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 7: Lost Arrivals, Part A

 

 


            I flipped to a new page on the thick binder. I jotted down a few notes on a legal pad. Okay... I made a couple of doodles. Part of me wished that the Company hadn't made backups of the books they seized from the Brotherhood of the Moon.


            Sure, the downside would be that I wouldn't have the Testament of Carnamagos to pour over and try to piece together a ritual that'll summon some nameless horror, in order to learn how to stop Tessa from summoning said horror.


            But the upside would be I wouldn't have to pour over the Testament of Carnamagos.


            My flipping took me to the section the wolves had cut out of the book. I sighed. As if trying to work through an eldritch tome containing half-mad ramblings on the lineage of best-forgotten gods was bad enough, I was working with an incomplete copy.


            Where the direct mentions of who they wanted to summon had been cut out.


            The wolves, showing a just plain unfair level of sense for bad guys, realized that a gaggle of Fallen Angles might not be trustworthy. And thus took precautions, namely hiding certain details of the ritual they needed Tessa and her merry band to pull off.


            Grumbling, I turned to D
e Cotis' report on the Woermann edition of Unaussprechlichen Kulten that the Company had also copied.


            Dr. Sarah De Cotis looked up from her own notes. An older woman with grey tinged black hair and slightly dark skin, she sat at the opposite side of the long conference table. Not because she didn't like me. But she was taking notes using a tablet computer and had a few other electronic gadgets. 


            Given the level of paranoia these mercenaries had I wondered what measures they took to secure their electronics.   I knew explosive charges were not out of the question.  Part of me was worried that I'd accidently set off a bomb or something down here.


            Spread out between us on the table was a large map.   The corners were anchored with a coffee cup, a folded up munitions catalog, and other odds and ends.  About half of the map of Southern Ontario was crossed out, though there was still a lot of areas bordered in red.


            There was a fair  of land between Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Detroit.   Though the evidence was pretty strong that the Falls were too far East. Which I found a relief, as the falls could be more than a source of electrical power.  Of course this part of Canada was surrounded by the Great Lakes.   And one couldn't swing a beaver without coming across some sort of body of water. Not to mention all the historical sites. Between the various frontier wars and First Nations this area was rich with history. 


            De Cotis saw me looking over  the map.


            "At least we're pretty sure it's not in anyplace....  densely populated," she offered. 


            "Oh?"


            The pointed to a few of the small cities on the map. Hamilton,  Cambridge  Kitchener, and, the amusingly named, London  were all in the "maybe clear" zones.


            I sighed. "Yeah... on the one hand..."


            "Urban combat..."


            "Sucks." I nodded. I had fought battles in Chicago and in the boonies.  A real advantage the latter had was less collateral damage. "But on the other..."


            The researcher simply swept her hand over the map.  There was a lot of territory to cover.  And even the sparsely populated areas sill had innocent people that the Denarians wouldn't think twice about hurting.   


            I sighed went back to my work.


            Unaussprechlichen Kulten was a classic of the supernatural world. Well if you defined an atlas of crazed cults and their practices as "classic". Apparently, it was something of a hobby for.... nihilists, libertines, and hedonists of a certain... type to go out and see if they could experience such cults first hand. It was like the world's worst idea for a vacation tour.


            Captain Klaus Woermann was one such man. His copy of Unaussprechlichen Kulten was filled with margin scrawls, like some demented travel diary.


            De Cotis, for her part, had managed to collate references to certain rituals that lined up with the creatures listed in the Testament of Carnamagos.


            "I'm surprised you're not off with the others,"
De Cotis idly noted, pausing to page through a Mid-Enochian dictionary.


            It amused me that she kept a hard copy. Though her copy did have more marginalia than
Captain Woermann's little bucket list.


            "I don't like flying."


            The older woman looked across the table. "Please, I doubt they'd push you out."

            I blinked. Actually, I could see Ranma pushing me out of an aircraft. Playfully. She'd catch me. Or have one of her daughters ready to do it. "Nah, I don't get along with helicopters."


            She looked over her glasses. "Bad experience?"


            I nodded. Sure, seeing one of your closest friends get shot up and nearly killed while he was hoisted into a helicopter in your place would count as a bad experience. Not to mention that it was Tessa who pulled the trigger.


            "That and my magic doesn't do well with planes, helicopters or anything high tech."


            De Cotis frowned. "Gas-turbine aircraft engines are exceptionally robust." The researcher tapped the table. "Though I suppose the FADEC controls could be susceptible. I mean if you can crash one of these...." she tapped her tablet.


            "FADEC?"


            "Full authority digital engine control. It's the computer that takes the pilot's commands and tells the engine what to do," she explained in a patient, almost grandmotherly tone, well if your grandmother was also an adjunct professor.


            "Ah.... yeah, I'd probably wreck one of those..." I shrugged. "Maybe not right away, but over time."


            "Hmm, perhaps, it's best for you not to go on training," she admitted.


            "Yeah..." I went back to her report. She had found a few rituals that
Captain Woermann had seen that might have been close enough. I jotted down a few notes and slid the legal pad over to De Cotis' side of the table.


            She rotated the papers and tapped her pen against the side. She gave a little frown.


            "I know none of those rituals seem to have enough... punch, but they're ones Tessa and the wolves could pull off."


            She looked over my notes. "Again with the willing vessel ritual? Isn't that a bit low power?"


            I shrugged. "Sure, it'll kill whatever poor sap 'volunteers' if they summon anything big, but these guys don't care about that."


            "I'm more concerned that the ritual itself doesn't have the strength to handle anything that big." She went to a new page. "We could be overlooking a place of power sufficiently large. Or perhaps energy channeled from your world?"


            I sighed. "Yeah... I'm making a list of those rituals too." The problem was that whatever Tessa was after it had to be big, and that meant a lot of magical mojo. Nothing comes for free. Even with magic.


            The problem was when it came to powering a major spell the enterprising sorcerer had plenty of options.  There were ley lines one could tap into.  Elemental powers that could be harnessed; hells bells my first big case was against a warlock harnessing storms to cast spells that would rip people's hearts out. 


            Certain artifacts and ritual sites could also be used,  especially if they had been used many a time before. Each use would grow the power and ease of said object or location.  There were also the classics of sacrifices.  I'd seen blood,  flesh, spirit, and soul all used. 

 
            Still, our efforts were narrowing things down.


            We didn't know exactly who Tessa wanted to summon, or how, or when, or where.


            But going from a needle to a haystack to a needle in a hay bale was an improvement.


            Just don't expect the guy sifting through the bale to be happy.


            The door to the conference room opened. I heard a chair scoot back and looked up. I tilted my head. De Cotis had got to her feet and saluted.


            And then I remembered that De Cotis was more than an academic researcher. The older woman in a grey blouse, skirt and lab coat was standing at attention holding her arm in salute. I also noted the pistol she wore in a shoulder holster. Indiana Jones and Daniel Jackson aside, most researchers into the ancient world didn't go around armed as part of their jobs. 


            Well, I suppose that depends on where your dig site was. There are a number of places where the archeologists  might not be armed, but they would hire armed guards. I frowned in thought.


            "Sir, Ma'am, what's the pleasure?" she said, addressing the man and woman entering the room.


            Eve entered first. She was in pristine and stark form. Blonde hair in a bun, harsh blue eyes and grey dress uniform. She took a step inside the room, nodded to De Cotis and myself and then moved to the side.


            Then a tall, spare man entered. His light green eyes locked onto me. They were the shade of faded dollar bills. He strode across the room utterly confident.


            His brown hair was gray at the temples and his figure was a bit gaunt. I put him at nearing the far edge of middle age. His face certainly had enough worry lines. He wore a grey uniform with a black tie. Silver leaves glinted at his neck as rank insignia. A pair of holsters were slung low on his hip. His jacket did little to conceal them.


            I saw Eve step aside and heard her suggest that De Cotis take a coffee break.


            The man stepped up to me, unperturbed by the demon at his heel. "Warden Dresden, a pleasure to finally meet you."


            "And you are?" I asked pulling away from his gaze.


            "Colonel Jacob Edwards." The man held out his hand. "My apologies for not meeting you earlier." He sounded American, with a Midwestern accent vague enough to be an old-style radio newscaster.


            I shook it. I pondered the introduction. Names were powerful things, especially to a wizard of my caliber. More so when given freely by one's own lips. However, Jacob Edwards might be an alias. Hells Bells, I wouldn't be surprised if everyone here was operating under a nomme de guerre.


           His grip was firm but I could tell he was holding back. It was a bit odd that an old guy would have such grip-strength. His wrists also looked slightly thicker than I'd expect.  I also  noted a deep scar running along the back of his right hand.


            "You saved the lives of a lot of my men." Jacob nodded. "Thank you for your assistance... your continued assistance."


            "Oh, this?" I swept a hand over my notes as I sat back down.


            "Among other things," he agreed, sitting down across from me.


            I crossed my arms. "Now that I've fought with your demons and mercs, for the second time, you've figured I must not be some scary mind-bending magical security risk, right? And now you feel it's safe to stop hiding from me."

            "Yes, Mister Dresden." Jacob didn't even blink. "That is entirely correct. Or was I wrong in concluding you're not a threat?"


            "Oh, I am a threat. Just not to you."


            A ghost of a smile appeared on his face. "I suppose I left myself open to that one."


            "Yeah, you did. And how are repairs going on at your fancy underground base?" I asked. Today, I was working at the secondary facility to the north of the city. The same one I had been kept in after first falling through a portal into this world.  It was smaller and it wasn't underground,  but it hadn't been ravaged by Denarians and wolfmen.


            "Well enough, this may accelerate us moving to an alternative facility." Jacob placed his arms on the tabletop.


            "Sounds pricey. I never knew how those Bond villains could afford it all. Then again, you guys don't strike me as the volcano lair type. Too hard to insure. Who would even offer such a policy?"


            The older man allowed a dry smile. "Alas, that is why I'm speaking to you, instead of Commander Stillwater."


            "You're not the big boss?" I asked, glancing at Eve who stood at his shoulder. The blonde gave me an opaque look.


            "Executive Officer. The Commander was summoned to Ottawa." Jacob idly ran a finger over the scar on the back of his palm. "To speak with our clients and sooth some ruffled feathers and calm things down. Necessary work."


            "The Canadians?" I laughed.


            His expression hardened. "The battle of Ottawa. Their military defense headquarters was assaulted by interdimensional invaders led by human, well human-enough, pathfinders. And now..."


            "One of your bases... but Tessa's not some alien invader?"


            "Oh? I was under the impression she was in a symbiotic relationship with an otherworldly being of vast power and was attempting to summon something from beyond space and time." He leaned back and studied me.


            I chewed my lip. "I'm pretty sure that Tessa's not in league with the same bad guys that got the Canadians so riled up."  It was possible the Squids were minions of the Outsiders, but if that were true...  well then things were even worse for this world.


            "I'm inclined to agree." Jacob nodded. "However, our clients may see things differently. They're also concerned about how you arrived at the location of a prior breach. Not to mention that, your arrival corresponded to a rather public attack in this city. We'll have to take care of that."


            "That's because Tessa was already here! And was paranoid enough to expect someone like me, or one of the Knights of the Cross, to be sent after her."


            "Yes, Mr. Dresden." Jacob readily agreed.  "Thus she and Brotherhood elements were surveilling us, looking specifically for you, or your associates. However, care must be taken on our part to ensure our clients do not do anything... rash in the aftermath."


            "That would be impolite." I snorted. "We're talking about Canada here."


            The older man glared. "It's a mistake to confuse politeness with meekness, Son."


            I looked away from his gaze. "Sure... but this is the Canadian government. Don't they call us Americans cowboys?"


            "Governments are all about force," Jacob slowly drawled. "And when pushed against the wall, those that profess peace and abhor violence will do one of two things. They'll either deny the threat and die or they'll lash out and demand the biggest hammer be dropped. Given that our client has seen fit to hire us..."


            "And you and your merry band are the biggest hammer?"


            Jacob laughed. It was as dry sound. Made all the more creepy by how it seemed to be genuine mirth. "Mr. Dresden, my organization has no fighter jets, has no bombers. Other than some special contractors and equipment, we are primarily infantry. Admittedly, our air cavalry, artillery, and logistics support is exemplary, but any client nation could crush us... if they were motivated to do so."


            I mulled it over. That was true. The footage I had seen of Ottawa included tanks. And as large as the Company's bases were, they still had far fewer people than an actual army.


            Jacob lifted a hand. "Though if it were to come to that, I suppose they'd stop paying us first. We are, after all, guests in their country. But we do what we must. I'm sure you understand. Your duties as a Warden would bring you into contact with local law enforcement."


            "Yeah, I've worked with the Chicago PD," I admitted. Though that was more often as a private consultant, and rarely as a Warden. Really, the White Council ignored mortal authorities whenever they could get away with it. Which, given they were a bunch of, you know, wizards, was most all of the time.


            That's something that really pissed off Murphy. Especially, when she found out that the Council had decided to play judge, jury, and executioner and kill a warlock in Chicago. Cops get kind of twitchy when they find out someone was murdered in their city, and no one told them about it.


            That was the twisted part. What these mercenaries were up to was technically legal. Or done with the approval of the people that wrote the laws and cut the checks for the police and army. Which was close enough.


            There was even some degree of accountability. Though, I was cynical enough to be sure that the mercs were hiding things from their clients.

            Especially given the subtext being thrown in my face. I decided to remove the sub from the text. "Jacob, can I call you Jacob?"


            "By all means, Mister Dresden. Or would you prefer your warden rank or your Winter Court title? You do wear so many hats and I would hate to offend," he smoothly said, those faded green eyes twinkling.


            "Harry's fine."


            "Of course, Mr. Dresden."


            I glared.


            Jacob patiently waited.


            "Is this you not-so-subtly blaming me for causing a scene and rocking the boat? What, first you thank me for saving your men and now you say I should have done it quietly?" I asked.


            Eve gave a tiny smile.


            "My." That dry laugh returned. Jacob flexed his fingers. "No Mr. Dresden. Quite the contrary. If you see Mrs. Lartessa at a Toronto city council meeting, I expect you to tear her throat out, burn her to ashes, freeze her blood. Whatever. It. Takes," he slowly, clearly stated.


            The officer folded his hands before him. "Even if it's in front of live cameras and dozens of witnesses. Even if she looks like an innocent young human woman and you look like some gaunt monster in a long coat. If you judge you have the opportunity, do not hold back on my account."


            "What?" In my experience the spooky-side of the street was pretty fanatical about "hiding from the normals". Stars and Stones, even these guys were twitchy about all the exposure Ottawa had caused and had clamped down covering up my first fight with the Wolfmen.


           "As I said, when soothing our client is concerned, we'll take care of that. We'll make sure they don't do anything rash. If we have to extract you from police custody, we'll take the hit. If we have to find a way to smuggle you off-world when this is over we will do that." Jacob's tone was even, assured.


            I blinked.
           
            "Mrs. Lartessa is a major threat yes?" Jacob asked.


            "Sure but-"


            "Then stopping her is worth it."


            "Look Jacob, normally people don't tell me it's okay to cut loose. That's how buildings get burned. How faerie queens die. How entire nations get wiped out."


            Eve's smile grew. She looked almost approving.


            The older man leaned back and studied me for nearly half a minute.  He wasn't nervous. He wasn't apprehensive.  He wasn't even trying to intimidate me with a silent gaze.  He was merely processing what I had said.  I had once read a book about the first codebreaking computers, giant clunky, but implacable, machines that would grind through thousands and thousands of possibilities until they found the solution.  That was the vibe I got from Jacob.


            "And did you do such things for callow, petty, or frivolous reasons? Perhaps to sate some lust for blood?" he eventually asked.


            "Well... no."


            He spread his hands. "Actions have consequences. And you do not strike me as an irresponsible man." Jacob frowned. "Perhaps blunt and a bit stubborn, but not a shirker."


            I laughed. This really wasn't the tone I expected. I wondered if this was how my godmother Leanansidhe had felt when Mab told her she could "indulge herself". Well, probably not. Lea was a sidhe, and the faerie didn't exactly have "human" morals or limits.


            Jacob studied me. "You were planning on exercising restraint against Mrs. Lartessa and her ilk? Yesterday's battle indicates otherwise."


            "You sure you know what you're saying?"


            He tilted his head fractionally; a ghost of a smile touched his lips. "Ah, that was you being restrained," the older man mused. "All the more impressive. And useful."


            "And what are you asking?"


            "I'm asking you to use your best judgment. You know Mrs. Lartessa best. For my part, I'll support an ally to do what's necessary to get the job done."


            "You say that now but-"


            He cut me off. "Mr. Dresden. I oversee a team of Pattern D's. You've seen some of their... less savory capabilities, yes?"


            My memory went back to Ranma using a canteen to wash a bunch of flesh and blood out of her mouth. Or the brood advancing on Magog's slumped form, blades drawn, eyes hungry. I nodded.


            Jacob smiled. "If we can whitewash cannibalism. I believe we can explain away your... excesses to our client."


            I looked to Eve. The blonde gave a little grin that flashed her teeth.


            "Sure, you'd be willing to accommodate a brood of succubae. Having a cadre of super soldiers must be handy."


            "Yes. They have proven to be quite capable and loyal. Both should be rewarded, no?"


            I allowed a nod. They also weren't rampaging monsters. Even Misako for all her bombast didn't seem like she would slip a gear and kill some random Joe.


            And morality aside, capable, obedient, and discrete demons would be quite the asset. One an organization like this would feel was worth cultivating.


            "And the D Program?"


            "I trust the brood; I trust my men. Why should I bar volunteers? Especially those who would die otherwise," Jacob smoothly stated.


            "Right." Sure, that was one way to put it. The other way was that the D Program allowed his organization to slowly grow their demonic forces. And to retain experienced personnel who would otherwise have been lost.


            "I suppose the Fifth NH Task Force could be construed in a negative light," Jacob allowed, after studying my expression. "But I'm sure you're aware of how necessary, or even innocent, actions could be taken poorly."


            "Kinda," I sheepishly admitted. Sure, as a teen, I had used magic to kill my mentor, breaking the First Law. Sure, I had spent years with the shadow of a Fallen Angel living in my head. Sure, I technically knew how to pull off a really advanced necromantic rite that can turn someone into a dark god.  Sure, I had once raised a zombie T-Rex. Sure, I had killed people in cold blood.


            Sure, I agreed to work for the Queen of the Dark Fae as her personal hit-man and leg-breaker. Sure, I've bonded with a scary supernatural genius loci, which just happened to be a super-jail for all sorts of eldritch things. Sure, I ended up helping Nicodemus, the head of the Denarians, steal the Holy Grail.


            But... I had reasons to do all of those things. Most of them pretty good.  Honest.


            Once again Jacob studied me for a long time. I could see him weighing factors, judging what I had said, probably replaying footage that had been recorded, recalling reports that had been written about this fight and ones in the past.


            It was almost mechanical.  Again, the closest I could come to was watching an old WW2 code-breaking computer chug along. When the calculation was complete, he then nodded to himself and stood up.


            "Mr. Dresden keep up the excellent work. Do what you feel is necessary," he extended his hand.


            Lost in my own thoughts, I shook it.


            "If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask Captain Jarvis or Miss Saotome. Best of luck in your studies. Happy hunting," he smiled, flashed a bit of teeth, turned, and exited the room with Eve at his heel.


            The door clicked shut.


            I was still mulling when a couple minutes later De Cotis entered carrying two mugs. She put a cup of coffee in front of me and then took her seat at the far end of the table. "The Colonel have anything interesting to say?" she asked unlocking her tablet.


            "Sure, he told me to be myself."


            The woman whistled. "My, somebody likes you."

 

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


            I was never fond of hospitals. Part of it was that my magic didn't get along with technology, and medical devices had gotten more and more advanced. Part of it was because I didn't like to be reminded of my own mortality.


            And another part was the feeling of helplessness. Sure, I was a wizard and had access to the powers of Creation. But healing magic was one of my weak areas. Granted, that was a really, really hard branch of magic but that was only some consolation.


            Also this wasn't technically a hospital. But it was still full of doctors, medical equipment, and casualties.


            So, I sat outside the medical wing of the Company base. After doing some more research with De Cotis I had been shuttled back to their downtown facility. Fortunately, it was on a different level as yesterday's fight. It seemed that the mercenaries had the sense to draw Tessa's attention away from their medical wing.


            Hells Bells, the area I was in was pristine. It could pass for a hospital waiting room, shabby chairs included. Well, if you ignored the steel doors, and the heavily armed guards.


            And the blonde demon who sat next to me.


            Legs crossed, Eve was reading through a briefing of some kind.


            "She visits them a lot?"


            The blonde glanced over at me. "Until they're discharged or transferred. The Commander and the Colonel also make time."


            I held my tongue. It could be Ranma showing concern and wanting to raise morale. Stars and Stones, it certainly was that. Unless the redhead was a far better actor than I suspected, she was simply too blunt to bother with deception and schemes.


            Though the cynical part of me pointed out that a friendly, sympathetic comrade would make a great ambassador. For lack of a better term, she humanized the brood.


            And her mere presence would be sufficient advertisement to the healing benefits of the D Program. Everyone knew how much damage she had taken yesterday and here she was back to normal.

 

            I tried to put myself in the shoes of a young mercenary. Someone who had spent years training and honing skills to be the best. Most likely they'd never return to the front lines. They'd lost a part of what defined them, who they were. Someone who now was facing a long road to recovery. If recovery was even possible.


            I'd lived that; it had taken me years to regain the use of my left hand after it was burned by vampires. I knew exactly how tempting an offer to be healed could be. I knew what someone would do in desperation...


            No matter how innocent Ranma was, no matter if she didn't even mention the D program. Her presence was still a temptation. I mean it's not like she'd tell a soldier no if they asked.

            I'm sure she wouldn't turn them right away. Not here and now. Not when they were stabilized and no longer in danger of dying. It wasn't like if they were mortally wounded on a battlefield and she had to rush. She'd have them think it over, give them time consult with the doctors, sure, but...


            I looked over at Eve.


            She had clasped her hands on the briefing and was watching me.


            I shook my head slightly. Better to change the subject before I said something really stupid. "Here's something I don't get. You were hired by the Canadians to fight monsters, right?"


            "Broadly put, but yes."


            "But you're apparently also training their military. Teaching them how to fight monsters."


            The blonde nodded.


            "Isn't that undercutting your business? I mean if the military can do the job then why pay you?"


            "Our client is in a transitional stage." Eve flexed her hands. "Keep in mind that most nations do not retain dedicated forces to counter NH threats."


            "Non-human?" I asked.


            Eve nodded. "We are talking about units that require expensive, specialized training and equipment."


            "Right, monster hunters cost a lot of money." I'd seen some of that; the Company mercs went through a lot of ordinance yesterday.


            Hells Bells, hiring just one monster-hunting mercenary for just one fight had nearly bankrupted me. If my brother hadn't paid Kincaid's bill for me, I would have owed a very scary man a lot of money. I didn't want to think about what I'd have had to do to pay Kincaid back.


            "Also, consider the human costs. Troops for such units are normally drawn from specialist police and military forces. Forces that are usually short on manpower."


            "I suppose you could recruit directly.... Hire people off the street"


            "Governments frown on that for their own forces, but yes that is a possibility, one we often use." Eve smiled. "But then you have to spend more time training them," the demon raised one hand. "However, you do spend less time untraining them," she admitted raising the other hand.


            I snorted. "Right, people don't believe in monsters. That's kind of a big hurdle."


            "Not just for the recruits," Eve pointed.


            "Ah," I leaned back. "Is that it? Some government mucky muck realizes monsters are snacking on a bit too many citizens and instead of officially admitting there's a problem and creating government unit to deal with it... hires you guys instead?"


            "Sometimes." Eve chuckled. "Other-times, the 'snacking' as you put it, is infrequent enough that there's not enough work to keep a unit in active service. And that's not even getting into the operational cost."


            I eyed her. "You said 'most nations', and that Canada was transitioning."


            She chuckled. "Yes, some countries, by sheer size or history or increased demand, build up their own forces. The Americans and the Russians are examples of the former. The United Kingdom and the Vatican are of the middle. And the Canadians are realizing they've become the latter."


            I thought back to the footage I'd seen of Ottawa. "Increased demand" was one way to think of it.


            "Aren't you still undercutting your own line of work though?" I asked.


            Eve chuckled. "Mr. Dresden. Yes we are  training up the Canadians.  But who is shipping them munitions? Who is consulting them on weapon purchases? Selling them licenses so they can build specialist equipment? Teaching them how to build that equipment?"


            I laughed. It was so... well mercenary was the proper word. "Okay, you're making money now, but won't you eventually make yourselves redundant?"


            She eyed me. "If our services are no longer required in this country, would that not be a good thing?"


            I looked away. "Right..." I frowned. "Wait... isn't your organization's cover story that you're some kind of military contractor?"

            "That specializes in training and R&D."


            "But... that's what you're actually doing."


            Eve's grin returned. "Yes, Mr. Dresden?"


            I grumbled.


            "I would have assumed that working with the fae would have made you used to such deceptions," Eve stated with a hint of amusement.


            "Doesn't mean I have to like it. White Council of Wizards' full of intrigue games too," I grumbled.


            "Not to mention keeping magic secret from the public?" Eve asked.


            "I was in the Yellow Pages." I snorted. "Under Wizards."


            Eve raised an eyebrow. "Was?"


            "Vampires blew up my office. Then I was dead... Well, mostly dead. I got better...." I sheepishly defended.


            The blonde made a thoughtful noise.


            "Anyway I've gotten some temporary office space but... well I missed the deadline to put in a new ad. I'll have to wait a couple months. Stupid phone book. I don't know why they let it lapse in the first place. It's not like there was anyone else in the Wizard section. Then they told me it was all on computers anyway... "


            Eve patiently waited for my rant to taper off.


            "You publicly declared your status?"


            I nodded. "I have it painted on my door and everything: Harry Dresden, Wizard."


            "And people believed you?'


            "Some...."


            Her dispassionate gaze studied me.


            "Fine. Most thought I was a crank or a fraud. The best people would say about me was that I was a competent PI who had a weird gimmick." I sighed. "I specialized in lost items, you know?"

            "Bulk of your work?"


            "Day to day stuff. Sure, I'd have to save the world, but that doesn't pay the bills," I said, not technically lying. My major cases rarely paid well, but my most recent one...


            "But, I have a knack for tracking spells. It's the type of thaumaturgy I'm really good at. But most of my clients... well they didn't care how I found their lost wedding ring, just that I did," I sighed.


            Eve gave a little nod.


            "Guess that's like you, the government doesn't care what was making too many taxpayers disappear, just that you stopped it."


            "Perhaps," she smiled, thinly.


            "Still, those that did believe could be troublesome too," I sighed. "Did you know I had to add 'no love potions' to my entry in the phonebook?"

            The blonde demon actually smiled at that.


            "Still, it wasn't all bad," I shook my head. There was a reason I was working to reopen my business. It had taken Rashid's help to get my legal status sorted out. Turns out when the police declare you dead that causes all sorts of problems.


            Fortunately, the Chicago PD never found a body.  That is they never found my body. Which made sense,  after I was shot Mab had absconded with my not-quite-a-corpse and, with the help of my spooky island, slowly healed me.


            In addition to being the Gatekeeper, Rashid was Senior Council, so he had connections. Coming up with an explanation as to where I had been for the last year or so, and why a whole lot of my blood had been found at a murder scene... well that was a bit harder.


            "You have three jobs then?" Eve asked


            "Winter Knighting doesn't exactly pay the bills, and the White Council hasn't changed the Warden's pay structure in decades," I huffed.


            Eve's little smile shifted.


            I looked away. She'd caught me lying. No surprise, given her heightened senses, and well... I'm not the best liar. Still, taking the job from Mab was bad enough; taking her money would make it worse. And the Wardens did have ways to increase their pay to keep it in line with the current century.


            However, I didn't want to depend on a paycheck that only existed because Rashid pulled strings. Well, I suppose Ebenezar did too. He was on the Senior Council too, and my grandfather. Hooray for nepotism!


            I wondered why Eve was letting that slide. You'd think a mercenary officer like her, one I suspected did work "interviewing" people, would be interested in my finances. Then again, feigning disinterest could be part of her ploy.


            Murphy did tell me that one of the key parts to a police interview was simply getting the perp to talk... and then listen to what they had to say. It might take hours, but odds were the more someone talked the more they'd implicate themselves.


            Knowing the way these mercenaries worked, I was certain they had transcripts of every word I said squirreled way. Hells Bells, I wouldn't be surprised if they were working on a way to record me. Maybe they dug out an old reel-to-reel or an ancient Edison wax cylinder recorder. Or maybe they found some way to compactly shield electronics.


            That Dirac kid was a clever fellow; I'd lay good odds he could figure something out with his "machine-shop magic".  Maybe he shrunk down one of his circles and stuck a couple 80's tape recorders in it for redundancy, afterall two is one...


            Distracted as I was, I missed when the blonde demon had gotten up. I looked over to see that the door to the medical wing had opened and two more succubae had stepped out.


            Ranma was in her customary black leather jacket, purple top, and black skirt. Her expression was a bit morose but she seemed happy to be with her sister. With her was another pale, unnaturally attractive, woman with... strange eyes.


            She had curvy lavender hair and smiled demurely to me. She wore a light purple dress with white accents that revealed little but was very flattering. Despite being between Ranma and Eve in height she seemed to have less.... presence than the other two demons.


            Smiling at me, Ranma nodded her head. "Hi, Harry."


            "Uh, hey," I stated, because I'm an experienced wizard and smooth with the ladies.


            "This is Cecilia, my sister."


            The lavender haired demon bowed her head then held out her hand.


            "Charmed," I said, shaking her hand. I glanced between Cecilia and Eve. I could see the resemblance. Though that might have been just because both demon ladies were pretty enough to almost be in the uncanny valley.


            "A pleasure to meet you," she smoothly said with a playful grin. Her grip was surprisingly strong.


           I frowned at that. Why would I be surprised that a demon was strong? I glanced between Cecilia and her sisters. Ah. Ranma and Eve both radiated martial power. Hells Bells, Eve always wore a uniform and carried herself with military bearing. Meanwhile, Ranma simply prowled around, reveling in what she was.


            Cecilia... she seemed to downplay things. The part of me that evaluated potential threats raised her a couple notches.


            Letting go of my hand, Cecilia bowed her head again. "Thank you for your help yesterday; for protecting my girls."


            "They were fighting too?"


            "They're a part of the Fifth NH Task force, yes," she said with pride. "Logistics and supply mostly," she then added.

 

            Ranma put her hand on the taller woman's shoulder. "They're still young, and front like work isn't for everyone."


            Cecilia laughed. It was a gentle, sincere sound. "Yes, because bringing extra ammo to yours and Eve's girls isn't dangerous at all."


            Ranma looked embarrassed, but Cecilia slipped up and hugged her.


            "So, how is everyone? Still... injured..." I trailed off, lamely.


            Cecilia's smile was pitying but kind. As if watching a child trying their best but still messing up.


            The redhead slipped out of the hug. "Rawlings should be back on duty in a week or so," Ranma breezily said as she led me out of the waiting area.


            "That's good," I admitted. "Give him my best,"


            "Oh, I already did," she nodded as we went through a security door and went down a corridor.


            I noted that she pointedly didn't mention the other injured agents she and Cecilia had visited.


            "Did Puu's spell work?' Ranma asked as we passed a checkpoint and went down a flight of stairs.


            Our shoes echoed on the concrete steps.


            "It didn't turn to goo with the sunrise," I shrugged my shoulders. The power to keep ectoplasm fixed in form was handy, but worrying for what it implied about Lady Pluto's nature.


            "But?" she asked after we went through another checkpoint. I noticed that instead of distant professional politeness the mercenaries were more open with me. Or at least, they were diffident and respectful in light of my abilities. It actually reminded me of how they treated Ranma.


            Except, I got less appraising glances at my physique than she did. Not that I didn't get any. There were some female agents after all. Though not all of the looks were from...


            "Harry?" Ranma leaned forward and snapped her fingers in front of my face.


            "Uh, yes?"


            "You're in the front of the line so you couldn't be checking out anyone's butt," she playfully stated.


            "Uh, right!" I coughed. "No, I was thinking about the tracking spells I tried."


            "Any luck?"


            I shook my head.


            "Could it be the Jammers?"


            I pointed to Eve. "She had me driven off base for my second try."


            "And still nothing?" She asked as we neared a lab room.

            "No connection at all. Which means-"


            "Tessa wasn't in mantis form when you tried. Or she was, but the piece we've got won't link to her new armor. Or she's blocking that type of spell somehow," Ranma completed as she opened the door. Smiling, the demon practically bounded across the threshold.


            "Right. The thaumaturgy link requires similitude and there might not be a connection between an old batch of mantis armor and her current set. On the other hand, her new mandible should be physically and magically identical to her old mandible. So, it's not unreasonable to presume those two items would have a link," I mused as I entered the room.


            It was another bare concrete examination room with locked cases, a central thick-slab worktable, and a door to a storage room in the back. I was pretty sure it wasn't the same room I had been working in yesterday. But I might have been imagining that this room was the mirror image of the previous one.


            I frowned. Instead of the collection of books and notes there was the case that Tessa's mandible had been stored in. Dirac's gangly form was there.


            Also in place of Doctor De Cotis, there was a different egghead in a lab-coat. This woman was a few years younger than De Cotis. Japanese, she had auburn hair and fine, if a bit stern, features. She was also being nuzzled by Ranma.


            Blinking, I watched the auburn-haired scientist hug Eve and a surprisingly bashful Cecilia. The door closed behind me and the group hug broke apart. The scientist straightened her lab-coat.


            "Ah Mr. Dresden, you can call me Doctor Saotome." She stepped forward and held out her hand.


            "Charmed." I shook it. "You're Ranma's mother?"


            Nodoka smiled. "Among other things."


            "Huh."


            "I'm also an officer here," she pointed to the gold leaves on her collar. "But I heard you don't have much patience for that stuff."


            "Mom's a materials scientist. She's designed our armor," Ranma proudly said.

`
            "I just did work on the composite plates and the Kevlar weave," Nodoka brushed aside.


            "She also helped design our weapons," Ranma eagerly added.


            It was amusing to see Ranma acting almost... innocent. She was happily bragging about how awesome her mother was. It made her seem younger. I looked between the redhead and the scientist and frowned. Dr. Saotome looked human. Which meant she was Ranma's mother back when Ranma was human. I suppose the auburn-haired woman could be in her early forties. Even then, she had to have had the redhead when she as rather young. 


            "Now that's a definite exaggeration," Nodoka laughed. "Most of the weapons were already in the prototype stage, and things like Nabiki and Nariko's blades were built by Master Nishina. I simply assisted due to the exotic nature of the... steel we had been given."


            "You mean the evil-looking red metal?" I asked, eying the case that contained the mandible fragment.


            "I wouldn't call it evil," Dr. Saotome chuckled. "Yes the chips, shavings, filings, and other bits of swarf from machining the metal are quite toxic to humans, that doesn't mean that the material itself is corrupting," she assured.


            I blinked. "It's mostly harmless then?"


            Nodoka smiled thinly. "I wouldn't let my granddaughters use it if I thought they were endangered."

            I chewed my lip. That didn't exactly answer my question. I sighed and leaned my staff against the workbench. "You're here to look at the bit of Denarian we snagged?"

            "The Colonel thought I might be some small help," Dr. Saotome said before Cecilia gave her a quick hug.


            "I've gotta check on the girls and make sure they're helping restock everything." The lavender-haired demon shook her head. "Desiree is already complaining about how many grenades Misako burned through."

            "I'm still thinking we should charge her a per-round fee," Ranma noted.


            Dr. Saotome raised an eyebrow. "Really? You want to tell that girl she can buy her own ammunition?"


            "40mm grenades do cost about thirty dollars a round," Eve reminded.


            I blinked. that seemed expensive but not that... Then I recalled how Misako had been emptying belts of the stuff. "How many rounds per belt?"


            "Forth-eight," Eve absently replied.


            I did the math in my head. "Oh." I'd spent most of my life eating ramen noodles, cold cereal, living in a dinky basement apartment, and thinking that Burger King was a luxury. So, the idea of spending over fourteen hundred dollars on a single belt of grenades... It made my head hurt.


            "Let her buy 'em." Ranma snorted. "Like she'd drop ten grand on grenades."


           Everyone in the room gave the redhead a half-lidded stare. Even I looked on at her disbelieving. And, to my surprise, so did Dirac.


            Cecilia gave her sister a long look. "Right, I'll just tell Desiree to hide the order catalog in case Misako comes sniffing around looking to 'shop'," she promised before opening the door and stepping out of the room.


            Eve frowned. "I should get going too. Duty calls."


            Ranma gave her a quick hug and the blonde left.


            As the door closed I looked back to the table. "Right.... so mad science?" I asked undoing the locks to the case.


            "I wouldn't call it mad science," Dr. Saotome stated as she pulled out tools and a bound notepad.


            "Well, that's very reassuring," I dryly noted opening the case. Nestled within the padding was another, clear, case.


            I lifted the inner case out and plopped it onto the table.


            "It looks like a Tupperware box," Ranma noted.


            "I wouldn't recommend eating it," I said, pulling the lift off.


            The redhead gave me a sidelong glance, but she still she sniffed at the gleaming mandible entombed in ice. The ice itself glowed with an iridescent sheen.


            Pulling on a pair of thick blue rubber gloves, Dr. Saotome studied the block. "Can I cut off a piece?" she asked, lifting it up by a silver chain I had threaded through the block.  It made for a gaudy pendant, but I remembered Lady Pluto's warning not to touch the thing.


            "Sure," I shrugged. "Just be quick. Chances are good it'll turn to goop."


            "Dirac?"


            "Yes, Major?"


            "Use the electric saw to slice a section?"


            The gangly man nodded. "With the right blade it should cut through the ice and sample."


             "Do it."


            "Yes, Ma'am," Dirac said as he slipped on a pair of gloves. He pulled a compact saw out of cabinet and fiddled with the blades.


            As he did that, Dr. Saotome maneuvered the block into a padded vise mounted inside a fume hood. Once it was locked down, she activated the airflow. Slipping on a pair of goggles she went to a wall phone and called it in.


            I sighed at the precautions. Not that I could blame them. Frankly, it was a bit of a relief to see someone treating this stuff with an ounce of caution.


            Though, I sighed again when Ranma dropped a pair of goggles into my hand. I grumbled, but complied. They didn't bug me like this when I drilled the hole so I could thread the chain through.


            Dirac went to the fume-hood. The saw kicked on; its tooth-rattling whine shrieking above the blower sucking air out of the fume hood.


            The shrieking grew as the blade bit into ice. He slowly pressed the blade down and lopped about a quarter inch off the edge of the ice block. A chunk of mandible was caught in the slice, like some sort of demented luncheon meat.

 

            Dirac turned off the saw and left it under the fume-hood. "Confirm and secure the sample, Mr. Dresden?" he asked stepping back.


            Grumbling.... I leaned under the fume hood. Yup, block of iridescent ice with a giant creepy bug mandible. I picked it up by the chain, put in a bit of Winter power to ensure it stayed frozen, lowered the block into the clear case, and closed it.


            "Ah, excellent." Dr. Saotome positioned her tools and slipping next to me, started cutting the mandible chunk out of the ice sliver. She started running various hardness tests and pulled out a microscope. She shouted out various findings, stresses, and compositions. All of which flew over my head, but were dutifully written down by Dirac.


            "It's... probably chitin," the scientist frowned. "Stronger than expected. Also this spongy mass inside the exoskeleton is definitely organic." Her forceps worked and deposited various samples into little containers.


            I held my tongue. For about five seconds. "It's just going to turn to goop."


            "Yes, you've said as much," Dr. Saotome absently noted. "Ah!"


            I could see wisps of smoke rising off of the microscope, the sectioned samples, and then get sucked into the blower atop the fume hood.


            "Complete denaturing." She prodded the sample with forceps. She then sealed the sample jars.


            "Yeah, it turns to clear ectoplasm then just evaporates."


            "Like those two dead Denarians we recovered," the scientist noted.


            "Yeah, they turn to human when dead."


            "Well, what was left of 'em," Dirac noted.


            Dr. Saotome picked up one of the sealed containers. I could see the clear gunk begin to sublimate. "What's the operating process here?"


            "Uh... well something spooky pulls ectoplasm in from the NeverNever, then shapes it with will and magic to give it form and substance. Remove the will and magic and it turns back and melts away."

            "Versatile," Dr. Saotome noted.


            "Sure, but it's expensive. It's not... real. That is to say it's only real as long as you're powering it. Cut off the power and splash. Complicated and big things take a lot of power."


            "And the raw material comes from another dimension?" Dr. Saotome thoughtfully asked.


            "Uh... yeah."


            Saotome turned to Dirac. "Our Jammers didn't block this? Were they pulling in raw material once they got in the perimeter"


            The gangly man hissed through his teeth. "Yeah. They were regenerating in battle, and our Jammer vault was untouched."


            I snorted. "Regenerating? Magog went full Kong in the parking garage."


            Leaning on the central table, Ranma tapped her fingers on the edge. "That's a loophole in our security."


            "Exploit it?" Dirac asked.


            "If they can bring ectoplasm in what else could they bring in?" Nodoka went to her notes. "The Magog entity drew in a lot of raw material."


            "Yeah, he was huge," Ranma rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck.


            "That's teleporting in mass amounts of material," Dr. Saotome frowned.


            Dirac shook his head. "But Ma'am, teleporting is a far larger load. Ectoplasm is just... goop right?" he asked me.


            "Uh... yeah, it's not like opening a Way. Or if it is, it's a really tiny one."


            "Right. So, there's a huge energy delta. It's like the difference between using a pipe to move water and a series of locks to move a ship. Sure in both cases you're moving water around, but the results are very different." Dirac's Adams apple bobbed as he talked.


            I nodded. I could understand that metaphor, but I was worried the eggheads would start talking out of my depth.  Honestly it was a bit irksome. I was used to being the magical expert in a room,  but when it came to the white-board style math these guys had me beat. Now if I had Butters here I'd regain the edge in egghead capability.


            "But it's not just the energy our Jammers..." he glanced to Dr. Saotome who nodded.


            "Right, our Jammers work by generating interference. Basically, increasing the barrier to teleport within range. You can't get the signal through. And even if you did it'd be applesauce."


            I nodded. "Like beaming through shields in Star Trek!"


            Ranma chuckled.


            Dr. Saotome gave me a flat look.


            "Hey, I'm more of a Star Wars fan," I defended.


            Dirac shrugged. "But with ectoplasm, that doesn't matter. There's no risk of going all Brundlefly because what's being pulled in is homogenous. It only gains definition once it's on our side."


            "Oh," I said.


            Dirac rubbed his chin. "Still... "


            "Still?" I asked staring at the block of ice.

            "Still, it's opening a channel." The young man started to pace. "And you'll end up with like material on both sides. You can do a lot of mischief if you have assets on either end."


            I swore. I then rubbed my forehead. I swore again.


            Ranma grinned. "Someone's got an idea," she said in a lilting voice.


            "That could be what Tessa and the Wolves are up to," I hit the table with my palm. "If it takes a huge amount of power to summon the big thing they're after... they could just open a little gateway, pull in some material, and use thaumaturgy to establish a link."


            Dirac rubbed the bridge of his nose. "A bit of pre-summoning before the main summoning?"


            "Sure, it's like... "


            "Refueling at sea," Dr. Saotome said.


            "Huh?"


            "You've got a warship and an oiler, both are underway, and you need to get fuel and supplies from the latter to the former. How do you do it?" she asked.


            "You've gotta get the two ships close to each other... and at the same speed and heading," I ventured. "Okay, so in this metaphor that's having the planes of reality align.


            "Very good Mr. Dresden," Dr. Saotome said, approvingly. "Now you've got the two ships aligned. How do you get the fuel across?"


            "With a fuel hose."


            "Those hoses weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds. How do you get the hose across? Throw it?"


            "They shoot a shot line. Or is it a messenger line?" Ranma shrugged. "Either way they use a special launcher and shoot a light line over."


            "And once there's a line connecting the two ships..." Dr. Saotome looked expectantly at me..

           "They can run progressively heavier ones, until they've got something strong enough to hold up a fuel hose," I nodded. "Damn, that's how Tessa's gonna do it. Though that only works for fuel, and not things."


            Dr. Saotome chuckled. "Mr. Dresden. It's only a metaphor. Besides they use the same method to hoist pallet loads of ammunition and supplies between ships as well."

            "Right, the key step is getting that first link," I jotted down a few notes. "Okay so, they'll need a place where reality's a bit thin."


            "Explains why they're here and now," Dirac muttered.


            "I'll call Doctor De Cotis and have her sent over, this is more her specialization," Dr. Saotome said, walking to the bulky wall-phone.


            "And once the time is right... well before the time, they'll save that for the big ceremony, they'll..."


            "Prime the pump?" Ranma offered, distantly.


            "Yeah, they'll establish some link, maybe summon something small. Or send someone from this world over there, there was a line about 'filling a willing vessel'," I shrugged. "Whatever it is, that'll make their next step, the real big ritual that much easier." It wasn't that unheard of, plenty of heavy duty rituals required preparation rites. Hells Bells, the Red Court's big curse took almost a week of preparation at Chichén Itzá, and by preparation I meant human sacrifices.


            "Okay, you've got an idea what Tessa and her furry friends are up to; you still gotta figure out where she's doing it," Ranma said. Her voice was pleasant enough but I saw her tail's tip flick to and fro with impatience.


            "That is the trouble. Normally the Denarians aren't subtle with their mayhem but by the time we find the bodies, it might be too late."


            The redhead nodded.


            "You're bored aren't you?" I guessed.


            She gave a rueful chuckle. "You might get off on all this mystery stuff Mr. Private Investigator, but I told you: I'm a trigger puller. I'd rather be in the field or, honestly, teaching a class."

 

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


            I scrapped the end of my staff around the loamy, half-frozen dirt. I looked at the cow pasture in the distance. The sun was starting to set and the air was beginning to chill. A large van idled by the side of the road. Ranma stepped up next to me. She was wearing black pants and had a dark coat.


            She handed me a locked case and a compass.


            "What I love about my job getting to visit exotic locals," I said closing the circle around me with a force of will.


            "Overrated," Ranma snorted. "Tell me when you spend a decade on a training trip across the ass ends of China, Korea, and Japan."


            "Well... I studied under a master wizard in the Ozarks...."


            Ranma tilted her head. "And you think a Southern Ontario dairy farm is too good for you?"


            I snorted and went back to work. I unlocked the case. Opening it I withdrew the little block of ice. Careful not to touch it, I lowered the frozen mandible on the ground and used my staff to cut another circle around it in the semi-frozen dirt.


            "It's not that I think it's too good for me," I said as I fiddled. "I mean I used to drive a VW bug and my favorite restaurant is Burger King."


            The demon scoffed. "Yeah, maybe you should focus on your voodoo."


            "It's not voodoo. Yes, voodoo dolls do work on thaumaturgy by establishing a link between the doll and the person represented, and yes I am doing thaumaturgy here, but voodoo itself is a religion. "


            "Touchy." The redhead stepped up to the edge of the circle. "Guess, I won't make a zombie joke," she teased.


            I harrumphed and continued the spell. I had done my tracking spell thousands of times. It had the most utility in my mundane investigative work. I mean, most of my work as a PI was helping people find lost items.


            So, I had a lot of practice and a lot of skill using it. Which was good as Tessa's mandible was a pain in the ass to work with. Not only was it frozen in a chunk of ice but I wasn't even fully sure it would match up to her armor the next time she went all mantis girl.


            "I didn't expect you to be so sensitive about religion," Ranma noted. "You're not exactly religious yourself."


            "Yeah well..." I frowned and felt a little tug on the silver chain I had threaded through the cube. I sat down onto the cold ground and crossed my legs. I was careful to not cross the inner circle.


            "You've got friends who are into the whole Knights of the Cross thing. Wouldn't that convince you?"


            I snorted. "Please. Of the two active Knights, one's an agnostic Trotskyist and the other's a Jewish Jedi." I pushed a bit of Soulfire into the spell. The cube was twitching. The chain felt like I had a fish nibbling on a line; that was new. I cut the filtering inner circle and let more of my power flow into it.


            "Huh," Ranma shrugged. "I guess I can see that."


            "Yeah, I know spirits and souls exist. I know there's an afterlife. I've met old gods." I said, without shifting my attention. "Hells, Bells I'm on speaking terms with an archangel."


            "And you're not religious?"


            "It's a matter of faith. And my faith is in magic, using the powers of Creation to help people." The mandible was definitely tugging on the chain. "Everything is connected. It's just a question of finding the connections," I said as I pushed a bit more.


            "Ah, animism. Well yeah, spirits reside in all things, but they can only interact with people at certain places or through specific objects," the demon shrugged. "It's like how you summoned up your boss."


            "Yeah... that's correct," I frowned. "I didn't expect you to-"


            Rolling her eyes, she cut me off. "I'm Shinto. I'm quite aware of kami and various small gods."


            "But you're a..." I frowned; she had mentioned that when we first met but...


            "Demon?" She smirked, and I could just imagine her tail swishing. "Now why would me being able to sense the connections between people and be more spiritually aware hamper my religion?"


            "Oh," I supposed a Japanese demon being Shinto wasn't that strange. Shiro the previous wielder Fidelacchius was an accidental Baptist. He was an Elvis fan and due to a translation mixup thought he was going to meet "the King" and instead got baptized.


            Though, that did make me wonder about Amaterasu. I was pretty certain that she existed. The question was in what form? Gods tended to wax and wane in their connection to the mortal world. They also adapted and shifted as time went on. Odin was a prime example of that. On the other hand, as far as I knew Amaterasu still had a large number of mortal worshipers.  Including my redheaded companion.


            I pushed those thoughts aside as I lifted the mandible by the chain and started to stand up


            Ranma leaned forward and once more peered at the dangling cube. "Looks like you got a bite Mr. Wizard." She grinned.


            "Get the map," I said holding the chain in one hand and the compass in another.  Instead of hanging straight down, the cube was being pulled to the side. As I stepped in a slow circle, I felt the tug of the icy block wax and wane. Curling my fingers over the chain, I closed my eyes and shifted my arm ever so slightly. Once the force of the chain was at its strongest, I opened my eyes.


            I was facing to the southwest, maybe a bit more south than southwest. The block was pulling against the chain in the same direction. I then read off the heading on the compass on my other hand.


            Ranma had already unfolded a map and had it on a clipboard. She put a mark on the location where we stood. Using a protractor she marked the compass heading and then used a straight edge to draw a line.


            I glanced over. The line went from the outskirts of some place called Cambridge out over more boonies and farmland across another town called Brantford and went all the way out to Lake Erie.


            The demon smiled. "You get things settled here. I'll call it in, but don't break that link," she said running to the van.


            I sighed and broke the outer circle. I understood her concern. They got a lead on where Tessa was, and it wouldn't do to have a grumpy wizard ruin their radios and cell phones. Still, it felt a bit like I had been used and tossed to the side.


            That feeling got more acute when the van shifted gear and lurched forward.


            Ranma poked her head out of the sliding door. "Come on Mr. Wizard!" she said thumping the side of the van.


            Still holding the tugging cube by the chain, I loped up to her. "What's the hurry?" I asked as I jumped inside and sat down.  I took care to lower the dangling cube into a case.   Lady Pluto had warned me not to touch the thing, and I didn't want to find out what would happen if I did.


            In the row behind me was the rest of Lt. Tendo's team. Unlike the two mercenaries in the front seats these two were in full battle-rattle.


            "We don't know how long we've got and it'll be nice to triangulate a location before the signal cuts out," Lieutenant Tendo said as she floored the accelerator.


            I harrumphed.  It was bad enough to learn that my former apprentice Molly had figured out the "use triangulation with a tracking spell to find the location of something" before me, but having these mercenaries rushing me was irksome.


            The heavy grey van raced down country highway eight. I'm not sure how fast we were going but after ten minutes of white-knuckle driving and passing every truck and car that got in our way, the chain started to vibrate, and I said we needed to stop.


            Tendo made an irritated noise but pulled us over. The door opened and Ranma practically pulled me out. I pushed a bit more soulfire into the spell pushing it further. I wondered if Tessa was using countermeasures to make it harder to track her.


            As I drew the circle around me, I glanced over and saw Ranma marking our new location on the map. Unless I misread the scale, we were about ten miles to the southeast of the first location. The mercenary riding shotgun had also jumped out. I could feel the tension increasing.


            This time the forest was on our side of the road and the farmer's field was on the opposite side. The circle closed, sealing off the ambient magics. The cube's twitching on the end of its chain stopped and a steady pull resumed. I repeated the chain and compass trick. Only this time the compass heading was almost due west.


            Ranma drew a second line and whistled. I looked over. The two lines intersected at a little crossroads town maybe twelve miles away.


            "Lomar," the demon noted. "Damn, she's close." She handed the map to the green-eyed mercenary and he ran back to the van.


            I broke the circle and looked down at the hanging frozen block. It had worked. And all because Lady Pluto had used her magic to preserve it.  I was wary of gifts from supernatural entities, but at least this one seemed to have a positive outcome


             "Close, I think that's part of why the spell didn't work before," I said.


            "She's jamming your magic mojo?" Ranma asked as she pulled a second map out of her jacket. She refolded it and studied the little town of Lomar.


            "Tracking spells are powerful,"  I said taking care to seal the cube back into the case I had pulled out of the van.  It was smaller than the previous one, maybe it offered less protection, but at least now I could carry the thing in a coat pocket.


            I then stepped closer and looked over her shoulder. "And it's not just me she's hiding from."


            The redhead nodded. "What do you make of the location?'


            I glanced at the map. Lomar was between a larger town of Saint George to the south and another little bump on the map named Branchton to the north. Other than that, there wasn't much that wasn't fields and farms.


             "It's small, can't be more than five hundred people. Isolated too... but..." I frowned. "There's a larger highway only three miles to the west."


            "And an airport ten klicks to the east," Ranma pointed on the map.


             "Yeah, I remember passing it," The Winter Mantle burbled within me. It knew what I was looking at, and it approved of the prey selection.


            "Soft target?" Rama asked.


            "Yeah, small enough that there won't be much resistance, but large enough to have plenty of bodies. Isolated enough that a counterattack will take time, but not so isolated to prevent a ready means of escape." I exhaled.


            "I'd say we found the place," the demon smiled, her teeth shining in the twilight.


            "Good," I grinned back. "Let's ruin Tessa's night."


            The demon groaned and pointed to the van. "Just... just get in the car."

 

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

 


            Stunted saplings and brambly dead undergrowth pulled at my coat as we crossed Kingsport Creek and neared the edge of the forest. The treeline was still further away than I liked but this part of woods past the creek was on a little rise. I pulled next to a tree and knelt down behind it.


           Several yards to the left, Ranma had slipped into another spot. The demon's grey armor blended into the night gloom. Even her hair seemed muted and dark as she sniffed the air. My boots dripped. Fording the creek wasn't hard but it was just deep enough to annoy me.


            Taking a pair of binoculars out of my coat, I noted a slight tingle. Magic was in the air. I took a few of the little town to the west. It matched the detailed map Lieutenant Tendo had pulled up on a spare tablet computer. It had lasted for a few minutes before all the color bled out of its screen. Long enough for us to get the layout of the own and get a rough, very rough, plan.


            Technically Lomar didn't sit at a crossroads. There was a gas station at the actual intersection. It stood alone amongst some wheat fields.


             Instead, Lomar sat a bit to the north of the east-west road and was bisected by the north-south running Route 13. And even that wasn't fully accurate. Due to the way the Kingsport Creek pressed against the east edge of the town, there were only a couple dozen houses on this side of the main drag. Most of the town lay to the west of Route 13.


            The real problem was that Lomar sat in a bit of a valley and the land around Kingsfort Creek was boggy and must have been prone to flooding. Fortunately in late autumn, the ground was pretty dry and gave us an elevated view of the town in the shallow vale below.


            I moved my binoculars slowly. At first, I just got a sense of the town itself. I further revised down my population estimate. If all these houses were full, there couldn't be more than three hundred people here. The place was a bit rundown but seemed pleasant enough. People could be happy here I suppose. But it also underscored just how far from home I was, and how badly I wanted to stop Tessa and get back.


            And more than a few houses looked abandoned. Hells Bells, a disquieting number, about half, were dark. It wasn't that late and I bet that even Canadians didn't go to bed before 8 PM. Though the thought of being curled up snug in one's bed did appeal to me; I suppressed a yawn.


            Then I went and looked over the streets. They were empty. The occasional car drove down Route 13. However if anything they seemed to speed up and blow right on through Lomar.


            My attention went to downtown, such as it was, in Lomar. There was a cluster of buildings on the west side of Route 13. That the post office, consignment store, and hardware slash bait shop were closed was expected. The grocery store being closed was a bit odd.


            However the town's bar being closed was very disquieting. Sure this one-horse town wasn't Chicago, a place I missed more and more, but even out in the boonies the bars wouldn't close this early.


            I lowered my binoculars and sighed.


            The succubus had slipped up next to me. Her expression was subdued and tense. Purple eyes met mine. Even they seemed muted.


            "This is bad," I whispered.


            "People are still alive down there," she added in an even quieter voice.


            I deduced her unspoken "For now," and nodded. I tapped my foot on the ground impatiently. I dipped into the Winter Mantle and my alertness sharpened..


            "What's wrong?" Ranma asked, her quiet voice insistent.


            "I..." I frowned. The magic in the air. "Stars and Stones... it's a compulsion."


            Her head tilted ever so slightly in the gloom.


            "You feeling homesick Red? Maybe a bit tired? Getting the urge to go back home and snuggle under some blankets."


            The demon blinked. Her gaze hardened. "Clever," she hissed.


            I nodded. As mental magic went, it was subtle, but long ranged. The urge to go home worked in two ways. First, it made sure the residents of the Lomar would stay put. Second, it would ensure those passing through would keep on passing through.


            Then came the latter part of the spell. The urge to sleep was weaker, but that was fine; it was cumulative. Once they were home what else was someone going to do?


            With two spells Tessa and her goons had corralled and hobbled a whole town.


            "Serious mojo?"


            "A compulsion spell over a mile in radius? What do you think?" I ran my binoculars over the town. This time, the quiet streets were even more ominous. Worse, now three quarters of the homes had turned off the lights.


            The demon gave a little nod then looked at me. Her gaze was challenging.


            I knew what she meant. It took power to cast a spell like this. And sure the Denarians, especially those that had been around for a while had plenty of sorcerous power. Say what you will about the Fallen, but they really can teach someone the ins and outs of magic.


            Still, this was a considerable expense, and all to turn the Lomar into a... larder. Or maybe a battery was the better word.


            Ranma had watched the emotions play across my face. She gave another curt nod and slipped away. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her pull a radio out of one of her pouches and turn it on. She then slipped out of sight.


            By the time I put my binoculars down, the redhead had returned.


            "They're still alive?"


            "I can smell lots of people and feel..." she shrugged.


            "I'm not feeling any major necromantic energies." My mouth had gone dry. On a pure numbers game this wasn't quite enough... resources to pull off a Dark Hollow.  Also, it was the wrong time of year. Still, it's not like Tessa had anything good in mind that required an entire town to be docile and somnolent.


            Focusing my emotions, I pulled a little case out of my coat and withdrew the fragment of Tessa's mandible hanging from its silver chain.. I used my staff to clear a circle in the woods and setup the summoning spell.


            This time the direction the creepy pendulum pulled was to the north-west.  Sighting in that direction, I lifted the binoculars to my eyes. It pointed past the town itself. There was a farm supply store on the west side of route 13 just to the north of Lomar.


            I couldn't tell if the fragment was pointing towards the store itself, the warehouses behind it, or even the grove of woods that surrounded the property. But it was definitely in that area.


            Lowering my binoculars, I saw that Ranma had already vanished, doubtless to report my findings. I wasn't sure how long her radio could last, especially once the spell-slinging really started, but I'm sure she had spares, and it wasn't like backup was that far away.


            The demon silently emerged from the gloom and gave me an expectant look.


            "I don't know what you want, but I'm not exactly the most 'subtle' one," I said. "Forward scouting, recon isn't my thing. I know you've got reinforcements coming but-"


            Giving a sarcastic look, she held up a finger and wagged it. "But there's a town that's about to be wiped out," she hissed in a voice that was hard even for me to hear.


            "Well, we don't know what Tessa plans to do here," I offered weakly, securing and pocketing the case with the bit of mantis mandible.


            The "look" returned. We both knew I was lying. We both knew I was itching to rush in. I realized that Lieutenant Tendo had deliberately split us up like this. Her team was approaching from the south and was set to rendezvous with reinforcements or back us up.


            Meanwhile, we had been sent ahead... because she knew how I might react. She also knew she couldn't stop me. Well, not without making me "combat ineffective".  And even that was if she got really lucky and surprised me.


            I wondered if the same held true for Ranma. Was she here as my minder? Or was she sent off because we'd have a better chance attacking together.

            "This'll be a spoiling attack," the demon leaned in, her breath hot on my face, her voice nearly silent. "We sneak in, hit them hard, throw a wrench in their plans, then pull back and hammer them with backup."


            I nodded. I wasn't so sure about the "pull back" part, but I did love smashing up dark rituals.


            She then looked me up and down. "I don't suppose you can be a bit more stealthy?" Ranma asked


            I snorted, and winced at how loud that noise was. "Yeah, I can manage," I said as I cast a Veil. Now, Veils weren't my strong suit. I'm more of a raw power with my evocations. Though, I do have a knack for thaumaturgy.


            And Veils are very fiddly bits of spells that require bending light, dampening spells, and, at the high levels, masking scents. However, I have had a lot of practice over the years, especially when it came to teaching an apprentice who happened to be really, really good at Veils.


            I smiled as the demon's eyes widened as I faded out of sight. Sniffing the air, she gave an approving nod and crouching down away towards the edge of the tree-line and the town below.


            Shadows deepened around her and the succubus's colors faded even more as she nearly vanished. It was a mix of natural camouflage, field-craft, and demonic powers. Realizing I would easily lose track of her, I followed the vague smudge that might be the redheaded demon.

 

 

End Chapter 7

 

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.


(And uh....  this chapter is the halfway point.  Sorry)