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Invisible Hand [Between the Return book 5 and 6 (DF)]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Sunshine Temple, Aug 10, 2019.

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  1. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    So it's a month late.. I've got new content.

    This is a story set in the Dresden Files universe

    After Tessa's rampage (and becoming a baby succubus), Dresden catches her breath and starts to rebuild her life and her business in Chicago. It's troubling, people not clued into the supernatural wouldn't really believe that she's Harry Dresden.

    And while people clued into the supernatural can accept that she was, human, male, Harry Dresden, but have issues with her being all... demony.

    All in all it makes things challenging for Chicago's only practicing wizard. Well... she /was/ Chicago's only wizard....

    Set just before Book 6 Bonding Allure. This continues BlackStone's adventures after Book 5 Blood Debts.

    The whole story has been written, and just needs a bit of editing.

    The Return (Blood Debts novella): Invisible Hand
    Chapter 1: Second String
    Chapter 2: Cake Walk
    Chapter 3: Smokescreen
    Chapter 4: Fox and Hounds
     
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  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 1
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Invisible Hand
    by Sunshine Temple
    A side story to the Return

    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.

    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.

    This takes place after Blood Debts (book 5) but before Bonding Allure (book 6)

    Chapter 1: Second String

    My name is Harry BlackStone Copperfield Dresden. I'm Chicago's only professional wizard. You can look me up in the Yellow Pages.

    Well... I was in the book, and I was the only wizard.

    I should elaborate. It doesn't matter if you have an ad in the Yellow Pages for over a decade. If you get declared legally dead and, more importantly, stop paying for a year, they'll pull your ad.

    Which means that, for a while, the Wizards section in the Chicago phone book was empty. But I came back from being mostly dead, spent some time on an island getaway, got my head screwed on right, cleared my mind, returned, and restarted my business.

    Things were starting to get, well not normal, given I was rocking both the single dad thing, the wizard PI thing, and the servant of a dark queen thing but I was getting into a groove.

    And then I went on a trip to the mystical, magical land of Canada. Things happened up there. Things that meant I couldn't really have an ad that said: Harry Dresden - Wizard.

    I glanced down at my blouse. Sure, the supernatural community could accept, okay they could comprehend, my change. But among vanilla mortals? The kind of people who would use the Yellow Pages? Well, I couldn't very well call myself Harry Dresden.

    So, I had to contact the Phone Company, again. And yes, my ad now said: Halley Dresden - Wizard. But that wasn't the problem.

    The problem was that I was the second entry under Wizards.

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

    I stared at the phone book. The page refused to change. My sober, efficient, and respectable little four-line entry was overshadowed by what had to be a half-page ad.

    In color. A man with high cheekbones grinned out from under a jaunty fedora that covered his eyes.

    His charcoal suit and dark tie were a fairly good Sam Spade Halloween costume, while his outstretched gloved hands were far too theatrical, especially with the swirling colors in the background and motes of light coming out of his fingertips.

    The whole thing looked a bit like the Shadow crossed with Doctor Strange. There was something wrong with how he pointed his fingers. Those could have been the gestures of a real Practitioner, but why would he have put them in an advertisement?

    Wizards don't really advertise.

    Present company excluded.

    Still, this guy could have been a fake. He probably was a fake. Sure, that's what most people thought I was. And I would have known if someone from the Council decided to move into my city. Right, because they never kept me in the dark before I turned all Winter sidhe succubus.

    My eyes narrowed on the page. Move into my territory.

    I growled a bit as I read the services this... clown offered: Missing Property Recovery, Supernatural Inquiries, Counsel, Guidance, all at "competitive costs".

    He was horning in on my gig. But that wasn't the worst part.

    The worst part was that this... Samri Balducci. Did more than copy my ad. He went beyond that. Where I clearly said I would not do "Parties or Other Entertainment", Balducci the Illusive happily mentioned he was open for private tutoring, events, and parties.

    My eyes bored onto the book and I might have burned it to a crisp, but there was a knock on my door.

    I did not have any appointments today, but drop-ins were a fair source of income, especially since, with Murphy off the force, my police consulting had never really recovered from me being "mostly dead". Then add in that "Halley" was an unknown quantity to the CPD.

    I was meaning to get in contact with Karrin's old partner, the current head of CPD's Special Investigations. Stallings was a good man, a bit by the book, but he had managed to survive running Special Investigations, the pool filter of the CPD, for years and had quietly managed to put down more than a few not-so-minor supernatural threats.

    I made sure I was presentable and got up. I angled my neck and patted the sides of my head and took a few steps. Then I sniffed the air and shrugged.

    I opened the front door and let the voluptuous redhead in. Andi's hair had a bit less poofy 80's glam rock body than my sister's, and it was a more natural, by human standards, shade. Both women were muscular, but Andi was taller, longer of limb, and was not quite as sharp in the cheekbones or chin.

    Andi did have a flowing predatory gait which suited the werewolf well as she entered and looked over the office. "Harry, er... Halley?" she corrected in a pleasing, classical alto while eyeing the lettering on the glass.

    Her voice was also not as deep, but few women had the heavy, dramatic contralto my older sister possessed. Let alone women who made Murphy look tall.

    I waved that aside. "Just some window dressing for the normals."

    She frowned. Right, she wasn't too keen on puns.

    I stepped back and let her into the office proper. "This is a pleasant surprise. What brings you here?" My tail would have swished, if I had let it out.

    Andi gave me a long look, her attention seemingly on my skirt. She shook her head and pulled a small green envelope out of her vest. "I was at the Better Future Society and got some Paranet reports that you might want to pass onto the Council. Mostly Fomor stuff."

    I opened my lips with a pop. The Paranet was a group of folks with lesser magical abilities who had banded together to share information and defense. The Better Future Society had an actual castle, miniature sure, but it had stone walls and battlements and everything.

    It was built on the site of my former boarding house, where I had the basement suite. Among other things, it was used as a safehouse for people in the Paranet.

    I took the envelope. It was thick and heavy. If it was like the last courier drop-offs it was microfiche mixed in with flash paper. Easy to destroy if it came under risk of capture, information dense, and fairly proof against the anti-tech properties of mortal magic.

    "You know the Council might not do much with this info?" I asked, lightly tossing the envelope to myself. It wasn't that they didn't hate the Fomor, the creepy aquatic collection of history's monsters were everyone's enemy, but the Council was stretched thin these days.

    "Because of the..." she gestured towards my body.

    "Not just that." I admitted. "They thought I was the next best thing to Anakin goin' to Vader and that was before I signed on to be Winter Queen's leg-breaker."

    "So, you going perky demon Goth is just the cherry on top?"

    I had enough self control to not preen at that. "I still have some influence, I mean I managed to not get kicked out," I pocketed the envelope. "I thought Butters was going to drop this off tomorrow."

    Looking down, Andi exhaled. "He couldn't make it. He's got a job."

    "Oh," I put an arm around her. She stiffened in surprise. "It's gotta be hard knowing he has to hat-up, take a Sword, and fight monsters."

    Andi laughed. "Well.... yeah, but he was doing that before he got the lightsaber. I mean if I had to choose, I'd rather he'd take Fidelacchius into battle than the skull."

    I nodded and gave her a quick hug before letting go. "Yeah. Empty Night, that's the reason I rarely took him on missions. Bob's a powerful spirit, but the skull is his home, and anyone who gets their hands on it controls him."

    She gave me a pensive look and shook her head. Clearly, she still felt worried and guilty over Butters going off on his own, I could feel it. "Sorry, it's just... you're all... willowy and with the parts all out." Andi made a fluttering gesture with her hands.

    "What? I hid my tail and horns!"

    "No... but your wings are folded against your shoulders, and even if they weren't you still have plenty of curves that flow out."

    I flushed and made my wings vanish.

    "Yeah... the blue cheeks are a bit of a give away," Andi laughed as she went to my desk.

    Most succubae had red blood. Well, my eldest sister's was tinged purple. But, since I was part Winter sidhe, mine was blue. "It's a shame Butter's is out Knighting, I haven't seen him much since we got back."

    Andi absently nodded. She stilled and stared at my desk. I had left the phone book open. She read Balducci the Illusive's ad and laughed. "Is this a joke?"

    "I've gotta leave the office to deliver the envelope anyway." I grinned at her in a way a werewolf would appreciate. "Let's find out."

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

    Pocketing a flat brass-colored key, I stepped out of the Auckland bank. In this part of the world, the Pacific South of the equator, it was early morning. As one of the first customers, I was able to get to the safety deposit box without much trouble.

    I walked down the street and pulled the belt of my duster a bit closer. The Way that led back to Chicago was down the block and around a corner. Wind blew through my hair and I felt a familiar tingle.

    My legs tensed as my stance shifted. Senses could be spoofed; that was a way to get inside someone's defenses. However, I relaxed as a short, but classically Spanish, classically handsome man slipped out of an invisibility Veil as he strode out of the alley.

    "Carlos," I purred as he closed in with a hint of a limp. Either he had healed some more or he was trying to minimize it.

    The dusky, and yes good-looking, man with sharp-features, glittering dark eyes was the youngest Regional Commander of the Wardens in White Council history, and technically my boss. He started his career during the Council's war against the Red Court which meant there was plenty of space for promotions, for those who survived.

    "It's a nice surprise running into you, so early," I grinned. Carlos was a good man, even if he had gotten a bit distant about Molly lately. Neither he nor my Lady were forthcoming about what had passed between them.

    "It's always a pleasure to meet a pretty woman in the morning; it brightens up the whole day." He was wearing his grey cloak and silver Warden's sword at his hip, but at least the grenades I knew he carried weren't visible on his belt. His easy smile pulled back as if in realization. "Dresden," he said in a more reserved voice. "Dropping off?"

    "Yeah, I got the Paranet intel early. And you think I'm pretty?" I teased. Yes, teased. I put in a pout and husky tone to my voice to tease the cocky man.

    Carlos hesitated for a bare moment. "But of course," he assured, taking another step, but instead of closing in, he side stepped. Maybe it was a coincidence, but he had positioned himself so his left side was closer to me.

    "It's a shame it took such extreme measures for you to finally become even half as stylish as myself, but I cannot argue with the results."

    "You're complimenting a wizard being turned into a demoness," I idly brushed a hand against the gleaming metal encircling my neck. "What would the Merlin think? Or your superiors in the Wardens?"

    "Given you slept with our commanding officer, and she signed onto keeping you in the grey-cloaks, I'm not terribly worried about her finding out about that."

    "Going to sleep your way to the top?"

    "Is that a proposition?" He asked with mock deliberation.

    I slipped closer to him. "I did lose my own regional commandership." My hand went to his arm. His wiry muscles were easy to feel through the coat. "It's been a while since I had some strong Wardens under me."

    His eyes widened, and Carlos laughed. "Really?"

    I blinked. "Okay... that wasn't intentional."

    The shorter man grinned. "Basic rule, flirting is like wizarding. You'd never tell someone how you knew some bit of secret knowledge, especially if it was just a lucky guess. You let them assume you knew because of some powerful magic. Same thing with innuendo, you let it ride and make people assume you're just that cunning of a linguist."

    "You want me to look like I'm more of a flirt than I am?" I slowly exhaled and a part of me regretted not wearing the bustier Molly had given me. It was not exactly outer wear. Well, not in public, at least on Earth.

    "Hey, I'm the one who's got to give basic pickup advice to a frikin' succubus." He looked me over. "But I guess you can't count on a smooth personality."

    "Should I really be taking advice from a virgin?" I crossed my arms.

    A dark expression flickered over his face.

    "Sorry," I pulled back a bit and waved my hands. "I don't bite."

    Carlos eyed my fingers. Okay, sure my nails were opalescent shades of blue but they weren't long. It's not like I had icy talons... at the moment. "Yes, you do," he said, but his confident smile had returned.

    "Ah... well... I guess people talk," I coughed.

    "That and I can see your fangs from here. You're a demoness, and - " he reached out and poked my choker about where the Winter queens would, on occasion, use a mounting ring to attach... accessories.

    My cheeks flushed, and it took a few seconds before I shifted my glamour to adjust them to a red hue. "What brings you here? It is early and I haven't had breakfast." I might have licked my lips. Honestly, I was concentrating on looking at least somewhat human.

    Carlos didn't step back but I could feel his professional wariness rise. The man was a veteran, commander of wardens, and had Soulgazed the hidden Queen of the White Court of Vampires. Lara might have been from a species of knockoffs, but she was a powerful... succubus.

    "You're hungry?" he asked.

    "I'm a demon." At least my purr kept a bit of the frustration from my voice. With my sisters on another frickin' planet, it fell on my stupid brother to help teach me how to deal with this.

    Which meant I had to deal with repeated "I told you so's," and "See, resisting sexual desires to feed isn't so easy after all?" and "Now who's being a too-pretty, angsty life-force predator?"

    "Getting power like that dropped into your lap, all those urges, and you're trying to make do," he stated. It was not a question.

    "You're speaking from experience?"

    Carlos glanced around the street and found a cafe that was just opening. "Talk over coffee?"

    "Oh, if you insist," I started walking to the indicated storefront, letting my longer stride put me ahead of him.

    Carlos paused for a moment, surely appreciating the view before he ran up to me.

    The cafe was brightly-lit and looked a bit too artfully-distressed and full of twee knickknacks to be anything other than a franchise putting it on as an affectation. Sure the brand was unfamiliar to me, but this was my first time in New Zealand. We entered and made our purchases.

    Well, he made purchases. Despite me having been in a bank, I had not gotten any of their... dollars... pounds? Whatever money they used down here. Carlos did seem a bit relieved that I let him pay. Maybe he was worried I'd make a bit deal of me owing him a favor.

    "Really? Still going with plain coffee?" He asked me, taking our cups and a slice of cheesecake to a table off to one side.

    I crossed my arms and huffed as he put the cups down. "Yes. And I still like Burger King. Does everyone expect me to be that different?" I asked

    Carlos pointedly looked at the chair I was standing before and then pulled it out.

    I sat down with a little sniff and started mixing in lots of sugar and cream into my coffee. Carlos gave a gallant bow, sat down, and pulled out a gold tuning fork. He tapped it on the edge of the table and set it up vibrating.

    I gritted my teeth; the thing set my horns on edge. My Lady Molly had used something similar a few years back, though in her case it was to make ghost me visible to her. Back then she was my apprentice.

    Which was far more elegant than my way of dealing with ghosts, which was to throw some really heavy powder on them to get them stuck in place so I could banish 'em.

    What? Ghost dust works. Though, the ingredients are a bit hard to find.

    But, I was rather sure Carlos' intention with his tuning fork was in more the opposite intent of Molly's.

    "That'll keep out most snooping. Okay, I'm mostly sure that was you playing headgames but..." the young Warden sipped his cappuccino-whatever. He'd probably get along great with alternate universe Old-Man me. Well, other than him being a professional assassin and Carlos being a Wizard-cop.

    "But come on Harry. You're wearing a skirt. An expensive skirt, with a matching silk blouse. Custom boots. Someone tailored your duster. And not to mention the manicure, makeup, and jewelry. That much silver's pricey."

    "I didn't realize you knew girl stuff." I cut a bit of the cherry cheesecake.

    "I have a lot of sisters," he shrugged.

    "Me too."

    "Now, you do," he emphasized, but cracked a grin. "Though I would very much like to meet the women who got through your thick head."

    "Maybe," I grinned. I didn't want to tell him that they made me beg them to turn me.

    "Look, this stuff is automatic," I wiggled my fingers and gestured over my face. "It's part of the package deal. I've actually got to keep a glamour up to not look quite so..."

    "Demon?"

    "Sidhe. Glamorous ain't just a metaphor for me. And are we really going to critique expensive magical gear? I gestured to his gold tuning fork.

    "Point. You always did wear a lot of rings. But the boots? I mean they're not much of a heel but..."

    I rolled my eyes. "How tall are your sisters?"

    "They're not all taller than me," Carlos said a bit grumpily.

    "Do you know how hard shopping is for women my size?" Again, I gestured, this time more over my whole frame. "For all but basics, like sneakers, I have to get custom. Thankfully, I know some cobs; so, it works out."

    Carlos nodded. "The wee folk are handy."

    "I saved their colony and found a place in the mall for them to live and another place when things got a bit too crowded there. I knew the decline of custom shoe stores hurt them hard but...."

    He snickered. "The great Harry Dresden going to cobbler elves to get her lovely shoes. Why, it's like you're a faerie princess."

    "Hardly." I snorted. "Seriously, don't let the Queens, or the rest of Winter hear that."

    "Why? Will it give them ideas?"

    Taking a sip, I may have blushed a bit. "Maybe." My faerie godmother the Leanansidhe did love dressing me up. Given how long she had been watching over me, she said she was "making up for lost time". It was better than her trying to turn me into one of her hounds, which had been her form of entertainment when I was younger.

    Carlos shook his head. "I am happy for the Winter Lady. Given how.... difficult her position is, it's good she has someone she can trust at her side."

    I swallowed. So something had happened between him and Molly?

    "I am much more comfortable working for her than her predecessor." That was true; being Maeve's Knight would have been bad. And that was before little-miss-spangle-crotch had been corrupted by an other-planar force, or before I had turned into a very sensual creature of Winter myself.

    There were things I was better equipped to handle as a human. Temptation was at the top of that list. Giving Maeve a succubus knight would have been... bad.

    Which made it more awkward. Between my own... issues, and Molly's, I could at some level understand why Maeve was so demented when it came to sex and...

    Oh.

    Glancing away from Carlos, I winced. See, the problem with the Winter Queens is that each embodied a different aspect: maiden, mother, crone. Thus to keep the mantle of the Winter Lady, one had to stay a maiden; one certainly could not be a mother.

    I wondered if the Winter Lady Mantle had a means of....

    Well, my time with Molly was interesting but there was little threat I could take away her mantle. A strapping lad like Carlos on the other hand? He would be equipped....

    I looked at my fingers, and flexing them let my pearlescent nails lengthen a bit, not quite into claws, but they were a bit more talon-like.

    Carlos covered it well, but he was put on edge by that little display.

    I smiled and patted his hand, after letting my nails shrink back. "I'll tell her you were worried about her but are happy that I'm watching out for her."

    "Don't oversell yourself," he smirked, easing back into his casual confidence.

    I let my hand rest against his. "You are taking this well."

    Carlos laughed. "Honestly, between the Black Hats, the Fomor, the White Court, and every other nasty creepy-crawly appearing, I'm willing to just accept your changes."

    "Really?" I tiled my head skeptically. When he did not reply right away I moved my hand to get more cheesecake.

    "Not to get too close to your, boss, but I have heard things about the Accords."

    I leaned forward, eager. "Oh? Tell me what you know."

    Carlos blinked. "I was hoping you'd know more..."

    I snorted. "You think she tells me anything?"

    "I think you spend more time with her than anyone I know."

    "Yeah, most of the time as arm candy. You think the Council treats us like mushrooms? My Queen, as wonderful as she is, can scheme circles around us."

    "Then you haven't heard rumors that the Accords might be renegotiated? New signatories, new terms, stuff like that?"

    This time I blinked. "Uh... didn't everyone know that?"
    Carlos sighed. "Do you know anything more?"

    "Well the Fomor are getting all froggy. My guess, and this is only my guess, is that there's some plan to stomp on that pack of warty, bug-eyed aquatic Legion of Doom losers."

    Carlos gave me a blank look.

    Philistine. That pun was gold.

    "It's not just the Fomor I'm worried about. There are other powers sniffing around, and would..." He glanced at me meaningfully. "Would Dame BlackStone know anything about those?"

    "Uh... no?" I frowned. I already told him Mab liked keeping me in the dark. Both literally and figuratively.

    "What do you think I'm doing out here?"

    "Picking up the Paranet data I left you?"

    "This early?" He snorted. "There's all sorts of stuff going on around the Pacific rim lately. People going missing."

    "More Fomor?"

    "More blood drainy."

    I might have growled. "Which Court?"

    "There's not the pattern of destruction and new vamps that a Black Court Scourge makes. And it doesn't seem like White Court either... Honestly, we haven't heard much, which makes me think Jade."

    I frowned. "Jade Court? That can't be good. I mean that could be one of any dozen or so different Asian vampire mythologies."

    "Is it a mythology if they're real?"

    I stuck out my tongue. "Oh, bite me; you know what I mean."

    He shook his head but a smile managed to break through. "Jeeze, Harry. My point is that things are getting really squirrelly out there. The Reds being wiped out was the first mess, the Fomor moving into their territory was the second, and now all sorts of factions are working in the chaos the Fomor have created."

    "I'm sorry I can't be up on political events in the supernatural world. You might have noticed I was sent to some other world to clean up after the Denarians, and then I had to come back here and rebuild my life. Do you have any idea how much paperwork you have to fill out to transfer ownership of a business? And to top it all off I got knocked out of the Yellow Pages; failure to pay, my frosty-butt."

    Carlos chuckled. "What, is there no one under Wizards in the Chicago phone book?"

    "Oh, no, there's some new guy. Some clown named Samri Balducci. And I mean clown, he does children's parties." I eyed Carlos. "Say, you ever heard of him?"

    "Is he an actual clown?"
    "I'm thinking he's either a con or some minor power." I shrugged. Andi said she might look into him while I was "out of town".

    Carlos was thoughtful. "Yeah, I got Elaine Mallory working around my city. She helped us back with that White Court bozo going all serial killer with minor talents. I kinda had to shy her away from calling herself a wizard. I mean, the woman has talent but just not quite enough to be in the White Council. You think that's what you've got?"

    I hoped my smile wasn't too glassy before I picked up my cup. Elaine and I went way back. That is, we were both picked up as teens by Justin DuMorne, the twisted wizard who taught us magic and then tried to enslave us. Killing him, in self defense, is what got me under probation by the Council and what made them think I was some time bomb of Black Magic.

    That I'm sitting here as the demonic enforcer of the literal Queen of Air and Darkness is pure coincidence.

    Thing is, the White Council didn't know DuMorne had two students. And, for some reason, Elaine was not willing to put too much trust in a group that was all decapitation first, questions second.

    It also took Elaine a bit of time to learn to trust me given the whole burning Justin DuMorne to ashes.

    All of which meant that the Warden across from me didn't know his perky succubus friend knew Elaine much better than he did, and knew that Elaine was very much capable enough to call herself a wizard.

    I ate some more cheesecake. I should have had him get me a second piece. "Yeah, no one else I asked knows of Balducci. Which means he's not Council, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have power and can't be trouble."

    Carlos nodded. "You're checking him out."

    "Phrasing! But yeah, Chicago is still my city, and I can't have some wannabe going around taking my place." That was my job. At least far as the vanilla world was concerned Halley Dresden was replacing Harry Dresden. What? It's easier to keep an alias straight if it's close.

    "Good. Things have been crazy all over, and while your... Lady kept things calm- calmer- it came at a price."

    I nodded. Molly was not in a good place after I had died. And having to engage in a guerilla war against the Fomor, with my godmother as her teacher?

    To put the Leanansidhe in perspective, she approved of my eldest sister's training methods. And Ranma Saotome thought tossing people out of helicopters was sensible flight training, ate part of me during my first sparring session as a succubus, and felt that flamethrowers were the best way to improve mental focus and learn how to make magic shields.

    That last one struck a bit too close to home. But even Justin DuMorne just threw baseballs to encourage shield training.

    "What, you'd rather have Dame BlackStone in Chicago being all Winter demon?"
    "Than Molly playing the Ragged-Lady? Yes," Carlos drained his cup. "You can handle being the big scary thing... though I guess with her job...."
    "She's still in a better place than as the Ragged-Lady," I stated. Which was the hell of it. Being dragooned into the Winter Court was still better than living on the streets while fighting every Innsmouth reject in Cook County. "And you're okay with the Winter demon?

    Carlos sighed. "I'm just concentrating on the Winter fae part over the demony part. That you're caring about stuff like the Better Future Society, the Paranet, and being a clumsy, awkward mess is a major bonus."

    "Wait, so the assurance of three current and retired Knights of the Cross, two Senior Council members, and your own boss aren't enough to convince you, but that I'm still an awkward mess is what sways you?"

    He spread his hands.

    "Hey! I am not a mess! Weren't you complaining that I was being too pretty?"

    "You're complaining about business paperwork, advertising, and finding that you've got competition. Those are Dresden things to gripe about. A slick succubus wouldn't care; she'd have people to do that for her."

    "Wait.... what's why you're nervous about my clothes?" I narrowed my eyes. "You expected Harry Dresden to still dress like a slob even as a Sidhe succubus."

    Carlos coughed. "I'd ask you to be careful but...."

    "Is this about the Merlin and his cronies?"

    Carlos eyed the golden tuning fork. "And other factions."

    I sighed. It wasn't enough that there were more than a few on the Council who were convinced I had gone fully Dark Side. But the members of the black cloak and cowl club were extra suspicious of me. It didn't help that I had killed Polonius Lartessa, number two of the Order of the Blackened Denarius right after becoming a demoness in my own right.

    Worse, were those who knew that I was more than some random succubus. Apparently, in certain circles, my grandmother had a reputation. For example, Mab knew about her and seemed to approve of my... pedigree.

    "It's not just the Council who're worried I'm compromised." I felt like I had to keep my ears and tail from drooping. "You'd think that my queen was still okay with me would clue them in. Look what happened to the last Knight who betrayed her."

    Carlos gave me an opaque look.

    Right. Sure, Lloyd Slate was a rapist and murderer and had conspired with Maeve against Mab, and, sure, he had spent years being brutalized and tortured by my queen... both physically and mentally. She did this thing where she would break him down, then nurse him back to health, and once he was healed.... would start the cycle anew.

    But it's also true that, in the end, Slate died by my hand. I murdered him to get his power, to get the Mantle, the very thing that made me into the perky, gothy, Sihde succubus.

    "Harry..." Carlos tapped the tuning fork once more. "There's been some whispers, among those who make it a point to study the workings on the other side, that Mab is in cahoots."

    "Cahoots?" I snorted.

    "With this demon empress. With BlackSky."

    Uh oh. "So... you've heard of her?" I asked in a totally confident and not at all nervous voice.

    Carlos gave me a dark look. "Not much. It doesn't sound like she and her... brood have meddled much on Earth. But rumors are she's sending envoys and feelers out."

    "This earth. She hasn't meddled on this earth." I murmured.

    He exhaled. "See, you saying things like that is not reassuring."

    I gave a glassy smile. At least I hadn't mentioned the Invasion. "I was focused on my sisters and their kids, not every little detail of where they came from. Empty Night, they live in Canada, they haven't even visited the 'old country', let alone have any fealty towards it."

    Carlos exhaled. For a second, sitting across from me was a very weary veteran Warden, a man who had spent years in an ugly war against a nation of monsters, was starting up a whole new war against a fresh nation and had to look behind his back against plots from his own superiors.

    He gave a dry laugh. "I suppose that's better. I mean you not looking into what... Kingdom, Domain, Court-"

    "House," I said absently. "House BlackSky."

    "Right, not looking into the House of the demons who turned you hailed from is quite Harry."

    I rubbed the back of my neck. "Yeah, I shoulda looked into my new grandmother more."

    Carlos stared. "BlackSky is your grandmother?"

    "Uh... kinda? I mean one of her granddaughters turned me... so..." I fidgeted a bit. That was mostly the truth. Sure, technically, it was all of my sisters there, and they didn't turn me. They facilitated it so I could turn myself. And Ranma was more than just a granddaughter of BlackSky.

    The weariness flashed back and Carlos pinched the bridge of his nose.

    "What? I haven't even met her. My sisters only met her once. She's, like, got her own empire on some other dimension."

    Carlos rubbed his face with both hands. "Harry, you can't be this thick."
    "Oh, I certainly can." I crossed my arms and looked down.

    Carlos laughed. "I can believe that, so will anyone who knows you, but others? What are they going to think when they find out that Darth Dresden isn't just Winter's shiny new bauble, and isn't just some succubus, but a dark demon princess?"

    "I'm...." I frowned. Was I? Did House BlackSky have some sort of royal family? How many daughters did she have? If I were a... royal... then I had to be one of dozens.

    Carlos's weariness broke apart. "Oh, you poor bastard." Laughing, he glanced to above where my arms were crossed.

    "I'm not a princess. I don't even have a tiara." At least none that weren't made out of ice and thus did not count.

    "I'll buy you a damn tiara," he flashed me a grin.

    "Promise?" I purred leaning forward. "Maybe I'll let you put it on me."

    Carlos taped his fingers on the table. "Dios Harry, if... and the Winter thing..."

    "If it helps, you can keep thinking of me as Dame BlackStone." I lowered my shoulders so my face was closer and, putting my hand on his, exhaled slowly. "And I promise I won't bite."

    "So, you keep telling me." His pulse quickened but he covered that up and his nervous swallow well. "And I still know that is a lie."

    I pouted.

    "Sir Butters told me so."

    "No fun," I stomped a hoof.

    "It wasn't all bad. Some of it was very handy," Carlos pulled something out of his coat pocket, and with exaggerated gallantry unwrapped the candy bar.

    I took it and started nibbling, delicately with little bites. "You now carry demon-treats? Good to know."

    "He said it was the simplest way to keep you from getting all distracted," Carlos smiled.

    "But not the most fun? Or are you carrying a bottle of water, or better yet some ice?"

    "No wonder Winter's so happy about you." The Wardens' confidence asserted itself.

    "I told you, she hasn't even asked about BlackSky."

    "So? You know how Winter works."

    I pursed my lips.

    "I'm not saying you're working for the other team." Carlos spread his hands. "Even though you're trying to play footsie with hooves."

    Blushing, I coughed.

    "But, I should point out how many factions you've got pulling at you."

    I stared. He did not know the half of it. I had done more than a few "odd jobs" for an Archangel, my sisters were also caught up in some sort of conspiracy-riddled mercenary company that... Well, let's just say Ms Gard of Monoc Securities would get along famously with my sister Eve.

    And then there was that my sister Ranma was getting involved with a Moon Queen. I'm a pretty open minded person when it comes to the arcane and myths, wizard and all. But even I was a bit skeptical about the ancient astronaut stuff. And then I learned a bit more about Serenity and her Ladies... and the civilization they came from.

    Not to mention inklings of the level of complexity of their magics. What Serenity had was Merlin level stuff, the first Merlin. And that was not the most disquieting thing about Serenity; the lack of a Soulgaze still concerned me.

    Carlos gave a cocky grin. "I'm right aren't I?"
    "It's a good thing you're good looking," I grumbled.

    "It does hurt to be this talented." He flashed a smile. "Now, what are you going to do about it?

    "This isn't exactly new ground for me," I huffed.

    "You're already working for two Accorded Signatories, and now you've got alliances to another world, two more worlds."

    I snorted.

    "Look, I'm not saying you're going to be all sinister reconnaissance double agent for your demon queen grandmother."

    He gave me a long-suffering look which made him look far older than he really was. Shaking his head, Carlos continued. "Or that you'll go all Dark Side to please your new extended family. You're too stubborn to go all Blackhat."

    "But?" I asked, deflecting my own worry.

    "Not everyone knows that. Especially all your new friends and their enemies, who will be your new enemies. How well do they know you? Hell, even your old and familiar enemies don't really get you. Do you know how many folks thought your old basement apartment was a decoy? A clever ruse to trick and entrap folks."

    I narrowed my eyes. "That place was awesome. And Mrs. Spunkelcrief was a great landlord, having to shovel the walk was a small price to pay for letting me stay, given all the crap that happened there."

    "It was a drafty hole in the ground, but yes, it was very cool." Carlos spread his hands. "My point is that a lot of your enemies couldn't get a wizard with your power being happy in a place like that. And now..."

    I exhaled. "And now they couldn't see me going back to my normal life?"

    "If they suddenly got all demony? Royal demony?"

    "Demony isn't a word."

    He gave me a flat look.

    "Fine. But my fake words are way cooler."

    "Sure." Carlos sounded totally convinced. "You can see right? I'm not crazy with these concerns."

    "Yeah, yeah, every power mad Darth-bathrobe-"

    "And political climbing magus," he interrupted.

    "And them. What, they'll ignore my history and simply fantasize about what they'd do with all this?" I swept a hand over my torso.

    Carlos did not rise to the bait. The shorter man had admirable self control. "It didn't occur to you? Harry, you were turned into this, by your sisters. Sisters who turned people into their demon daughters. That power alone..."

    "Yeah, yeah in the wrong hands it would..." Instead of rolling my eyes, I pondered on it. Cecilia had told me all about the nasty things a succubus could do if she went bad. She kinda had firsthand experience on that.

    Thus... it really wasn't something I wanted to put much thought in. I mean, I already had a mess of siblings, two daughters, and a mother figure. Which, having grown up an orphan, was one hell of a mind-game.

    But... if some other powerful wizard were also a succubus, with connections to a fae court, and started turning people... Carefully picking people who were already connected to the supernatural world.

    Said wizardly brood queen would have to deal with the Hungers of her new daughters, but the White Court of Vampires, specifically House Raith, showed that, if carefully applied, and without any concern for ethics, the need to feed could be used to build up mortal "resources". The late Red Court of Vampires worked similarly, given their feeding was also addictive. And, unlike the Whites, they could turn humans into their ranks.

    Which made the Reds so feared. If they captured an enemy they could turn said enemy gaining their knowledge and power. Hells Bells, I had offered to turn Tessa into my daughter. The evil cockroach listened to her Fallen instead and turned me down.

    Sure, it was her choice. Sure, I really didn't want to have that little monster as my first demon daughter. And sure, she would rather die by my hand than live at my side.

    But... I had made the offer.

    I nodded to Carlos. "Yeah... I'm starting to see what you're talking about."

    "I'm not supposed to know, but some of the Senior Council and their pet Wardens have been wargaming you."

    "Great... so when you say power-hungry fools are pondering what they'd do in my hooves, you're being literal."

    Carlos spread his hands. "Can you blame them? They're keeping it from me, even tried to snow Luccio, but... just think of what you could do."

    I frowned. I... could be trouble.

    And that was only using the stuff Carlos, or the Senior Council, knew about me. That did not include things like: my brother the White Court Vampire; that I once had a skull containing a powerful spirit of intellect, who had also worked for Kemmler, the worst necromancer in the last couple hundred years; my spirit of intellect daughter Bonnie, sired by the shadow of a Fallen Angel; that I knew the real reason gods got so twitchy and... tricky around Halloween; how to run the major necromatic rite known as a DarkHollow, made by, yes, that same big bad necromancer.

    And the true purpose of my scary island; namely that Demonreach imprisoned forgotten horrors and gods. What a name. When I first visited that island in lake Michigan I got a creepy, oppressive sense of deja-vu.

    Turns out, as wizards age their Sight develops into a bit of precognition. And later on, I claimed said island... and named it Demonreach.

    I have a... knack for Naming things.

    Carlos' face was sympathetic. "You okay?"

    "A Black Court Vamp once tried to blackmail me. A nasty old thing with sorcerous powers, she tried to go through my friends."

    "And?"

    "I swore to her if she tried that scam on me again, I'd hat up with every bit of power I could find and end her." And that was another secret. Carlos didn't know that right before I told Mavra that, I had given her the Word of Kemmler. That is, given her the exactly what she had blackmailed me to get.

    Carlos swore. "This was before you took Mab's coin and got yourself made all pretty."

    I winced; the phrase "taking someone's coin" had a really bad connotation to me. "Aww, that's twice, you must really think I'm pretty?" I gushed, and would have swished my tail, if not for us being in public. Sure, Carlos had his anti-eavesdropping tuning fork but better to be cautious

    "You're a succubus," Carlos stated, sipping his fancy coffee.

    "Hmmm, well now, does that mean you don't want to not be a virgin anymore?" I teased.

    Carlos nearly sputtered on his drink. "Man, this meeting's going to be awkward enough to write in a report."

    I leaned forward. "Might as well make it worth it. And don't worry, there's nothing you can write about me that Luccio hasn't seen." I winked.

    Carlos stared. "But... you were a guy... when you were with her..."

    "I wasn't talking about my experiences with her," I purred.

    Covering up a momentary pause, Carlos gave a cocky grin. "Trying to make her jealous?"

    "We're still friends, and she made sure I kept my job. Turns out I'm not the first nonhuman Warden."

    "Oh?" Carlos asked.

    "Yes, there were a couple Changlings a century or so back from Finland. Nymphs of some type."

    "Ah, so if you want to stay in the human-only club it pays to be a pretty lady?"

    I waggled three fingers. "That's thrice you've called me pretty."

    "And does that have a special effect with your fae-ness?" Carlos finished his drink.

    "You didn't demand anything three times." I ran a finger over his hand. "Shame."

    "Oh?" He glanced up and looked at a wall-clock. I could see his mental gears shifting the time-zone from... whatever time zone New Zealand used to Pacific. Huh, why did the North American west coast get to be the Pacific time Zone?

    There's like a whole ocean, the biggest even, to have time zones in.

    "We've both got stuff to do, and I really can't keep you," he admitted.

    I smirked.

    Carlos coughed. "I mean I shouldn't tie you up."

    "Now that was on purpose." I sighed and pulled back. "At least you weren't a real tease, it's not like we had any real fun, no ice water, no snow, no... ropes," I smirked. The Winter Lady had gotten me a replacement unicorn mane rope, which, given what the last one I had ended up being used for...

    Let's just say that Maggie's late, and half vampire, mother started out in a tough spot and that rope had a couple of purposes, especially after she got better.

    As a token from the Winter Lady to her... Knight, that is to her succubus knight, it was very appropriate. From the perspective of our relationship before, either of us got all winter-fied, it might have been a bit awkward, but not now.

    Gauging my expression, Carlos gave a cocky grin. "I suppose we might have a little bit more time before we both have to get back home."

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

    "How was your date?" Andi teased as she opened the door to her car.

    I told the buxom werewolf to meet me across from an alley that meandered to the back of an old canning plant. The ruby my mother had left me contained all her knowledge of the Ways to travel the NeverNever. Which was how I was able to amble over to New Zealand and back in the time it took to walk a few blocks.

    Despite that magical advantage, I was still a bit... late. I shifted my hips as I took the seat.

    "It wasn't a date," I pouted as I eased into the front seat and smoothed my skirt down.

    Putting the car in gear, she eyed me with a thoughtful expression. "You're not denying it."

    "How do you know?"

    She pulled onto the street. "You're not all 'everything must burn' angry or 'we have to save the orphan puppies' hero mode, thus you probably didn't run into a bad guy. So...."

    "Fine, I ran into Carlos." I had managed to stop pouting, honest.

    "Ah, so was it a date?"

    "Just coffee. Well... cheesecake too."

    Andi glanced over and looked up and down my blouse. "Not quite, maybe something a bit tighter. And a shorter skirt, with garters underneath. Though you've got the hair for a good cheesecake portrait."

    I might have preened a bit on that last one. In part because my brother was actually a really good hairdresser. He no longer ran his salon, which was a shame, but if I wheedled him enough, he could work on my hair. Though, it had started as a way to get Thomas to do something nice for Justine.

    Their relationship was... complicated. Beyond him being a White Court Vampire, and her... well, let's just say that having her life force nibbled away actually gave her a degree of mental stability. And that was not even getting into the complications her being pregnant brought to the table.

    Given all that, Thomas giving her a nice spa day, a personal spa day, or two, was the least he could do to help her. That I could get my hair taken care of was a mere side benefit.

    Andi tapped her fingers on the wheel. "You're thinking about your hair aren't you?"

    "Am not!"

    She snorted. "You are such a girl, Dresden. It's a wonder you're not obsessed with shoes and chocolate."

    "Do you know how hard shoes are to get for someone my height?"

    "Where do you get your shoes from? Does Karrin, or someone, order them online for you?"

    "I know few cobblers. I've made an arrangement with them."

    "Cobblers?" Andi smirked. "How delightfully old world."

    I gave a little smile. "That's about right."

    "You went out to a cafe with a handsome man, that's why you were late?"

    "It was just coffee!"

    "Not disputing the handsome?" Andi teased.

    I snorted. "Your words, not mine."

    "Well, we're on the same page." Andi pulled onto highway onramp. "I mean Carlos? If I wasn't in a relationship...."

    "I'd have already had fun with you or Butters," I muttered.

    "Why pick?" Andi teased.

    "Or can be both! It's not the exclusive or. What should I have said you and or Butters?"

    She shook her head. "Nerd."

    I laughed.

    "Are we going to keep talking about shoes and cute boys, or get on with business?"

    I coughed. "I presume your research paid off, and you got a lead on Balducci and that's where we're going?"

    "You could say that," Andi smirked. "Look in the glove box."

    Opening it, I pulled out a manila folder filled with a handful of news reports, license data, academic papers, certificates and a few other odds and ends. I started reading. "Huh... are you sure about this?"

    "Half that came from leads based on the stuff he put up on his business' own website."

    "And the rest from Bob's help?" I asked. Butters had custody of the spirit of intellect who lived in a human skull.

    Andi paused and gave a vaguely guilty look before she shook her head and concentrated on shifting to the fast lane. "Nah, this was all me."

    "Okay, not to second guess what you found on Balducci but what kind of man goes to both clown college and the University of Chicago to study psychology?"

    "Not just any clown college, he was at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College."

    "Yeah, right out of high school, class of '96 a bit before they closed. From there started studying stage magic," I flipped to another page. There was an article with him entertaining at a hospital. The man looked younger, but it matched his Yellow page ad. "He's serious about it."

    "He did go to the Harvard of clowning..."

    I snorted. "A PI license, a Professional Counselor license, and can juggle chainsaws while wearing big floppy shoes? I can see were these qualifications are going and I'm not sure I like it. Hmm, he also learned under a stage magician while at Barnum and Bailey"

    "Trying to help people?"

    "Maybe. Most PI's don't also work as shrinks. Though... there is a lot of psychology to this job..." I gave her a sidelong glance. "Still... a clown..."

    "He doesn't seem to do much clown stuff these days."
    "Well, kids don't like clowns as much, so he goes for a more..." I exhaled. "Magical persona." I closed the dossier. "And where are we going?"

    Andi gave a toothy grin.

    The dread in me grew. "No..."

    "Well, since you refuse to do kid's birthday parties..."

    I shook my head. "There's one upside to this."

    "Oh?"

    "Yeah, he's been working for decades. First in Arizona, then Wisconsin, then Salt Lake, and given the amount of time he's put into this at least he's not just some fly-by-night person."

    "He decided to come back to Chicago right after you... well... you closed your business? And instead of a real wizard he seems more like a party and stage magician?"

    "I'm back in operation! And I've got nothing against stage magic," I said a bit defensively. My father was a stage magician. He was not famous but he was good. And he had taught me a few things. That Balducci was a performer... an illusionist, made me feel a bit less annoyed at his interloping.

    Still, calling yourself a wizard in Chicago was really dangerous.

    "I know. You've got an office, business cards, phone book ads, and everything," Andi gave that toothy smile.

    I grumbled about competition from phony wizards.

    "Now, you can see what Balducci's all about."

    "You really want us to crash some kid's birthday party? How are we going to get into their house?"

    Andi laughed. "First of all, it's in park out in the 'burbs, second we have an in."

    "We do?"

    The werewolf gave a thin smile. "Well, you do... specifically the former partner of your... current partner."

    "These are Stallings' kids?" I frowned; I didn't think he had kids.

    "Niece and nephew."

    My frown deepened. The current head of Special Investigations might not be as clued into the supernatural as Murphy was, but he knew enough to make it more than a bit suspicious that his relations would hire one of Chicago's, self-proclaimed, wizards for a birthday party.

    "Well, let's crash a party." I leaned back. "I hope the cake's good at least."

    End Chapter 1

    And here we go, showing a bit of how Dresden is dealing with being a "frikin' demon".
    Also a bit to show more of Dresden's "priorities" when it comes to running a business."

    Thanks to DCG, Ellf, Kevin D Hammel, Henry Stickman, and J.St.C.Patrick for their help with the corrections. Special thanks to Patrick for going through this chapter the weekend as it was posted!
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2019
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 2
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
    http://fukufics.com

    C&C as always is wanted.

    This takes place after Blood Debts (book 5) but before Bonding Allure (book 6)

    Chapter 2: Cake Walk

    The park was.... well it was a modern suburban park, which meant it was more of a flat rectangle of grass with a few trees planted in a half-hearted manner. It lacked the established fountains and vegetation and paths of a proper, or at least fancy, city park, but I supposed it might be less... sketchy at night.

    Then again, the Fomor were getting frisky everywhere, not to mention human predators knew how to use cars.

    Still, it was a nice day; it felt like spring had come early and a couple dozen of kids screamed and played around the park. They were loosely corralled by a bunch of harried parents. Some of the kids looked a bit pale and their mothers were on nose blowing duty. There was probably a bug was going around. A couple picnic tables had been commandeered for drinks, snacks, and a sequestered cake pile of presents I might have smiled.

    "I know that look," Andi murmured.

    "What look?"
    "You're wishing Maggie were here," Andi said as we walked around the perimeter of the park. At least she was pretty good at the casual surveillance thing.

    "Maybe," I shook my head. I never got a party like this as a kid. "What's the deal?"

    Andi nodded to a cluster of people at the center of the park. "Perna family, wife Judy, husband Hector, eldest daughter is Jill, thirteen, which is why she looks like she's being tortured by lameness. It's the birthday of the twins Tiffany and Karl; nine as of today."

    And that.... I looked over to the man at the head of the crowd. He had a cleared space around him and most of the attention was on him. And why not? Balducci the Illusive was in full wizarding regalia of dapper pinstripe suit, long-tailed coat, fedora with glossy green hatband and crisp white gloves.

    Those gloves were deftly catching and releasing half a dozen flaming skewers. Giving a beaming smile, he was saying something as he juggled.

    "That's not as impressive as it looks?" Andi asked.

    "There's a trick to it," I said and Listened. It was hard to cut through the chatter of the audience, but I could focus on hearing Balducci and Balducci alone.

    In the flesh, he was very well preserved. He was a bit older than me, but it looked like he too better care of himself.

    Better than I did when I was human. His cheekbones and strong chin made him look distinguished and his dirty blonde hair was cut short and helped give him a calculatedly rakish look.

    "Now kids, the trick to juggling is you need to work your way up to it." His voice was resonant and carried well. I hardly needed to use my ability.

    "The easy way is to start with torches not on fire," Balducci said.

    "What about chainsaws?" one of the kids, a cynical looking brunette girl demanded, pointing to one.

    "Oh, those?" Laughing, Balducci turned while still flipping the torches. "Here's the secret." He gave a grin that was conspiratorial and full of mirth, it drew everyone in. "They make a lot of noise, but the chains have been removed."

    "But then they wouldn't cut anything," the girl pouted before coughing.

    "That's why it's a trick." Balducci paused to hold one of the torches in his left hand while juggling the remaining in his right. "But this is real fire."

    There was a.... well his patter was charismatic. And that was part of being a stage performer. And even without any magic, that was a magic of its own.

    Fascinated, the girl went a bit closer. The rest of the kids were also enrapt, at least they weren't entranced, or, Stars and Stones, enthralled.

    "Hey... careful," Balducci laughed and flicked the torch out of his hand and up into the air. He tried to switch to juggling two-handed but there was a slight bobble.

    It was a minor thing; just a bit too much wrist in the flip. And the correction was minor too. All the torches were rotating, twisted in midair, but one, the one that would have fallen on the audience instead arced back and fell into his waiting hand.

    I frowned. That was a bit of kinetomancy.

    "Fancy meting you here," a voice interjected.

    I turned and saw a man light years away from Balducci's carefully maintained image. His suit was rumpled and a bit ill fitting, his haircut was... well my brother would not cry over seeing it... much.

    But his dark eyes were intelligent, and scanned over Andi and myself.

    He was also a cop. Specifically, the head of the Chicago PD's Special Investigations division. It was the branch dedicated to cleaning up, or more generally covering up, supernatural problems that managed to get the city's attention.

    Murphy used to run SI, but after helping me on a case she ended up demoted, and then, years later after helping me on another case, she ended up being fired.

    This man was her partner.

    "Stallings," I bowed my head.

    "Dresden is it? Halley Dresden that is?" he asked in that cop voice that implied he was still making up his mind on if I was officially a troublemaker or not.

    "Yes, taking over the business of my cousin!" I said with forced cheer.

    "Right," Stallings drew the word out. "And you are?" he asked Andi.

    "Andi Macklin, this is Lieutenant John Stallings. Stallings, this is Andi," I said with a bright smile. Okay, I might have flashed some teeth.

    "Ah, you're Miss Macklin." He eyed us. "Murphy's mentioned you before. Both of you."

    "Only positive things, I hope," I brightly said. Hey, I had dimples now, might as well use them.

    He grunted. Specifically, the cop grunt for "Maybe she did. Maybe she didn't." Cops practically have a whole language of grunts, sighs, side-eye looks, and squints. It was a dialect they shared with enlisted troops and was in the same linguistic neighborhood as the varied non verbal communications of mechanics, electricians, firefighters, plumbers, and paramedics.

    "The question is what you're doing here?"

    "Judy's my kid sister. I'm here for my niece and nephew's birthday." He nodded to the crowd around Balducci. "Now, what are you doing here?"

    "It's a public sidewalk," I offered.

    He chewed his lip. A bit of worry flashed over his face before he concealed it. "Sure? Because Miss Macklin left me a message. She made it sound like you had a professional interest."

    I looked to Andi.

    She sighed. "I told you I had an in."

    Stallings adjusted his coat. "See, it makes a man think when both of Chicago's professional... wizards are at my niece and nephew's birthday party. Not to mention when one of Karrin's friends from the Better Future Society leaves me a message about it."

    And I placed the worry. "What's wrong with your niece and nephew?"

    Stallings' look was skeptical. "You're both gonna fight over this?"

    I held up a hand. "Hey, I don't do kid's parties and I'm not therapist or a counselor . I'm just a private detective... who happens to be a wizard. I'd be happy to give all birthday and bar mitzvah and events over to this clown."

    "He actually is one. Degree and everything," Stallings noted with a wry smile.

    Of course Stallings did a background check on Balducci. The man was nothing if not thorough. He was the type to cross-index by country the shelves of chronologically sorted National Geographics in his den.

    "Yeah, he can handle all that stuff: juggling, balloon animals, even pinatas; much as I love hitting stuff with sticks until candy comes out. But if there's a real problem, well, a real supernatural problem. You're not going to want flashy Patch Adams over there."

    The cop eyed me. "You've got Dresden's shtick down, I'll give you that."

    "She is smarter than he ever was," Andi stated.

    I glared at her. That was offensive... I think.

    Stallings rubbed his forehead. He then gave me another scan. Sure, I was carrying a big chunk of carved wood, but my blouse and skirt were nicer than the t-shirt and jeans that I would bum around in before.

    Even my duster was a bit more fashionable and fitted. Then there was my whole pentacle choker; the way my hair was fluffed and my makeup... Well, it was less makeup and more my that natural complexion came in tinges of blue instead of a Caucasian human's tinges of red and pink.

    "Honestly, I'm hoping this is something he can solve," the cop nodded to Balducci, who had stopped his juggling and was now doing an interlocking ring routine.

    I paused to watch. The guy was pretty good at it. Linking rings was one of my father's favorite bits when he did stage magic. He was better than Balducci, but maybe not by much.

    "How'd you know something was wrong?" I asked.

    Stallings scanned the group and looked over his relatives. "Month ago, I visited and noticed Karl was a bit listless, Tiffany seemed a down as well. Judy said she had heard from the school nurse that there was a bug going around and that the kids were to be watched for symptoms, given fluids, watched, if anyone got real bad take them out for a few days."

    "But?"

    "Well, they got better, but something was still off."

    "Bad enough to get Murphy involved?" I asked.

    Stallings' face clouded. I could see why. Sure, he trusted Murphy, and he knew she was the more action-oriented when they were partners. But that had cost her her job, and Special Investigations was his domain now. And from what I saw, he trained up his cops well, emphasizing teamwork, and tried to encourage flexible minds.

    Still, he wasn't sure if this was something Murphy could have helped with.

    "Neither one's been that sick since. Hardly anyone's missed school, no one in the hospital," Stallings chewed his lip. He was a man who liked things to fit together to at least make sense.

    And what would a rational, sensible man do when faced with a mystery? Get data.

    "But... you leaned on Judy to get them tested? Maybe some blood work?" I asked glancing back ad the kids. Balducci had finished the ring routine and was now sitting on one of the picnic tables doing some card tricks to a smaller group.

    A group that I noticed included the cynical redheaded girl and the Perna twins.

    Stallings nodded at me, giving that opaque look. "Inconclusive. And I sent it to the same company our medical examiners use."

    "What kind of inconclusive? Because I'm guessing if the tests didn't work, or if the docs found some mystery things in the kids' blood you'd have hatted up and called Murphy."

    Stallings pointed a finger at me. "He must've taught you everything he knew."

    "Who?" I blinked. "Oh, yeah; Dresden sure did."

    Andi sighed.

    The cop murmured. "And I figured you'd ask about blood."

    I glared but neither huffed nor stomped a foot. "It's a normal question." He better not be assuming I'm some sort of vampire.

    "So... with nothing scary in the bloodwork, you might just be worried over a lingering cold bug?" Andi prompted giving me a warning look.

    Stallings went back to the skeptical cop look. He was good at it. That he had run Special Investigations for years, and been partnered with Murphy for even longer also contributed.

    "It was Judy hiring the clown that pushed me over," Stallings glanced to Balducci who was now teaching the twins how to make a card disappear and reappear.

    "But you think he's a fraud?" I watched Balducci's dexterity. He was a natural.

    "Maybe not a real wizard like you.... and your cousin," Stallings added with a smirk. "But Judy still paid for a birthday counselor."

    "Is she... clued in?" Andi asked.

    Stallings' attention went from me to Balducci and snorted. "Hector's a good man, great father, but he's a corporate tax accountant, all numbers. Anything beyond that's..."
    "A bit out of his comfort zone?" I asked with a light smile.

    The comment seemed to go over his head. People could be so clueless. "Come on, you're already nosing around," Stallings said, leading us into the park proper.

    Watching the kids, my smile grew. Sure, Balducci was teaching the twins and their friends magic, but the Perna parents had pulled out the cake. And when given a choice between card tricks and cake, most kids didn't even hesitate.

    Though one of the twins had given him a paper plate with a slice of darkly frosted red velvet cake before going back.

    Holding a fork, Balducci looked up. Huh, the guy even ate with those silly gloves on. Maybe they were more than just show.

    "Ah, Lieutenant Stallings!" he said giving a bright easy smile. "And who are these lovely ladies?"

    "Well, this is Andi and..." I blinked. Right. I'm a lovely lady, too now. It was still awkward to think of myself in Andi's league in terms of appearance. Yes, I was not as buxom as the redhead, but I was willowy and could effortlessly be all kinds of exotic and goth.

    "I'm Dresden... Halley Dresden."

    "Ah, the competition." Balducci stood and gave a shallow but theatrical bow. "My condolences for your cousin. He was a good man."

    "You've met him?" Stallings asked before I could.

    "Only by reputation." In person, Balducci was... not quite smarmy but he was not quite as charming as he thought he was. Then again, maybe he did have a bit of a silver tongue, magically speaking.

    Stallings snorted.

    I gave a matching grin. If he really knew my reputation, Chicago would be the last place Balducci would be.

    "You're worried," he noted, to Stallings forking some cake.

    "Oh?" the cop adjusted his plainer and far drabber suit.

    "I know she's not here to poach my job." He waved a gloved hand towards me and a business card appeared between his fingers.

    "Yeah, yeah, I don't do parties," I took the offered card. It was elaborately gilt and had a shorter version of his yellow page ad's tagline. More relevantly, it had a slight tinge of magical energy.

    "Far be it for me to encourage direct competition, but you'd be great at it," Balducci gave a brad smile.

    "What's that supposed to mean?" I glowered.

    "That you'd look great in fishnets and sparkly bodice," Andi stated.

    "Obviously, but I wouldn't be the magician's assistant. He's the newcomer here! I- um... Dresdens have been working in Chicago for nearly two decades!"

    "You two can have a magic duel or measure wands or whatever later." Stallings pinched the bridge of his nose.

    I might have tapped the side of my staff against the edge of the picnic table.

    Stallings lowered his voice "What about my niece and nephew?"

    It was like a switch flipped. Gone was the gregarious stage presence as Balducci sobered. "There's something awry."

    Taking out a notepad, Stallings nodded. "Anything more specific?"

    Balducci leaned back. "They're anxious, tired, maybe a bit scared. And it's not just Jill and Karl. There's at least half a dozen other kids. Very similar symptoms. " His tone grew more clinical. "Lieutenant, it doesn't quite match domestic abuse, and I didn't spot any obvious physical bruising, but my examination was just casual. Have they been looked at by a doctor? Recently?"

    "They have," Stallings said while taking notes. "Can you give me the names and descriptions the other children you suspect?"

    Balducci did. It turns out that redhead was named Rebecca Dagan.

    "How'd you know to ask if they've seen a doctor?" Andi asked the stage magician.

    He gave a sad little smile. "In my job, when a police officer asks certain questions you know where his mind is going."

    Tapping fingers on my staff, I decided to go for it. "Did you detect anything magical on them?"

    Balducci blinked.

    Right. He had some power, but he clearly was not "clued in" at least not fully. Hells Bells, he was openly calling himself a wizard. And since the Wardens did not know about him, then he was either playing a wizarding "grey market" like Elaine was, or he really had no idea about the White Council of Wizards.

    Which were a rather humorless group who did not like people, with any level of magical aptitude, publicly declaring themselves wizards, especially when said proclaimers were not actually members of their secret club.

    Balducci glanced to Stallings and Andi. His expression was questioning.

    I laughed. "Look, Booster Gold, I'd bet folding money they've seen more supernatural stuff than you have."

    He flicked a card around his fingers, then nodded. "No bet."

    "You're aware?" Stallings asked.

    "There are things I... question," Balducci admitted.

    I exhaled. "I suppose I can check them over." Looking people over for magical trauma, magical predation, was never fun. Especially if I used my Wizard's Sight to examine them.

    Anything I Saw using that ability would stay with me permanently fresh and vivid in my memory. But there were other, less effective but less scarring, things I could try first.

    Balducci nodded. "As I said, I did not see any obvious trauma, but I only had a bit of time to talk with them."

    Nodding to the picnic table still swarming with kids. There was a quieter spot a few yards away where the twins and some of their friends had retreated to enjoy their cake. "I suppose I can get some cake."

    Stallings frowned. "I'll introduce you," he said we made our way over.

    "We going with a cover story?"

    He snorted. "You're a private eye and department consultant."

    "You know I technically haven't worked for you yet, but I'd be eager for the business," I purred.

    Stallings snorted. "I've worked with Dresden before, as long as your fees aren't much higher than his we'll do fine."

    "Higher?"

    "Yeah, Harry kept the same hourly rate and per deim for over a decade. I'm surprised he never renegotiated it with Karrin," Stallings shrugged. "Not that she'd complain to him about it."

    "That little shrimp," I growled, playfully of course. It was my own fault. And SI, being the unwanted cast-off department of the Chicago Police was always running a short budget. The kicker was that the Warden payscale was also well behind inflation, like decades behind. Not that they didn't have their own bureaucratic tricks..

    Stallings gave a contained smile. "I'm sure she can make it up to you," he dryly said as we closed into the party.

    "John!" Judy Perna smiled. While he had the same gleaming intelligent eyes as her sibling, her haircut was much better. She took after her brother, though more aesthetically pleasing and not quite as overtly world-weary and cynical "You came, Tiffany and Karl will be so happy."

    Stallings pulled out a couple of brightly wrapped envelopes.

    Judy narrowed her eyes. "You didn't..."

    "The tickets weren't that hard to get."

    Hector ambled over. He as a good half a head shorter than his wife, but the blocky accountant looked like he bench-pressed those ledgers and had an easy going smile. Spotting, Stallings' gifts he sighed. "If you got them tickets to the convention, then you're going to be their chaperone."

    He then looked to me. "And who is this?"

    Judy brightened. "Yes, John. Introduce us to your lovely friend. Are you..."

    Stallings laughed. "Oh no, she's a consultant from work."

    "A cop?" Judy smiled. "She does remind me of that tiny blonde partner of yours."

    "No, Ma'am, I'm a private investigator: Halley Dresden." I vacillated between bowing and offering my hand. Casual physical contact was awkward enough as a Practitioner, but add in succubae powers...

    Her skin was cool and she felt... well Thomas was more in tune with his Hunger's desires and the "flavors" of humans. She seemed very nice and... I felt she could be rather fun and that Hector was a lucky man.

    There was a sparkle to her eye, when she looked to him, and a tingle to her hand. It was a minor prickle, below even that of someone in the Paranet. Probably not enough to really cultivate a latent ability. Though it might mean her kids could have gotten something, magic did tend to follow matrilineal lines.

    Judy tilted her head. "From the Yellow-pages."

    "Yes, Ma'am." And William and the other Alphas thought I was old fashioned for keeping that ad for all these years.

    "Please, I'm not that much older than you."

    I bowed my head. In all honesty I was older than Mrs. Perna, but... succubus.

    Hector nodded. "Yeah... you're the other wizard. The one who doesn't do birthday parties." The accountant shook his head. "Do you know how much revenue you're leaving on the table? Entertaining is bread and butter for stage magicians."

    "I have plenty of other work," I said, maybe a bit defensively.

    "And that brought you here?" Judy asked me but then gave Stallings a critical look.

    I paused. I could not answer with the truth. Saying "I came here because I'm jealous of some clown making a mockery of my wizard ad" would not endear me to the people who had hired said clown.

    Or the cop who thought I was here out of a concern of supernatural predation on his niece and nephew.

    That was not fair. By pretending to be a wizard, in a world filled with things who wanted to kill wizards, Balducci might have been playing with fire, and not the kind he could juggle. But the guy at least seemed to care about kids.

    "She's here because I asked her to take a look at the twins." Stallings said with a tiny bit of impatience directed my way.

    "Ah, so charging extra for child services is a common thing among wizards?" Hector grumbled.

    "Hey, I leave that to the professionals!" I assured. I might have glanced back at the one professional, or at least credentialed counselor, who was at this moment was pulling a long scarf out from behind a kid's ear.

    Hector snorted.

    Stallings shot me a tiny frown but exhaled. "Just let her talk to the twins. She's seen a lot of stuff working for the department."

    "You think they're..." Judy's forehead crinkled as her eyes gained a worry she could not quite articulate, a worry she was not able to manifest.

    "I don't know," I spread my hands. "But I will look into it."

    "How much?" the accountant asked, his dusky features... well... calculating. He reminded me of a stouter, more mature Carlos. Hector might not believe in the supernatural, but he knew there was something strange going on.

    "I'll cover it," Stallings sighed.

    Part of me wanted to protest that we had not actually argued the fees, but then I spotted the twins off to one side with their cake. The cynical redhead, Rebecca and another mop-headed boy was with them. The twins were looking a the stack of presents with a palpable longing.

    But not a familiar one. My father had died when I was young, my mother even younger, as such I had grown up in orphanages. My childhood was challenging.

    As I closed in, I considered an icebreaker. But then I got distracted by cake and went to the table right next to the covetous quartet.

    Putting my staff down, I looked over the cake and then with a vicious smile found my target, cut out a slice rich red velvet cake with gleaming dark frosting, and gently deposited it on a paper plate. I filled a plastic cup with water.

    "Hey! You can't take a corner piece!" Karl cried.

    "Yeah it's got all the extra frosting-flowers," his sister Tiffany added. She then tilted her head. "Who are you anyway? You're much... fancier than most of Mom's friends."

    "I'm just a bit overdressed." I stepped one side to the other idly swishing my skirt and stuck my fork into the cake. "Oh, that's good."

    "Mom made it." Tiffany's pride was a bit muted.

    "Why are you here?" Rebecca asked suspiciously. "I know you're not the mom to any of the other kids here."

    "Because I just got here?" I asked. The kids were.... yeah something was off. Sure they were excited about cake and presents and a... magician. But it was alike a wet blanket was over all of them: dulling their energy and making them a bit more uncomfortable and listless.

    The redhead tapped her chin. "You might have dropped your kid or kids off early, but you didn't walk up to any of us kids when you got here. You went right to the adults."

    "Plus we know our friend's moms," Tiffany added.

    "Clever," I forced myself to smile and take a sip of water. "No I'm a friend of your uncle John."

    "He has a friend like you?" Karl blinked, shock pulling him out of his torpor.

    "Work friend," I clarified. "I'm Halley Dresden," this time I managed to get my cover name said without a hitch and held out my hand.

    Karl looked at my long fingers for a confused moment and took it.

    I gave him a quick shake. The kid felt... muffled. There was also a prickle of power, a bit more than his mother's. "Nice to meet you Karl. And you're Tiffany?" I asked shaking her hand.

    Her power was like her brother's identically so: thready and minor. Maybe it would grow more, maybe not. Puberty was a when a lot of Practitioners bloomed. But if their mother had a twinkle and these two had a spark, then maybe the next generation...

    "You're on the vice squad?" Rebecca asked, being way too snarky for a pre-teen. She was also cheeky and grabbed my hand first. I flummoxed a bit at that. At least my reaction seemed to brighten her mood.

    And I was four for four with minor powers today.

    "Vice?" I frowned. I was wearing a full length skirt and a blouse with all but the top button done up. Aside from my hands and face I wasn't showing any skin. I took a moment to consider in abstract. Attractive woman plus friends with cop uncle.
    Yeah, someone could casually assume vice squad.

    And suddenly I got a lot more sympathetic for Murphy. She did not look like the typical cop either. And she had it worse off because she's short, and cute as a button, like a favored aunt. Where I'm all tall and gothy and more than a bit fae.

    Putting my cup down, I returned my attention to the kids. There was something off about them. Stallings was right to think illness was about. Balducci, curse his juggling hands, was also onto something. These kids weren't scared, not exactly, but they were... skittish.

    Eating more cake, I frowned.

    "What's got you worried?" Karl asked.

    "I'm not worried!" I replied.

    "Please you look as guilty as my dog is after she's knocked the garbage can over, but without the curled up tail," Rebecca added.

    I frowned, my dog, Mouse never looked guilty quite like that. Course he was a good dog and would never knock over the garbage can. Though he had pretended to be more injured due to a gunshot wound than he really was.

    "It just seems... strange. I mean aren't you kids having fun?" I exhaled and went for it. "You seemed happy enough earlier when Balducci was doing his magic, and he's really good at it. It's not the... wizard, and it can't be the cake. So, I gotta wonder what's wrong?"

    I looked around and maybe a third, maybe a half, of the other kids in attendance were not at their best. They couldn't all have minor powers, but I didn't like the odds I was seeing. This was all kinds of wrong.

    Granted, I was grading on the curve of "pre-teens at a birthday party loaded with sugar" but a bunch of them seemed mellow, almost morose.

    "A bug was going around school, some kids were sick," Tiffany said.
    "Yeah, but not the fun kind, hardly anyone missed school, we didn't," Karl added with a point.

    Rebecca and the other boy eyed me cautiously. "If you're going to ask us questions the least you can do is show us a trick," she stated.

    "Yeah, Balducci is fun. Not at all creepy, like a clown," Tiffany said.

    I smiled the guy was right to rebrand. "A trick?" My eye went down to the slice of cake and cup of water.

    Karl shook his head. "No 'Becca , she works with uncle John, she doesn't know magic like the Balducci the Illusive."

    I might have growled at that. I forced a smile, without teeth, and exhaled. "I know a few tricks," I admitted. Bob would be laughing his ass off, if the intellect-spirit-living-in-a-Skull had an ass. He was the one who had encouraged me to sell love potions, be an entertainer, and do kids parties.

    And here I was...

    I dipped the tips of my fingers in the cup of water.

    The kids' interest was raised until Rebecca broke the spell. "What kind of trick?" she asked with open caution.

    Smart kid.

    "Yeah what kind?" Tiffany added.

    "Just some sparkles," I assumed swirling the water in the cup. My nails started to glow with a deep sapphire opalescence as water began to creep up my fingers.

    "How girly," the other boy said, earning an elbow to his side from Rebecca.

    "What do you expect from a woman as pretty as her?" Tiffany said.

    "Using water for the sparkles?" Rebecca asked pointing to my fingers which were now practically gloved in water.

    "Hey what is going on with that?"

    "Magic," I said and taking up my staff with my left hand, flicked my right arm up in a precise arc. Twisting my wrist and spreading my hands I cried "Arctis!"

    Water droplets sprayed out well above the kids and in an instant all froze into tiny, glittering motes of ice.

    "Whoa!" the twins cried as the four kids were enveloped in a miniature, but much more glittery snowstorm.

    "Optio," I stated as the runes on my staff started to flare and added a tiny bit of Soulfire. A gift from an archangel, SoulFire allowed me to use a bit of my own soul in magical workings. Think of it as an enhancement; like rebar in poured concrete or a catalyst in reactions. It helped with my evocation and my thaumaturgy and really any magic I did.

    The first time I had used it my force spell had manifested as an illusionary silver hand.

    I had used a similar spell frequently in the past to reveal magical connections and effects. Finely quartz dust stored in a packet with runes inscribed using ink that had said dust as a component was my previous go-to method.

    It was robust and not that expensive as spell components went. However, the grinding and inscribing took time, and I was still rebuilding my cache of magical components. It had taken over a decade for me to get a passable wizard's laboratory build up, and then the Red Court had burned it down in one night.

    Stupid vampires.

    However, with my wintry powers I could make my own "powder". And that was the key bit. Whether quartz or ice or, if you didn't care about the mess, ink the goal was to fill a space with a fine, but charged, medium that would then adhere to certain magical effects.

    Think of it like dusting for finger-prints. The SoulFire enhanced the ice crystals and tied in the whole spell giving it an extra oomph.

    It was a good thing the kids were delighted by my little display. It helped distract them from my own reaction.

    I had my confirmation. There was Black Magic here. The ice glinted with more iridescence than one would expect on a sunny day like this. Which was because it was interacting with their auras. The kids' auras were... weakened. The extra color and flare that came from, even their minor, powers were... well not quite muted but in a higher contrast. It was like going from a professionally printed high gloss comic book, to a cheaply stamped pulp. The colors were there but they were cruder.

    There was something wrong with them, and the explanation came from the threads of black sorcery tied around their upper arms. Strangely, they seemed quiescent. There was no seething or throbbing with dark power. Inactive like this it was hard to tell exactly what they were made to do.

    They looked dead, inert. But so did some downed power lines. Just because it's not sparking doesn't mean it isn't a bad idea to touch it. Speaking of a downed line, I followed the sorcerous threads and saw that they just... terminated.

    At least this probably was not Fomor doing. Those toads would snatch up anyone with even a twinkle of power, and plenty of people without any. They would not leave people with... tracking devices, probes... I was not really sure what those bits of black magic in them were. Other than they could have been a lot more invasive.

    My confusion outlasted the tiny bits of ice and they rapidly melted before the runes on my staff faded away.

    The kids were still animated and I noticed I had attracted a bit of attention, and not just from the other children attending the party.

    Right, magic in a public park. A few of the parents looked worried, and Stallings had squeezed the bridge of his nose.

    Then one of the adults clapped. "Marvelous!" Balducci said as he stepped up. "A wonderful bit of sleight of hand."

    Hector's attention went from me to Balducci. The accountant's expression calculating. "How do you sleight of hand snow?"

    "I would never reveal a lady's secrets." Balducci gave an elegant bow towards me and then extended a gloved hand. He twisted his fingers and there was a snapping noise as bright green flames sparked up out of his palm. He winked

    Ah, so that was his game. I crossed my arms. "It's not hard, it's just chemistry. Mr. Wizard did the same trick all the time on his show."

    Stallings had approached and seemed about to correct me on that. Of course, he grew up watching Mr. Wizard. "Miss Dresden, Mr. Balducci, a moment?"

    Gathering up my cake, I nodded and followed the two away from the others.

    "You found something," Stallings stated once we had some privacy. We were near a surprisingly low-profile grey van that had commercial plates. By the way Balducci rummaged around in the back to put a few more tricks up his sleeves, it had to be his.

    Honestly, I was surprised the sides weren't emblazoned with ads featuring his oh-so-mysterious face.

    Balducci adjusted his gloves. "I'm guessing it's outside of my expertise."

    I snorted. "Yeah, Black Magic. Someone's draining those kids, stealing their life, feeding off of them, something like that," I snarled. I kept secret, for now, that they had a little bit of power. I would have to tell Stallings later, depending on how puberty went for the Perna twins, I might have a couple more young protégées.

    Regardless, whoever was doing this, they were hunting in my territory. They were poaching.

    Pretending to ignore my outburst, Stallings rubbed his chin. "But doing it slow. They got sick but not too sick."

    Looking over the party, Balducci narrowed his eyes. "Making it last?"

    "Sure, there's plenty of... things who take their time with a source of food." And people with a bit of magical power... well that could give some extra flavor. If that's what they were after.

    "Things? What are we looking at here." Stallings asked.

    I held up a hand. "It could be anyone. Hells Bells, I once saw very similar, but stronger threads on another kid a few years back. It had knocked him out. Turns out some two bit human caster was draining the boy to regrow his hair."

    Stallings raised an eyebrow while Balducci laughed. I may have left out that the kid in question was the son of Bigfoot. Okay, he was the son of one of the Forest People and a human woman. Irwin was doing well and had made good use of his football scholarship and his succubus.... fiancee.

    Okay, she was White Court, but I couldn't hold that against her, even if her father was a complete asshole. Like a throw a few dozen ghouls at some wizard because you're angry that your little girl didn't sex her first boyfriend to death like a good little White Court vamp is supposed to.

    What can I say? The White Court was messed-up when it came to parenting and values.

    But given his father, Irwin was a ruggedly-handsome, extremely-large guy overflowing with energy. It made him a target to all sorts of people.

    He was, well, very appealing to.... Connie, and that was before one took her succubus-like side into account. Feeling a bit hungry, I took a bite of cake.

    "But you can recognize the caster if you see them do it?" Stallings continued

    "Huh?" I shook my head, distracted. "Sure, there's unique bits in the way whoever did this wove the spell."

    "What about getting it off the kids?" Balducci asked. "Stop it from hurting, from draining them."

    I nodded. Someone was adapting. "I can unweave it, but right now they're not being drained. Whoever is doing this would notice it the next time they come up to drain the kids, and they'll weave in new spells to drain 'em all over again."

    Looking a little bit smug, Andi sauntered up to us.

    "Another friend of the detective?" Balducci bowed to her.

    "Yes," I replied while Stallings gave a very cop frown.

    "This what a real wizard keeps in his van?" Andi looked through the open vehicle's open doors.

    I scoffed.

    "I may dabble..." Balducci coughed.

    "Sniff out any clues?"

    Andi narrowed her eyes at me. She then gave a very bright smile. "Please, my nose is only a bit better than yours."

    Huh. In wolf mode, Andi was, well, a wolf. And wolves had a sense of smell that was hundreds of times better than a human. And... okay. I'm not human anymore, but I don't think succubae were nearly that good...

    Right?

    I cocked my head to her and I got the feeling that both of us would have preferred to have our tails out for this covert conversation. The key thing was that Andi only had her super-nose if she slipped off and went fuzzy.

    And experienced werewolves were really quick at changing from human to wolf and back. So, I was really asking if she had used her time to sneak away and turn into a wolf to sniff things out.

    The buxom redhead shook her head. "I ambled about but didn't pick up anything too strange." She eyed me with a smile.

    Huh... what did I smell like to a werewolf, now?

    Knowing my luck, probably delicious.

    Fitting, so many things smelled way too delicious to me now. It was like constantly wandering around a high class Vegas buffet. I could take whatever I wanted, as long as I was willing to pay the price. My stomach, and a few other things, grumbled in hunger.

    "But there is something wrong here," Balducci sighed as he went back to rummaging around his van.

    "Oh?" Andi asked.

    I quickly filled her in with what I had discovered.

    "Hair?" Andi laughed.

    "Sure, a lotta guys really don't take to well to going bald," I glanced at the two men then down at myself. "Or so I'd heard."

    "There's a common element," Balducci noted.

    "They all go to the same school," Stallings noted.

    I exhaled. "Lotta options there, teachers, staff, fellow students, might not even bee the school proper. Maybe they all hang out at the same... where do kids hang out these days? Malls? Arcades? Malt-shops?"

    "It's a start," Stallings looked to Balducci. The cop seemed to weigh the ostentatiously dressed magician. "There might be more kids to interview."

    Balducci nodded. "Sure, but that's only part, Halley's the one who can really see what's wrong," he gestured towards me.

    "On a magical level." I eyed him. He was definitely not a skeptic. He also had some power, and wore gloves so I couldn't get an easy skin contact read on his power.

    But just because he knew magic was real did not mean he knew what he was doing. If he had any real experience he'd know calling himself a wizard would get the White Council very angry. Complete with a Warden knocking on his door telling him to knock it off, and telling him all about the Laws of Magic.

    And, technically, I was a Warden. I gave him a bright smile and finished off the last of my cake.

    "That looked really good. There anymore?" Andi asked.

    "Right by the table," I turned and gestured.

    A petite woman with short golden hair and a white blouse was over by the cake table talking to Hector and Judy before giving the twins a present.

    Both Tiffany and Karl perked up at that, and then let the woman examine them.

    "That their doctor?" I asked Stallings.

    He shook his head.

    I caught Andi's eye. "You wanted some cake?"

    With the sexy werewolf at my heel, I went back to the tables. Behind us I could hear Balducci closing up his van. Not every woman who stopped in and took interest in these kids was an inhuman predator.

    Present company excluded.

    But it did not hurt to check the woman out.

    And besides: cake.

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

    Going back to the picnic tables that the party had coalesced around, I got a better look of the woman. She was slight and petite with pageboy style golden hair. The bangs on the left side of her face were held back by a faux jade barrette in the shape of a foxtail. Deep green eyes peeked out from slim glasses. Between her Japanese features and short height, I was remained of my elder sister.

    Though this woman was less pale.

    And...

    I stepped up and gave the twins a big smile. "Karl, Tiffany, great party!" I said in a loud voice as I sauntered up taking as much "space" as I could. "Have you met my friend Andi? I was telling her about how great the cake was and she just wanted a piece"

    The Japanese woman turned to me and a gentle smile froze on her delicate features. She had none of the sharp cheekbones and chin-line of my biggest sister, but for a moment.

    The twins brightened. "Red velvet is my favorite," Tiffany said.

    "Good choice," I turned to the blonde and gave her a big bright smile. "Hi! I'm Halley, who are you?"

    Those eyes studied me moving from head to foot as her frown deepened. I could hear her mutter the name I had given her. "I am Mikki Saito," she bowed to me. "How do you know Karl and Tiffany?"
    "Friend of their uncle and competitor to the entertainment," I pointed to Balducci who had returned to the area in front of the tables.

    Saito gave the formally dressed magician a long look. She blinked then turned back to me.

    "Now..." I leaned on my staff. "How do you know 'em? Friend of the family?"

    "Miss Saito's our school nurse!" Tiffany said.

    Ah. My eyes narrowed. And my grip tightened. Wood creaked.

    Saito smelled human. But that did not mean much. A human Practitioner did something like this to Son-of-Bigfoot Irwin. And there were plenty of supernatural predators that could pass as human, albeit a rather pretty human.

    The White Court Vampires, for one, were very adept at hiding as human, to even careful examination. And few years back a group of Whites had taken a, murderous interest, in people with minor powers.

    And speaking of supernatural predators who could pass as pretty humans: there were at least two of us present.

    And Miss Saito could just be a concerned nurse coming in to look on her charges. Or she could be predator number three.

    I exhaled and focused on keeping my glamour up. It was easier to make sure if my face got flushed it did so in shades of red and not shades of blue. Stupid blue Winter demon blood. Even if Saito weren't human she might not be the one behind this.

    Thinking non-human equaled guilty was crazy-Warden thinking.

    I relaxed my grip and made my smile a bit less... aggressive. "That skirt really compliments your eyes, and I've got to ask what shampoo you use, your hair smells delicious."

    Saito blinked. "It's nothing special."

    "Nonsense," I leaned in and loomed over her. "It must also work well for dye, I can hardly see the dark roots."

    "Roots," Saito tilted her head.

    "You know, all the black strands you've left handing about. Oh there's one," I reached and plucked an imaginary errant hair.

    For an instant Saito tensed and the air hummed, but she drew back in and gave a concerned and angry look at me.

    Right, she was a player. A normal human would find someone plucking their hair to be an annoying violation of their personal space. Someone aware of magic would see taking a hair as an overt threat.

    Andi had slipped up to the side and was eating a slice of cake.

    "You." Saito's green eyes dilated.

    "Me." I could feel her body tensing up as fight or flight instincts ramped and she gave me a calculating look. "Kids can you go off and get the great and powerful Balducci some cake? He'd been eying seconds and told me he'd give you some magic cards and stuff if you did."

    The woman's bright smile flashed as she watched the kids amble away. "I had heard Dresden had claimed this ward. And rumors that..."

    "Was all pretty now?" Andi stated.

    I exhaled and tilted my head.. "Now.. Mikki have you been a naughty nurse?"

    Green eyes shifting to a calculating mode, she gave a sly smile. "Really? Will you cause a scene here? In public?"

    Looming over her, I leaned on my staff. "Gee... yeah. That might get the police involved." I flashed a bright smile. "And you're not the first warlock they've handled."

    Adjusting her glasses, Saito gave a light chuckle. "Oh... you are a delight."

    "And you're hurting kids."

    Her glare sharpened. "Incorrect." She turned and started walking away.

    She... she just left. Bad guy's can't just do that! We had to spar verbally, if not physically.

    Leaving Andi back with the kids, I went after her, catching up was easy due to my longer stride. "You think you can just run off?"

    Now across the street and in front of a cafe, she turned and faced me. "I know your reputation," she hissed. "If you were in my shoes you'd be running too."

    "If I were in those shoes my toes would be hating me. Really who wears pumps to a party in the park?" I waspishly asked. stepping forward.

    Saito blinked at me. "You really are of Her blood."

    I could hear the capitalization in the woman's voice. "Not you too... does everyone know about my grandmother?"

    The blonde took a step back. We were now at the mouth of a wide alley between the cafe and an heating air conditioning and plumbing company.

    I sniffed the air. She smelled human, but there was something... "Not just a player; not just some minor spell-slinger."

    Placing her hands behind her back, Saito gave a contemptuous stretch. She was just in the alley "You have no idea what you've stumbled onto."

    Oh, the Black Magic practitioner wanted to go into the alley. Well, I've played that song and dance before. I glanced down. The end of the alley was blocked by a high chain-link gate that went to storage lot full of racks of pipes, rows of air conditioners, and a couple parked vans. The gate was chained and padlocked and was tipped in razor wire.

    I guess even in the 'burbs people would steal. And pipes and AC units were rich in scrap metal.

    "Lady, you have no idea how often I've heard that." I echoed with a smile and stepped closer.

    Honestly, every two bit dark-power peddler liked to do that "you have no idea" bit. Now, as a Wizard, I could totally understand the raw joy that came with keeping a good secret.

    The nurse folded her hands in front of herself. Blinking at me, she played with thin silver rings on each thumb.

    "But I'm going to find out." My staff tapped the sidewalk as blue motes started to fall from the runes. "And we can do it the fun way or..." I smiled again showing some more teeth.

    "Fun it is!" Saito's hands split apart with a twang. I noticed two things at once. First those were not rings. Those were the pins to two grenades. A blinding horrific flash and snapping bang assaulted me.

    And showed the real downside to superhuman senses. Blinded and deaf, I shot forward but the second grenade was already billowing out a thick cloud of smoke that filled the alley. I had a star-filled vision of her turning tail and running.

    And then I learned the second thing. The blonde nurse was almost certainly not human. By the time the smoke cleared and my senses had recovered she was gone. Being able to run that fast, that far, in heels like that was a supernatural skill. One I had only seen high sidhe and certain vampires pull off.

    As I coughed, I glanced back to the park and noticed I had got some attention. Smoothing my skirt I eyed the spent grenade canisters and swore. I looked to the end of the alley. The two buildings had blank walls, and the eight foot tall chain-link gate was still locked... but it was shorter than the buildings to either side.

    "She vanished with a smoke bomb and bounded over a barb wire fence..." I swore again and rubbed some stars out of my eyes. Of all the cliches, it looked like I was dealing with a naughty nurse ninja.

    End Chapter 2

    Halfway and Dresden's starting to realize the scale of the problem she's stumbled into.

    Thanks to DCG, Ellf, Kevin D Hammel, Henry Stickman, and J.St.C.Patrick for their help with the corrections. I'm doing something a bit different as Patrick has given me leave to post this before he's given it a full check.
     
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2019
  4. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Typo. The word you want there is palpable not palatable.

    Palatable means tastes good or can be eaten. Palpable means can be sensed or felt.
     
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  5. Xaine123

    Xaine123 Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    Always good to see one off my favorite series update.
     
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  6. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Whoops. Thanks, I'll correct it. I could blame the cake having crossed my mental wires ^^;

    Thanks for the correction and liking the chapters!


    Nice! Glad you enjoyed it. Hope you like the 2nd half.
     
  7. steamrick

    steamrick Wisdom is in pursuit, but I'm faster!

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    I'm glad to see you're continuing with this plotline :)
     
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  8. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Excellent! Dresden/BlackStone/Halley is too fun of a character to abandon. So I figured I could give her some "short" adventures before she comes back into the main Return story.

    Thanks for enjoying and commenting!
     
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