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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
     
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2019
    steamrick likes this.
  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 suppose it might be less... sketchy at night.

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

    Still, it was a nice, if warm, day; it felt like spring had come early and a couple dozen of kids screamed and ran playing around the park; though with a bit less enthusiasm one might expect. Maybe it was the heat. 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 and a 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 took 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 meeting 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 birthdays and bar mitzvahs and other special 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 that my 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 at 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 broad 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 was 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."

    I then gestured 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 was 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 at 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 nervously 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 of 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 assured, 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 ground 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's 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 be 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 reminded 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 hanging 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 eyeing 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 guys 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 a 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 a storage lot full of racks of pipes, rows of air conditioners, and a couple of 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.

    Update: And now Pat's gone over it, with more than a few corrections for his great efforts!
     
    Last edited: Sep 8, 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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  9. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Updated chapter 2 with corrections.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 3
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    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 3: Smokescreen

    Miss Mikki Saito may have run off, but I had my ways. My skill with thaumaturgy was, for my age, exceptional. My tracking spell was the bread and butter of my detective business. Most of my mundane jobs were finding lost items and the like.

    However, I did not need magic to find Saito's house. All I needed was a friend in the CPD. Stallings was able to get her address with a few clicks on the police-issue laptop in his unmarked car.

    However, he and Balducci stayed back with his sister, brother-in-law and niece and nephew. See, cops had all sorts of arcane rules when it came to entering someone's house without permission. And they were going to track down other leads. Ones that were a bit less... felonious.

    So, it was really best to not have the head of Special Investigations... witnessing anything. As for Balducci... I doubted he was a good second story man.

    Either way, since he, as a licensed counselor, had credentials that gave him an in with the medical community. Thus, the legwork he was doing was to look into naughty nurse Saito's background and that of a few other people.

    Which left me standing alone in front of a house on the southern edge of Bucktown. Almost in Wicker Park, it was a stout two-story, peach brick building with double doors under a fanned green awing. There were trees between the sidewalk and road and the street was full of similar houses and square two story apartment buildings.

    It was squatter and far less cute than Murphy's little gingerbread style house, but there was a clean precise neatness to the place. It also did not give off any vibes of major bad mojo.
    Which meant that if Saito was doing dark rituals here, she was able to keep it on the down-low. Similarly, I was pretty sure there was no one in the house, but... it was not like my surveillance had been overly long, and there were ways for people to hide or even sneak in.

    It's not like I had access to several anonymous vans full of spooks in business casual, who could act as my flunkies. Not that I was jealous of my older sisters or anything.

    I openly approached the house. As of yet, there had been no indication of activity within, which was a good sign, given the timetable.

    There was a pair of trashcans on the curb. From the amount of stuff, either Saito had missed last week's pickup or she did not live alone, which confirmed the, disquieting, records Stallings had pulled up.

    If I had time, I would have gone through them. Laugh all you want, but dumpster-diving is a great way to get clues about people's habits, purchases, and routines. Sure, a sloppy person might toss out a receipt for an ill-gotten item, a note of a meeting, or some obvious clue.

    But all but the most paranoid will leave something in their garbage that can be used against them. Again, not to reference certain family members, but I knew a blonde who had all of her family's trash secured, shredded, burned, and scattered.

    Now, given that a skilled wizard could use various items as thaumaturgy components, tracking spells were the start of the fun a wizard could do if, say, she found a bandage covered in someone's fresh blood or hairs or fingernail clippings. Such paranoia was not exactly unwarranted.

    That was why nurse Saito freaked out when I pretended to grab a strand of her hair. She knew that with one of those it would be hard for her to hide from me.

    There were countermeasures: she could shave her head, use the right amulet, hide behind a ward, and so on.

    The wood doors were neat and clean.

    Holding my staff, I eyed the keyhole. Saito had invested in good locks and not the junk the hardware store sold, that anyone with a bit of wire and an instructional video could open. Locks, by and large, are very easy to defeat. Hells Bells, even I had a set of picks and could open most basic locks.

    Though, in my experience, most security was illusionary and worked more by the collective belief of people involved.

    Here's an easy example: get a reflective vest, a confident, but overworked, attitude, and a clipboard, and you can go just about anywhere. Add some tools and a ladder and the world is your oyster.

    Back to Saito... she had sprung for the good locks and had a set of those little security cameras above the door and the other entrances. Those were a known risk and had been a part of my entrance plan.

    Giving a wry smile, I knocked on the door.

    And a busty auburn-haired werewolf unlocked and opened the door. Andi was still adjusting her dress and had a few leaves in her hair from a tree near a ground floor bathroom window. It was too narrow for an adult human to fit through, but a fluffy wolf could squeeze in, after a wizard had used a bit of kinetomancy to jimmy the lock.

    "This is the last time I play the greaseman," Andi said as she stepped back from the Threshold.

    I exhaled. That was what I had expected. This house was protected by a Threshold. It was surprisingly strong, which meant either an emotional bond to the location or a strong bond between the residents. Either way, this building was a home.

    And thus had magical protection.

    It turns out that cops are not the only people who had arcane rules about entering houses uninvited.

    Mortal wizards, which included succubae wizards, thank you very much, are not physically bared by Thresholds. There are some beings, like ghosts or certain types of vampires who can't enter without being invited.

    The beings of faerie can enter, but are under certain obligations that limit their actions. And the fae really hated such obligations, so they often don't bother.

    Wizards, meanwhile, have to leave the bulk of their power outside. It was a lesser reason why I was loath to go into a place uninvited. The bigger reason was that it was simply rude.

    Laugh it up. I can be very polite about the important things. And to those who deserved it. A spooky ninja who pretended to be a caregiver so she could experiment on children did not deserve it.

    I stepped into her house. The Threshold pulled at me like a wall of Jello. I felt much of my magic go distant.

    Inside, I felt... well a bit hungry. As I sniffed the air, Andi closed the door behind me.

    I could still feel my magic bit it was... huh. A bit of flame licked around my fingers before I crushed it with an act of will. It was not my vibrant orange and red wizard's fire, but the pale blue-white demonic fire I got as a succubus.

    The house was clean, almost obsessively so. The smell of bleach and cleaners scratched my nose as I sauntered around the stark, pale living room. There was also a burnt scent coming from the kitchen. Andi prowled next to me.

    "You find anything interesting?"

    "Between squeezing through a window and changing in the bathroom?" She gave me a toothy grin but pointed to the dining room. Beyond that there was that smell of charred paper and strong kitchen cleaners.

    I swayed into the room. It was tempting to let my tail and horns out. I mean, it was just the two of us, unless some of the residents in the house were hiding... but they should probably see the real me.

    The dining room was a bit less... staged than the living room. The oval oak table showed signs of use, like a tossed paperback book and the remains of a snack: grapefruit juice, dumplings, and a blood sausage. They had all settled to room temperature.

    The chairs were padded and looked comfortable. There was a sideboard filled with plants, some more books and knickknacks, and the hardwood floor had shown obvious care.

    Looking over some lovingly tended bonsai trees and orchids, I was drawn to the photographs on the wall. In the center was a group shot. Miss Saito with her blonde hair and green eyes was in the middle of a collection of other women. They were pale, mostly petite and Asian. I think they were all Japanese but could, honestly, not tell.

    Their hair colors and eye colors were all different, and their faces and heights had some variation. But something about them... maybe it was the way their eyes glinted at the camera or the matching set of their jaws.

    I was reminded of a picture of myself with my siblings. I did not look very much like my sisters, or my brother, but we had enough similarities. The other pictures were of the same group, in various subsets, doing fun activities: camping, bowling, fishing, going to one of those "bake your own pottery" events, and other bits of normality.

    Floral and earthy scents from the plants wafted up as I eyed the five faces. Stalling's information was right. Saito was not alone. Five other people lived here, all of whom worked with children or in the healthcare industry, specifically pediatrics. The lone exception was the one who worked as a secretary for a laboratory testing company.

    Anger flared, I could feel my glamour wavering as a cold presence ran down my spine and the length of my tail. The acrid burnt-paper smell grew... sharper as my senses recovered.

    I still had some of the gauzy blanking that came with leaving behind a portion of my wizard's power, but I had lost the muffing that came with hiding my horns.

    Stomping into the kitchen, I wanted to gouge up Saito's precious polished floors with my hooves, but I had some self control.

    A small metal brazier had been dropped onto the stovetop. It was full of ashen grey papers and forms. I carefully stepped up and eyed them. Most were piles of burnt flakes, but the upper-most layer was delicate, insanely-fragile wisps.

    Medical records, logbooks, charts. One sheet had a list of serial numbers and attached information, weights, hair color, blood type, and ages. The cold rage flowed down me from the tips of my horns to the ends of my hooves. "They were experimenting. On children," I growled.

    "Why?" Andi asked halfway in the kitchen. She had a worried, apprehensive look.

    The ugly thoughts raging within me abated as I flicked my tail. That was an excellent question. I decided to tell Andi a bit more of what I had seen. "I checked out three of the kids. They all had minor powers. They're too young for it to awakened yet, and they might not even have as much as you, but I don't like those odds. It can't be a coincidence that this bad nurse was doing black magic on them.

    "They're being cautious, this isn't about killing them..." As far as I knew, Butters wasn't dealing with a mass of anemic, drained dead kids. He was dealing with something else however.

    Empty Night, if he had seen bodies like that, he'd have hatted up with his light saber and have been out here chopping. Saito and her... sisters were doing something subtle, something that used humans as lab rats.

    I frowned.

    Five or six years ago, a bunch of White Court vamps had started their own eugenics pilot program. In short, they were proving that vampires could eliminate vast numbers of humans with minor magical talents, and thus, over the generations, greatly reduce the number of humans with major magical talents, critically damaging the capability of the White Council of Wizards.

    As plans go, it was monstrous, patient, but ultimately... effective. Not all wizards had parents with magical capabilities but most did. Humans were shorter-lived than vampires, and it would take only a few generations for the plan to bear fruit.

    House Skavis, who fed on despair, and House Malvora, who fed on fear, were in a pissing match to claim credit. Meanwhile, House Raith, who did the succubus and incubus thing, was against the idea, officially.

    But then, a pair of Wardens of the White Council decided to toss the gauntlet and formally challenge the killers under the UnSeelie Accords, during a big White Court shindig. That battle in the Raith Deeps was the second time I had seen Carlos in a fight.

    The first time we had fought side by side I had been a bit distracted by controlling that zombie T-rex I made.

    During that duel, it had become apparent why he was the youngest regional commander of the wardens in a century. Carlos had a lot going for him, even now as battered and wounded as he was. Being a Warden was not an easy job.

    Also, he Soulgazed Lara, the shadow queen of the White Court. And well... she is a very tempting woman. It came with the whole professional temptress thing. She was good at it.

    Meeting her, as I was now, was... challenging. Stupid horns. I idly wondered how she'd stack up against my eldest sister who was... well more on the overt side and less on the "bedroom" skills.

    I shouldn't say my big sister was clumsy at being a succubus. She had been at it far longer than me, and she was seducing a radiant, literally, Moon Queen.

    Maybe Saito and her sisters were doing some sort of experiment to make humans more pliant for feeding.

    Maybe they were seeing if they could augment the magical aptitude of humans.

    The Perna twins and their friends had been threaded with some kind of Black Magic. But without seeing what those spells were like when active, I could not be certain what they did.

    For obvious reasons, I was loath to activate them myself.

    "Harry?" Andi asked in a quiet voice.

    "I don't know," I growled. "These... people are doing something bad. This is Black Magic that comes with a death sentence under the Wardens."

    "Pretty important?" she asked circling around the kitchen. She had slipped on a pair of gloves and was opening cabinets. Huh, Saito and her sisters ate a lot of soup.

    "They're running under the radar," I gestured to the burnt paperwork.

    "But in this city? Between the Fomor, the White Court and well..." she gestured at me. "This isn't exactly a quiet place."

    My staff creaked in my hand. It took effort to not slice through the runes I had carved on the surface with talons.

    I had a brief vision of smashing the brazier off the stove and then battering around the kitchen. My staff was strong, made from stout wood harvested from my very own island lair.

    "Yeah, but that's giving them cover... lots of weird stuff happens in this city, a few sick kids, maybe more. That's in the noise."

    "And if one or two died..."

    My eyes burned with ire. "They could blame it on the White Court, or a ghoul, or the Fomor. Hells Bells, maybe they're here working with one of those factions. The White Court tried crap like this before, and the Fomor modify their human servants all the time. These bitches will pay..."

    My own magic could utterly destroy the cozy home these.... creatures had made. Flames licked out as I lifted my staff. With a snarl I spun around. "Come on, let's check out the rest of the house. They can't have scrubbed everything, they didn't have the time."

    Andi gave my tail a glance but nodded and we exited the kitchen.

    Upstairs was.... clean. An acrid bleach-like smell burned at my nostrils. Andi also seemed ill-at-ease. The bedrooms were neat, but lived-in. There were some personal items but the gaping drawers, scuff marks, and carpet depressions showed that at least one heavy item had been removed from each room. They must have had go-bags at the ready.

    Furthering the sense that we were dealing with players was the burnt hair and plastic smell that came from the upstairs bathroom. Another brazier, this one full of brushes, combs, toothbrushes, and other personal effects, had been lit and charred. There was a discarded box of blonde hair dye, but the applicator and brush had also been burned.

    In addition to being physically destructive, fire had symbolic, purifying properties. Hair, blood, nail clippings, and other bits were a great way to magically track, and do more, to people.

    I checked the sink and shower drains for any hair. But, from the caustic smell and discarded bottles, someone had poured Liquid Plumber down them. Caustic soda and bleach may not be as spiritually purifying as fire, but they broke down organic compounds and I'm sure the popular conception of those chemicals "erasing evidence" would not help my case.

    After Saito tossed her smoke bomb, in all my years at being a wizard PI, I was still amazed that someone had actually done that to me, she must have called her sisters. And they must have had a plan to scrub everything, grab their go-bags and... go.

    That was a disturbing level of paranoia. Worse, it showed organization and practice.

    I stared at my pale reflection, cheeks flushing blue in frustration. I wanted to punch out the mirror. "They could be anywhere."

    "Not all of them," Andi said. "It's a workday; they couldn't all have been home. The nurse you confronted wasn't."

    I nodded absently, as we split up to investigate the remaining bedrooms. With practiced ease, Andi slipped out of her clothes. I gave her body an idle, somewhat hungry, appraisal before she went fuzzy and the big auburn she-wolf started snuffing around.

    I stared at some of the prints of old style landscapes, drawings of flowers, and pictures of fish. There was also a small display of a few fishing lures: little lacquered things that gave off the illusion of being harmless baitfish.

    This bedroom was probably Mikki Saito's, or at least it had clothes that were in her size and a couple faux jade hair barrettes that matched the one she wore. I bounced one on my palm.

    "This was rushed; they had to have left something, even pros couldn't perfectly clean a place they've been living in for over a year." I formed a fist.

    The backing to the barrette bit into my palm. A year. They had been operating when I was still human. Hells Bells, they might have been around when I was still hiding on my spooky island pregnant with my youngest daughter.

    I pressed a palm onto Miki's dresser. I could have torn this place down. And honestly, it had been a long time since I had burned down a building in Chicago. The last one was...

    Okay, the basement apartment that I rented from Mrs. Spunkelcrief was burned to the ground four years ago, but that was due to a pair of crazy Red Court killers. That was also where I had gotten my back broken, which forced me to take Mab's livery...

    Which got me sent to another mission where I was injured even worse and ended up joining the horn, hoof, and spade-tipped-tail club.

    But if we're going for the last big fire that was my fault in Chicago. Thus, not counting the spot of burgling and arson in Hades' Vault least year. Then that would be when I had the Raith Depths bombed. Which happened after the duel Carlos and I had with those White Court eugenicists went wrong.

    Vampires are sore losers.

    Like summon a horde of super ghouls and slaughter their extended family sore losers.

    Fortunately, I had planed ahead and made a deal with Gentleman Johnny Marcone to provide backup and explosives. All at the low, low cost of adding Chicago's premier mobster to the UnSeelie Accords.

    Okay... maybe Carlos had a point to be concerned about me now being part, technically, of the ruling family of a demonic empire. Given I had provided one of the three signatures Gentleman Johnny needed to become Baron Marcone. And that was before I had become my queen's leg-breaker.

    That was also the night my Fallen Angel Shadow companion, friend... lover took a psychic bullet for me which resulted in me getting knocked up with our daughter: Bonnie.

    That night in the Raith Deeps was about the third worst party in my life. Tying for first was the party at Bianca's where I burned a whole mess of people to death and the end result was Susan, the deceased mother of my other daughter, being turned into a half vampire.

    My tail twitched at the idea of having to attend a succubus party. Would it be all 70's orgy style, like with shag carpeting, big hair, and a giant bowl of keys? Or more 80's with slinky too-pale people in latex and masks.

    Or would it be some stiff ascetic event of innumerable "artistic" meal courses and chatting about the next season's galleries and fashions while musing on the latest imperialistic conquests, infiltrations, and subterfuge.

    I had no idea what kind of obligations Grandma BlackSky would impose on me. At least, I took comfort in the idea that my eldest sister would be even more awkward at such an event, and not just because she was the far more famous demon-chick.

    "Harry?" Andi asked, pouting. She then sighed and slapped me across the side of my hip.

    I shook my head, and rolled my knees. "Sorry! You think you've got any scents?"

    The werewolf adjusted her sleeves and finished putting on the shoes she had kicked off before going fuzzy. "Maybe. They sprayed something up here. I got a bit from their beds but..." She eyed me. "What about you?"

    I blinked and inhaled. Right. Demon-chick. "Not sure, I really... I really haven't tried tracking people by scent before."

    Andi rolled her eyes.

    "But, you're right. The cleaners or whatever..." My nose itched. "Is this how normal harsh cleaning chemicals act?"

    "You don't know?"

    "I've had these for only two months," I said, gesturing to my... horns.

    "Geeze, you are a newb at this." Andi snorted. She looked me over. I knew women had that whole complex rubric of rating other women based on clothes, figure, bearing, status, and dozens of other factors, but I was still getting used to being on the inside of it. "At least you hair's pretty enough."

    A... dark part of me wanted to comment about Andi's hair and ask if she bought her hair brushes from the pet department and if her shampoo also killed fleas.

    The werewolf smirked. "I guess you're lucky that being a sexy sex demon comes with all the instincts and glam powers."

    I had to make sure my blush was pinkish and not my natural color. "Um. That's... more the other side." Yeah, being a succubus came with those powers, but two of my sisters were not exactly up to teaching them.

    True, Ranma and Eve were very vain in their own way, and Ranma was fond of dressing up, when it suited her. But, they felt they had "more important" things to teach me. Thinks like how to control my powers and how to use them to beat a Fallen Angel.

    Cecilia, our other sister, was more into the "soft" powers that came with being a succubus. And she was good at being the concerned supportive, and only indirectly tempting, sister. Which was part of why I had been wary of her help. Given she had helped me and had been doing so since I became her sister.

    She had manipulated me, whispering in my ear as they changed- no, as I changed myself. Cecilia was worried, worried that I was in denial, that I would screw up the change, that I didn't really believe in it.

    She was right.

    That did not make the nudging she gave me, making me more accepting of what I was... well it might have been necessary, but it was not right. Still, that made me wary. I knew that mind magic was a dark, dark, grey magic in the best of times.

    And here I was with a body and powers that excelled at mind bending.

    Beyond excelling, it was part and parcel of our reproductive system. Turning new fledgling succubae, guiding broodlings, even with the lightest of touch, there was a mental component that lanced from brood mother to demon daughter.

    Like, I had to walk on eggshells enough around people. I was scary enough before I took up Mab's metaphorical coin. Hells Bells, I was scary enough before I took up Lasciel's literal coin.

    I swear this was some cosmic irony for not taking my brother's plight seriously. I mean being suave, sexy, strong, always stylish and good with, well..., any sex did not seem like that much of a curse. As long as you ignored the side effects like demonic Hunger and hurting those close to you.

    Needless to say, my brother was very amused at his newbie succubus sister's situation.

    The complication was not counting my various biological clocks. My brother was an expectant father and I had two daughters, so.... I shook my head.

    Andi shot me that curious expression. "Who knew becoming a demon's not all fun and games?" she dryly asked, looking me up and down.

    I arched an eyebrow at her and motioned for us to go down the stairs. "Rich, coming from someone who became a werewolf practically on a college dare."

    Inspecting the ground floor, Andi laughed. "Please, from what Butters says you metaphorically, no you literally begged them, and begged him, to go all succubus." She gave me a visual once over. "Still, not bad."

    I rolled my eyes, and I did not preen.

    Andi shook her head. "I'll go to the car and power up my phone, see if Stallings and that the party wiz- magician found anything." She smirked at me. "You can stay here and put your face back on."

    I was still pondering what she meant by the time she had slipped out of the back door through the kitchen, when I looked around and saw my reflection. My ears were pointed, my cheeks were more shades of blue than pink, my eyes were more sidhe slitted, and even more blatant, my tail was out. At least the hooves were not so obvious given my long skirt.

    I sighed and concentrated shifting back to a more human-seeming appearance.

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

    Being a detective is all about leg-work. It's not all the glitz and glamour of breaking and entering. Even stakeouts lose their sparkle when one finds out it involves staying in one spot watching someone, without being spotted.

    It gets worse when you realize figuring out what you'll eat and drink while on stakeout are the start of the logistical problems.

    More often, there's making phone calls, knocking on doors, asking questions, and sorting through records and paperwork.

    There's also computer searches but that's something, for obvious reasons, I don't have much experience in. Computers and wizards do not mix.

    Balducci, despite his fancy gloves and top hat, was not above doing the drudgery and scutwork of private investigation.

    After we finished burgling Saito's place, Andi had found waiting messages on her phone.

    Stallings' investigation had come up empty. The young women living with Saito had clean enough records, but he still had some feelers in with immigration services for the visas a couple had.

    Balducci, however, might have found something.

    Which was why, we were in a parking lot of a drab office park down the road from an even more drab hospital.

    "Cheerful place," I said hopping out of Andi's car.

    "It's Probative Laboratory Services; Butters sends some of his toxicology screens to them," Andi murmured.

    I frowned at that. Stallings had mentioned sending the kids' bloodwork to this same place. "And according to our magician friend, PLS also does records retention and distribution for hospitals and the like. Is that a business?"

    "Do you have any idea the privacy and liability regulations around medical records?" Andi asked as we went to the front door.

    I shook my head and gave both of us a look over. I supposed we could have dressed a bit nicer, but we could still pass as business casual. Though skirts as long as mine were a bit unusual, and Andi's top might have been a bit too well-fitted.

    Though, me carrying a staff was eccentric. But a tall pretty woman with exotic eyes and "dyed" blue hair and a glossy long coat cut a different impression than a gangly scarred man with darting eyes and a beat-up duster over street-clothes.

    The lobby was drab but at least clean. Though some of the potted plants looked a bit sickly. A perky secretary sat at a grey desk.

    I eyed the slender strawberry-blonde. She seemed human. But she was a coworker of Yui Rokubungi, Saito's roommate. She was also pretty, and I did feel a bit hungry.

    I put on a smile and strode over to her. "Hi, I'm... Halley Dresden, and this is my associate Andi Macklin. I believe Samri Balducci is already waiting for us with Lieutenant Stallings?"

    The secretary's eyes widened in a rather amusing way. "Um, the police aren't here yet, what did you say you were here for?"
    "I'm a police consultant," I gave a smile that just might have had a dimple. "I'm helping Balducci with his audit."

    The woman nodded something and started typing at her computer. I centered myself and took a couple steps back my wedge heels clacking on the floor. Huh.

    "Oh, you must be his assistants," the secretary chirped as she started filling out paperwork.

    I managed not to glower.

    It did not help when Andi whispered under her breath something about me having the body for a sequined leotard.

    The door that led deeper into the office building opened and Balducci stepped through. He nodded to the strawberry blonde behind the desk. "Thank you Karen! I'll make sure they won't get into any trouble."

    Balducci no longer looked like stage magician, He wore the expensive, but slightly worn, business casual that I had seen some mental health professionals sported. The ones who made a comfortable living but were too busy to get picture perfect work-clothes.

    Karen frowned. "I'll need to see some ID for the guest logs."

    Balducci gave a gentle laugh. "My dear, Dresden is in the phone book. Right after me." He then gave me a little bow.

    I slowly exhaled. Karen looked a bit like my Karrin, just without the whole edge, and combative sharpness. And Karrin no longer wore her hair that long, nor was it the right shade of blonde, and the secretary was a less wiry build. Still she, was a delicious... um pretty woman.

    And then, I snatched the little plastic card from Karen and clipped it to my duster. Andi also took her own guest pass. We then followed Balducci into the next room.

    "What'd you find?" I asked, once we had gotten a few feet past the door. We were in one of those echo-y open-floor offices full of people working at computers and bustling around paperwork, some of which were on carts.

    On the far end were more sets of doors that went to a room that had rows of filing cabinets and another that looked like some sort of shipping and receiving room. To our left side was a bank of elevators with some very sad looking plastic plants. To the opposite was a break room that was little more than a groaning ice machine, a dead-bulb drink machine, a wobbly table, and an out-of-order fridge.

    Balducci paused to collect himself. "I can't just go rummaging through medical records."

    "But?"

    "But, I can go through the access records. Who checked out the records, who went to the hardcopy archives, and who put notes in the electronic ones. I can't see what Miss Rokubungi saw, or even what changes she made but she's been a very busy woman."

    "Do secretaries even have that kind of access?" Andi asked.

    "Rokubungi does more than just answer phones for Probative Laboratory Services. She also works in their record integrity section, making sure data is entered properly."

    I whistled. "Funny, all the records Stallings found listed her as just a secretary."

    Balducci got us moving back towards the secure room with the files. "Oh, she's that too. Plenty of people bend the truth when filling out the part of the form that lists occupation." He gave me a glance.
    "And, you think she's doing that with these kids' medical records?"

    "I think she's been accessing more records than even the full time auditors, and not just patient records but she's been pulling up paperwork from the toxicology and drug screeners. She's very interested in blood tests."

    "If you can't get in to see the actual records Rokubungi was looking through, let along figure out what she was doing to them, why did you call us?" Andi asked.

    Balducci looked from me to Andi and then gestured.

    "What were we just doing before we came here?" I asked my werewolf companion.

    "Looking through Saito and Rokubungi's... Oh." Andi nodded.

    Balducci spread his hands. "It's classic misdirection. The magician gets the audience's attention while the beautiful assistants-"

    "Do all the work," I grumbled.

    "The door is electronic, but I can get inside to the access logs," Balducci said as he slipped me a couple index cards filled with tiny, but neat, writing.

    Andi gave me a coy look. And, she was right; I could scramble most electronic locks if I really wanted. And, the bonus was that due to fire codes, electronic locks were set to fail-safe.

    They defaulted to open when the power was removed. You wouldn't want to have people trapped inside a burning building just because the power went out.

    Now, there might be some exceptions to the rule. Though those were things like bank vaults with mechanical overrides and the like. And, that did get me a bit concerned; maybe medical records were kept on that level of lockdown.

    Course.... if the bulk of the records were stored electronically... then me trying to fry a lock might be a bad idea.

    "Once we're in you can look at those hardcopies," Balducci said, in a low voice.

    "Why these?" I memorized the serial numbers and slipped the notes into a coat pocket. The bulk of wizarding was creating and maintaining mental constructs. When one had the mental training to hold spells that created fire or summon faeries in your mind, keeping track of a couple dozen strings of numbers was easy.

    "They were the ones she went to the most frequently; they were also the ones she requested be printed out as backups, that just..." Balducci shrugged

    I nodded; sometimes a detective got a gut instinct on a thing.

    "Can you get into those cabinets... quietly?"

    "How are they locked?" I asked, glancing through the window into the records room. Closer, I could see that there were computer servers, or at least big black racks with blinking lights, to one far end of the room. There were locks on the filing cabinets, but a few were open, at least when the languid staff was pulling out files.

    Balducci grinned. "It's an audit; they're not. But we..." he poked a guest badge. "Can't look at those records. And, the staff in there are watching us."

    "That's where your distraction comes in?" I eyed him. "What are you going to pull a bouquet out of your sleeve?"

    "Not now, I'm not!"

    I tilted my head and looked back into the room. One of the staff was moving casually, too... I frowned. Pushing a cart laden with files a coffee carafe and a few boxes, that particular woman had glossy black hair and...

    She looked up and her eyes met mine. Green eyes widened for a moment, and she gave a little smirk.

    "It's her!"

    "Who? Rokubungi?" Andi asked while Balducci caught my eye.

    "No, Saito!" I said as we all started running towards the locked door to the records room.

    "She wasn't there when I was there," he shouted.

    "Duh, she probably waited for you to leave the records room so she could get in," I yelled when we got to the door.

    Andi gave my shoes and my skirt a brief, dirty look.

    I ignored that and studied the door. There was badge swipe to one side and what looked like a fairly heavy duty electronic lock.

    Balducci was already knocking. We did not have time for that.

    Saito had stopped the cart she had picked up the silver metal coffee pot.

    Right. I reversed grip and slammed my staff onto the lock as if I were spearing it. A wizard's staff is a great multi-purpose focus. While it was not as specialized as, say, my old blasting rod, or the force rings I wore, it could do a lot of things.

    Such as... spells that were similar to the ones in my force rings. Spells that stored back a bit of kinetic energy every time they were moved.

    Thus, when the end of my staff slammed into the lock, it hit with the force of a jackhammer and the entire lock, strike plate, and part of the frame sheared off and flew across the room.

    "So, much for being subtle," Balducci murmured as he somehow managed to be the first one through the door.

    Saito, and everyone else in the room, jumped in startled shock. The naughty nurse actually spilled a bit of... clear fluid from her carafe onto the cart.

    That was not coffee.

    She gave a smile and then dumped the rest onto the pile of papers and boxes. And then struck a lighter.

    Hells Bells.

    "Forzare!" I cried slipping next to the magician.

    The blast of telekinetic force hit Saito and blew her back. This is normally where the villain would slam into a row of computers, or a filing cabinet, or something. Instead she pulled into a somersault and bounded off the wall with inhuman grace.

    Right, ninja.

    "The wizard, the werewolf, and the fraud." Saito rose up. She wore a dark grey blouse and slacks. Her hair was askew and she pulled it off revealing a black wig hiding her blonde hair.

    Balducci blinked and gave Andi a glance. About half the workers in the room ran in a disorganized scrum; the other half stayed planted where they were looking confused.

    "You really thought you could just waltz in here?" I demanded striding forward.

    Saito simply raised an eyebrow.

    I bit my lip. Right, we did the same thing. Still she was here; we could capture her and figure out what black magic she and her "sisters" were up to. The witnesses were a problem, someone was bound to have called the police. At least Stallings was on his way.

    As I passed the cart, I could smell the acrid scent of diesel fuel and a few other chemicals. "And what... were you going to start a fire? Burn the evidence?"

    The blonde nurse grinned while Andi snorted at me.

    And that's when someone hurled a frikin' road flare in my direction.
    I was about to use another force blast to knock it aside when Balducci caught it, holding the flare like a giant sparkler I turned and saw the willowy form of Yui Rokubungi, also dressed in office wear. She held a couple more lit flares.

    Rokubungi rolled her eyes and tossed the other two.

    Balducci lunged to one side and caught the other and, for a moment, I thought he was going to juggle the two he held to intercept the third.

    Instead, he concentrated and the flare stopped in midair before reversing direction to fling past Rokubungi. Good, the kinetomancer stage magician had the sense to not put the flaming device back into the villain's hand.

    Some of the coworkers blinked and started to ask Yui what was going on.

    And that's when I decided to once again show Balducci what a real wizard was like. "Forzare!" I cried.

    And this time Rokubungi blasted across the room and smacked the wall with a satisfying thud.

    "Harry!" Andi shouted as she tried to intercept the blonde.

    "Yui!" Saito screamed as she rushed towards me, managing to bound around the redheaded werewolf.

    The nurse paused just long enough to drop a lighter on the cart, which went up with an ominous whump as a mantle of merry yellow flames kindled about.

    With her other hand, the blonde then pitched a grenade at me.

    In that instant, I didn't try to figure out what type it was. It looked a lot like the smoke grenade Saito had used earlier today, but...

    Look, I'm not saying Saito would use a frag grenade in a room full of innocent people, but given how she was only dragging her sister Yui away from the room she had just set on fire, clearly her protective instincts were more family-focused

    I readied a spell and was about to catch it when Balducci moved his hands in a theatrical way and the grenade dropped straight to the ground.

    "Defendarius!" I cried and clamped a small dome of multicolored energy over the grenade. It blew up in a flare of white flame and heat.

    Great, fire. That was my thing.

    I looked up and saw the cart was still burning. Boxes of papers and boxes of what were probably not papers were starting to join the conflagrations. The fire alarm started to whoop but only a few of the workers were evacuating, most looked with apprehension at the door I smashed and the other door Saito ran through.

    Saito and Yui were already running.

    "I've got this, go!" Balducci assured me. "Everyone! Can I have your attention." He stated his voice turning stentorian as it carried over the din and noise. Even Andi was drawn a bit to him.

    "Everyone, if you could follow me out the front door!" He cried as his suggestion tugged at the scared workers. A bit of sweat beaded on his brow but got worse when the flaming cart shot down the row of filing cabinets in the opposite direction Saito and Yui had fled.

    As Balducci got people out the front door of the records room, Andi and I ran to the back door.

    Saito and Yui had gotten a lead on us, but fortunately we were both taller than the naughty nurse and her sister. Andi might have given my clothes and footwear a dirty look, but I was concentrated on our prey.

    "Time to go fuzzy?" I asked.

    Andi gave me a sidelong glance. The problem with turning into a wolf was a logistical one. Clothes, shoes, underwear, wallets, purses, and the like. There was a reason most male werewolves liked sweat pants and loose shirts, and most females liked breezy sundresses.

    Andi tossed me her purse, and I was thankful that she carried a small one as I dumped it in a duster pocket.

    Then, hardly missing a step, she pulled down her dress. I got a brief look at her form, and a brief pang of jealousy. Butters was a lucky man to have Andi. My stomach also growled.

    And then a fluffy auburn wolf appeared. Ears twitching, her nose perked and she went through the doorway like a shot.

    I ran after her through a grey hallway that branched out to more cube farms. The fire alarms warbled but were still going on. By the discarded coffee mugs and reams of paperwork and unlocked computers, it looked like the workers in this part had managed to evacuate with speed.

    I kept my staff ready. I put it on even odds that Saito would be waiting in ambush, to try and buy time for Yui to escape. I pushed aside the idea of the blonde nurse standing back to allow her little sister escape from the ravenous demoness and her werewolf companion

    There was a stairwell with a blazing exit sign above the door. Fifty feet ahead of me, Andi had jumped up at the door's push bar and using her weight behind it managed to barrel through the doorway.

    When I caught up to the door, I saw there was the actual door out of the building down a half flight of stairs. That fire door had an alarmed lever in addition to the push bar. It was already blaring adding a screeching buzz that really showed the downside of inhumanly acute hearing.

    Glancing back, the wolf gave me an impatient look.

    "Right. Forzare!" I shouted and hit the lever with an invisible beam of force while Andi pushed the bar, popping the exit door open.

    Air gusted in and Andi slipped out into a gravelly alleyway.

    Following outside, I almost ran into a group of lollygagging workers.

    "Hey, you can't bring a dog into the office," a short man with a bow tie and mutton chops sputtered.

    I blinked at him for a second. "There's a fire! Get away from the building." I shouted and swept about with my staff. "Go! Get!"

    I might not have had Balducci's silver tongue, but I could shoo away a crowd of confused office workers.

    Andi took a moment to sniff the gravel and then started loping further down the alleyway.

    Once again, she was looking up at another fire door. It was for the building next door to Probative Laboratory Services. From the outside, it was just a blank door. There was a silver handle and a window but no lever to open it or even a visible lock.

    "They went through there?" I asked glancing around the ground and pulling at the door.

    Andi nodded, and her upright ears swiveled a bit.

    "Timmy fall down the well? Or burn down the barn?" Looking inside, I saw another stairwell and no sign of the two fugitives. Right, neither would be silly enough to just stop.

    Ears folding back, Andi sniffed out the ground and to one side of the door found a collection of cigarette butts and a worn metal wedge with a few scratches on it.

    "What? Lassie was a great dog. Smarter than most of the actors."

    As the wolf studiously ignored my reference, I filled in the details.

    Someone liked to take smoke breaks and used a makeshift doorstop, so they could get back into the building. Saito came this way, maybe with Yui, maybe to get her sister out.

    Either way, she could have setup the door ahead of time, blocking it open in case she needed to escape.

    Preparing seemed to be her style. I could imagine her putting down a backpack full of accelerants and bottles of diesel fuel, jamming this door open, sneaking into Yui's office, commandeering a cart, and pulling out all the records they needed to destroy.

    Unlike her, I was a wizard and I could use magic to get through a blocked doorway.

    Looking into the window, I spotted the push bar and lever that would unlock the fire door. " Forzare," I whispered, again concentrating on the door, this time pushing against the bar.

    The door clicked open and swung out, Andi wedged her muzzle in and I pulled open the door all the way.

    We shot through the doorway. I followed, trusting the werewolf's nose. My tension grew as we went through a bunch of confused accountants. Fortunately, most of them were glued to the windows, wondering about the smoke starting to churn out of their next door neighbor.

    Andi had a strong scent on them as she unnervingly took us up a flight of stairs and past an elevator bank. I was a bit surprised that Saito did not use the elevator to hop onto a random floor to throw off the trail. But then we went over a second story bridge to a... parking garage.

    I swore when the werewolf led me straight to an empty parking spot.

    "Empty Night," I cried, gritting my teeth. I was getting sick of this naughty nurse being able to just run away from me.

    We searched around the entrance of the garage, but there was no obvious sign of the naughty nurse and her covert secretary sister.

    By the time we rounded back to Probative Laboratory Services, the fire engines and ambulances were starting to pull up. Stallings was already there, talking to a coughing, soot-covered Balducci.

    The detective gave me a baleful gaze. He looked me up and down and pursed his lips at the wolf sitting next to me. "They got away," he surmised.

    "Yeah, but I've got other ways to find her."

    Stallings was thoughtful.

    "We got everyone out," Balducci assured.

    "Of the records room?"

    "Sure, but the rest of the building too, I might have checked," the magician admitted with a cough.

    "Great," Stallings said, but there was no heat. "This is a real mess." A fire engine appeared and disgorged a troop of firefighters, all geared up. Paramedics, who must have been from the nearby hospital, were also on scene coordinating and checking out the milling employees.

    "It's definitely arson," I added.

    That baleful look returned.

    "And not my fault."

    "Yeah, blame the disgruntled employee," Balducci suggested with another cough. "The one who an independent auditor just found out was wrongfully accessing and potentially altering records."

    Stallings exhaled. "That's what happened?"

    "Close enough," I agreed.

    He frowned and flagged down one of the senior firemen and quickly explained what had happened. Or a version that would be easy to accept and fit in with subsequent reports. Special Investigations was great at writing fiction.

    At the mention of independent auditor, Balducci got up and then nearly stumbled.

    Stallings caught him and moved the protesting magician to one of the paramedics.

    "Go," I told Balducci. "Smoke inhalation is no joke."

    He nodded and Stallings handed him over to the medical staff. The cop turned to me. "I have make sure the fallout... someone trying to burn down an office building, a medical building? I can't leave." The detective held my gaze.

    I looked down to his nose to avoid the Soulgaze.

    "Can you handle this?" He asked.

    "Yeah, I can handle her," I promised.

    Stallings nodded once and turned back to the burning building.

    I gestured to Andi. There were changes of clothes in her car; part of being a werewolf was having spares. I checked my duster pocket to make sure her purse, and her keys were still in there.

    End Chapter 3


    And the mystery deepens, but Dresden's starting to get more of an idea what's been going on under her nose.

    Thanks to DCG, Ellf, Kevin D Hammel, Henry Stickman, and J.St.C.Patrick for their help with the corrections. And again, I'm posting a bit early before all the corrections are in. (Spoke too soon ^^; as Pat just sent some corrections)

    And thanks to Gindjurra for pointing out the hair-in-the-drain and Lassie bits.
     
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2019
    moon so bright, steamrick and Medb like this.
  11. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Harry missed a trick. He should have checked the tub and sink drains for hair.

    There’s probably a Lassie, Timmy and wells joke in there somewhere.
     
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  12. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Oooooh. Yah I can see Dresden doing that. I'll add a bit to that. And then the poor dope finds they were flushed with liquid plumber.

    heheh. good call! I can totally see Dresden making that comment. Because that's how she roles (becoming a demon chick shouldn't change that about her ;p)

    Nice! I'll update the chapter with those lines and some other corrections I got in.

    Thanks!
     
  13. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Liquid Plumber isn’t fire — no symbolic magical cleansing.
     
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  14. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Likely. But I added this bit in
    So even if there wasn't any magical purification, the caustic chemicals would ruin any hairs by damaging them.
     
  15. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Possibly, possibly not. Liquid Plumber often takes multiple applications to remove all the hair, and this was clearly a rush job. And Harry is unusually good at that type of magic.
     
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  16. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Good point. I'll expand a bit. Given for them to have a hope to having a house that they can "clean" at a moment's notice they have to have a lot of prep work.

     
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  17. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    They obviously felt strongly about it. Which could make that leave a traceable echo. Magic is bullshit. :p
     
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  18. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    While strong feelings can make an echo (that's a big part of how a Threshold works), the question of getting that echo and being able to use it in a tracing spell.

    And yeah, magic is BS, but given this is a story set in the Dresden Files, which has a bunch of explanations for how it works... eh.
     
  19. GeneralAllenWalker

    GeneralAllenWalker Know what you're doing yet?

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    Wow really great Work. Say can Dresden her do stuff Like conjure up bodyparts?
     
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  20. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

    Well... conjure up her own bodyparts? Or someone else's?
     
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  21. GeneralAllenWalker

    GeneralAllenWalker Know what you're doing yet?

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    Both? I mean are we gonna See some futa Action?
     
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  22. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Well.... not explicitly. As this story isn't technically a Lemon. Though some parts may get a bit Lime.

    That said, these succubae are shapeshifters, and gain more fluidity of form as they grow in power.

    And as an all female species they do have to have a way to impregnate each other. Which isn't futa, technically, and involves appendages they already have.
     
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 4
    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 4: Fox and Hounds

    Chicago had a strikingly beautiful set of Japanese gardens. I'll admit I rarely visited... recreationally at least. A few years back, I had a meeting with some fae royalty, that, in retrospect, went exceptionally downhill here.

    Though, I could hardly blame the locale for that. Stars and Stones, I couldn't take my daughter to the zoo without running into something spooky that needed my expertise.

    Okay, that wasn't fair; it wasn't Austin's fault he got magic powers and didn't know how to use them. Most warlocks were dumb kids in just his situation. I was doing my best to help train him; thankfully he hadn't gotten into too much trouble.

    The Laws of Magic existed for a reason. Once you started using magic to break people's minds, enthrall them to your will, play with necromancy and worse... well... magic worked because you believed in it. You have to believe with all your heart that what you were doing was right, that it was how the universe was supposed to be.

    The more you did Black Magic, the more it changed you. And a poor dumb kid who didn't know any better... well, he could easily fall down into the junior Sith club.

    Tutoring was a bit hard. I had only had a few magic lessons with him before my little trip to Canada. Though, this body did make a teenage boy far more... attentive. It was a weird reverse of being Molly's mentor. Empty Night, was I doomed to collect teens who got ill-advised crushes on me?

    Chuckling, I shook my head and made my way to an arching bridge over a babbling creek that fed to one of the many, and obligatory, koi ponds.

    Expertly shaped bushes rustled, and I felt a little tug in my hand. I was not alone. This was despite there were supposed to be no other guests in the gardens. Someone, someone who had contacts in the municipal government, may have made a few discrete calls and gotten the gardens quietly shut down.

    Stallings was going out on a limb for me, but between the laboratory arson and a car fire near Wrigley field, he wanted the grenade-happy naughty nurse ninja and her cohort stopped as much as I did. Fortunately, not everything was destroyed when Mikki torched that car. Stallings had recovered an old ticket in one of the door pockets. A ticket to a certain Japanese garden.

    No one is perfect when it comes to sweeping up evidence.

    A woman leaned on the railing of the bridge gazing at the pool. Of all things, she had a rod out and was fishing. A thin line went out to a cheery red bobber. A grey backpack rested by her feet with a brown fishing rod case propped up next to her.

    The slim blonde woman looked to me. It was Saito. She wore a set of black slacks and a grey vest of some coarse material over a dark green blouse. It looked a bit too warm for today.

    A bit of resignation flickered across her face as she lowered the end of the rod.

    "Get any bites?" I cheerfully asked, not quite stomping up onto the bridge.

    "It was going well, until big old bear came and scared away all the little fishies," Saito sighed and started to reel in her bobber.

    I eyed her. "Maybe you shouldn't have been poaching in the bear's pond. And old?"

    Her green eyes went over me as she paused. "How'd you find me?"

    I tossed the little faux jade hair pin. It landed onto the wooden railing. Her eyes followed it; she frowned. It was a twin to the one she still wore in her hair.

    "You girls cleaned your place pretty well, but that's the downside of a house becoming a home. Possessions, connections, built up, it is inevitable."

    "I assumed the link between pieces of jewelry would be minimal," Saito put her rod down, leaning it on the railing.

    "You're not the first monster to underestimate me," I shrugged. Honestly, the thaumaturgical connection was pretty weak. The two foxtail shaped pins were used to being a pair. Not part of the same whole. Sure, they were connected, but it was nothing like that between two inanimate items that were once the same item. And that had nothing on an organic piece of a larger being.

    Still, the little bit of jewelry was enough to give me a direction, once we got inside the gardens. Finding that Mikki's rally point was here was a simpler bit of old-fashioned detective work. It involved recalling locations in photographs and doing a few traces on cars and various annual memberships the sisters had.

    "It is a risk, going native that is," Saito looked at the water. "We spent so much time here, living among you... caring-"

    I cut her off. "Don't give me that shit. You're experimenting. On children. You don't care for them."
    "Can a vet not care for her charges? Can a scientist not wish less pain on her experimental subjects?" Saito's eyes flashed.

    I let my anger flare out in a fierce cold rage. The wood of the bridge started to creak as frost formed and the water below us started to turn sluggish.

    "Careful, a sudden cold-snap will kill the fish," Saito said mildly as she finished pulling in her line.

    "Where is the rest of your team?" I growled.

    "Gone."

    Was there a bit of regret... or pride in her voice. She was very protective of Yui in the records room

    "You just rabbit away at the first sign of exposure?" I demanded.

    Popping the lid to her case, Saito paused before putting the rod inside. "We know what you did to the last vampire court that angered you."

    That confirmed my suspicious: Jade Court. I did not know much about the mysterious vampire court. They were located in the Asian side of the Pacific Rim, with perhaps a stronghold in the Yangtze river valley. There were hundreds of different legends about Asian vampires. I don't know which one described the denizens Jade Court.

    For all I knew, all of them were right.

    The Court was known for using agents, allies, and vassals when it came to dealing with outsiders. That meant that Saito and her kin might not even be vampires.

    Saito nodded to me, as if acknowledging my conclusions. "And that was before you became a scion of BlackSky." She smiled all bright white teeth. "No wonder you were inducted. Genocide does run in that blood-soaked family."

    "You really don't know me." I stated, my voice deepening to almost my old human range.

    The nurse's green eyes were merry. "You don't know." She rested a hand on the top of the fishing rod case. "She told me you had never been to the City of Trees. That even the Old Monster's favored granddaughter had yet to visit. I thought she was exaggerating, her type does, but..."

    I narrowed my eyes and my hooves crunched on the rime that coated the planking. "Who?"

    "Questions, questions, if only you asked this many before you begged away your humanity?"

    It had taken years of working for, and against, some of the most duplicitous people and beings, including having a freakin' Fallen Angel living in my own head, but I had managed to get a pretty good poker face.

    This was more than just yet another person clued into the spooky-side grapevine learning rumors about the great and powerful BlackSky. No, the naughty ninja nurse knew details about how I had been turned.

    I could count on one hand with plenty of space left over for shiny kinetic energy storing rings the number of people over here who I had confided in about that. Which meant, somewhere probably not in Chicago, there was a leak.

    "This isn't about me," I hissed.

    Saito sobered. "No, it's merely about you returning to long-abandoned territory and asserting your ownership. So much work will be abandoned; it'll set our progress back years."

    "Sorry to breakup your little junior Mengele reenactment society."

    "Mengele was a quack," For the first time, Saito sounded incensed, affronted. "Morality aside, his... work was merely a sick indulgence. Nothing of value was learned from his experiments."

    Sighing, she rested the end rod on the railing. "Tell me, if you found a cure for, oh vampirism, but it required necromancy, would you use it?"

    I glared.

    She adjusted her glasses. "I would guess it depends on the necromancy. If rumors about a certain Halloween are to be believed. What if you had to kill someone to... ah, no. We know that under the right circumstance you would do that."

    "Look blondie, I kinda doubt you and your sisters are working on a way to cure Red Court vampirism."

    "Of course not, you killed them all." She rolled her eyes. "Including all the half-turned who had lived a greater than human life. My point is that you have seen the necessity of distasteful things."

    "Oh, you expect me to let the minions of some creepy secret vampire cabal experiment on children, because it'll serve some greater good?" My voice dripped with sarcasm.

    "It's not too dissimilar from your own efforts," she shrugged. "If on a slightly less ambitious scale."

    Rage burbled inside me. "I don't know what you're-"

    Saito cut me off. "The Paranet."

    I chuckled. "That's way for minor Practitioners to get together for mutual defense and information sharing."
    "And to teach the next generation of new talents. And to try and prevent latent wizards from turning into Warlocks. And there's so many humans now, so many with potential, more than in the past." Leaning forward using the fishing rod case as an impromptu cane, she grinned. "We're in the same business. Just different angles."

    My growl was deep enough that it seemed to echo around us. "Pruning out latent talents? You should know what happened to the last crew who did that," I snarled.

    Saito laughed. In my face.

    Her rod actually slipped from her hand and I wanted to gut her... well gut her like a fish. "Like the short sighted Skavis and Malvora? No... Warden of the Wise, creature of Winter, blood of BlackSky, the Court I represent have the exact opposite intention with humanity."

    I stared. The idea was one I had not really considered. It was... well... supernatural predators thought Practitioners, that is humans who could do magic, were a threat. "You're trying to make more Wizards, or at least increase a Practitioner's potential."

    "And is that not worth some sniffles?" Saito frowned at her fallen rod.

    Clutching the carrying case, she looked at me, but I shook my head no.

    "You could check our records. Well... if you and that meddlesome stage magician hadn't forced us to burn them. You value humanity, so do we." She gave a very white, almost sincere, smile.

    I did not want to think of why a vampire court would want more powerful humans. That did not keep my imagination from being oh-so-helpful. More energy-rich food was an obvious answer, so was having more powerful fodder.

    Plenty of vampires, and other things, conscripted human servants. There was also... well, I did not know if the Jade Court worked like the Red or Black Court.

    But I did know that a practitioner when turned into a vampire made a far stronger... my tail flicked. Oh, yeah. Not just vampires there.

    "Right... helping human evolution? You know a Max Eisenhardt had a similar plan."

    Saito nodded blankly.

    "Magneto? Brotherhood of Evil Mutants? Geeze... kids these days."

    "I'm older than you," Saito, pointedly, said.
    "Whatever. You say you want what's best for humans. Sure, that sounds all well and good. But you hurt children." The scent of woodsmoke stared to come from the runes of my staff.

    Saito gave that same interested, but resigned, expression.

    "And you know you're the bad guys, that what you're doing is wrong. You did this in secret, hiding from me, from the White Council, from the Chicago Alliance, from Gentleman Johnny Marcone."

    That last one was a guess, but Saito's green eyes flicked down for an instant. Right. She was connected, she had to know that the only vanilla mortal on the UnSeelie Accords, Baron Marcone, the undisputed mob boss of this city, had a special hatred for those who hurt children.

    "That's why when you saw me you threw a smokebomb and ran. If you were on the up and up, you'd have made a deal."

    Saito's expression was strained. "It was not my decision, and when we started you had not... shown your flexibility."

    My eyes flattened and I tilted my head. "You seriously thought about 'cutting me in'."
    "You are Winter."

    "And a demon," I snorted.

    Saito gave a ghost of a smile. "You haven't met BlackSky then."

    "I got a few pamphlets, some stories about a funny little cartoon succubus."

    The nurse blinked.

    There was a whisking noise as bits of dark blue icy armor started to slide into place. "Enough stalling, you're going to give me a few lists. First, all the kids you experimented on, all the people you hurt. Then you'll tell me about all your sisters and all your hiding places."

    "And if I don't?"

    I grinned, fangs flashing. "You don't have a choice."

    "Confident." Saito glanced around as, still clutching the fishing rod case, she took a step on the icy bridge. I'll give her that much, she managed to keep sure footing on the slick surface. Her rod and reel were now stuck to the bridge under a rime of ice.

    "You're the one who ran, and this time I'm ready for any smoke bomb trickery," I promised, giving a hungry growl that seemed to echo through the gardens.

    "So much for your chivalrous reputation," she lightly said.

    I snorted. "Lady, over the years, I've been suckered too many times. And that was before I joined the 'pees sitting down' club."

    Her hands clasped before her, Saito's expression went neutral. "You would take my sisters then?"

    "Yeah, well you're-" There was a blur. Her hand went into the fishing rod case.

    Nothing good could come from that; I was already channeling power. "Forzare!" I cried.

    But she had already flicked the case away having had pulled a slender, long sword out of it. Bearing a gentle curve, that reminded me of a Japanese odachi, the blade was brilliant platinum white, and its edge hummed with a viridian light.

    Nimble despite the ice, Saito twisted out of the way of my blast of magical force and the sword flickered out.

    "Defendarius!" I yelled, causing my shield to burst into brilliant multicolored light.

    And then Saito's sword bit into the magical energy and, with a snicker-snack of efficient motion, that green edge cut out part of my shield like a jackknife sectioning an orange.

    That... okay, I had seen magical swords do a lot of stuff. I had seen all of the Swords of the Cross in action at one time or another, and any Warden's Blade could cut through magical constructs and enchantments.

    No wonder, little-miss-naughty-nurse-ninja thought she had a chance. I rotated my shield and brought my staff over in a low swing against her knee. Her sword switched back and she caught the staff with the spine of her blade, but physics was a hash mistress and she began to slide over the ice.

    I gave her a bit of a nudge.

    " Forzare!" I screamed as a blast of force shot out from my staff. It knocked her blade tip up and over. I was aiming to dump it into the pond and then freeze it in place, but she kept a death grip and even jumped up onto the railing.

    Green eyes glinting, she parried another thrust of my staff. Normally, I would use fire in a situation like this but I was trying to be more mindful of collateral damage.

    With the grace of a tightrope walker, she backed down the railing towards the shore. I managed to pin her blade against a pillar and then with a gleam she flicked her blade around and a couple of inches of Spooky Island oak sizzled off.

    Rage bloomed within me. I had just gotten that staff broken-in.

    With vulpine smirk, Saito gave a mocking fencer's salute. Her legs tensed as she was about to bound off the railing.

    And that's when the giant auburn she-wolf lunged at her. Andi had expressed extreme patience, but part of being a pack predator was learning when to spring an ambush: when the prey was distracted.

    I gave a practically lupine grin as the wolf descended onto Saito's back. And then the blonde nurse turned all... gauzy, smoky. A few wisps trailed behind her like a brace of billowy tails. And then Andi passed right through her.

    "Oh ,come on!"

    Andi landed all four feet with only a bit of a stumble.

    Saito's partially translucent form bowed. Her features looked a bit sharper, a bit leaner. Her ears were pointed and her blazing green eyes were slitted as she gave a toothy grin.

    And I pieced together a few things. At the park when I cornered her in that alley: she didn't jump over the fence after using her smoke bomb, she simply walked through it.

    While the records office burned, she didn't stage that fire door beforehand by leaving it propped open so she could go through it the wrong-way: she simply took her sister and walked through the door.

    I was betting she didn't even have to bluff her way into the offices Probative Laboratory Services. She probably just found a quiet wall and stepped through.

    "You know Shadowcat, maybe you should have taken Gandalf's advice." I concentrated runes started to flare on the icy gauntlets as the rest of my Blue Beatle style armor shifted into place.

    Saito tilted her head. "Not to meddle in the affairs of wizards? You've got the quick to anger part down."

    "I'm taking an anger management class, as for the subtlety?" I caught Andi's eye and gave her a feral grin. Her ears flicked back. "Screw that! Pyro Fuego!" I cried as a blinding cone of magical fire shot out from my arm.

    My anger and rage and desire to protect fed into it and demonic energies bled into the wizarding construct like adding kerosene to a bonfire. I could have done more, I could have added in Soulfire to help contain and focus the blast, but the problem with Soulfire was that it was powered by my soul.

    Use too much Soulfire and you run out of soul.

    A giant, blue-tinged wedge of fire shot out and saturated the area where Saito was trying to flee. Trees were blasted apart and turned to debarked skeletons, a small pond that fed into the larger one flash boiled.

    And Saito's wispy, foxy form bounded right out of the fire, her platinum sword in a humming green arc.

    I fired another blast, this one smaller, and the ninja nurse ignored it with the same contemptuous ease. She swung down and I blocked with my staff. Or I tried to. The sword passed through it, returning to solidity as the blade swung past.

    I pulled back one shoulder and my hand went up claws extended. My talons managed to catch her blade, but not without a squall of green sparks and spitting blue sleet.

    I smirked. "You gotta be solid to hit me," I purred and drew in the water that had been boiled up and frozen under hoof. "Arctis!" I cried as a brace of icicles formed and shot up from the ground. Two even pierced Saito's thighs giving wounds that bled too dark blood, but then she went all smoky and actually leapt through me.

    It was an... unsettling experience as I could actually feel her passage. Tail whipping about, I spun on a heel. But Andi had already circled around and was covering my back.

    The too-dark blood had already clotted on Saito's legs. That and the smoky tails and foxy ears confirmed it, no one was human in this fight. She idly rolled her long sword and gave me a constrained smile.

    "You think you'll be lucky, get a hit in before I can counter while you're vulnerable? Look bottle blonde, if you wanna try your luck that you'll be able to get me with that pig-sticker before I fry you, then be my guest." I taunted as I gathered my will and concentrated on a spot in front of me.

    Ears perking, Saito blinked and darted forward.

    I restrained a smile until I realized she was headed towards Andi. The werewolf snarled and bounded forward. Crap. Andi was experienced and, pound-for-pound, an extremely deadly predator, but she was also a wolf.

    I released my will and let my trap early. "Geodas! Ventas servitas!"

    The first spell crackled the ground and a sinkhole opened up to Saito's side and the gale of wind from the second pushed her inside.

    The nurse's eyes widened and, despite going intangible, she still fell into the hole.

    "Resarcius!" I cried as I clenched my fist and the hole sealed shut.

    Andi slammed down, claws and jaw snapping. It was a shame that Saito was intangible at the moment.

    I strode forward. And sighted down my staff. The fresh, unmarred wood revealed by the cut caused a flare of irritation. I wished I had some ghost dust on me.

    Cold Iron and depleted uranium were the primary ingredients. Or at least for the recipe I used. It said something that my sisters were the first people I had met who had not blanched at the ingredients in that stuff, and had even offered to supply me more depleted uranium.

    Right now, I was regretting not taking of their generosity. Hells Bells, they had probably started cranking out ammunition with bullets made out of compressed ghost dust.

    I remember Murphy talking about, back when she was on the force, the CPD was testing some fancy frangible bullets that were molded out of a sintered powdered metal.

    The bullet would stay solid until it went into something, like a torso or a skull, and then it would break apart into, well, powder. A miniature cloud of very fast powder that shredded everything in its short path. It supposedly was great for reducing the risk of collateral damage due to over-penetration or ricochets, but it was expensive, new, and had less penetration into the target itself. So, the department ultimately passed on it.

    The point of ghost dust was that it was extra real, extra solid heavy and inert stuff that locked spiritual matter into place. It probably would have done wonders on little-miss-walks-through walls. And I kinda wished I had a handful of that, or better yet a few shotgun slugs loaded with the stuff.

    Which was probably why she had concealed her ability using misdirection and smoke bombs. That she kept such a power secret until she absolutely had to use it...

    Still, I was a frikin' wizard and I had other ways to deal with an intangible foe.

    And... Saito had vanished. The last wisps of smoke and spectral tails dissipated as she sank deeper into the earth. Andi's ears flicked back as she paced about, her nose towards the ground.

    Damn... that was not good.

    The auburn wolf had already moved to a position where she could watch behind me and I could watch behind her. I suppose this explained why Saito and her team were able to operate for years in a city in the midst of a supernatural turf war.

    I was gone for many of those years, being mostly dead and then stuck on my creepy island being unwittingly-overdue with a pisonic pregnancy.

    But my understudy, my, at the time human, former apprentice, Molly was busy with her Frank Castle-like vengeance kick against the Fomor and their mortal collaborators.

    Molly and my Fairy Godmother the Leanansidhe.

    Lea is a Winter noblewoman, and handmaiden to my queen, who had taken my absence as a reason to continue the training Molly would have gotten under me.

    Which... well to put into perspective what Molly went through? When Lea met my big sister Ranma, and learned about that crazy redhead's training methods, she approved.

    The only reason Lea's treatment of Molly was worse was that she had a longer time to brutalize her student, and had plenty of cold winter weather to work with. On the other hand, Lea did not have ready access to helicopters.

    Though she could probably whistle up flamethrowers. And on the gripping hand, Lea never actually bit Molly, nor ate parts of her. Not for lack of trying. I guessed.

    Still, Lea had always been there for me. In her worrying, disturbing, stalkerish way. She had been hounding me ever since well... I first noticed her after I burned my evil mentor to death and he sent a demon, well Outsider, after me.

    Apparently, she had made a deal with my mother to protect and train and watch me. Which, in her mind, did include turning me into one of her hounds if I were unwary or incautious enough to need the protection of a kennel.

    Tail flicking, I leveled my staff and extended my senses. It had only been a couple seconds, and Saito had yet to come up. She had chances to run earlier, but was committed to this fight.

    There was a prickle; I twisted to the left as a fountain of water billowed out of the large pond like a depth charge going off. Sheeting off twinkling water, Saito burst out atop the plume and came down with her sword.

    I readied my staff and held off for a moment. That was... obvious. See, the thing a lot of supernatural, super speed predators forget is that when they're in midair they're going ballistic, which meant a predictable path.

    Some, like a certain redhead, cheated and managed to be able to maneuver in the middle of a leap, the trick was to remember one had wings.

    Saito falling towards me was like a lazy pitch right across my plate. Still... I frowned and flicked my staff. "Infriga!" I cried, pulling out the heat from all the water she had displaced causing a cloud of hail to form and then I dribbled a bit of Soulfire into my next spell.

    Soulfire would help give me extra metaphysical rebar into the spell and make it more stable and allow me to control it better. The downside was that it cost a bit of my soul; so, I had to use it sparingly. "Forzare!"

    The hail then shot into Saito. Naturally, she went intangible, but the sleeting pounding, managed to disturb her arc and she landed with ice-slick hair and a frosted blade.

    "Nimble little minx, isn’t she?" I asked Andi.

    The wolf paced around and her ears flicked back.

    "We’d better go full stream!" I cried and let lose a jangling bolt of lightning. "Fulminos!"

    The electricity passed through the nurse as she came in. I met her with my staff, slamming the back of her blade. Andi charged and actually bit into the nurse's ankle.

    Crap.

    Smirking, Saito twisted her sword, wrenching it around my staff, and with a tug, caught it and for a split second broke my grip. Then, she shot forward and stabbed. The tip caught the front of my duster, pierced it, and the magical edge sparked across the blue armor over my torso.

    Blood filling her mouth, Andi tugged and nearly pulled the vampiric nurse away, but Saito released one hand from her blade and pulled my loosened staff, slamming it back and down it at the wolf.

    It smacked Andi right between the eyes. As the wolf yelped and let go of her ankle, the nurse hurled my staff away.

    "You did not just do that!" I growled grabbing the sword trying to fillet me and sending a charge of power down it.

    Trying to give another gutting jab, Saito lifted her eyebrows and gave a tiny nod as if to commend me on the craft of my protective enchantments. Using that same hand that destaffed me, she dropped a clutch of grenades at her feet and ghosted off.

    I stared down. Andi was still wobbly. Shit. "Forzare!" I shouted, without a focus, like my staff, it was harder but I had to get her out of the blast radius.

    The groggy wolf slid across the grass and fell on her side.

    "Defendarius!" I cried. A shimmering multi colored half-hemisphere began to appear. Normally, I projected my shield spell around myself, but in a pinch I could...

    The dome flickered over the pile of grenades, which then exploded in a messy chain.

    Saito had dropped a veritable sampler pack of egg-shaped, and cylindrical prizes. The fragmentation ones shot out chunks of steel that battered my shield, and were matched by the raw heat of the incendiary grenade she'd slipped in there.

    The worst was the concussion grenade. See concussion grenades are designed around having minimal fragments. Sounds nice; less shrapnel, right?

    Well, their purpose is to create an overpressure wave, which in an enclosed space is more damaging than a frag grenade.

    Carlos, who habitually carried various grenades during the war against the Red Court showed exactly what a well placed concussive grenade could do in a bunker the Reds were holding during a skirmish in southern Sonora.

    Put short, normally we had to do a lot of prying to get the fangs out of a vampire's skull. Not so much that time.

    Unfortunately for me, the dome of my shield was a perfectly enclosed space.

    I nearly tumbled forward as the energy, all the energy of the little explosions hit into the shield and battered my will, before the shield failed and a blast of heat and pressure blew out.

    At least I had slowed the bulk of the fragments.

    Which meant my coat and armor stopped most of it and the heat only melted my armor a bit. It still hurt like hell.

    Smoke rose up from my duster as I looked to Andi. The wolf was getting up. She looked a bit battered but she was on four legs and had not been reduced to hamburger.

    Yay.

    Her ears flicked up and went forward. And before she could grow, I went down and slashing my tail up sidestepped.

    A now incorporeal Saito charged through me, insubstantial sword passing through my neck.

    Following through on the hit, the nurse stopped and gave me a smoldering grin.

    "Even for a ninja that's cheating."

    "Against the demonic champion of the Queen of Air and Darkness?" Her snort caused a strange echo given her insubstantial state. "Even without that, your magic outclasses me," she said, her smoky tails angrily whipping about.

    "If I was that much of a threat why didn't you assassinate me on my way to work or at the drive through? Do it right and I wouldn't have even seen you coming," I said, keeping a chill out of my voice.

    Some of the closest attempts on my life had come from things like bombs and sniper rifles. The only reason the car bomb didn't kill me was because I accidentally set it off early. And one time a total Darth-wannabe loser tossed a pipe-bomb into my apartment. The only reason that didn't kill me was because it just had smoke bombs. It could easily have had black powder in it.

    And one time my duster and mantle just barely blocked an anti-material rifle, the kind soldiers use to take out vehicles. I was knocked down and almost killed by a follow-up sot.

    And the other time... well the rifle did kill me.

    Or at least render me mostly dead enough that my queen had to nurse me back to health.

    I'm not saying that supernatural critters haven't had plenty of chances to punch my ticket, but a simple grenade in the lap would have worked if done right. Especially, if dropped by someone who could phase through walls or ceilings.

    Saito narrowed her eyes. "I only attacked after you swore to torture me until I revealed the location of my sisters."

    Empty Night. I was not the bad guy here. "Shut up, you're the one hurting kids! You creepy vampire-serving kitsune. And you burned down a building with people inside!"

    Maybe Saito had a hypocrisy detector because that was the moment she flickered and bounded forward

    I drew in my claws and pulled back. Andi nipped at Saito's heels, well not literally, given the whole intangible thing, but I caught the werewolf's eye and Andi slowed just enough for Saito's final burst of speed to give the nurse a lead.

    She turned solid and swung with her sword. It was a perfect arc that had her full weight behind it and angled as I tried to twist out of the way. The blade tip slipped past the open front of my duster and its green edge cut into my icy armor and with a flare of sparks showering the cold plate as it sliced through.

    I ignored the pain, and the gush of blue blood that flowed out of the wound. Instead, I punched at her with my left fist while my right grabbed her hands. See, on each of my fingers was an intricately engraved ring made out of a tipple band of silver. Each band captured a bit of my kinetic energy and stored it, and could be released on command.

    Yes... I wore ten, technically thirty, very pretty silver rings, and yes, they did match my pentacle-centered choker. Look, I came up with this idea when I was human. I started with one ring and realized the utility...

    Anyway, just before I let go of her arms, I released all fifteen charges on the opposite hand right into Saito's side. It hit with a satisfying crump like a hydraulic ram crushing an old fridge, causing the nurse to fly off in a pin-wheeling at an oblique angle from me to land in a heap on the other side of the pond.

    My joy was cut short because she had managed to hold onto the sword.

    Which due to the angle she had torn away from, caused the blade to rip through my left side, utterly shredding flesh from belly button to just below my floating ribs.

    Dark blue blood came out in an upsetting waterfall. The pain almost brought me to my knees. It seemed my life had been an escalating education in pain. Every teacher I had from Justin DuMorne, to Lea, to Ebenezar, to Lash, to Mab, to Ranma used pain as a teaching technique or at least taught me how to manage it.

    They were all, to one extent or another, schooled in dark powers. With Ebenezar and Ranma being the closest to exceptions. And my Grandfather was the Blackstaff, the White Council's assassin and wetworks man, who had a license to kill, that is break the Laws of Magic.

    And my big sister was a demonic mercenary who ate people.

    Blood. I stared as it poured out. Over the years, I had plenty of experience with seeing my own blood. I was still getting used to the idea of it being blue. As reminders of inhumanity went, it was a pretty disquieting. Though, not as much as seeing some of my own purply entrails starting to spill out.

    The… upside, if one could call it that, was my life had been a parade of pain and injury, the wound… could have been deeper. Dark blood-stained ice started to extend out covering over the horrific gash as a burning cold spread. My knees shook as I focused on stepping forward. I could manage, I had worse and the bleeding was stopping...

    That litany of… questionable teachers had also been big on teaching me how to manage pain. Wizarding was all about mental focus.

    And right now, the gnawing hunger burbling up was requiring more mental effort to suppress than the pain.

    Which was why when the somewhat battered naughty nurse attacked again, my nostrils flared at the scent of her dark blood and my breath quickened and my torso armor got a bit… tighter.

    Slit green eyes narrowed in concentration; Saito was very appealing.

    I dodged her sword work and took a moment to admire her figure. Her vest and slacks were rather complimentary on her wiry, but flexible frame. Even the hair dye she used did give her an exotic golden accenting, which made me curious about the color of other… things.

    A distant part of me noted I had not been eating... well. And regretted that my brother had yet to reopen his salon cum coffee shop: Coiffure Cup. The intimacy a woman had with her hairdresser was a great way to get some low intensity but high volume feeding.

    It also showed that White Court vamps didn't have to hurt people to feed on them. Or at least not render them into broken addicts. But the White Court was full of crocodile tears and generational dysfunction.

    Such as the fun habit of not telling young White Court vamps that they were vampires. Instead, letting them figure out in about the worst way, during their first sexual encounter, which invariably resulted in their internal demon waking up and killing said first partner.

    The White Court had issues. Only some of them were unavoidable consequences of sharing their souls with obnoxious demons of Hunger.

    Still, my brother really did have a gift. It was a shame I teased him so often over the years. Because of that, I had to beg him to do my hair.

    Though my body tensed as I grit my teeth and wanted something low volume and very high intensity.

    Hells Bells, right now I was wondering if it was really that bad that Executive Priority Health was controlled by Marcone. Miss Demeter, the manager of that... special exercise club might not like me but I had helped her a few years back and the trainers were very pert and energetic girls. One time I brought Thomas there to pressure Demeter and his Hunger was quite excited at just being there.

    The smell of Saito's shampoo, sweet, soap, and blood made me wish that I had abandoned my decision to not come on too strongly to Murphy or that Andi...

    I caught the eye of the big wolf and flicked my tail about.

    The platinum sword flashed in, green edge humming, and I twisted so my duster took the blow, at the point of impact a few of the spells I had inscribed on the leather flared and popped and the material parted. The tip squealed against my chest armor with a rain of emerald sparks and blue ice chips.

    As she reached for another grenade, I grabbed her free arm. Her sword flipped back and stabbed down, right into my thigh.

    I yowled and snapped my head forward, to head butt her, with my jaw...

    Her ears perked, Saito pulled back, but my very manly, um... very womanly, a mature professional womanly, scream was the signal. Andi launched herself doing her best impression of a fur missile.

    And since the Jade Court ninja was busy worrying my thigh like she was prospecting for oil, the sapphire spray coming out of my leg indicated she had found a gusher.

    I should have been worried about what rate of blood lost meant; honestly, the pain from the sword's chisel-tip scrounging bone was worse.

    Still, the upside meant that Saito was solid, and remained solid when the big she-wolf landed on her back and clamped her muzzle down on the bottle-blonde fox's neck.

    "Dorminus!" I shouted laying my hands on her cheeks. The sleep spell hit the nurse as her pupils dilated and her head would have lolled if not for Andi's "support".

    I pulled my hands off and raked at Saito's chest. It took effort to cut off her vest and stock of grenades, I wanted to take more of her chest. Hunger and lust and visions of pale curved skin flashed in mind. Flesh parting under my claws, sensual or slashing; either would be delicious.

    I had experienced the urges of the Winter Knight: the tempting mixing of sex and violence. I had managed to contain those urges but this... well this was more of the same, but coupled with a gnawing hunger. I was damaged; I was famished and this woman had wronged me, poached in my territory, had wounded me.

    She would die by my hand, her flesh was forfeit, by right and custom, it was mine.

    But I had to act. The clock was running, a wound like this... Butters once told me one could lose a liter of blood in half a minute. I was not too familiar with metric, but that sounded like a lot, and with it would come shock.

    Worse, Butters said out that the blood was still pouring out and that ninety seconds would mean three liters of blood gone which would cause irreversible shock, which had a roughly ninety-five percent fatality rate.

    Then the werewolf bit down, rich dark blood gushed, Saito's eyes widened, and she went smoky causing Andi to tumble onto me. And the wolf's weight leaned on a leg that was hardly able to support its own mass.

    We tumbled in a heap. With blood covering Andi's coat, she looked a bit bashful. And then worried as she spotted my leg.

    "It' okay, the bleeding will stop..." I kicked a couple grenades away from me and then used an arm to hurl them into the pond. It would have been more satisfying if it was not still frozen.

    Instead of a nice sploosh, they hit with a clink and bounced all about.

    The ground was cool and surprisingly comfortable, but it was a bit worrying how much blue was splashed about in wide fans. Saito's dark red blood was more of an accent. A delicious smelling one. I got another faraway thought about how I would have to clean this all up, because leaving blood about was a huge risk.

    That was overridden by the intense need to replenish myself. I panted and the cold numbing burbled in my thigh before the veins and arteries in that leg flashed over with a hot burning. The ice above and around the wound thickened and constricted putting pressure to the arteries and veins, the bleeding started to lessen.

    I could heal, but it was costing me. My lips parted as I twisted about, Andi helpfully padded to watch my back as I covered hers.

    Saito appeared before me. Her vest and blouse were slashed to ribbons, exposing a rather pert, if delicate, torso. As my tail swished about and blades extended, I wanted to cut apart her pants. Just to make her wardrobe match. Honest.

    For my part, I had been thickening my own armor, growing a bit more ice, specifically on the spots that nurse liked to stab. It was getting a bit harder to breath and the tightness and weight was not helping.

    The stab deep in my thigh practically burned with the tight band of ice I had formed above the wound, and then I had concentrated filling it with more packed ice to stuff in the wound. It was not the best medical care, Butters would be horrified, but I was a succubus, I could heal.

    I had been husbanding my magic, the right spell at the right time could knock her down. Hells Bells if I had a bit of ghost dust I could have ended this at the bridge.

    I called forth fire. Since I had thrown a fair bit of heavy evocation magic, and was literally on the ground using the Winter Power to keep from bleeding out, I used demonic fire. As the blue flames streamed forth and flared, I considered using Soulfire to help control the flames, maybe tighten the beam, but I was loath to run out of that.

    It was easier to let my magic replenish than grow back my soul.

    As Saito stepped through the demonic fire with contemptuous ease something tickled at my mind. One of my attacks had gotten to her when she was all Shadowcat. Right? I exhaled deliberately; it was getting a bit harder to concentrate.

    "You just won't give up," Saito hissed as she rolled her shoulders. Rage burned in her green eyes. "This could have ended; you could have let me go."

    "You could have run," I gasped. "This is as much your pride as mine."

    From behind me, Andi let out a snarl.

    "Yes." Saito pointed her sword at me. There was a gleam in her eye, and I was suddenly very glad I had gone through the trouble of relieving her of her grenades. "All this time being afraid of you."

    Holding a hand to my chest, I coughed as she stepped closer. "And you wonder why you were so foolish to fear me?"

    "Oh, far from it." Saito raised her sword in a salute. "Your reputation is well-earned."

    My arm flew out from inside my coat and I shot her. My revolver spent much of its time as a heavy weight in my coat, or in a holster when the mental prodding of my sisters made me feel guilty. Given my slicked hand, graying vision, and awkward angle, I was waiting for her to get closer.

    And even then, only two of the five rounds hit her. I wasn't sure which missed due to me or which she ghosted past after I started opening fire. Still, they were large bullets, and I was rewarded by one blooming of deep red blood low in her gut, and another in her opposite shoulder. If only it was in her sword arm.

    As I empted my revolver, she rushed forward and then turned solid to knock it out of my hand. Or maybe she wanted to lop my hand off at the wrist. I didn't stay still to find out.

    The instant she turned solid to disarm me, I sprung up.

    My lunge was uneven and weak, but my other arm and tail managed to connect. My body reacted with a euphoric tingle as claws and tail-fins began to carve flesh. I was so hungry. And this flesh before me was so lovely.

    Andi had bounded around and bit through the back of Saito's heel. The nurse screamed as I sliced her up. The wounds were not too deep, yet. We fell back into the icy, bloody mud.

    And then Saito tried to run, she turned all smoky and started to limp off. Snarling, I reached out with my hand. I would not be denied "Forzare!" I cried and in sheer frustration, sheer will, I put all I had into it: my will, magic, demonic power, and Soulfire.

    A silvery translucent hand tipped in gleaming talons half as long as Saito's sword grabbed her and batted her down. The talons actually managed to cut into her smoky form.

    Pulling up my staff to try and help me get back to my hooves, I blinked. That first shot of icy hail had used a bit of Soulfire to help contain the projectiles. Those had hit her, despite her being intangible.

    I smirked and could feel the fear and confusion in the meat.

    Saito got up and gasped. She still had her sword. The uncertainty left her face. She readied her blade.

    Grinning toothily, I spread my hands in challenge.

    Andi's ears perked as she padded around to my flank. She could sense the change in my mood.

    My tail flicked. There was a moment, a slim moment, where Saito's tensed body indicated she was contemplating turning tail.

    Her sword steadied and she surged forward.

    "Fuego!" I screamed giving a purposefully ragged gout of fire. Okay, I could have made it a bit more focused, but I was running low.

    Naturally, she phased right through the fire, utterly ignoring it.

    She struck in with an angled slash that went inside my right arm, making her inside the arc of my fire when she turned solid. I stepped back and rotated my stance. I wanted two things, one of which was for her sword to shoot past me.

    I did not get that... at least not entirely. Instead the blade swept past my coat and sparked against my armor. Ice squealed and chipped and a long, relatively shallow gash opened up my right side.

    "I had just put my guts back in!" I snarled, completing the side-stepping maneuver. Now I had the other thing I wanted.

    Saito still had her blade out and was just overextended enough, meanwhile I was standing to her right at a perpendicular angle.

    The vampiric nurse immediately swept her sword back to disembowel me on the backswing.

    "Laqueus!" I shouted, pushing Soulfire into the spell. And a glittering and flashing cord flickered between my hands

    And true to form, Saito instantly turned smoky. She knew how to react when I got all yelly and glowy.

    Thus her sword passed harmlessly through my body.

    I was taller, my arms were much longer. With a smooth raising and lowering of my arms looped the silver strand of pure force over Saito's head.

    Her green eyes widened when I crossed my arms drawing the spell, the supernatural garrote tight. It did not matter that she was intangible, the silver construct made out of Soulfire dug into her neck.

    Gurgling, Saito's free hand went to her neck to try to pull the garrote off while she stabbed back with her sword. Her first thrust was ineffective as her blade was as intangible as the rest of her.

    She flickered back to solidity and moved to make another awkward angled attempt to slice my face off. That's when Andi bounded in and bit down on her sword arm.

    The she-wolf's jaws locked on and, blood pouring out, dragged her down by the forearm. The sword tumbled to the ground and laded with a thud.

    And then I bent my knees and pulled back with my arms, taking the already unbalanced Saito down with me.

    Eyes bugged as the garrote was drew blood. It got worse as I wrenched myself over from being behind her to straddling her. Her empty hand clawed at me but my tail flicked over her and fingers and flesh flew apart in a bloody spray.

    Some of it fell on my lips.

    Delicious.

    The Hunger rolled up my spine, caressing my torso before pulling at my throat and my teeth ached. It then caressed back down to my hips and at the base of my tail before descending and fluttering down to that appendage's very tip.

    My body ached and burned and ice shifted over me.

    I gave the silver cord another tug and, straddling her, felt her life slip away. Something like synesthesia hit as I could taste her life her essence. Looking into her green eyes I saw them go dull as the life was being squeezed and pulled out of her.

    There was a pricking drawing sensation as a Soulgaze started to hit.

    No.

    Snarling, I released the garrote and used the claws on one hand to slash her eyes.

    There, problem solved.

    Power flowed into me. It was a trickle that promised a flood. She gave a gurgling, bloody scream as her battered lungs managed to take in some air. I could feel her pain, but there was a bit... something that cooled and numbed her. Her pain lessened, but it was still there. My other claws took care of her neck.

    But, she still bucked and heaved so I bent over and opened my mouth. My lips met hers for an instant and then I went below her chin. She calmed. I was reminded of culling animals at my grandfather's farm. They would often thrash after you killed them, but it was just their bodies, the life was already fading.

    And my Hunger welled up as I fed in earnest.

    Ribs, ribs were a problem, but after a bit I got through them. Andi shuffled over, blood on her muzzle. I gave her a toothy grin and, with a couple economical slices, presented her with the choice bit.

    The wolf paused and, after a brief hesitation, darted forward and gulped down the warm heart.

    Tail swishing, I returned to my meal. There was more but I was starting to feel flush and sated, though I wanted to find Murphy for... dessert. There was the odd mix of torpor from a full belly and jangling excitement from fresh energy.

    Either way, finding a bed seemed like an excellent idea.

    I wiped my mouth and frowned before my sidling hunger got me and I gulped down more liver. Regret absently burbled up; my niece Ukyou probably had all sorts of... exotic recipes. I frowned at the meat. Leftovers would be... problematic.

    It was not like I lived by myself anymore, and I did not have that much fridge space. No wonder ghouls ate so much in one sitting, that and they were ravenous, disgusting, ugly monsters.

    Where we succubae are ravenous, tempting, alluring monsters? A voice a lot like my old... roommate and mother to my second daughter whispered. I blinked. It was just my imagination.

    Okay BlackStone, keep it together. Just because you're busy eating a someone, in a public park in the middle of Chicago doesn't mean your mind's slipping gears. The fight had to have attracted attention. It had flames, gunfire, screams.

    There was only so much privacy Stallings' diversion could get us.

    And I didn't want to have to explain to the CPD what I was doing. Even Special Investigations, even Stallings would balk at the explanation of "It's not technically cannibalism."

    I ate my fill.

    Maybe a bit more. I was still healing up, and I was pretty sure under all this shiny, sparkly ice amour I was beat to hell. And it would be a shame to waste all this meat.

    I picked up my staff. Cleanup. Right.

    Fire. Practitioners used fire because it was cleansing. Even entities or spirit had a hard time tangling with fire. It took serious skill to become immune to such effects, as the late naughty nurse showed.

    But even her... leftovers burned. The flames licked around the ground, burning churned mud with mine and hers.

    Ice broke things up a bit more. I looked at the long-bones with a vague... longing. But they had already been burnt and the marrow was probably...

    I shook my head and switched to more magical fire.

    I was left with an ashy calcified heap. Though there was enough there from the fragments and remnants of clothes that a medical examiner, like Butters, could easily tell it was once a person.

    Hells Bells, Butters' introduction to the supernatural world was when he found a bunch of burnt corpses and determined that they were humanoid, but not human. Apparently, some hot-headed wizard had burned a bunch of vampires to death.

    Andi looked down at the mess and wrinkled her wolfy nose.

    "Don't worry fuzzbutt I have a plan." And I slashed down with my staff. The few inches Saito had cut off made it not quite as perfect of a focus, but it still worked well enough.

    "Aparturum," I whispered and a ragged line cut in reality. On the other side was the Nevernever. It looked like a windswept but starkly beautiful glade. I paused and looked around.

    Appearances could be deceiving, especially in the Nevernever. Empty Night, there was a very pretty garden on the other side of my old apartment. It was also very lethal, complete with giant centipede monsters.

    So far, nothing like that came charging at me.

    Andi's ears perked up as she looked through the portal and gave a low howl. She paused and looked up at me.

    I shrugged. "Forzare," I said as I used the magical force to push the remains through the portal.

    There was no shortage of things hungry for human, or humanoid, flesh in the Nevernever. That place was full of creepy creatures. That was why I had burned the remains twice and used ice to break them up. All that made it harder for something to use her body to make something... eldritch.

    I was about to close the portal when I heard the sound of furry paws running through grass.

    All around the glade came a pack of glossy, sleek, black hounds who bounded in and started chomping down on the bones.

    Andi's nose snuffled up and she almost took a step forward.

    "No, these are my godmother's," I stared at the great dogs happily gnawed on their... scraps. I waited a bit longer for Lea to appear. But there was no sign. My tail swished as I felt a mix of...

    Well, it was sweet in a way that she was still providing for me, but kinda, no very, creepy what she thought of was a useful boon. I also would have liked to see her again.

    Andi pulled back her lips and growled at one of the hounds who tried to nose his way across the portal.

    "Go, get back," I waved with my staff. "Oh, and tell Lea, um... thanks," I finished lamely as I closed the portal up with another wizardly motion with a long haft of wood.

    "Let's go, you need to get changed. And I need to pickup all these dropped weapons."

    Andi looked up at me and gave a doggy grin and then let her tongue lol out in canine laugh.

    I looked down. My duster was.... well it was more of a midnight blue and shiny. And I was still in my Blue Beetle armor. Well... there was a lot more gloss and shine and...

    We look like a Blue Beetle themed ice-skater a little voice whispered in me, as I nearly tripped over the platinum sword.

    "No, I'd need a poofy but tiny and sparkly skirt," I mumbled, picking it up, and I sighed as there was a rustling.

    Andi shook her head, and trotted over and poked the end of my tail with her nose.

    "Oh!" Blushing, I concentrated and hid the tail, horns, and wings. I also focused and made sure I would blush in a human-shade.

    "Okay, now let's get you changed." I said as we casually, and not at all hurriedly, left the ravaged gardens. At least finding my gun, the scabbard, and fishing rod case for Saito's sword was only a quick diversion.

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

    On the Southside between Lake Michigan and the skyway was a red-roofed stumpy beige square of a building. It sat up on a bit of a rise and gave a view of the Calumet river. A humble sign, inside, declared it to be Calumet Fisheries. It also proudly stated that this was the only location.

    The heavenly smell of wood smoke and curing fish roiled out of the smokehouse out back

    With fewer tables than Mac's pub, by about a dozen, Calumet Fisheries was not a sit down restaurant. It was not even really a restaurant, it was a place you could buy smoked fish by the pound, fried fish and other sides.

    Standing to the side of the building by my new-to-me car, Carlos munched on a paper cup full of aromatic shrimp. "You were right, Dresden."

    "I told you it was some of the best fish in the city," I smirked as I enjoyed some smoked catfish. I shifted a bit to the side and patted the fender of my, mostly orange, Volkswagen Thing. Hey, I had gone up in the world, I could afford a convertible. "There's still plenty of room."

    The Warden commander shook his head and leaned on the car. "More legroom?"

    "There was more to the Beetle than being cramped and pokey." I groused. "So, what was I right about?"

    "The Jade court." He took a bite of some lemon before going for another shrimp. "When you told the Paranet to look for sick kids and medical staff who went missing and forward it to the Wardens... four cities in my guy's jurisdiction and two under the East Coast regional commander popped up. It took some legwork to track down, but in each city, groups of four to seven nurses, medical practitioners, secretaries just up and vanished. Well, with one exception."

    "And the kids?"

    "We're still looking but the part of Houston where those women worked, and in Jacksonville did have elevated absences. No one missing through. But Houston had..."

    "That's seven teams, Stars and Stones." I shook my head.

    "And all because you were jealous of some clown stealing your yellow pages idea."
    Smoothing my skirt, I grumped and shifted my legs.

    "I don't like it. Between the Fomor, the Whites, and other enemies," he glanced at me. It was too public to mention the Black Council. "Our dance card is pretty full."

    "Oh, you want to go out dancing?"

    "You can dance?"

    My expression soured. "I taught ballroom dance to pay my way through detective school."

    "Do tell," Carlos grinned at me. "Seven teams, maybe about thirty-forty operatives." His handsome face drew into a frown. "You sure she said this wasn't another White Court scam?"

    "She could have been lying. The kids were a bit sick, but they weren't dead. And in the week since she died and her team bugged out, they've gotten better. You examine any?"
    "Yeah, Wild Bill actually caught one in Houston."

    "What? Come on Carlos, you gotta lead with that stuff! What happened?"

    "He followed your lead, caught her burning records in some insurance office."

    I leaned a bit closer. "And?"

    "Ghost dust took her out, but she had a device made up of black powder, powdered aluminum, diesel fuel, fertilizer and god knows what else." Carlos shook his head. "It was... clunky, messy, but effective."

    "Did he?" Bill was a good guy. The Texan warden used to be one of my subordinates, before the Council pared me down to a paper command.

    "He jumped into the Nevernever as it blew." He ate another shrimp. "What the hell are they really up to? Your nurse told you plenty of things; we've examined those sick kids but..."

    "But if she told us everything, they wouldn't be willing to die to destroy the paperwork of their little experiment?" I grumbled.

    "Any help from your Knight of the Sword?" Carlos shook his head. He had first met Butters when the little medical examiner had been my drummer, helping me control Sue, the zombie T-rex. He then got to be battlefield medic for a bunch of Wardens. Butters had saved a lot of lives that night, including my own.

    "Butters thinks the kids will be okay, but... you know how it goes for Knights. He was out of town on knighting business. A Black Court scourge had taken over an orphanage in Peru. He got there early, but it was... they were trafficking the kids. Sellin' them to the Fomor, Wyldfae... whoever. Those they didn't earmark for themselves."
    Carlos winced. Black Court were no joke. "Coincidence you think?"

    "That the local Knight was also fighting vampires hurting kids? No bet."

    He nodded. "They kinda need a signal from on high?"

    "Sorta," I shrugged. It awkward enough for me around representative of the Almighty, and that was before Lasciel, Mab, and DarkStar. Honestly, I felt things were better off if I avoided any direct attention, which made the interest a certain Archangel had in me a bit worrying.

    Frustratingly, my big sister had absolutely no issues with the Knights. I suppose it helped that she was Shinto and thus meeting the wielder of Kusanagi, and getting the blessing of Amaterasu, were kinda big deals to her.

    Honestly, I wanted to talk to my old assistant Bob about it, but Butters had been cagy about the Spirit of Knowledge. Which honestly was for the best, before he got the Sword, Butters was using Bob in the field.

    That was... risky. Bob was beholden to anyone who possessed the skull that the spirit lived-in. That's kind of how a nasty necromancer figured out how to summon a Darkhollow. He simply knocked me out, with the butt of my own gun, and then stole the skull and asked Bob how to do the dark ritual.

    In fairness, I was distracted by summoning and, successfully, containing the goblin king.

    Carlos waved a shrimp under my nose.

    I bit down. Damn, that was good. I should eat here more often.

    "Who's a distracted demoness!" he said with way too much cheer.

    "Yeah, yeah, Butters did mention it probably wasn't a coincidence that his first mission as a Knight, well first one where he knew he'd be a Knight, was against a supernatural predator in the form of a Japanese medical-type woman."

    "Think she was Jade too?" Carlos asked.

    "Maybe, probably not, she was feeding on people's nightmares: a baku, a nasty one. She was pretending to be a doctor at St Anthony's... which was where one of Saito's sisters was working."

    "Your naughty nurse might have been keeping tabs on various predators, seeing which ones managed to stay undercover; how they got exposed," Carlos offered.

    "Could be, could be that slipping into medicine, into schools, is a great way to infiltrate power structures and get access. Kind of like how the mob will use construction companies as a front for moving equipment or restaurants for moving cash."

    "Or Laundromats. Hence money laundering." Carlos eyed me. "Though, these days savvier mobsters just open their own banks."

    "This isn't about Marcone, I hope." I grumbled. I had once robbed one of his mob banks. Well, technically, I had helped, Nicodemus, leader of the Blackened Denarius, rob the bank, as part of a larger burgling plot, which was part of an even larger plot on Mab's part to ruin Nicodemus.

    And then Mother Winter showed her daughter how it was done by moving me to confront, ruin, and slay Nicodemus's wife, turning me into a sidhe succubus as a gift to her daughter in the process.

    "And the local police? I guess you didn't burn down any buildings... just part of a garden."

    "Stallings isn't happy, not with the fire, not with an 'insurgent cell' escaping, but he's got plenty of eyewitness and forensic evidence pointing to a disgruntled employee committing arson. And his niece and nephew are getting better."

    Carlos eyed me. "Getting better at what?"

    "More healthy. Hells Bells, I don't know how much magic power they have. Probably minor talents, but they're still young. I poked at the remainder of the Black Magic threads in them and it looks like they were some kind of monitoring spells."

    "I don't like it when vampires do something that seems helpful to us."

    I snorted. "It never is. Me and Murph once fought a Red Court vamp who got the bright idea of using a magic artifact to force couples into love." My stomach fluttered. It had been wrong to have those feelings forced with Murph but it had felt... good.

    Carlos frowned. "Nasty mind magic aside, what was their angle?"

    "True love. Little-Miss-Red was trying to understand how to make more humans have the bond of true love."

    "Which would protect them from the White Court," Carlos ate some shrimp. "But would leave them easy pickings to the Red."

    "Yeah, my gut says the Jade's running some similar con. The Whites once tried to reduce humanity's magical talent, now the Jades are trying the opposite?"

    "Vampires," Carlos grumbled. "They squabble and backstab and humans get caught in the middle."

    "What do you expect 'los? Humans are their food."

    He gave me a level look.

    "Hey! I'm still playing for your, our, team."

    Carlos ate another shrimp. "You seem less peckish than you were at breakfast two days ago."

    I crossed my arms. "I didn't break any Laws." Handily, the Laws of Magic only applied to humans.

    This time his look was one of a person who had ridden on my zombie t-rex. Necromancy was another thing that was a no go... if you were raising humans. "You didn't let her go to waste."

    "My godmother's hounds," I stated.

    Carlos studied me, and poked me in the belly, before nodding. "She's got a creepy obsession with you."
    Leaning forward, I waved his concern off. "It's just her way. She's trying to be helpful."

    "Fairies," he shook his head.

    "Hey!"

    "What about the competition? Balducci gonna hang up the cape and top hat?"

    I frowned at him. "You worried about another fake wizard in the yellow pages?" I asked.

    "Elaine's been helpful back in LA," he defended.

    Elaine also was not a fake wizard. She took a dive on the tests Carlos gave her. For some reason, she didn't trust the White Council and did not want to be drafted into the Wardens.

    "Well, she's got more talent than Balducci."

    "And is easier on the eye," Carlos smirked.

    "Yes, Elaine does look better than a white-toothed pretty boy," I sighed.

    "Should I be jealous?" Carlos inquired.

    "Honestly, this was his first real experience on the spooky side," I chewed my lip. He did some good legwork, and was handy in the records office, but Saito could have flayed him alive. "I'm not sure he'll stick around."

    "Or if he should?"

    "He's taking a few days off to recover from the smoke inhalation, and he helped narrow down the rally point to the gardens with Stallings, but his office is still taking new party appointments" Finishing off the smoked fish, I smirked. "And he's still got a few months until he's gotta renew his yellow page ad."

    Standing up and still favoring his bad leg, Carlos rolled his eyes and gave me the last shrimp. I smiled.

    "I'd warn you to not do anything reckless, but..." He gestured at me.

    "Hey, I ran into Saito!" I stomped a foot.

    The Warden looked down at my let than up the length my skirt. "I was talking about the rest of you."

    I pouted. "I had good reasons to go this way."

    "Yeah, you had good reasons to make a zombie dinosaur, but at least it got to ride her."

    My cheeks colored. "Well, it's not like I'm the one who's gotten all skittish around Wintry women."

    "Wintry women with pointy teeth and claws."

    My pout grew. I was going have to talk to Molly, my Winter Lady, about that.

    Carlos smirked. "Look on the bright side to this Balducci thing."
    "Oh?"

    "Yeah, when Maggie turns nine you can have some real magic at her birthday party."

    I wanted to throw something at the cocky little warden as he shuffled off down towards the river. He had a point; I did have to get back and pickup my daughters. Maggie had school tomorrow and there was only so much help her dog Mouse could be with it.


    End Invisible Hand.


    Notes: This first story of Dresden's adventures dealing with the fallout from Blood Debts ran a bit longer than I thought. The plot will be running parallel with mainline Return, specifically Bonding Allure. For example this story takes place before chapter 1

    But the arc of Dresden and her family and friends will be split across multiple one shots. Next up will be Our Sister, the Idiot. Then will be Family Business, Haunting Relationships, Dreamland, and others.


    Thanks to Lukkai for suggesting the burned-out car bit. Thanks to DCG, Ellf, Kevin D Hammel, Henry Stickman, and J.St.C.Patrick for their help with the corrections. And now all the corrections are in ^^;
     
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2019
  24. GeneralAllenWalker

    GeneralAllenWalker Know what you're doing yet?

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    Very interesting chapter. I really liked It.
     
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  25. steamrick

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

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    You're a succubus now. So yes, you're beyond doomed, no matter what gender said teens might be.
     
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  26. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    Thanks! I'm happy to have this little story finished. As it shows a bit more of Dresden's post-succubus life.

    Hehe, yah Dresden is still trying to grapple with the whole "Holy crap, I'm a demon!" thing. And given Molly and Austin... Dresden was getting teenage protegees, as a human.
    Now that she's a demon.... well things with Winter Lady Molly are more streamlined...
     
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  27. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Know what you're doing yet?

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    And chapter 4 has been updated with some great corrections from Pat.

    And to give a bit of new content.

    Enjoy this bit from the mainline Return story. Well.... sometime in the future.

    [​IMG]
     
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