Blood Debts Book 5 of The Return

A Ranma, Sailor Moon, Dresden Files fic thingy.

By Sunshine Temple

 

Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma nor the Dresden Files. So here's the disclaimer:

 

Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC. And the Dresden Files is owned by Jim Butcher.

 

Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Temporary Backup Site.

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

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C as always is wanted.

 

 

Chapter 2: Lagging Questions, Part B

 


            What is it about werewolves and the FBI? In fairness, unlike the last time, these weren't actually federal agents. And they were a different type of werewolf, more "wolfman" than, you-know, man turning into wolf.


            My musing was interrupted by the redheaded demon hitting one of the goons. Each hulking salivating shaggy-pelted monster had to be nearly 8 feet tall and clearing 400 pounds of muscle. She was under five foot and couldn't be much over a hundred pounds. I'm sure she has supernatural strength on her side. What supernatural creature didn't? By that same regard, I was pretty sure they did as well.


            And I'd fought enough supernatural creatures to know that size has an advantage all its own. Still, she hit the goon, and by hit I mean "Slam all her weight and a combat boot into the side of the knee".

 

            Murphy had said something about that. "Your opponent's body may be stronger than your body,  his arm may be stronger than yours,  but his arm is not stronger than your whole body."  Now that was nice enough with humans, but I knew supernatural creatures who had more strength in their finger than my whole six foot, nine inch body. 

 

            That said, I don't care how strong or supernatural you are.  There's only so much a knee joint can be strengthened.  The whole point of a joint is to bend,  and if you hit from the wrong, or in Ranma's case, right angle...


            Putting his weight on the other leg, the wolfman howled. The demon rolled forward and sunk talon tipped hands into the wolfman's shoulder. Snarling in pain, he snapped at her and swiped at her, raking claws against her side.


            The demon had shifted into some sort of grey-green uniform that looked like a loose kevlar bodysuit under an armored vest. Around her waist was another set of hanging armor that looked vaguely like the dangling straps on a Roman legionary uniform and also almost like a pleated skirt.


            I shifted my attention. She was taking care of my flank and getting anyone close. That left me with the further out targets. A quick scan showed there were multiple groups rushing towards me. Two groups of two came from the North, one bearing from the east the other the west. That last one being mullet jogger and his partner, now a brawny russet colored wolf-woman. Or was it female wolfman?


             From the south was a veritable pack of half a dozen of the creatures. They were about to bound over a small creek that meandered through the park. To the east by the parking lot were several other groups but I saw the platinum haired demon pull out a boxy rifle that made me think of Belgium chocolates. Her sister had drawn a katana that glowed with a ruddy light.


            Both in armor identical to their mother, they faced away from each other on an oblique with the two human mercenaries, leveling their own rifles, in the center.


            Right, then, pack of half a dozen to the south it is. My gun slipped into a pocket and I leveled my staff. The runes carved on it flared. "Forzare!" I shouted as a wave of force blasted the mini pack.


            Four of them bowled over, two splashing into the water but two sunk their claws into the muddy bank of the not-quite-frozen stream and managed to hold on.


            "Bad move." The runes on my staff turned white. "Infriga!" Ice started to form around the pack as the heat drained from the stream and was sucked towards my staff. The wolfmen who had dug in had it pretty bad as ice crept up around their paws holding them fast. The worst were the two who fell in and had the stream freeze over them.


            And now I had a staff bursting with thermal energy. Sure it was a small creek, but it takes a lot of energy to change the temperature of water. While my blasting rod was optimized for this kind of work... my staff was already out.


            I spun around and saw that one of the groups to the north was about fifty feet away. Mullet jogger and ponytail jogger it was. "Fuego!"


            Okay, my fire wasn't as contained or as angry of a shade of red as Ranma's, but it was a cone of flames that lit up the whole park and charbroiled the mulleted wolfman. Amazingly even in wolf form, the hair fur his head was especially shaggy. Well, until bright orange flames licked over him.


            Though I suppose, it was more amazing how the bulky, but strangely lithe female wolfman managed to dart to the side and evade the attack.


            As I did my fire and ice double move, Ranma's other hand came up and jabbed the bottom of the wolf's jaw. There was a flash of gore as his muzzle blew off. An uncontrolled curdling, bubbling scream came out.


            And despite his ruined face, the wolfman lunged at the demon, claws outstretched. His partner charged her from behind.


            Her eyes flashed; her tail shot up. I'm not sure what happened but it dove into the other wolf's chest and blood started to spurt out from his lower ribs. Golden eyes burned insanely.


            Another ruined howl came from the mangled face of the wolfman in front of her as it charged. The demon slipped inside and dodged one claw swipe and blocked the other with her forearm against the wolf's larger and bulkier arm. She slipped to the side and evaded the blows of both wolves.


            There was an almost contemplative look on her alabaster face as she matched the two attackers beat for beat, managing to avoid or deflect darting arms that hit like steam pistons. It was impressive to see one fighting with half his face cut off and another with a gory hole his abdomen.


            These things regenerated fast. Given that, my ice trick had bought me even less time that I thought.

 
            It was then that I could confirmed the wolves had the edge in strength as the wolfman without a face managed to knock her a bit to the side by powering though a block.


            Her luminous eyes flared deeper and her grin returned. The wolfman with the chest wound tried to slash her; the thick claws actually caught her armored vest. Her arm snaked out caught him by the elbow. Thin demonic talons flashed. A bulky hairy arm the size of a man's leg fell to the ground in a gush of blood.


            With her other arm, and the support of her whole body, the demon punched the wolf's chest. The wound had mostly healed from where her tail had struck. Still, there was a crack as the blade of her hand broke ribs. The hulking hirsute man was knocked back a step.


            Side stepping forward, she jabbed her hand into the wound, then she triggered here flame powers. Flames poured out of the wolfman's mouth as his remaining arm flailed.


            Before he slipped off the demon's arm, she was already turning and gave a kick to the half-faced wolf's ankle as he tire grabbing her leg, she twisted but his claws sank through the Kevlar just below the armored skirting.


            Blood spurted from the demon's lower thigh. She rolled forward, wrist locked the meaty paw that tried to grab her neck and with her bleeding leg swept out the wolfman's. As he fell, she twisted an arm, broke the wolf's wrist and rolled back kicking off of his waist. There was a crack as the wolf's hip broke and her arc wobbled but a wing flapped out to stable her as she landed in a low crouch.


            I took stock of the battlefield. To the north the female wolfman jogger had linked up with the two other wolfmen. Passing a large tree, they were like twelve yards off, honestly, alarmingly close. Wings pulled back, tail twisting, the redhead had rushed to intercept them.


            To the east by the parking a fusillade was dying off. The mercenaries and the demons had been outnumbered two to one but they seemed to have firepower on their side. The two mercenaries had fired their bulky rifles which had also lobbed a few grenades from their under-slung mounts.


            However, that was just fire support for the two demons. Facing opposite they advanced. To the south the platinum haired one, her orange eyes flaring, advanced with a compact yet oddly thick rifle. It reminded me of the Belgian gun Kincaid had given Murphy. However, instead of firing little bullets that zipped through everything, this thing roared with a heavy crump blasting melon-sized chunks out of the wolfmen.


            On the other side the black-haired demons used her sword. Her body moved with a long-limbed elegance, especially her footwork. However, her bladecraft had slightly less finesse. The softly glowing crimson blade wove through the mass of wolves, who despite the deep cuts, spilled guts, and the occasional pin-wheeling limb still pressed in.


            A fist met her chest and clawed the armor. The plates held but part of the front of the vest ripped off. Another wolf stabbed with a paw. Stepping back, her ruby eyes flashed as she avoided most of the blow. Blood poured out as she jumped back and leveled the katana.


            I'm not sure exactly what she shouted; it sounded Japanese. But then lighting burst from the red blade and arced between the wolfmen. "Holy Sith Lighting!" I exclaimed.


            I was pretty sure that group could stand on their own. I turned back to the South and the mini pack I had frozen. The two who had been knocked over had managed to dig out their friends. I'd noticed that the pair who had their paws frozen into the ice were limping as their limbs regrew. They hobbled over to help the two that had fallen into the water. Their muzzles dripped with blood as they worried and tore.


            I readied my staff but the two broke out of the ice faster than I had expected. Much of their pelts peeled off as the partially skinned beasts rose from the icy stream. Steam rose from their ropy, bloody muscles.


            A dozen furious golden eyes focused on me and charged.


            I centered myself and planted the staff on the ground. Now, I had been doing more than just rubbernecking. The pack charged. Half a dozen wolfmen rushed in a frothing loping run. Scrambling up the bank they rushed over the park closing in.


            It was a risk but I pulled in Soulfire and Winter energy. "Disperitus!" I cried lifting my staff and slamming it down.


            A crack opened before the pack in a rough jagged line. Then before they crossed it I hardened my will and followed up with "Geodas."


            Soulfire, powered from my own soul fed into the magic. Silver light flashed as a giant shimmering hand slammed down on the ground, and the wolfmen. The crack sheared into a sinkhole and the howling wolves tumbled into the oblong pit.


            Gasping, I grit my teeth, they were already clawing at the sides of the pit and trying to jump out. Sweat dripped down my brow. It was time to close the trap. This time I rested my staff in the crook of one arm and drew my blasting rod.


            The runes on the shorter wooden rod flared. "Pyrofuego," I hissed. A dense foot-wide column of blue-white fire shot out of the tip of the rod. My coat billowed in the backlash as the spear of fire shot out, and right into the pit. I angled my wrist raking it over the length of the oblong hole and held it until the howls and whimpers stopped.


            I wheezed as the fires died off; the runes on my blasting rod still glowing as the bunt scent of wood smoke came from the enchanted carvings.


            My exhaling continued as I twisted away and looked to the west. I could barely see the road at the far end of the park but that was about it. However, there was a stirring to the right close by. In torn suits, the partially transmogrified bodies of Worth and Lucas stirred.


            "You've got to be kidding me," I groaned as they rose up, their heads knitting together.


            "Wizard... you were warned." Lucas' voice was a grating gasp. His head had reformed with muzzle full of jagged teeth and torn canine ears.


            Regeneration, lovely. Still, I'd faced werewolves with quicker regen.

 

            Well, one.

 

            And it killed a lot of good people. I raised my blasting rod.


            And Worth slammed into me. The blond wolfman was big and bulky even compared to the others. He hit like a bus and for a moment I held.  The might of the Winter Mantle rallied against the wolfman.

 

            Then Worth roared and hit again, and I tumbled. My staff went flying. The Winter mantle stirred and raged. Pain and disorientation waned and I got control and rolled up to my feet in a crouch.


            I had a split second to steady myself before the blond wolfman hit me again. Claws slashed at my duster. This time I muscled back and held my ground. In that moment I thanked every long hour I'd spent running in sand weighted down, every monotonous session I'd spent on a maxed out weight machine.


            The spell enchanted leather held. Worth's gold eyes blinked in confusion. Then he smiled and punched me. Yeah... the magical protections I'd put into the leather protected it against impacts and clashes and even hits, but it did it by dissipating and widening the impact. I could still feel the blows.


            I gasped and went down to one knee. He hit me again. Being the Winter Knight allowed me to become physically enhanced. And that's what was keeping me up. After realizing my holster was empty, my hand went to my side and another hit the ground to steady myself. The little shields on my bracelet jangled.


            "Defendarius," I wheezed mentally casting my shield spell. My timing had to be just right. And I had to use my old shield. The one that was a blue bubble of adamantine force. Unlike the latter ones that had more give and protected against more than just force. The old spell was more brittle it was easier to defeat and easier to slip other things past it, like heat.


            But it took less energy to cast.


            Now... that wasn't why I was using it.


            I planted my arm with the shield bracelet onto the ground and a blue hemisphere or force arced into existence between my kneeling form and the wolfman looming over me. Well between me and most of the wolfman. A hairy arm to nearly the elbow fell next to me and a fisted hand cut at the wrist fell to the other side.


            Yes my old shield was more brittle, but that meant it was sharper.


            Worth blinked in shock and then roared at me beating a bloody wrist stump against my shield.


            "Hah! You stupid bastard, you've got no arms left!"


            The hand I'd been holding against my side reached into an inner pocket. The pocket I'd absently dropped my gun into. The monstrous revolver swung out. My shield dropped. I had four shots left. I aimed low, at the wolfman's hips. I pulled the trigger and the heavy bullets broke even those reinforced hip bones.


            Drawing onto more Winter power I sprung back gaining some distance from the stumbling wolfman.


            His eyes gleamed and I slammed the barrel against his snapping snout. "What are you going to do bleed on me?"


            Worth's eyes blinked in confusion.


            "Really? Not even that one?" I pointed my blasting rod. "Fuego," flame shot out and flesh bubbled and charred.


            Then I got shot. Bullets impacted the side of my duster. I turned to see Lucas in his wolfman form holding a gun. It looked tiny in his misshapen paws. Gold eyes looked on in amusement.


            "No staff, empty gun and... " he paused one gold eye closed.


            A bullet whizzed by cutting my blasting rod in half.

 

            "Nice shootin' Tex." A rictus grin fell over me as I let the shattered rod hang by the thong over my wrist. I fed more power into my shield bracelet and readied it.


            "I was aiming for your hand." Lucas barked a laugh. He raised the gun. "Still, you don't have any protection on your head."


            Then several things happened at once.


            Lucas fired.


            My shield, my proper shield, popped into existence.


            And a pair of deep purple beams shot from the redhead demon's eyes. They burst out and cut through Lucas's gun, fingers, and arm. Then they raked over his torso gouging deep, messy cuts.


            Lucas turned as the gun, and much of his hand, fell to the ground in pieces.


            Eyes glowing, the demon's smile broadened as the shadows deepened around her. Lucas sprang forward.


            Dropping the remains of my blasting rod into a coat pocket, I looked around. Other than the demon dancing around the fake FBI wolfman, there seemed to be a bit of a pause to the fight. At least the gunfire to the east had died down. Though the demons and one of the mercenaries had formed a closer position around a fallen comrade.


            That did not stop the black haired demon from pointing her sword at one of the wolfmen who had fallen near her. A severe expression was on her face as an arc of lightning shot out and fried one of the creatures.


            I also found my staff. My free hand stretched out and I concentrated. "Forazine," I hissed pushing away a pounding headache. The length of wood started to wobble and then flew into my hand. Hey, if the demons could use Sith lightning and imitation lightsabers then I could use Force telekinesis. Not to mention that I knew an actual knight with a real lightsaber. Okay, it's a holy sword that projects a beam of light that can cut anything. Close enough.


            Now that I had the staff, I popped open the cylinder to my revolver. Giant empty cartridges fell out. I dropped in another speedloader, twisted and snapped the cylinder closed.

 

            The two goons who had accompanied Lucas and Worth shivered and started to rise. Their bodies were still pretty mangled but their claws and slavering mouths full of teeth had formed enough.


            Already a freshly bloody mess, Lucas pulled back as the two went at the redhead. They were then followed by a newly healed trio from the North led by the pony-tailed jogger.


            Lucas' suit coat was in tatters, mostly from the enlarged growth of his shoulders, but it was also burned, sliced and looked like it had bullet holes in it. When had he been shot? He gasped as his wounds healed and seemed to almost make a decision. But then his eyes flared and with a snarl he jumped back in.


            The demon wove around dodging most of the mobbing wolves' attacks. The bulk of the rest she blocked. Still, she was outnumbered six to one. In the bare seconds they fought, hits started to connect. I noted that she positioned herself to let her armor most much of the impacts, relying on the plates inset in her vest and skirting.


            She also shifted her body, more willing to take a rake across her stomach than having a hip broken, more willing to have a chunk of a bicep torn off than have an elbow broken.


            That's not to say she was only defense. If anything her offense was more aggressive. Hairy limbs flew and muzzles were sliced apart and knees were crushed. Her tail darted and stabbed, cutting through the torso and severing the spine of a wolfman foolish enough to jump her from behind.


            I aimed the revolver and put in a few shots. The bullets were heavy enough that they at least distracted the beasts. I was loath to use anything more forceful. Sure, she could regenerate but how much?


            The body hit her on the back and the rest of the mob pressed her. Two were decapitated outright in the press, but that left three, well three and a half, to try and dog pile her.


            They snapped their mouths and clawed in a frantic frenzy. The demoness screamed in rage and pain. Then came the raking purple beams and gouts of fire. Her whole body seemed to be aflame and the wolves yowled. Wings pushed, legs kicked, arms threw and the pungent burning hairy bodies lifted.


            The demon's lips parted. My heart stopped. Deep purple shadows clung to her like blood. They shimmered and splattered, and then I realized that much of it was blood. I had seen women, seen monsters that could double as goddesses of violence and death. Terrific and awful blood soaked avatars of violence and seduction.


            She flicked her claws and, with a burbling laugh, she pulled back her lips. It was not a smile, though a wild glee did seem to burn in her eyes


            She lunged. One wolf was disemboweled as she dragged a hand though a torso, stopping at a ribcage which she tore with a meaty squelch of tearing flesh and breaking bones. Another was hit in the muzzle by her tail. This time I got to see how it worked.


            Extruding from the edges of the spade-shaped tail were dozens of little filaments that glinted in the fires. They writhed and twitched and where they touched flesh... up close it was like hitting someone in the face with a blender. The beast fell down screaming and paws clawing at its own face.


            At the last moment Lucas slipped aside and the demon fell on the jogger wolf-woman. The demon bit her neck, planted a clawed hand on the wolf's shoulder and tore. Blood spurted in a howling scream and the demon swallowed. The claw lowered and in a quick, disturbingly elegant, move that spoke of long practice, the ribs were sliced and cracked apart.


            Once the heart and liver were scooped out she moved onto the next wolf. Her eye's savage gleam grew but there was an almost… epicurean expression on her face as she sniffed and sectioned the wolf her tail had ravaged. The most disturbing part was that despite the savage gleam in her eyes, her expression and posture were such that I knew the demon was in complete control of herself.


            A paw fumbled in a suit coat and Lucas pulled something out tearing up a pocket. He lifted a hand. I broke out of my trance and the revolver swiveled.


            The demon swallowed the bit of quadriceps. Her eyes narrowed.


            Lucas laughed as the bullet hit just above and between his shoulder blades. Two purple beams raked over his arm, my next bullet hit the back of his head and something dropped to the ground.


            "Grenade!" the demon shouted, blood dripping down the corners of her mouth.


            I distantly heard a vehicle rev to the South-west as I powered my shield. It could handle a single grenade. It had been hit with worse.


            But then instead of having the multi-colored bubble get hit with shrapnel in a grey puff, blinding white light flared as the grenade exploded in a bright flare. I turned my head away and slammed my eyes shut.


            My eyes were blinded for a second, then the machine guns opened up.

 

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

 


            My vision returned. I took stock of things. I was in a crouch with my duster falling behind me and leaning my arms on my staff. Time seemed to slow. The Winter Mantle suffused me. It was dark but my vision had a crisp clarity. The animalistic part of the Winter Knight was angry but oddly... patient, as if it knew I would respond to this affront, vehemently


            My shield was up. That was good.


            I was being shot at. That was bad.


            I was being shot at a lot. That was very bad.


            I felt my heart beat.


            I spared a glance at Ranma. She had also dropped down onto her belly. Some sort of flaming nimbus was surrounding her too. She had a shield too. Good.


            I saw splashes of blood and meat kick out and into her flaming shield when some of the bullets hit her. So, her shield wasn't as strong. Bad.

 

            The gunners were on some kind of truck and they seemed to know their stuff as they poured on the fire. The muzzle flashes kept me from seeing exactly how the guns were mounted but the constant rate of fire indicated it was heavy-duty. They were probably bolted onto the vehicle's frame, and with this volume of fire had to be fed by long belts. I didn't want to think about how many rounds they could store in the back of a vehicle. I had been shot at before... a lot.


            I had become a connoisseur of being downrange to gunfire. From the disturbingly common pistol hits, to the roar of shotguns, to the back-breaking pounding of being hit by an anti-materiel rifle (Hurray for spell-reinforced dusters!). From the cheap little machine pistols, to big box-fed machine guns firing rifle bullets. Despite all that, vehicle mounted guns were a novelty. It was like being hit by the force of an anti-materiel round but at the rate of a machine gun. (Which was exactly what it was).


            My heart beat again. The crystalline focus of the time dilation held, but not for much longer. Oh, there was no magic, simply the effect of adrenaline slowing my perception of time.


            My shield distorted and puckered, as hit after hit slammed into it. They seemed to be keeping more pressure on me. The dome shimmered and flickered and I pushed more of my will.


           The shield stabilized but then I kept pushing. Runes on my staff flared and my shield bracelet ran hot against my wrist. I didn't have much time. Once my shield dropped all I had was my duster. Which would hold... for a bit.


            I glance over, after the initial flare the redhead's flaming aura had dimmed. A feeling of rage washed over me from her direction. She had seemed to sink into the shadows and there was a burst of motion. Okay... so the demon was up to something.


            Well, I could be up to something too.


            I slammed my staff. "Geodas!" The Earth energy slammed against the shield bubble and pressed. I concentrated and shaped the spell. It wouldn't escape until...


            I dropped my shield. The spell lashed out. A narrow fissure shot out from my staff; I dodged the side hit the ground, rolled to behind a bolder by the phones, and flicked my shield back on.


            The truck continued firing, until the steadily widening fissure snaked under the vehicle and the front and back drivers side wheels fell into the trench and the thing slammed to the ground. The guns kept firing, but it was erratic as they swiveled about.

 

            "DarkStar Burst!" The demon might have shouted. I can't be certain, my hearing was pretty shot.


            But I did see her crouch up from a position that was behind a large tree. Her hands were clasped and a black... orb shot out. I got a brief afterimage of purple and white fire wreathing the object before it raced away, button-hooked and slammed into the gun truck from the side. It exploded, erupting with deep purple, enveloping flames.


            Despite myself, I gave a low whistle at that. If I didn't know better it looked like she could aim that... whatever it was after launching. It also made sense why she offered the close quarter work while giving me the ranged. It was not that she lacked for ranged attacks, but she could do more damage close in, and take more.


            A throbbing engine noise began to drum against my head. It was felt more than heard.


            The guns stopped. For a precious moment silence fell over the park.


            It was too late, a Gatling gun opened up. Tracer-laden fire stabbed down from the sky, as a helicopter droned overhead.


             "Oh come on! How much crap do you stupid wolve-"


            That's when I noticed the direction the skyborne fire was pointed in. The tracers hit with a density that made it seem like a solid laser beam. It raked over the wolfmen who had managed to heal and shamble out of the pit by the stream. Bodies were minced by the withering fire and fell in heaps.


            The beam then turned onto the gun truck and cut it apart with seeming contempt.


            Then as suddenly as it had started the beam shut off.


            My head pounded. I let the shield drop. Weapon mounted lights started to turn on. I cast a spell over my pentacle amulet adding a bit of blue light, and then lit the runes on my staff. It was good to be able to see once again.


            The helicopter kept its low, slow orbit over the park.


            Ranma strode towards me; the glow ebbing from her eyes. Her uniform was a mess. Blood, viscera, organs, tears and gouges marred the loose bodysuit. One of her skirt pleats had been slashed exposing a cracked armor plate. Her vest had dents and a couple craters where she'd been struck by high caliber bullets. A bit of lead gleamed in one of the craters having been stopped at the last armor layer.


            Another was marked by a gaping hole that wept blood. Either impact would have been enough of a hammer blow to knock a human down and a fair number of supernatural critters, too. Still, without the armor, the bullets would have hit at full velocity and done a lot more damage.


            As I stared, the wound closed itself. Comprehension dawned. The brood's armor was designed with regeneration in mind. The layers were intended to slow down attacks, spread out the impact, reduce damage, all to make it easier for the demon's innate healing to work.


            I looked down at the organic effluent that spattered my own coat and revised my evaluation. She wasn't any messier than I was, and unlike the wolfmen she didn't need to stop for a lie down to heal her damage.


            "You hurt?" she asked approaching. Her fingers flexed as if to burn off excess energy. Her tail also swished. It almost looked thicker to me. I glanced at her again. Her cheeks didn't seem as... gaunt as before. Actually, the short demon seemed less slight overall.


            I exhaled and made a point to go over my limbs and chest. During a fight it was surprisingly easy to get injured and not notice it. It was even easier when tapping into the Winter Mantle's "ignore pain" abilities. "No I'm... fine."


            "Good," she smiled. Her teeth were bloody and stained. She sniffed the air and looked around in a circle. "We'll have you checked out by the Doc anyway. You might have gotten wounded and not know it. Adrenaline does crazy things."


            I nodded, trying not to think about how her teeth got that way.


            She unclipped a canteen, splashed some water into her mouth, gargled, and spit. This time I couldn't keep from blanching at the soupy string of gore that came out.


            The demon took another swish and repeated. This time her spit was only tinged pink with blood. The redhead then drank from the canteen. She wiped the rim with a tan rag from one of her vest's pockets and offered it to me.


            I eyed the canteen. I looked down; we were both splattered in blood and drenched in sweat. Hell with it, my mouth was dry; I was thirsty.


            I reached out, and suddenly there was a labored howl. A burnt and flayed wolfman rose up. And charged. I recognized the remains of a flowing pelt atop its head: the mullet jogger.


            The canteen fell from my hands as I fumbled for the holstered revolver. Eyes flashing, Ranma's hand blurred.


            Suddenly, the wolfman's torso blew apart. From the sternum to belly button and nearly the entire width of his body was a ragged flared hole. In front skin had peeled off from the detonation while in back bone and organs spewed out in a great fan.


            Then there was a thunderous bang.


            His spine utterly shattered the mullet wolf flopped down and amazingly he tried to drag himself forward. Growling, Ranma strode forward. A boot crushed a paw. The wolfman snapped and tried to lunge.


            The redhead's hand dipped and a silvery pistol appeared. It was a massive steel-framed affair. The gun fired with a familiar report, and a long 50 caliber casing flung from the gun. I watched the case tumble then turned back to the wolfman.


            The cranial damage was slightly worse than when I had shot Worth in the head. I briefly pondered them using the same caliber as I lifted my hand off the revolver. Hearing the helicopter near, I looked up.


            Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ranma kneel down and start poking through the wolman's guts with a clinical eye.

 

            Ropes spooled out of the helicopter and dark shapes dropped down. Some descending on the ropes, others simply jumping and letting their wings catch just above the ground.


            I heard another set of pounding turbines. To the east another helicopter descended and spooled lines.


            Soldiers fanned out in grey Company armor and helmets. Familiar bulky rifles were shouldered. At the vanguard was a quartet of demons in a diamond formation. They wore the same plate-skirt and vest over Kevlar bodysuit getup as the redhead.


            I also noticed that they all had... bows on their chests. Maybe bow was the wrong word.  On their chest armor, in the center of the bow, each wore a sullen red gem. Dangling from the gems were two pairs of Kevlar-sheathed ribbons. I stretched out my senses: the gems were magical. There was a familiar vibration that set my teeth on edge. The ribbons seemed to be antennae, or maybe they were sleeves that protected the actual antenna.


            To the right confidently strode a demoness with tousled orange hair. It had more body and curl than even Ranma's. And unlike the brood mother, the makeup this one wore was blatant.


            However, her bright green eyes shone with a predatory madness and her lips were curled in an amused grin as she sniffed the air. Cradled in her hands was a wide stubby weapon. It took me a second to notice the belt of grenades being fed from an underslung box. I blinked.


            To the left was a demon with dark, shorter cobalt blue hair. It was slicked back with a bit of a tease on the ends. Her makeup was a bit more toned down, and done in shades of blues that tugged at the Winter Mantel.


            Oddly, her hands were empty. She had a short rifle slung over one shoulder identical to the blonde's weapon. There was also a large pistol holstered on one hip, but that seemed to be part of the uniform more than anything else.


            In the center front of the group was a tiny demoness. Even in the heavy armor she looked slight and slender. Younger looking than the others, she had powder-blue hair spilling out behind her. She had a pair of immense slender knives in her hands. Their blades glowed the same dull red as that Sith katana.


            Her makeup was also in Winter colors, though softer, more pastel, shades. However, more than that my Winter Knight senses tingled. There was something... Wintery about the delicate-looking demoness.


            The demon in the back had no makeup. Well, she might have had on lipstick, it was a bit hard to tell what was a "natural" color, never mind the poor lighting in the park. Cut into a short bob, her hair was a dark red that was almost auburn. She wore the same uniform but unlike the others moved a bit awkwardly, as if she wasn't as used to it. Pale blue eyes seemed to coolly scan everything.


            However what stood out about her, dwarfing everything else, was the gun she carried. It had dimensions more in line with a piece of farm equipment than a weapon. The rifle had a thick heavy barrel that had a bore like a drainage pipe. There was a reinforced stock, a giant scope, and a magazine the same dimensions as a thick hardcover book.


            The whole sniper rifle was longer than she was tall. And like the orange-haired demon she carried the massive weapon without any seeming effort.


            The demons' faces brightened and they rushed over to the brood mother.


            "Mom!" the three in front gushed while the sniper hung back.


            Ranma hugged the demons in a group hug. Smiling she motioned to the sniper. "Come on, Morgan."


            The barest tinge of a flush colored the sniper's cheeks as she glanced at me and joined the hug before it broke apart.


            "Right, good shot," Ranma stated.


            "Thanks, Aunty," Morgan said, bowing her head, which also presented her horns to the older demon. She then shrugged. "It wasn't much, even without the digital assist."


            "Still," the brood mother smiled and passed a dripping bundle to Morgan.


            The sniper's nostrils flared and with as light embarrassment she slipped it into a large pouch on her armor. I pointedly looked away from the… gift.


            "Girls, Dresden. Dresden, girls. Full introductions will have to wait," Ranma clapped her hands and raised her voice. "What we have here is an organized Pattern L attack. I don't know the Level, but they're high enough to regenerate head-shots."


            She glanced around, meeting the eyes of every mercenary and demon. "Secure the scene, and make sure they don't get up. If we can get one safe for questioning, do it, but I don't want any risks. These are some bruisers here.


            "Also their leaders were dressed as American federal agents, including fake ID."


            She met the eyes of a brown-haired agent. It took me a moment to recognize Lieutenant Tendo behind all the battle-rattle. The two women exchanged meaningful nods. The demon then bowed her head to Tendo and gestured with her hand. A sign of deference? That was interesting.


            "Forensics is going to come in and go over this, but if you see something, secure it now," Lieutenant Tendo stated. "I want Gold team assisting the Fifth, Green on perimeter. Red with me. This place is going to be a zoo once backup arrives."


            Tendo looked around. "Which will include local police. I want you all looking human when the boys in blue arrive. Get to it."


            "Wounded?" Ranma asked moments after Tendo finished. "Casualties?"


            The black-haired demon was standing a bit to the side. "Smith was hit in the second wave," Nariko stated, a tiny tremor in her voice.


            A flicker of emotion passed the stern brunette's face. "Take me to him," Tendo ordered.


            Ranma also growled as she and the others ran to the picnic table. I followed.


             "Barnes has stabilized him," Nariko assured as they neared.


            I looked over to see the same medic who had cleared me kneeling over one of the mercenaries that had accompanied in the van.


            It was the one with short black hair. The other mercenary and the platinum blonde demoness hovered over him. The demon actually had a flashlight out and was pointing it on Smith's wound.


            I also got a clear look at her rifle. It looked like a copy of Murphy's little P90. By that I meant it was a compact boxy-looking rifle with a trigger near the front, a tiny stub of a barrel extending beyond the frame, and a magazine running along the length of the top.


            However, Murphy's gun was made out of plastics and fired a zippy little round. This gun was a sullen beast that seemed to be hogged out of a solid piece of steel. My Winter faerie powers were on edge just looking at it. There was also some brass scattered about that looked more like all-metal shotgun shells than anything else.


            The wounded mercenary's olive green eyes seemed alert, if glassy. He smiled when he saw us. "Hey Red, Mr. Wizard." He then nodded to Tendo. "LT, Ma'am."


            Tendo's face softened as she crouched down. She simply turned to the medic.


            The dark-skinned medic glanced up then went back to cleaning a nasty set of slashes on his side. "Lacerations. It was a glancing blow. The armor didn't stop it but it kept it from getting deeper." As he closed the wounds and started wrapping, Barnes chewed the side of his lip. "Not to mention the pounding his ribs took when he got hit. Nothing's obviously broken... Lt. Covington will need to do a mess of X-rays."


            "Helo Evac?" Tendo asked.


            Barnes hissed through his teeth. He then met the lieutenant's eyes. "Just in case?"


            "Right."


            "It'd have some room, check with the civilian responders?"


            Tendo nodded. "I'll coordinate and see who needs immediate transport."


            Smith nodded and smiled at Ranma. "Looks like no D Program for me tonight."


            Tendo's face clouded at that. "Glad to hear you'll be okay, Gabe."


            Ranma patted him on the shoulder. "Just means you'll buy drinks for us next time."


            Tendo squeezed Gabe's hand. "We'll get you patched up," she looked to Ranma.


            Nodding, the redhead stood. "Ukyou, Nariko. Make sure he gets to Doc Covington."


            The two demons bowed their heads.


            Distant sirens started to get louder.


            Tendo swore. "Right, I'll have to play public relations." She then turned her radio on. "Warden Dresden, please try to refrain from magic until after I've radioed in a medivac. It won't just be Gabe in there."


            "Uh… sure."


            Tendo nodded and went back to Gabriel and the others to coordinate


            Ranma tugged at my arm. "Come on, let's look at some dead monsters."


            "Sure," I fell into step next to her.


            The redhead exhaled in an angry hiss. Her shoulders shook a tiny bit. Her tail quivered. She paused and with some reluctance closed her eyes. The horns, wings, and tail flickered and vanished.


            She took the wounding of her men personally. Ah. Yes. They weren't just mercenaries to her, they were hers. I recalled the great tree that I saw when I soulgazed her. Not all of the connections were to her family.


            I could feel wisps of rage wafting from the redhead. She gave a thin smile. "You look disappointed." As if following my gaze she twisted and looked down her spine. "Miss the tail?"


            I coughed. "No- um... I wasn't staring."


            A bit of amusement crossed her eyes as she kept walking forward. I really wasn't staring at her butt. Honest. I was looking at the armor back there. The back vest narrowed around the shoulder blades and there were slits that had accommodated her wings. A similar notch was in the bottom of the vest to allow her tail to come out.


           The gear was all custom, which meant that someone had manufactured it. Heck, the guns looked to be purpose-built. Maybe the grenade launcher and the sniper rifle were original or just slight mods. But the pistols and those rifles were custom. The Company was investing a lot in equipping these girls.


            Part of what had raised my curiosity. "What's the D Program?"


            The demon's eyes locked on me. Eldritch purple depths bored onto me. My step faulted. "A choice, a very personal choice."


            "Sorry..." We resumed walking. I pondered. What kind of choice would require you to be mortally wounded?


            I thought back to the last powerful succubus I knew. Okay, Lara was a White Court vampire. But she was from a family of supernaturally alluring and strong creatures that fed off of sex. After a battle where her retainers, her mercenaries, were mortally wounded, or even just blinded or had their backs broken in battle, she fed them to her family.


            Oh sure, she defended it by pointing out her sisters were heavily wounded themselves and thus needed to feed, and that the feeding would be extremely pleasurable. To Lara the situation was clear; someone had to die to save her family. Why not use mercenaries that couldn't fight?


            However... no one in Ranma's brood was injured. More so I doubted the redhead would throw the lives of her men away like that. Even if they did volunteer. Which I suppose someone might. I mean, if you were going to die... why not do it in the arms of a beautiful woman?


            But there was no way Gabe would have such an attitude if the D Program was short for "demon chow", not to mention the medic and the lieutenant. So, it had to be something else.


            What did that leave? What personal choice was only open to gravely wounded mercenaries?


            Oh. Of course.


            "D Program's a bit on the nose isn't it?" I asked, my mouth running faster than my brain. "Was Faust Force too blatant?"


            Despite herself, the redhead chuckled. "It's a delicate subject."


            I nodded. Mercenaries hiring demonic contractors was one level of scary. Mercenaries converting their members to build a "demonic army" was a whole extra level. Hells Bells - I still found the concept worrying. It did explain the investment in weapons and gear.


            "You're not objecting," the demon noted as we returned to the bank of phones where this mess had started.


            "Should I? If I accept that you're not evil, then I can't deny your friends a chance to live. Not if it's their choice."


            The redhead inclined her head. Even without her horns present, I now recognized the gesture. "You made a similar choice," she stated, crouching over Lucas' body.


            Her nostrils flared and she blinked.


            "I could have," I admitted. A few years ago I was injured, my back was broken. But I had to save my daughter. That was unacceptable. However I had... options. Ultimately, I went with Mab. She healed my body and gave me power, but there were others. The Blackened Order of Denarius could have given me everything I asked for, but the cost would have been high.


            The redhead met my gaze and raised an eyebrow.


            "Okay, maybe I did," I grumbled.


            The redhead blinked. "No, not that, the body." She pointed. "It seem funny to you?"

 

            The coiffed orange-haired demoness had stepped up to us.  She wrinkled a nose. "That's not how they normally smell?"


            It was an eviscerated corpse. I'm not sure what miss high-fashion thought a dead body should smell like. Wait. "Yeah, he's not healing. Shouldn't he be back up by now?"


            "Feh," the green-eyed demoness snorted and kicked it with a boot. "Damn bastard's just sitting there," she groused, her tone at odds with her appearance.


            "Maybe a slight off-smell," her blue-haired companion noted.


            "Yeah, got a whiff of spoiled sweetbreads. So, no BBQ?" she asked with a leer.


            The redhead ignored her daughter. "There's a bit of smoke," Ranma murmured. She sighed and flicked out a claw.


            It sunk into Lucas' forehead, cut down, and pried. The hairy skullcap cracked off. Even I could smell the burnt almost cinnamon scent that wafted up.


            Tiny green flames flickered in the skull cavity, turning the man's brains to ash. Ranma glanced at me. I reached out a hand. "Yeah, magic."


            The orange-haired demoness snorted again.


            "Misako?" Ranma asked her.


            Green eyes twinkling, she nodded and went over to Worth's body. Her fist came down with a sickening crunch. With no more emotion than if she were shelling a crab, the orange-haired demoness peered into the shattered skull cavity and took a sniff. She repeated the action for the two goons who had followed Worth and Lucas.


            Idly flicking some skull shards off her fingerless gloves, Misako returned to us. "Yeah, all their brains are fried," she licked the back of a finger. "Technically broiled."


            Nodding, Ranma didn't look surprised, or disturbed, by her daughter's actions. "I don't hear anyone else having to fire on the other Pattern L's. Right. Akane, Misako have the others check out their corpses. I wanna see if everyone had some Kool-aid."


            "We'll also check the truck," Akane, the dark blue haired, demon noted.


            "Yeah, those were human," Ranma absently noted.


            "Maybe their brains won't be overdone," Misako laughed as they trotted off.


            "Kool-aide?" I asked.


            "Your world didn't have Jonestown?"


            "Oh we did, it just-" I stopped. I was about to say "it just seems well before your time." Problem was Jonestown was well before my time. Sure, Ranma looked younger than me, but I wasn't really sure how much younger, or if that was even true. Guessing the ages of supernatural women tended to be nothing but trouble.


            "It just seems odd that you'd pick a mass suicide from a cult," I finished lamely.


            "Who's to say this wasn't a cult?" She asked inspecting the lupine face. "Pattern L's can have it tough. Until they get control."


            "Lycanthropes?"


            The demoness nodded. "You've got 'em?"


            "Something like that," I stated. Well not exactly. I knew of two ways for humans to turn into wolves, a group of berserkers that had extra strength, aggression, and healing, and a man who had a hereditary curse that transformed him into a lupine nightmare. But I didn't know of any werewolves that turned into giant wolfmen.


            "Still..." the demon made a thoughtful noise. "We've got folks that can regenerate from having their brains blown out and their heads burned off… and some green flames in their skulls puts ‘em down."


            "Yeah, that seems suspicious. Someone didn't want them to talk?" No wonder she had mentioned Jonestown.


            "Why else? You got any ideas, Mr. Wizard?"


            "There's a few things I could try," I admitted. Fire was tricky. It was purifying, not just physically but magically. It was why a lot of us wizards used it. Still, there was something I could do.


            I sighed and opened my third eye. As my wizard's Sight cane into focus, I looked to the ground. The Sight was handy. It laid bare magic. But it came at a cost, everything I saw would stay just as vivid as I saw it now, forever.


            Raising my eyes, I kept my gaze limited to the top of Lucas' skull. Under the Sight, the green flames were vivid. A bright sickly green fire merrily burned in the top of his skull like a grotesque jack-o-lantern.


            Threads of green fire led from Lucas' skull. About two dozen, the nearest went to Worth's. His crushed skull also burning merrily. I risked a bit and looked down the blond wolfman's body. It was a throbbing twisted hairy form of bulging, shadowy flesh. I could see a shattered human body buried deep within, chest burst, limbs flayed, jaw pulled back in a silent scream. It looked like the wolf had torn its way out and subsumed the humanity.


            And spiraling through the wolf shadow-stuff was another green line that went to the wolfman's heart. I pulled back and tracked the other threads running out of Lucas' skull. They matched where the woflmen had fallen in the fight. There was even bundle that went to the west towards the gun truck.


            "Yeah, they're all linked back to Lucas. He must have triggered it when the cavalry arrived," I glanced up at Ranma.


            I stared. And quickly shut down my Sight.


            She looked... much the same. Her red hair flowed more. Her armor was pristine and made of shiny silver and gold instead of Kevlar and ceramic plate. She also had hooves instead of boots. Her face was cleaned of the grime and blood of battle.


            Multiple pairs of horns had adorned her brow and solid luminous purple eyes stared deeply into me. However, I could see threads spiraling away from her as well. Pulsing purple, they were the same links I had seen when I'd soulgazed her.


            The soulgaze was personal, intimate, but it was also abstract, metaphorical. Or at least it often was. The Sight had confirmed just how literal of a creature the redhead was.


            "You okay?" she asked.


            "Yeah fine, doing that just gets me."


            "Doing what?"


            "Wizard Sight. Sees things, gotta cost," I noted. She handed me a canteen and I took a sip.


            Ranma stood up. She offered a hand and I used that and tapped the ground with my staff.


            She looked from the staff to the wolf-pit and the crevasse that swallowed one side of the gun truck. "Good geomancy. Takes a lot to move that much earth."


            "Earth magic's actually something I'm weak in. Not as bad as water magic but..."


            The demon whistled. "More impressive then."


            "You've got some?" I asked.


            "Yup. It's too slow for most fights, but handy," she smiled. "You're pretty good at fire."


            "You too."


            "Could be a bit less clumsy with a gun, but you didn't accidentally shoot me. I'll take that," she smiled.


            The sirens drew closer and I saw police starting to cordon off the park. There were a handful of larger vehicles. Either SWAT or reinforcements from the Cmpany. Ranma tilted her head at their arrival, but didn't seem concerned.


            She took in the battlefield, looking from bit to bit. "We have two dozen Pattern L's. Two doin' a passable impersonation of Feds. They had heavy machine guns and the will to use them in a city."


            I noted that several of the sirens were ambulances. My stomach clenched.


            "Maybe as a last resort," she shrugged "But when things went bad they still opened up."


            I noted that the Company had also used heavy weapons. Though a helicopter shooting down at a truck should have less collateral damage than sustained fire across a city park.


            "How bad is it?"


            "Dunno, worse than some fights, better than others." she said, distantly. "This was a mess, but it was cleared up quick enough,"


            "Quick?"


            "Wasn't hours of a running gun battle. Also no bystanders inside the park,"


            I remembered the anxiety and pressure that had been building before Lucas has appeared. How people had started to empty the park, leaving just Lucas and his pack. "That was you?"


            The demon bowed her head. "It was a precaution."


            I pondered. On the one hand it showed she gave a damn about innocent people. On the other it meant she had the ability to influence emotions at a distance.


            "And since we were outside, people could just walk away. Buildings are harder. Least, we didn't have any room clearing." Her eyes appraised me. "You've done that before. No you've fought in buildings as they’ve burned down."


            "With people inside," I admitted.


            She patted me on the shoulder. "You don't have any healing magic do you?"

            "How?"


            "If you did you'd be running to those ambulances right?" she asked.


             I could just hear her unstated follow-up question: "And you'd have healed my friend who got slashed open because he'd been assigned to drive you around right?"


            "Right," I agreed. "And lemmie guess, you've only got one type of healing magic?"


            Ranma's face clouded, but she nodded. Her hands flexed. She was powerful; she knew people were hurting, but she felt helpless. Maybe she even felt a bit guilty about it.


            I could relate. "These wolves were pretty serious," I noted, shifting the subject.


            The redhead exhaled. "Lucas' pack was also wired up with suicide spells. And had fake documents just in case they could convince you that you should go with them."


            "Yeah, yeah, someone really wants me dead," I leaned on my staff. "I've got a gift at making enemies."


            "I bet you do." The demon chuckled. She then lifted her arms to encompass the park. "But doesn't this seem like a lot to organize, you know, given you've spent less than a day here. And most of that was asleep?"


            "Yeah, they knew I was coming."


            "Or someone came over here before you did, organized this little welcoming party."


            The demon looked at me and smiled, her teeth gleaming. "So, Mr. Wizard, which of your enemies is screwing with my city?"


            I glanced over at her. There was something about her tone at the end of the question. Recalling my Sight of her I wondered exactly how literal she was. I cleared my throat. "Well... that's kind of a long list."

 

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

 


            Rubbing my head, I eased into the mess hall table. At least these folks were big believers in showering after a battle. I did pick at my black shirt. It was new and, while wide enough at the shoulders, not quite long enough.


            I picked at the bowl of stew and piece of cornbread in front of me. Across the table were two demons. The one with glossy straight black hair and red eyes: Nariko. And the one with teased curly orange hair and crazy green eyes: Misako.


            Nariko was still in her armor though she had unhooked her scabbard and leaned it on the table. I noted that both the katana's handle and scabbard were metal. Instead of the dull red of the blade itself, they were a silvery grey metal anodized with a slight iridescence.


            Misako had somehow found the time to slip out of her armor and was in a ruffled pink blouse and orange skirt with red swirls. However that didn't prevent her from lugging that grenade launcher around. She also eyed my staff as she dropped her weapon onto the table as if it was some sort of challenge.

 
            I'll confess, it was almost reassuring to see a demon acting like a jerk. With all the group hugs and colorful hairdos, I was worried that I'd have to learn some lesson about friendship being the real magic.


            Nariko glared at Misako, causing the coiffed demoness to frown and wilt back in her chair.


            Okay, I didn't have much personal experience with siblings. I didn't even know I had a brother until much later in life, but I had spent enough time around people who did grow up with brothers and sisters.


            "Cornbread's good at least," I said taking a bite.


            "Try it with the stew, the meat's extra fresh," Misako added with a smirk.


            I eyed the stew. It smelled great. But part of my mind did go back to the bloody bundle that Ranma had given the sniper succubus. I stirred it, the meat looked like beef cuts.


            "Mr. Dresden, it's fine." Nariko glared at her sister, her tail straightening out. The two shared a long look. "Misa-chan is just being..."


            Misako looked smug. "What? The meat is fresh we got a shipment from the butcher this morning. Almost a shame to use it as stew meat," she said before eating heartily from her own bowl.


            I watched the green-eyed demon with curiosity. She met my eyes then turned away. Her eating style was... strange. She was neat enough; she didn't spill. There was no slurping or other rude noises, but she did eat with a glee and gusto that seemed at odds with her ladylike act.


            "You'd be fine, unless Ukyou was cooking and even then she keeps the... special dishes separate," Nariko noted. Her red eyes turned grave. "You weren't served by a blonde demoness from a red pot were you?"


            I frowned. There had been a demon back in the kitchen but... "Well she had white hair, but it was in ringlets, cute little thing." Unlike the... older demons her eyes weren't quite as... haunted.


            "Oh, that's Desiree," Nariko said. "Nice to hear she's helping around in the kitchen."


            Misako snorted. "He's into Cecilia's girls. Figures."


            "What?" I sputtered. "No, that's not at all!"


            "So, even they're not pretty enough for you?"


            "Misa..." Nariko's voice was threatening as she sipped her tea. Red eyes met green.


            Not breaking from the stare down, Misako pouted.


            This time I laughed. "Really? Supernaturally attractive demons girls are gonna pout that the wizard isn't falling for their tricks."


            Crossing her arms the green-eyed demon huffed.


            Nariko elegantly sipped her tea. "What did you expect, dear Sister?"


            Misako sniffed the air. "At least he's not a prude like Mother."

            "Mother isn't a prude," Nariko stated.


            Misako rolled her eyes.


            "I think I'll have a chat with Ukyou; I'm sure your mate would find your behavior very informative," Nariko mildly said.


            Misako glared at her sister.


            I looked up from my stew. It was rather good, but the sibling bickering seemed to be getting away from me. "What?"


            "Don't listen to Misako. She's just trying to get a reaction out of you," Ranma said as she slipped up to the table. Wearing a fresh and clean set of armor, the redhead flopped down in the chair next to me. She had a large bowl of stew in front of her as well as a pile of cornbread and a big cup of tea.


            "Which doesn't seem like the smartest of moves," Nariko observed.


            "No, it's not," Ranma leveled her gaze at the green-eyed demon.


            "It was just a little bit; it's not like I called him a virgin."


            "I have two kids," I said a bit defensively.


            Misako's eyes flashed mirthfully. "So? Mom had-"


            Ranma held up her hand.


            I thoughtfully chewed a piece of cornbread. "Wait..."


            "Misako, why don't you check on the others."


            "But Mom, they're just watching Doc Tofu as he cuts up those bodies, that's boring, he won't even let us take snacks."


            I thought the demon's whine was a bit theatrical, especially the part about snacks.


            Not looking up from her tea, Ranma simply waved her hand.


            Misako huffed and, throwing her grenade launcher onto a shoulder, got up and sauntered out of the mess hall, her tail swishing angrily behind her.


            Her sister gave a satisfied tiny little smile.


            "Sorry about Misa-chan," Ranma put down her tea. "She's -well- she can be a jerk but she more curious than malicious."


            "That shark didn't mean to bite the surfer in half, she was just taking a nibble out of curiosity," I muttered.


            "Misako was actually rather restrained," Nariko stated.


            I eyed the black-haired demoness.


            "It's not like she tried gnawing on your, or hit you with her tail."


            "She didn't try to do that soulgaze thing did she?" Ranma asked looking her daughter in the eye.


            I frowned. Those demons spent plenty of time giving each other direct eye contact, but they had avoided holding my gaze. "Huh," I noted.


            I looked up at the concrete ceiling then at the rest of the bare-bones mess hall. It was comfortable enough I guess. The national-park style landscape posters on the walls helped, but it did nothing to detract from the fact that this was a subterranean complex.


            There were plenty of mercenaries at the tables. Including a few that I knew to be demons, but, unlike the last facility I was in, I didn't see any Canadian army guys.


            "How's your friend? Gabe, right?" I asked the redhead.


            "Gabriel?" The redhead smiled. "Doc Covington thinks he'll recover. That is if he doesn't get infected."


            "Oh." I stirred my stew. "I didn't think he got bitten." Or that lycanthropes were contagious that way. I mean they weren't in my world, but these weren't my type of werewolves.


            Ranma and her daughter shared a look. The redhead took a bite of her meal. "Not what I meant. That's not the normal way you make a Pattern L."


            "So, the infection?"


            "Those claws were pretty dirty," Ranma shrugged. "Doc Tofu took some samples of the one that slashed Gabriel."


            "Ah! Yeah, Butters said something like that, about how you'll get infected from a zombie bite but that's because rotting corpses are full of nasty stuff."


            "Butters?"

            "A medical examiner I know, probably like your Doc Tofu," I ventured. Both had food names which was probably a coincidence. I did wonder if Tofu was into Polka too. I eyed Nariko's sword, there were enough coincidences.


            "Handy fellow." Ranma nodded. "Still Forensic Pathology Section's got plenty of stuff to sift through."


            "Like the briefcase Worth had?" I asked.


            "And their false IDs and even those guns." The purple eyed demon shook her head. "Where they got some Browning heavy machine guns...


            "Still you're not the first tourist we've had."


            "You said that before." I looked around the room mulling it over.   "In fact, before I met you I was at a briefing all about that.  Complete with a presentation and folders." That office girl, Maya, pulled out paper reports in folders after I'd burned out the display at that last briefing.  I'm sorry, when the display accidentally failed.


            Still, Eve and Tendo had taken it in stride.  But at least that time they let me go out to get coffee... which was where I met Ranma. How much of this was the Company being anal retentive? Was this all a setup?


            The phone calls I made were pretty good evidence, as were the wolfmen. Those were definitely something different. And if the fight in the park was all a setup... why not have it just be Lucas and Worth? They could go wolf, make some threats, then retreat.


            "I did," the demon smirked.


            It said bad things about the level of paranoid nonsense that I'd dealt with that I at least entertained the idea that these mercenaries had setup a pack of wolfmen to be slaughtered and opened fire in a city park in order to sell me a confidence scheme.  Yes it was extreme but the principal was sound.  Many confidence schemes worked by a stranger befriending the mark and then defending the mark against an overly hostile second stranger.

 

            Still, it didn't hang together. Complicated plans rarely worked out. Hells Bells, I pretty much depend on my ability to put a wrench in such schemes.


            I used some of the cornbread to finish mopping up the last of my stew. Though if this was a con job, why even bring in the demons? The Company had plenty of humans.  They could have easily kept the demons secret from me.


            "Tourist implies they went home."


            The demon smiled. "Yup."


            "How did he get home?" I asked.


            "She," Ranma corrected, a bit tartly.


            "And how did she get home?" I repeated.


            The demon gave me another pitying glance; it was rapidly becoming "a look". "She opened up a portal and walked through."


            "Oh." I sighed to myself. I wanted to palm my head. It couldn't be that simple. It just couldn't. Okay, sure, I wanted to try opening a portal on the place I arrived. But I knew from long experience that it couldn't be that simple.


            "Now if you can't-"


            "No, no I can do it. That's how I got here in the first place."


            The demon opened her hands.


            "Wait that's it?" I laughed. "You bring me back to where I fell through, I open a Way and go back home? It's that simple. Then what's all this?" I waved my arms around.


            The demon gave me another "mom" look. "You having some time to recover after a nasty fight."


            My head pounded. "Which happened because I was out confirming that this wasn't my Earth."


            The demon nodded.


            "I could go back."


            "You could try," the demon corrected. "Something tells me the spell that got you here wasn't exactly normal for you."


            "Yeah." I said as Nariko returned and gave me more stew. "And Lucas and his buddies knew I was coming. Who told them? Who here even knew I existed?"


             "Those are excellent questions." Ranma said, concentrating on her meal.


            I could try to get back. I should try to get back, but I didn't like unanswered questions. Especially when it came to packs of heavily armed wolfmen who wanted to kill me.


            "What's your plan?" Ranma asked.


            "What do you mean? Aren't you guys going to do your forensic voodoo and chase down leads?"


            "Sure, that's what we're going to do." The demon looked up. "But I want to know what you want to do."


            "You'll just let me go home?"


            "If that's what you want, I won't try to stop you." Grinning the demon leaned on one hand. "But I've seen you in a fight. If you want to get to the bottom of this," her toothy grin returned. "I won't try to stop you either."


            I mulled it over. "I've got kids of my own."


            Ranma held up a hand. "Say no more, we'll arrange transport."


            I shook my head. "That just means I want to get to the bottom of this." I exhaled. "And I want to touch base with the Home Office first."


            The brood mother bowed her head.

 

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

 


            Still carrying a little bowl of stew and a piece of cornbread I was led to a conference room. It was more of the same concrete and steel decor. At least the chairs were nice. I could see that some large wall monitors had been turned off and a few conspicuous bare spots with dangling wires where computers had been pulled. A slide projector had been wheeled into the room and it was pointed to a screen that had been pulled down from the ceiling. Some mirrors were hung on a far wall. I shied away from those.


           Eve and a young woman with short brown hair were at one end of the immense table. "Hey Ilsa!" I cheerfully greeted.


            The blonde demon gave a little smile. "Warden."


            I went over to one of the chairs and flopped into it. "Have you guys thought about getting some plants? It'd cheer the place up."


            "Uncleared botanicals would be a security risk," Eve dryly said.


            Ranma snickered, as she and Nariko took seats across from me.


            I noticed that the brunette with Eve was also wearing the Company dress uniform skirt and blouse. She carried a couple folders. And she was not Tendo. I then recognized her as Maya.  She had been running the presentation earlier today.


            "Where's the good lieutenant?" I asked


            "Lieutenant Tendo is supervising cleanup and containment," Eve stated. "Agent Iverson?"


            I looked her over. She seemed human enough, and unlike many of the other mercenaries, like Lieutenant Tendo, her expression was not quite as guarded.


            "Thanks Maya," Ranma gave a sad little sigh and held out a hand.

 
            Maya handed a slim folder over.


            The redhead opened it. I watched her tail droop.


            "It could have been a lot worse, Maya offered. "Compared to Ottawa or that fight where we lost a helicopter against the Numbers."


            I saw Eve's eyes harden at that. It looked like she wanted to sink her claws into the table's surface, but was holding herself back.


            Ranma wordlessly handed the folder over to me.


            I looked inside. It was a single page. My eyes glazed over the boilerplate at the header listing who wrote it, the operation name, date, time, and other natter. Instead I focused on the three columns in the center of the page.


            The leftmost was a list of wounded, the right deceased, and the middle those likely to be moved into the right column before the night was through. At least it all fit on one page. The same handful of last names also cropped up. Families.


            People guilty of nothing more than living near a park and happening to be downrange of some heavy machine guns. My spine chilled as I dipped into the Winter power.


            "They killed eight people, injured a dozen more, all to take a shot at me?"


            "Is that common among your enemies?" Ranma asked.


            I snorted. "Are we counting the necromancers, the Vampires, or the Fallen Angels?" I paused to consider. "Well, they're not normally so overt, what with keeping the supernatural secret from the normals." As long as you don't count office buildings being blown up, necromancers throwing down with zombie and ghost armies, or Red Court hit teams assaulting FBI offices, I mentally added. Still all of those events did manage to get covered up... more or less.


            "Those guns aren't quiet," Ranma agreed.


            "Yeah but that's something people can comprehend. They'll blame terrorists or maybe drug dealers or maple syrup bandits."


            The blonde gave a thin smile. "And the giant wolfmen?" she asked her tail curling over.


            "It was dark. No one else was in the park. Even if there had been someone to see something, no one would believe them," I held up my hand. "And even if someone had recorded things the magic would have interfered with it and it'd look like a crummy fake."


            Ranma and Eve shared a look.


            "I've had experience with this before," I huffed. "Including video of a monster wolf attack. Me and Murph have been haunted by that video for years."


            Eve nodded to Maya.


            The brunette turned on the projector. Splashed on the wall was some sort of ugly governmental building sat next to a canal. Thick smoke billowed out of it while military vehicles and troops swarmed about. Another was a picture of a university. It was also aflame.


            "Two weeks ago the Canadian military headquarters was attacked," Eve explained, her voice carefully neutral.


            Maya flipped to a new slide. This one was... Well it looked like a dismembered squid in some sort of armor, or maybe a body-glove. Possibly, it was a space suit. There were more creatures, of various sizes and numbers of tentacles. Many carried what were obviously weapons. I watched as the images of damaged, burned corridors their floors covered in standing water went past. Bodies, both human and... other, filled some of the hallways in a jumble.


            "We don't know what these outsiders were after, but we do know they were summoned by combat cyborgs who infiltrated the facility and stole some sensitive equipment," Eve's voice tone was clinical, as if she'd been giving briefings like this for a long time..


            "What did you call them?" I asked my mouth dry. "And what? Cyborgs?"


            "The demon shrugged. "Outsiders. Squids. They're definitely not from around here," she gave me a pointed look.


            "Oh-kaaaaay," I drew the word out. "And the cyborgs?"


            "The remnants of a Red Army research project on super soldiers. Due to technical limitations, Comrade Scaglietti had to use magical means to bind the cybernetic components to the, well, subjects. This caused, as you could guess, issues," Eve explained.


            "Oh.... uh...." I chewed my lip. In my experience magic and technology didn't get along. At all. "What kind of person decides that magic's the thing that'll fix his six-million ruble men?"


            Eve quirked her lips. "I said it caused issues. Still we'll have a more detailed brief on them later."


            "For one, they're women not men," Ranma added. She then snorted. "For another they're reckless idiots for listening to a damn cultist and causing this mess."


            "Be that as it may, that's for the next briefing," Eve said. "Maya?"


            The image changed to show an ovoid summoning grid. There were broken crystals and marks on the floor. Even a projected image of it felt... wrong. For once I was relieved to feel the deep subsonic buzzing that seemed to part and parcel of Company facilities.


            Ranma glanced over. "They didn't take kindly to us shutting down their gateway."


            "Casualties were high. Many of the personnel were not... expecting such an attack. However, assets were able to respond and containment protocols were enacted." Eve nodded to Maya.


            The screen clicked to the next picture, then the one after it, then the next. It was of a bridge over that canal. The photos were frames of video taken from a helicopter. That same government building was in the background.


            On the bridge was a pair of tanks. And some of those squid creatures. And a shoggoth. I stared at the giant blob of inky protoplasm, all teeth and eyeballs.  I continued to stare.  I had fought a shoggoth once in the subterranean Undertown below Chicago.  I was lucky to have lived through it.


            And here one was out and about.


            "If you will," Eve ordered Maya


            She clicked through a few more photos and stopped at the one where one of the tanks ran over the blob monster.


            "Still shots don't do it justice, but we didn't have time to convert to 16mm film," Eve stated.


            "This was Ottawa?" I guessed.


            "That is the capital of Canada," Eve dryly reminded.


            I went back to the earlier photos. The attack on the building... well that could be covered up. Maybe. There were a lot of people dead, and even more that were wounded. And people would talk, but if the government stayed quiet and blamed the attack on...


            I frowned. They'd have to come up with a whopper like that Red Court attack on the Chicago FBI building.


            "Army fights the Blob. Live at Eleven," I joked.


            Eve reached under the table and tossed a newspaper in front of me. Then another.


            I looked at the headlines and the pictures of tanks running over blob monsters. "Huh... well I was close."


            "We normally would have shown you video clips," Eve shrugged.


            "My tech-bane isn't that bad," I grumbled. "I won't break a television just by being around it, it might not last after a few days but..."


            "Noted."


            Ranma gave a thin smile. "At least we managed to keep these secret," she pointed to her horns. "Among other things."


            "Still... " I frowned. "I mean, this breaks the rules. I don't know how your world works, but in mine the spooky side of the street has some... decorum."


            "It would see that these fellows aren't aware of the rules," Eve said.


            I looked at the screen. "I mean, yeah the monsters kill humans. Well the bastards take a lot, but that's the reason why they stick to the shadows. You get too blatant and the prey will get spooked."


            "And when the prey has armies?" Ranma asked.


            "Millions of pissed off humans can make a difference," I agreed.


            The redhead gave an approving little smile.


            "Right, bringing in mortal authorities is called the 'nuclear option' for a reason." I went back to the bridge picture. "And here they are attacking a military headquarters. I mean there's gonna be reprisals."


            The gnawing pit grew in my stomach. The "squids" were wrong, they were definitely alien. They didn't look like the Outsiders I had seen, but I'd only seen a few of those beasts.


            "Yes, there will be," Eve's voice was frosty.


            I shook my head. "Geeze, the closest I've seen was when the Red Court, uh vampires, attacked an FBI office. They killed everyone. Still, even the Red Court didn't attack in broad daylight. Well, they have, but that was using mundane means. A poison gas attack that kills hundreds and hundreds doesn't make normal people think vampires."


            Eve folded her hands and watched me.


            Ranma raised an eyebrow.


            "Okay, vampire thing aside. All the supernatural stuff was inside, they made sure their big scary monster wasn't seen. This would be like them attacking the Hoover Building and then fighting the US Army on the national Mall."


            I rubbed my head. There was something I wasn't remembering. "And as for reprisals..."


            As if recalling a fond memory, Ranma's smile grew. "The Reds, they're the ones you wiped out."


            "Yeah," I frowned. The Reds had been getting bolder. The war with the White Court of Wizards had gotten rather desperate. Including the nerve gas attacks and their destruction of Archangel. What would they have done if I hadn't stopped them?

            No wonder these mercenaries were so on edge. No wonder they were working with demons. They'd been hired by the Canadian government to... what? Fight supernatural invaders.


            Then it clicked. "Ah, that's why you've been watching me." I looked around the table. Even when they were out of sight I knew that the demons had never been very far from me.


            Eve tapped the tips of her fingers against each other in a mock clap.


            Ranma gave an approving smile and bowed her head.


            "And when you said you kept me out of Canadian custody..."


            The redhead nodded to Maya who switched to a different set of slides.


            I absently chewed on a bit of cornbread. I suppose my fears of rotting away in a secret government prison weren't entirely unfounded.


            Ranma held up a placating hand. "You must understand, when Eve said you appeared in a sensitive area, it was no exaggeration."


            Maya clicked on the projector. The picture was of a familiar muddy field. There was a hillock near the center and a copse of dead trees. Like with the squids, even the picture had a palpable sense of wrongness.


            "You guys have the worst vacation slides, like totally the worst."


            "Well, if you want vacation slides," Ranma smiled while Eve frowned.


            The next image was further out. It showed the whole area had been surrounded by trenches, redoubts, and bunkers. Some looked like fresh poured concrete, other parts looked like they had been extruded from the Earth itself.


            I paused, remembering the ice and fire I'd escaped from in the NeverNever.


            Eve's arm pointed to the hillock at the center of the field. "That's where you fell through. You weren't the first. You can imagine the shock to the army units staffing the observation post when a human suddenly appeared.

            The barriers are thin there. Over a month ago something broke through there and took a peek."


            "And breaking through act weakened things?" I guessed. The more you opened a way to the NeverNever, the easier it got.


            "The Squids?"


            Ranma nodded. "The eggheads think it was a recon, maybe they contacted the combat cyborgs or maybe they were just summoned. Either way it matches the signal that broke through in Ottawa."


            "But I didn't?"
           

            The demon chuckled. "That the hoodoo that you gave off when you fell through didn't match the Squids was the only reason the Canadians agreed to hand you over."


            "What? I was human didn't count for anything?"


            "I suppose it kept you from being shot on sight," Eve shrugged.

            "Coming from a demon that's not exactly reassuring."


            Eve gave a tiny smile that showed the barest hint of teeth.


            "You must understand Warden Dresden. While we are more than willing to help you get home, where you arrived is a sensitive area. Further inter-dimensional breaches could be calamitous," Eve explained.


            "In other words, we'd rather not have Mr. Wizard's experiment go wrong and break a hole in reality," Ranma added.


            "Does he have to open the portal there?" Nariko asked sipping her tea.


            "Uh… maybe," I shrugged. "Look opening a Way isn't an exact science."


            "Do tell," Eve said.


            "Opening a Way at that spot is probably my best bet on getting back but..." I studied the picture. "But that could just be a collecting point. I mean if the Squids that hit Ottawa also came through there," I frowned.


            "Yes, we are worried that you'd open a doorway to their world, unwittingly of course," Eve added with a thin smile.


            "Yeah, heck, maybe portals are attracted there because of the weakness, like a gravity well."


            "What if you opened a portal somewhere else?"


            "Well, that'd still go to the NeverNever, but it might not go somewhere nice, or even remotely close to where I need to go."


            "And that's why you want to call the Home Office?" Ranma asked.


            "Among other things," I did have other tools to explore the Ways. My mother had a lot of expertise, expertise I could tap into. My worry was that I might have wandered further than even she had explored.


            "Such as?" Eve lightly asked.


            "I was on a mission for Mab." I leaned back in the comfy office chair. "I was told that an observation post had been infiltrated. I was sent in to check it out and if so... clean it out."


            "The Faerie use observation posts?" Ranma asked.


            "A lot like that one," I gestured to the display. "That was a line of trenches bunkers, a place of watching, waiting, and fighting. Things on one side of a portal tended to match up, if at least metaphorically, with things on the other side."


            The two brood mothers shared a look. I was starting to wonder if they were telepathic or something.


            "You're also on guard against intrusion?" Eve asked.


            I snorted. "Yeah, protecting my world against Outsiders is like Mab's main job. Which is why I'm smelling a setup."


            "You think she sent you here?"


            I thought back to when I had opened the Way that got me here. My first attempt failed, and it wasn't until I used some Soulfire that I managed to punch through. "Maybe, all I know is that things are never what they seem with the Faerie."


            "And yet you're their Knight," Eve observed.


            "Which is why I want to call her up and figure out what's going on." I sighed. Bugging Mab wasn't a bright idea, but I was working for her and she should tell me something.


            The blonde demon smiled; it almost seemed to reach her eyes. "A productive idea. If you'll draft a list of any material you require, we'd be more than willing to assist you."


            "What's the catch?"


            "The catch, Sir Knight, is that if you were sent here, and given that someone here already knew you were coming…"


            I worked my jaw. "Then that means there's a leak in both our organizations."


            "Potentially." Eve showed more of her teeth. "More to the point it means that there is someone that is doing something and desperately wants to keep both you and us from stopping them. That is certainly something that warrants investigation. Does it not?"

 

End Chapter 2

 

 

I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Pale Wolf, Kevin Hammel, and Ellf.  Again, special thank to Ellf for his help in soundboarding and getting this idea off the ground.