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 4:  Unwelcome Answers, Part B

 


            The power throbbed within the pentacle as the pressure built. The spell reached out; the Winter power within me sang; something... cracked. The power shot off and the spell homed in.


            I was struck by the visual of gas shooting out of a pressurized steel tank. A siren went off and halted mid-wail as the light in the warehouse seemed to dim. Keeping the spell formed, I glanced to see that the shadows around Akane and Ranma had deepened while the ground around Nabiki was rimed with an ominous frost.


            Blue black shadows filled the pentacle as the air chilled.


            They coalesced into a sleek cobalt blue gown flowing over a tall female form. Dark blue hair cascaded down her shoulders. She looked ethereal; it took me a moment to realize she was ever so slightly translucent.


            Harsh, slightly-feline, ice-chip blue eyes stared down at me while lips the color of frozen mulberries quirked in an amused, but contemptuous smile.


            "My Knight," she purred, stepping out of the pentagon center of the pentacle. "You seek my counsel," Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, stated, standing a pace from the edge of the purple circle.


            Already on my knees, I lowered my head. I noticed her heels made no sound on the concrete. So, I hadn't yanked a faerie queen to this reality. Yay. Which also meant, I hadn't inadvertently imprisoned her. Double Yay.

 

            "That I do," I lifted my head. "Uh... sorry if I interrupted something," I added standing up.


            "Ensuring my Knight pursues his Winter Duties is worthy of my attention," Mab stated. She then turned and inspected the three demons standing around the circle. Her smile grew fractionally.


            The succubae for their part watched with loose, low tails and slight tilts of the head.


            I blinked. "Right, that sounds like I was sent here for a reason?"


            "Does it? Fascinating company you keep, my Knight." Mab tilted her head in an almost bird-like manner. "Perhaps your objection to the Denarians was more aesthetic than moralistic."


            "The Nickelheads are cheating chumps." I watched Mab's hips as she sauntered to the opposite side of the circle.


            The queen inhaled, and I wondered just how much her image was sensing. Slowly stepping from one side to the other, Mab eyed the redhead. I flushed a bit as her eyebrow quirked at the jewelry and choker Ranma wore.


            "You're of BlackSky's brood," the queen stated.


            "Her granddaughter, DarkStar" the redhead bowed her head and dropped into a curtsey. The shadows around her hooves pulled in, mirroring the motion.


            I made a note to the names. As demonic names went- well- they sounded like aliases.


            Mab gave a slow bow of her own. "At least someone understands the necessities of decorum," she glanced back at me, looking cross.


            "Hey, I'm wearing a suit."


            "Under protest no doubt," Mab paced around the circle. It reminded me of the smooth, languid motions of a shark.


            "I have questions."


            Mab lifted a hand in acknowledgment. "One would presume that even you are not so uncouth as to summon mere merely to show your latest diversion."


            The queen turned back to the redhead. "Not that you aren't more than acceptable."


            "Thank you." The brood mother's eyes gleamed. "And I see why you spent so much time to possess your Knight. He may be a bit slow, but has much potential."


            "Yes, he grows slowly, but he grows." Mab gave a single laugh.


            "I'm afraid to ask what he was like when he started," Ranma stated.


            I shot a glare at the redhead.


            "Brash, passionate, easily-led by a pretty face, often overwhelmed by circumstance but focused, driven to win, and devastating."

 

            My spine chilled.  I was not used to Mab complementing me, even if it was reluctantly.

            "A good start." The demon smiled. "Plenty of opportunity."


            "Okay... can the dark queens stop chatting about how to best bend me to their will?" I asked.


            Mab and the demon exchanged a look.


            "You're not ordering me back, and you don't seem surprised that I'm calling you," I pointed out to the faerie queen. "Hells Bells, you seem more bemused by the gaggle of succubae than anything else."


            "Do you have a question, my Knight?"


            "You're not the only one who knew I was being sent out here. When I arrived, I was set on by a bunch of wolf-men that had all sorts of information about me and the Knights of the Cross."


            "You are incorrect." Amusement slightly thawed Mab's eyes. "You were sent without my consent or knowledge."


            My stomach chilled as I recalled the second thing she said to me. "But if I'm here in pursuit of my Winter Duties..."


            Mab glanced back at the redhead. "You see the burden he can be?"


            Ranma shot her a sympathetic look before turning to me. "Maybe you should give her a question."


            I glared. Then exhaled and faced Mab. "Right. You didn't send me. Unless you somehow sent me unwittingly."


            "A fascinating concept," Mab dryly noted.


            "But you're not angry that I'm here, and you're not demanding I come back. You're also implying that I'm on official Winter business."


            Mab waited; she seemed to be holding back her impatience.


            "However, you could easily just say I'm on business. I mean, it's not like you've been shy about ordering me in the past. Which means..."


            The faerie queen gave a single soft clap.


            "I was sent by one of the other queens of Winter?"


            "As I said, he grows, but slowly," Mab said to Ranma.


            Ranma nodded. "And you didn't directly answer his question."


            Mab inclined her head like a fencer's salute.


            "So, who was it?" I asked concerned about the answer. "The Winter Mother or Molly?"


            "Do you really think the Winter Lady would dare do something behind my back?"

            I exhaled. "It's a possibility. It wouldn't be the first time a Winter Lady went off the reservation."


            Mab's eyes narrowed. The previous Winter Lady, Maeve, was Mab's daughter. Things went real bad at the end. Hells Bells, Mab had ordered me to kill Maeve. And the worst part was Mab was right to place the hit.  In fact, things would probably have been a lot better if Mab had done that earlier…


            I put up my hands placating. "Look, I don't want any trouble. Molly was my protegee."


            Mab gave a haughty sniff and waited.


            Okay. Either Molly had started to do her own secret plots or... I was here on the Winter Mother's orders. And that was almost as bad as Machiavellian Molly. Let's put it this way, the Winter Mother thought Mab, the icy, dark queen before me, was "too sentimental".  In other words Winter Mother wouldn't have hesitated with respect to the assassination of her own daughter.


            I exhaled. "Can I ask what I'm here to do?"


            "You can ask," Mab smoothly said.


            The redhead chuckled.


            "Why was I sent here?" I held up my hand. "And before you go on about the price of this information. Need I remind you, that while I'm here, you are without your Knight. Without your mortal champion."


            "That is obvious." Mab eyed me.


            "If you don't help me then I won't be in any particular rush."


            Mab smiled revealing delicately pointed canines. "That is not your nature. Your morality, your tenacity, will propel you. You are inexorable."


            I made a fist and rapped my skull. "But I'm not fast. Old Harry's pretty slow. You're gonna let one of the Summer queens have a clear advantage for a month or two? You'll let the scales be unbalanced for that long?"


            "Even you are not that tardy," Mab stated.


            "Maybe I stay and enjoy the local color," I bowed my head to the redhead and rolled out my arm towards her.


            The corners of Mab's lips quirked up. "Your daughters?"


            "They're in good hands," I shrugged, chilling my emotions. "I could use a vacation anyway."


            Mab's expression grew opaque. "Normally, I would let your find your way." She turned to look at the demons. "Especially with such finely appointed diversions."


            Of course Mab approved of me hanging out with succubae. Anything that might tempt or corrupt me. Still, I waited her out.


            "However, there is but one Knight for three Queens, and you will be required. There are convocations back in your city where your presence would be an asset."


            I raised an eyebrow. Scuttlebutt had been that the signatories of the Unseelie Accords were wrangling some kind of big meeting.  And since Mab had written the Accords...


            "Lay it on me, my queen."


            "Your insolence is not the endearing asset you make it out to be." Mab's lips twitched.


            "I notice you didn't simply say you hated it," I countered.


            Mab ignored that as she resumed studying the demons. "Alas, I fear you will not be satisfied with what I tell you."


            I grunted. One thing I'd learned was that Mab took her word seriously. Even implying she would bargain in bad faith would get her ire.  And by ire I mean: slowly freeze your eyeballs.


            "What is it that you seek?" Mab idly inquired.


            "I know someone from my world reached out and contacted some chuckleheads in this world."


            "A simplification." Mab corrected. "For example, it could have been someone from this would that contacted your world, or perhaps mine."


            "Was it?"


            "You ask the wrong question."


            "Of course I am," I grumbled.


            "If I may?" Ranma asked.


            Mab shifted to her and bent her head in recognition.


            "What is the correct question?"


            "Excellent."


            "I was gonna ask that," I muttered.


            "This one pleases me. Polite. Lethal. Passionate. You chose well allying with her, my Knight." Mab nodded to me. "The question is not Who but What."


            "Okay... this person contacts this world. They plan to kill me when I stumble over here, or maybe they were gonna send me back. Either way, they want me not interfering. What's this person trying to accomplish? "


            "To thwart an evil man's plans." Mab's smile grew. On anyone else it would be an expression saying "I know more than you", but Mab as a fae queen, she always knew more than me. Minor ire at Winter Mother poaching me aside, she found something darkly amusing about this whole meeting.


            "Evil? That's pretty black and white for you."


            Mab waved dismissively. "Evil as you have called it, my Knight."

 
            Frowning, I thought. Her addendum meant someone I considered a bad guy was the ultimate target. That gave me a motive, and a worrying one.


            "Right, that could mean I'm dealing with some misguided fool who thought killing me is part of defeating some greater evil."  It wouldn't be the first time.  Hells Bells, I was once shot in the back by a giant sniper rifle wielded by a crazy priest.


            Mab sniffed and returned to the redhead. Where she quietly chatted with the demon. Ranma obligingly leaned forward to showcase her choker.


            "It could also mean that we've simply got a couple bad guys fighting each other. What is this, another Darkhallow thing? Some sort of dark magic fried the brains of those wolfmen. Am I dealing with another batch of necromancers? "


            Drawing herself away from inspecting the redhead's skirting, Mab gave me a labored stare. "My knight, the person you seek knows not what they summon."


            I groaned. "Great, is this some sort of ill-informed do-gooder making the wrong pacts and summoning a power they can't handle?"


            "Does that sound familiar, my knight?" Mab dryly noted.


            "It means I'm going to have to look for a summoning."


            Mab eyed the pentacle she stood within.


            "One that will go wrong?"


            The Winter Queen lifted her gaze. "Regardless. This person's actions will be a significant threat to both this world and your own."


            "Okay... that is something." I exhaled and concentrated my will.


            "Are you fatigued?" Mab's question was cold.


            "Long distance calls are kinda expensive."


            Mab looked at me expectantly.


            "Which means whoever is doing this will need a lot of energy to conduct their summoning? Enough to be noticed? Especially if it'll punch through to both this world and mine. Hells Bells, if it's powerful enough it'll need a place of power and some real special equipment."


            Giving me a long suffering look, the faerie queen then bowed to the demon queen. "If you can bestow my mortal tool with some maturation and polish. I would consider a proper Winter Knight worthy of a boon."


            "What did I say about deals?" I warned the redhead.


            The demon's purple eyes glared at me. She then bowed at the waist and paused to collect herself. "Regretfully, I cannot take your offer, at this time. As you have said, your Knight is slow to grow. I fear the goal of returning him to you with due haste may conflict with your request."


            A vaguely approving look crossed Mab's face.


             The demon straightened her torso, but kept her horns bowed. "However, I will to impart upon wisdom on your Knight in exchange for his service rendered to me and mine. Provided, it does not overly detain or delay his departure or, intentionally and permanently, damage him," the redhead added after a moment.


            Mab nodded. "It is done."


            I opened and closed my mouth. "Did you just sell me to a demon?"


            "Rented." Mab waved a hand.


            "Remember the last time you rented me out?"


            "That was different." Mab's predatory grin focused on me. "That was a Fallen. Here, you've already entered into a pact. I merely allowed you some token of propriety. Would you really risk Winter's name by serving without recompense?"


            "We are mercenaries," the redhead reminded.


            Looking at me, Mab's expression clouded. My body started to go numb.


            "I wasn't going to stiff them!"


            The Winter Queen's glare hardened and she returned to the demon queen. "Despite appearances, you will not be disappointed with my Knight." She brushed her hands against each other.


            I watched Mab's opalescent nails shimmer and start to grow in length.


            "Are your inquiries satisfied?" Mab asked me.


            "No, but I'd bet this is all I'd get," I grumbled.


            A ghost of a smile crossed Mab's face as she stepped back to the exact center of the pentacle. "Also it would not do to leave my Knight drained and fatigued." Becoming more translucent, she flexed her fingers and flashed her teeth. "Not when you have to service your Queens," she said as her form faded from view. Leaving a ghostly image of her lips and eyes.


            The draining power snapped off and I rocked on my heels. The bright lights returned and after a second or two I felt the hum of the Jammers resume.


            Staring at the empty pentacle, I slowly exhaled and inhaled deeply. Shaking my head, I made my way back to the crates and grabbed a bottle of water.


            "She's fun," the redhead noted as she clopped up, lavender skirts swishing.


            "Twisty like a corkscrew." Eve noted, paging through her notes. "She implied much, but there were a few outright statements. If she's reliable…" the blonde eyed me.


            "It's kind of her thing," I drank some more water.


            "Lovely." A little growl escaped the blonde.


            "Another Beachhead Situation?" the demon queen asked.


            "I got five points that she wanted to get across," Eve flipped another page and looked me in the eye.


            I turned away. That was getting to be an annoying habit of theirs.


             "First; you're here deliberately and officially," Eve prompted.


            "But it wasn't Mab who set this up."


            "That is the second." The blonde nodded. "Third is the motive of our summoner."


            "Stopping some bad guy." I shrugged. "But that could someone doing dirty work to stop a greater evil, or the standard back-biting bad guys are known for."


            Eve bowed her horns in agreement. "Which leads to the fourth point."


            "Yeah, she outright told us our summoner is being played," I rolled Mab's words around in my head. If there was anything worse than a faerie being opaque and cryptic, it was the rare moments when they were upfront and blunt.


            "And the fifth."


            I rolled my eyes. "Of course it'll be a threat to both my world and yours. It's not like I'd have an easy job." I grumbled and started policing up the affinity objects. At the very least I wanted my stuff back.


            "We're agreed then." Eve nodded and closed her notebook. "There is an upside to all this."


            "Yeah," I slipped my mother's silver pentacle amulet over my neck. "The summoning ain't exactly subtle."


            "It also gives us a direction as we track down the evidence... recovered from those Pattern L's."


            "Yeah, if you need help on ritual components or how to find places of power." I yawned and retrieved my revolver. "I can help with that."


            "Excellent. Odds are the summoner's magic style will be more similar to yours than ours." Eve gave another nod. "I'll call the situation in to command and update forensics on what to look for."


            Watching Eve saunter off, I almost missed the redhead popping up next to me.


            "I can see why you picked her," the demon queen noted she slipped her hand inside my coat and shifted the gun from the pocket it was distorting into its holster.

 
            "She was the best of a list of bad choices."


            Keeping her hand on my side, the demon raised a thin eyebrow. "Oh? Is that all?"


            "It was either kill a mess of people and become a dark god, let a Fallen Angel take over my mind, or her. At least with Mab it's just a job."


            The demon chuckled. "And you believe that?"


            I looked down at met the demon's gaze. "Mab cannot change who I am."


            Leaning in, the redhead smirked. "And that's why she likes you," she said in a sing-song purr.

 
            "Gah! You make it sound like she's got a crush. She isn't like that. She's not human."


            The redhead simply tapped the floor with a single hoof.


            "Not like that. Even by faerie standards she's cold and distant. She's more a force of nature than..."


            Shadows roiled around the demoness as she rolled her shoulders to tilt her head. "You two are physically compatible."


            "That was just the one time!"


            The demon queen chuckled. She then clapped her hands. "Right. Girls help square things away; we're going to have a busy day tomorrow."


            The three daughters moved to the pentacle but stopped just outside the circle. As one they turned to me.


            I blinked at the pale faces. "Okay, that's a bit of a Children of the Corn vibe."


            "Is it safe for them to help dismantle things?" Ranma asked.


            "Oh, yeah." I looked at the cube of roiling darkness that the redhead had filled. "Probably safer for them to handle some of those things."


            "Are classes still on for the morning?" Akane asked picking up the shadowy cube.


            "Sure, no reason to cancel because we might have a raid," the redhead waved talons dismissively.


            Slipping the broken ends of my blasting wand in the suitcoat pocket I frowned. My duster was far more practical storage-wise. "I'm gonna change."


            Fluffing her skirts, the redhead sighed. "I suppose dress-up time is over."


            Misako sighed as she boxed up the silver tiara and the faerie bracelet.


            Boots echoing on the floor, Eve returned to us. Slight frustration marred her face while the tip of her tail flicked side to side.


            "Yeah?" Ranma asked.


            "Serenity is on her way. Apparently she has wants to see our guest."


            "Really?"


            "Coincidentally, Kiri is accompanying her."


            The redhead's face clouded and she gave a little, frustrated stomp. "And the Colonel's letting them come?"


            "She was insistent; the Colonel did manage to delay them until after our conference concluded," the blonde's tone was neutral.


            Looking between the two demons, I could tell they were having some sort of unspoken conversation. Their tails and postures shifted enough. Again I wondered if they were telepathic or merely highly empathic "Who are you talking about?"


            The redhead gave a smile. "Good thing you're still in your suit."


            "Oh?"


            "You wanna meet another queen?"

 

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

 


            There was ample time to square things away around the summoning circle and relax for a bit in the warehouse's office section. Well, I relaxed with a soda and a crumbly energy bar one of the mercenaries given me. My staff was leaning against an overturned desk behind me.


            Ranma and her brood sat nearby chatting. Except for Misako who hovered over her mother fretting over the redhead's coiffure and cosmetics. In the end, the demon queen looked about the same.


            There was the sound of a vehicle parking, a pause, then a roll-up door lifting, another pause, and then the door from the warehouse opened and Eve led in three young women.


            At the head of the group was a tall, elegantly featured, woman with pale blue eyes. She wore minimal makeup and the only jewelry she had was a thick silver tiara on her brow. A golden crescent moon was at its center.


            Gleaming silver hair was pulled back in a tight, plaited bun. She wore a dark navy-blue jacket with gold piping over a beige blouse with a high collar. A thin dark blue silk bow adorned her chest. It reminded me of the Jammer bows the demons wore.


            A slit dark blue skirt with silver accents ran down long legs to just past her knees. She wore cream stockings and fashionable ultramarine boots with a slight heel that were similar to Eve's.


            I glanced between the silver-haired queen and the blonde demon. They were of similar heights, eye colors, and figures. Though the blonde was a bit more voluptuous while the other woman was more statuesque. And unlike the blonde, the silver-haired woman was decidedly Japanese and actually had some color to her skin, instead of demonic alabaster.


            Behind her were two younger and shorter women  The older of the two had long fine black hair and wore set of black slacks, maroon blouse, and charcoal jacket. Deep eyes smoldered as she glanced around the room. She kept position close to the silver-haired woman, as if a bodyguard or maybe something more.


            I noted her irate attention seemed focused on Misako. The green-eyed demon, for her part, grinned and waved.


            Rounding out the trio was the shortest and youngest. Hells Bells, she was a girl. It was hard to tell her age but I could bet she wasn't in high school. She had long dark green hair, dusky skin, and deep red eyes and wore a ruffled black dress with emerald green ribbons.


            Her expression was stern and unnervingly fixated on me.


            All three practically crackled with power. It wasn't even something they were projecting; it felt like the natural burn-off of their natures.


            Eve stepped to the side between myself and the trio. The succubae stood up and prowled behind me while the brood queen slipped up and took position opposite Eve.


            Her purple lips curled into an amused smirk.


            I noted the silver haired woman seemed more intent on starting at the demon's hooves, horns, hairdo, and neckline than on me.


             The blonde demon gestured to me. "Harry Dresden, Warden of the White Council and Knight of the Winter Court of the Faerie."


            I nodded my head.


            "Queen Serenity of the Moon Kingdom, Lady Pluto, and Lady Mars," Eve said, pointing to the silver-haired woman, the green-haired girl, and the black haired young woman in order.


            "Uh, hi," I said.


            "This is a wizard?" Lady Mars said dismissively. "At least his suit's better than the last one."


            I held out my hand and the short-haired demon daughter tossed my staff. Thankfully, she stuck the throw and my hand gripped it. I dropped the staff against the ground and let the runes glow. The scent of wood-smoke started to curl from the charged runes.


            Lady Mars' glare hardened. Sparks flickered at her finger tips and her hair flared as if blown by hot air. The dark tresses also began to gain a burning nimbus.


           "Okay Firestarter, you want to throw down?" My hand tightened on the staff and I pointed to the demons behind me. "Because I've seen the pyros these girls are and I'm curious how your ritual magic compares."


            Mars grinned. I felt the room's tension increase as my skin began to feel prickly. Suddenly, I got the feeling that challenging Lady Mars' pyromancy skills was a bad idea. And I really started to wish I'd slipped on my duster.


            "Rei," Serenity stated without looking back at her subordinate. Her tone was adamantine.


            The pressure abated, but Mars still glared at me.


            "New gown?" Serenity asked stepping closer to the redhead.


            "I had some help," the demon queen teased, slipping up to the taller woman. Her tail lifted and curled around the other woman's skirt.


            A part of me flickered with irritation, and I strode over to the pair. "Look, it's late and I just got done talking with my boss, but what's this all about?"


            Serenity eyed me. With her boots and height she only had to look up slightly. I was transfixed by her eyes. There was power here, but constrained, untapped. "You're not like him," she said after a few moments.


            "Would I hang around with someone like Murdock?" Ranma asked.


            "You have before," Lady Pluto noted, stepping forward. She nodded to my staff and swept her arms, flicking her fingers. An ornate grey rod taller than her appeared. Made of a dark silvery metal and adorned with flanges and filigree, it was topped with an immense garnet orb.


            "Fancy," I noted.


            "I am the Guardian of the Gates," the diminutive lady noted.


            "Of course you are." I groaned. "Look it's not my fault I'm here. One of my bosses sent me here."


            Pluto tilted her head. I felt like a bacteria at the wrong end of a microscope.

            "I'm on good terms with the Gatekeeper from my world," I offered.


            Pluto circled around me. Her staff tapped on the floor.


            The Moon queen and the demon queen continued their little... chat.


            The red eyes continued to bore into me. I pulled my gaze away. "I know I'm not from around here but I've been sent to help."


            The emerald-haired girl leaned the staff on her shoulder. Her expression was expectant but measured. "Do tell," she dryly remarked.


            "Someone's gonna summon something big here and it'll damage my world and this one."


             "Yes, you were sent to cleanup your people's mess." The girl sighed.


            "My people? You know who the summoner is?"


            Irritation flashed over Lady Pluto's face. It was then replaced by resignation "I am the Guardian of the Gates. I felt your trespass."


            "And the summoner?"


            "Was far more subtle. You bashed your way in like a noisy thief. The summoner, as you say, was silent and slipped in."


            Ranma's ears pricked up and she started to watch Puu, her tail swishing.


            "It was only by tracking the damage you had caused that I was able to detect the earlier intrusion." Lady Pluto's composure instantly recovered. It was eerie. One moment she bore barely-contained frustration, the next it she was utterly calm.


            Maybe it was my years of experience, maybe it was that I was technically part of the faerie courts, maybe it was because I had just gotten done talking with Mab, but I realized that the scary little girl didn't actually say she didn't know who the summoner was.


            "How early?" Eve asked.


            "It's hard to tell, given someone ripped apart the fabric of reality."


            The blonde eyed her. "Do you know where they arrived?"


            "South. I'll see if I can narrow it down," Pluto flatly stated.


            The tall blonde looked down at the creepy girl. "Would it help if you went to where Warden Dresden arrived?"


            The girl nodded.


            "We'll take you there."


            The girl bowed her head in recognition. It was a stiff almost doll-like movement.


            "What do you mean by my people?"


            Pluto looked at me. I then realized something. I wasn't getting the pull of an incipit Soulgaze from her. "The intruder is like you."


            "Meaning? White Council? Winter Court? Another practitioner? What?"


            The green-haired girl gave a stiff shrug.


            "Hey, Mister Wizard," Ranma said, her hooves clicking as she walked up. "Which do you prefer, red ants or black ants?"


            "What? What does that matter?" I frowned; her question was familiar.


            "That's how Puu sees the rest of us Mortals," the redhead grinned pulling Serenity along with her.


            Groaning, I looked at Lady Pluto with new wariness. Anyone that a demon would consider less "mortal" than herself....


            "But ants?" Serenity asked.


            "It's from Watchmen," I stated.


            Ranma nodded. "I figured a comic book reference would get though his thick skull."


            I grumbled.


            "But Puu's not that distant," Serenity defended.


            Pluto chuckled. "There are many worlds my Queen. More than you can count. But for the Gates, they are beyond my domain." Emotion now bloomed in her voice. There was wistful regret and traces of an old anger long worn down with time and resignation.


            "Oh-kay...."


            "Don't be scared, Puu just puts on a scary show," the redhead said as she scooped up the smaller girl and drew her into a hug. The ruffled accents to Lady Pluto's dress were swamped by the larger ruffles and layers of the demon's gown.


            The younger, or at least younger looking, girl protested for a bit. Until her silver-haired queen joined in. With her almost Victorian uniform she added an oddly regal air to the whole thing.


            "Right, she's just a harmless kitten," I deadpanned.


            "I could eat her up," Ranma gave a toothy smirk bumping her hip against Serenity while wrapping her arms around the diminutive Pluto.


            Glancing over, I saw Mars' eyes smolder, almost literally, as she glared at the demon queen. I briefly wondered what kind of "issues" the moon queen's entourage had.


            "You can try," Pluto stated.


            "Oh?" Ranma teased.


            The green-haired girl craned her neck up and gave the demon a look.


            "Right, you can get more info on who's running around here plotting their dark summon?"


            Pluto pulled her gaze away from the amused demon. "Hopefully where and when she, or he, came across."


            "And the damage I caused?"


            Pluto gave me a dark look. "This isn't a magic wand." She thumped her garnet rod.


            "Well... technically... I mean..."


            Her red eyes narrowed as "the look" intensified.


            "The situation is... precarious, Warden Dresden," Eve gently reminded. "Do remember Ottawa."


            "Right the squid things," I stated studying the garnet orb atop Pluto's staff. There was more to it than she said. I could feel power buzzing off of it.


           I suppressed a sigh as I opened my Wizard's Sight. Colors shifted as magical energies entered my Sight. For my part, I focused on the top of the silvery staff. Energies raced up and down it and the orb itself seemed to consist of layers of lens-like foci. There was power in it, but only to keep the enchantments running.


            In a way her staff was a lot like my own.


            Well, aside from the shimmering black threads that were tied to it.


            And here's where I should have just closed my third eye; instead, I followed the threads.


            They pulled back and towards the green-haired girl. But they didn't emerge from her. then I realized that I was looking at Lady Pluto herself.


            On one side was Ranma's branching demonic energies, on the other was Serenity. The Silver-haired queen seemed starkly lit as she glowed with a bright, nearly blinding white light. In contrast the ebony shadow  she threw flickered with golden shimmers in the inky depths that overlapped and rippled like waves, or fine scales.


            However, those two merely bookended what I was seeing.


           Lady Pluto stood before me. Her dress was prim and ruffled. Her body poised and still. And running from her wrists, ankles, and neck were iridescent black lines. More pulled from a row down her spine and out the back of her head.


            A few lines twitched and her head tilted. The world around her became... drawn and plastic. For the first time I felt like I was in the NeverNever, specifically one of the "thin" areas where the laws or reality broke down.


            I swallowed. Before me was meat marionette on a flat puppet theater stage riddled with worm-rot. The foci of the garnet rod could help nail things down, but ultimately it was like hammering rotten boards.


            And then behind the stage where the threads were being moved.... iridescent bubbles churned and popped.


            A green eyebrow was pulled up and the silver rod was yanked down. The garnet orb smacked into my oak staff. There was a sharp crack, the scent of ozone, and my Sight closed.


            "Grawa-nrab?" I gibbered blinking my eyes.


            "Someone tried to sneak a peek," Lady Pluto crossly noted.


            "Poor, dumb Harry," Ranma sighed.


            Eve handed me a bottle of water. I took a sip.


            "What did you see?" Mars asked, genuine interest in her voice.


            I caught Ranma's eye, but the demoness' expression was opaque. How much was the Moon Queen keeping from her retainers? How much was Lady Pluto keeping from her queen? What did I even see? The Moon Queen had power, like one of the younger fae queens but Lady Pluto... what even was she?


            "A lot of power, and things... falling apart," I added. I took another sip and rubbed my head.


            Mars sniffed and went to Serenity.


            Eve stepped over to Pluto. "If you're still good, we'll arrange for transport for you."


            The redhead broke out of the hug. She gave Serenity a wink and sauntered over towards me. I noticed that Serenity's eyes were following the demon's bustle.


            "And are you okay?" the redhead asked.


            "Yeah, just been a busy day... you know," I coughed, my chest hurt with that fatigued feeling of having spent too much time up. "Also not used to the monkey-suit."


            "And you don't have to deal with a bodice or all this hair weight." The demon nodded sympathetically.


            I blinked. She had bent her neck. I caught sight of her suddenly bare neck.


            The demon then reached up and put her taloned hands atop her coiffure. She gripped and pulled her arms down. The updo collapsed as the ice gems that studded it melted. The ice crystals making up her bracelets also liquefied and ran.


            As did her tiara and then her bodice. Her clothes and skirting and bustle turned plastic, then liquid, and ran down. Gloves and claws dripped as the shining frippery and silken finery around her hooves sparkled and evaporated with purple sparks and sank into a pool of shadows.


            The shadows retreated, drawing closer to her hooves. Which then melted and shifted back into black leather wedge-heel motorcycle boots. Teased wild hair falling down her back, the demon rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck. She then smoothed the leather jacket that had draped over a violet blouse and leather skirt.


            I tilted my head. I had to keep in mind just how easily the demon could change her form. I wondered if there was more to her shapeshifting ability; if she could impersonate people or if she was limited to variations of her own form.


            "Handy," I stated, loosening my tie and undoing the top button.


            Frowning a bit, Serenity shifted her own dark blue jacket.


            Looking over from her conversation with Eve, Lady Pluto tisked.


            I gave a theatrical yawn. "Hey, unlike some spooky not really-little-girls, some of us need to sleep."


            Eve glanced to her sister with a raised eyebrow.


            "Yeah, I'll handle it," the redhead nodded.

 

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

 


            An electronic buzzer went off near my head. Rolling over, the braying beeping pounded into my skull. Blearily, I rose up on the queen-sized bed. It was barely twilight outside the window.


            The alarm continued to screech. I pushed a button atop the blinking device and instead was rewarded with a full blast of radio static. I growled and pointed my hand. Magic shot out and the clock-radio sparked and died.

 
            I swiveled, put my legs down onto the floor, and watched the numbers dim and go dark. I picked up the clock and dropped it into the trashcan next to the nightstand. It landed atop the plastic packaging the clock had come in.


           Look, the thing had three strikes against it. First, I'm not really a morning person, and I was up late last night. Second, electronics and me don't get along. Third, I preferred my alarm clocks to be windup with actual bells, not beeping buzzers.


            Yawning, I stood up. Still, I supposed, the clock had lasted the night. The bedroom was nice, but it had the lack of human touch that marked it out as a guest room.


            However, a couple things stood out. Clothes hung in the closet and the dresser was full. Obviously at least one of demonic daughters used this room, if only for storage. Probably Akane based on the style and colors of the clothes.


            Another oddity was that the marks on the dresser, desk, and the cleared shelves indicated that this used to be more than a guest bedroom. Still, that didn't mean much to me as I tossed on a shirt, grabbed a pile of clothes, and went looking for the bathroom.


            I exited into an upstairs hallway. Doors faced me. I tried a couple. First I found another empty bedroom. This one packed with shelves and more personal effects. The room had two vanities, one of which lavishly stocked with cosmetics.


            Frowning at the room's unused bed, I closed the door and wondered if the demons actually slept. The next room was a deep and very well-stocked linen closet. My musings abated when the third door revealed a bathroom.


            Like the other rooms, this one was neat and rather spacious. However, the walls were crowded with cabinets and shelves. The shelves on the wall above the tub were also full. There were half a dozen different racks that each had their own group of varying bottles of shampoos, soaps, and other odds and ends.


            The double sink also had a mess of toothbrushes in holders, spools of heavy duty floss, dental picks, and cups for water. In one cabinet was a big box of unopened toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste. I frowned, realizing this was more than I wanted to know about demonic oral hygiene. At least the toothpaste and mouthwash was good stuff.


            Still, I took a fresh toothbrush, found a fresh bar of soap, and took the shampoo that smelled the least flowery. Behind the toothbrush box were even some safety razors. They were old and I couldn't find any shaving cream but they'd do.


            Showering, shaving, and taking care of everything else helped wake me up. By the time I'd gotten dressed and was returning to the guest room to get the rest of my stuff, my mind had begun to clear.


            Shrugging my coat back on, I made my way to the stairs. The house was nice. It was smaller than Chateau Raith, where Lara ran the White Court of vampires.


            But that was a mansion on hundreds of acres of groomed grounds. And while much of the Raith family had been raised there, it was not exactly a "family place".


            And well, this wasn't a mansion at all. It was a rather large house with two stairwells, but it was still a suburban family residence. It was larger than my friend Michael's place, and he and his wife raised over half a dozen kids there. But it shared the same homey feel of a house filled with family love.


            Hells Bells, the place practically emanated the energies of Ranma's connection to her brood. The threshold alone buzzed and crackled.


            What did that say when I visit a demon queen's lair and it reminds me of the white-picket fenced home of a retired Knight of the Cross and his family?

            Going down the front stairs, I glance out a foyer window; I could see a white van parked on the private lane the house was on. Granted, this place didn't have angelic protectors. On the ground floor, a tantalizing scent drew me.


            I glanced around the cathedral-ceilinged foyer. There was no one else in sight, but the house did not feel empty. I wondered how trusting they were to let a wizard unescorted into their house. There was a lot a wizard of my caliber could do with a bit of time to prepare. Then again, there was a lot they could do, given they had the home field advantage and outnumbered me by a lot.


            I wandered through the house, being pulled towards the rear of the building by the heavenly smell.  Like the upstairs there were family pictures adoring the walls.  Interestingly, both human and succubus. The hiss of a griddle and burble of a coffee-maker welcomed me as I stepped into the kitchen.


            A long table was on one side near a door that led out to the back porch. The whole kitchen was faced with broad windows that looked out onto a dark, tree-edged yard. Standing some distance back from the house, I could see an outbuilding. A covered path that snaked from the porch connected the two buildings.


            There were broad countertops, a wide island, and the other side of the room was dominated by shelving and the open door to a walk-in pantry. Heavy duty appliances gleamed. Hells Bells, the kitchen actually had a griddle. No, not those flat plates you put on stoves, or those electric things you plugged in and put on the table. This was an inch thick slab of steel mounted on top of burners.


            There had to be an acre of workspace on the cook-top, but only a small part of the glossy steel slab was occupied. A couple pancake-like things sizzled on one part of the giant griddle. A taller succubus with straight platinum hair was giving pointers to a shorter girl with white hair in ringlets.


            "Good morning Mr. Dresden," the taller one said, her back towards me.


            I frowned; I didn't think I made that much noise. I entered the kitchen. The griddle might be largely empty but much of the counter-space had been filled by bowls and platters and containers. There was link sausage, bacon, sausage patties, Canadian bacon, chorizo sausages, thick chunks of ham, breakfast sausage, smoked fish, blood sausage, shrimp, and even a solitary can of spam.


            That was just the meat section. There were also minced vegetables, fruits, aromatics, little metal cups of freshly ground spices. Bowls of batter were also being kept in a glass fronted chiller. A wooden box of syrups and sauces had been opened. One of the maple syrup bottles looked as dark as molasses.


            And then there was the drinks section. Two coffee makers burbled, a tea kettle steamed, and juice carafes stood iced and ready.


            Still facing away, the blonde guided the spatula in the younger girl's hands. "Right, you want to wait until the bubbles on the edges are set... yes just like that. Then check for browning. Good, now flip."


            The younger demon turned the pancake and gave a bright smile to the older demon. The platinum blonde patted her on the head. "Now do the others, Desiree. I'll see what Mr. Dresden wants for breakfast."


            Desiree nodded and went to her work.


            The blonde, Ukyou, turned to me. She wore a kind of abbreviated dark blue robe that reminded me of the chef's outfit at the Japanese steak houses I would go to in Chicago. Her shining pale hair was pulled back with a big orange bow.


            "You're looking well. Coffee?" Ukyou asked.


            "Sure."


            Nodding the demon went to the pot, took a mug and poured. "Sugar, cream?"


            "Sure."


            She took out a little pitcher of cream and a bowl of brown sugar.


            I poured and stirred and used a spoon to add just the right amount.  I would take it black, but I could also take it a bit sweeter.


            "You look like you had a restful night," the blonde noted. "Even after all the... fun." she added returning the coffee pot.


            "I didn't sleep with her," I blurted.


            The little white-haired demon giggled.


            The coffee pot clunked into place. The platinum blonde demon turned and gave me a look. "Yes, I know," she shook her head. " Desiree prep the garlic and dice a two of the shallots."


            Frowning slightly, Desiree nodded


            "You know?"


            Ukyou's tail lowered and twitched as, once again, she gave me "the look",


            "Of course you do. It's not like she wouldn't tell you."


            The demon's tail lifted and she burst into laughter.


            "What?"


            "You really don't know do you?" Ukyou snickered and turned to the griddle. "Okay, Mr. Wizard what do you want for breakfast?"


            "What do you mean I-" I cutoff and eyed the large spread of vittles. "What's all this for?"


            "After Mother's lessons," Ukyou gestured to the building in the backyard.

 
            I studied the wood-framed building. While it had some of the sleek modernist styling of the house it was next to, the way the building was framed and lit was familiar. It was wood, slats, hanging lanterns, and screens. I could see figures bounding about within.


            "That's a dojo," I stated. I had been to plenty in my life. Mostly at Murphy's behest. Those had been modern buildings with mats and other equipment. This looked like something out of a kung fu movie.


            "Why yes, yes it is." Ukyou held the batter dispenser and "the look" returned. "Cecilia and her girls are the focus. But Mom's using my sisters and some agents for a few demonstrations. And of course they'll learn something too."


            "And you're here cooking?"


            Ukyou laughed. "It's my day, and Desiree wanted some lessons of her own."


            The young demon's tail swished, and Ukyou gave her another set of ingredients to prepare.


            "Ah, that makes sense. So it's a rotation?"

            Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "Well... normally today is Akane's turn..."


            "She's not a good cook?"


            The blonde's laugh returned. "She's bland but edible now," Ukyou stated as if that were some great accomplishment.


            "I see." It probably was. My former apprentice was an awful cook, but I supposed being forced to feed a gaggle of hungry demons would provide some motivation.


            "So today you're doing the big pancake breakfast?" I asked


            After taking a moment to stare at me dumbfounded, the demon shook her head and went to the massive griddle. "Now what do you want on your okonomiyaki?"


             "What?"


            The tip of her tail flicking to side to side, Ukyou sighed. "Your pancake."


           

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


            Finishing up my breakfast, I stepped out onto the porch. The last bits of blueberry and bacon in a fluffy pancake went down great. The demon seemed off put by my calling my breakfast a pancake, but was more irked at how I had demurred from the more exotic ingredients and sauces.


            Still, it was filling, and she did know how to cook.

            Sipping my coffee, I walked down the pathway to the dojo. The outbuilding sat on a slight rise and somehow seemed to loom over me.


            The sounds of physical activity came from within. Reaching the decking surrounding the dojo I peered through a window and... stared.


            Look, it's not my fault. I had expected, well, gi or robes, or even exercise wear. Though, technically, what the demons were wearing did count as exercise wear. And there were a couple people wearing gi.


            The brood however... wore Lycra. The Technicolor rainbow of hair colors was complemented by a Technicolor rainbow of skin-tight bodysuits.


            "It's something isn't it?" a voice suddenly croaked to my left. "It makes a man feel young."


            Startled, I turned and looked... down. Standing next to me was a diminutive old man. Wrinkled with wisps of hair on a nearly bald head, and bug-eyes, he leaned against a wooden pillar. However even if he stood up straight. I knew he'd be shorter than Ranma.


            "I wasn't staring!" I reflexively cried.


            "No need to sell me a story," the old man said with a knowing leer, that reminded me of Bob.


            He gave a slightly wheezing laugh, and a goofy grin, but his eyes were sharp and focused. I then took note of the stance his legs were in, the firmness he gripped the pillar with, and the old robe draped over his narrow shoulders


            I frowned, recalling the wisdom of Pratchett: "Do not act incautiously when confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men."


            It had served me well in dealing with wizards and master swordsmen. "Ah, are you an instructor? Are these your students?" I guessed giving a respectful nod of the head.


            The old man chuckled. "Just those two layabouts," he pointed with a gnarled but strong hand.


            Looking through the window, I saw he had pointed towards the two male instructors. "Huh," I sipped my coffee.


            The old man gave the interior of the dojo a longing look. "I'm gonna get some breakfast before the rush." He then reached up and patted me on the back before starting to walk towards the house. "Oh, you better have an excuse ready," he called, sauntering away.


           "Excuse?" I turned to face him, but the old man had already slipped into the kitchen. When I turned back to the dojo, I saw that the action had ceased. The students and teachers had stilled.  Ranma pointed to me and beckoned with a finger.


            Exhaling, I crossed the threshold.


            Wearing a purple bodysuit, Ranma stood at the far end of the dojo. She had a little smile on her face as the dozen or so succubae at the front separated allowing me to pass.


            The humans, agents and instructors, also watched me stride in. Next to Ranma, knelt one of her daughters, the one with short dark blue hair. The one with fine black hair and intense red eyes and the one with coiffed orange hair and crazy green eyes stood in the middle of the dojo.


            The two had swords at the ready and it looked like I had interrupted a match.


            Ranma idly waved a hand, and the two bowed. Though the green-eyed demon gave a smirk as she bowed bow, she and her sister stepped aside.


            "Uh, breakfast is lookin' pretty good," I offered stepping into the center of the room, acutely aware that I was surrounded by demons, skimpy dressed ones at that. It probably didn't help that I was still eating a folded pancake.


            "Oh?" The redhead gave a sideway smile. She glanced to the side. "How are we set for time, Pops?"


            One of the human instructors was a stocky-looking man with glasses and a white bandana tied over his head. "We're fifteen minutes from break," he said.


            Nodding, the redhead thought for a moment. "Right," she clapped her hands. And stepped closer to the students. "Girls, this is Warden Dresden. He's a wizard. What does that mean?"


            "Magical powers?" one of the succubae with short turquoise hair cut in a pageboy bob asked.


            "You can do better than that, Priscilla." Ranma chided.


            I kept my silence; it was interesting to see "the Look" when it wasn't aimed at me.


            The young succubus almost wilted under the redhead's gaze. "A wide variety of magical powers."


            Nodding, Ranma held out her hand, prompting the girl to continue.


            Priscilla swallowed. "Well, if every fantasy book and movie is true then, there's also a lot of spells and skills. And a deeper understanding of how magic works."


            "Excellent," Ranma clapped her hands.


            I noticed Priscilla's cheeks pinken slightly.


            The redhead started to circle around me. "Sir Dresden is human. And while he has powerful patrons, it is his knowledge and ability to rapidly apply that information that makes him dangerous." She turned to me. "Is that a fair assessment?"


            I stared. This wasn't stern demon mom, playful succubus, or even ravenous combat monster.


            The redhead chuckled and continued her lecture. "In battle I saw him cast half a dozen distinct spells that manipulated water, fire, air, and earth. He also came prepared with several types of enchanted and mundane items. And, later on, showed the ability to alter and customize spells when the situation demanded it."


            I eventually nodded, recognizing her passion and analytical ability. Martial arts, in all its forms, open hand, weapon, magical, mundane must be a huge thing for her.


            The redhead stepped in front of a succubus with rich chestnut hair. "What does that suggest to you, Hazel?"


            "Don't let a wizard prepare?" She tapped her chin. "Well, if he's on your side buying him time might be the best option."


            "Yes, as with most opponents surprise is a wonderful asset," the redhead stepped to the side and gestured to me. "Now what is unusual about Sir Dresden? Take your time"


            I looked around the room as the heavy gaze of the demons fell on me. Keeping my eyes moving did help to keep me from staring anywhere dangerous.


            A girl with twin black ponytails raised a hand. "Question."


            "Yes, Isabel," Ranma said.


            "We don't know enough mages to know what's normal."


            "Concealing your true capabilities is an advantage." The brood mother glanced meaningfully at me. "Do as Priscila said. Use movies and books."


            "He's young," Isabel immediately said.

            Smiling, the redhead made a "please continue" gesture.


            The young demon frowned to herself. "He's tall like Gandalf and got the staff but he's not in robes. His coat sticks out a bit but he'd pass as a normal. Also..."


            The brood mother waited.


            Swallowing, Isabel met the redhead's eye. "He's fit, really fit. Muscular, moves like he knows how to fight, and he's got scars too. Physically, he's well above the human norm. And wizards aren't known for being bruisers."


            "Bah, watch Lord of the Rings again; Gandalf was a scrapper," I snarked.


            Ranma nodded to me before going back to Isabel. "Good observation, but you forgot the gun, most people don't carry one as a matter of daily routine.


            "You must remember that most folks don't set aside the mental headspace for lethal violence. The idea that someone may want to kill them, that they may have to kill someone is entirely absent. If they get into a fight, they'll have to spend the time to get into that headspace; time they often won't have."


            The demon stood and clasped her hands behind her back. "If we are not looking for something?"


            "We will not see it," the class answered back.


            "If we were not listening for it?"


            "We will not hear it."


            "And if we do not understand it?"


            "It did not happen," the girls repeated.


            "That's how people explain away the paranormal," I muttered.


            "Oh?" Ranma tilted her head and took a step back, yielding me the floor.


            "Uh..." I looked around the room and hurriedly finished the last of my pancake. I sighed. I had taught newbie Wardens before, and I had a wizard's apprentice once. "Okay, a lot of people don't believe in the supernatural. They think the universe is nice and ordered. So, if something spooky comes up and attacks 'em..."


            I looked over and saw the redhead attentively listening.


            "Well, they freeze up. Their mind says 'this can't be happening to me'. And often they die. Those that survive, well, they'll try to live on, and go back to normal. They'll deny what they saw, thinking instead of a ghoul, it was a junkie or something. Because they don't want to live in a world where monsters exist. It makes it easy for them to forget.


            "And there's also the peer pressure. Unless a friend or family member had an experience with the 'spooky side', they won't be believed. And even people who mean well just won't understand."


            "Well said." The redhead clapped her hands. "And that was the specific case."


            "Oh?" This time I tilted my head.


            The redhead took my place. "Okay, a lot of people think the universe is nice and ordered. They think it's fair. That bad things happen to bad people. So, if someone nasty comes up and attacks 'em..."


            She mimicked the little shrug I gave. "Well, they freeze up. Their mind says 'this can't be happening to me'. And often they die. Those that survive, well, they'll try to live on, and go back to normal. They'll deny what they saw, instead thinking that people can't be that 'bad'."


            The redhead turned to me. "Because they don't want to live in a world where monsters exist. And then there's the peer pressure, unless they have a friend or a family member who also had a lethal force encounter the fear, the speed, the pressure... it just  won't be believed. And even people who mean well just won't understand "


            I frowned.


            The demon bowed to me. "You gave a specific example of non-human threats. I gave the general case. Humans can be right bastards too. And as much damage as monsters do to your folk, statistically you're a bigger threat to each other."


            She shrugged. "Now those that fight back... well that's different, they might forget later on, but in the moment, in the moment, they saw that the real world is red in tooth and claw."


            I sighed, but nodded. I had seen plenty of nasty humans, ones worse than monsters. Ones that became monsters. Hells Bells, the Fallen Angels were only half of the picture when it came to the Denarians. They still needed human hosts, and many of those started out quite willing to enable the mayhem their Fallen companions wanted to cause.


            The redhead appraised her class. "Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of predators, specifically the idea that they could be prey. They don't like to think that monsters exist, even human monsters."


            "What drives fear?" Ranma turned and pointed to one of the succubae off to the side.


            The powder-blue haired girl blinked.


            The brood mother gave a patient look.


            "Helplessness and ignorance drive fear," Nabiki recited.


            "And fear?" Ranma pointed to the audience.

            "Fear drives hate," a green-haired succubus completed.


            I blinked. Wait.


            Ranma nodded. "And why? Isabel."


            "People fear what they cannot control and they fear what they do not understand.


            I couldn't help myself. "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering," I stated with muppety gravitas.


            The redhead paused for a brief moment and I saw her eyes wince as her tail flicked about. "There's more truth to that line than you think," she smoothly said.


            "And are you going to ask me to snatch a pebble from your hand?"


            "Do you seek now to know the answers, or to understand the questions?" she archly asked.


            "I guess I shouldn't try to outdo your kung fu knowledge."


            The redhead looked around the dojo. "I'm more a fan of Bruce Lee's work. But when it comes to things to learn for the Art anything goes," she chuckled to herself.


            Blinking, I frowned. I was pretty sure I had missed something.


            The redhead gave a tiny sigh before going back to the class.


            "Ignorance and helplessness. Yes, this applies to others. Yes, this applies to you. Some will be afraid of you, some will hate you, some will want you destroyed."


            I watched as she seemed to have the eye of everyone on the room.


            "However, do not think you are immune. Your own fears are driven by helplessness and ignorance. This is why we train, why we learn."


            The redhead gave a glance to the older man in glasses; he nodded.


            "Right, breakfast," she clapped her hands.


            I noticed the demon's nostrils flared slightly with anticipation.


            The succubae and mercenaries bowed to the redhead.


            Ranma bowed in return. "Dismissed."


            Standing to the side, I watched as the demons filed out.


            The bald human instructor looked to the redhead. Ranma gave a tiny shake of the head. The other humans, the mercenaries, slipped out as well.


            Soon, I was alone with her. "Hear anything about, uh, Gabriel?" I asked.


            The redhead smiled. "Doc says he's looking clear of infection. He should be ready to go back on duty once he's healed."


            "Good, that's good." I nodded and looked around the dojo. Empty, it was even more spacious.


            The redhead looked me up and down. "I suppose you slept well enough," she said with a wry smile.


            Coughing, I turned away.


            "Too easy," she laughed and rolled her shoulders.


            I tensed as her gaze fell upon me. Clinical, detached, she had returned to instructor mode. She tilted her head. "Pity."


             "Pity?"


            "Pity we won't get to spar." She glanced over to the door.


            I turned slightly and saw Eve step inside. The tall blonde demon was wearing a grey suit coat with a matching slim skirt. A predatory little smirk was on her face, and she carried a leather folder. She sipped from a coffee cup and was finishing some sort of pastry.


            Ranma's tail raised and swished. "Oh my, someone's got news."


            Eve gave a little nod. "We have a lead."


            "Oh? Did the scary little girl come up with something?" I asked.


            "Miss Meiou's analysis is inconclusive," Eve stepped closer. Her teeth flashed. "However, studying Lucas and his associate's effects gave results."


            "That being?"


            "It took a while but we found a set of keys to a rental locker at Union Station."


            I snorted. "Of course. Practitioners love stashing things in lockers at train stations and bus depots. What'd you find?"


            "A handful of grimoires. Things they didn't want to risk bringing to a fight," she handed the folder over.


            I opened it. Inside was a printed list of titles and photos of the covers and some of the inside pages. . "A folio of the Parchments of Pnom? A pretty good fake..."


            "It is," Eve agreed. "It might even be an original. We're not sure where it came from."


            I raised an eyebrow. The White Council was rather certain that the Parchments of Pnom was an elaborate forgery. I shrugged and moved to the next set... and gave a low whistle. "That's a Testament of Carnamagos."


            "It appears to be, complete, or nearly, too," Eve stated.


            "Complete nothing. There were only two documented copies. One was destroyed by the Spanish Inquisition, the other burned by the Soviets when they overran a Thule Society laboratory outside Berlin." I eyed the book feeling uneasy.


            "The tome would be... slightly more common in this world then," Eve stated.


            "Ah," I absently nodded. It figured. All that was really required was for one book to survive long enough to be copied. Completely stamping out a tome was actually rather difficult. Fortunately, warlocks and cultists weren't the sharing type.


            Heck with a lot of ritual magic, the more available the spells were the less powerful they were. If every Tom, Nick Scratch, and Saruman vied for the same entity's attention then there'd be less mojo to go around.


            "It is noteworthy to see a copy so complete," Eve added.


            "Huh." I went to the next book. "That's an... odd edition of Unaussprechlichen Kulten,"


            Eve winced at my pronunciation. "We believe it was a rebinding. There's considerable marginalia. It looks to be someone's working copy." She took a sip from her mug.


            "And a copy of... Cryptomenysis Patefacta?" I frowned.


            "The Art of Secret Information Disclosed without a Key," Eve supplied.


            "Yeah, I gathered. Okay... we've got two books on the lineages of obscure old gods, the scrap book of someone who paled around with all sorts of nasty cults, and... a book on eldritch cryptography."


            The demons looked expectantly at me.

            "Yeah, Lucas was a player. This is more than just picking up a Sussex Manuscript translation of the Necronomicon and trying to get some squid-god's attention."


            I sighed and flipped through the pages again. "That's... not good. Looks like my boss-lady was right. We've got a summoner. You're watching the locker?"


            Eve gave me a vaguely offended look. "Yes, but we have another lead." Her teeth flashed again. "We know where two of those books were purchased."


            I looked between her expression and her shifting tail. "Local?"


            "Incognito?" Ranma asked.


            The blonde nodded.


            "Interview?"


            "Surveillance teams are in place," Eve agreed.


            I looked between the two. "Wait."


            "You're coming along?"


            "Inside support," the blonde stated.


            "Great, I'll take Ukyou to supplement."


            Eve contemplated her mug. "She's still serving breakfast."


            Ranma waved her off. "Desiree's helping. Besides Nabiki can spot her."


            "Right," the blonde turned on her heel and started walking out of the dojo. The redhead followed.


            "Wait? Are you doing what I think you're doing?" I demanded.


            Ranma looked over her shoulder. "What? You don't want to play Good Cop, Wizard Cop?"

 

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

 


            I jumped out of the van, onto the sidewalk, and ran up to the squat brick building sitting in front of me. It stood alone on the block isolated by dead, frozen grass and a gravel parking lot. The windows were narrow, small, and suspiciously thick.


            The only adornment was a single sign saying "East York Rare Books".


            Jogging up towards the door, I heard footsteps behind me. I grabbed the handle and felt a slight tingle. I inhaled and pulled the door open.


            Magical energy prickled against me as I crossed the Threshold; the magical barrier that surrounds a person's home.  That meant the guy lived here too. I was entering without permission, which meant I had to leave a lot of my power outside, but it was worth the risk.


            Inside, the store was dimly lit and... small. In front, there were a couple of aisles of shoulder-high shelves. But they were mostly bare. Behind them was a heavy wood counter that ran the length of the antechamber. And behind that were tall cages containing further stacks of books, many in their own locked crates.


            Standing behind the counter was a spare, bald man with pallid skin. He wore a white suit coat over a pale blue shirt and amber tie. Seeing me, his wrinkly face formed into a scowl. Dark green eyes focused on my staff, and his hostility gained a contemplative edge.


            "Mage? And what do you-" his raspy voice cutoff when he saw the three demons entering behind me.


            Wearing a violet blouse, dark charcoal suit-coat and matching skirt, Ranma took position to on the other end of the counter.


            Following the redhead, two blonde demons slipped in. Ukyou had changed into a silver-grey suit that complemented her platinum hair. Unlike the other succubae, she wore pants instead of a suit skirt.


            She and Eve took up positions flanking either side of the door.


            The shopkeeper's eyes narrowed at the sight of the demons. "And how can I assist the Company?"


            "Are we that transparent?"


            The old man tilted his head. "I don't hear helicopters." He glanced to a cluster of security monitors to the side. "And there're no tanks on the street. Or agents stacking up at the door." His thin lips forced into a grin. "I suppose this is your idea of subtly."


            He laughed then coughed. "Or should I be flattered that I warranted three of you."

            "Can it, Incognito," Ranma stated.


            I made a point of looking around the room. "So, is there like a mail order catalog for you sleazy peddlers in dark tomes? Or do you decide on a decorating theme at your conventions?"


            "How could I forget," he appraised my staff again. "Do you know how to use that thing boy?"


            "This isn't about me." I chuckled. "And Incognito? Seriously? Speaking of subtle.. was Hugh Mann too fancy of an alias?"


         The old man crossed his arms. "Make with the demands. I've got a business to run."


         Ranma dropped a manila folder on the counter.


         "Must we do with the theatrics?" Incognito asked.


         I looked around the room. Eve and Ukyou stood silently. Though the younger blonde had a slight tilt to her head.


         Putting a bit of flare to my staff, I turned back and fought off a slight tingle that ran up my arms to the top of my spine. "Hey, you're the one that called this subtle."


         With a murmur the old man flipped the folder open. "Ah." Studying the photos, he looked wistful. "And that was such a lovely find. Do you know how hard it is to get the Testament of Carnamagos? Let alone one a reading copy that was rebacked and had proper shagreen binding. I can count on one thumb how many of those there are on the planet." Pulling a gold pen out of a coat pocket, he sighed.


         I blinked. In used book parlance, a "reading copy" was one that was well used. It might have marks, rips, and notes, but above all it was complete. However, the blonde demon said the book they picked up was "nearly" complete. I glanced over, but the tall demoness was silent.


         The old man continued. "Not that that lunatic American seemed appreciative. At least his money was good, and his whelp seemed enthused about it," the old man added as if an afterthought.


         "And the cult book?" I asked pushing to the latter set of photos.


         The old man gave a brief smile. "Unaussprechlichen Kulten. I've got half a dozen in the back." His pen pointed to the locked stacks behind him.. "But this was Captain Klaus Woermann's copy."


         "He liked to write in the margins, who does that?" I laughed, keeping myself from shaking my head. There was a slight, very slight tingle at the back of my neck, as if I'd picked up some static electricity in a dry room


         "A former captain in the Kreigsmarine. One who thought war inoculated him to other horrors." The old man gave me a conspiratorial grin. "I'd be wary of your companions, mage. Take the blue-eyed one back there. In a different time, she'd be along with Captain Klaus or maybe with Thule."


         Turning back, I couldn't help but chuckle. The tingle had passed, or at least I didn't notice it anymore. Besides I had my mental defenses up and there was no sense of intrusion or pressure.


         Eve gave me a clouded expression.


         The old man's wistful expression returned. "This wasn't the first pick. No, she asked me if I had an Annotated Abnett edition." Using the tip of the pen to shift the pages, Incognito snorted. "A practiced eye sure, but a bit beyond my blood."


         I frowned. Who was this she the book-dealer was talking about now?


         "But you just happened to have one of these lying around?" Ranma pointed to the picture of the Testament of Carnamagos.


         "Ah no, that was a special order."


         "For?"


         The man gave me a wry smile. "And now we get to the negotiation."


         Ranma stepped forward. The shadows started to darken around her boots.


         "Don't," the old man's hand flipped up, thumb resting on the top of the pen. "You're not the first little hell-tart I've dealt with." He increased the pressure on the silver stud atop the pen. "We can do civilized business or..."


         The side of my staff slammed into the counter with a heavy klunk, leaving the top two inches from his neck. "You were saying?"


         The old man gave a rasping chuckle. "Mexican standoff?"


         "That implies we all die. I don't know about you, but I'd lay good odds on the redhead pulling a Wolverine."

         The old man stared; his sudden amusement starting to wilt.


         "Mutant, from the comic book? Geeze, and you call yourself a book dealer. Anyway, I'd bet old Red would survive. Course, you should also take note where she's looking."


         Staring levelly at the old man's nose, the redhead's eyes began to flare.


         "The Company is more than willing to do business," Eve said near the door, in an almost disinterested tone.


         "Perhaps, we can start with this 'little hell-tart'?" Ukyou asked, speaking for the first time.


         There was just a hint of echo to her voice. I laughed, normally it was the mother demon that had the funny voice.

        The old man's nodded wistfully. "She was in human drag, but you can tell," he turned to me and winked. "Isn't that right, my boy?"


         "Like these ladies?" I asked gesturing to the demons.


         Finger lifting off of the pen, he idly twirled it. "Nope. She was pale, but the flesh was human."


         "Not pancake powder Goth pale?" I asked, drawing a sharp look from the redhead.


         "That be the truth," he leaned back and nodded to himself. "The American put on a brave face but he was scared of her. And she was bored, at least after she got the Testament and I told her I didn't have an Abnett edition. Punk."


         "The American?"


         "Drab suit, brown hair, green eyes with gold flecks," Incognito waved off.


         "This man?" Ranma pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it. It was a cropped copy of Lucas' fake ID.


         The old man grunted. "That was him. I'll give that for free."


         Smiling, Ranma slipped the picture back into her jacket and stepped back.


         Using the tip of his pen, Incognito lifted my staff off of the counter. I was surprised by the strength in the old man's hand.   Perhaps I had forgotten the wisdom of Pratchett.  But in my defense, this wrinkled old man wasn't smiling...  much.


         "Calm down, boy; we're now doing business," he assured before looking to Eve. "Do you have my books?"


         "Do you want them back? The Company would be happy to returned seized property, pending a complete investigation."


         "But he sold it..." I started before Ranma shot me "the look".


         The old man gave a phlegmy snort. "I only picked up the Testament because the American put down a deposit."


         "And Captain Klaus' Unaussprechlichen Kulten?" Eve asked.

         "A curio, though I suppose the marginalia would be informative to someone in your business."


         "Perhaps my associates could make use of those books. A complete edition of the Testament would be useful," Eve stated.


         I frowned, something was up. It seemed that the old man had sold a complete book and then... what had Lucas done with it? I wished I had had the time to actually inspect the books before being driven out here.


         As Ranma watched, the old man slowly knelt down. There was a whirr and a clunk as he opened a safe. Then with a grunt, pulled out a locked accordion file. It had heavy bronze hasps locking it shut.


         Running the gold pen over the locks, it popped open. I felt a magical backlash as a powerful spell disarmed and stared as the old man started paging through. If I could guess, he had enchanted the file to burn the contents if anyone forced their way in.


         "I would want to make sure the Company pays fair market value," the blonde noted.


         The old man chuckled. "I just happen to have a purchase order that you can use for reference." He took out a small bundle of pages and dropped it onto the counter.


         The old man then locked up the file and slipped it back in the safe.


         Ranma had spread the papers. There were a couple pink pages; the third copy of triplicate forms. There was a purchase order, a deposit receipt, an inventory receipt, and a payment receipt.


         I boggled a bit at the price of the Testament of Carnamagos, and the wry note that the payment had been cash. It wasn't quite briefcase-full-of-cash money. But it would have been awkward to carry any other way.


          Looking to the side, I saw that Ranma had hardly noted the price and was instead looking at the names and dates on the paperwork. Stobart Lucas of Boston was the buyer. The demon gave the old man a skeptical look.


         "Now don't feel cheated, not until you've seen it all," the old man pushed the last bits of paperwork, carbon copies of the inventory descriptions, aside.

         A rubber band was wrapped around a stack of Polaroid photos. Wordlessly, the redhead cut the band with a nail and spread the photos. They were of this very antechamber. I looked around and could see spots in the stacks where cameras might have been hidden. The images were grainy and the colors were dim, but a hidden camera could hardly have a flash.


         The old man chuckled. "After the last... colorful visit I put in some redundancies to my security system. Ones that have some protection against electronic interference."


         "Cable run? Pneumatic actuator?" Eve asked.


         The old man gave a salute with his pen.


         I picked one up. My hands trembled. It was eerily familiar, if with the opposite perspective. Five people were in the picture.


         At the counter was the back of the old man's head. Standing exactly where I currently stood, was Lucas' nervously, grinning form. Flanking either side of the door was the beefy, blond crew-cut form of Worth and the goon with the mullet. This time, mullet-wolf was wearing a cheap suit that matched Worth's.


         And then there was the fifth person. She was short, almost pixyish, with high cheekbones and a delicately pointy chin. Short silvery hair framed a heart-shaped face, and gorgeous green eyes looked vaguely bored as she leaned on the counter.


         "Stars and Stones," I swore. I knew who this was. The pieces fell into place. I now understood exactly what Mab meant when she said I was looking for someone interested in thwarting an evil man's plans.


         Damn it. Literally. It was the Denarians. I was dealing with a Fallen Angel. Worse,  a jilted Fallen out for revenge.


         "That the Hell-tart?" Ranma asked, leaning to look at the photo.


         I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I had been holding out hope that maybe the old man was wrong, or maybe it was a different "demonic" lady. Hells Bells, I've faced enough wickedly evil women.


         "Yeah it's-"


         The redhead held up her hand cutting me off. She then gave Incognito a smile and started gathering up the paperwork.


         "Loose lips my boy." The old man chuckled.


         The redhead bowed her head before tugging my arm and drawing me away from the counter. Ukyou stepped to one side and opened the door.


         Eve strode past us and placed a grey business card onto the counter. "I trust you prefer cash?"


         The old man's face suddenly soured. "Canadian, American, Euro, even bullion. But if you insist on a wire transfer, well, then I'll have to add a processing fee."


         Eve smiled thinly. "Payment will be dropped off by close of business today."


         Ukyou and Ranma had already exited the building. I lingered at the threshold.


         "Don't insult me, the Company's money is always good," the old man grunted, pocketing the card.


         Eve nodded and firmly, but gently pushed me outside. She then gave me a chill, toothy smile and escorted me to the van that pulled up just as we crossed to the sidewalk.

 

End Chapter 4

 

 

I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Kevin Hammel, and Ellf.  Special thank to : J St C Patrick for his help in proofreading this (and the other) chapters.

 

And the Dresden Files fans should have enough info to figure out who Mab was talking about. Other readers will have to wait until ch5 when Harry tells the others who the girl in the picture is.