like the Mantle would care to make its host pretty to impress the Winter Queen."
I gave a little smile and swished my tail. "Well, maybe. If I'm lucky."
He was still smiling, but his eyes looked thoughtful. "Ah. You have not spoken with the Winter Queen?"
"No, I'm sure Lea told her about me, but..." I shook my head and shifted my hooves. Huh, when did those shift? I licked my lips. "I don't want her mad."
He nodded. "Yes. Though there is something else you should be concerned of."
The knight shrugged. "It's not just your sister influencing your mind."
I gave him a sharp look. "I know about the Mantle." Still, I couldn't keep from frowning. Sure the Mantle of the Winter Knight couldn't really think, but it had its loyalties and urges. Maybe it could put the idea of impressing Mab in my mind.
That was a scary thought.
Then I had a worse thought. Stars and Stones, the Mantle had merged with me. There wasn't any need to implant ideas in my mind. The concentration of Winter Power was a part of me.
Sanya looked contemplative as we meandered back to the kitchen. "I've met the Winter Queen. We also talked after you became her Knight."
I blushed a bit but felt his pressure on my shoulder... My head shook. "I wasn't exactly thinking at my best back then," I stated. That was putting it mildly: self-brainwashed to enact a suicidal conspiracy was more accurate.
"You were afraid of what you'd become?" he asked.
"Someone on the other side cheated. Took advantage of my fears. Broke the rules. One of your bosses had to step in and balance the scales." Lasciel, the actual Fallen not her shadow, was the one that pushed me into that conspiracy. Afterwards Uriel had given my ghost a few choices and in the end let me face Mab with a measure of hope.
"Ah," Sanya nodded as he went back to the cutting board. "Your relationship improved then?" he asked pulling, an onion out of a bowl.
My nieces seemed to be diligently cooking, but I knew they had been eavesdropping.
I frowned. That... was true. I had been far more insolent than Mab was used to in a Knight. I almost felt guilty at how far I'd pushed her. Especially given the whole Maeve mess. Mab realized that her daughter had to die, as a parent I couldn't imagine what that would do to me.
Then again, I had promised to be the most effective knight Mab had ever had, and I liked to think I had proven my worth to my Queen.
My tail curled.
Sanya put his knife down. "Sorry, did not mean to upset you," he flashed a grin.
I smiled in response. He was charming. He was also a Knight of the Cross and was potentially extremely dangerous. But only if his cause was righteous. "It's all just a lot to take in."
"Well, mother and your other sisters were warning you," Ukyou said as she put a plate in front of me. It was a ham-steak next to a pork chop next to a fillet of some type of fish. I was going to have to work on my food budget when I got home.
"Yeah, yeah," I said, not at all petulantly. I had turned so I could stop Tessa. But now that Tessa was gone... my tail swished.
"Oh, one thing, Misako would like to help you with some clothes," Ukyou said.
"After what she did today…" I muttered.
"I think she'd like to apologize and help you with some more comfortable stuff," the platinum blonde said.
I went to my food but found that Ukyou had removed the plate and was moving it, and another one, to the kitchen table.
"Ah, lunch then?" Sanya said as he ambled after us towards the table.
"I think you should get some food in your before talking to Mom," Ukyou said.
"Wise idea, demons can be cranky when they get hungry. Can do foolish things." Sanya laughed.
"I'm not cranky," I pouted.
"Of course not," he said putting his arm around my waist and pulling out a chair. "But you can do foolish things, no?"
I huffed, but didn't argue the point. I was hungry, and having some more real food would be nice. Anything to help recover from the mess of last night, this morning.
Feeling a bit better, I slipped into the dojo.
Ranma was at the head of the room. She wore a purple Lycra bodysuit and stood a bit to the side while two of her daughters circled Butters. The knight was wearing a borrowed gi and well... he certainly looked the part.
Though it helped that his sword was still a blade of glowing light. Misako darted in, her wood blade shooting forward. Butters intercepted his blade knocking hers to one side.
I noticed it merely blocked her blade, instead of cutting through it... well I guess a sword could have a stun setting. He had to step back as Misako adjusted her wrist to bend the tip of her sword back.
As Butter's feet committed to a new stance, Nariko pounced and stabbed at Butters's side. The knight pulled back and managed to narrowly avoid both blades, however he was on the defensive. Each demon could support the other, whenever the Knight tried to press an advantage the two could either unite in their defense or split and coordinate attacks from different angles.
The latter forced Butters to keep a mobile defense as he was often left pulling back and darting to the side, until one of his dodges brought him into contact with Ranma.
The redhead raised her hand and the trio stopped.
I walked past the various mercenaries, soldiers, and instructors. I noticed my nieces were, by and large, kneeling down at the far end of the dojo near where Ranma was lecturing. All eyes were on me. I had brought my staff with me, but had left my boots in the foyer. The matting felt a bit funny under my toes.
"Is this a lesson on how important teamwork is?"
My sister tilted her head and side-stepped Butters. "Obviously. Coordination is a force multiplier in and of itself. That's important when you're on a team, and when you're alone." She said the last locking eyes with me.
"Also we felt two-on-one would make the Knight work for it," Misako said as she slipped her sword into a bright silk sash tied around her waist. She then bowed her head towards me.
Butters was panting but he seemed pretty stable. Though I suppose after today's battle everyone was going to take things easy.
"There's more..." I frowned and walked around the room.
A couple of Eve's girls were behind me and moved forward.
Going with the flow, I frowned. I should have come in when the instructors had everyone do exercises or break into little groups for sparing. This was a bit much of an audience.
Ranma stepped back, seemingly yielding the floor to me.
I automatically took her place. My tails straightened. Another lesson. "You also showed that how, even if you stave off your attackers, they can still maneuver you. Your girls managed to push Butters right into you."
The redhead coughed. "Not exactly what we meant to show, but yes... that is true," she admitted. My sister bowed to Butters. "I didn't mean to say I'd be a threat to you, Sir Knight."
She then clapped her hands. "Right! We all had a busy night, so I think we can do with some more limbering up. How about some wall kicks?"
I watched as the students went to the walls and each started lifting a leg up about even with their waist and holding them in place. It looked deceptively easy, but I knew from the flexibility primer Ranma had put me through that that such an exercise would start to become a real strain.
Hands clasped behind her back, Ranma approached. She looked to her students and nodded to a couple of the instructors and her daughters, sending them out to help. I still found it a bit surprising that the two instructors were human males.
"Something amiss?" she asked.
"Other than the dawning realization that I'm going to go back to the chaotic mess of my life, but now as a gangly demon-chick?" I asked, though I didn't really see myself as gangly, I was far too well-put-together for that, but it was easier to say that than well...
"Yes, other than that."
I exhaled. "I think I was played."
That was the nice part about family, at least my family. None of my siblings would shake their heads and go "you're being paranoid Harry". They all knew about supernatural conspiracies. In this way my sisters had a lot in common with my brother.
"I can name two parties off the top of my head," she stated. "Three if we include factions within your boss's side."
"Yeah," I agreed. Just because Mab had made it clear I had been sent at Winter Mother's behest, didn't mean she didn't have her own agenda. That Lea was still lurking about made that abundantly clear, given how my godmother basically acted as Mab's right hand.
"At least Puu was straightforward."
I snorted. Lady Pluto, or whatever she really was, had admitted to doing wrong upon me, namely that I ended up here instead of somewhere else, just so she could justify hiring Old Man Dresden and Ravager Maggie as a means of balancing the scales. Which was an act worthy of the fae in its convolution.
Ranma laughed. "At least she's been a softer touch on you. She tried to be too clever-by-half with me."
My tail swished. If that was Lady Pluto being a soft touch...
Her voice lowered. "But you won't be dealing with her for much longer."
I could hear the unspoken challenge in her words. "I can't stay here."
"Not forever, no," she agreed. Clasping her hands behind her back, my sister squared her shoulders and looked up at me. Her violet eyes tried to read into my soul. The concern emanating from her hit me and I shifted my stance.
My mouth dried, my tail stilled. Young succubae were vulnerable, and newly turned ones could have all sorts of risks, but that was more for those made by the daughter change. I should be fine.
"I'll be okay; I won't go all danger-monster," I promised.
"Not with your friends, no," her gaze shifted to Butters.
I winced. When I had Lashiel's shadow in my head Michael had promised to take me down if I ever turned monster. Sanya had made the same promise when it became the Winter Knight. And Butters...
I bowed my head. "That's why you...." I didn't want to complete question.
My sister's eyes swept back. She was cocky. I had seen her in battle, but she'd seen me. And while we both were willing to cheat... she had home field advantage.
Ranma would do anything for family. I had looked into her soul. She had sacrificed her gender, her species, had become something... else. If she thought I wasn't ready to go out and be alone...
She wouldn't just let me go.
"I'll be okay," I promised.
She reached out and pulled me close. "Yes, we'll just have to make sure."
I looked at the items piled onto the bed. I didn't have many possessions to pack. Of course, I arrived with nothing more than the clothes on my back and gear in my pockets. Oh, and my staff, of course.
Truth be told, I hadn't accumulated much. Though Misako, Nabiki and their cousins had done their best to make sure I had some clothes that would fit me. After a mercifully brief shopping trip yesterday they had managed to find some more stuff that worked.
There was a collection of toiletries and other such products. I mean I could get shampoo at home, but it seemed wise to bring a travel sized set of stuff, just in case. Though the silver hairbrush did have sentimental value. The photo album also had sentimental value, and could help me when it came to explaining to my friends what had happened.
A spare holster was on the bed, along with some grey boxes of ammo for my revolver. If I was careful the supply should last, especially since these bullets weren't for practice. There were a couple other boxes of related supplies.
The clothes were basically the same shirts, blouses, slacks, and long skirts, but it was nice to have more than two outfits, not counting going all Winter ice gown. For once, I was thankful about being so tall, as Misako was only able to find a couple pairs of shoes for me.
The heels were nice, and those boots Misako got me earlier at least looked good. Still, it took telling my niece that I knew a group of cobs to get her not be worried. Course, now I had to talk to the wee-folk magical cobblers about making a custom order for me.
Though... a branch of their clan had settled in the Carpenter residence.
I exhaled. Going there was my first stop anyway. That was where Maggie and Bonnie were staying.
I had to go back home. I had to see my girls. I had tried avoiding Maggie after the Winter Knight thing. Given what I'd done, I was afraid she'd think I was a monster. This time my plan was to bite the bullet.
At least Sanya and Butters should help with the introductions. That should keep Charity Carpenter, Michael's wife, from blasting me with a shotgun. This was all presuming that I'd be able to set foot on the Carpenter property.
It turns out retired Knights had one... uh... heck of a retirement package, namely a squad of literal guardian angels. Given I still had Soulfire, I was pretty sure I was still in Uriel's, that tricky archangel's, good graces.
I sighed, I shouldn't have expected things to be simple. My tail perked as I felt someone opening the door. I turned and smiled as an auburn-haired woman stepped into the bedroom.
Mood lifting, I turned to her and bowed my head slightly. "Hello, No- Mother."
Nodoka smiled and walked up next to me. The scientist looked over the bed. "You getting everything you need packed up?" she asked.
Feeling warm, I nodded. It was strange. I knew she wasn't much older than me, and she was a human, but there was still a connection to her.
She met my gaze and I turned to look at the bed. I had Soulgazed with my sisters, but... this was different. Part of me didn't want it to be different.
The Company officer put her arm around me. The shorter woman drew me closer. A slight purr slipped my lips as the fingers of her other hand went over a horn.
Her gaze had followed mine. Mother looked at the two giant gleaming pistols sitting in their open cases. The standard sidearm my sisters and nieces used; they were the same caliber as my revolver, which was nice.
Mother gave a little sigh as she looked at the accessory box of mags, holsters, springs and other odds and ends she had provided. "There's so much more I could do," she murmured.
"The guns and bullets are great," I said.
"How about a 13mm Pug?" she offered, not for the first time.
This time I mulled it over and enjoyed the hug. Even if I didn't use it, those were powerful weapons. Sure, Murphy might like one of those beefy little bull-pups the brood used. Tiny, but fierce, was her style. On the other hand, those rifles were basically a milled block of solid steel so they'd be too heavy. And on the gripping hand, unlike with those pistols, the rifle's caliber was custom.
"I can provide an ample supply of ammunition," she smiled. "I'm sure your companions could carry a couple cartons in their packs.
My tail flicked. "I dunno."
"How about armor? You might not always have access to your Winter nature."
I frowned. That was true. In previous fights I had had my connection to the Mantle blocked, thus losing all the advantages it conferred on me. My new nature made that issue even more acute.
"I suppose I could do a Sailor Winter getup," I smiled a bit.
"Dear, you've shown yourself more than capable of going tiara, ice-skirt, bows, and ribbons without my help," Mother laughed
I blushed a bit.
"Don't worry, you wear it better than Miss Mizuno," Mother hugged me again.
I nodded. It looked like I wouldn't have the... pleasure of meeting Mistress Mercury, the crazy-corrupted former teammate of Serenity's.
Probably for the best, as I had a bad track record when it came to dealing with dark-side fallen Wintry ladies. Feeling her worry, I leaned down and rested my head against her shoulder. "I'll be fine. I promise."
"I should be the one making that promise to you," Nodoka blinked her eyes. "I should have been able to do more for you."
"I have Lea," I offered a bit weakly. Sure, Lea had stepped in to be my godmother at Margaret's, my birth mother's, request. But, my fairy godmother was a bit crazy. She had spent years trying to get me to become a hound, not to mention that her training methods were brutal. That said, she did care for me, in her own way, and mourned Susan's death with genuine kindness.
Still... she was Queen Mab's right hand, and now that I was very Winter, Lea did seem taken with this new form. But true to form, she'd still scheme behind my back; look at her and Cecilia. Or her and Sanya.
Mother squeezed a bit tighter and rubbed the inner curve of my horn. "Well, a godmother is supposed to sub in for a mother." The officer sighed. "And where is she?"
"I'm pretty sure Lea went back to Winter. Which means... my queen may have a surprise for me," the last big surprise Mab had arranged for me was a birthday party.
Look, it was creepier than it sounds. Do you know how unsettling having a mob of dark fae trying to croak out Happy Birthday to you is? Even the contribution of the sidhe to the song didn't help.
Oh, and during the party I had to kill a few of Mab's minions. But it was okay, I froze them so, technically, no blood was spilled in my Queen's presence. Given we then danced over the icy chunks, she must have approved.
My tail curled a bit limply. Yeah, so odds were good Mab knew exactly what I was now, and was getting ready. Tilting my head more, I nuzzled Mother a bit. On the upside, I was pretty sure my Queen wouldn't be mad at me.
Oh, Mab might take issue with Winter Mother, the eldest of the Winter Queens, sending, her knight, off on this mission. But Mab had a good idea what kind of instrument I was.
"Thinking about home?" Mother quietly asked.
"Well..." Arctis Tor wasn't really my home. I was a Winter demon but I didn't live there. Okay, I guess I did have quarters in Mab's citadel capital but I didn't use them enough, or consider it a home for there to be a threshold. "More of my bosses."
I gestured to my pointed ears. "Specifically these bosses."
"Well, at least that's something I can't help you with," Mother tried to say with levity.
"Oh I dunno, I think you'd like Molly." There was a tiny bit of hesitation as I kept myself from using my Lady's title. "She's really good at the fiddly and fine bits of magic and enchanting."
'That's not exactly my area of expertise, I'm a scientist," Mother said with a jokingly chiding tone.
I hugged her. "You make magical armor, enchanted blades, and devices that block creatures from the Nevernever."
"I was only a contributor on those projects. But I suppose I could have..." Mother's tone was distracted. "Besides, I'm human, non-magical."
"No one does it alone. Molly lacked power and had to make up with finesse and skill. Though with her change she's kinda a powerhouse."
Mother made a thoughtful noise. "Yes, and now she's a surrogate daughter of your Queen?"
"Well... yeah, but she's a queen in her own right. And in her own rite as well."
She groaned at the pun and flicked my ear.
I totally didn't yelp and pout. But if I did, Mother did help make it better.
The scent of grilling meat filled my nose and I could feel all three of my sisters and all fifteen of my nieces. Two Knights, assorted officers, mercenaries, and magical girls were also there, as well as two maternal figures. I savored a bit of fresh burger. The sun was out and it was a clear, almost unseasonably warm day with a slight breeze.
"Lea," I raised my glass at her. "I'm surprised to see you."
My godmother looked around the backyard barbeque with a toothy smile. "And miss out on seeing thee enjoy thyself?" she asked.
"I mean you must have been busy given you vanished after the battle." I took another chomp out of the thick burger in my other hand. "But I trust you'd inform me if it was in our Queen's best interest."
"Enjoy the time with thy family, Poppet." Lea smiled. "One couldst hope for any further transfer of their elegance and grace."
"Then we might have to keep her away from Ranma," Cecilia grinned, slipping closer to us.
"Whilst striking, the DarkStar dost seem to lack in genteel refinement," Lea sipped a dainty glass full of cider.
"Yes, her concept of opulence is rather blunt," Cecilia agreed.
I would have smirked at that. Ranma's getups when she talked to Mab or when she fought Tessa in the safe room were pretty silly and overblown. However, given the stuff I ended up wearing after my first sparring match got me all hungry and when I fought Tessa as a pretty succubus, I really had no room to argue.
Lea bowed her head to us. "I will leave ye to converse." She caught my gaze. "We shall be able to resume our intercourse at our leisure."
"She means conversation," I sputtered to Cecilia as the silkily dressed red-headed fae sauntered off.
My sister smiled. "Did she?"
"It's a meaning of the word," I muttered and concentrated on finishing the burger.
Cecilia laughed. Her eyes met mine. There was a brief frisson of contact between us. "I am sorry I didn't tell you."
I nodded. My tail was still a bit stiff, but I hugged her. "Yeah... I can see why you're so worried. Why you were scared for me."
The lavender-haired woman leaned into the embrace. "The reality's hitting you?"
I lowered my head so it was next to hers. Our horns briefly touched. In a few hours this comforting presence would be gone. I would be alone. Except, not alone. In a way it would be worse because my friends back in Chicago...
Well, Thomas would understand. Sure, White Court vampires didn't have the empathic links my kind did, but he was family, and he had his own Hunger. And compared to the constant demands of that howling emptiness, my own appetites were cuddly and easily-sated.
Nodding, I also emanated a feeling of agreement. I didn't like what Cecilia had done; I wished she had told me, let alone asked beforehand; but I didn't want to stay mad at her. Especially since, I had a more pressing concern. "Be careful." I whispered. "Next time you put a suggestion in someone's mind it might not work out so well."
Cecilia pulled back and looked up. "This was a special case, with an especially needy sister," she chuckled. "But I promise. I will continue to restrain myself unless absolutely necessary."
I chewed my lip. That was probably the best I would get from her. Cecilia hid it better, but she could be just as stubborn as her sisters. Err, sisters other than me. And I suppose Cecilia would just love it if her sisters opened up and were more flexible in their feeding. I knew she'd prefer it if Mother were a demon. And I could see, she did want more for her daughters' development.
That her family still had those issues did show some restraint on Cecilia's part. I suppose a lot of being a succubus was knowing when not to use your mind bending or flesh tearing powers. Fortunately, I was a trained wizard so I knew about that.
Though Thomas would say I learned about power and responsibility more from comic books than magic.
"You're not normally this quiet," Cecilia said, taking me towards one of the tables. Both of our long skirts swished as we walked.
"Just thinking of... things."
My sister tilted her head in acknowledgement.
I blinked at the young girl propped up at the head of a picnic table. The girl's skin was still a bit grey and the ringlets of her white hair were still a bit lank but she looked a lot better than the last time I had seen her. Though I suppose she could have been in a hospital bed on a ventilator and have looked better than she did after the battle. So it was kinda amazing to see her on some pillows and with a loose blouse over some sort of abdominal bandaging.
"Desiree, how are you feeling kiddo?" I asked lowering myself so I didn't loom over her. One advantage of more flexible legs and a flowy skirt was it made kneeling down a lot easier. Sure, I was still really tall, but I didn't have to loom quite so much.
Desiree smiled. "Getting better Aunty, Doctor Covington says I should be fine after a few more days, especially if I eat right." She gestured to the pile of food in front of her.
My stomach grumbled in sympathy and I noted I had an empty hand. I might have been a bit jealous of my niece and her meat-based prescription. Then again, she kind of had to eat that much. Going hungry, starving, was especially dire for us. Still, being out of the hospital a couple days after having being disemboweled made up for a lot of disadvantages.
"She fought well," Misako added from her spot next to her on the picnic table. The passel of nieces that filled the table looked up from their meals.
Desiree blushed at the emotional response.
Also kneeling down, Cecilia hugged her daughter.
"I'm real glad to hear you're feeling good," I said after finding myself drawn into the hug. My stomach might have grumbled again.
Standing, Cecilia helped me back up to my full height. "I'll be right back, Honey, but it sounds like I need to point Aunty BlackStone towards the grill."
The other girls laughed. "At least we got her to dress properly," Misako said approvingly, looking over my sky-blue blouse with silver accents and buttons.
I gave my niece a final hug and waved at the others as I let Cecilia draw me away from the table.
As we neared the source of the heavenly grilling scents, my stomach growled again.
Cecilia laughed. "You need to be more careful about what your body's telling you," her tone was light but her eyes were serious.
"Yes, sister." I nodded. That was a difference my urges had with my brother's. Sure, running empty on normal food didn't make dealing with his Hunger easier, but it's not like eating a big meal would sate it either. I was a bit more omnivorous. I had several potential sources for life energy, and normal food could lessen those requirements.
However, the downside was that when I got hungry in one way, it could easily bleed over into being hungry in other ways. Stars and Stones, it wasn't even like I had been skimping on meals since the battle a couple days ago.
And from what I had learned, a starving succubus was just as dangerous to others as a starving White Court Vampire.
As we walked towards the grills, I spotted a burly man with long tussled hair in a dark blue suit. A little gold leaf lapel pin glinted as he smiled. "Miss BlackStone, a pleasure."
Speaking of being hungry in other ways... Giving a coy smile, I slunk up to him with a purr. "Why, hello, forgive me for cutting our evening short." I ran my fingers down his arm.
"Understandable," the Drake said as he kissed the back of my hand. "You had enemies to stop."
I concentrated on giving him a bright smile. It helped distract from how... delicious he smelled. I wasn't overly hungry, but the memory bubbled up and my tail swayed.
Of all the things I had done in this new body, feeding on people, both in the bloody way and the fun way, really drove home how... different things were.
I may have leaned in and given him a kiss. But I definitely didn't take a little taste when our lips parted.
"Drake, wonderful that you could make it," Cecilia said.
He bowed his head to her. "I wouldn't miss this."
"It was a pleasure seeing you again." I assured, snaking an arm around his back to give him a hug. Well, his arms went around my torso, though his hands may have ended up a bit low.
"The pleasure was mine," he replied, giving a bit of a squeeze.
This time I'll admit to a kiss, that might have been a bit hungry.
After we broke apart, I resumed my walk with a bit more spring in my step and swish to my hip. I pointedly ignored the little whistle Cecilia gave to herself.
My mouth watered a bit as we neared the array of grills. There were both the round, almost-egg-shaped, ones for cooking at high heat and more boxy devices that chuffed out clouds of delicious woody, meaty smoke.
A tall, but wiry, man manned the grills. A spatula was held nimbly in one hand while he opened a grill lid with another. Sober, faded green eyes observed the racks of pork ribs as he rotated and flipped them. Smoke wafted over his black apron while he stepped back.
Ukyou, her platinum hair tied back with a dark ribbon stepped up, nodded approvingly to the man and worked a bit of her magic. One hand held a spatula that minutely adjusted the meat while another deftly poured a thick red sauce over the crackling hunks of pork flesh.
The older man turned to me and gave a nod. I had to smile. Under the apron, he was wearing a suit. Okay, his suit coat was neatly folded on a cooler under a nearby table laden with supplies, fixins, greens, spices, and cooling platters of meat. But the guy was still wearing a button down shirt and dark tie.
Though his sleeves had been rolled up and pinned, revealing wrists and forearms tight with lean muscle. With his coat off, the heavy twin shoulder holsters he wore were readily visible. Not that anyone at this event seemed to care. There were more than a few weapons visible.
Hells Bells, many of the girls had shiny tooled leather holsters. Though Misako had taken care with a slim pistol with gleaming wood grips in a holster that seemed to be made of dark amber crocodile skin. Though I suppose, Nabiki's giant slung knives were a bit prettier with their wooden handles. Not to mention the slung rifles and other heavier, and less ornamental, weapons that were in evidence.
"Miss Dresden," the man nodded to me as he checked another grill and adjusted the vents on the lid.
"Jacob, I can call you Jacob, right?" I asked eyeing a platter of pulled pork.
"Given your recent performance, I think you've earned that."
"And I didn't even kill Tessa in a city council meeting," I smirked.
"Indeed, given the scale of the operation and past history, your actions were remarkably concealable." He opened an upright metal box. This time a full cloud of smoke billowed out as he removed a rack laden with a pair of briskets. The scent filled my nose and I could see that the fat had melted down into the flesh and the skin had crisped into a prefect craklin'.
"I got eaten by a slobbering monster and blew it up from the inside." My stern tone was sabotaged a bit by my salivating and by the way my tail flicked and swished.
"Yes, but you did it in a somewhat private setting." He deposited the hunks of meat onto a cutting board. "But as I said before, media relations is our responsibility. Your job was to defeat her. Well done."
I watched as he took up a knife and deftly began slicing the meat. "You make it sound so simple, Jacob." I turned and saw that Cecilia had slipped off back to her daughters.
"Isn't it?" he asked without looking up from his work.
I snorted. "I wasn't sent because my boss was feeling altruistic. She's not exactly kind, even by Winter standards." That was probably understating things. Mother Winter made Mab look cuddly. Not that I was against the idea of...
I shook my head as the greying officer filled a plate.
"That is correct," he noted as he moved the marbled slices of meat about on the plate. "From what I've been told you were sent by the Winter Queen with the least interaction, or perhaps interest, with your mortal world." He offered the plate, and, after a bare moment's consideration, added a fork.
Snatching it, I managed to not drool, but my stomach did react. I had to put down my glass to dig in. "You could say that. She's more powerful, but more remote. As far as I know she deals with more... stark threats," I said between bites. All three Queens had key roles to play in Winter's fight against the Outsiders.
Molly, the new Winter Lady, was still learning to deal with the things her office required her to do.
"Miss Lartessa's baroque revenge scheme could count."
I shrugged and ate some more. I eyed the drippings filling the plate. He smiled and added a biscuit from a warm basket. It made a handy tool to sop up the juice. Hunger sated, I eyed the plate "Yeah, Tessa broke the rules."
"Are there limits to what a Fallen can tell their host?" the officer asked returning to his grills.
"Maybe? The Fallen know a lot, but they're not omnipotent. They also have limits on their actions, even with a willing host."
"Either way, Tessa had to leave her world to get the information to attempt her summoning."
I nodded. The books she came here to find once existed in my world, but someone had made sure they were eliminated. I'd like to think it was the White Council being on the ball. I mean, they did have ways of dealing with dangerous tomes. Suppression wasn't their only tool; disinformation and dilution also had their place.
With ritual magic you had a finite amount of power people could access if they did the correct rite. Thus the more people who knew the ritual, the less power each one could get.
Sometimes, the best way to defuse a scary magic book was to publish it. That's what the White Council did with the Necronomicon. Well, a suitably edited version.
On the other hand, the knowledge itself in a black magic book could be destructive. I mean a mass distribution of Kemmler's books would be insane. The Council had enough problem with Kemmler self-publishing his necromancy-made-easy guides.
"There's also that both of your world's active Knights of the Sword were present," Jacob noted, returning to the cutting-board to get more meat.
I leaned closer so he could refill my plate. "Yeah, I'm thankful for their help, but I'm pretty sure their boss was sending a message."
Jacob made a thoughtful noise.
"Just like how I'm thankful for Lady Pluto's help."
"Ah, Miss Meiou." He looked up, faded green eyes flat. "She can be an invaluable asset."
Looking aside, I thought back to my first meeting with Lady Pluto. The young girl was powerful; she also was not a young girl. "Sounds like you're a bit concerned about how much that asset will cost."
"Her priority is her Queen," Jacob stated.
"Right." Serenity was... well she was a nice enough young lady. Really, she could have been right at home with the Winter and Summer Ladies I knew. She was a bit haunted, but still had a core of idealism.
I could see that in her eyes when we first met.
My tail stilled.
Jacob shifted his spatula sensing my unease.
"We didn't Soulgaze," I murmured. That night I had first met her and the Senshi, I had looked into Serenity's eyes, but nothing happened. At the time, I was too rattled by what glimpses my Sight had hinted at with Lady Pluto.
"Ah, yes," Jacob nodded.
I frowned; damn observant spy. Great. I didn't know what Lady Pluto was, and there was... well there were plenty of things that you couldn't Soulgaze with. That didn't mean you were a monster. It just meant...
"I can see why you might be, um, concerned about her," I admitted. Power came with a price. I had the broken electronics, fae queen, and hooves to prove that. And I wasn't sure I wanted to know what the cost was for Serenity's mantle.
"Indeed. Though things are improving with the Pattern Silvers," he stated.
I nodded. Right, improving was what you said when things were worse. Even I could tell the relationship between the magical girls and the mercenaries and their demons was strained. But after seeing Serenity in battle, I could see why Ranma had insisted on bringing them in. Stars and Stones, not all of the Senshi were at this event. Lady Mars was notably absent.
"Diplomatically, it can be like herding cats," Jacob admitted.
"More like riding the tiger." I eyed him. "You've got a growing brood of demons under your command."
"Do I?" his question was deadpan.
"Not to mention an eroding masquerade. You might be able to cover-up what happened day before yesterday, but given the Ottawa battle, the secret's out. Not to mention there more conventional military gets brought in the harder this'll all be to hush up. Your days of plausible deniability may run out."
Jacob sighed. The man's emotional reserve shifted and for a moment I felt his weariness. "You are correct Dame BlackStone," he said, his composure returning. "I suppose you have some experience at averting mass calamity."
I took up the refreshed plate. "I might." I wasn't sure if Eve had learned every bit of my life when she Soulgazed me, but between that and all the things I'd mentioned in our time together, I was pretty sure she had at least a good grasp of the things I had done. And thus it was likely that Stillwater knew it too.
It's not like I was overly shy about telling the story where I raised a zombie T-rex to defeat a gaggle of insane necromancers, each intent on becoming a new god of death. Granted, I rarely told the whole story.
There was also when I stopped a coup attempt among the Fae to destroy the balance between Summer and Winter. And the time I had to prevent another group of Fae from unwittingly triggering my scary island's doomsday self-destruct.
Given the former incident centered around a corrupted Summer Lady, and the latter around a corrupted Winter Lady, I was a bit... concerned about the current incumbents of both positions.
"And sometimes you have to cause the mass calamity to save the day," Ranma said, stepping up.
"Yes, fortunately Dame Blackstone, ah, Warden Dresden was most restrained," Jacob agreed.
"Meaning you won't have to deduct collateral damage out of her pay," Ranma teased.
Coughing, I glanced over and saw Butters and another man were accompanying my sister. The fellow looked familiar. He was at ease around so many demons and had a military bearing that shone through despite his civilian, and western-themed, duds. At least he wasn't wearing a cowboy hat.
"Major Sifton right?" I asked thinking back to the briefing in the hanger. He was in charge of the Canadian special forces troops.
"That's me," he shook my hand then got a burger from Jacob.
"How you handling all this?" I asked him as Ranma eased us towards a set of tables.
"The brass are pitching a fit. They agree that it was necessary to exercise our Options, but our spooks from CSIS are still worried."
I blinked at him. I wasn't up to speed on Canadian spy agencies. Hells Bells I wasn't even sure Canada had spies.
"Nevermind where they're from, they're working on the fallout. There were plenty of patients in the Institute, and my priority was getting them out safe, not keeping them from seeing giant octo-frogs."
I nodded and ate from my plate. For most people, their initial exposure to the supernatural was not a pleasant experience. It was made worse because no one in authority believed talk about monsters. Feelings of isolation and self-doubt were common.
Everyone knew monsters weren't real. Not to mention, that people are poor witnesses with fungible memories, and were worse when under extreme stress.
But here the authorities knew full well monsters were real. But I wasn't sure that made things all that much better for the victims. The government was trying to keep things somewhat under-wraps, but perpetuating their conspiracy wasn't my responsibility.
Hells Bells, I'm listed in the Yellow Pages under Wizards back home. Still, the dashing army officer had answered the wrong question.
"No, no, I mean how are you, and your men, handling all this supernatural weirdness?"
"Ah," Sifton looked to Ranma then to Butters. He shrugged. "Not counting some unpleasantness in Afghanistan, our first overt exposure to the supernatural was a training display of Red and her girls. After that came vampires, cyborgs, and some other nasties, and finally Ottawa. Damn space-squids and blob monsters."
I could feel his contained anger. He gave another shrug, this one was almost natural. "After all that, other-worldly wizards, magic swords, wolfmen, and Fallen Angels aren't that strange. It wasn't that far off our training."
So did Butters. "You trained for this?" he asked.
"Not exactly this situation," Sifton admitted. "But stopping that summoning was close to dislodging an interdimensional beachhead. And Beachhead Scenarios are something of great concern."
I thought back: the military's response had been well-ordered and quick. They moved a lot of men, vehicles, artillery, and air support.
"It would have been a beachhead, if Tessa and those things hadn't been stopped," Butters said.
"Thank your artillery guys for me; they must have worked their butts off practicing to get that good," I said.
Sifton took another bite. "The 30th Field Artillery Regiment were eager to get some payback after Ottawa and made sure they'd be able to do it." He noted with pride. "But even they were a bit lucky when Nariko called in that second strike."
"It was good you guys were ready with Option Lanark," Ranma readily agreed.
"I'm just glad we didn't have to resort to Option Cold Lake," he whispered. "Thanks for your help. All of you."
I thought back to the jets laden with bombs waiting on the runway, and picked at my food. It was disconcerting; there were several times Murphy had wanted to bring the authorities in on a supernatural case. Not surprising, given she had been a cop for a long time, and she'd lost her job because she hatted up and helped me rescue my daughter.
Though her career had been on the backslide by then, largely because of me. The time she'd helped me on a rescue mission into the heart of Winter, Artcis Tor itself, to save my apprentice got her demoted.
Turns out the Chicago Police department doesn't accept "I was saving someone from evil fae" as a valid excuse to vanish during a murder investigation.
Still, Murphy made the argument that there was more the government could do against supernatural threats. I, usually, argued against that. Facing something you've been taught your whole life isn't real, is a steep learning curve, especially in combat.
Course, the special forces officer who had resumed chowing down on his burger gave a counterpoint I hadn't really considered.
A government that knew about the supernatural would have to "do something" about it. Something like hire demonic mercenaries or bomb their own citizens if said mercenaries, and their soldiers, failed to contain summoned Outsiders. That would also invite escalation in the supernatural set making government offices a target for their ire.
Then again the Red Court Vampires attacked an FBI building in my world, but they were extinct now.
Ranma eyed me.
"We all did our part," I shrugged forking some more delicious porkflesh. "Butters and the other big brains are the ones that figured out the location."
Butters looked a bit bashful, which distracted from my own embarrassment. While the smart kids were thinking over the data that creepy Russian woman had given us, and killed her cultist over, I was busy doing succubus stuff.
Sifton nodded. "Good, glad to see she'll have some sensible people going back with her."
"That was key in us letting Dresden return home," Eve said as she approached.
Sanya was next to her an easy smile on his handsome features. "You do not trust little sister by herself?"
Eve simply gestured towards my hair and ears.
I stomped a foot in irritation as my tail curled back.
Major Sifton shook my hand and excused himself.
Butters laughed. "You've only been here a couple days, Sanya. I've been here a week, you won't believe the trouble she's gotten into in the time I've been here."
I frowned. Had it only been a week since Lomar?
"I would like more time to..." Ranma absently brushed a bit of my hair. "Well, there's a lot of stuff I'd like to do with more time, but you have to go home sometime."
"And we're reasonably certain you'll be able to handle things, without us," Eve's voice might have been cool, but I could feel her emotions crack.
Butters sipped some soda. "That'll work, I'm out of vacation days."
"Being a Knight is challenging duty," Sanya agreed. Though as far as I knew he didn't have a day job. I was pretty sure the agnostic Knight of the Cross got his room and board paid for by the Church, which was ironic enough.
"Yeah and, Andi can only come up with so many excuses to the Medical Examiner's office for my absence." He shrugged and chewed on a piece of chicken.
"And I bet she's sick of dealing with Bob by herself." I remarked. Then felt guilty.
Butters paused. He adjusted his glasses. "Yeah, about that, I lost-"
I cut him off. "No, I'm sorry I might have cost you your job." I looked the little medical examiner in the eye and hugged him. "I've had plenty of bad things happen to the people I care about, when they help me. I'd just like to thank you for going back out knowing that."
For some reason he stiffened a for a moment but returned the hug. "It's okay Harry, that's what friends do."
My mind was in a bit of a fog as the convoy drove down a highway, onto some rural roads, and though a couple sets of fences. There was a parking lot with military vehicles and a few pre-fab buildings.
The wind blew around us as clouds started to drift with greater frequency. There was something familiar about the scraggly trees all around us. After I got out, Sanya helped hand me my bags.
The Russian looked past the buildings to another set of fences and a sparse field beyond it. He frowned but walked beside me carrying a backpack Mother, erm, Nodoka had packed for me.
"Scenic enough," Butters lied as he looked around at the trees.
"This place is a hole," Misako snorted as we came up on the gate to the final fence-line.
"I don't like it," Isabel pouted, her twin black ponytails swishing.
Butters had to nod at that. I stood a bit further back as he and Sanya counted the Denarian coins in the blessed pouch. Leaving one of those cursed things behind would be bad. Both seemed satisfied with the count and Butters gave Eve a thumbs up as he resealed the pouch.
I then watched as Major Sifton peeled off and talked with the soldiers on duty here. My tail whipped about apprehensively. My sisters and... Major Saotome had gotten out of their vehicle and approached us.
Ranma slipped her hands in her coat pockets. She watched as two soldiers one female one male unlocked the gate. "Lilly, Olsen," she nodded to the two Canadians.
"There is one final issue," Eve said, diverting my attention.
The blonde gave a wry smile. Morgan handed her a green metal box. "Given where you're going we couldn't just give you cash, or a wire transfer." She plopped the box in my hands.
It was heavy, and the weight was also familiar.
"There's s receipt on top." She said as I opened it.
It wasn't... well it wasn't overly impressive. The contents were stored in plastic sleeves and little cases. But the gleam of gold and gems was visible.
"You have been paid in diamonds before," Mother... Major Saotome noted.
"I, uh, yeah." Though that was less being paid and more: when we raided a god's trophy room at the behest of a Fallen Angel, my thief friend had the foresight to fill a backpack with diamonds before everything went to hell.
Butters snatched up the paper and gave a low whistle.
"Prime grade Practitioners have a very high base rate. Not to mention combat pay and injury bonus," Eve explained.
"Yeah... and then when Harry turned demon she got another bump," The little Knight's eyes widened. "Wait..." He handed the paper to Sanya.
"What?" the other Knight glanced down. "Ah, mercenaries pay us then."
"You both were extremely helpful," Eve said.
"I don't think you can pay us..." Butters lamely tried to protest.
"That's what Michael said when Anna and Binder tried to give him a cut of the diamonds Anna snatched. Charity put a stop to that and said they'd take it," I smirked.
Sanya chuckled. "We could exchange payments if that helps," he offered Butters.
Cecilia shook her head. "Now, now, Doctor Butters earned that money fair and square given he was here since Lomar and to deal with our sister well... becoming our sister."
Butters still seemed a bit perturbed.
"If it helps, keep in mind that most supernatural groups take debts and obligations seriously." I took the paperwork back and put it in the case. "The problem is everyone has their own different quirks on what is mandatory, good manners, and a grave offense."
"Yeah, Bob mentioned that," Butters admitted, seeming a bit perturbed.
"You should listen to him." I put the case in my pack. It was heavy but it didn't make the bag too unevenly weighted. "Well, within reason, but you seem to have a good handle on the pervy skull."
Butters gave me a vaguely bashful look, guess the guy still felt guilty at taking charge of the skull after I had "died".
Ranma slipped past the pensive Knight. Her tail was low as she beckoned to the open gate. "It's time."
I nodded to the three nieces who had accompanied us. They then pounced on me in a group hug. Mother joined in.
"I'll... we'll, see you again I promise." Steel slipped into the officer's voice.
I nodded. "Lady Pluto said she'd keep the lines of communication open."
"Until we figure out our own methods," Mother said, with a smile. I could just imagine her tail giving a confident, lazy swish, if she were a succubus.
Purring, I hugged them again, and with reluctance and a few mushy comments slipped out of the embrace.
Cecilia put an arm around my waist as we went through the gate.
It was now down to myself, my two Knights, and my three sisters.
Passing though the final fence made everything feel prickly. It was worst in my horns but all over my body could feel the wrongness. The fence was more than just a physical barrier.
It was also symbolic, something people could put a bit of their will in. Cemeteries have fences for a reason. They establish a barrier between the living and the dead.
Well, for once I was relieved at the buzzing sensation of the Company Jammers. The bleak field was a bog. Well, in warmer months it was literally one. Even this time of year that ground was moist and squelchy.
But it felt like a place where reality itself was... spongey. The Jammers were like a pump chugging along draining the water. That was what metaphysically made the quagmire more solid.
In a more literal sense the path was also dried. To either side of a sunken flagstone path was marshy, dead grass. Physical pumps were also working, removing water, keeping the mud down.
Zig-zagging, we passed a line of trenches and pillboxes. Though I suppose we were technically in a trench as well, just one that ran perpendicular to the defensive ones. Either way, the positions were dotted with a few more soldiers.
Ranma chatted with them and gave the crenellations a smug pat as we passed them.
The six of us marched up a final set of stairs. Maybe fifty or a hundred yards ahead of us was a rise in the bleak landscape. There was a copse of withered trees atop that hillock.
I frowned. "This is where I came through?"
Eve nodded. "You landed not very far from the hill."
I shivered. "No wonder the Canadians were so paranoid." This place wasn't oppressively evil. It didn't even have the go-away-wrongness that my creepy island gave to just about everyone.
But, it wasn't a pleasant place. I hoped the soldiers guarding this place were on a short rotation. I'm sure Eve would make recommendations to that effect. And the Canadian officers seemed to be receptive. A place like that could drive one mad in short order if left too long on guard. Really, it spoke well of them that the Canadians didn't simply shoot me, if this was the desolate place where I ominously fell from the sky
But I suppose that wouldn't have been polite.
The sky was now fully overcast. Something had broken through here, and as a consequence things were just a bit thinner. Though thanks to Tessa's actions there were a few more places like this now.
However, unlike Lomar or London, Ontario, this spot...
Ranma looked to me. "Will this work?"
I touched the ruby at the center of my pentacle choker. My mother's, my first mother's, voice filled my head. The ruby was the sum of her knowledge of the Ways, that is using the NeverNever to travel to far away places.
There was that confused pause that came whenever I tried to use the ruby on this world. Margaret Le Fay was extremely knowledgeable about traveling the Ways; she could even predict how they changed over time, but she had never gone this far out.
Still... I did hear her voice. "I don't know where you are daughter, but I do feel... Winter, and other places, but there is a way back to Winter here."
As the voice in my head faced, I nodded. "Yeah." I didn't elaborate that the Winter fae lands were gigantic. But I was the Winter Knight, and I had guides.
Eve nodded and lifted her arm and made a cutting motion. The buzzing sensation stopped, leaving me with the yawning feeling of thinness.
A glowing slit opened before the trees. Flurries had begun to drift down. The fluffy flakes melted when they hit the warm ground.
The rift expanded, reached the ground and widened.
I heard my sisters stiffen and shift, and there were shouts and sirens going off behind us.
An ethereal form with bright green eyes and tumbling red hair stepped out. A veritable drift of snowflakes fell behind her. These managed to start covering the little hill with a measure of accumulation.
I strode towards the hill. A few steps were enough to get me sick of the mire gunking up on my boots.
Leanansidhe glanced down and smiled as I stomped up onto the hill where the ground was more solid. Butters seemed somewhat queasy though he put his effort into kicking some mud off his boots.
Sanya shrugged at that and then nodded to Lea. He had gotten here by following my godmother. So, he had some idea what traveling through Winter would be like.
Looking me over approvingly, Lea clapped her hands. "Yes, this will do."
Ranma stepped up. The two redheads sized each other up. My godmother was taller but a bit more delicate in frame, where my eldest sister was shorter but wiry with sharper features. Both tilted their heads as purple eyes met green.
At least neither was showing of their pointed teeth.
"La, thou worry so much," Lea told her.
Ranma nodded. Followed by our sisters.
"Can you say our concerns are groundless?" Eve asked.
Lea turned once more to me. "I have been a direct part of Dresden's life. From her defeat of the warlock DuMorne as a child, to the rescue of her own child at Chichen Itza, and I have seen far more than that."
"And?" Butters asked crossing his arms.
"And, Sir Knight," Lea's smile gave a quick flash of her cheat. "All that time has shown Dame BlackStone is quite adaptable."
"You tried to turn me into a hound," I grumbled.
"A mistake," she bowed her head. "Thy form is far more pleasing, now."
Despite myself, I blushed. Though the cold was starting to get me. I don't know exactly where in Winter fae the other side of that aperture went, but if it was cold enough to get me to notice it had to be insanely frigid.
Lea took a time to take in the field. If the desolate wrongness made her uncomfortable, she didn't let it show. "Ah Poppet, art thou ready?"
"Erm?" I asked as I dug a hoof into the snowdrift.
Butters motioned to Sanya and stood off to the side. As they re-checked to ensure a coin hadn't, somehow, escaped on the walk over here, my sisters gravitated towards me.
The three pulled me into a hug. I basked in the contact and love. After a while it started to break apart.
Cecilia sensed my hesitation. "Go on, you have daughters that need you."
I frowned, my tail curling. I still wasn't sure how to handle that. Bonnie was probably okay; she was a spirit of intellect, a lot like Bob. Not having a physical form of her own, she'd find a physical transformation intriguing, in an abstract way.
Maggie... Maggie would be a big different. She had a hard life. It started with her mother, Susan, who, while she had been fighting a guerrilla war against the Red Court, put her with foster parents. That part wasn't too bad, the Mendozas were good people.
The bad part came when they were all murdered by the Red Court and Maggie was imprisoned by vampires to be used as a sacrifice. Susan and I mounted a rescue mission. And...
Well the real horrors at Chichen Itza started when I killed Susan. Maggie was there. So add on another layer of trauma. After that... well that's when I had been tricked into killing myself.
As I was being mostly dead, and an insufferable ghost, Maggie lived with the Carpenters. They were good people; the best. But as Michael pointed out, he wasn't her father. She deserved to live with her father.
Strong hands gripped my arms. "Knock out of it." Ranma hissed. "You were man enough to be her father after dying. She didn't know you at first. You took her in and made a home, made a family."
Her eyes bored into mine. "Do it again. Do it for her."
She then broke up the hug. Her lips curled into a wry smile as she pushed me towards Lea.
My godmother helped guide me towards the shimmering aperture. I watched as Butters and Sanya walked through the portal ahead of us.
Cecilia mouthed the words. "I am sorry I didn't tell you."
Eve cleared her throat. "Dresden, sister, if things get too hard, too overwhelming, don't be too proud to ask for help."
I nodded and felt the ground shift under my hooves as I slipped through. Turning back, I waved to my sisters. Then Lea waved her free hand and the portal closed.
The air chilled and the sky went from a grey overcast to a more blue tinged twilight. Snow started to fall in sheets. We were on a stepped path that wove through some type of silent, abandoned mountain fortification.
However, all those details barely registered. Two things held the entirety of my attention. For the first time since my change I was... there was no connection to any sisters or nieces or... mother.
The connections, weaker as they were, to my godmother and my Knights helped. As did the second thing.
It was a powerful, pulsing, glacial connection that made my Mantle tingle as my tail straightened and a purr escaped my lips. My horns tingled.
Butters and Sayna separated and a tall woman walked between them. Her eyes were cold, and pearlescent. Fine white hair flowed in the wind. Lips the color of mulberries quirked. She concealed her surprise well, but I knew her.
"My queen," I said, pulling at my skirt as I bowed with the neck and shoulders, angling my horns towards her.
Mab, the queen of Air and Darkness, studied me. She gave Lea a brief glance; my godmother nodded. Mab returned her attention to me. Closing in, her shimmering nails pulled back a bit of my pale hair and she studied my choker.
One hand then ran over the inside curve of a horn while another flexed a wing before tracing the side of a tail. I might have gasped, but then the Winter Queen was really on me, and I wasn't exactly in a position to breathe through my mouth
I had been intimate with Mab before. It was part of the ritual when I became the Winter Knight. Though given it was an exposure to her frank and terrifying power it was less intercourse and more a force of nature.
It turns out that when she really wanted to her kisses could be similarly overwhelming. Consciousness skipped for a moment as my mind rebooted.
One instant my queen was embracing me as my horns felt like they had been dipped in liquid nitrogen, my tail was freezing, and my body's switches were all flipping over.
The next, things were clear and I was leaning on her, purring contently.
Out of the corner of my view I could see Butters was a bit taken aback, but Sanaya was merely nodding thoughtfully. That wasn't surprising, Mab had broadcast my assumption of the position of Winter Knight among the supernatural community.
Butters hadn't been a Knight back then, Sanya was. Thus the Russian already knew what Mab could do with me.
My Queen's smile was triumphant. "An unexpected change, but most appreciated one, my pet."
I swallowed. Oh, Empty Night.
End Chapter 16
I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Kevin Hammel, and Ellf. Also thanks to Pat for the little opening poem. And to Ellf for being the catalyst to this project, and for some future stuff with poor, dumb Harry
And there it is. Blood Debts. The story's not quite done. There is an epilogue.