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 8: Lost Arrivals, Part B

 


            Ichor bubbled and hissed as it dripped off my Sword. I stepped back and slowly turned in a circle. I had been taught to watch my back.  Charity Carpenter's training had been... thorough. Not that I was complaining.  Okay I did complain from the bruises and aching muscles that came with Charity and Michael's help. 


            However after my first couple outings as a knight, I really started to appreciate all they had done for me.  But the triangular stone chamber seemed empty of enemies. Erie green light pulsed in the room.


            Well, it was empty of enemies that were still alive. Goo still dripped off the ceiling from where a rubbery tentacle had flown up after I'd sliced it off. My heart still raced. I might be a Knight but I was no Michael or Sanya. I didn't know how they could do this and make it seem so easy.  The way Harry put it,  confidence was a big part of it.  


            Bad guys were supposed to fear Knights.  Our missions came with purpose, and with that power....  and responsibility.  Some of the cosmological implications were disquieting, but I was doing good work.  My first mission did save a hospital's pediatric wing.


            I kicked a gorilla-shaped, hairless... thing. Unlike its companions in the room, it was still mostly in one piece. Some of its tentacles thrashed. I flicked my Sword down. The glowing blade parted flesh. Ichor sprayed, adding to the spatters on my black pants and vest.   At least it missed the white mantle and cape I wore over the vest. 


            "Aww, damnit," I cried. I looked around the room. A stone ledge stuck out of one wall. The makeshift altar was angled slightly and had grooves in the sides and a hole to collect blood. A large circle of crystals with an eye-bending onyx statue rested on the stained altar stone.


            I circled the triangular room again. One wall had an open doorway. It was the one I had taken to get here.


            The other wall... well, there was a pointed arch set in silver-veined onyx. It looked to be the same material as the queasy-looking idol I had just laser-sworded. Instead of leading to another room, weird green light filled the archway.


            Turning back to the altar, I peered closer at the circle. Okay.... one of the foci items on the circle was a little replica of the gate, complete with its own shimmering, miniature portal of green light. Right, I might not have much magical talent, but I had a pretty good teacher. However, even the most rudimentary course in thaumaturgy would explain what this circle was trying to accomplish.


            Well, I'll admit that it wasn't a straightforward summoning. The positioning of the crystal bells and the swirled pentagram indicated that this was more of a binding, or perhaps communication spell.


            Setting up such a ritual was beyond my skill, even with Bob's help. On the upside, stopping it was pretty trivial.


            Fidelacchius sliced through the unholy tableau with a satisfying hum. However, the eerie green glow remained. I turned back and studied the glowing portal. It flickered.


            I didn't need a glowing sign in the air telling me I had to go through (though I didn't object to the help). I had been sent on a mission. An Archangel told me I was to stop a Denarian from making a huge mistake, and so far, I hadn't run into any Denarians.  Sure, I'd found a few cultists and a load of servitor creatures they had purchased from the Fomor, but not a single Nickelhead


            Said Angel had also hinted that I'd have an opportunity to help a friend in need. And so far, I hadn't run into any friends.  Part of me was a bit disquieted.  The "home office" didn't normally give me briefings.  Normally I got my missions by seeing the right sign over the person I needed to help.


            I eyed the glowing gateway and exhaled. That is if it was a gateway. It could be an agony grid or a incinerator. I picked up a bit of broken crystal and tossed it through. It vanished. That wasn't conclusive. It could still be a disintegration matrix. 


            Maybe, it just worked really fast. And even if it was a gateway, I had no idea where it led. Harry had told me that there were parts of the NeverNever where there was no oxygen, no gravity, and all sorts of other wonderfully-lethal environments.


            The portal flickered again. Then for a third time. It looked like I couldn't delay any longer. The wood grip of my Sword felt slick in my hands. No, I wasn't a Sanya let alone a Harry Dresden. My name is Waldo Butters and I am a Knight of the Sword. And I had faith. I held Fidelacchius ready and stepped into the green light.

 

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

 


            There was a swirling, lurching rush as I was pulled through the portal. Lights flashed by and my stomach knotted. Shuddering, my body felt like it was being drawn through a keyhole.


            And then my boots hit loamy ground. I blinked. I was outside. An overcast night sky loomed above me. Light from the portal flickered from behind.

            And everything was on fire.


            I was in a clearing in a grove. Blocky stones had been pushed in a circle that included the stone archway that held the portal. In the center of the circle was a large altar.


            The area around the altar had been partially paved with interlocking flagstones. It all looked hastily constructed. For one, the flagstones only covered half of the circle. For two, a couple of the grey standing stones had fallen over. And for three, there was a crane and a pair of forklifts just outside of the circle.


            The machinery was also on fire.


            The clearing was illuminated by tall torches, sputtering klieg lights, and narrow glowing crystals mounted in brass tripods. And the fire. Can't forget the fire. And honestly, torches were rubbish for light. The random bits of lawn, vehicles, trees, and people that had been set aflame were giving just as much light.


            My body tingled. The scent of sulfur, wood-smoke, blood, viscera, burnt flesh and, confusingly, wet dog filled my nose.


            Stepping forward, I kept my Sword ready.  This wasn't my most confusing fight visually,  but that was only because I still had my glasses.


            There was a blast of flame that fully illuminated the stone circle. And suddenly, I understood the smells, all of them. The gateway behind me flickered again. Its green light actually fading for half a second.


            Just past the altar before me, and filling fully half the circle and much of the area beyond it, was a mob of wolfmen. The hunched hairy figures stood nearly nine feet tall and had to be four hundred pounds of wiry muscle.  They seemed to glow with red outlines in the dim light.


            Howling, yipping and snarling they had formed into a rough circle a couple dozen yards from me. Within the circle were piles of burnt and eviscerated lupine bodies many of which were still twitching. And in the very center stood two figures back to back.


            On the left was a tall, lanky man with a billowing leather duster and a long staff glowing with eldritch runes. His staff was lowered and bright white-blue flames shot out of it soaking the first line of wolves like a flamethrower.


             On the right...


            That was a demon: glossy black horns, big leathery wings, spade-tipped tail, and talons. She had a wild mane of deep red hair and wore some kind of tactical armor. I'll confess it looked a bit similar to the vest and rig I had on. Except, she wasn't wearing the white cloak and she had some kind of loose bodysuit underneath.


            A group of wolfmen broke away from the pack and charged her. The demon sprung out to meet them with a mad gleam in her eyes. I did note with some relief that while her eyes did glow she only had one pair.  So, she probably wasn't a Denarian.  They had two pairs of eyes,  with the glowing eyes of the Fallen above their human ones.


            Also unlike the wolves she didn't seem to be outlined in red.


            Heedless of the fact that she that she was outnumbered and out-massed, she charged them. Each wolf had to be four times her weight and four feet taller than her.


            She flipped under one set of claws and broke a tibia. Then, with an economical slash of her talons, opened the jugular of another wolf. Her tail lanced out and somehow buried it into a third wolf's hips. She had taken out the acetabulofemoral joint between the hip and right femur.


            As that wolf fell down, his leg unable to support his weight, she flipped over and fired a spear of fire into the eyes of a fourth wolf while slashing between the second and first cervical vertebrae of a fifth wolf that had found itself running past her.


            I glanced back to Harry. He was also outnumbered and was pouring on the violence, but while he was his normal brawling self this demon had a surgeon's understanding of anatomy.


            Or maybe a butcher's. I then saw the demon bare her fangs as she ripped open a ribcage, fish out a heart and liver and promptly feast on the organs. Yeah, I'm thinking more butcher.


            My observations were interrupted when one of the wolfmen wheeled its head around and spotted me. The giant brute lunged forward. A quarter ton of angry wolf shot towards me. And I learned two things.


            First, despite their size, these things were fast. My heart pounded with primal fear as a giant apex predator charged at me. It ate up thirty feet in the blink of an eye. And I had to force myself to not run away.  Training helped.  Over the months Charity had put me through thousands of drills.


            The practice didn't reduce the fear, not so much that, but it did focus my actions.  Instead of staring dumbfounded I swung my Sword.


            However, this led directly to the second thing.


            Giant wolfmen were not lightsaber proof. As it closed, in I flipped my Sword in an arc. Two giant, hairy, ham-hock arms pin wheeled off. The wolf howled in pain as I followed through with the Sword and flipped the blade forward. The glowing blade slammed into the monster's muzzle and bisected its head


            The hulking creature flopped down and began to twitch. I gasped, my heartbeat still pounding.


            Then I learned two more things. Third: the wolf I killed had friends. Who were now charging at me.


            Fourth... the wolf's head was starting to reform as it tried to pull itself up.


            "Oh you've got to be kidding me," I sighed as I flicked my Sword down, decapitating the beast. I distantly heard gunfire. It didn't sound like Harry's revolver. In fact, if I didn't know better, it sounded like machine guns.


            Lifting my Sword, I closed towards the two new wolves racing towards me. One was bulky and dark furred while the other was more rangy and had a shaggy grey pelt.


            "Look, you don't want to do this," I warned as I slipped into a stance.  


            They charged.  I slashed my Sword through the torso of the grey one.


            The monster took the hit and closed towards me, allowing his companion to flank me. I screamed, wrenched my sword free and, with a wild swing, flailed my blade through them both. Blood spurted as I horizontally bisected the two of them.


            My chest heaved, but the creatures were still crawling towards me. After taking their heads, I returned my attention to the mob before me.


            The circle around Dresden and the demon had shifted into a more... egg shaped grouping. With me at the smaller point of the egg.


            Harry looked at me. He gave a long blink. "Butters!" he bellowed, his resonate baritone cutting across the battle. "Butters! Glad the Home Office sent you over!"


            Swallowing, I simply saluted with my Sword. That's when the realization hit me, I was the backup the Wizard Dresden had been hoping for.

 

            Me.  I was the Cavalry.


            Suddenly, I felt like I had some real big shoes to fill.


            "Okay! Army guys and pale demon chicks are on our side! Denarians and Wolfmen are the baddies!" Harry shouted after blasting a line of wolves with a veritable wall of spear-like icicles.  The attack scythed through a dozen of the creatures studding each with a score of long icy spikes.  


            I blinked.  That was a new attack. Harry then gasped and took a moment to lean on his staff.


            The redheaded demon seemed to pause in her, disturbingly precise, carnage. Her eyes locked onto mine for a brief moment. They were a softly luminous, deep violet. It was as if she was taking the time to file me under "Do not eat".


            "More demons? Wait... army guys?" I asked, my voice totally not carrying the distance.


            And that's when the helicopters came.


            A droning dark shape swept by overhead. I could just make out darkened figures jumping from the flying machine. Maybe half a dozen people plummeted towards the grove.


            Then as one, their wings spread out and five more demons landed. They wore the same gray-green armor as the redhead, but their weapons were different. One, with orange hair and crazy green eyes, had a boxy grenade launcher that started scything over the mob while her partner, a taller figure with pale whitish hair, covered them with some type of stubby, but bulky, rifle.


            Two demon girls with blue hair worked as another pair. The younger, daintier of the two flicked out a pair of giant red-bladed knives and began chewing through the wolves while, what had to be her older sister, started smashing through the giants bare handed. Much like the redhead.  Though she preferred to wrench joints in ways they were not meant to go and do things like shatter collarbones and the temporomandibular joint where the jaw met the skill.


             Meanwhile, the last of the quintet had dark hair and held a glowing red sword.  I did notice they all  bore a family resemblance.  Though I wasn't sure how much of that was the uniform armor and alabaster skin.


            I heard what might have been another helicopter. More figures descended. I didn't see where they landed. For all I knew, there were more demons. However, I did see what might have been rappelling lines being dropped.


            I'll admit I was a bit distracted. The whole thing was turning into an overwhelming, disjointed scrum. For one thing, the gunfire was pounding against my ears making it harder to even think.


            The demon girl with the glowing sword had wheeled a bit closer to me. It looked like she and her sisters, cousins,  whatever... the other demons were working to flank and corral the wolves. Being the hammer to Harry and the redhead's anvil. Red eyes met mine, and the swords-demon gave a fencer's salute.  And then her sword shot out arcs of lightning.


            "He's found a Sith," I laughed as I slashed my Sword through another wolf. "Of course Harry found a Sith demon chick."


            And then the helicopters opened fire. Gatling guns poured down bullets at such a hellacious rate that their tracers merged together. Then bolts of green energy shot up causing the helicopters to jink and dodge. They pulled back a ways but continued to periodically open fire.


            The whole thing threatened my sanity. It was too much noise, too many bright flashes in the dark gloom. All the smells of blood, offal, gunpowder, wet dog, burning flesh, and fear pressed against me.


            And oh yes, I was busy frantically slicing apart giant wolfmen.  Frankly, I was a bit amazed that they hadn't managed to touch me, but again: lightsaber.


            My blade sang as the glowing light parted flesh and I stepped to the side.  I made a brief mental note to take Charity and Michael out to dinner after I got back home.  I owed them at least that much.


            That's when I noticed that the gateway behind me had snapped shut.


            His face pulled into a snarl; Harry rushed the wolfmen once more. I knew he had gotten stronger. Hell, I had been on some of the runs with him. Well, I'd started but had to bow out after the first couple miles, not that I could keep up even at the beginning. Meanwhile, he just kept going, even wearing that damn weighted vest.


            So, I had expected some level of superior physicality on his part. Though my own notes suggested that the Winter Mantle was less a superpower and more of a super-enabler... That is the Mantle allowed Harry to push past normal human boundaries instead of, in and of itself, endowing him with superhuman abilities.


            Still, I had to admit that the icy talons that sprouted from Harry's fingers were a definite superpower. Harry was still smaller and weaker than the wolves, but the gap was narrower than I had expected.


            Hell, the only reason I was still in this fight was because the wolves didn't quite seem to figure out how to fight against a lightsaber. That and I seemed to be pretty lucky in fending them off.  And of course that some measure of training had managed to sink in.


            But I'd say a bigger factor was that the other demon girls had coalesced into a front that was driving the wolfmen back, keeping them from flanking me.


            Their assault did nothing for my hearing, but it was nice to no longer be under immediate risk of being devoured. The tall black-haired one with her own magic sword had continued to get closer.


            My attention was pulled away from the willowy demon with her, obviously sinister, red blade by Dresden giving a guttural scream. A lance of force shot out and knocked down three rows of hulking wolves.


            He and the redhead then fell upon the displaced monsters. The contrast between him and demon woman was... interesting. In both cases, it was claw against claw, but while she had her surgical precision, Harry seemed to be in an almost berserker rage as he tore through them.  I was starting to worry how much he was leaning on the Winter Mantle.  I mean when the liver-eating demon was the more restrained one...


            The redhead's precise hits put down the regenerating creatures a bit longer. However, Harry's slapdash slices and tears did leave wounds rimed with ice. The frozen flesh resisting attempts to heal.


            But in both cases, it was a bit academic. Far in their wake, the orange-haired demon-girl raked the wounded wolves with a barrage of grenades.  I wasn't sure what the shrapnel range of those grenades were, but the gleeful grenadier demon seemed to know her business. Limbs and organs flew as explosions pounded my head.


            With a scream of Parkour, Harry cleared the altar and landed on the other side near me. He was only a few yards away. I sprinted up to him. A wolf came in to my right. Moving unconsciously, my wrist flicked-out, lopping the monster's legs off at the knees.


            Harry gave me a savage grin as his taloned-hand went out and shredded the wolfman's neck. Pulling in her wings, the redheaded demon had dropped next to him. She gave Harry a vaguely disapproving look and used her tail to finish removing the wolf's head.


            "Careful these things can heal just about anything," she shouted over the din as she pointed at the snapping head. Flames danced at the tips of long fingers and a beam shot out blowing apart the skull like a firecracker in a melon.


            "Harry, what the hell's going on?" I asked, glancing about. It felt like there was a bit of a lull in the fighting, then I realized that the other demon girls had taken positions around us. There was also more machinegun fire somewhere in the distance and what might have been a rocket explosion.


            "Summary; twenty words or less," the redhead told Harry.


            "Nicodemus murdered Deirdre. Tessa wants revenge. She came to this world to summon some old god to stomp on Nicky," Harry then counted on his icy fingers and gave a goofy grin.


            "Well, great!" I shouted. I had only met Nicodemus and Tessa once. That was the day I had taken up the Sword, that was the day they tried to kill the Carpenter family. And come to think of it... that was probably the day Nicodemus had killed their daughter.

 
            And now, Tessa wanted revenge? She was twisted enough normally. Hell, she made Nicodemus seem like the calm and rational one in that relationship. But murder her daughter? I don't know if someone like Tessa was really capable of love, but I'd bet with Deirdre it came the closest.


            "Anyway," Harry looked between me and the redhead. "Ranma this is Doctor Waldo Butters, Knight of the Cross. Butters this is Ranma Saotome... uh Special Contractor for... uh what does WIC stand for?"


            The redhead, Ranma, smiled. "Doesn't matter." She bowed to me. "Pleasure to meet you Doctor Butters. Harry's talked a lot about you."


            "Uh, charmed?" I wasn't sure what to do with my hands, so I just returned the bow. "We got a plan?"


            "Tessa tried to sacrifice this town. We smashed up her ritual; now we're killing goons. But she's our real target," Ranma explained, her tail swishing behind her.


            I blinked at the demon as I realized something. For all the power and lethality that radiated off of her, she was short. I mean she was shorter than me. She had to be Murphy-sized.


            Now that we were close something else clicked, she was Japanese.   I blinked.  My first mission, not counting the time against Nicodemus and Tessa, was against a baka baku named Dr. Miyamune.   Once again:  short,  pretty,  Japanese.  I was starting to wonder if the Almightily was giving me a "type".


            Harry grinned, flashing his teeth. "Any advice from the Home Office?"


            I winced. Why was it that Harry's smile was more unnerving than the demon's?


            "I was told that I had to stop a Denarian from making a huge mistake." I raised my voice so Harry could hear.


            "You can lower your voice Butters, we both hear quite well," Harry replied, but he nodded thoughtfully.


            "Told you, Tessa's being played," Ranma said as she flexed her claws.


            "I was also told I'd have a chance to help a friend in need."


            "Finally!" Harry's grin warmed, becoming less scary. "About time those Angels started being straightforward."


            I held my tongue. I was pretty sure that Harry was being a bit optimistic. Glancing down, I noticed a green miasma hugging the ground just above the flagstones, seemingly sucking at the fallen wolves. The monsters seemed to be healing slower. That was... good.


            My study was interrupted by Harry clapping his hands. "Right. Now that we're all on the same page, let's stop Tessa."


            I frowned. We were hardly "on the same page". Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the redhead summon a pair of flickering obsidian orbs. Harry ran a hand over each of the orbs, murmured some arcane word, and they flew off into the sky.


            I still wasn't sure why Dresden was working with a gaggle of demons but he trusted them, and well... I trusted Harry. 


            "Okay!" Harry grinned with a mad gleam in his eyes as the redhead called and released another pair of orbs. "Red and I will break through, you do Knight stuff with your Sword and the rest will cover us."


            Blinking, I inched forward and shifted the grip on my Sword. This was the downside of trusting Harry: his plans.


            A howling chorus cut over the chaos, and I shivered. I had gotten used to werewolves, but these hulking, misshapen things bellowed more than howled. The wizard and the redheaded demon flipped around the altar.


            Harry lowered his staff and an arctic-blue blast of fire shot through the surging ranks. To his right, Ranma cupped her hands and a violet tinged arc of flames shot out.


            Wolfmen began to scream as they were immolated. The scent of burned hair and boiled blood filled my nostrils. As both poured on the fire, I leapt in behind them and racing ahead, hacked at anyone who tried to get past. It was hard; both could run much faster than me.


            As they cleared open a path, the other demon girls watched our back and flanks. To the left the older blue-haired one shot out with some kind of explosive shadow attack while the orange-haired one fired more grenades on the right side.


            The green miasma had spread further and fewer of the wolves were getting up after being hit. The blonde and younger blue-haired one seemed to have taken the rear-guard sweeping behind the rest of us.


            I found myself going forward with the black-haired demoness watching my back. Up close I could tell that her sword was actually a crimson bladed katana and not a red lightsaber. So, there was that at least.


            I raised my sword-arm and the glowing blade flashed over in blinding light nearly as bright as the sun.


            Shadows bent away from me and for a moment the wolves stood transfixed. Distantly, I heard a hateful, insectile screech.


            My mouth opened and words began to pour out. "Polonius Lartessa! Look at what centuries of destruction has cost you! You have caused countless acts of suffering and loss and now you respond to your own loss with further suffering?" I asked in a loud booming voice that was not quite my own.


            "Revenge will not bring you peace!" I cried as the last of the wolves parted. The giant creatures had started to break under the combined assault.


            They revealed a rough dais made of piled stone. It sat in front of a small warehouse and... I blinked. It was some kind of farm supply store. Distantly, I wondered just where the heck that portal had sent me.


            Then my attention was on the three figures that stood on the dais. Shimmering yellow light surrounded them. To the left was the grey, gaunt, skeletal form of Thorned Namshiel. I had never seen him, but Michael's lessons had included briefings on all the Denarians he had fought. As far as he knew, there weren't other Fallen sorcery masters with lank greasy hair and pointy bone spurs jutting out of every joint.


            Namshiel's glowing green Denarian eyes were angry, but his brown human eyes seemed almost... worried. Opposite him stood a large barrel-chested man a dark suit with a bushy black beard, wild long hair, and shining golden eyes. His lip was pulled back in a snarl and he flexed his hands.


            A thick hardcover grimoire hung from a silvery chain over his neck like a gaudy parody of a book-themed rapper. Maybe a Mc Poindexter who tried to get kids to read. I immediately marked him as the leader of the wolfmen.


            And between them was the diminutive and mantis-armored form of Tessa. All four of her eyes boiled with rage as she stared down on us. Her mandibles clicked and she let out a screech.


            Idly, I noted that Rosanna wasn't here. She was Tessa's second in command and her absence struck me as worrisome.


            Blasts from Harry and Ranma battered the yellow shield. Namshiel's skeletal face turned into a rictus at the pressure.


            Tessa turned to him and if anything the raw hate in her eyes magnified. "You were supposed to secure the other side!"


            "I did!" Namshiel gasped, his hair seeming even more limp and greasy.


            "Evidence says otherwise." Tessa spared me a momentary glance. Recognition flashed in those alien eyes. For the barest instant, I froze. Then I recovered and pointed my Sword at her.


            She turned back to the sorcerer. "Fine, the Knight and other intruders are your fault. Deal with them."


            The large man in the suit growled.


            "Come Vuko, it seems you were right..." Tessa spat as she beckoned to the man in the suit and turned to leave the makeshift dais.


            The redhead flicked her hands and a quartet of obsidian orbs slammed onto the yellow dome from four different directions.


            "Disperdorius!" Harry yelled as he swung his staff. Runes flared as it impacted the shield. Purple beams shot out of the redhead's eyes. And the demon with the red sword also fired lightning.

            Acting on instinct I charged forward and hit the shield with my lightsaber.


            Energy crackled as the magical shield shattered.


            "Incompetence!" Tessa snarled at Namshiel. Blurring, she jerked to the side, but not before then the left half of her torso exploded. Shrieking, she fell down in a gout of blood, entrails, and shattered chitin.


            A fraction of a second later was a booming echo of some sort of immense gun.


            "Sniper!" Vuko shouted as he slammed to the ground and dragged Tessa's fractured form.


            Namshiel lifted a clenched hand, yellow filaments extended from his fingertips, and the shield began to raise. I noted, with some confusion, that he seemed to hold a pair of black shells in one palm. Something about them struck me as wrong. However, the grenades and other gunfire starting to rake across the dais distracted me.


            More worryingly, the redhead had pounced up and was clawing at Vuko and the wounded Denarian. Her talons sunk though the armor and into Tessa's leg. Vuko's head blew apart, followed by another boom from that sniper.


            Mandibles snapping, Tessa pointed and shot Ranma away with a burst of glossy black shadows. However, the redhead had hooked her claws behind the Denarian's gastrocnemius muscle, and when she got pulled off it flayed the calf muscle right off Tessa's tibia.


            Suit and pants ripped and shredded as Vuko tore out of his skin. His human form was replaced by a titanic wolfman who towered over the others. There was a meaty splat as the wolfman's head grew back. It was a hairless, skinless mess, but mad intelligence shone in those golden eyes.


           Tessa flopped down. "Change of orders, kill the succubus-spawn!" she ordered as Vuko scooped her up and ran off.  The sniper hit the bounding wolfman again, blasting a hole in his chest, but the creature kept running.


            My blade wavered. Harry was snarling and blasting at Namshiel, meanwhile Ranma had launched herself at the retreating wolfman with his mantis-girl cargo.


            Sword up, I edged around the makeshift dais. I could now see the backside and almost laughed at how rough the pile of bricks and cinderblocks actually was.


            For an instant, the air seemed to still. The screams and gunfire retreated into the distance. Namshiel flexed his fingers, glowing tendrils waving. The fingers to Harry's right hand clenched over his staff. The runes glowed white as frost started to form on his duster.


            The moment, if it had existed, popped and as one the demon girls burst forward.


            Skull-like face grinning, Namshiel snapped the castanets in his hand. The beat he rang out was rhythmic and somehow managed to ring over the din. Dread grew in my heart.


            With his other hand, he fired a gout of burning embers that struck against Dresden's shield. However, my attention was on the shimmering threads that had extended out from the Denarian's fingers as he continued the beat.


            Eviscerated and chopped wolfmen began to rise out of the green miasma. Their faces were slack, well those that had faces. Several that stood up were headless.  Many were missing limbs. Blood still pumped and oozed from wounds but it was clear their hearts were no longer beating of their own volition.


            "Zombie werewolves?" Harry cried. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me!" he screamed as he slammed his staff against Namshiel and blasted him with a wall of force.


            The Denarian skidded back.


            "You happy playing drummer boy while Tessa runs?" Harry asked as he hit Namshiel again.


            "You wouldn't understand, pretender."


            "I understand that someone sprung you from the penalty box," Harry grinned savagely. "I'd also bet that someone had to suggest this, this trip, this ritual to Mantis girl. Gee, I wonder who."


            I missed Namshiel 's response as an undead wolf was lurching towards me. It had lost an arm, one leg ended in a stump, an eye was torn out, and much of its chest was simply gone. But it was moving, necromantic energies fought with its innate regeneration as the creature tried to bring itself forward.


            My Sword went through the beast. And then I had to cut it again. The black haired demon girl nearly bumped into me.


            Her willowy frame was a bit taller than me, and even in her armored vest and skirt she looked slender. Her red eyes burned with concentration and her katana sizzled with blood.


            "Ukyou, Nabiki, protect the wizard. Akane, Misako, area denial!" she ordered as her eyes met mine. She then nodded to me then waggled the tip of her sword at Namshiel.


            Swallowing, I nodded.


            The orange-haired demon girl had loaded on a new belt of grenades. She gave a  maniacal laugh, as she waded through the zombie wolves. I could only spare a glance at the surreal moment. She took out dozens of the undead things, but more kept coming. It looked worrisome when she got overwhelmed by a mob. Until she started screaming with rage as she started beating them with her grenade launcher and cutting through them with her tail and talons.


            Her blue-haired companion was a bit more reserved, and I could see more of the redhead's precision fighting style. This time, the hits were all about dismemberment and structural damage.  Which made sense: a zombie was a lot less dangerous if it couldn't reach you.


            But my attention was more focused on keeping my organs on the inside. The Sword flashed and lupine bodyparts flew. One wolfman, its pelt almost burned off, slammed into me. Its companion who was missing its head and left clawed at me with its right.


            Talons hooked into my armored vest as I tried to pull away. Then the whole arm was shredded into bloody slices as the black-haired demon struck with her katana. She then turned her blade and fried the skinless zombie wolf with a burst of lightning.


            As she did that, I saw another group make a beeline towards her back.

It was led by a snapping, legless wolf that rapidly ran forward on its hands. The image would have been comical but not for its fangs, or its charging, and slightly less mangled, companions.


            I lowered my Sword and there was a burst of light and a holy chorus that cut through the cacophony. The wolves slowed. Their racing, terminator-like pace reduced to a twitching shamble. I tightened my grip and met them, exploiting the opportunity.


            As my Sword scythed through the mob, I felt the air chill. Billowing clouds of ice spilled out as Dresden fought against Namshiel. If I had more time, I might have been able to study the magical energies the Winter Wizard and the Denarian sorcerer were using against each other.


            I was somewhat familiar with Harry's spells, and he was rapidly shifting between them, alternating between defense and offense. Though, his aggression seemed to be ramping up. I could feel his frustration grow as Namshiel kept neutralizing his attacks. His quips were certainly getting more disjointed. For some reason, he was ranting about Captain America's sidekick Bucky.


            Glowing threads writhing out, Namshiel raised his hand; the one that wasn't giving a steady zombie-controlling beat. The blonde demoness shot him. His shield flickered and blood spurted out his side.


            But a hail of bricks and stone blocks were ripped from the dais and flew out. A few hit the demon girls, but most launched at Harry. For a moment his shield bracelet held, then one of the glowing tendrils flicked against his wrist and cut the strap off. The bracelet with its tiny metal shields fell.


            Dresden's shield dissipated. "You cheating, Red-Skull knockoff!" he cried. I could tell he was trying to restart the spell, but then the rest of the bricks and heavy stone blocks slammed into him.


            Harry was pushed back and hit the altar with a crunch. The duster gave a lot of protection, but there were limits to what it could do, especially when faced against basic blunt trauma. Still, Harry was stirring. He was a stubbornly tough man, and that was before he went all Winter.


            However, I was certain he had several fractured rib bones. The question was if his lung had been punctured or if he had any lacerations to his spleen liver, or kidneys. A puncture to his aorta was also possible, but there wasn't much I could do if that happened.


            Well, not as a doctor anyway.


            As the Denarian charged down the dais and flew towards the altar, two demon girls intercepted him on either flank just as he crossed the ring of standing stones. The blonde one, Ukyou, aimed her bulky, yet oddly compact, rifle and with an ear-splitting roar slammed round after round against his shield.


            I could actually see the heavy bullets splash and flicker. Each looked as big around as my thumb. The shield shimmered and the instant before it collapsed, the littlest of the demons flipped in. Nabiki carried two long knives that were made out of the same ominous red metal as that Sith katana.


            The pale-blue haired demon flicked down with both blades. One caught on a bone spur that jutted out of Namshiel wrist. It sparked and deflected. However, the other one came down right through the carpal bones.


            The Denarian's hand tumbled to the flagstones. The castanets stopped clicking. Hate flared in all of Namshiel's eyes as he whipped up those glowing filaments in his remaining hand.


           Meanwhile my job got.... well a bunch of the necromantic wolves did flop down like puppets with their strings cut off. But just as many continued their ravenous attacks, and a considerable minority simply loped off into the woods.


            I stabbed forward and sliced a mangled wolfman through the thorax and into the vertebrae. This was the risk one  took when stopping a necromantic drum beat.


            See, the rhythmic beating isn't what animates the undead. It's what binds the undead to the necromancer's will. Remove that control and... well the zombie can go wild or just stop. I did wonder if Nabiki knew that or if she just deduced that that the beat the Denarian was making was connected to the zombies.


            "Interfering phage!" Namshiel screamed as he flicked his hand. Glowing cables whipped out and snaked around Nabiki and Ukyou's necks.


            Dropping her gun, which fell to hang by a sling attached to her harness, Ukyou tried to claw under the noose with one hand while slicing at it with the other. Nabiki for her part simply tried to cut with her blades.


            Blood began to spurt as the filaments dug in. Nariko screamed and darted forward, with me on her heels. I could see that the two girls  being strangled had reached a simultaneous decision and charged at Namshiel even as the filaments dug into their tracheas and sawed vertebra.


             I grimly noted that Namshiel was putting most of his pressure on the front of their necks.  If he had concentrated on the sides, the two demons would already have been bleeding out. So, he wanted them to suffer first.


            That's when Harry gave a berserk scream and blasted Namshiel with a wall of blue flames. The Denarian's hair caught aflame and his skeleton-like body started to char.

Harry bolted forward, nearly running on four limbs body slammed the Denarian.


            He stabbed with the end of his staff and pinned Namshiel's remaining hand against the hard stone. The filaments went limp and the other demons went to their injured companions.


            And then Namshiel smiled. His lank hair writhed, and more filaments shot out. Harry blocked, but one slashed over his left eye. Blood poured out. He lifted his staff lifted and the Denarian flicked a hand.


            The two began to brawl. The occasional magical blast came out but they seemed more content on battering each other. It came down to the snarling Winter mantle versus the strength provided by one of the Fallen.


            But that wasn't what was really happening.


            I ran as fast as I could and somehow managed to keep pace with the demonic swordswoman. She fired a burst of lightning. It sparked over the Denarian's back and he stumbled.


            Shining filaments wrapped around two of the standing stones and pulled them down. Harry flipped to the side, and dodged out of the way of one. But not the other.


            There was a sickening whump.


            The better part of a thousand pounds of stone landed on Harry's right leg. The staff fell from his hands. His scream cut across the battlefield. Still sparking from the demon's attack, Namshiel lurched closer. Harry fired a cone of ice, but Namshiel dodged to the side and kicked him in the left arm.


            Sharp bone spurs on the Denarian's foot flayed Harry's hand well into the metacarpal bones, fingers dangled crookedly. Harry looked up at the Denarian and started to laugh.


            "Foolish pretender," Namshiel hissed. "You have lost."


            "Nah, I've got friends," Harry said, looking past Denarian, at me.


            And that's when I swung my Sword and took Namshiel's head off at the  shoulders. The demon at my side immediately followed with a stab that pierced through the Denarian's heart.


            Namshiel flopped to the ground. There was still more gunfire and snarling wolves. However, the demon girls seemed to have it in hand, even if Nabiki and Ukyou looked wobbly and rather ashen grey.


            "Make sure he's dead," I ordered the swordswoman as I rushed to Harry's side. "And don't you dare touch any silver coins that fall out," I ordered over my shoulder, pointing with my Sword.


            "They've got more sense than that," Harry gasped.


            "Good to know," I said. My blade retracted, and I slipped the Sword into a vest pocket. As I pulled my medical kit off my vest, I took stock of him. "Okay, Harry... you're in a bad spot, but I'm here."


            "They're good girls," he added as blood wept down his face.


            I glanced at his eye. It was bad, but the blood wasn't spurting. No, the mess of his hand and leg.... the blood loss there seemed to be the priority.


            I ripped a pair of tourniquets out of their packages. Emergency medical science had evolved over the years. When I was in med school, tourniquets were seen as a measure of last resort. The sense back then was "Oh my god, you'll lose the limb if you use one of those!"


            I did his arm first, and cinched above the wrist. He didn't scream much. I did hear someone should for a medic. That made me smile as I wound the windlass-like tightener on the tourniquet's strap and locked it in place. I then took out a dressing and started to package his left hand as best as I could.   I tried not to think of the mess the Denarian had made of his fingers,  or at how little chance there was they could be saved.


           Now, medical science has gotten better, and people realized that there was still some blood flow that got to the limbs, no matter how hard you strapped down. And really, it was more important to stop the damn bleeding. Stop the bleeding, keep the heart beating, keep them breathing, get them to the hospital.


            I exhaled as I tried to get under Harry's leg. One of the demons, Akane, came up and actually started digging underneath his thigh so I could pass the strap through.


            Of course today.... worrying about losing a limb might be moot. I looked him over and made a decision. Out came the needle with some pain juice.  I scribbled out the time and dosage on a tag and pinned it to his shirt.  I then made similar notes on the tourniquets.


            This time, when I tightened down the tourniquet I really had to clamp down. Leg wounds were a bitch. The femoral artery was a monster to get under control.  Even if it wasn't damaged, it still pumped a turnpike of blood.


            There was a tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw a short man in grey armor with dusky brown skin. He had a large medical pouch over one shoulder. There were more soldiers behind him.


            I could also see another blonde demoness. She was tall and had cold blue eyes. She reminded me of that mercenary that Marcone had hired.  There was recognition in her eyes. I suppose Harry had told them about the Knights,  about me.


            "I'm Corporal Barnes," the man said. His eyes were a dark green and looked over Harry with a clinical detachment. "I can takeover for you, Sir,"


            "I'm a doctor," I said, a bit briskly.


            Barnes glanced over to the tall blonde demon who nodded.


            His demeanor immediately changed as he slipped on a set of gloves. "Of course, Sir, I'll assist. My kit's got some more to it than yours," he diffidently said as he opened the satchel he had been carrying.


            We worked together for a bit. I idly noticed that there were more people entering the clearing. Some of the bodies were being dispatched and moved, creating a path. And suddenly there was silence. Sure, there was still the occasional gunshot, but now their presence stuck out. Maybe I was imagining the background being quieter than it was, my ears were still ringing. I made a note to get myself checked for tinnitus.


             More than my own hearing, my focus was on Dresden and taking care of him. I'll admit Barnes was good. The man seemed to have an experienced hand at trauma care, and he had more equipment. "Okay... I think we've done what we can," I exhaled checking Dresden over after bandaging his head wound.


            Barnes nodded, but he was talking into his radio. I noticed a group of soldiers rushing up with a stretcher.


            Harry had slipped unconscious which wasn't a great sign. But on the upside, he seemed pretty free of concussions.  His breathing and heart rate were good too.

I would have preferred to get a better idea of his  oxygen saturation but the pulse oximetry device of Barnes' wasn't giving good readings. It was times like this that I hated how his powers ruined MRIs and similar diagnostic machines.


            "I think we can start getting ready to move him." My eyes went to the stone that was still crushing his leg.


            Barnes nodded.


            "Ideas?" I asked.


            If the medic was surprised by the doctor consulting his opinion, he hid it well. "Double check that tourniquet, have the girls lift the rock, slip him onto the stretcher," he then hissed through his teeth. "Hospital's fifteen klicks to the north. He safe to fly?"


            I winced. The question was more than just his own health. Harry's magic was hell on technology. I didn't know what would happen while he was unconscious. He had flown on helicopters before, but what if he had a burst of power? These soldiers seemed to work with the supernatural, maybe their systems were hardened.


            But maybe not. I did the math. Under normal circumstances that was twenty minutes travel time, half that if an ambulance really burned rubber.


            "Too risky; drive him," I ordered.


            I looked up and saw the demon girls had closed in and were looking at the fallen stone. I saw the bandages around the necks of two of them and winced with guilt. I had focused on Harry and forgotten there were other injured.


            Swapping gloves, I got up and approached. Nabiki, the young blue-haired demon was actually shorter than me. "It's okay, I'm a doctor," I said as I inspected her and then Ukyou.


            Their wounds had already been sealed with clotting powder and bandaged up. It was crude meat-ball surgery, but I suppose one advantage of Namshiel's fine filaments was that instead of tearing wide lacerations the slices had created narrow, if deep, wound tracks.


            Still... the girls looked pretty ashen-grey and the tops of their vests were soaked in blood. I checked their bandages, but was loath to really fiddle with them. The important thing was they weren't bleeding out now, and I wasn't going to risk reopening those wounds.  Certainly not here,  let a medical team in a hospital deal with that mess.


            "You girls must heal pretty well?" I tried to ask conversationally. Poor bedside manner was one of the reasons that I had to transfer my residency.


            That and I had problems detaching myself from the pain and suffering of others. Too much empathy was a bad thing in a medical doctor. It made one indecisive, burn out, or quit.  It made me switch to a medical field where all my "patients" were beyond any pain.


            Giving a cute smile, Nabiki nodded. The blonde, Ukyou gave a more jaded gaze.


            I winced. "It's okay, I know it hurts to talk. I'd prefer it if you didn't aggravate things, not until you're fully healed."


            The two demons looked at me flatly.


            "I'll make sure of that," the swordswoman said, stepping up to me.


            "Uh, thanks," I glanced down and noticed that Nariko's katana had a metal grip and scabbard. Both had been anodized, but the colors were hard to make out in the dark.


            "Nariko-" Ukyou tried to speak.


            The older demon girl simply narrowed her red eyes. "No. Not until you've healed." Nariko's expression softened. "It won't take very long anyway."


            The two girls begrudgingly bowed, using their waists not their necks, and stepped aside.


            There was a loud rumbling as an armored vehicle of some kind backed in.  It came  as close to the dais and remaining standing stones as possible. The number of soldiers had started to increase, as well as the amount of vehicles.


            I went back to Harry; Nariko and her sisters followed.


            I talked with Barnes as we move the stretcher as far under Harry as we could get it. Tourniquets and bandages were checked. Barnes also checked Dresden's IV and updated the list of drugs we'd given him. The demons got into position.


            Barnes and the demon girls all looked to me.


            "Move it," I ordered.


            Over a thousand pounds of stone lifted and... well... yes, technically, Harry's leg was still attached to the rest of him, but it had been crushed between the fallen standing stone and a thick paving stone.


            I pushed the image from my mind and instead focused on ensuring he didn't bleed out. Mostly, it was making sure the strap above his knee stayed tight. Barnes pulled him all the way onto the stretcher and the stone slammed back to the ground.


            Two more soldiers took each end of the stretcher and lifted it while Barnes and I fussed over Harry. His heartbeat and breathing were still good, and he wasn't bleeding much. All things considered...


            I stepped back as he was loaded into the back of the armored truck.


            "Doctor, wait!" Nariko said as she ran up.


            I stopped.


            The demon eyed me. "You are a Knight of the Cross, yes?"


            My hand brushed against the hilt of my Sword. "Yes."


            "Excellent," Nariko pulled a cube out a vest pocket and dropped it into my gloved hand. It landed with a metallic clink. About twice the size of a jewelry box, the cube had some recessed buttons and a type of latch.


            "Uh." Even with my gloves I could feel the skin on my palm crawl. "Namshiel's coin is in there?" I asked, noticing that she was wearing leather and Kevlar gloves.


            Nariko nodded. "You can deal with this?" she asked, hope in her voice.


            "Yeah, yeah..." I said as my other hand went from my Sword and to a pouch in my vest. I pulled out a white silk bag embroidered with silver Stars of David. The cube slipped into the bag. I pulled the string, said the Prayer for Protection, and then feeling the bag tingle and hum, I stuffed it back into a pouch.


            Oddly enough, the demon was openly relieved to be rid of the thing.


            "You didn't touch it?" I asked.


            Shaking her head, Nariko looked horrified and vaguely insulted.


            "Good, good," I shook my head. Michael had taught me how to secure and contain the Coins, at least temporarily, before getting them to the Church. However, having a demon, wings, horns and all giving one to me wasn't part of the training.


            Okay, technically Michael did spend a fair bit of time giving me advice on how to talk to the hosts.  How to get a person to give up the coin and turn away from the Denarians.  Saving those enthralled by the Fallen was the true purpose of the Knights. And Sanya, and Harry for that matter, showed that someone could give up a coin and go on to do great things.


             But...   that wasn't the quite the same as having a demure demon girl drop a coin into my palm.


            My spine tingled as a feeling of anger and frustration washed over me.


            I turned and saw the redheaded demon step out of the shadows. Her jaw was set and her armor was battered and singed. Ranma's tail flicked behind her in little twitches and jerks. The armor on her right leg from shin to knee had been burned off, revealing blistered skin and her flesh was torn enough that I would have sworn she had a compound fracture if not for the fact that she was putting weight on her leg.


            By my guess, all that was pretty conclusive evidence that Tessa had escaped. She was like a cockroach. I wasn't sure if it was by teleporting, turning into a swarm of insects, or maybe she just kept riding that giant wolf.


            Nabiki and Ukyou rushed to her and the three hugged. The redhead's expression softened and the air tingled with relief. But there was still the undercurrent of anger.


            Looking into the armored truck, Ranma's mood changed. Her anger waned and her face bore an expression of sad recognition. "Poor, dumb Harry," she whispered.


            She then turned to me. Deep purple eyes locked onto me and she bowed her head. "Thank you."


            I shrugged. "He's my friend."

            "Yes, he spoke highly of you," the tall blonde demon said stepping up. "Doctor Butters."


            I noticed Barnes climb into the vehicle and give me an expectant look. 'You know me?" I asked.


            "He gave us the descriptions of you, Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Sanya, and others just in case. He said you had the habit of... appearing when needed," she explained.


            I shook my head. "Yeah..." I moved towards the truck.


            "A moment," the blonde held her hand. "I understand you wanting to be at Mr. Dresden's side. You know his medical needs best. But you have more options you may not be aware of. Very useful all of them."


            I hesitated by the door.  I could see something shining by the flagstones.


            "You can ride with Harry and provide his medical care. And there are plenty more waiting at the hospital. You can stay here and help make sure all the Pattern L's, all the wolfmen have been accounted for, or you can stay here and help with the townsfolk."


            My stomach clenched. "What happened?"


            The blonde's face darkened. "My sister and Mr. Dresden did stop Miss Lartessa's ritual, but not before considerable casualties. We're already overstretched checking out the town, the army is sending their own people and local medical is coming, but we can use whatever help."


            I nodded to Barnes and hopped off the truck. The man returned the nod, pulled another medical satchel off the vehicle's wall, and tossed it to me. I saw Ranma glance at two of her daughters. The wounded demons jumped into the truck, taking my place. They pulled the rear door shut. As the armored truck raced off, I ran over to the object I had spotted.


            "Okay, how can I help?" I asked after going to the flagstones and pocketing Harry's shield bracelet.

 

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

[[


            Sight returned. I looked around and knew it was a dream. For one there was no pain as I walked. For another I was walking.


            Also, I was in a familiar darkened room. Though this one looked a bit like the bare warehouse I'd been in a few nights ago.


            Ah.


            In the center of the room I saw a lanky man working with a brush and a can of purple paint. He was over six foot tall and covered in scars. He also looked just like me and was drawing a ten foot circle on the concrete.


            "Lend a hand?" My double asked as he got up. Bearded and wearing a boonie hat, he still bore the tacticool armor and tan cargo pants look. There was still something frustratingly familiar about the whole getup. Like a reverse deja vu. I pushed it aside, I had bigger fish to fry.


            I eyed the Winter snowflake patches on each shoulder.


            "We could use some help," my unconscious side said. He tapped a medical kit strapped to his vest.


            "How bad is it?" I asked.


            He snorted. "You think you'd be having this dream if it were good news?


            Oh. That... that was true. "What are you doing?"


            He put the brush down and looked at me like I was an idiot.


            The man poked me in the left arm. "We are not mission effective," he said drawing out the last word.


            I sighed. I had gotten badly battered in that fight. Still, I saved Ranma's daughters and Butters was there...


            "And I'm sure he helped us. I'm also sure we didn't die," my double drawled.


            "You want to call Mab."


            He thrust the brush at me. "No you want to call Mab."


            I sighed, again.


            "Set up the focus items, I'll get the circles and pentacles."


            I eyed him. Really, I was doing both that and setting up the items, but... mentally compartmentalizing was vital for doing high end magic.


            As my unconscious self drew in the purple pentacle, I visualized the various affinity items. Five for myself. Five for Mab.


            I repeated the ones I'd used in flesh and blood two days ago. For Mab, I envisioned a silver tiara, a sidhe bracelet with opals and sapphires, a crystal of shadows, a crystal of ice, and a communications stone.


            For myself, I visualized my k-bar knife, my mother's silver pentacle necklace, my blasting rod pieces, my revolver, and the matching communications stone. I also held in my mind the magical connections each part represented and linked them in the greater pentacle.


            Meanwhile my double, drew a larger white circle around the purple circle to lock out any magical interference.


            See, one of the secrets about magic is that you don't need fancy tools or special items to do it. Granted, that myth was perpetuated mostly by Practitioners. In the days when witches and mages were hunted, you could always point to a decided lack of wizarding gear as evidence of innocence.


            On the other hand, focus items made magic a lot easier. Most of the time, the items worked as a sort of mental shortcut, a way to define and hold something to manipulate energy and channel it.


            You could do without, just... that meant all the energy would be flowing directly through your mind. But I was a professional, and this wasn't the first time I'd done a summoning like this.... without a net.


            Now... on the downside I didn't have Ranma and her daughters helping "boost the signal" and I didn't have tangible foci items help prop me up.


            On the upside... I knew such a spell could work. I paused to clear my mind. I walked around the circle and inspected the items. Shifting them a bit, refining them, centering my mind.


            My other self stepped back.


            He bowed his head to me. I licked my lips. Dream or not... this was still risky. I was trying a summoning in my own head. What if it didn't work? Or... what if it did?


            "Mab!" I cried. "Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, Queen of the Winter Court! Mab, I bid you to come forth!"
           


            Power and will throbbed. I didn't have the support of a demon queen, a demon to represent ice, and one to represent shadows. But I did have plenty of Winter power. Might as well have that troublesome Mantle do some good


            The room dimmed.... I pushed the spell. Frost began to grow on the purple lines.


            Shadows darkened in the center of the pentacle. An ethereal image appeared. Made out of shades of blue, the figure shimmered a bit.


            It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut and not make a Princess Leia joke.


            My doppelganger, on the other hand, knelt, black kneepad hitting the concrete. He had unslung his rifle and held it before him like a knight offering his liege a sword.


            "Uh... hi."


            Mab tilted her head fractionally. Slit, ice-cold eyes studied me, looked through me.


            I rubbed my chin. "So... are you real or are you just another hallucination like him?" I pointed to the me who was slowly getting back to his feet.


            Mulberry colored lips quirked into bare amusement. "I am no figment of your mind, dear Knight. I expected more independence on your part. This constant hand holding is... not what I expected of you."


            "We're not getting any more help," my double murmured.


            "What? I'm her knight. Why can't she help?" I turned to her. "Why can't you help? Hells Bells, how bad is it?"


            Her lips quirked. "Really? You would pay for answers you already know."


            I crossed my arms. "Fine. The first question."


            Mab took a step in the center of the pentacle and looked between myself and my bewared double. "You already have the full measure of Winter power. It is up to you what to do with it."


            I groaned. Faerie couldn't lie, but that didn't mean they had to be straightforward.


            "You're her knight. She's already given you her power," the other me stated.


            "That's it? I'm not asking for more power."


            "But you are," he countered.


            I glared at Mab. "So, that's it? I serve you as Knight, I get hurt and then you toss me aside once I break."


            Her gaze pinned me in place. My limbs started to go cold. My right leg and left arm felt especially numb. My vision began to blur. "I have not relinquished my claim on you. You are still my Knight. You will serve me," she stated, her words clipped, harsh.


            "So, no new deal?" I gasped. "You've got the power to heal me. You healed me after I got shot."


            "What would you bargain?" Mab grinned. "I have your body. You already consent to serve me. I doubt you'd give up your family, tempting as that may be, to me."


            "No. You know better than to make that mistake."


            She gave a tiny nod, like a fencer acknowledging a hit.


            I exhaled. "What if I'm too hurt to be a knight? What good am I to you as a cripple? Or dead?"


            Mab smiled. Even with her rendered as a lousy hologram her delicately-pointed teeth shined. "You live. Your friends are skilled; you are in no immediate danger of passing. Excepting your own foolishness.


            "If you continue to live, then in time you may heal. Perhaps this will teach you caution and to not abuse your gifts. Or perhaps teach you to be more clever with said gifts."


            "People will die."


            "Yes, they have. Yes, they will." Her tone was flat, unforgiving.


            "I have to help!"


            She gave that bird-like tilt to her head. "You recruited allies did you not?" she sounded genuinely confused. "Your successful diplomacy bodes well for your future."


            I grumbled.


            "Have they not come to support your mission?"


            I stared. Realization dawned. "You don't want me to fight Tessa, do you?"

            Her eyes hardened and I saw her fingers flex. "I was not the one that sent you here. I would not have sent you here." Her composure returned. "Still, I must make the most of this."


            I shook my head. "And you'll stand back and ensure I can't fight."


            Mab chuckled. "Your slow growth continues, my knight."


            I grinned. "What if I ask Mother Winter to heal me then?" I asked with false bravado. I would much, much rather talk with Molly. My former apprentice was the Winter Lady, a fae queen in her own right. But.... I was pretty sure she didn't have the power to heal me at such a distance, and even if she did Mab has blocked my communications to Molly before.


            My alternate self boggled. His rifle actually fell out of his hands and clattered to the floor.


            Well, that was a tell. Turns out I was a worse liar when dreaming than when awake.

 
            Mab actually laughed. "Don't let me stop you. By all means, indebt yourself to the Winter Mother if that is your desire."


            I froze. See the problem with that particular Winter Queen was threefold. First.... she made Mab look cuddly and approachable. Second.... for all her power Mother Winter has the least influence on the mortal world.


            Lastly.... I was pretty darn sure she was the one that sent me here. And I knew she was less forgiving of failure than even Mab was.


            "Is that all my knight? Mab clasped her hands. "I expect matters here are concluded, and that you fulfill the interests of the Winter Court. Are we clear?"

 

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

 


            I woke up to an old friend: Pain. I've been shot, drowned, burned, stabbed, bitten, clawed, beaten, and battered. This was likely yet another reason why I didn't like hospitals.


            On the upside, I had plenty of experience and ample mental focus. You couldn't do heavy magic without the ability to keep mental constructs perfectly aligned. And Hells Bells, I'd just summoned Mab in my head, so a little pain was nothing.


            I was able to work past the pain and the throbbing in my head. My hands hurt, so did my feet; that seemed good. I gasped and blinked. My visions seemed limited to just my right eye; that seemed bad. My chest had the bloated-post surgery feeling.


            Also the Winter Mantle helped ignore pain and dampen things down. It was the least the stupid thing could help me with after getting me in trouble.


            I then noticed that someone was saying my name.


            Fighting a bit of vertigo, I looked around the room. From what I could see without sitting up, it looked like a standard hospital room. Odd. I half expected the concrete and steel of a Company facility.  I turned my head and let the disorientation in my vision swim a bit. All my gear was piled on my table.  My shield bracelet was draped over my holstered revolver.


            I then spotted a familiar short man in blue scrubs. A surgical hair net fought against his springy wild hair.


            "Butters?"


            "Hey, Harry..." he said with a soft smile. He then walked up and started checking me over.  His bedside manner had gotten better. Which was good, as mental focus or no, broken ribs sucked.


            "How's my favorite doctor-knight doing?" I asked, flexing my right hand.


            "Busy," he absently noted, a frown crossing his face.


            "They got you uh... autopsying?" I asked. Butters was a coroner.


            "Once the... rush died down," he admitted. "They were pretty short-handed in the first twelve hours. I mean the town..." He looked out the window.


            I turned. Huh, a window. I tried to sit up, and with Butter's gentler help managed to get something of a view, without much fresh pain.  It really wasn't worth it.


            Outside was a field, a river, and, then rising from the horizon, a plume of greasy-gray smoke. Given how far away it was, that had to be a giant smoldering pyre. A pair of helicopters sat in the field and the roads within sight were cluttered with military vehicles.


            My eyes.... my eye widened. Memory flashed. I remember the things burning... the undead wolves. Thornyboy pulling down the standing stones, him standing over me, kicking me.


            "The town? But we stopped the ritual."


            Butters gave a weak smiled. "You stopped it after it had started. Those closest to the circle..."


            "How many?"


            Butters looked away.


            "How many?" I repeated, anger edging my voice.


            Butters' tone turned clinical. "A quarter of the population of Lomar is dead. Another dozen will die; a couple dozen might make it. There's severe internal hemorrhaging. It was like something was trying to rip their hearts out."


            I swallowed. Lomar was a small town but it still had a few hundred people.


            "If we're lucky we won't break into the triple digits," he gave a weary grin.


            "Tessa will feel every death," I promised.


             Butters simply nodded, too tired to argue. "I have no idea how they'll cover this up," he absently said.


            "They might not," I muttered.


            Butters blinked behind his glasses. "Really? I know this is Canada and all, but, even up here, people don't believe in the supernatural."


            I chuckled, without humor. "This ain't our world. Out here shoggoths have already attacked a capital city in full daylight."


            Butters stared.


            "Seriously, I saw the footage myself. Giant blob monster versus tanks."


            Removing his surgical cap, Butters ran a hand through his wild hair. "Is that why the army's working with you. Working with demons?"


            "Yeah... the wheels are coming off." I nodded. "I dunno if the government will admit to it being a Fallen Angel and wolfmen trying to summon old gods, or if their cover story will merely be 'another incursion of Squid men from beyond the stars'."


            He stared at me. "You're serious." After studying me, his shoulders slumped. "You are. Jesus, Harry what kind of mess is this?"


            I laughed, bitterly.


            Bitters winced.


            "How are Ranma's girls?" I asked, my hand clenching.


            "The demons?" he shook his head. "They're fine. Their neck wounds healed up nicely."


            I frowned at the emphasis he put on the first word.


            "The town... is it always like this?" He looked me in the eye. There was something haunted, almost guilty, about his gaze. I didn't know what he did after I got hurt. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to know.


            I glanced aside before the Soulgaze could start. "Sometimes it's worse, but this... this is a big one."


            A hand went to his side. I could tell that he was touching the handle of his Sword through the scrubs. He shifted and straightened his stance.


            "Most of them lived. It could have been worse," he chewed his lip and glanced back at the door. "I'm sorry Harry. I'm bad at this bedside manner. Part of why I'm not a real doctor."


            "Knock it off, Butters."


            "The merc's doc, Covington, is here. She could walk you through better. I just helped the medics and the local surgeons..."


            "You're stalling."


            The short man sighed. "The good news is you're not going to die."


            "Ah," that was good news. But I already knew that. Mab told me so.


            Unfortunately... I looked around myself and saw what was... missing.


            "And more... good news... your lung was reinflated. It's still touch and go what with those broken ribs. But they'll heal."


            He sighed. "More... good news is that we saved two of your fingers, and part of a thumb. I knew you'd want us to do everything we could do to keep... as much as possible."


            I nodded.  My hand, my right hand twitched.  Of course  Thornyboy got me in the left hand; it was just starting to work right.


             Still, I winced at Butter's leaden tone. Butters hated seeing people hurt. It's what made him transfer to pathology. But here... he seemed detached. Again, I wondered just what he had seen. What made him look at my mangled limbs with... professional detachment.


            He exhaled and forced a smile. "We'll get you though this Harry. I won't say you've faced worse, but you have faced pretty bad."


            When my left hand had gotten burned years back, the docs had recommended amputation, saying it would never heal. They didn't know I was a wizard. Practitioners lived longer than normal humans. We also healed better. Butters knew that. He knew that eventually I'd heal just about anything. That was the whole reason I didn't have the degenerative joint, muscle, and brain damage of a professional boxer, racecar driver, or offensive lineman. 


            However... there were two key stipulations "eventually" and "just about". It took me the better part of a decade to regain functionality on my hand. I looked down at the wrapped stump on the end of my left arm.


            It was also why I could push on the Winter Mantle and not have it burn me out... well not as long as I didn't push too hard.


           I doubted I could regrow fingers.  Still... I had gotten used to having a barely functional left hand. I could do it again...  if that were the only thing.


            I glanced further down. "And the leg?"


            The short doctor just looked sad. "We had to take it off just below the knee."


            My teeth must've clenched and my gaze must have gone wild.


            Butters stepped back and he held up his hands. "Easy Harry. We did everything we could! It was just..."


            "I could have..."


            He gave a sad little shake of the head. "No, the damage was too extensive. I was there. I know what you can do Harry. It would have been.... "


            His shoulders rolled forward. "To be honest there wasn't much we had to remove... It was just pulverized meat. The bones... they were literally broken into hundreds of pieces."


            My hand went to the bandage over my left eye.


            Butters immediately stepped in. "Don't," his voice was sharp, full of authority.


            "Did I lose it?"


            "Nearly." His expression turned bittersweet. "We can put that under the 'good news' column. If it if doesn't get infected, at least.  We will need to get you to a specialist."


            He stepped back from the bed. "Anyone else... You're blind. Legally blind that eye at best. Probably fully blind. But..."


            "I'll get better?"


            Butters shrugged. "You've got better odds than anyone else. Still, an eye's not like a hand. It's a lot more complicated and delicate."


            "Good thing it's my left then. I'd hate to have someone confuse me with Donar Vadderung."


            Butters raised an eyebrow "The head of that European mercenary company? The one that blonde Valkyrie-like lady Marcone hired works for?"


            "That's the one. How awkward would that be? Us going to a party with the same type of eye patch? Good thing his is over his right eye," I rambled.


            I saw the trepidation in his expression. He was a Knight of the Cross. He knew what happened to Shirou and that Michael was crippled by Tessa. And here I was...


            He had to wonder what his own odds would be.


            His uncertainty lessened as the little doctor stood straighter. "It's okay Harry, I'll finish this."


            I had to smile. I opened my mouth but before I could speak there was a knock on the door.


            It opened, revealing armed mercenaries guarding the hallway. A slight redhead stepped in. She was wearing her purple blouse, black skirt, and leather jacket combo.


            Butters edged slightly away from her.


            Knights knew such things. I wasn't sure if it was a sense they gained or outright info from the "home office", but they knew when someone wasn't human.


            Of course, there was also that Butters had seen the brood queen in battle. That did tend to leave an impression.


            Now, I wasn't worried about a supernatural throw-down. There was that much at least. For starters, Ranma didn't have a reason to attack Butters. And Butters...


            Well, something to keep in mind is that the purpose of the Knights of the Cross isn't to destroy the Denarians. Yes, they stand in opposition to the Fallen. Yes, they will be sent stop the evil plans of the coin bearers. But their main purpose is to save the bearers, to free those in thrall of the coins.


            It's a bit of a thankless task. Given that, many of the bearers have been completely  twisted by the coins, or started out twisted enough to think palling around with a Fallen was a good idea.


            However, that was in line with the limitations of a Knight. They had great, holy power... as long as it was used righteously. The instant a Sword was used counter to its purpose, it stopped being a Holy Sword and became merely a sword.  This was most obvious in Butters' case.  I mean his Sword didn't even have a physical blade.


            All in all, I wasn't too worried about Butters trying to slash open Ranma. Well, as long as she didn't do anything crazy first.


            The door closed behind her. Ranma gave a slight smile to me.


            She then clasped her hands and bowed deeply to the wiry man. "Thank you for your assistance Dr. Butters."


            "Harry's my friend," Butters said a bit forcefully, his ears pinking slightly at the attention.


            "Indeed, but you helped more than just him." She then turned and bowed to me. "I'm sorry this happened, Harry, but thank you for saving my girls."


            "How are Nabiki and Ukyou? I heard they're doing well."


            She slipped closer and sat on the edge of the bed. "They have their heads, I'll send them up to visit after their shift is over. And thank you for saving them." she bowed her head.


            Lifting her gaze, her eyes met mine, a sad expression on her face.


            I realized that she'd been in this position many times before. She had power; she could help but... she had to hold herself back.


            "What's next?" I asked.


            "Your research was spot on. They needed to 'prime the pump' with a lesser summoning."


            I snorted. A lesser summoning that would have wiped out a town.  Even with a botched one,  a third of Lomar's residents weren't coming back.


            "We hit 'em here, so they won't be able to jumpstart the big ritual for a few days at least. We've got time. The eggheads think they'll either have to do the big ritual solo or try another 'little' ritual to prime the pump." She looked to Butters.


            "This wasn't her main summoning?" Butters asked, looking a bit green.


            " 'fraid not." She shook her head. "We find the primary summoning site, pound it to hell, stop the ritual, kill Tessa and her minions. Then doctor-knight here picks you up and you both go home."


            "I can help," I stated without thinking. "I have to help."


            Her lip twitched. "Yes, you can."


            "Harry?" Butters cautioned. "I know you're the Winter Knight, but even the Mantle won't get you up and running...."


            "What are my options?"
           
            "You don't have time to get used to the prosthetics. Even if you hadn't lost your leg, you won't be ambulatory. Your lung would be at risk of collapsing, and then there's your ribs.


            "And the hand," Ranma reminded patting my right arm.


            "You gonna to suggest I stand back and do research?"


            "It's important work. Not everyone gets to fight." Her expression darkened. "And, it wouldn't be a suggestion."


            The Winter Mantle twitched and a growl escaped my lips.


            The demon gave an indulgent smile.


            "Harry... " Butters said, in a calming voice. "We don't need to do anything to keep you. All we have to do is not roll your wheelchair onto the battlefield."


            "No. There's something she could do," I stated.


            The redhead exhaled and lifted her shoulders. She stretched her neck. "Careful, Mr. Dresden. Be very careful."


            "I saved your kids."


            She smiled and held my hand. "Yes, but we both know I'd do it before today."


            The contact tingled slightly. I watched as she looked me over, sizing me up. She sighed. "There's a reason members of the D-Program apply before they get injured."


            "Harry, what're you talking about?" Butters asked, an edge to his voice.


            The demon looked at me, expectant. "You tell him."


            I shifted in the bed. "She has an offer on the table."


            Butters boggled. "Dude, didn't you already take that deal? Isn't being stuck working for Mab lesson enough?"


            I nodded. "Yeah, that's why I haven't asked."


            Butters rubbed his neck. "Mab healed you once, have her do it again."


            "Technically, she's healed me twice. And no can do." I shook my head.


            "How do you know?"


            I laughed. "Already asked her. She told me to hit the bench."


            Butters frowned. "Uh Harry... this is the first you've been awake in over fifteen hours."


            I pointed to myself. "Wizard."


            The doctor gave that frustrated little expression when he learned some new twist of magic that he hadn't yet figured out.


             "You're her Knight. Doesn't she need you working?" Butters demanded.

            "She tortured my predecessor for years.  Of course she'd think me spending a decade slowly healing is a fitting lesson in humility." I flexed my hand under Ranma's grip.


            Ranma gave a thin smile.


            "And what do you think?" Butters asked Ranma, a bit of accusation entering his voice.


            "The most sensible option seems to be off the table," Ranma allowed.


            Butters looked between us. "Well, if Mab won't heal him...."


            Ranma looked down and smiled at me. "That depends on if his doctor considers him of sound mind to make an... important decision."


            "Harry." Butters stated.


            "Do I need to spell it out?" I asked.


            Ranma squared her shoulders and placed her hands on her lap. "Yes, you should."


            I glared at the demon. Then coughed. Pain struck and my vision started to blur. As I got control of the pain, Butters closed in to examine me.


            Satisfied, he stepped back. "Harry, I don't know what you're planning, but you'll be in no shape to fight." He glanced out the window. "And knowing you, you've got some crazy, ill-thought-out plan to make yourself better. And that you're talking to a demon isn't reassuring me about this plan."


            The redhead inclined her head to acknowledge the doctor's point.


            Butters looked at her and sighed.


            "In fairness the procedure itself isn't ill-thought out," Ranma said.


            "Harry.... tell me what this plan is," Butter's voice was firm.


            I winced. Partially at the accusation, partially because secret plots were catnip to wizards, but mostly because of what my idea was.


            Butters crossed his arms. And for a moment I wasn't looking at a thin little medical examiner, but instead a Knight of the Cross.


            I swallowed.... and exhaled. This time the cough wasn't as bad.


            "She can heal me," I gestured to Ranma


            "I gathered," Butters dryly remarked. "What's the catch?" he asked her.


            Ranma tilted her head and gave a little smile.


            "From what I gather.... the healing's a side effect ain't it?" I asked Ranma.


            She nodded.


            Butter's expression was flat. "You're thinking about letting her turn you."


            Ranma gave a satisfied little smile.


            "Uh... kinda," I admitted in a small voice.


            As the only one standing, Butters looked down at us. He tapped his arms.


            "You're gonna have to do better than that," Ranma stated, amused.


            "Butters, I Soulgazed her."


            His expression softened fractionally. "You're not totally insane. Still..." He sighed. "Harry you can Soulgaze White Court vamps. That doesn't mean they're all nice guys."


            "My brother's one."


            "And look at all the struggle's he's had." Butters sighed. "Just because he's an incubus..." he shook his head. "Really Harry?"


            I looked down.


            "With the Winter Mantle? Do you know what a combination that'd be?" Butters asked.


            "Mab did make that clear," I admitted.


            "She knows? Is this her idea?"


            I shook my head. "No no.... it's just she told me that if I ever... stopped being the Knight. Well..."


            "Oh, Harry," Butters looked down. "She'd really pick him?"


            "She's the Winter Queen."


            "And he'd accept?"


            "She'd give him Justine."


            Ranma tilted her head.


            "Uh... Justine's my brother's..." I frowned. "She's my brother's. But since he's a White Court vamp..."


            The succubus frowned. "And?"


            "His Hunger... well it likes her too. And that causes... issues."


            The redhead shook her head. "Man... the White's really got the short end of the stick."


            Butters rubbed his chin. "Wait... so the Winter Queen would use the Mantle to... control Thomas's Hunger? Huh.... well if the Mantle could help one type of incubus, maybe it could help another..."


            "See, it's not that bad," I said, trying to give a smile I certainly didn't feel.


            Butters gave me a cross look.


            Ranma chuckled


            Butters scoffed. "It's still an insane idea. You're not that desperate."


            "Really?" I demanded, waving my stumpy left arm. "Because right now being pretty like my brother doesn't seem like such a bad deal!"


            The short man sighed again.


            "You going say I don't have cause to fight Tessa?"


            Butters narrowed his eyes. "I helped the soldiers and medics go through Lomar. Finding... survivors. You don't think I want revenge? To get a pound of flesh from her? But that's not why we're here." His fingers brushed the hilt of his Sword. "Not why we fight."


            "Maybe you, you're a good man. I'm not a good man."


            Butters laughed. "No. You're not a smart man. And if you hat up nabbing whatever dark power because you want revenge, things will get worse." He turned to Ranma. "Uh, sorry?"


            "Apology accepted," the redhead shrugged. "Harry's got a point, you're the better man than him."


            "Hey!" I groused.


            She pointed from Butters to me. "Evil fairy queen's wizard hitman. Holy Jedi knight doctor. He's also humbler."


            "Look I'm not..." Butters mumbled.


            Ranma leaned forward. "You think I don't get it? The bitch loosed her goon, and he tried to garrote my daughters." The redhead's tone deepened. "And where was I? Chasing the little cockroach; she scampered off until she broke my leg so she and her shaggy friend could sprint out of Jamming range and teleport away. So, I get your anger. I get your desire to find her and rip her apart."


           Her eyes flashed. "You know what I'll do to her. You know what I can do." The demon leaned closer. "The question, Mr. Dresden, is if you really want to have your anger become more like mine."


            She turned to Butters. "And thank you so much for killing that bastard for me," she said with a warm smile.


            I slowly shook my head. "Uh.... well I've got Thomas. He can help me..." I looked at the far wall. "I'd never hear the end of it but he could... he could help me learn how to incubus."


            The redhead started to laugh.  It got deeper and gained an edge.


            "What's so funny? I think you'd be all about leaning on a sibling for support."


            Still chuckling, Ranma shook her head. "No, no, no. You've missed something pretty important."


            "What?" I blinked. Well, technically I guess it was a wink.


            "Oh," Butters noted. He then snorted.


            "What?" I asked.


            "Harry... did you notice something about these demons?"


            "What? Sure they're all pretty girls but-"

            Butters looked at me like I was slow. "Five girls. You know the odds of that? Now add in the ones that scary blonde has."


            I worked my jaw. In retrospect it did seem odd that all the members D Program were female....


            My eye widened. I boggled at Ranma. "Really?"


            The redhead crossed her legs. "It's still your decision."

            "So... not an incubus." I looked down at my lower limbs. I'd gain a leg but lose a... Well, that was an interesting exchange below the waist.


            The succubus smirked. " 'fraid not."


            "You didn't know?" Butters ruefully shook his head. "How long have you known her?"


            I groaned. "I was hoping that... maybe..." I looked up to Butters. "Look, Thomas has, like, a dozen sisters. Only sisters."


            Butters raised an eyebrow.


            "All of his brothers, well other than me, met with 'accidents' as they grew up. I'm not suggesting Ranma had any reason like that to explain having all girls, but it still might have been something embarrassing or personal. I thought it'd be rude to ask!"


            The redhead patted my hand. "And it was endearing."


            I rolled my shoulders and mulled things. Fine, I'll admit to being a bit... chivalrous. Or as Murphy would say "a bit of a chauvinistic pig." But really, turning into something like my brother was less of a change than turning into something like his... sisters.


            I turned to Ranma. She wasn't anything like Lara Raith (aside from the obvious succubus stuff). For one, Lara was definitely accumulating power, leveraging her de facto control of the White Court into... something.... grander.


            Meanwhile, Ranma was perfectly content to train, fight, and raise her brood. She didn't seem to have any desire for greater power and authority, despite it being foisted upon her.


            I could relate to that.


            "Harry," Butters stated. "You're being rash."


            "How long was it between his previous injury and becoming the Winter Knight?" Ranma asked.


            Butters snorted. "He made the deal in the church right after they'd gotten him strapped down. It was before I'd even arrived to help," he said, eyeing me.


            I looked away.


            "Oh, I picked well." The redhead looked smug.


            "It doesn't have to be you," I said, petulantly.


            "Really? " Her voice became cold. "Who else? One of my sisters? Daughters? Maybe a niece? Do you really think they'll go behind my back?"


            Butters gave the demoness a respectful nod.


            "You don't want me?" I evenly asked, and totally didn't whine.


            "Please," she laughed. "It's not about what I want. You don't really want this. You didn't even know what you were asking for. Hell, you haven't thought this through at all."


            I grunted. She was exaggerating. I had a plan. Sure it boiled down to: part one get healed by Ranma, part two uh...., and then part three revenge on Tessa.

            Part three I was pretty solid on.

            "What about when you get back to Chicago?" Butters softly asked.


            "What about when I get back like this?" I demanded, not wanting to think about Murphy's reaction, or the Carpenter's or... Hells Bells, what about Maggie?


            A frustrated rumble grew in the demon's chest. "He didn't think through the Winter Knight thing did he?"


            "Nope," Butters said.


            I frowned. Oh, I had a plan for becoming the Winter Knight. I'd save my daughter from the Red Court vamps and then... and then I'd kill myself. Well, I hired an assassin. Kincaid owed me a favor and the mercenary knew how to kill a wizard.


            Though neither of us realized that Mab wouldn't let a little thing like being shot by a sniper rifle stop her from keeping her shiny new Knight.


            In fact, Mab's efforts at healing me and keeping me alive after I'd been shot had... well they'd taken a lot out of her. Maybe that was why she'd told me to hit the showers this time around. She couldn't spare the mojo, or the time, to heal me.  Especially not when I wasn't actually dying.


            Ranma took my arm and held my hand. "This is why I want you to talk with your friend. You have an opportunity to think this over. It's not like this is a decision you can back out of." She stared into my eye.


            Looking into those intense purple eyes, I wondered how much she had seen in our Soulgaze. Did she know about my plot with Kincaid?


            She let go. "If you can't convince yourself to do this, then you won't convince your friend."


            "It's not his choice to make!" I shouted, then coughed.


            "No. It's mine," her eyes hardened. "Convince him, convince me, convince yourself."


            She straightened her shoulders and looked expectantly at myself and Butters.


            "Harry, there's got to be another way," he said.


            I pulled myself a bit further up on the bed. My jaw clenched as I worked to manage the pain again. "Oh? Let's count the options. There's my current boss, but Miss Ice Queen has already turned me down. There's your new boss but he turned me down the first time."


            "What?" Butters' eyes widened.


            "Yeah, before I made the Winter Knight deal I called up Uriel. We had a nice chat. And... well, he did show me Maggie. And..." I looked down. In retrospect the archangel had done more to help me. For one, he knew I wasn't in my right mind when I called up Kincaid and setup the hit. However, Uriel plays the long game, and it was a year before he could even the scales.


            That said, he did know just the right thing to say to help me deal with Mab, to keep me from falling into despair.


            "You have other options; you're a wizard."


            "What? The Dark Hollow? You want me to kill a mess of people and do a necromantic rite? Have you looked out the window?"  Thanks to Lash I had the entire Word of Kemmler memorized.  Not that I had much cause to use the capstone work of the previous century's preeminent necromancer.


            Butters' glare was almost as intense as Ranma's


            Ranma made a thoughtful noise.


            "Oh there's the Denarians! I mean Nicodemus would be happy to help, especially now. Get me hooked on a coin and stop his ex-wife's revenge? Sure!" I laughed.


            Butters harrumphed.


            "Well, I guess I wouldn't get Lasciel's coin. Really it's for the best that it's stuck in the Underworld. We didn't exactly have a friendly reunion."


            "Becoming a demon chick is preferable to playing Master-Blaster with some Fallen Angel on your back? What a ringing endorsement," Butters snarked. His cheeks flushed slightly. "Uh, no offense, Miss."


            Ranma gave a strained smile. "Some taken."


            Seeing the slight hurt in her expression, Butters flushed and gave another awkward apology.


            "Dude, why do you think I went to Mab in the first place? She was my least evil option."


            The redhead eyed me.


            I blushed with embarrassment. "The difference is that now I've got a non-evil option."


            Butters blinked.


            "How flattering," Ranma, dryly, said.


            "You know what I mean. Look, Mab might not be evil. Sure, she's sinister and really dark, but at the least you can say she has a purpose. Yes, it's an important purpose, but you still wouldn't call her nice, and certainly not good."


            The demon raised an eyebrow.


            "Red, you're not as dark as you think you are."


            Ranma scoffed.


            "This is coming from Harry," Butters told her. "Even before the Winter Knight thing he was really scary."


            I sighed. "Look, the thing is that with my Queen I'm worried about her turning me into her personal monster."


            Butters had to nod in agreement.


            "But with Ranma, I'll lose my humanity, I'll lose my manhood, but I won't lose my soul."


            The redhead looked vaguely guilty.  I had the sense that she had something she wanted to say.  Some point I was ignorant of that she wanted to explain, but couldn't quite bring herself to say.


            "You won't?" Butters blurted out. "Oh right, Soulgaze..." he murmured while Ranma eyed him.


            "You sure you want this Harry?"


            "No, but the way I see it, it's the least-worst option," I said, remembering Mab's disapproving look and how she refused to help, saying she'd already given me the measure of her power.


            Ranma frowned. "I'd object, but the D-Program was created to be the least-worse option."


            "Man... Harry..." Butters looked around the room. "And you want me to sign off on this?"


            "She wants it," I pointed to Ranma. I rubbed my forehead and picked a bit at the bandage over my eye. "But yeah Butters, I'm kinda hoping you make sure I'm not totally crazy."


            I could see Butters was tapping the Sword hilt in a pocket under his scrubs. Not for any aggressive reason, but for reassurance.


            "Being a Knight's more than just swinging a Sword. And you said you were sent here to help a friend."


            Butters nodded. He turned to Ranma. His stance was even. "Can you tell me what this process entails? Exactly."


            "Finally some sense." The demon allowed a smile. "There are two ways to turn someone into a succubus. There's the daughter change, and the sister change."


            "The differences being?"


            "The daughter is a quicker change." Ranma leaned back a bit. "The brood mother basically forces her will, her power on someone else. The brood mother pushes the transformation creating a new body. Thus healing any damage as a side effect. The new demon is relatively weak, as she's freshly turned and quite dependent on her mother."


            "How much faster?" Butters asked.


            "It's under a minute," Ranma said. "The sister change takes far longer."


            "That's what you use for the D-Program?" I asked. I recalled how Ranma and her daughters interacted. Hells Bells, there was also Eve and her daughters.


            "When it's a mortal wound," Ranma clarified.


            "That means the other change isn't fast enough. Or maybe a dying person isn't strong enough?" Butters' voice was mix of professional and geeky interest. He was a medical man, and despite a lack of magical talents he was roughly in my league on the finer points of magical theory.  I had more experience and talent, but he was much smarter.


            Ranma nodded.


            Butters pondered. I could see the gears turning in his mind. He knew how injured I was right after the fight. Hells Bells, he helped save my life.... again. So, if Ranma really wanted to turn me, consent be damned, all she had to do was have him sent off to medic someone else.


            Then she could make me a daughter and claim I was D-Program. Stars and Stones, she'd could even call to base and have them fake some paperwork.


            My stomach tingled. And it's not like her new daughter would disagree with her beloved mother. Damn... said new daughter would happily help forge a pre-dated consent sheet. Instead, Ranma had shown restraint. Frustratingly so.


            Seemingly coming to that conclusion, Butters bowed his head to the demon. It was short but respectful.


            "That means that the sister change isn't forced? And if the daughter change makes a daughter..." Butters adjusted his glasses. "You mentioned force... is that why you kept on Harry? For the sister change to work... he has to want it?"


            "That's exactly right," Ranma beamed at the doctor. "In the sister change, the brood mother presents her power, she even gives a... blueprint you'd say. But it's up to the new sister to invoke the change. It's a lot more energy intensive and slower."


            "You want me to become your sister?" I asked.


            Ranma gave me "'the look".


            "Uh Harry... what's she's saying is that you have to want to become her sister." Butters looked between us. "This isn't you turning him into a succubus is it?"


            "Nope." The redhead smiled, flashing her teeth. "He's gonna have to turn himself into one."


            I groaned and leaned back against my pillows.


            Ranma looked mildly affronted.


            I swallowed, my brain finally catching up. "No, no, no! I'm honored that you're willing to help. That you'd give up your own power, that you'd make me your sister it's just..." I trailed off.


            Butters and Ranma waited.

            "It's just scary. I was kind of hoping it'd just... happen," I admitted.


            "Poor, dumb Harry," Ranma patted my knee.


            "You don't have to do this," Butters reminded.


            "He's stable yes?" Ranma asked


            "Sure... I mean it's a lot of damage, but his lung doesn't seem likely to collapse again unless he stresses it too much. And there's the risk of an infection."


            Ranma nodded. "Good, once he's safe to move we can go back home."


            "Why?" I asked.


            "We've got some time. If you're serious you'll need to talk with Cecilia and Eve," Ranma stated.

 

End Chapter 8

 

 

And congrats to anyone who guessed this plot point.   To be fair there was some foreshadowing, see the fight in the WIC base and some of Harry's musing, especially when he was waiting in the medical wing.

 

 

That said,  yes, Harry is being very reckless and charging ahead, which is why Butters, and even Ranma, are cautioning that Harry think things through, and maybe think of alternative solutions. Remember, being Harry Dresden is suffering.

 

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: J St C Patrick for ironing out this chapter, and confirming the structure.