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 6: Underground Diplomacy, Part B

 


            So, here I was in a secret subterranean base, surrounded by angry wolfmen, heavily armed mercenaries, and three Fallen Angels. Worse, one of those Fallen was the most physically powerful of the Denarians. And that was with a regular human host. Now, he's riding along with someone who started out as a giant super strong creature with ridiculous regeneration.


            Well, at least I had my trusty sexy demon friend....


            I looked over and saw that Ranma was no longer at my side.


            Tessa chortled. "Gagheil deal with Mr. Dresden. Magog make me a doorway."


            Grunting, the giant Denarian ran towards the pillars in a lumbering gait.


            "Now..." Tessa turned to me. "If the succubus gets in the way-."


            Springing forward, the redhead slammed into the gloating Denarian. It seemed that instead of standing there while Tessa gloated, Ranma had decided to flank her and get near enough to close in one bound.


            Knocking her over, Ranma parried a blow of Tessa's and grabbed each of the mantis girl's arms at the wrists. The demon growled, and stabbed her tail into the Denarian's hip. Razor filaments sparked against the exoskeleton as bits of chitin chipped off.


            My chest shuddered as I heard a rumbling that shook the air. It was like standing too close to a subway train. I didn't have much time to think on that as I had to put up my shield to block a tidal wave of water being blown at me by Gagheil.


            Ranma let go of one of Tessa's arms and slammed her hand into to the torn section of Tessa's armor. The redhead set her jaws. Purple and black light exploded from her palm. The DarkStar Burst shot out, the orb detonated inside Tessa's hip.


            As I froze the water pouring over me, I realized that was no train. Frost came off my staff. I dropped my revolver into a holster and took my staff with two hands. I figured I was going to need more magic. Behind the wall of ice, Gagheil's creepy chest face looked at me. Seaweed limbs twisted and flexed, and the ice began to crack.


            Madly howling, Magog had returned and backhanded Ranma off of Tessa. The demoness flew towards the giant vehicle-sized steel doors. Coughing blood, the demon twisted in midair, flared her wings, hit the concrete wall with her boots, bounded off and landed on the floor in a three-point crouch.


            "Woo! Superhero landing" I cried. "Is that hard on your knees?"


            Ranma spared me a glare before unceremoniously vomiting a mess of purple-tinged blood. Rising, she lifted her arms and launched twin lances of fire at Magog.


            Screeching, Tessa tried to pull herself up, her left leg at a crooked angle. With  ichor pouring out of the hole in her hip, she tried to inch away. Green fire sparking off the end, her whip twitched in her right hand.


            Her other hand flicked and with a hissing word she slammed it into her hip. There was a flash and her leg snapped and twisted into place. Flicking her whip, green motes flew around her as she glanced behind at me and Ranma.


            She pointed to Magog and swung her arm around in my and Ranma's direction.


            The two Denarians bolted. Tessa's diminutive form was rapidly overtaken by the hulking gorilla-wolf. Due to his long stride, Magog was deceptively fast.


            A DarkStar Burst slammed into Magog's back, just below the neck. The purple orb detonated in a spray of blood, but much of the thick, leathery skin seemed unharmed.


            The redhead darted forward. A line of water shot out from Gagheil and she flipped to one side. The wall of ice burst apart around the Denarian. I leveled my staff. "Infriga!" The water froze and fell to the concrete in a crumbling line.


            Ranma glanced at me.


            "Go! I'll follow after I take care of Mr. Seaweed." I shifted my feet and planted my staff.


            As the redhead ran off, Gagheil whipped his arms. Lengths of ropy seaweed shot out and wrapped around my staff. I twisted and stepped to the side all to fight to keep my staff in my hands, but at the cost of giving ground and sliding closer to Gagheil.


            This also gave me a nice view of the pillars dividing the garage.


            I watched as Magog was raked by machine gun fire. The creature roared as the bullets struck and cut out small divots, then the rockets hit. Those actually caused gouging, bleeding holes. Still, it was like chipping away at a stone wall with a chisel.


            Tessa was at his heel using his bulk for cover and lashing out with quick bits of green fire from her whip. Or she would have if not for Ranma at her heel, harassing the Denarian every step of the way with fireballs and slashes.


            Then with a echoing roar that hurt my ears despite the earplugs, Magog lunged at the Humvee revving between the pillars. Its turret still firing, the vehicle reversed gear. Then the giant Denarian's fist slammed down on the armored hood. Suspension shattered, the vehicle slumped down.


            Magog then kicked the truck, sending it skidding backwards. Then the cacophony of fire intensified. More explosions detonated and Magog's forward motion slowed.


            More seaweed strips wrapped around my staff refocusing my attention. The distance began to close between me and Gagheil.


            The Denarian's lips curled into a nasty grin as his eyes flashed. "You're abandoned little wizard," Gagheil gasped his words distorted from the way his mouth was set in his chest. Eyes glowed and water began to rise, forming a shield around him. They also formed a barrier that it was slowly pulling me into. "You're alone."


            I laughed. And suddenly stopped resisting with my boots. The seaweed suddenly pulled me forward. Reaching out with one hand I fed soulfire into my spell. Bits of my soul acted like rebar strengthen and enhancing the magic. "Infriga," I screamed, just before my palm hit the water shield.


            There was a snapping grinding noise as the entire shield flash froze. I had a moment to enjoy that I wasn't going to be drowned, just before I slammed into the icy wall. And got hit in the side by my staff, which was also stuck in the ice like a popsicle stick.


            The Denarian's surprise was cut off when Gagheil gave a chortling laugh. "Stupid mortal, you disabled your staff far better than I could ever."


            "Stupid like a fox!" I wrapped both my hands over the staff and activated my shield bracelet. "Forzare!" Waves of force detonated around the end of the staff. The same end embedded in the ice.


            Remember as a kid how you were told to never, ever, close your hand around a firecracker?


            Well, if you've ever played with fireworks, you'd remember if you had one go off near you... or had a psychotic "friend" light one and toss it at you. When that happened most of the explosion hit the air, and only part of it went against your skin. Sure it sucked and you might get cut up a bit… but unless it hit your eye you'd be okay.

 

            However, if you made a fist around a lit firework....


            Then all the pressure was dedicated towards tearing off little fingers.


            In short, there's a reason miners drill holes into rock and push explosives into the bores instead of just piling them against the cave wall.


            This meant that Gagheil's shield exploded into thousands of chunks of icy shrapnel. Meanwhile my shield managed to protect everything, except for the bit of staff that stuck out past it.


            Green ichor bled out as the Denarian fell to the ground. Several large, jagged bits of ice pierced his limbs and torso. The seaweed wrapping around my staff went slack.


            I stepped closer, ice crunching under my boots. My steps sure on the frozen terrain. Gagheil tried to scrabble back up. "Really? Ice and water against the Winter Knight?" I slammed the tip of my staff into his chest just under that creepy face.


            Gagheil screamed.


            "What, next you gonna try that trick against Aquaman?"


            The Denarian's seaweed wrapped around my staff and tried to pull it off.


            "Fine," I concentrated. The runes on my staff glowed and crackled with power "Fulminos!"


            Seaweed and water make for a rather poor conductor. But if you shock with enough electricity, it'll conduct. The Denarian screamed as electricity arced through it and grounded out on the puddle it was splayed in.


            I stomped forward. Hooray, for thick insulated boots.


            The Denarian screamed and this time the seaweed pulled against my legs. As I fell, I slammed my staff against its face. Then I hit the ground and my staff clattered off. My hand went to my belt and grasped something.


            Twitching, bleeding, and actually steaming a bit, the Denarian scuttled towards me. Its mouth roared and I got a good glimpse of the hooked lamprey-like teeth in its mouth.


            Then I saw them shatter as I rammed my revolver into the Denarian's mouth. I cranked the trigger, emptying the cylinder. Green blood splashed out in a frothy fan. Gagheil crumpled in front of me and I used the gun-barrel to knock the dying Denarian off. I caught a glimpse of where his spine had shattered from the heavy bullets. Bits of brains and maybe bits of heart, all tinged a nasty green, leaked out.


            I gasped, feeling bruised and drained and a bit choked. "Holsters... what a concept," I laughed as the green blood and limp seaweed started to smoke and turn translucent and jelly-like.


             Behind me, the explosions and gunfire continued. But I forced myself to concentrate on reloading my gun, retrieving my staff, and then watching the body.


            The Denarian slowly reverted to human form as the ectoplasm used to make its demonic body evaporated. With a sickening lurch, a head drew out from the flat shoulders as the body turned into that of a pale, almost Nordic looking man. Well, it was hard to tell, as most of his face was shot off, as well as the gaping hole in his chest.

 
            "So.... there's a downside to moving your head," I remarked, while waiting for the characteristic ting of metal bounding on concrete.


            There was no flexing hand to reveal a coin. However, among the shattered, now human-looking, teeth and past the torn tongue was  gleam of tarnished silver.


            Pulling out the sample box I knelt over and popped it open. "Bless your paranoid egghead hearts," I said, taking out the little wand. Turns out, it also extended. It made short work of fishing the coin out of the watery viscera and dropping it into the box. Tossing the glue stick to the side I closed the lid and hit the red button. There was a hissing noise as it sealed itself shut.


            Giving another gasping exhalation, I shook the box to confirm the coin was still rattling inside and dropped it in a coat pocket.


            I caught my breath for a moment. Then I heard Magog roar, smelt the sulfurous scent of hellfire, and was almost knocked down by an explosion that shook the ceiling and made the lights flicker and almost go out.


            I groaned and pulled myself to my feet.

 

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

 


            Leaning on my staff, my head swam. My feet splashed as I jogged away from the remains of the truck. I focused and controlled my breathing. It wasn't the same as getting a second wind. But you don't get to be a wizard without the ability to hold your concentration, no matter the pain and fatigue.


            And Hells Bells, compared to some of the stuff I'd survived this was just being lightly winded. I made my way towards the pillars dividing the room. That was where the sound of fighting was.


            Well... the loudest fighting. In front of me were the pillars, and beyond that was Magog's roaring bellows and heavy gunfire. To the left were Tendo's and Rawlins' teams.


            A dozen or so wolfmen were splattered along the concrete floor in pools of watery blood. Some of the bodies still twitched and thrashed, and earned more gunfire for their trouble. Meanwhile, Rawlins and his men were working. Two men guarded while another used a careful under hand lob to drop an incendiary grenade on a wolf's head, and then, once the fireworks had died down, a fourth man chopped the head off with a fire axe.


            Their armor was smeared with gore, and I was pretty sure that Rawlins was man short. I nodded to them as I lopped past. Their work was hurried but... business-like.


            It made sense, the wolves could regenerate, and if they weren't put down then Magog and Tessa would have a lot more reinforcements. I don't know if Rawlins' actions would be enough, but I wasn't sure what more they could do at the moment. Well, I'm sure they had some flamethrower crews. Immolating the entire body would probably work.  But that took time.


             My thoughts halted as I passed the pillars and darted back behind the concrete column.


            Green fire splashed against the pillar as Tessa screeched and covered Magog's backside. For his part, the giant wolf-gorilla was far to the right side punching the heavy steel loading dock door.


            The walls shook with each punch. And the steel had dented and pushed down. I frowned Magog seemed.... smaller and... wider Then it hit me. He had to be able to pass through the door once he brought it down. As it was, his curling ram's horns were just a hair shorter than the head of the door.


            He pulled his arm back and... a pair of purple beams shot out and sliced through knuckles and fingers. The Denarian's roar pounded at my ears as Magog turned and charged the redhead.


            Tessa screamed and pointed to the door, unfurling her whip. She then flicked a wave of green energy at Ranma who dodged to the side. The succubus was in constant motion, occasionally pulling back to let the mercenaries get a hit in. Still, it looked like she was holding back... or waiting for something.


            I glanced to the left, the mercenaries had pulled to the left side by the maintenance bay. They were giving harassing fire to the Denarians and had established a perimeter to gun down the remaining half dozen wolfmen.


            A few of them were down, including some who had been left on the concrete unmoving. Still, there was a bit of triage by the access door past the maintenance bay.


            The door on the far wall just past maintenance hissed open.


            I felt the tingle on my neck. Looking at the people wounded and worse, rage boiled within me. Sure they were soldiers, but this wasn't their fight. I clenched my teeth and let the Winter Mantle focus my rage, my will.


            This was where I'd stop them. I planted my staff on the concrete and pushed in a bit of soul fire. It rang like a bell.


            Tessa turned with an annoyed expression.


            Magog roared.


            For a moment Ranma simply boggled... then taking advantage of Tessa's distraction, launched herself at the Denarian and body-slammed her to the ground. Claws dug against chitin until Tessa flicked her whip and knocked off the demon, who landed with a messy roll.


            As that happened, I rushed forward. "Hey Magilla! Remember me!"


            Magog roared insanely. And he bore down on me like a train. All four eyes glowing with pure rage.


            I planted my feet to get a grip on the wet floor.

 
            "Forzare!" I screamed as the water rushed past my feet and under Magog's.


            Then I leveled my staff. "Arctis!"


            Magog's footing slipped... but he caught himself and started thumping forward. His pace had slowed but each, deliberate ice-crushing step brought him closer.


            "Out of tricks little mortal?" he grumbled voice like as steam-engine.


            "No... just stalling." I ducked down My shield flared into existence and the grenades started to fall. And an orange-haired demoness cackled madly.


            I knew Misako's gun was something special. Bulky grenade launchers tend to give that impression. But what had eluded me were the details... like how it was fully automatic....


            And belt-fed.


           Dozens and dozens of armor-piercing high explosive grenades rained down on Magog as Misako continued to laugh.

 

            The other broodlings came in on her flanks. Her platinum blonde partner had one of those bulky rifles leveled and was giving supporting fire.


            Thick hide opened, and blood poured out of wound after wound. Magog bellowed and turned to the demons. Wispy green energy rose up as ice shattered beneath his feet


            The brood separated with the aforementioned Misako and Ukyou forming one group, and the two blue-haired demons in another. Nariko stood in between with her sword drawn.


            Both Ranma and Tessa moved in to intercept the giant Denarian. "Get back to that door! I'll take care of them," Tessa ordered while the redhead gave a thin smirk

            Heedless, Magog roared. And once again, I was thankful for my earplugs.


            Running near the wall, Ranma glanced over. For a moment those purple eyes caught mine.

            The penny dropped. With the brood spread, Ranma to one flank, and myself on the other. Magog was being drawn into a trap.


            The succubae opened fire. Shadows, lightning, grenades, exploding ice, and other attacks opened up. The mercenaries behind them also launched a pair of missiles.


            "Pyrofuego!" I cried pushing more will and launching a pillar of flame into Magog's side just above his hip.


            A curiously human scream came out as Tessa realized the same thing I had.


            Blow after blow hit, and for once the damage actually started to accumulate. Bleeding, the giant bellowed and swelled further in height. A DarkStar bust slammed into the side of Magog's head burning off an ear and tearing up the creature's shaggy scalp.


            The Denarian howled; furious eyes focused on the demoness as he turned to the redhead. The wounds from the original grenade strike had healed, and the rest were slowly closing up. The ice had also been fully chewed up and a green miasma floated above the floor like a mist.


            The two blue-haired demons shifted to Tessa. The smaller one launched a barrage of exploding ice until Tessa pressed in close only to have her older sister grapple her away.


            Synchronized, Ranma and Nariko jumped forward. The redhead with her claws out. Her daughter with her red sword.


            Magog's attention was split. One massive paw came down and Nariko parried, catching the claws with her blade.  The other tried to take out Ranma; the redhead dodged and flayed Magog's wrist.


            That's when Tessa struck. She knocked one sister down, ensnared the other with her flashing green whip, and in that second lined up a clear shot.


            Hellfire flashed out in an angry destructive wave.


            "Infriga!" I cried. My own lance of Winter power crossing Tessa's hellish power. Ice formed and flash-steamed. A damp sulfurous smell filled the already stinking garage. The hellfire was diminished, but the range was short.


            Ranma was struck in the side, her armor boiling off; the demon screamed in pain and anger. I saw a flash of ribs and organs. She began to slump down.


            Nariko raced to her mother.


            But Magog was faster.


            A meaty paw the size of the redhead's torso lunged out and scooped her up.


            Laughing, Tessa shot out with Hellfire. Towards me. I got my shield up and hunkered down. The Winter Mantel helped keep me cool but I knew she was holding back. She had enough power to pop my shield, but she seemed content to keep me in place.


            Holding the battered demon, Magog raised his right arm and squeezed. From behind my shield, I couldn't hear Ranma's ribs and spine crack but I could see the blood raining down in sheets.


            Red eyes flaring, Nariko dodged Magog's other arm and closed in. A crater was blasted on his chest as someone took a shot at him with some sort of heavy gun.


            Cutting at his fingers, Ranma's tail thrashed; she had one free hand. Fire washed over his brutish lupine face. Lunging forward, his jaws bit down on her arm.


             Obviously, Magog wanted to take his time. He was furious. He wanted to make the redhead hurt, instead of simply crushing her into paste, or biting her head off.


            Screaming, Ranma narrowed her eyes and twin beams shot out. He shook her, but until he bit through her arm their faces were transfixed. The purple beams cut into the wolf's golden eyes. They boiled and exploded.


            Both screamed, then Ranma detonated a DarkStar Burst. Magog's jaw blew apart and Ranma's arm ripped off.


            Tessa screamed and launched a blast of Hellfire.


            My stomach turned, but there was something I could do. Nariko's wings flapped as she tried to jump to dogge Magog's grabbing arm.  "Forzare!" I cried as my magic blasted the Denarian's limb aside.


            At the apex of her leap, Nariko's katana slashed down. There was a bit of resistance as it hit the demonic hide of Magog's wrist. The blade flashed, flesh and bone parted.


            Magog's right hand hit the ground with a thud. The Denarian howled in rage. The platinum haired demon rushed in and peeled her mother out of the giant fingers, while Nariko stood guard.


            Glaring with hate-filled eyes, Tessa turned and with another blinding burst of Hellfire burned through the door Ranma and I had used to enter the garage.


            Well, two can play that game. "Pyrofuego!" I yelled, using a lance of fire to slam her into the concrete wall. The mantis demon then turned and in a hoarse screech cast her own force-spell, knocking me down.


            As I fell, I noticed that the green miasma had gotten higher, maybe up to my knees. Well, if I were standing.


            Tessa leapt though the hole she had burned in the armored door. I heard an echoing explosion, and the retort of sniper rifles. I recalled the wall panels in the airlock on the other side of that door.


            As I pulled myself up, I could see Ukyou dragging Ranma's body off... blood smearing the ground. The tingle on my neck increased as Magog's hateful bellow returned. Though, it was more of an inarticulate scream with his lower jaw turned to pulp.


            Her face set tight and eyes narrowed, Nariko shouted orders to her sisters and pointed with her sword. I wasn't sure what she said, but I stood up shakily.


            His remaining glowing Fallen's eyes full of madness, Magog made a beeline for Nariko.


            Then the other girls struck. I could feel the hate radiating off of them.


            Misako intercepted him with a fresh belt of grenades. It was then that I noticed the greenish miasma was thickest around her legs and it actually seemed to be pulsing, even flowing from Magog to her.


            I then noticed that the Denarian was still blinded in his lupine eyes, still had a mangled jaw. And that the bleeding hadn't even stopped from his right forearm stump.


            The blue haired demons came in a pair.

 

            Misako ceased her grenades as the older one struck. Shadows sprung out from Akane's legs and blew up around Magogs' feet. The younger one came in and launched a burst of ice into the Denarian's thighs. The frozen slivers sliced into the thick hide and exploded, shredding flesh.


            Magog bellowed and turned to them instead of Nariko, but in doing so had to widen his stance.


            Flicking out a pair of great folding daggers made out of the same material as Nariko's sword, the tiny demon then fell into a slide.


            I rushed forward. I knew that move; it was flashy and risky, but if she could pull it off...


            Then she shot between Magog's legs and with each arm sliced through the Denarian's hamstrings.


            Just as Magog lunged downward, Ukyou opened up with her rifle, the heavy rounds blasting apart the Denarian's remaining meaty paw.


            I caught up to the little power-blue haired demon. I looked up. Even mangled and sliced apart the wolf-monster was an imposing mass of muscle. "Forzare!" A blast of force hit the floundering Denarian in the chest.


            There was a burbling howl as Magog hit the concrete floor; his legs unable to support his weight. His wounds were healing... but with an agonizing slowness.


            "Ahhhh..." I said with realization. The grenades and other opening attacks were a distraction. Misako and Ukyou were laying the real groundwork. While Ukyou's mental whammy ensured Magog was too enraged to think straight, Misako's miasma kept his injuries from healing. Probably by draining him in some way. After that, it was a matter of keeping him off balanced until they could knock him down.


            "Nicely done. The bigger they are..." I offered a hand to Nabiki.


            "Yeah, yeah," the little demons said as she stood back up.


            As Magog tried to pull himself up, Nariko darted in. Dodging a stumpy arm she stabbed forward with her blade spearing a glowing Fallen Angel eye and into the creature's skull.   The Denarian was down to one eye left.


             "Lightning Devastation," the succubus coldly stated.


            Lightning flashed down, frying the glowing eye and boiling brains.


            Sniffing the air, almost savoring the scent, Nabiki smiled. "Go on Mr. Wizard, we can finish this up.


            "Watch out for the coin," I stated. Ukyou and the others had gotten closer.


            "First thing we'll do is find it." The platinum blonde demon promised and pulled a combat knife, not do dissimilar from my K-bar, out of a sheath on her vest.


            I turned and saw five demons descend on the Denarian. Each had a blade of some type in their hands. Including a wan, blinking redhead.


            Running towards the door Tessa had burned through, I didn't spare much of a look at the butchery behind me.

 

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

 

 
               The burned edges of the steel door were still glowing. Which meant they were still far too hot to touch. I gauged the size of the hole, then glanced down the hallway.


               Tessa was a short little monster, but on the upside, Hellfire tended to burn pretty big holes into stuff. The narrow hallway between the two sets of doors was blasted and battered. The panels lining the walls were just... gone. The metal frames they had been set in were twisted wrecks and behind that the concrete was blasted and pockmarked.


               Clearly my estimate that there had been dozens of claymore mines hidden in the walls was... optimistic.


               "This is a bad idea." I exhaled a bit and pulled my staff in close. "Parkour!" I shouted jumping through the hole. My boots just cleared the bottom of the hole as my knees pulled in.


               I then hit the ground running and jumped over some burned wreckage. I could see burnt smears of what might be blood in the middle of the floor. I quickly crossed the hallway and with another cry jumped through the second door Tessa had burned through.


               My boots then hit the tile floor and skidded to a halt.


               The next room was.... empty. After the devastation of the garage and the airlock the pristine security station was eerie. It looked like the guards had just stepped away from the heavy counter. Only the scent of burnt plastic rising from the room's electronics belied that status.


            "They pulled back. That means..." I murmured. There was an explosion down the corridor followed by another insectile screech. "Oh, crap."


            Taking my staff, I resumed my run.


            "You!" Tessa screamed. She had stopped short at an intersection with a perpendicular corridor. A crystal pendant held in one clawed hand and was being drawn to the left.


            "Me," I gave a strained grin and looked past her down the far end of the hallway.


            There was a hissing whoosh as another rocket shot towards her.


            With contemptuous ease, she flicked her wrist and a shimmering green shield popped into existence and the rocket's payload blasted against it.


            "Impudence," the Denarian hissed as she slowly turned.


            Glancing at a panel just beyond the intersection, I chuckled. It was the same panel Dirac had fiddled with. "You don't know the half of it. Defendarius!" I cried dodging to the side.


            The shield sprang up around me. A chain of little charges detonated at Tessa's feet, blasting clear a circle of tiles which revealed a blackish-red line.


            The air hummed as the circle energized. Even from here, I could smell burning ink and blood. For a split second confusion clouded Tessa's face, until her shield began to fritz and flicker.


            That's when the heavy machine guns to my left opened up.  Rounds started to hit. Chitin armor broke and shattered. Blood spurted as Tessa raised her hand and fed more power into her shield.


            I screamed in surprise but held my own shield. Not because I was worried about being hit by them. No... I was worried about the demonic sniper straight down the other corridor.


            Which unfortunately, put me downrange of a giant gun longer than its shooter was tall. There was a heavy boom that resonated over the machine guns.


            A hole blew though Tessa's chest. Her mandibles scythed and with each arm she fired a beam of hellfire down each of the corridors.


            Screeching as her armor reformed, she slammed the floor with a clawed foot, broke through the circle, and darted down the remaining corridor to my left.


            Which led to the room where the books were kept.


            I started running.

 

            The layout of their ambush, meant the Company knew Tessa was going that way...


            Which meant they had another trap planned. And given that Tessa was still holding back her sorcerous power...


            I started to run faster. Then I started to wave my hands to the mercenaries.


            The two approaching demons stopped just across the intersection. One was tall with bright green hair and eyes and the other was shorter with dark red hair. The green-haired one carried one of those thick boxy rifles that fired the thumb-sized rounds.


            Her companion carried a gigantic sniper rifle. Up close, it was no less ridiculous. The barrel still reminded me of a length of drainage pipe. She'd slotted in another hardcover book-sized magazine and maneuvered the lengthy gun.


            In the confines of the corridors, it was fairly awkward. But she still managed to turn and face the wall on the right side of the hallway. Holding the gun vertical, she then dropped to one knee


            Hells Bells, the thing was only a hair shorter than my staff.


            Edging to the corner, my boots crunched on the shattered tile around Dirac's magic circle. Wisps of smoke and sparks still rose up from it.


            Meeting my eyes, the green-haired demon pointed with a gloved finger. She then pointed to her sister, then to the sniper rifle, then to me, then made a sweeping motion with her hand over her forehead.


            I blinked. Why did they have to do this secret squirrel stuff? Still it was simple enough. She wanted me to protect Little Red while she made the shot.


            I then made the thumb and forefinger "Okay" symbol. And, amusingly, Miss Green nodded and squeezed her sister's shoulder.


            I had a fraction of a second to be amused at my ability to speak spy-spook.


            Then Miss Green fired a bolt of green fire across the intersection.


            Suddenly, the machineguns stopped.


            The succubus sniper leaned to her right and the giant gun snapped down.


            I stepped to the side and lowered my staff crossing it diagonally over that ridiculous barrel.


            "Defendarius!" I cried focusing my shield bracelet out via my staff, concentrating to keep a gap around the barrel itself. Down the length of the corridor, Tessa had her own green shield up as she used a narrow, blinding lance of fire like a blowtorch to burn a hole through an armored door.


            The lack of overt Hellfire concerned me. Either that trap had taken more out of her and she wasn't able to slag through doors in one go, or she had decided to hold that ability in reserve for the moment.


            The auburn haired sniper, apparently, had no such musing. The instant her gun came down she pulled the trigger. In the confined space the detonation was deafening. The first round slammed into Tessa's shield.


            Her partner also opened fire. The green energy rippled as each round hit, like a pebble being dropped into a placid lake.


            However, the armor piercing grenade reacted more like fast-balling an iron ball into a pond. Instead of ripples the entire surface splashed, undulated, and frothed. Then the grenade exploded.


            Tessa set her face and poured in more will. The entire surface frothed. But at the point of impact....


            There was a small gap. Screaming in rage, Tessa's form blurred and shot forward.


            The sniper-rifle boomed again. And, despite the lithe Denarian's twisting motions as she bounded and dodged, the sniper hit the... exact.... same spot on her shield.


            This time the grenade tore through the shield dug into chitin armor and exploded.
            Bleeding ichor, Tessa stumbled.


            That's when I acted.


            "Forzare!" I screamed, pushing more Soulfire into the spell. A shimmering ghostly hand shot out from the end of my staff, caught the squirming Denarian and slammed her into the armored door.


            The little sniper fired two more rounds, blasting chiton, flesh, and blood off of Tessa's chest.


            I followed with a  sweep of my staff. "Infriga!"  Needle like icicles froze out of the air and shot towards the mantis-girl in a barrage.


            The sniper was raising her rifle when Tessa gave a screech that was somehow even louder than the giant rifle.


             That end of the corridor exploded in a blinding flash of sickly green light.


            Angry buzzing energy and shards of steel and concrete slammed against my shield. The barrel and muzzle brake that extended beyond my shield were burnt and covered in carbon and scratches.


            Feeling the heat pressing against the shield, I gasped and held. And held. Then with one final push I released the spell and nearly stumbled to the floor. Bracing hot air still washed over me, but it was like standing by an oven... instead of a blast furnace.


            Her face betraying a bit of shock, the green haired demon glanced at me.


            "That's what happens when you corner her!" I shouted, my ears ringing. Once again I thanked my earplugs. Though even with them I'd be lucky to come out of this with just tinnitus. "Forzare!" I repeated, this time without the extra soul juice.


            The smoke and debris cleared, revealing an impressively damaged hallway. And that the two inch armored steel blast door was simply... gone.


            The green haired demon stepped forward and covered while her sister reloaded the bulky sniper rifle. She then smiled with a flash of teeth and darted down the hallway.


            Grumbling, I followed her and her sister.

 

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

 


            We passed the room where I had studied the books with the other eggheads. Evidently the case had been moved. Which made sense; why else stick the books in a locked case?


            Still, I was pretty sure Tessa knew where the books were. That pendent she was using probably had a piece of the Testament in it. Given we knew the Brotherhood had pages from the book... they could have provided her with some scraps. Or maybe she tore off a corner herself after she bought the book with the wolves.


            Either way, with a scrap from the book, she could do a bit of thaumaturgy and generate a link that would draw her inexorably towards the Testament. It was an easy enough spell. Heck, it was the one I used all the time as a Private Investigator to find things.


            Which meant...


            I upped my pace, using the Winter Mantle and my longer legs to sprint past the two demons. The corridor was ending ahead of us. Fifty feet ahead of me, Tessa reached the door at the end of the hallway. More doors were on opposite wall, including one that was ajar, but the Denarian ignored those and slashed through a plain metal door.


            After tearing through multiple reinforced steel blast doors, this one fell easily.


            My disquiet grew.


            See, these mercenaries were a paranoid bunch. They put in layers of defense and prepared their facility in a way that would make Marcone give a grudging nod of respect.

            "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone, was the undisputed leader of the Chicago criminal-underworld, employer of a literal Valkyrie, and a Freeholding Lord under the Unseelie Accords. He also believed in preparation and designed his facilities to take on supernatural and magical enemies. Frankly, I'd be a bit insulted if he didn't. But when the Denarians came after him, they managed to compromise his safe-house and abduct him.


            These mercenaries... I wasn't so sure.


            As the mantis monster jumped into the bare concrete room, more clicked into place.


            They knew Tessa was after the book. Stars and Stones, they heard her demand for it. Which was why they didn't immediately open fire. They wanted to be sure of what she was after.


            They tried to stop her in the garage. They failed. But they accomplished two consolation goals. First, they stripped her of support. Instead of having Magog, Mr. Seaweed, and a gaggle of wolfmen rampaging in the facility... it was just her.


            Second, they slowed her down. And since they knew exactly where she was going, that bought them time to clear the corridors, put people in place for their ambushes, and...


            I looked into the room. It was empty except for some crates, what looked like a pile of conduit tubing, filters and HVAC supplies, and a large, thick fire-safe bolted to the far wall.


            The Denarian went straight to the safe. Even Tessa would need to spend some effort to get through that. That is if she didn't want to burn the book to ashes. She held her hands and a narrow, blinding jet of Hellfire began to carefully cut through the thick steel plating.


            The mercenaries had planned this. Or I should say, they anticipated this. They figured Tessa would somehow get here, that she'd find her way to the book. I had spent a whole briefing warning them about how dangerous she was. It looks like, for once, someone had listened to me.

 

            It was a novel feeling on my part.


            And now they had Tessa, who was alone, who had been injured, who had been harried every step of the way, who was now distracted by finally seeing her prize in front of her.


            The ajar door to left of the safe-room silently opened further.


            Slipping through, a statuesque figure held a green satchel with one arm. She was tall with her blonde hair tied back in a tight bun. With one smooth motion she yanked a cord with her other hand, paused for an aching moment, and then lobbed the satchel though the doorway into the safe-room.


            I was down on the ground a split second before the green-haired demon's hand pushed my shoulder down. So, those two demons had caught up to me. I concentrated; my shield went up enveloping the three of us.


            The tall blonde then pulled back and slammed against the wall inside the room she'd come from. The green satchel skidded on the tile floor and bumped against the hooked feet of Tessa's mantis armor.

 

            Hearing the door move, Tessa had already spun and was about to kick the satchel charge. She was too late.


            It detonated.


            Most of the explosion was caught in the room. But the hallway gave a convenient funnel for a lot of the pressure-wave. I took a moment to realize I was lying with two very... healthy young women. Even if most of their figures were obscured by their armor.


            My musing was interrupted when a secondary explosion rocked the hallway. It was a bit larger than the first.


            This time I laughed. Of course there was more than one bomb! What had they told me? Two is one, one is none. Heaven forbid, you have only one bomb, what would you do if it was a dud?


            I could see thrashing and inhuman screaming from inside the safe-room. Greenish light roiled and flashed from within. Once again Morgan touched my shoulder. She then lifted me up.


            As I got back up and raced towards Tessa, I saw the tall blonde dart out of the side room for a second time. This time Eve as accompanied by her third daughter.


            The shorter black-haired demon had something with tanks awkwardly slung on her back, interfering with her wings. In her hands was a long metal wand connected to those tanks via a hose. She pulled one trigger and the tip of the wand sparked, she pulled the other trigger and a bright yellow gout of fire shot into the room. She twisted the wand splashing it back and forth.


            A second later Eve flexed her hands and a jet of blue flames launched out. The magical napalm hit the mundane stuff and exploded in a blinding corona that left spots on my vision.


            "Now that's just not fair," I gasped as the safe-room became a hellish inferno.  The back blast from the fire attacks roasted my skin.


            The flamethrower guttered out. The black haired demon lifted the back trigger and shrugged the backpack off her shoulders. I guess those things didn't have much capacity. Then again it looked like it was dumping what half a gallon a second? The tanks looked only a few gallons in size each.


            The figure within the inferno had stopped screaming. Which would have been a relief if she wasn't standing stock still. A green aura flared around her battered from.


           I had seen this magic before. It took a lot of skill and concentration to ward off this much heat and walk in an inferno. But it could be done.


            I coughed, smoke was already billowing out of the room and it was getting rather hard to breathe. The Denarian didn't seem to notice. Even the demons at least coughed once or twice as Eve and her green-haired daughter had switched to their rifles and fired into the Denarian.


            I could see vast swaths of her insectile armor were simply gone, leaving Tessa's pale human skin visible. However, the figure's eyes, both human and her Fallen burned with hate.


            She reached into a section of her exoskeleton and pulled out a black crystal that glinted in the firelight.


            "Stop her!" I shouted.


            Morgan snapped her sniper-rifle and blew Tessa's arm off at the elbow. Her clawed hand twitched as it and the crystal fell to the floor. I noticed that while Tessa hissed in pain, her eyes were still triumphant.


            The crystal hit the burned tile. It shattered. Sparkling black sharks skittered across the floor like a fine powder.


            The flames stopped.

            I mean they completely stopped. One second there was inferno the next it was a steaming, smoking, burnt beyond recognition room. The air still shimmered with heat.


            Oxygen.


            The room had lost its oxygen. Without that fire couldn't burn. And without it... That meant....


            My head pounded and dizziness grew as I started to twitch. My lungs burned. The Winter Mantle raged at this, but I knew that was a sucker's bet. The Mantle didn't give me any extra power, it just let me ignore my body's limitations. Granted without those limitations, I could train like nothing else.


             Except oxygen deprivation wasn't something you could just ignore. It wasn't something you could train against. If I let the mantle run wild I could fight... but then I'd just get hypoxia all the faster.


            The four succubae attacked, I could tell their moves were more sluggish and uncoordinated.


            Tessa laughed as she strode forward. "I know about of your little affinity for fire. So, I came prepared," she said, her voice echoing oddly.  Provably a side effect of her spell.


            My vision dimmed, but I could make out a green shimmer around her mandibles. Of course she brought her own air supply. How else would she have kept her lungs from boiling in the inferno?


            "Enough carbon dioxide to tamp out any fires. And enough carbon monoxide to knock out any meddlers," Tessa gloated.


            Then a pair of ice-blue beams shot out of Eve's eyes and knocked the battered one-armed Denarian onto the floor in front of the safe.


            Despite myself I snickered, of course the massive safe had survived. As I wondered if Tessa had cut enough to ruin its fire rating, I slumped forward and the green-haired demon caught me as she dragged me back while the others fired on Tessa.


            My vision started to grey out, bluffing at the edges. I tried to dig my heels as I was being pulled away. My head swam, and everything went dark.

 

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

 


            Light blared into my eyes as something pressed against my face and a cool blast gushed into my lungs.


            Someone batted my side. "Wake up Mr. Wizard," a familiar voice purred in a somewhat muffled voice.


            "Graa," I muttered behind the oxygen mask. In front of me glowing purple eyes came into focus. My vision was still blurry but something seemed off about her face.

 
            "Looks like I missed some fun," Ranma said pulling me up. We were in a side room down the hall from the safe-room. Eve and her daughters were there. They had already removed their oxygen masks. And were slipping on goggles and gas masks. Lousy demons and their supernatural recovery. Outside I could hear more gunfire. Including Misako's crazy machine grenade gun.


            "You're a lucky man, acute carbon monoxide poisoning isn't something a human can just take a hit of oxygen and walk away from," Ranma said.


            I coughed. "I told you she'd react badly to being cornered," I said. Or I tried to. The mask may have garbled it.


            "Correct, Mr. Dresden." Eve stated, her voice raspy and hoarse. "The target is contained for the moment. And is focused on breaching the safe. A fortunate side effect to her countermeasures is that even her fire magic is far less effective at cutting through the armor."


            I could see the green-haired demon watching the safe-room via some type of compact periscope. She periodically stated which part of the safe Tessa was cutting through.


            "Well, isn't our glass half full of napalm," I groaned and pulled at the mask. I turned to Ranma and blinked. Then blinked again.


            She had both her arms. That wasn't surprising. And she had a... contented well-fed aura about her. That wasn't surprising either. Not that I wanted to contemplate on exactly how she had gotten well-fed.


            What did surprise me...


            After a few more breaths my vision cleared up.


            For starters her face was definitely... different. Her features were sharper with a little upturned nose and sharp cheekbones. But unlike in the break room yesterday her cheeks weren't hollow nor was her chin-line sharp.


            No, she definitely looked well-fed. Also her face was a glossy and smoothly feminine mask with inlaid makeup and gold tracery. Porcelain white, her features had solid purple eyes, ruby eyebrows, and full plump purple lips.


            "Mr. Wizard?" The redhead asked. The lips on the mask stayed sealed.


            "Uh... new mask?"


            The demon chuckled. The effect eerie given her unmoving features. "Protection," she simply said.


            I blinked and looked at the glossy red updo her hair had been sculpted into. Behind the larger pair of spiraling black horns was a massive layered bun. I suppose it could be armor.... or armor like. At least there were no loose strands to grab or catch fire.


            Lower was a set of contoured pale lavender chest armor. It reminded me of the bodice Ranma wore when she sat in my lap. Except instead of showing generous cleavage, this one went to her shoulders and clasped around her neck. Also this garment was thicker around her torso. Disquietingly the metallic armor had ice-blue inlaid trim.


            A set of gleaming leather harnesses and pouches was strapped over the chest armor. A familiar heavy knife slung from one sheath and a large pistol was holstered on an opposing chest rig. The holster was made of strange leather, perhaps some kind of sharkskin or manta ray.


            Her forearms had bracers made out of the same lavender material. Under the bracers and running up her arms was some sort of textured silver bodysuit. If I didn't know better I'd say it was her own skin.


            I definitely avoided looking too closely at her silvery hands. Other than to notice that her talons had returned. But unlike the flashy long ones she had in the break room, these were thicker and more business-like, more stabbing and piercing than slashing.


            Her skirt was something else. Curved spade-shaped dark purple plates the size of postcards overlaid each other like scale armor to fall over her legs down to just above the armored greaves over her hooves. They were anchored up top by gleaming silver armor with blue tracery that went around her waist and linked to the bottom of her bodice.


            Each segment fronted matte material that seemed to drink in the light, but if I had my guess it had a ceramic plate backing, to give some extra ballistic protection.


             The spades overlaid more flexible and smaller inner plates forming a fluted pleated structure that could bend and twist. Which I had plenty of opportunity to observe as she checked me over and fitted me with my own set of goggles. In addition to extending the strap she also disabled some sort of computer display and pulled the batteries. She then bent down and took out a gasmask to clip under the goggles.


            So, I had ample chances to watch how both the bodice and skirt moved. Honestly, I was making sure her armor was fitted probably. Honest.


            Below the hem of the skirt peeked a pair of lavender greaves that locked over grand hooves with white edges that gleamed with wicked sharpness.


            Gazing down allowed me to determine that additional armor flexibility was given by slits on the left and right hip of the skirt. Behind the slits, similar material covering her hips was visible, flaring them out, including solid plates on the sides of her hips giving extra armor over shapely legs thick with muscle. The additional width caused the skirt plates to be pushed out at the top of her hips around her backside.


            Because of this, the silver armor that the skirt segments hung from arched further out in her back and actually curved down arcing over the tops of her thighs. With her thick, two yard long tail emerging from the back, the whole thing resembled a molded armored bustle. Worse, I noticed that the ice-blue tracery formed a single snowflake over each cheek.


            My face flushed.


            Ranma looked over her shoulder and somehow her mask winked. She then slipped a taloned hand into my coat and secured an oxygen bottle that ran to my mask.


            "If we've made sure we're properly attired," Eve stated.


            "One last thing," Ranma said in her muffled voice. Nimble talons opened a pouch and a grey plastic cube dropped into my hand with a metallic rattle. I almost dropped it.


            "Don't worry, Nariko made sure no one touched it when Magog's body shrank down into a human and we found the collar around his neck."


            "Uh... great..." I said slipping it into an inner pocket in my coat. A deep one.


            "Pattern Silvers have arrived at the ready point," the black haired daughter of Eve said, holding blocky telephone. It looked like something a lineman or a phone technician would use. Braided cables ran from the phone to a plug in a far wall.


            "Good, keep them there as reserve. I want them mobile in case we need to contain a breakout."


            One of Eve's daughters spoke into the phone, she looked back up. "I've now got HVAC control on the line.


             Eve nodded. "Good, can they do the flood?"


            The daughter frowned. "They have the O2 reserves but..."


            "Yes, fire suppression systems have been compromised. We'll burn that bridge when we get to it," Eve snapped.


            "Wait..." I blinked. "Do you have sprinklers?"


            "We have several types of foam and gas systems," Eve said a tad irritably. "We had to remotely turn them off in that room of course."


            "No. Do you have water? Plain water."


            Eve's eyebrow went up. She then gave a thin smile.


            "If you can pour water into that room...."


            The blonde nodded. "Sophie, see to it that when Mr. Dresden arrives he'll have plenty of... working material."


            "Yes, Ma'am," the daughter said before ordering into her phone.


            "Target is on the last two bolts, less than thirty before the safe is open," the green haired demoness said.


            Ranma turned to Eve and the two sisters exchanged a look.


            Eve cleared her throat. "Mr. Dresden. Do you have any electricity based spells? Like say an electric discharge sufficient to vaporize an electric wire?"


            Next to her the armored redhead's lips somehow shifted into a grin.


            "Uh... yeah I can do something."


            Handing me my staff, Ranma slapped my back and grabbed the door back into the corridor. The pounding grenade and rifle fire stopped.


            The armored demon pounced across the threshold, and I followed.

 

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

 


            My neck tingled. Maybe from the demonic emotional mind magic. Maybe because I had some amount of carbon monoxide poisoning and really shouldn't be fighting. Maybe because I was running towards a pissed-off, cornered, Fallen Angel. Maybe because said Fallen had been pummeled by machine guns, grenades, and grenade machine guns, all of which were now pointed at my back.


            Or maybe, it was because the last time I fought Tessa it was also in an underground vault room. And that time she had covered me in creepy bugs that crawled all over me, in me, and whispered me maddening secrets.


            It took the intervention of a Knight of the Cross to drive her off. And while the Knights were known to show up just in the nick of time... I was pretty sure I was a bit out of their jurisdiction now. Still, I would have loved to have a Knight show up and help me.


            So yeah, there were plenty of reasons why I wasn't feeling too great about this. Let's not neglect that I was wearing a hot gasmask because Tessa, of all people, was the one to finally figure out how to defeat my preference for fire attacks.


            Still, the caveman part of me, well I preferred to call it my chivalrous part, didn't want to have a woman take the brunt of the damage in my place. Even if said woman was a succubus who had already been wounded far, far worse than I had been today.


            On the other hand, watching the redhead run did reveal something. With each powerful lunching step her tail grew longer and thicker. Almost four inches at the base the dark purple tail started to push more vertical as her torso leaned forward a bit, her legs and hooves also adjusting to the slight change in stance.


            Three yards long, the massive tail curled up. And actually rose up past one of her folded wings, the end lifting to nearly shoulder height. I watched her hips grow out, the flare increasing to support all that tail-weight. The silver armor in back also widened and lowered further down in a sculpted sweep. The snowflake adornments seemed even larger and twinkled with an icy rime.


            All of which I noticed because I was concerned about her structural support. Actually, what did concern me were the half-dozen icy blue iridescent ribbons that trailed off the fins of her tail. Twinkling with an uncomfortably fae-like script the translucent streamers writhed behind her lofted tail.


            Her hands went up and a pair of DarkStar Bursts were shot off. The dark orbs exploding against Tessa's green shield. Hissing, the Denarian turned. One of her arms looked withered and misshapen. As if her armored exoskeleton was simply wrapped over her human skeleton.


           Black wisps of fog still clung to the floor. So, she still had her anti-oxygen spell up. Her other hand wielded a narrow, cutting torch-like, beam of Hellfire. Her eyes widened at me, then blinked at the armored succubus.


            "Forzare!" I cried using her distraction. My voice was all muffled, but it's not like that was important. Invisible force lanced out, slamming Tessa into the burned safe.


            Still rushing, Ranma's tail shot out, as she crossed the threshold. The heavy appendage slammed into Tessa's shield. Ribbons of ice twisted and cut. The shield flashed, two of the ribbons melted. The shield parted. And the rest plunged through. Strips of razor sharp ice slashing into the Denarian's armor, prying under chitin plates. Tessa went down in a greenish smear of ichor.


            Then the sprinklers hit. Well, the actual sprinkler heads had already been melted, bent, or outright destroyed. But since the water supply had been cut off to the room ahead of time, the room had stayed dry. However the pipes were still there, and once the flow was turned back on...


            Water sprayed down from the blasted ceiling in uneven spurts and fits. Some sections were blocked entirely and no water fell, and in the far right corner a pipe had busted and water simply poured out.


            Which suited me just fine.


            "Infriga!" I cried as my goggles threatened to fog. I pointed my staff to the sluicing downpour and swung it towards Tessa. The wave of freezing water followed and spattered against her form.


            The ribbons on Ranma's tail continued to slash through the armor and tear at the diminutive body beneath. Then the Denarian screamed. The sound cut into my skull. If I hadn't been wearing the ear plugs I probably would have gone deaf. However the likelihood of prolonged tinnitus had increased.


            As it was, I barely had time to duck when the block of ice exploded behind a wall of force. Chunks splattered against me. Then, with another ear-rending screech, Tessa held out her withered arm.


            I flew back and slammed into the concrete wall a few feet to the right of the door. Eyes burning, Tessa flicked her other hand and Ranma went flying. As the demoness pulled herself back up, the Denarian grabbed the steel door to the safe and pulled.


            Metal groaned and creaked, then the last bolts gave way and the door tore free. She heaved the thick steel door into the air, and then, with an evil grin she hit it with a blast of magical force and the thee foot by six foot three inch slab of steel rocketed towards me.


            I rolled to the side just as the safe door smashed against the floor with a crunch of breaking concrete and a cloud of fine dust. The hellfire blowtorched edge was less than an inch from my right leg.


            My relief was short lived as right on the heels of the safe door was Tessa's pouncing form. "Why must you interfere!" she raged as her claws raked down.


            The Winter Mantle surged as ice formed around my fingers. My arms shot up, long ice talons blocking Tessa's mantis claws. I then kicked out. Say what you will about super demonic strength. I had more leverage, and I was already on the ground.


            Tessa howled as my boot slammed into her ankle. I then tried to sink my claws into her shoulders as she slashed at me. Then Ranma lunged at her from the side and knocked her all the way to the ground, tail stabbing and claws piercing.

 
            The Denarian hit the redhead with another force blast. The succubus crashed into me, the writhing ribbons of her tail falling just to the side of my left hand. There were still hunks of exoskeleton and flesh hooked onto Ranma's claws.

            Tessa looked down at where her armor and parts of her shoulder and chest had just been ripped off. Blood and ichor poured freely.


            "You dangerous, mute lunatic!" she hissed at the demon raising a hand.


            Then the sniper rifle boomed.


            The side of her torso blowing apart, Tessa spun and summoned a shield that flared up in the doorframe. Further hits blasted against the shield. I frowned; she was pumping a lot of power to keep that up.


            Then again... this was probably what she was holding back for. Giving a frustrated screech, Tessa darted to the safe and pulled out the metal case.


            "You know, I'm gonna have to see your library card before you can take those out," I wheezed as Ranma flopped off me and slumped onto the floor. Her hooves shifted and fell against the wall.


            I looked up and saw Tessa's mandibles spread, revealing all too human looking lips.


            "There's got to be an easier way to take out old Nick," I said.


            Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the redhead's tail swish, and her legs tense.


            Tessa smiled. "I'll tell Nicodemus that you gave every effort trying to save him."


            Kicking off the wall, Ranma slid across the wrecked floor. Her right arm shot out and hooked Tessa's leg.


            I then leveled my staff. "Forzare!" My blast of force hit her in the chest.


            Tessa knocked to the floor. She held onto the case with a death-grip. Ranma ignored that and with her left hand grabbed one of Tessa's mandibles and wrenched it off.


            This time the Denarian didn't scream. Blood poured down her face.


            Ranma rose, her armor stained and dusty. Her mask seemed almost amused. She let the mandible fall to the ground.


            I watched as it started to smolder with green fire.


            Then I saw that the hate, the fury in Tessa's eyes had gone cold.


            "Oh, crap," I muttered and then looking back to the mandible shot out a burst of Winter power and froze it in a block of ice.


            Then Tessa slammed the briefcase onto Ranma's head. The Denarian hit the redhead with a surge of speed. Hellfire shot out, and I ducked to the left as a blast nearly took the side of my face. The attack had also blown past the redhead's skirting.


            Spade-shaped plates hissed and cracked as the entire left side of the succubus's skirting slumped to one side. There was even a smoking furrow cut into the side of her hip.


            I pulled myself up. "Forzare!" I said, this time my blast only pushed Tessa back a couple of feet. Still it separated the two.


            Ranma used the opportunity to pull something out of a vest pocket. I recognized the long device Eve had handed her when we left for lunch.


            A detonator. Lovely, of course they had another bomb. A clawed finger flicked the rocker cover and pressed the button up top.


            Nothing.


            There was a bare moment of silence. Tessa's head tilted.


            "Mr. Wizard, shock the case!" Ranma ordered. Despite the mask, her voice was clear, demanding.


            I dug deep. Normally, I had to have a channel, or at least a conductive path to do this. But electricity can arc through air. Just look at lightning strikes. "Ventas Fulmino!" I screamed pouring Soulfire into the spell. The magical matrix added strength, but more importantly, it added structure.


            A silver bolt shot out from my staff and hit the metal case.


            Which promptly detonated in a blinding flash and a metallic crump. Despite the gasmask I wore, the scent of burning paper still hit my nostrils.


            Tessa still held the case. But it was a burnt husk. The sides had blown out, the bottom had fallen to the ground and fine slivers of ash sifted out.


            A deep chuckle came from the redhead as she stalked towards the Denarian.


            Tessa's eyes went down to follow the twirling ashes. Her hand opened; the shredded case hit the ground with a thud.


            "I told you, you had to show your library card. These people take book theft very seriously," I snarked. Well, I thought it came off well, Tessa seemed more confused. Maybe my gas mask muffled it.


            Glancing to my left, I activated my shield.


            "You petty annoyances." Without one of her mandibles, Tessa's face looked even more wrong and lopsided. "If you think this-"


            And that's when the redhead pounced, her talons hooked into Tessa's cheek and she launched a DarkStar Burst. The obsidian sphere must not have been entirely fire based. Or maybe it had its own oxygen.


            Either way it exploded, snapping the Denarian's head back. Tessa's shield went down and I swung my staff at one of her knees. It hit, and the six foot length of oak reverberated against the armored limb. Still there was only so much armor you could add if you wanted a joint to still bend.


            Another a dome of force pulsed out knocking Ranma and myself back.


            That's when the machine guns opened up from the hallway. Heavy rounds peppering and beginning to piece Tessa's armor. Her body bled and ichor fell. A look of supreme frustration crossed her face. Then with one arm she pointed to the ceiling and with the other she pointed to the floor.


            The swirling black fog at our feet fell to the ground in piles of dull black crystals. That meant that oxygen could come back into the room.


            "Hellfire!" I screamed as the angry vivid red lance shot out of her upraised hand.

            The ceiling breached and a tunnel started to burn through. I pulled Ranma to my side and held my shield as molten and flaming debris began to fall.


            Smoke filled the room, and for once I appreciated the stupid mask tied to my face. Shouting and gunfire also increased.


            Then the gunfire and shouting dissipated. After a minute or so the smoke did too. I blinked my eyes blearily. Despite my judgment I pulled off my goggles and rubbed them. That also pulled my mask off. Acrid air burned my throat a bit.


            There was a tugging on my arm. I looked down and saw talons gingerly holding my arm as I was dragged out of the safe room by the redhead.


            We were met by Eve's grim face in the hallway. Sophie was at her side still talking on the combat phone.


            Ranma's mask had retreated, exposing her face. "Come on, we've got to get topside and-"


            Eve shook her head.


            "The Silvers and two teams intercepted her."


            I noticed a bit of worry flicker across the redhead's face. "And?"


            "They blew her up." Sophie said cradling her phone. "Then a swarm of insects flew off. Miss Hino and Miss Kino tagged a mess of 'em but..."


            "Give me that," Ranma ordered holding out a hand.


            Sophie complied.


            "Uh, that's actually something Tessa can do."


            "Yes, you said she could split up into 'lots of nasty little bugs', " Eve said shooting Ranma a look.


            The redhead glared back but continued with whoever was on the other end. "What do you mean the bugs you got are still burning? Even the ones Mina took out?" the redhead growled. "Forget that. What happened?"


            I shuffled out of the room. The green-haired demon took my arm and helped me lean against the wall. I slumped back a bit. A canteen was pressed into my hand. As I sipped, she held my cheeks and inspected me before patting down my arms, legs, and torso. Her hands even went high up the inseam of my pants and around the back of my thighs.


            "What?" I asked as the business-like inspection continued.


            "Injury check. When the adrenalin is up people often miss that they've been wounded," the demon said as she checked my neck. "I once got my side slashed up and hardly noticed it."


            "Oh..." I sipped some water.  Ranma had mentioned something similar after the fight in the park.


            "Nothing's broken or squirting," she patted me on the back. "Still, the doc should look you over...." her expression clouded. "Well, once things calm down."


            I nodded. I was a pretty low priority. Hells Bells, by my standards of injury, I'd gotten out of this pretty lucky. I took another sip and leaned back, sliding a bit further down the wall.


            Despite that, the demon's expression brightened. "Thanks for the help," she patted me on the shoulder. At least that was at an easier height for her to reach now.


            "Okay..."


            "Why don't we take five?" she said leaning against the wall next to me. "We'll let the brass square things away for a bit?"


            I nodded. That sounded like a wonderful idea.


            "So, how did you get to be a wizard cop?" the green-haired demon asked.

 

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

 


            I chatted with the green-haired succubus for a few minutes and learned a bit about her. She was named Morrison. She and Morgan were Eve's eldest daughters. They were the inaugural members of the D Program. And Morrison's human family still didn't know she was a succubus.


            Well, they didn't even know that Morrison was some sort of secret agent mercenary. But reading between the lines, it sounded like they had some idea. Apparently the Morrison's family, her human family, had a history of joining the Marines, and the perky green haired demoness was a bit of a black sheep for not. I didn't know how the USMC and the Company interacted in this world. Stars and Stones I hardly knew how the Marines operated in my world.


            For my part, I gave a brief overview of the Wardens. Starting with how I got conscripted to fight a gaggle of necromancers that I just happened to stumble onto. And how I managed to resurrect a T-rex to ride into battle to stop their summoning ritual.


            Always lead with a dinosaur story. It'll impress even the most jaded of trigger-puller slash spell-slinger operator types. Then I told a bit about the war against the Red Court Vampires. I left out how the war ended, and some of the nastier stuff, like what I did to the ghoul that had ambushed the Warden training camp where I was an instructor.


            Morrison seemed to know I was holding back, but she didn't say anything about it.


            Still, the small talk helped. Especially with the parade of agents and technicians running down the corridor. I could imagine there was even more activity out in the garage. And on the levels above us that Tessa had burned through.


            But the alarms had silenced and there wasn't any gunfire or magical explosions or deadly gas attacks. So, that was nice.


            With a groan, I got up from leaning against the wall and made my way back to the safe room at the end of the corridor


            The room had been swept up a bit. Though I could see a team of eggheads looking up at the hole Tessa had burned through the ceiling. It looked like it had gone several stories up. Spotlights had also been pulled into the room. Sometime during the fight, the room's lights had given the ghost. Probably after the flamethrowers.


            I say looked like, because there was already a steel plate bolted into place a couple levels up. It looked like they were doing all sorts of structural engineering tests. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole room would have to be abandoned. Or would need additional bracing, or new concrete, or something. The walls were certainly damaged enough, being shredded by massive swipes from the redhead's tail.


            All I knew was that the mercenaries in hardhats and clipboards didn't chase me out. Though they did tell me to watch out for any loose cables. While they assured me there should be no live cables in the room, the damage was pretty extensive.


            I just nodded and knelt down over the bit of Tessa's mandible. The area around it had been cleared, but the actual block of ice containing the thing had been left alone.


            Eyeing the ever so slowly smoldering bit of Denarian flesh, I took a piece of chalk out of my pocket. Well no, first what I did was confirm that I still had the two locked cases containing Magog and Mr. Seaweed's coins.


            And then I rattled the cases to confirm the coins were still there. I'd had my pocket picked by Denarians before. I wanted to make sure Tessa didn't repeat Thorned Namshiel's trick. He could be real nasty with those glowing filaments of his.


            But after that, I took out some chalk, knelt down, and drew a circle around the little block of ice and started working my magic.


            Then after a few more minutes, I slumped my shoulders and groaned. I looked over my shoulder to see some new visitors.


            Unsurprisingly, Ranma was at the head of the little procession. She had returned to her Kevlar vest and skirt getup. Which was reassuring. I suppose the whole mask, battle gown, war-tail, and hooves look had some advantages.  But it was... well it was a bit much.  Say what you will about her normal battle-rattle, but at least it wasn't gaudy.


            The idea of magical adaptive armor was neat enough though, especially in close quarters, facing a lack of oxygen and Hellfire. Thus I took her downgrading to a more "conventional" armor was a sign that she didn't expect stuff to explode.


            Behind her was the regal form of Serenity. Her silver hair was still in a tight braided bun. She also wore the same dark blue almost Edwardian military jacket. But this time her long skirt had silvery armored segments that were reminiscent of the "armored battle-gown skirting" Ranma had, but somehow sleeker and more elegant looking.


            She also carried a long wooden staff that looked something like a full-length flintlock stock. But instead of a gun barrel there was a black crystal shaft that ran the length of the staff. A smaller scepter tipped with a sharp-pronged golden crescent moon was socketed to the front, bayonet style.


            I allowed a brief moment to imagine Serenity jabbing that thing into Tessa's form before frying her with whatever magical powers a Moon Queen could tap into.


            Following her was a girl with dark green hair, dusky skin, and those spooky red eyes. She wore obsidian chest and skirt armor that was similar to the segmented skirting the brood wore. She also had bows and other bits of frippery on her uniform.


            However my attention was on the ornate grey rod she carried. The garnet orb toping it drew the eye.


            Serenity looked to Ranma, who gave a nod.


            The tall silver haired woman stepped to me and bowed. "Warden Dresden, you have my apologies."


            As a full member of the White Council of Wizards with power to represent and sign under the UnSeelie Accords, regional commander in the Wardens, and mortal champion of the Winter Court of the Faerie, you would expect me to be trained in the basics of supernatural diplomacy.


            Instead, I looked up from my crouched position and sputtered. I offered a hand, still stained with blood and chalk dust and quickly pulled it back to wipe against a pant-leg that was stained with all kinds of gore and grime.


            Smooth.


            Ranma laughed.


            "Uh, what'd I do wrong?" I shook my head. "I mean, what'd you do?"


            The queen looked confused. "I let the monster escape."


            I snorted. "Lady, look around." I waved at the burnt-out room. "We all hit her. None of us could stop her. Way I see it, at least you spooked her enough to do her thousands of bugs vanishing trick."


            "Yes... unpleasant that." A strangely youthful look of revulsion crossed the queen's face. "But in that case. You and Ranma got her to flee in the first place."


            "Eh, Red's the one that dished it all out. I just zapped the case." I turned to the demon. "Which was apparently full of explosives."


            "Incendiaries." Ranma corrected.


            "Were you not going to tell me it was rigged to blow?"


            The demon tilted her head.


            "That's just her way." Serenity forced a smile, and patted me on the arm. "However, Ranma, if your family wants to take a rest, my girls are still fresh. We can take guard."


            Slipping closer to the queen, Ranma nodded. "Thanks."


            Distracted by the way the two were eyeing each other, I didn't notice the green haired girl appear next to me.


            "That's a part of the.... Denarian you called it?" Lady Pluto asked, looking at the frozen mandible.


            "Yup."


            "It hasn't burnt up like the bugs Jupiter and Mars caught."


            "Failsafe," I said. "See any bit of yourself you leave behind, blood, hair, teeth, or creepy demonic mandible, still has a connection to the rest of you. That means another magic user can use it to track you, or worse."


            "Ah. Law of Contagion?" Pluto asked.


            "That's the one," I nodded.


            She then inspected the symbols I had drawn around the chalk circle. "So, this Polonius Lartessa ensures any bits of her that get broken off burn up before they can be exploited. However, you managed to freeze a chunk, retarding the self-destruct."


            "And it's still not good enough," I growled.


            Lady Pluto raised an eyebrow.


            "This is basic thaumaturgy. I've got a bit of her, I should be able to at least get an idea of her direction. Or at least a connection."


            Lady Pluto quietly waited.


            "And this is the type of thaumaturgy I'm really good at. Stars and Stones, I used to make most of my money finding lost things."


            "Thus, she's shielded or..." Pluto inspected the mandible. "Or she's no longer in her mantis form."


            I groaned and rubbed my forehead. I then swore.


            Ignoring the profanity, and my embarrassed reaction, the girl smiled. "Well now, you just need to wait for her to go into battle, and you can connect this bit of exoskeleton to the rest of her."


            If only it were that simple. Frustration bubbled within me. "Couple of problems with that."


            "Yes?"


            "Well, even under Winter ice, it's still burning. But even if it wasn't, this thing's ectoplasm. Come the next sunrise, it's going to turn to goo."


            "Ah," Lady Pluto tapped her fingers against her staff. She looked pensive.


            "Secondly, when Tessa summons her armor, it'll have new mandibles. So, the connection won't be that great. I'll really have to push it to get anything."


            Pluto leaned in.


            I looked down to keep my eyes from meeting hers. Opening my Wizard's Sight around her was bad enough.


            The girl smiled. "I can't help you about the second part, but for the first... I'll break the rules for you. Just a little bit."


            "Huh?"


            She reached out and lowered the staff until the garnet orb was just over the block of ice. Her lips moved. Listening as hard as I could I could barely hear the words "Time Stop".


           The garnet rod flickered and an iridescent sheen covered the block of ice. "There." Pluto stood up. She met my gaze. For a moment, I once more felt like a bacteria under a microscope. "Oh and if you're not satisfied, perhaps we can make... alternate arrangements."


            "Ahh?" I blinked, my eyes darting down.


            "Also. I'd be careful to not directly touch the ice. Living organics will not react well."


            "Uh.... thanks?"


            Deep red eyes flickered with mirth. "Happy hunting, Mister Dresden," she said, spotting the silver-haired woman talking to the redheaded succubus.  Lady Pluto's eyes hardened for an instant before she turned on a heel and left the room to rejoin her queen.


            My stomach clenched. On the face of it, that was a nice gesture. However, mucking about with time was a pretty serious bit of magic. At least it wasn't an outright violation of the Sixth Law of Magic. Freezing something in time might be frowned upon, but I couldn't see how this would cause the same type of temporal paradox that time travel or messages from the future would.


            I took a moment to study the block of ice. The smoldering green flames had frozen. Maybe it would last past sunrise. In the abstract, it was a neat bit of magic. But I knew that there had to be a cost somewhere. I wasn't very knowledgeable on chrono-magic, see the Sixth Law, but I knew a small bit. And one simply didn't stop time for something, even something small, and not have repercussions.


            Then again, Lady Pluto was something else. The images of her burned into my memory with my Sight were evidence of that. I had a feeling that I was being played. I frowned looking at the mandible.


            No, it was more that Lady Pluto had her own schemes and I was merely ancillary. I sighed. I had more than enough "Court Intrigue" on my plate.


            Suddenly, Ranma crouched down next to me. The redhead eyed the block of ice and sniffed the air. A thoughtful expression crossed her face. "Puu must like you," she noted, dropping a metal case between us.


            "She stingy with her magic?"


            Ranma nodded.


            I sighed again. It figured that mysterious magical gatekeepers would take an interest in me. I looked at the case; it was about the size of a thick bible. "Got a bomb in that one too?"


            The redhead gave me "the look" and opened the case. "It's a piece of something that tore through this base. What do you think?"


            "Uh, right. I wouldn't touch..."


            The redhead nodded and took out a set of tongs that had been slotted in the case. She glanced over at me. "Oh, are you done with this?"


            "Yeah, I did my thaumaturgy. I'll want to check it out before sunrise. Make sure it doesn't melt. Maybe see if I can establish a link."


            She nodded and lifted the ice block out of the circle and slipped it into the case. It closed with a click and she did the latches.


            We stood up and I frowned at the case. This mess had started because of something they tried to secure in a locked case.


            I followed her out of the room and watched as she handed the case to a group of mercenaries who carried it off... somewhere. Doubtless, where they stored things like the notes and photos they'd taken from the books.


            We walked down a corridor, made a turn, went through a blast door and entered a new hallway. This one was spotless and had unmarred concrete and busy mercenaries. I noticed a higher fraction of them had body armor and rifles than before.


            "How bad was it?" I asked as she led me to a break room.


            The little bit of office banality caused me to smile at the incongruity. I covered it up by making a beeline to the coffee machine.


            She slumped into a chair. "It could have been worse," she admitted after I passed her a cup.


            I nodded. I saw a few bodies in the garage. In the corridor it looked like everyone had cleared out in time to prepare the ambush. Still, Tessa got some shots off, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were more casualties. Hells Bells, I wouldn't be surprised if that shaft she burned through the ceiling didn't hit someone.


            "There's sandwiches in the fridge." She laughed. "We never did get to have our lunch."


            I gave a wry smile and fixed us a meal. I guess she was still hungry.


            "Oh, I thought you had some lunch?" I asked putting a plate in front of her.


            "Doesn't count," she said, ripping into the ham.


            I took a few bites. My curiosity grew. "What about the D Program?"


            The redhead put down her sandwich. She shook her head.


            "Huh."


            "Langdon and Carroll were in the program but they were already KIA and none of the mortally wounded..." She gave a little shrug and looked down.


            "Not that many people sign up?" I asked after a few moments of awkward silence.


            "If you were given the choice, which way would you go?"


            I picked at my meal. Then added some more mustard. "What about those who weren't mortally wounded?"


            "The docs are taking care of them. Nariko and Cecilia are up there in case surgery goes wrong but..." She polished off the sandwich. "Most of the casualties will have time to make a decision as they recover. Well really, it'd be those that can't recover.... and want to get back into the game."

            I thought it over. "I did something similar," I admitted.


            "Taking Mab's job offer?" the demon ventured.


            "Yeah, the Reds, the vampires, had my daughter. I broke my spine; my legs didn't work. But being the Winter Knight..."


            Ranma reached out and patted my hand. "You did what you had to do."


            I shook my head. I got up and made another set of sandwiches.


            "I know why you had me do it, but it's a shame we lost those books," I shook my head and resumed eating.


            Chuckling, Ranma stretched up, leaned across the table, and whispered into my ear. "Two is one, one is none."


            "Oh." Realization dawned. The safe only had the one case. But the eggheads had filled two cases. One with books, another with the notes, photos, and cameras. If they had taken pictures of every page... 


            Then they'd have a backup copy of those books. Backups that Tessa's thaumaturgy wouldn't find. Because Tessa's spell worked off of making a magical link between the literal pages.


            In computer terms, something I only have indirect experience with, Tessa was tracking the hardware: the material the words were written on. And the Company had made a copy of the software: the words themselves.


            I whistled. Hells Bells, I wouldn't be surprised if they hadn't already printed out fresh hardcopies of those books. Printed on plain copy paper that Tessa couldn't track.


            I resumed eating. And that was only a first step. They could have sent our couriers with little computer drives. Sent copies to various bases, or stuck in anonymous bank vaults, or law offices. That's what made books so hard to stamp out. All someone needed was one copy, a bit of time, and there'd be dozens more to deal with.


            "Once things get settled a bit, and the medics get enough of a breather to check you out, maybe after a bit of a rest..." Ranma smiled. "Then you can get back with the other eggheads and resume your research."


            I groaned.


           

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

 


            My vision returned. And I immediately knew it was a dream. Sure the featureless, giant darkened room was a big tip-off.


            But a bigger clue was the old VW bug sitting under a spotlight in the center of the room. It was battered, worn, the windshield was cracked, and only one of its fenders was still blue, but it was still my car.


            Of course, the Blue Beetle got smashed into a cube three years ago by a vampiric monster. Hence: dream.


            I took a moment to give the Blue Beetle a wistful look. It had been a crummy car, but it was my crummy car. And it had worked.  Mostly.


            Then I focused on the person sitting on the hood.


            He was another clue that this was a dream.


            He was a tall man with severe features, dark hair, and dark eyes. Scars crossed his face. It was a face I was very familiar with.


            Less familiar were his clothes.


            He was wearing combat boots, coyote brown cargo pants, and an armored vest under a tactical rig besotted with a Liefeldian amount of pouches. In what straddled the line between prudent and melodramatic fear of vampires and the like, the vest had a high, armored, collar. Inscribed on the front was a grey pentacle.


            A revolver was in some type of black plastic composite holster strapped to his thigh. The black lever gun held in his hands had enough plastic gewgaws, scopes, lasers, grips, and slings bolted onto it to fill the ad pages in an issue of Soldier of Fortune.


            Worse, he was wearing a boonie hat with the side brim curled up, and his goatee had been grown out into a puffy beard that played up the whole "operator mercenary look." Though, the topper was the pair of black shoulder patches with silver snowflakes.


            I sighed at my unconscious self. The whole thing caused my hackles to rise. Not only was the getup ridiculous but it was also... familiar.


            "And the tactical dressup is?" I asked, starting to circle around my car.


            Turning to keep me in view he smiled. "Well, you seem to dig this kind of stuff. And it's not like I was gonna appear wearing a bodice and hooves."


            I snorted. My unconscious self... well he's me. Maybe a bit darker, maybe more open with my instincts and urges. He likes to claim he's my intuition. And yes, I realize that talking to myself might be a worrying sign.


            Still, I had a vague feeling of deja vu. I hoped it was merely because I'd been around mercenaries. I really hoped it wasn't my Foresight. See, as they get older, us wizards start to get a bit prescient, having the occasional flash of the future. As I was still a newb by wizard standards my Foresight was just coming in. But it did make me jump at every odd feeling.


            "So, what questionable wisdom do you have for me?"


            "When have I steered you wrong?"


            "You could have been more clear when you warned me about Ash. Or about my daughter." I gave him a dark look.


            He patted the rifle. "Not my fault you're too thickheaded to pick up what you're telling yourself."


            I finished circling the car and tapped my foot.


            Slinging the rifle, he hopped off the hood. "Dude, you're being played," he said meeting my gaze.


            "What the mercs? Sure... they're keeping secrets, but so am I. Hells Bells, I fought alongside them in their base. I think there's some measure of trust."


            "Not them." He gave me an annoyed look. "Remember why you're here. Remember who sent you?"


            I thought back to last night's chat with Mab. "Oh."


            He smiled. "Oh, indeed."


            "Right... Mab said it wasn't her, which means..."


            "We work for all three Winter queens," he glanced at his shoulder patch meaningfully.


            "Yeah, yeah, it's just that if Winter Mother is behind it than that means...


            "You can say it," he smiled.


            "Outsiders," I knew as much. Outsiders were well... they came from Outside. That is beyond the NeverNever. Beyond places like this world, maybe even beyond the Squid monsters that attacked Ottawa. Outsiders were enemies to reality and they were constantly attacking, constantly scheming, always looking for a way in.


            "Isn't it funny that Tessa found out about this place. I mean to get to this ass-end boondock of reality?  We're way in the boonies of the NeverNever right now. And here's Tessa, already with allies and plots."


            I sighed.


            He continued with false cheer. "And funny how this place ended up not only having weak enough walls to allow the summoning, but they still had the book that'd tell her who to call. You know the book that was wiped out where we came from?"


            "What's your point?"


            "You know if this was just about revenge on Tessa's part there would be easier ways to get Nicodemus." He chuckled. "It's not just you that's being played."


            "The Wolves have been keeping secrets from her too."


            "They're also holding back. Did you notice the distinct lack of French Army surplus hardware?" he asked tapping his gun.


            "So what? The wolfmen we fought were-"


          "Dregs? Spares? Sacrifices? Why would they send their best to help Tessa retrieve books that they didn't really need?


            "Why send her at all? Why not admit that they took precautions and had kept the critical stuff in a safer place?


            He gave me a pitying look. "Yes, why would the magically weaker group let their obviously untrustworthy ally go on a mission with a high likelihood of weakening her forces, even if she emerged victorious. Look at this from the Wolves' perspective.


            "They lost a bunch of men."


            "And Tessa lost one of her sorcerers, her Heavy, and didn't recover any books. I think the Brotherhood of the Moon would be happy to make that trade," he said hopping back onto the Blue Beetle's hood.


            "She could have died."


            He shrugged. "Sure. Not likely. She's like a cockroach. But even if she died... well the remaining Denarians would either continue the summoning, abandon it, or betray the Wolves right away. As for the latter they'd be doing it without the help of Tessa, Magog, and Mr. Seaweed."


            "And if she won the fight?"


            He gave a predatory grin, which looked far too fitting on my face. "Worst case, she doesn't lose anyone, and returns with the Testament."


            "She'll see that it was defaced," I pointed. "That the critical passages were removed."


            "And she'll blame the mercenaries she stole the book from. She'll think they did it to spite her. Or you," he added after a moment's thought. "Yeah, she'd blame you."


            I crossed my arms.


            "Leaving the wolves off the hook," he leaned back on the windshield. "And later on they can reconstruct a ceremony that might work.


            I swore. "You're right. We're being played. All of us."


            He lifted his head. "Don't forget what you said. 'Tessa doesn't react well to being cornered.' What do you think will happen when all this comes down around her ears? Especially since you'll be the one front and center wrecking things."


            I swore again.


            He laughed. "Now, now, it's not like I'm asking you to tone it down."


            "Of course you wouldn't." I glared. "You and the Mantle like it when I cut loose."


            Stroking his beard thoughtfully, he eventually shrugged. "Look, managing our instincts and aggressive side is conscious Harry's problem."


            "Don't fob this off on me."


            "Which one of us is a figment of the other's imagination?"


            I glared.


            "You've got power, you've got a dark side." he fiddled with the rifle. "It's up to you to make sure you don't cede control. Besides those ice claws were pretty handy today weren't they?"


            I huffed.


            "Look at it this way, you've been Mab's for three years, and you're still not her pet monster."


            "I resisted Lasciel for longer."


            My dark-self nodded approvingly. "Still, you reached and accommodation, shame about events but..."


            Shame was an understatement. Lash took a psychic bullet for me. I crossed my arms and waited.


            "My point, is that you shouldn't let another opportunity pass you by."


            "What opportunity?"


            That pitying look returned.


            "Really? You're not gonna do anything about Ranma? She's totally into you."

            I scoffed. "She's not into me. She's just flirting, playing."


            He thumped the hood. "Dude, do you know what flirting is?"


            "She's not my type."


            My unconscious-self shook his head.


            "Yeah, because a beautiful, lethal, powerful woman is totally not your type."


            "She'd a demon chick."


            "So? Stars and Stones, you lived with a 'demon chick' for four years. You had a kid together."


            "Lash was different," I admitted, quietly.


            He nodded sympathetically. "Yeah, she was actively trying to corrupt you. Lash was trying to turn you into a Denarian."


            "She got better. And what about Murph?" I asked.


            "What about her? You worried about cheating on her? Because.... if your gonna do something with her, that'd be great. But you've gotta commit."


            "That's not exactly an option right now is it? We're not even on the same planet."


            "Then you better make sure you stay in one piece until you get back to Chicago." He leaned forward, eying me.


            "Hey, I made it through today," I defended.


            "Weren't you just complaining about the Mantle cutting loose?" He raised an eyebrow. "Besides we had a lot of backup."


            I grunted.


            "And it's not just Murph waiting for us back home is it?"


            I glared. "Keep Maggie and Bonnie out of this."


            "Hey, I want to get back too. But Tessa's gotta pay. So..." He patted the rifle. "We've gotta make sure we survive, no?"

 

End Chapter 6

 

 

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

Which is at the halfway point!  So go read some of Ellf's Dresden Files fics, like Training Daze or the Building Faith series