Beyond the Outer Gates Lies… Heroes?

Author's Notes: Welp, here's the next chapter! A bit delayed, but for good reasons:

1) the fact that this is a LOOOOOOONG chapter. Seriously. 127 pages. All in one chapter. That's mildly ridiculous, but I had said to myself back when I started, 'Gabe, this chapter is going to the end of book 4, one way or the other!' So, rather than conveniently breaking it into bite sized bits, you better make sure you don't start reading this right before you have something you really need to do.

2) The newest Dresden File came out! Overcome with anticipation, I had no choice but to set my writing aside to quiver like a 5 year old on a sugar high counting down the days. Of course, once I got it, I finished it in one day, which is, well, rather anticlimatic considering the emotional investment I had in. I need more hobbies.

And 3) I just felt like taking a break. It happens some times. So instead, to let the creative juices percolate I just went and restarted Disgaea 2, determined that this time Bael's Prinny suit would be mine for sure. And it is now. And it's awesome.

So, anyway, with that, enjoy!

Also, go back and read Surarrin's 'Devil You Know'. Seriously. Way better fic than this.

*Story Start*

"There," I proclaimed, though it came out a bit mumbled from the needles that were precariously perched between my teeth.

And thus you have taken your first steps towards your future as the world's least accomplished tailor, Lash announced solemnly. Now that your embroidery has reached past the point of laughable, we can move on to crotchet. And after that, knitting.

"Har, har," I told her. "You mock my goals, but when I stand firm atop a mountain of sewing machines, the depleted spools of thread strewn about in unmatched carnage, we shall see who has the last laugh."

A noble goal, she nodded seriously back. But still too much for one of your level. If you cannot master the pincushion, than how can you ever dream of holding the title 'Knitter's Knight'?

"Oh, I liked that one," I complimented her, grinning despite my attempt at maintaining brevity. I ran the back of my hand across my forehead, before frowning slightly. "Seriously though: how does it look?"

Let me take a look, shall I? Lash offered, making a production of leaning forward so she could hum conspicuously as she made a show of studying my attempts. It was all theatrics, considering that she had literally been in my skull watching as I stumbled my way through the effort of forcing the course dark thread through heavy canvas repeatedly.

"Also, Lash," I continued, tone bland.


"A maid? Seriously?"

I have no idea of what you speak, Master, she told me airily as she adjusted her apron. In keeping with her latest hobby, the ancient spirit of deceit, temptation, and damnation continued to cosplay as a servant girl without shame.

"You know what?" I cocked my head to the side. "This one isn't that bad. Though I can't help but contemplate the practicality of finally having a maid that I can look at but who can't really do any of the cleaning at all."

Are you implying something, Master? Lash gave me a narrowed look, straightening as she finished her show of studying my handiwork.

"I still come down on fairy housekeepers as being better," I shrugged, glancing away from her for a moment as I gave my work one final look.

Then I turned back and paused.

"Really?" I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at the small, illusory table that had appeared next to me, and the vintage eighteenth century tea set that had been placed on it.

"And how would Master like his tea?" Lash asked, this time making her voice appear as though I was hearing it through my ears. She was still in the maid outfit, and from her position, her tone, and her expression, she matched just about every expectation that my recent exposure to TV and doujinshi whenever hunting Akihabera for the good stuff had set in me.

"When did your skirt get that short?" I asked back, raising an eyebrow and definitely above all else not looking. Her original maid outfit had been a respectable and sensible piece. This one…

Damn you hormones!

"Two sugar and some lemon then, Master," Lash skipped over me actually answering in favor for just using the fact that she lived in my head to get the answer.

"My god, are we really doing this?" I couldn't help but question the world around me. "She really has gone insane."

"And would the Master also enjoy some snacks?" she continued her act as a maid, even as she casually pulled out from nowhere a plate of what looked like cakes and cookies so fancy they probably had names longer than mine.

"But if she did go insane, should I seek professional help?" I wondered to myself, massaging my forehead slowly as I considered it. "I mean, how do I even begin? 'Help, the voice in my head has started to become delusional!' 'My imaginary friend has started to say and do things that aren't real?'"

"Master should cease his useless prattling, and enjoy the tea while it is still warm," Lash sniffed haughtily, and I gave her a flat look as she began pouring from the fancy pot into one of the delicate looking cups.

"Lash…" I began, before sighing and deciding that I should support her new hobbies to the best of my abilities. It was a step away from tempting me into damnation and manipulating the people around me into awkward love-decahedrons. "Just… Just give me your opinion on the sigils."

She opened her mouth, but paused, looking at me expectantly, and I gave in completely to the madness, and reached out to pick up a cup. It felt heavy in my hands, the weight of porcelain and liquid that wasn't really there registering as she manipulated my nerves. Knowing it was pointless but proceeding anyway, I put the cup to my lips.

Then I paused, blinking as I looked down at the imaginary tea I was drinking.

"This is really good tea," I declared solemnly, and Lash smiled slightly.

In regards to your efforts, Lash's voice was back in my head for the moment, I can see no reason why they should not be successful. However, bear in mind that this is in truth as much my first try as it is yours.

"And you have no idea how disturbing it is for me to consider that," I admitted, taking another sip of the tea: peppermint, my favorite. "The fact that someone like YOU is having first times…"

"If that is Master wishes, than this servant would be happy to serve," Lash's shadow spoke up in a serious, albeit shy tone. "Even if it is her first time…"

"Did your blouse just get smaller?" I asked her dryly. "And seriously. First time? You? Not buying it."

She was a creature older than time who had led thousands to their damnation. I didn't think for a second that that leading hadn't involved physical persuasion when it needed to.

"Oh Master, how you kid," she told me, blushing girlishly as she put her hands to her cheek and glanced away.

"I'm honestly disturbed right now," I admitted, though I neglected to admit that I also found the sight more than a little attractive.

She'd already know, but saying it was just the nail in the coffin that I had to avoid at all costs.

According to the powers displayed by the sword of light… Lash began, and I coughed surreptitiously. She gave me a dry look despite her performance before giving in herself and continuing, By your lightsaber, these new sigils should be sufficient for you to enchant some resistance to the powers of light that angelic beings seem to manipulate in this world. However, unless sufficiently tested I am unable to determine to what degree.

"In other words, it's a last ditch effort in case I get in over my head, so I should just treat light like any other power: the best defense is to just not be hit," I concluded, before sighing briefly. "Though all things considered…"

We'll probably know by the end of the week, Lash nodded knowingly, and I scowled at her before sipping the tea. I gave my coat another inspection, though at this point there really wasn't much more I could do except take it home and start with the enchanting. I hadn't had the proper resources for this kind of cloth work, so I had decided to appropriate some of the school resources to do so. However, since I didn't want Sona finding out and using it as more ammunition for enforced labor as compensation, I had decided to be sneaky about it.

Hence, the current situation: me, sitting in a dark classroom, drinking imaginary tea and talking with my invisible friend, who was currently…

"Okay, that doesn't even count as a maid outfit anymore!" I declared, trying not to blush as I glanced back over to see that at some point Lash had done away with just about everything but the apron. "Seriously, Lash, there's a time and place for everything, and this is definitely not the place for a Naked Apron!"

"But Master," Lash smiled at me seductively, playing with the edges of the apron. "I'm not naked beneath this. Would you like to see what I still have on?"

"No, no, no!" I declared, and Lash smiled as she started to lift the edge of the apron up to…

"Dresden-kun?" a new voice interrupted, and Lash abruptly vanished as I blinked, turning to look to the door. Tsubaki was standing there, looking at me very carefully, and I realized that I still had one hand up as though holding the teacup which had also vanished, and my other hand had dragged the coat over me as I had started to put it over my eyes. Then I realized that I had been talking with Lash out loud, due to my supposed solitude.

"How long were you there?" I asked in growing dread.

"Er," Tsubaki was very carefully looking away, and when she spoke it was with the careful measured tone that you used when you were worried the person in front of you might have a few screws loose. "Whatever it is you and Lash get up to at home, I don't think school is appropriate for Maid Naked Apron play. And should you really be doing such things when Kaichou has already confessed her feelings to you?"

"God, kill me now," I groaned, letting my head fall onto the table.

God is dead, my host, Lash laughed at me despite her words.

'I hate Bizzaro World so much.'

*Scene Break*

"Is it just me, or have you been spending a lot of time recently with the Student Council?" Ise asked curiously, as he helped me clean the blackboard after class had ended for the day. Then he gave me a lecherous grin. "So then it's true, you and Kaichou…"

"No," I sighed the sigh of the damned, and set about setting rumors straight again. "Rumors of my prowess have been greatly exaggerated."

"Eh?" Ise blinked, giving me a strange look and I grumbled.

"Right, Harry," I muttered to myself. "This is Japan. They don't have to read Mark Twain out here."

"Who's that?" Ise asked, and I pondered for a moment, before finally deciding that there was no reason to inflict 'Huckleberry Finn" on the other boy.

"Probably doesn't even know where Cairo is," I muttered again, before shaking my head and pushing on. "And no, no matter what everyone says, me and Sona and Tsubasa are not currently engaged in kinky threesomes." Then I shook my head in minor disbelief. "You know, I've dealt with rumors before, but none of them have ever been based around me being some kind of Casanova playboy. It's a strangely enlightening experience."

There was a story behind all this.

And for once, it's probably all my fault.

When I had asked to speak to Sona and Tsubasa personally, I had had the best intentions. I'd just wanted to clear the air, decide whether or not I was going to shut them down then and there, and in the end had ended up striking a tentative balance with the two.

However, I had done the dumb thing, and rather than waiting for an ideal moment when it was the three of us alone in the first place, I had done it directly in front of one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet:

Schoolgirls with an insatiable lust for gossip.

They say the only thing that moves faster than the speed of light is rumors, and by the time I had finished lazing about for a few days I returned to discover that I had been in equal parts deified as I had been demonized in the eyes of the local populace. It turned out that Tsubasa and Sona had both been idolized by a good majority of the female population. Japan apparently had a fetish for setting people on pedestals and then worshiping them from creepy fanclubs. There was a whole industry for it apparently.

It hadn't taken me long before the glares from so many random girls I had never even spoken to before started to get to me, and thus I had turned my mighty investigating skills on the populace around me and employed the most dastardly of tactics in order to figure out their meaning: I had asked the first person who didn't look like they were plotting my demise what the hell was going on.

In another of those moments where I couldn't help but wonder just how much free time the people around me had and why they never spread it around to me, I had been informed that according to established and apparently formal polling, Sona had been listed as the number three most popular girl in school. On Tsubasa's side, apparently she had a somewhat tomboyish appeal that appealed to girls too and was popular among a much more select crowd.

I wasn't certain which of the members of Sona's peerage had been the one to start the rumors, or if they had done it on purpose, but apparently the day after I had had my pow-wow with them it had been a popular gossip that the three of us were in some kind of love triangle. It had taken a day after for it to be common knowledge that I was leading them on, and the next day it was established fact that I was cruelly taking advantage of two innocent girls while engaging them in depraved sex acts.

Hell's bells, these people needed hobbies.

"Still, are you sure?" Ise asked, looking doubtful as we finished up the chore. I had to hand Japan one thing: saving costs on janitors by having students do the cleaning under the guise of personal responsibility was one of the most insidiously well-crafted ploys I had ever come across. I mean, they could try getting away with that in America by calling it 'building character' but the PTA would probably eat any school alive and there would be way to much potential for lawsuits due to labor laws. Unions would probably step in too.

"I'm one hundred percent positive that Sona, Tsubasa, and I are not making the beast with three backs," I told him, and he blinked, not understanding my euphemism for a moment before he figured it out and snorted. "Besides, if we're talking about rumors, what's this I hear about you having despoiled the schools number one most popular girl and the new exchange student?"

"It's not like that," Ise groaned, having the air of someone who had had to explain something way too often already. "It's just that for some reason Buchou and Asia-san seem to be having some kind of competition over me. After school the two will link arms with me while glaring at each other, and at home they keep fighting over who gets to do things to me and stuff!"

"At home?" I prompted, frowning slightly as we finished up our work. With a resigned sigh I picked up my staff and bag and started making my way out of the classroom. Ise apparently decided to tag along, probably not really caring where we were going.

"Yeah!" Ise grinned, getting excited. "Since Asia-san had nowhere to go when she became a devil, Buchou convinced my parents to let her stay! And then after I beat that fried chicken bastard, she decided to move in too for some reason…"

"For some reason?" I prompted again, giving Ise a careful look. He honestly looked like he had no idea why the two girls were apparently fighting, and I suddenly felt a lot like Thomas must have felt whenever it was my turn to miss the signals.

"Yeah," Ise frowned but shrugged as he went on. "But now the two of them always seem to be arguing about something. Usually, it's when Buchou starts to spoil me, and then Asia-san starts to try and compete as well! I'm worried that Buchou might be a bad influence on the innocent Asia-san."

"Spoiling?" I continued my parrot impression, wondering if I should proclaim my love of crackers and pieces of eight at some point.

"Yeah," Ise grinned. "Apparently, the Gremory are famous for having a strong love of their subordinates, and because of that Buchou is always doing amazing things for me! Even if I'm just being thought of as a pet, it's still great!"

"Amazing things?" I stroked my chin, trying to appear encouraging.

"Like giving me a 'lap pillow', or even a 'spoiled child!'" Ise cheered, before he frowned. "Hey," he gave me a careful look. "Haven't you just been repeating something I said for the last few minutes?"

"Something you said?" I asked, and he snorted slapping me on the shoulder as he grinned. Still, even as the moment passed, I couldn't help but sympathizing with Thomas of the past dealing with me of the past.

I mean, how much more obvious can you get? What else does Rias and Asia need to do? Sleep with him naked or something?

But even as I thought uncharitable things about the other boy's abilities of observation, I could remember it, the time I Saw him: scared, confused, and that deep, fresh aching wound carved into his chest…

I decided to keep my mouth shut for once.

It was hard though. Seriously. Smartassedry is addicting once you get into it.

"So anyway," he prompted, glancing around as I kept making my way down the hallway. "Where are you going?" He eyed my staff for a second. "Have you gotten any more jobs recently?"

"Actually," I sighed in defeat, already knowing what the truth would prompt, "I'm heading to the Student Council Room."

"So you and Kaichou…" Ise grinned in triumphant, and it was my turn to smack him one in a manly way.

"Not quite," I explained as I led on. "I've recently canceled my internet: I just had too many bills stacking up so I had to start making executive decisions. I can mostly check my website for requests using my phone, but if I need to make any updates or anything I have to use my laptop. I negotiated a deal with Sona to use the school's internet, but in return I have to do odd jobs around the school when they pop up." I scowled a bit after that. "Also, they're holding my coat hostage."

I realize that Tsubaki had taken it because I had been using school resources on it the night before, and Sona had a pretty straightforward 'confiscate and hold ransom until enough work is finished' policy whenever I did something like that, but I really did need that back. It made me nervous to try and work without it.

"Man, paying bills must be tough," Ise commiserated, grimacing as he did so. "I guess I better start saving up now…"

"Saving?" I repeated casually, and he opened his mouth to answer before he paused, realizing what I was doing and he gave me an amused look. "But seriously. I remember you mentioned working as a devil before," I continued. "How's that working out for you?"

"Eh," Ise grumbled as he waved a hand in front of him side to side. "I always end up having all the weirdos! Like Mil-tan, or Susan! How am I supposed to fulfill a contract when they're asking me to make them into a magical girl?"

"Who's Mil-tan?" I asked, cocking my head to the side as the name seemed vaguely familiar.

"You don't remember Mil-tan?" Ise asked, blinking at me as he did so. "He's the strongest woman born of a man in history. You met him before…"

"'Woman born of a man'?" I repeated, not having heard that term before and getting more and more confused. I'd only ever been with Ise while he was working that one time…

Then I remembered.

"Oh," I shuddered. "Well, you can't win them all, right? Believe in your dream and keep trying and I'm sure someday you'll succeed." I probably said that last bit a little too deadpanned because he gave me a flat look in response.

"When you say something like that in that tone of voice it makes me want to punch you," Ise declared flatly, before recovering some of his cheer. "Well, I've recently got this one client who I've been doing well with! He's a little weird, lives in a big mansion and everything but he keeps calling me to go fishing with him or shopping and stuff. He pays really well though!"

"Well if he needs any wizarding stuff done, give me a call," I told him with a sigh. "I could use a client like that." We drew to a halt as we arrived at the Student Council room. "Well, this is me."

"I haven't talked to Saji for a bit, so I'll drop by too," Ise decided, and I shrugged not really caring one way or the other. Then his smile turned slightly lecherous. "That and just about all the Council are lookers too!"

"Well, whatever floats your boat, Galahad," I told him rolling my eyes as I started to open the door.

"Welcome back, Master," Tsubasa declared, and I stared at her a moment, and then at the room behind her as Ise started to cheer.

"Sorry," I said. "Wrong room." Then I closed the door.

"Hey!" Ise protested, giving me a frown. "What do you mean wrong room? It says 'Student Council' right on the door."

"That must be a mistake," I shook my head seriously. "Because there's no way that half the Student Council would suddenly decide to wear maid costumes. That would be ridiculous. There was no way that Sona or Tsubaki would let something like that happen: she'd be too busy stomping everyone back into their proper uniforms, rather than sniffing…"

I blinked as I realized something that the maid ambush had nearly covered up. Quickly, I opened the door back up.

"Welcome back, Master," Tsubasa declared again, still grinning as she did so, but I was too busy pointing at Sona who had started to turn red.

"Why are you sniffing my coat?" I demanded. Sona herself was sitting rather stiffly, looking like she had taken the deer approach to having head lights pointed at her as she sat very still in the hope that my visual acuity had somehow shifted to being motion based in the past few moments. Beside her, Tsubaki had a hand up to cover her mouth as she tried to cover up a laugh, but on the other side of Sona was…

"Buchou!" Ise cheered, immediately following me into the room. It looked like he had intended to just take a moment to stare at all the maids but had been surprised when he found his own Master present at all. "Wait, what are you doing?"

Rias cleared her throat and looked away as she put down the sleeve that she had been holding to her nose as well.

"There is a very good reason for all this," Akeno declared, also apparently giggling just like her fellow Queen, as she adjusted her apron and then the frilly thing she had in her hair as well.

*Scene Break*

"Okay," I began a few minutes later as explanations were made. Some of them were even believable. "So I can understand why the maid thing came up."

"I'm sorry, Dresden-kun," Tsubaki offered me, smiling in a way that made me doubt her sincerity. "But I did have to report why I had confiscated your coat…"

"That and it was really, really funny," I concluded for her, nodding understandingly as I did so. "Trust me, I know. If I had found you in a situation like, I would definitely tell everyone you know as well."

"Of course," Tsubaki allowed, still smiling.

"So then after hearing about it, Tsubasa decided to try it because…" I trailed off, giving the Rook an expectant look.

"Well, after hearing about Harry-kun's interests, isn't it natural that I would try them myself?" Tsubasa offered, and I sighed, knowing that any attempt at denying an interest would only fuel the belief that I did indeed have a maid fetish. Which I didn't. At all.

'Don't do it Lash,' I ordered her preemptively.

I was not considering an image of your two pursuers in maid costumes, with you pulling their… Lash began mischievously, and I cut her off.

'Somehow, I know you planned all this,' I told her. I wasn't sure how she had managed to pull it off, seeing as she hadn't even been able to communicate with them, but I just knew in my heart of hearts the present scene was no doubt the result of some hideous and evil scheme of hers. 'Well played, Webweaver. Well played.'

"So Tsubasa aside," I went on, "I can even hazard a guess why Ruruko and Momo joined in…"

"Why's that?" Saji asked, the other boy looking distracted as he glanced around the room, taking in the sight of so many of his normally serious coworkers dressing up for fun. I even caught him giving a disappointed look in the direction of Sona, who had recovered her composure at this point. At his side, Ruruko winked at me, helpfully supplying her target with cakes, while Momo gave me a half smile as she poured him tea.

"You'll figure it out eventually," I told him, and he scowled, pretty much his normal expression when dealing with me. "What I don't understand is why Akeno and Tomoe joined in as well?"

"Because it's cute!" Tomoe declared happily, twirling around to make her long skirt flare around her. "Lookie, lookie, Dres-chan! Being a maid is so much fun!"

"Ara, ara," Akeno was standing beside Rias, who had recovered her earlier poise at having been caught doing strange things to my coat. "Being a maid is fine too. Even the Ultimate Queen is a maid, after all. Besides, when one thinks of maids doesn't it bring to mind an affair, Ise-kun?"

The look the dark haired girl shot the kid as she leaned forward with an arm crossed across her body to help flaunt her chest would have been enough to even give me pause if I had been the target, and Ise couldn't hold himself back from cheering.

"Yes! It's amazing! Hurray for maids!"

"Tsk," Rias glared to the side as her servant shamelessly flirted with her own target. I half expected her to put the fear of the master into the other girl, but could only blink when she went on. "If I had known my lovely Ise was coming, I would have worn it too!"

"Oh! Buchou in a maid outfit!" Ise was breathing so hard that I was worried the kid was going to pass out. I could only give Rias a strange look as rather than getting angry at her friend bluntly declaring her intent to try to seduce the boy that she was interested in she instead mourned the opportunity to dress up for him instead.

I was beginning to get a really weird vibe when it came to how devils handled relationships.

"What I don't get," I went on, turning to give Sona a curious look, "was why rather than put a stop to it before it got out of hand you were more interested in smelling my coat?"

"Initially, I intended to stop this before it could continue," Sona admitted, "I was unfortunately distracted by the arrival of Rias and Akeno. Perhaps because she is less familiar with you, Dresden-kun, but Rias happened to take notice of something that I had overlooked."

I stared at her for a moment. "The fact that I wash my coat lining regularly?" I finally offered, not really having any idea what she was referring to and taking a guess. "The type of cologne I use? My favorite brand of leather lotion? My manly musk?"

"Dresden-kun!" Reya blushed at the final blunt addition to my list of potential olfactory factors. "Meguri-chan," she went on, gently stopping a still spinning Tomoe. "You'll make yourself sick if you keep that up…"

"Dizzy…" Tomoe agreed, letting herself get calmed down even as she staggered a bit.

"The enchantments that you have on your coat," Sona corrected, frowning as she adjusted her glasses. "I'm not aware if you know this, but all devils have a sixth sense for sensing power. When we detected the magic, we attempted to try and identify it, but were having trouble discerning just what it was."

"Close proximity helps, so we were simply holding your coat closer," Rias offered me, smiling apologetically. "We didn't expect anyone to come in, and didn't realize how it might appear to an observer. My apologies if we startled you, Dresden-kun."

"Er, no harm done," I frowned, feeling a little annoyed at the casual violation of my privacy. It's not like I confiscated their things and then tried to unravel their secrets via scent based investigation. Then again, it wasn't like my coat had anything that outlandish on it either. "It's just my protective spells is all."

"Oooh!" Ise began nodding as I explained. "That makes sense. No wonder you're always wearing it! I just thought you liked it because you thought it looked cool."

"It certainly gives you a roguish appearance," Tsubasa added, smiling at me as she did so. "I always thought it looked rather good on you."

"Er, thanks?" I offered, blinking and finding that my tongue seemed to have swollen a bit as I had trouble dealing with the direct complement. I coughed briefly, before continuing. "But not quite. I like the image as much as the next guy, but dusters like this are the best kind of target for that kind of enchantment. See?" I stood up and held the coat so that it hung before me. "It's long, so it can be used to cover the legs as well, and you can pull it all around you if you need it. Since it's roomy, you can fit a second person in there too in a pinch, if you don't mind abandoning your personal space that is."

All hail the power of the duster. I didn't wear it just because I watched too many John Wayne films when I was in my developmental years.

Though if I ever got a hold of a ten gallon hat and spurs, you wouldn't exactly catch me turning them down either if you catch my drift.

"I see," Sona frowned slightly. "If I recall, you didn't start wearing it until after you learned what we were…" Tsubaki's eyes widened slightly as she realized what her master was implying.

"In my defense," I offered apologetically, "I was working under the assumption that you were vicious hell beasts out for my soul. Can you really blame me for taking some precautions?"

"No," Sona sighed, smiling slightly at my reasoning. She raised an eyebrow after that. "Though now that that assumption is out of the way, why your continued use of it?"

"Well, since I started hanging out with you devils I have been attacked by a bunch of fallen angels and disgraced exorcists," I shrugged. "Again, can you blame me for taking precautions?"

"Not really," Sona allowed, shaking her head as she again acknowledged my reasoning.

"So then if it's enchanted, just what does it do?" Ise offered, more curious than concerned about the overtones of the conversation. His eyes lighted up after a moment. "Is it super thick like armor or something?"

"It's resistant to being pierced or cut, and can cushion some blunt impacts," I began, fanning my coat as I put it back on. "It's also protected against fire, lightning, ice, acid, sheds water, resists stains, and I enchanted it to breathe a lot better than normal leather." I sighed briefly. "I add a new level to it every time someone tries to kill me with something new."

Rias and Sona both looked taken aback at the list, but Reya and Tomoe began to giggle.

"You really enchanted it just so it can breathe better?" Momo asked, also looking like she was covering a smile, and I gave her a blank look.

"Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is when someone tries to kill you in the middle of summer and you left your protection behind because you were worried about heat stroke?" I offered, and she began to laugh as she pictured it. Even Saji snorted at that.

"That would be rather inconvenient," Tsubaki nodded, smiling as well. "Though I have to admit, the list was rather impressive. I've heard of defensive enchantments like that before, but they're rare. What type of magic do you use? The calculations must be quite complex."

"Calculations?" I asked, cocking my head to the side in curiosity. "What do you mean?"

What did math have to do with magic, after all? Magic was the use of emotions and belief, the imposition of one's will upon the world through iron discipline and long training. It didn't have much in common with using a calculator, after all.

Don't get me wrong: calculators are freaking awesome too. Trust me, as someone who had to use an abacus most of their life, calculators are one of the most underestimated pieces of awesome you'll ever come across.

"Oh, I know this one," Ise piped up, raising a hand as though he was still in class. "Unlike demonic power, which uses imagination, magicians use calculations based around different types of magic circles in order to make things happen instead." He paused, giving me an expectant look. "Though I've never actually seen you use any circles before. Why's that?"

I stared at him, suddenly feeling confused and a little wary. "Huh?" I finally managed to get out, though my stomach was starting to sink even as I did so.

Again. This world was so similar to mine that I sometimes forgot something fundamentally important: I was from beyond this creation's boundaries. The rules I played under were different from the ones everyone else did. Even if some things seem to have changed in a minor fashion, like my ability to actually use electronics, and some of them stayed the same despite the differences, like the ability to soulgaze, Bizzaro World still had some pretty profound curveballs to chuck at me.

But the very idea that magic, the ability that was pretty much the very center of my character as a wizard, would be different too had just never occurred to me.

It only took me a second to recover from my sudden realization at such a huge fundamental difference there was between my world and this one, and I entertained the brief hope that no one had actually noticed my slip.

Until I remembered I was still in the same room as Sona.

"Dresden-kun," she began, light glistening off her glasses as she adjusted them. "You do use calculations for your magic, don't you?"

"Of course, of course," I waived my hand as though to brush off her unspoken accusation. "Not using calculations would just be ridiculous, after all."

Sona looked at me for a moment, and then sighed. Slowly, she began to massage the bridge of her nose.

"That didn't fool you at all, did it?" I asked, with my own sigh as I began to suppress the signs of what promised to be a full blown panic attack.

"Even if it did, asking that question would have been confirmation enough," she told me. Rias sat straighter, mouth hanging open as she glanced between the two of us, realizing what Sona had already figured out due to her being more familiar with me.

'Lash,' I began quietly. Slowly, carefully, I began gathering my power. 'Be ready.'

Ask, and I shall provide, my host, she whispered back, her tone every bit as serious as mine.

I had no idea what was about to happen next, and that made me very, very nervous.

I had gotten so used to these devils, so used to this world, that I had let my guard down. I had gotten careless. If I had a time machine, I'd use it to go back five minutes and slug myself in the face for this.

I had just been revealed to have abilities which were completely alien to those of this world. Without even realizing it, I had let it slip.

The question was: what now?

I had no idea how these devils would react. Hell's bells, I had no idea how a normal person would have reacted.

Imagine for a moment that you were talking to someone. You had known them for a while. And somehow, in the course of the conversation, you suddenly notice that despite having known them for a while, that they had no shadow. When you look back, you realize that they had never had a shadow. It was impossible: a shadow was the result of natural laws, it was the absence of light due to one's mass blocking its path.

But that shadow wasn't there, despite the person being right in front of you.

How do you react to something like that? The realization that the person you thought you knew was different, wrong in some way that should be absolutely impossible?

Would you freak out and run away, swearing never to be near them again? Would you catch them and try to experiment on them to figure out how it was that something like that could occur scientifically?

Or would you attack them, either out of fear or hatred for someone who was violation of the natural order of the world?

Because right now I was that person without a shadow, and I was about to find out what the devils' preferred choice was.

"W-wait!" it was Ise who spoke into the stunned silence. "You mean… you mean you're a magician who can do their magic by instinct rather than using a magic circle?"

"This exceeds even my expectations," Sona muttered, still rubbing her nose as she pulled off her glasses. "I had heard that magicians like that existed. But that one was here the whole time…"

"Magicians that don't use calculations?" I asked carefully, still gathering my will. Carefully, hopefully, I prodded for answers. "What do you mean?"

"Well, most of the time magicians have to make careful calculations in order to use their spells," Rias began, studying me with hawk like intensity. Despite her seriousness, a smile was starting to break across her face. "But there are people who sometimes are able to make those calculations instinctively, and thus can use magic without the necessary steps that most need."

"But Buchou," Ise began, looking between me and Rias so quickly he kind of resembled a hummingbird. A hummingbird with a gaping mouth and wide eyes. "Aren't people like that supposed to be incredibly hard to find? Can't they be described as something like 'rare' with the word 'super' in front of it five or six times?"

"I see," I let my will start to relax, nodding slowly. "Like one of those idiot-savants that can calculate prime numbers up to eight digits long or something in their heads…"

I had forgotten what the other reaction people had to finding something impossible:

Rationalizing it until it made sense enough for them to ignore it completely.

Pretty much how most normal people handled the supernatural, this world or the one before.

Then I realized what I had just said and held a hand up even as Tsubaki quickly opened her mouth.

"I know, I know," I told her with a sigh. "I set myself up for whatever it is you're going to say."

"It's not fair that you won't let me say it then, Dresden-kun," she told me, frowning as she folded her arms. I paused and then sighed and put my hand down to motion a 'get on with it' gesture. She smiled again immediately. "Well, at least you qualify for half of the title 'Idiot-Savant'!"

Akeno giggled, a sound that quickly spread through the room as I sighed, rolling my eyes dramatically.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," I told them. As long as it helped everyone focus on something that drew attention away from potentially revealing that I was really far from Kansas, I was willing to accept a little friendly jibing.

"So you really don't use any sort of calculations for your magic, Harry-kun?" Tsubasa finally asked, leaning forward with interest as she questioned me. I shrugged, trying to look as embarrassed as possible.

"I didn't even know that was how normal people did it," I admitted. "I just did things the way my teacher told me. Is it really that strange?"

"Yes, but it isn't something to be ashamed of," Rias assured me, still giving me that studying look as she smiled reassuringly. I had the impression that there was a chess piece burning a hole in her skirt now that she thought I was some sort of once in a life time genius. "You were using such powerful spells, despite not even employing a circle..."

"Dresden-kun, how would you like to receive training in the more traditional magics?" Sona cut her off, leaning forward as she slid her glasses back on, putting her hands in front of her face as she was suddenly all business. "I would be happy to be your tutor in these matters."

"Eh!" strangely enough, it was both Rias and Tsubasa who were in sync with that exclamation.

"Kaichou! No fair playing the tutor card!" Tsubasa went on, stomping her foot angrily. I couldn't help but notice the way the ground shook slightly as the Rook apparently lost control of some of her advanced strength. "The two of you alone for long periods of time, sitting close to each other…!"

"S-Sona! To seize the moment so quickly! I won't be able to tempt him into my peerage if you help him for free!" Rias at least had a more professional reason for her outrage. Sona's glasses shown.

"If you hesitate for even a moment than did you think I, as your rival, wouldn't take that chance to surpass you, Rias?" Sona declared in a surprisingly grand tone of voice. "And why would I do such a thing for free? Dresden-kun, there would be a cost for such knowledge. I am a devil, after all."

"I see," I nodded slowly, somewhat bemused by the way so many trains of thought were being derailed simultaneously. "And that price is…?"

"The protective enchantment on your coat is quite impressive," Sona continued, smiling ever so slightly from just one side of her mouth. "It would serve my peerage well in the Rating Game…"

Rias gasped, and then reeled backwards like she had actually been physically struck. "S-Sona! To not only secure the loyalty of a budding talent, but to strengthen your peerage as well! You sly devil!"

I paused, cocking my head to the side, somewhat amused by the byplay between the two. It was the first time I had ever seen the two together, barring a few moments after the Kokabiel incident.

"Buchou and Kaichou are childhood friends," Ise whispered to me as saw my reaction to the two. "Apparently, they also have a strong sense of rivalry. You should have seen their tennis match!"

"I see…" I rubbed my chin. "Those enchantments…" I began, before pausing. "Did you want them before or after I finished making them resistant to the power of light?"

A shocked silence settle on the room.

"Ara, ara," Akeno broke in, sounding very, very cautious as she proceeded. "You… Dresden-kun, have you actually found a method to defend against that power?"

"I did say I add new protection after something tries to kill me with it. And it's not quite perfected yet," I nodded, taking from their reaction that I had just confirmed in their eyes that yes, I was really some kind of idiot-savant, a title I much preferred to anything that was close to 'outsider'. "Why do you think I was using the school's sewing supplies?" I opened my robes to trace some of the sigils and runes I had been using as a base for my experiments. "Once I finish it, I'll have to add it to the general enchantment I use whenever I get a new coat, but for now…"

I swear, somehow the light off Sona's glasses got brighter. However, it was time to show that I was no stranger to bargains either. I had spent a large portion of my life around the Sidhe, after all. I gave her an innocent smile. "Of course, I would complete them much faster if I had access to the school's facilities, and more free time…"

"Dresden-kun," Sona began slowly, the smile growing just a little. "Let the negotiations begin."

*Scene Break*

'Well, that was profitable,' I confirmed to myself smiling as I made my way out of the train station, moving on to the meeting place. It had been a slow week, but work was starting to pick up from what it had been when I first started. The supernatural community tended to be cautious to new comers, but once you start building a reputation you could start relying on word of mouth when it came to advertising.

And this time the reputation wasn't built around fire and property damage, so that was helping a lot, I think.

Hmmm, Lash made a disagreeable sound. While it was a masterstroke to request apprentice tomes in a different style of magic for each of her servants' protective spells, I can't help but feel that you could have bargained for more.

'I probably could have pushed it if I tried,' I agreed, 'but it would have cost me good will for future negotiations and might have damaged the possibility for repeat business. Besides, it's not a good idea to reach for too much at once. Magic is a fundamentally dangerous discipline. I still look back at my first apprenticeship and wonder how I made it through with all my fingers and toes still attached.'

Oh? Caution, my host? How rare! Lash teased me with a laugh. One might argue that as a competent wizard already, wouldn't this be no more difficult than simply expanding into a new aspect of your discipline?

'You make that sound like that isn't a dangerous thing,' I pointed out. 'I like to think I learned my lessons the first time around. Besides, it's not like we're in a rush or anything. Honestly, I'm more curious than anything else. Also, you're forgetting one important thing…'

I do not forget, my host, Lash informed me with restrained indignation. Though your concern is also correct. The question is…

'Can I even use this world's magic?' I finished for her, scowling as I considered it. For all I knew, even attempting to manipulate power in the way this world manifested it could turn me inside out, or rip out my soul, or cause me to suddenly manifest a desire to obey authority. 'You know, the Outsiders made this look so easy too."

I can only assume they had much practice, Lash comforted me. Perhaps in a century or two, you will be able to manage to appear so at ease as well.

'Your comfort isn't,' I muttered to her. 'If it turns out that I can't use this world's version of magic, than it will only raise even more questions as well. It's a risk, but it's one that we almost need to take: if I had backed down then, it would only have raised more questions.'

Indeed, Lash capitulated, though she had probably reached the same conclusions I had and was just paying lip service as much for the chance to banter as anything else. Though, from your earlier mention of repeat business, I take it you not mentioning that the enchantments would only last the course of a few months also factored in to your bargaining?

'It's not my fault they didn't ask,' I grinned. 'And wouldn't it be a shame if they came to depend enough on my business to be repeat customers…'

I remember when you were more naïve, Lash chuckled. Your time among the Sidhe has done much to correct that part of you.

'I wouldn't use the word 'correct' myself,' I grimaced, 'but when the world throws you squirrels, you better get used to dealing with the nuts.'

That… is one of the oddest phrases I've heard you use, Lash didn't quite seem to know how to respond to my statement, and I smiled slightly.

Even as the conversation trailed off, I checked the map on my phone to see if I was nearing in on the meeting place. I frowned slightly, glancing around to determine that I was nearly there. It should be right around the corner from here, if I was reading the map right.

"Yoho! Wiz-kun!" a cheerful voice called out, and I nodded. Well, as signs go that I was on the right road it wasn't exactly as clear as Paul had gotten en route to Calvary, but I would take what I could get. Tucking away my phone, I took a look at my apparent client.

"Hehe! You made it!" she cheered as she pushed herself up from the bench she had been waiting on. Whoever they were, they had chosen the meeting place to be near one of the large canal cum drainage ditches that had surrendered to natural order over the course of their long existences. Japan tended to have a lot of them, though Chicago had never come up short for them as well, come to think of it. "Was the place hard to find?"

I slowed down, before coming to a stop, and the girl blinked as I gave her a careful look.

Then I sighed.

"I'm getting rusty," I groaned, rubbing my forehead, not sure if I was embarrassed or frustrated at this point. "Too much peaceful living. The meeting place should have been all the tip off I needed."

"Eh?" my client blinked, looking honestly confused for a moment. I decided to fulfill my role as wise, all knowing wizard, or at least step up to the role of a private investigator that had operated in Chicago's shady underbelly long enough to make even the goodest of fellows uneasy.

"It's the location," I told her, casually reaching to where I kept my staff bundled on my shoulder, holding it like I'd seen some of the other bo-jutsu club members keep theirs. I attended the club long enough to pick up that much at least. "It's out of the way, far enough from the public eye to not be noticed, but still public enough to give the illusion of civilization. That should have been the first tip off. It's the kind of place where the gunshots might be reported, but no one would make in time before the culprits got away. Nice choice, by the way."

"What do you mean?" the girl asked hesitantly, and I snorted.

"See, that's the second mistake," I told her. "I mean, pardon my French, sugar tits, but you're a hot piece of ass." The girl blinked, and I wondered if maybe I might have been spending a little too much time around Ise. I mean, yeah, the kid was a riot, but his breast obsession might be contagious, because it was definitely one of the first things I noticed. "Why would a girl who looks like you be out in a place like this? Someone who looks like you, they know they're good looking. They know they have to be careful, stay out of the wrong side of town and all. Maybe if you had tried for a bit more oblivious, you might have pulled off the airhead approach. Or maybe if you had dressed a bit trashier you might have made the 'sugar daddy' approach. But you look like you came out of a high priced tea shop right now. Why would a girl looking like that be in a place like this?"

"Oh?" rather than be offended by my purposefully colorful choice of words, she started to smile. If I was making a list, and trust me, if I had pen and paper right now I'd be jotting full steam, than that was definitely another point to add as to why this situation screamed 'set up' with underlines to me. "What else?"

You don't live through two wars and a good couple of years in the Court of Winter without knowing a set up when you see it.

"I could mention the callouses," I offered, nodding towards her as I lifted my staff to tap it against my shoulder. "Those definitely look like… hmmm, not quite right for firearms, but just about right for someone who likes a sword or two. I could mention the way the ambient sound dropped off when you started talking, as though someone was securing the area. Or I could mention that whoever it is behind me about to jump should probably try to calm down. Mouth breathing is way too obvious. But I'll hold off on all that to just mention this: forzare."

The eruption of pure force that came from the staff I had carefully aimed behind me in a casual fashion was greeted by a solid huff as whoever it was that thought they were sneaking up on me caught it full on. A second later I was greeted by the sound of my would be ambusher coming into abrupt contact with the wall behind me.

There was always the chance that this wasn't what it looked like. It could be an honest job, by someone who was just a little cautious about who they hired. It could be another bit of petty vengeance by some school kid who thought I'd done 'em wrong. But my instincts were tingling, and after having survived as much as I have I trusted my instincts when they told me something was up.

Kinda like Spiderman's spider sense, only I could never pull off the spandex.

And a second later I was dodging, throwing myself forward and to the side as I ducked under a freaking gleaming white sword that went through the space that once held the area between my Adam's apple and my shoulders.

Old and not so old instincts sang in me. I had picked up plenty of them by this point. The war with the Red Court had stretched for years, and an unprepared wizard was a dead wizard when it came to close combat. I had taught dozens of little mini-Wardens the ropes, and if you were teaching you had to make sure your own skills were at a level where you wouldn't lose credibility by coming up short while demonstrating. Hell's bells, me and Ramirez had a long standing bet over which of us could awe the young'ins the most when it came time to show off.

"Infriga!" I snapped, upside down and rolling as I watched the blonde whirl, moving way faster that a normal human could move as she corrected her aim, spinning back at me. She hissed, striking with that too white sword in a blur as I launched razor sharp shards of ice at her. It gave me the time I needed to recover my feet, a coalescing ball of fire already radiating from the tip of my staff. "Fuego!"

Ol' one two Dresden. Hey, if it ain't broke, why hit it until it worked?

Little Miss Blondie had some moves, I'll give her that much. She recovered in time to see the fire forming, and instead of talking or doing something equally unproductive (albeit helpful to me) she dodged.

She was good at it too.

The fire I conjured was sharper, more focused than I used to toss about when I was still an up and coming mustang of the White Council. It was sharper, fiercer, more focused. It wasn't a gout of crimson flame that erupted, but a bar of white hot heat that lanced, and Blondie's eyes narrowed as she continued to have to dodge.

A bonus of using fire at this level? It actually had substantially lower risk of the building behind her catching it. Yeah, the part it hit was pretty much vaporized, but the heat diffusion was actually rather minor in comparison.

"Why are you laying around, Heracles?" the blond shouted playfully as she stayed a step ahead of my fire. I had a moment to identify the weapon in her hand, thin and sharp, a rapier, but that sheen… "Don't tell me one punch was enough to keep you down?"

"Shut up, Jeanne!" I got a glance at the guy who had been about to jump me before he had a blind date with a wall. He was a big one, that much was for sure. Rippled with muscles you could make out beneath his shirt, he didn't seem at all upset over my earlier attempt at matchmaking. Instead he was grinning cheerfully. He cracked his knuckles as he casually strode out of the alley, striding into the open stretch near the canal that I had dodged into. "Didn't expect him to hear me coming!"

"Well, you made a good shot of it, but if you're going for horror movie monster, you really need to work on your sneaking," I told him, letting the flames die off. The newly named Jeanne seemed to regard that as an opening, and lunched forward. I only had a passing knowledge of how fencing worked, but it was enough to know that a rapier's primary method of attack was a lunge, so I readied my will. "Can I recommend the Friday the Thirteenth series? I mean, no one ever heard Jason coming, and he was a lot bigger than you."

"Haha! You know, I think I like this guy!" the big guy who had probably chosen a silly name as some form of overcompensation laughed heartily. Jeanne had closed in enough to discover the shield I had formed, more triangular than planar as it caught her attack and forced it to the side. Rather than lose her footing she just carried through, the tip of her sword dragging across my shield, measuring the length until she found the end of it and she whirled to close in on me. This was when she was greeted by my staff again.

"Forzare!" She only had a second to react to my incantation as I called my invocation, and when no fireballs or icicles appeared she instantly put her blade in front of her in a move meant for general offense. She even managed to start kicking backwards as my attack of pure force collided with her, a move which made her retreat more of an ordered jump than her being sent flying.

I launched myself backwards as well, putting more power into my legs than was normally there and turning the leap into something you'd expect out of some Hong Kong action flick, landing a good distance away, near the edge of the canal. I let my staff swing backwards, held behind me and at the ready.

"Phew! You're right! Wiz-kun has a pretty good punch, doesn't he?" Jeanne declared easily, landing near Heracles as though she had meant to jump there from the start. "Maybe Cao Cao is onto something this time!"

"Ha! I haven't seen anything impressive yet," the big boy snorted, before popping his neck and striding forward. "If it's just another two bit peon, we have enough of those already!" He gave me a challenging grin. "Tell you what, magician. Why don't you show me what you got?" He stopped several dozen feet in front of me and slapped his chest challengingly. I raised an eyebrow as I realized he was literally inviting me to hit him.

"You know, if more nefarious individuals attacking me from behind for unclear reasons were as dumb as you, I'd probably feel bad for them in general," I told him, raising a hand. "Seriously. Might even start a charity: 'Save Stupid Mooks, International.' What do you think? Want to sign on? It's the ground floor of something big, I can feel it."

Jeanne giggled, but Heracles glared a bit. "Oi! Aren't you mistaking who the mook is, you two bit? I'm a Hero, after all!"

"Well you definitely qualify for the 'stupid' part after all," I told him, gathering my will. My staff started to glow slightly. "That's a relief. Still, if the invitation is still open…" I let the power in me loose, aiming it both through my staff behind me, and gathered in the air in front of me. "Fuego et infriga forzare!"

The fireball that erupted from behind me, slamming into the water of the canal with enough vicious heat to cause a geyser of steam was powered by the heat that formed the icicle in front of me, two feet in length and sharpened to a needle point, already in motion as the force I included in the spell launched it at the posing meat tank. For a second, I honestly thought he was really just going to let himself get stabbed, but at the last moment he seemed to realize something, his eyes shooting open in surprise as he swung with one hand at the blade of ice.

Judging from the way it exploded, this guy either had a whole lot more muscle than I had pegged him for, or he was cheating somehow, because the entire icicle exploded. I don't meant the part that he hit, or that it shattered when he blocked, but as in it simultaneously ruptured from every inch of its length, the fragments and particles showering to the side in a respectable radius.

"Eh?" Jeanne sounded like she was teasing again as she giggled. "What's that? Did the big bad Heracles get scared of a magical attack?"

"Shut it, Jeanne," Heracles didn't actually seemed upset at the teasing again. Instead he sounded like he was just getting more pumped up. "This guy's pretty smart after all. Instead of just throwing magic at me, he used magic to throw something sharp at me! Not bad," he boasted, casually brushing off his fist to get any stray bits of ice, "but you're going to have to do better than that!"

"Hmm," I nodded slowly, considering. "So, Jeanne, can I call you that?" I asked, pausing as I gave the girl an expectant look. She blinked, before grinning and giving me a cheerful 'thumbs up'. "Jeanne is a holy sword user of some kind. Doesn't seem like an exorcist, so probably fallen or disgraced. And Voorhees junior is some kind of Sacred Gear user. Sorry, you just don't seem the type to use magic or anything, and I didn't see a crest anyway. Also, you've definitely confirmed yourself as an idiot."

"Who the hell are you calling an idiot, you idiot!" Heracles demanded, starting to scowl a bit. Jeanne blinked, first looking surprised at my guess, before grinning as she realized I had identified just what her sword really was. "And what the hell is a Voorhees?"

"Well, you did just tell me that no matter how tough you are, you can still be cut," I reminded him patiently. "Don't worry, I won't kill you. I know a devil that's pretty good at patching people up, so after you finish answering all my questions, I'll even give her a call before I set you on your way."

"Eh!" Heracles started to laugh again. "You really think you can win? You got guts, I'll give you that much!"

"Try not to dodge too much," I told him softly, channeling will again. "I don't want to cut anything important. Infriga forzare!"

The fireball I had cast at the canal wasn't just to help channel the icicle. The steam it had generated had started rising, a nice thick cloud that was raising above and behind me. More importantly, a nice thick cloud of already prepared and positioned water.

"Oh crap!" Jeanne eeped as that cloud of water began ice with a tremendous cracking sound. Then she realized that rather than sticking with icicles, who were only really pointy at one end, I'd gave it that extra little edge that just shows how customer oriented I am and froze them into flat daggers with that could do more than just pierce. "Double crap!"

A literal wall of razor ice came plummeting down at the two, spread wide enough so that even if they dodged they weren't coming out of it unscratched. In fact, I made sure to spread it as wide as I could to make sure that I wouldn't hit anything too vital even if they wouldn't be able to keep from being hurt by it.

"Ooooh!" rather than worried, Heracles just grew a manic gleam in his eyes, and both arms began to shine with some kind of power, presumably his Sacred Gear. It looked like he was actually looking forward to the imminent icy apocalypse.

Then I had to suppress a gape as halfway to where the two were standing, a great billowing curtain of mist appeared. I actually glanced behind me to see some strange atmospheric event had caused my ammunition to blow in the way, only to find that I still had a nice batch ready and waiting.

And when the mist cleared, it was to show that all my ice had vanished and apparently been replaced by yet another stranger.

I stared at him a second, before recovering. Then I scowled. "Okay, seriously. You don't even need to do anything."

"Do anything?" the newcomer stated, adjusting his glasses curiously. "What do you mean?"

"I mean you don't even need to do something for me to Sherlock what you are," I told him. "I mean, a robe? The glasses? Dark messy hair? Why don't you just paint a lightning bolt on your forehead already, Mr. Potter?"

"Ah," Jeanne clapped at that. "Oh, I get it! I liked those books!"

"I didn't," I told her seriously, and she suddenly narrowed her eyes and glared at me. "I mean, do you have any idea how much crap I got when people found out that I was a wizard and was named Harry too?"

"I have to agree," the newcomer smiled slightly as he gave an apologetic look to the now fuming girl. "Really, Mephisto himself had to turn down a petition to find the author and attack her. I'm afraid she made no friends in the various mage associations."

"You guys are no fun!" the blonde stomped her foot angrily.

"Oi!" Heracles sounded annoyed, but at least he had lost some of that manic look. "What do you think you're doing, Georg! Interfering with a fight…!"

"A fight?" the newly identified Georg shook his head, scowling in exasperation. "Did you forget the reason that Cao Cao was interested in him in the first place? Think about how this might affect his opinion of us in the future, and how that might affect our goals?"

"Eheheh," Jeanne started to look embarrassed, rubbing her head sheepishly as she gave me an awkward look. "Sorry, Georg. It's just the last few have been so weak, we kind of wanted to see if this one was really worth it…"

"Hmph," Heracles grunted, folding his arms as he put on a sheepish look. "Heh. Right. Like Jeanne said."

"You all do know I'm standing right here, right?" I pointed out slowly, the sudden change in mood catching me a little off guard. I was somewhat surprised when Jeanne lit up, before she turned to me, and then to my utter disbelief proceeded to apologize.

"You're right, Wiz-kun! I'm sorry that we called you out here like this! Please accept my sincere apologies. Sometimes my excitability gets me in trouble. It's one of my cute points!" she told me, and if I hadn't just been attacked out of nowhere by her, I would actually think she sounded sincere.

"Er, yeah," Heracles grunted, rubbing his head and glancing to the side awkwardly. "Like Jeanne said."

"Star's and stones, are you being serious?" I told them gaping. "What, you think that you can just apologize and everything will be hunky dory? I mean, at least send a hallmark card or something."

"Right!" Jeanne straightened, giving me a cheerful salute. "Gotcha, Wiz-kun!"

"If that's what it takes," the taller boy grunted. I had a moment to wonder if Bizzaro World had never invented 'Sarcasm' and thus the two were unprepared for facing it, or if they were really that dense. Georg nodded in satisfaction, before turning to give me a polite smile, the kind you give to someone you bumped into on the street before you went on with your day.

"Our apologies for taking your time, Harry Dresden," he politely told me, and I felt a chill go down my spine as he not only greeted me by name, but in the correct order as well. "We shall take our leave now."

"Wa-," I managed to get out, but before I could finish the shine of teleportation sigils that I was getting way to jealous of at this point lit up, and the three disappeared.

Leaving me, alone, in the middle of nowhere, with several distinct pieces of property damage I was responsible for, no work, not really enough time to schedule anything else for the night, and return train fair to cover.

And with a whole lot of questions. The first one was simple enough.

'Lash,' I began plaintively. 'What just happened?'

*Scene Break*

"I hate being the new kid on the block," I muttered as I ducked out of class. Behind me, the crowd around Ise began to grow and I heard a first a guy, and then surprisingly a girl, start to shout ever increasing amounts of money as the attention the kid got for his Rias statue grew.

Who knew the kid had it in him? I guess talent grows in the strangest of places.

Unlike your own meager effort, Lash pointed out, and I sniffed with great dignity as I wondered the halls of my beloved academic institute.

'It was a perfect replica and you know it,' I told her, and she sighed.

You made a globe, and then put a depression in it, she reminded me and I nodded sagely.

'And like that: Deathstar,' I concluded, rather proud of my own building attempt. I admit, it wasn't quite in the same level as a perfectly accurate mini statue of the number ranked hottie in school, but hey, to those of discerning eyes it was enough. 'With that aside aside, I hate being the new kid on the block.'

It is a bit disconcerting, Lash agreed contemplatively. It seems that in the future we shall have to make more efforts into building a suitable network.

It had been nearly a week and a half since tweedle blonde and tweedle dumb had jumped me for no apparent reason, and then apologized for it. That week was notable for two reasons: the first being that I had actually received two cards, slipped into my shoe locker like cliché love notes. They were both rather tacky, but they also expressed their apologies and were signed.

I decided to keep them as a reminder that yes, it really did happen.

The second notable thing was: I had gotten absolutely nothing else even resembling progress in figuring out just who the baddie of the week was this time.

In my old world I had options. I could call up a variety of spirits and creatures from Nevernever, and even if they didn't have the answers they usually had a clue to point me in the right direction to go looking. I could also go to a network of various wacky or zany characters I'd met or who owed me a solid, a number of different people from all shades of the spectrum, and look for the same.

Hell's bells, if it was my old world just the way they attacked could have been a clue. The various powers all had the all flavors of culture or decorum that would influence the way they acted, be it from the fey not being able to lie to the way a vampire of whatever court moved.

But here in Bizzaro World, none of the experience I had garnered or allies-cum-enemies existed.

It was hard starting from ground up. Reminded me of when I first started out as a professional wizard, only this time without the surety that I was at least half right in everything I assumed.

"Why the long face, Harry-kun?" I glanced up, to find my tentative romantic interest Tsubasa approaching. The rook gave me a smile, though it looked like she wouldn't have had the energy to provide it for anyone else. She was carrying several large stacks of paper, and before she peeled over to come talk to me she had been moving with the air of someone with a purpose.

"Just a tough job," I told her, smiling in greeting, and pleased that I managed to keep it from being nervous. I nodded towards the stack of papers she was holding. "Looks like you know a thing or two about tough jobs too."

"Kaichou has us all running ragged to make sure everything goes smoothly," Tsubasa admitted with a rueful smile. She glanced around, checking for eavesdroppers, before leaning in and continuing quietly. "How much do you know about the upcoming conference between the three powers?"

"Well, now I can safely say that I know there is an upcoming conference between the three powers," I frowned thoughtfully. "Which is more than I could say three seconds ago."

"You didn't know?" Tsubasa sounded surprised, pursing her lips. "I would have thought Kaichou or Gremory-senpai would have mentioned it by now…"

"Well, to be fair, I've been holding some late hours," I admitted, trying to recall if either of the high leveled devils that I regularly interacted with might have mentioned it in passing. Rias had offered me an invite to go swimming with her and her peerage, but I had turned her down on the fact that me and swimming just didn't get along to well these days. Well, me and swim suits. It was hard trying to explain just why so much of me looked like it was stitched back together without admitting that I had actually had to be stitched back together for the most part. "I haven't even had a chance to have those private lessons that Sona mentioned…"

"I see," Tsubasa sounded happy about that, and she smiled slightly. "That tough job you mentioned?" She gave me an expectant look. "I'm surprised. Saji mentioned that you managed to track down Kokabiel very quickly."

"Kokabiel was a megalomaniacal nut job with delusions of grandeur that actually he might have been able to back up," I shrugged. "Those kinds of guys almost always want to be found, or are just so used to not having to hide that they suck at it. This job though…" I shook my head ruefully. "The smart and careful ones are always tough nuts to crack."

"Well keep at it, Harry-kun," Tsubasa smiled at me encouragingly, shifting so she could free one hand long enough to put it on my arm gently. "If you need help, I'll be happy too."

"Er, thanks," I shifted, trying not to show how uncomfortable the hand made me. It wasn't that the touch was bad or unwelcome or anything. The problem was that it was the opposite: it had been a long while since anyone but Lash had touched me in a way which wasn't a precursor to violence, and I'd almost forgotten what it felt like.

And also, Lash really didn't count, come to think of it, seeing as her touches actually weren't.

Tsubasa seemed to realize that the gesture was making me nervous, and she smiled for some reason as she pulled the hand back slowly to support the teetering pile.

"Anyway, speaking of help, do you want me to?" I asked, rushing past the awkward as I nodded at the pile of papers. "It looks like you have quite the load there."

"Thank you, but no," Tsubasa shook her head easily, shifting the stack up and down easily. "For someone like me, this is nothing," she reminded me, winking discreetly as she reminded me of her status as a Rook. "Though thank you for the offer."

"Just because you can doesn't mean you have to," I started to reach for the top half of the stack, my chivalry, though Murphy had always called it 'chauvinism', compelling me to try and help. I also liked to open doors and pull chairs, though again, for some reason these days these were apparently negative traits in the eyes of feminists everywhere.

"Oh, no, it's fine!" Tsubasa protested, twisting out of the way. I tried to grab again and she giggled, twisting as she made a game out of it. I snorted myself as she put her body between me and the papers, and I simply reached over her in a bid to grab them. "Ah! No fair!" she protested and ducked, trying to put the papers out of reach. "You're cheating!"

"Well there had to be at least one good thing about being this tall and not having a speck of skill at basketball," I told her as she laughed her indignation.

Then a throat cleared, and we both stopped, surprised.

Then I yelped as my cheeks unexpectedly were submitted to stretch inducing lateral force.

"'y is id aways da 'eeks!" I yelped as the fingers pinching me continued to tug.

"Dresden-kun, Yura-chan," Sona began, her glasses flashing fiercely as she glared between the two of us. "Just what do you two think you're doing in a place like this?"

"'oing?" I repeated, before realizing our position: I was standing right behind Tsubasa at this point, and the act of the both of us leaning forward in order to both defend and obtain the documents as appropriate.

In other words, it looked like I should be reaching for her hair at this point if you believed Lash's ridiculous theory about me having some sort of fetish.

Which I don't.

"Harry-kun was just giving me some help, Kaichou," Tsubasa declared smirking in triumph as I straightened and backed away. She gave me a brief wink, and I suddenly suspected that out of the two of us I was the only one who hadn't realized what we looked like.

Maybe I was right about devils being infernal manipulative creatures of deception after all.

"I question your definition of help," Sona declared, releasing my cheeks and folding her arms as she stepped between me and the Rook. "I know Dresden-kun well enough to know that he is not the type to instigate this kind of foolishness. His foolishness tends to be of a different variety. I also know you well enough to know that this scene is well within your reach."

"She who strikes first wins, Kaichou," Tsubasa declared triumphantly. "A helpful encounter changing into an embarrassing but amusing scene is also among the flags that are within my ability. Just because you will be tutoring him alone doesn't mean that it is your victory yet!"

"Using shameful and provocative methods are not proper routes to victory!" Sona countered, adjusting her glasses. "The proper approach is to take time to build a proper friendship that can bloom into a relationship more naturally over its course. I've already spoken with you about attempting to force these kinds of situations. Don't you have any shame at all, Yura Tsubasa!"

"Ha! I just saw Kaichou adjust her glasses! Admit it! You were planning how to try and set a flag up yourself too!" Tsubasa punctuated her accusation with a small stomp that somehow made the glass of a nearby window rattle.

"P-Preposterous! A-as if I would ever resort to such base tactics! Furthermore…!" Sona might have made a more believable denial if she hadn't flushed slightly, flinching back as though having taken a light blow.

The stutter was adorable though. I couldn't help but notice that, much to my own chagrin.

I was considering my options for responses as the two began to bicker again. I was split between 'slipping away while they were distracted' and 'standing by awkwardly as I tried to figure out how to calm the two of them down'. So far 'standing by awkwardly' felt like the lesser of evils, when a new voice interrupted the brewing squabble between women.

"My, my," a friendly voice interrupted, sounding amused. "I had heard that Serafall's reliable sister had started to show interest, but to see it for myself… It seems you've grown splendidly, Sona-chan."

The red on Sona's cheeks intensified, though now I noted it looked more along the lines of 'mortified' rather than 'embarrassed at having been found out'. Similarly, Tsubasa's expression turned rather white as well. Turning, I tried to identify the speaker, and managed to do it pretty quickly.

It was the hair that was the giveaway. I'd only seen one other person with a shade of red so vibrant it can only be called crimson.

"It's good that the Sitri daughter is living so peacefully," the one in a white suit declared. He looked young, maybe only in his mid-twenties, and if I was any judge of expensive suits (Which surprisingly I was. You would not believe how many over the top baddies I've come across that wear expensive suits. After a while, you get used to telling how much one costs by the quality of ash you get after setting them on fire) than this was a man that probably made more in a day than I would probably make in two or three years.

Actually, considering my current income, make that six or seven.

The man walking with him was equally young, though he was in a dark suit instead. Whereas the white suite had an air of extravagance to it, the black suit looked more functional, like it would belong on a guy who went to work in an office. Admittedly, it looked like the kind worn by the guy who was running the head office judging by its quality and material.

If these two weren't related to Rias, I would east my duster.

That right there set me on edge. Considering what I knew of Rias family, I decided to carefully, very carefully, try to get a feel for their power.

It only took me a second to confirm it.

"Maou-sama," Sona began stiffly, double confirming the conclusion I had already come to as she gave a rigid bow to the one in the dark suit. As much as she could while still holding the pile of paper, Tsubasa echoed her. "Please pardon my unsightly behavior."

"Excuse me, Maou-sama," Tsubasa added as well, before starting to edge away. "I should finish my tasks…"

I would have been impressed by the speed she managed to make her escape, but I was too busy standing stone still, studying the creature in front of me.


No. Overwhelming power. I had only tried to sense it for a moment, but now that I could recognize it, I couldn't keep the feel of it pressing against me from registering unless I actually tried.

The Devil.

I was standing in front of the Devil. Not just a devil, but THE Devil, with capital 'D' included.

Even more than Kokabiel, this was a creature of power, one of the rulers of Hell itself. I mean, I had heard the original Devil, or the first four Maou seeing as hell apparently had multiple Maou in this world, anyway, I had heard the original four Maou had died. But even if they had, I didn't think the rest of the devils would put this one as their new leader if he didn't have the power or skill to lead.

'What do you think, Lash?' I asked as the Devil apparently realized I was looking at him. Rather than any expression I might have expected, such as contempt, cruelty, arrogance, or as though I was a bug that was only uncrushed due to his malevolent benevolence, the Devil just seemed curious.

I would advise you to speak with great caution, to mind your manners, and to endeavor not to offend it, Lash began slowly, But since I know you too well, my host, I'll simply remind you that this building is very flammable and that the creature before us is probably better at setting things afire than even you.

'Noted,' I told her.

"So who is this, Sona-chan?" the Devil asked, glancing from me to Sona with a pleasant smile. Sona stiffened, and gave me a worried look. It looked like Sona was remembering how I reacted when I first learned her species, and was, probably rightfully so, worried that I was about to do something that might just get her in trouble with the Prince of Lies.

"Pardon my rudeness," she began carefully, studying me cautiously as though unsure if she should proceed or try to get me as far away from the newcomers as possible before I found some way to screw the situation up. "This is the magician, Dresden Harry. He is a fellow student here at Kuoh. Dresden-kun, this is Rias' father, the Lord Gremory, as well as the Maou Lucifer Sirzechs."

"Oh ho?" Rias' dad smiled, raising his eyebrows. "So this is the slippery magician who has been evading my daughter?" With a pleasant laugh, he offered his hand. "I've heard good things about you from my Ria, and that you have helped her in the past. Please, continue to help my daughter if she needs it."

With a deep breath, I decided what my course of action was.

Smiling politely, I accepted the hand. "Thank you. It's a pleasure to meet you. Rias has been looking out for me in the past as well, in various ways, so my thanks for that."

The look on Sona's face was priceless.

Hey, I'm a smartass. I have no problem admitting it, either. I've mouthed off to everything from the lowest Chicago thug to, quite literally, gods. In fact, I make it a point to mouth off to gods even more than I would the lowest thug. It's a matter of principle. If you don't mouth off to one particular cosmic menace, it might get sad that it didn't get the chance to experience the Dresden brand of wit that so many others have enjoyed.

However, I did draw the line around the family of people I liked. I'd done my best to play it straight with Murphy's mom, and even if it had never flown over particularly well with Charity, I'd done my best for all the rest of Michael's family too.

Admittedly, it was a rather small pool, seeing as most of my friends were smart enough to keep their family far, far away from me for a variety of reasons that I tried to tell myself never included my personal hygiene.

And so, despite the fact that the two creatures in front of me were devils, one of them being their freaking king, I brushed off the dust from the manners I had managed to gather over the years and set about playing nice.

"So this is the infamous Dresden Harry," the now identified Lucifer Sirzechs seemed surprised, but welcome as he offered his hand as well. "As my father said, it is a pleasure."

"Pleased to meet you," I told him in turn. "Hope you guessed my name."

Okay, I said I tried not to be a smartass, but really, I never said I always succeeded.

Sona's eye twitched, but while it looked like while she realized I had just mouthed off to one of the top brass, she didn't have the frame of reference to actually understand how.

I was expecting the same kind of reaction from Sirzechs, and got it for a moment when he blinked. Then his smile widened.

"Well, now you've met me. Have some courtesy, have some sympathy, have some taste."

I managed to close my mouth after only a second or two, though Sirzechs had a chuckle over my reaction.

I had not seen that one coming at all.

"My god, my minister was right all along," I finally shook my head in amazement. "Rock and Roll really is the devil's music."

"Well, that and rhythm and blues," the Devil confessed. "Though Grayfia always destroys my CDs. She worries they'll be a bad influence on my son."

"I don't know who this Grayfia is," I nodded slowly, "but if you ever get the kid a videogame you probably shouldn't let her know. They get a lot of hype for being bad influences too."

"Hmmm," Sirzechs rubbed his chin, looking contemplative. "I hadn't even thought of that. Perhaps I should see what types of games are out there before returning…"

When I woke up this morning, I definitely did not do so with the thought that today, I, Harry Dresden, would be trading banter with Lucifer, the Prince of Lies.

I honestly couldn't tell if this was a hit against or a mark for Bizzaro World.

*Scene Break*

"So how are you enjoying student life, Dresden-kun?" Sirzechs asked me as we continued to tour the school. Before Sona had interrupted Tsubasa's attempt to flirt with me, she had apparently been tasked with showing the two high ranking devils around. It was the kind of responsible thing that I had come to expect from her, truth be told.

I could almost see the aneurysm she was developing as I started to tag along. It progressed a little more each time I said something overly casual to the Maou.

"It's boring, filled with childish dramatics, and a waste of time I that could be better spent on other things," I admitted frankly. "However, those damn truancy officers…"

See, right there? That twitch Sona made? Only few more and I'm sure we'd be calling an ambulance, or at least trying to find out where Asia was.

"Haha," Lord Gremory chuckled at my blunt response casually. I was getting the impression that Rias' family was rather laid back, given how casual the two were. "I recall my own time as a youth. I cannot say I blame you for your response. However, once you finish your education you'll find yourself looking back on these days with nostalgia. Best to enjoy your youth while you live it, young man."

"Right," I agreed with him dryly. "It's not like I'll suddenly find myself magically transformed back into a teenager at some point in the future. That would be ridiculous, after all."

"Honestly, that sound like it might be fun," Sirzechs admitted. "Perhaps I'll try it, when I have some spare time."

"Really?" I couldn't help but ask, not sure if the fact he was considering doing something so ridiculous was what disturbed me or the fact that he implied he actually had the capability to do so. "You can do that?"

"Ah, if I recall you did have some misconceptions about devils originally," Sirzechs hummed. He smiled politely as he continued. "Please, allow me to explain. Devils do have the ability to control their shapes, to a limited extent. Something as simple as changing our apparent age is not very hard at all. The situation I described earlier is actually quite common; I know a number of devils that periodically decide to attend schools like this."

"Makes sense," I nodded slowly, frowning as I did so. "Gives them easy access to young and impressionable kids. Must be a good way to get contracts."

For all that I found myself reasonably capable of getting along with devils in general, it was moments like this that helped remind me that for all the good nature of the ones I knew personally they were still nominally a species that lived off of temptation.

"That," Sirzechs nodded at my guess, probably not even understanding the fact that I was disapproving of the practice, "but also it helps them stay abreast the changes in the human world. Human culture can change rather quickly, in comparison to the life of a devil. If we don't periodically make the effort to learn of those changes, we can quickly find ourselves lost while trying to interact with humans." Sirzechs made a little gesture, pointing towards where a group of school kids and their parents were using their cells to take commemorative pictures. "No more than a decade ago, technology like that was unthinkable, and yet humans have made this much progress in so short a time. I think it also helps us remember that humanity can be quite surprising as well. Humans can change and adapt so quickly to just about anything. I feel that devils can learn quite a bit from interacting with them."

"Huh," I couldn't help but grunt thoughtfully as I studied the Devil. His face had lit up when he spoke about interacting with humans, a kind of childish delight that just didn't seem kosher when coming from one of the leaders of the devil species. "I know you immortal species types tended to be fascinated by humans, but you really seem to take it seriously."

It was much like that back in my world for that matter. The Fey were at times obsessed with humanity, watching it with as much fascination as they had contempt or loathing for mortal frailty. Even Mab, for all her royal bitchiness, had a bit or romanticism for mortals buried very, very, VERY deep under the ice and malice that made up her being.

It was why she had had me kill her daughter, after all. Which probably said more about that ice and malice than the romanticism.

I couldn't help but wonder how some of the higher ups back in my world might have acted if they tried to take a few years to relive their youths. For some reason, I couldn't think of it as anything but trouble for the mortals that they would end up interacting with.

"Oh, have I been found out?" Sirzechs chuckled sheepishly. "Truthfully, as a leader I would like to find ways to encourage such interaction more from my fellow devils. Do you have any ideas?"

"Spend four years in highschool without anyone finding out you're a devil and win a free toaster?" I offered, and Lord Gremory gave me a confused look.

"What is a toaster?" he asked me, and I realized that maybe Sirzechs might be onto something here.

"Show me your new degree and I'll tell you," I responded, and Sona twitched again. Almost there…

"Perhaps I'll run this by Venelana later," Lord Gremory muttered to himself. "After Ria takes over, I should have more spare time."

"You know," I went on, giving Sirzechs another careful look. "As long as we're having a Q and A about devils, there's something that's been bothering me for a while. I keep hearing about the 'four Maou'. Judging from what I've heard on the streets, I never really would have thought that the Morningstar would be one to share power."

"I see," Sirzechs nodded, smiling slightly. "It appears that most of the knowledge you have of devils comes from more traditional sources." I shrugged and nodded, not seeing how revealing that would have any particular negative consequences. "The original Lucifer was indeed like that, as the ruler of devils. However, the other three Maou, Leviathan, Beelzebub, and Asmodeus were his strongest and most trusted lieutenants. After their passing, their names were preserved, but now more as official titles of their office."

"Indeed," Lord Gremory continued easily. "We of the Gremory are proud that one of ours was able to take the name 'Lucifer'. However, is this really the first time you've heard of such things? After all, the current Leviathan was once of the Sitri as well."

"Really now?" I turned to give a look at Sona. Her back had gone a bit rigid at the revelation, and for some reason I thought I could see some sweat starting to form. "First I've heard of this."

Now the question was just why that was. Had Sona been concealing it on purpose, or had it just never really come up in conversation before?

"We of the Sitri are also proud that one of ours could warrant such a title," Sona offered cautiously. Judging from the tone I decided to up the probability that something as important as her being family to one of the bigwigs not having come up before had been intentional.

Now that question was why?

"Serafall is indeed a wonderful member of the Maou," Sirzechs complimented the girl with a smile. "We are lucky to have her."

"Y-yes," Sona agreed, a twitchy smile forming.

She nearly sagged in relief when a familiar voice interrupted the conversation.

"Kaichou!" Saji declared, rushing to catch up with the group. The boy looked like he had been working as hard as Tsubasa had been, proof that Sona really did need to give her peerage a break before they went on strike. "Ah! Maou-sama," he realized just who was in the group a moment later and hurriedly bowed. "Forgive my interruption."

"Of course," Sirzechs waved the formality away. "You need to consult with your King, correct? Pay us no mind."

"R-right," Saji nodded, before realizing that I was in the group too and sparing a quick scowl. "Sorry, Kaichou. I just got reports that a cosplayer had snuck onto the grounds and was holding a photo shoot. I was on my way to break it up, but when I saw you I thought I should report it first."

"Hmmm, thank you for the report, Saji," Sona seemed much more at ease now that something she could deal with using her current level of authority. "Continue on. It's best to settle these things concisely."

"Right! Kaichou!" Saji declared, snapping upright at the order. "Maou-sama!" with one last bow he turned and hurried off in the direction that we were already heading.

"What a diligent peer," Lord Gremory nodded urbanely at Sona, and the girl straightened up proudly, adjusting her glasses.

"Thank you, Lord Gremory," she responded with great dignity. She seemed far more comfortable with that kind of interaction than the one Sirzechs and I were showing.

"So," Sirzechs went on as though the interruption never happened. He was probably used to it, what with running hell and all. "It is visitor's day. Has your own family decided to come, Dresden-kun?"

"They were unavoidably detained," I told him, deciding not to spoil the mood by admitting the truth. Sona gave me a quick look before continuing to lead. She seemed to appreciate me not bringing that particular can of worms any further than it had gotten. "Anyway, I have to ask: just what is it like being the Devil? You know, leading the legions of the inferno, torturing the souls of the damned, holding awesome luaus with all the hellfire, that kind of thing."

"Unfortunately luaus were determined to be detrimental to the morale of damned, and were promptly restricted to only once a year," he told me with an absolutely straight face, and I had to admit, the more we talked the more I came down on liking this version of a laid back Devil. "And honestly, it's less impressive than it sounds: too much paperwork and politics. I would rather have been a musician, personally."

"Huh," I grunted, wondering if my world's version of the Prince of Lies ever had to deal with paperwork. "Well, if you ever put together a band, let me know. I'm not bad with a guitar."

"You play an instrument, Dresden-kun?" Sona chimed in, sounding genuinely surprised at the revelation. I nodded, holding up my gloved hand.

"It started out as a rehab exercise, but I stuck with it afterwards. I'm not exactly Santana good, but then again, who is?"

"Santana, probably," Sirzechs chimed in dryly, and I snorted. "Rehab? So the glove isn't just for show? What happened?"

"Vampire with a flamethrower," I told him, and he paused.

"It was Tuesday, wasn't it," he finally concluded. "I know whenever I come across a vampire with a flamethrower, it's always a Tuesday."

"Oh, you're good," I shook my head, feeling as my title as 'Smartest Ass in the Room' came to be threatened. "You're very good. I won't go down without a fight though."

"What a lively young man," Lord Gremory laughed, though Sona flushed at hearing her lord and Demon God casually trading jibes with a high school aged wizard. "I do hope Ria manages to convince you. You'd be a fine addition to the Gremory House."

"Sorry, but I like being mortal," I told him. "Nothing personal."

"Hmm?" Sirzechs spoke up, glancing forward curiously. During the course of the tour we had started to approach the gym, and for some reason there was a crowd of disappointed students, and a few adults for that matter, who were drifting out of it. "What's this? The photo shoot that was mentioned earlier, perhaps?"

"I did tell Saji to handle it promptly," Sona frowned, adjusting her glasses. "What on earth could have held him up?" Moving ahead of the group, she opened the sliding door firmly, already marching in. "Saji. What is going on here. I recall telling you to handle things con-"

She cut off mid word, going rigid again. I blinked, curious as to what could have caused a reaction like that when a new voice cut in.

"Sona-chan! Found you!" It turned out that this had definitely been the photo shoot, because a second later Sona's stiff form was being embraced by a girl dressed up in an outfit from one of those magical girl shows.

"Ah, Serafall," Sirzechs called out cheerfully. "So you made it too?"

I paused, and turned a flat stare at the new girl, who was even now spinning around the still frozen Sona that she was hugging.

You see, I am a professional investigator. So logically, when the pieces of the puzzle fit, it's not hard for me to put them together. Most of the time. As in, when I'm not currently being distracted by whatever mayhem I had to get involved in to find those pieces.

So, let's add the facts up. The new Leviathan is named Serafall, and is from the Sitri family. This new girl was also named Serafall, and was apparently very close to the now very embarrassed Sona.

Most of the puzzles I have to put together don't quite have pieces this neat.

"It's the Leviathan," a new voice confirmed my conclusion, and I glanced to realize that we weren't alone. Rias was in fact already present, along with Ise, Asia, Kiba, and Akeno as well. The three older devils had awkward looks on their faces, while Ise and Asia just had looks of confusion. Saji was present too, and he looked just as confused as the other two new devils.

That lasted for a moment longer, before Ise, who Rias appeared to have been addressing, suddenly seemed to understand that yes, this cosplaying girl was apparently one of the four rulers of Hell.

"Ehhh!" he screamed, voicing the confusion and disbelief that I too was enduring in fashion I found wholly appropriate for the situation. Rias looked like she understood the feelings of her pawn, smiling ruefully as she approached the still hugging girls.

"Serafall-sama," Rias began politely. "It's been a while."

"Ah, Rias-chan!" the mighty Leviathan declared, striking a quick pose as she cocked her hip to the side and pointed cutely, "It's been a while! Doin' well?"

Rias looked like she was suppressing a twitch, but attempted to continue with a dignified tone. "Yes, thank you. Did you come to visit Sona's class as well?"

"Of course!" the girl burbled, waving a stick prop for her outfit around cheerfully. Then she about faced and scrunched her face up into a pout. "But Sona-chan was being really mean to me! She didn't even tell me about today!" And cue yet another shift in mood as she put on a face so ferocious it belonged upon a housecat about to attack that pesky beam of light that never quite surrendered to its feline wrath. She posed again, pointing the stick upwards. "Because of the shock Onee-chan was going to attack the Heavens!"

This was one of the four strongest devils, in charge of leading the forces of the underworld.

'Lash, are you responsible for this somehow?' I demanded of the only other powerful and nominally female creature I knew that enjoyed cosplaying.

You give me too much credit, Lash responded, sounding bemused. I doubt even I could arrange such a thing on such short notice. Still, her taste is questionable. Magical girls have lost in popularity in the past few decades. She would have had more impact if she chose to come as the pilot of some giant robot…

'Yes,' I told her, feeling very much like palming my face at that moment. 'Because that was the relevant point I wanted to discuss.'

I could only watch as Rias attempted to maintain at least the appearance of decorum by introducing Ise. The other boy at least looked nervous, appreciating the office of the creature in front of him as he bowed rigidly. He barely even glanced at the Maou's chest. "P-pleased to meet you! I am Hyoudou Issei! I am Gremory Rias-sama's Pawn! I'll be under your care!"

"Nice to meet you!" Serafall declared, before spinning in a well-choreographed transformation-esque spin, twirling her baton around with the skill of someone who spent way too much time practicing in front of a mirror. "I am the Maou Leviathan Serafall!" She finished by striking a pose with her stick behind her and her other hand offering a peace symbol. "Call me Levi-tan!"

"Does anyone actually call her that?" I couldn't help but ask Sirzechs from the corner of her mouth. He laughed softly, and shook his head.

"Ne, ne, Sirzechs-chan," Serafall continued, glancing over at Ise. "Is this boy the rumored dragon…?" she trailed off, blinking as she seemed to realize that I was here. Then she scowled and thrust her stick at me. "You!"

"Me?" I repeated, slowly lifting a finger to point at myself, honestly not certain just what was going on and hoping something would happen to clue me in relatively quickly.

"You!" Serafall marched up to me, glaring as she did so. I towered over her by probably around a foot and a half, but she didn't seem to mind as she thrust her finger up at me. "You're the one that's trying to take away my So-tan!"

I blinked. I took my pinky and used it to clean my ear. "I beg your pardon?"

"Don't act like you don't know!" Serafall was pouting, and began to angrily stomp one foot as she wiggled her finger at my nose. "The other day, I found where my So-tan was hiding her dating magazines! My cute So-tan can't be reading love manuals! And she even asked our mother for love-love advice instead of me! How can my So-tan be so rebellious!"

"M-manuals!" Saji gaped, turning to give a betrayed look at his King. Sona's face was completely red by this point.

"My cute Sona-chan who used to follow me around saying 'Onee-sama, onee-saaaaama!' is too young to be dating! She should still be running up to me while saying that and I'm saying, 'Sooooo-taaaan!' before we embrace in a yuri-yuri way!" Serafall continued, displaying the embrace by hugging herself and wiggling in place. Then she took a step back, spinning herself and her stick again dramatically before ending with the stick pointing at me in another pose. "Don't think for a second that Magical Girl Miracle Levi-tan will let you steal away her So-tan!"

Okay, I was of two distinct minds about this development. On one hand, this was the Leviathan, one of the four rulers of devils, who probably wouldn't lose out in power to what I felt from Sirzechs before, and she was currently proclaiming an enmity to me that was probably one of the most serious dangers I have come across since I made it to Bizzaro World.

On the other hand, it was a cute short girl in a cosplay outfit pointing a stick at me.

I was beginning to suspect that logic didn't hold much sway at this place and moment in time.

So I went with the first thing I could come up with.

"I like your outfit," I told her. It was her turn to blink.

"Really?" she asked, cautiously standing from her pose to twirl again, showing off her uniform.

"Really," I told her, nodding seriously. "It gets so old when all the super powerful demons and monsters always seem to have to wear fancy armor or dramatic robes, or even just super expensive suits and stuff. It's nice to see someone in your position willing to buck tradition and strike out for something more unconventional."

"Aha," Sirzechs coughed slightly, looking somewhat embarrassed, but Serafall's eyes lit up.

"Oh, I know! But no one ever seems to agree with me!" she gushed happily, her previous hostility, however unthreatening it had appeared, vanishing as she apparently found someone who agreed with her sense of fashion. "All the other devils are always like 'show more dignity' or 'you're going to embarrass us if you go out like that'! Don't they understand that I'm really into Mahou Shoujos right now?"

"I know just how you feel," I agreed, nodding enthusiastically as I started to get into the mood I had somehow created. I always had time to bitch about the White Council, even if they were technically no longer relevant. "I get it all the time too. People are always saying 'why don't you wear a robe instead of that coat' or 'what kind of wizard just shoots someone'. It's the twenty first century people. Just because you never really trusted indoor plumbing because it's only been around for a century or two doesn't mean I have to pass up on it."

"I know, I know, right?" Serafall started nodding her head enthusiastically, laughing as she patted my shoulder repeatedly in agreement. "I can shape my magic however I want it, so if I want to shoot twinkling stars, it's not like it's hurting them or anything! And what's wrong with striking a pose and giving a speech about love and justice before a fight? It's so much cuter than those long drawn out dramatic speeches about how you're going to crush your enemy!"

"Oh god, I get so sick of those," I made a face, remembering just how many speeches just like that I'd gotten over the years. "After a while they all start sounding the same. And why should I waste magical power to make a fireball when I can just use a shotgun with Dragon Breath rounds? I mean, it'll burn the building down one way or the other, so who cares if it comes from my staff or my firearm?"

"Is he still trying to get guns?" Saji muttered, giving me a poleaxed look. Ise looked a little nervous.

"Wait, doesn't it sound like he's already shot people in the past like that?" the lecherous boy sounded slightly unnerved by the idea.

"This far exceeds even my most outlandish speculations," Rias looked like she wasn't quite certain how to deal with how things had developed, and she shot a sympathetic look at Sona, whose blush had spread down her neck and whose hands were starting to shake at her sides.

"I'll admit that I always found the uniform a bit novel, but also maybe a little inappropriate for a Maou," Lord Gremory chimed in, scratching his chin and sounding doubtful. "Is it really that tiresome to abide by more traditional customs?"

"Well, not exactly," I hastily corrected myself. "Don't get me wrong, most of the time it really fits the mood, and I've seen some really impressive outfits and speeches. Even if I'm a modern wizard, I still use a staff after all. It's just that if someone else decides to try and take things in a different direction, you shouldn't really try to take it out on them."

"Exactly!" Serafall agreed, proudly posing with her stick again.

"I must say, I've always been rather fond of Sentai Teams," Sirzechs also added thoughtfully, and Serafall cheered.

"Ah! I prefer magical girls, but those are fine too!" she declared enthusiastically.

"I have to admit I prefer a more John Wayne approach," I confessed to the other two, "but that's more an American thing."

"No, no, I can see it!" Serafall encouraged me eagerly. "It would totally suit you…" she trailed off a moment later, putting a hand over her mouth in surprise. "Ah! I got so distracted I forgot! We haven't been introduced yet! Call me Levi-tan!" she posed again as she formally greeted me.

"Okay, Levi-tan," I told her, offering a hand. "Dresden Harry."

"Ah!" Serafall actually blushed, though she looked ecstatic as she pumped my hand vigorously. "Someone actually called me that! So-tan, I take it back! I think Harry-chan isn't so bad after all!" Then she pouted. "But that still doesn't excuse you from not coming to your onee-chan for help! Or for not telling me about today!"

"Actually calling one of the four Maou 'Levi-tan'…" Kiba shook his head, looking very bemused by how the conversation had turned, and nearby Asia was smiling awkwardly.

"O-Onee-sama," Sona finally managed to get out. By now her face was red, her hands were shaking, and sweat was definitely starting to pour down her cheeks. "T-This is my school, and I am entrusted with the job of Student Council President here… No matter how close relative we are, Onee-sama's behavior is too much… I can't approve of such an outfit… or of g-going to a-ask advice like t-that…!"

"No way! Sona-chan! If I'm told that by Sona-chan, Onee-san will be sad! I really am into Mahou Shoujo, 'cause with my glittering stick I erase angels and fallen angels' alike! Teehee!"

"It's not so much a Mahou Shoujo, but more a Maou Shoujo," Ise muttered, staring with the kind of horrified awe only someone who was still sane could manage at things which have long since surpassed anything sanity could comprehend.

"Please be more prudent," Sona managed to rally a desperate defense against her sister's adoration. "If "you were to glitter, a small country might disappear.

"Ne, Saji," Ise began still staring as Sarafall started to twist and squirm in front of Sona, trying to catch the now thoroughly embarrassed girl's glance. "When Kokabiel attacked, the reason that Kaichou didn't call her Onee-san… it's because of this, isn't it."

"I'd heard the stories, but yeah," Saji gave a pained grimace, for once too busy staring at the scene before him to give me his usual glares. "It seems that Leviathan-sama dotes so much on her sister, that if she heard a fallen angel had attacked her, she might just spark off a war on her own…"

"I had neglected to mention it," Rias began, grimacing as she did so. "No, I hadn't wanted to say it, but all of the Maou are like this: during their private time, they are amendable to a serious degree…"

Finally, with one quick glance at me, Sona lost the battle with her dignity.

"Mou! I can't bear it! A-and in front of him…!" she turned, and like the school girl she was, with tears in her eyes, as she half marched half ran out of the room.

"Noooo! Sona-chan! Stop! Come back! No So-tan no life!" Serafall called out in a panic as she gave chase. "So-taaaaaan!"

"Ah, the Sitri family is indeed peaceful, right Ria-tan?" Sirzechs smiled as he watched the two disappear. Now it was Rias turn to flush, her eyes flashing quickly to Ise before the flush just got redder.

"Onii-sama! Don't just add '-tan' to your pet name for me!" The crimson haired girl demanded, and Sirzechs flinched, putting a hand to his chest.

"No way, Ria-tan," he proclaimed somewhat dramatically. I got the impression that the response was just another sign of his banter. "So this is the rebellious age. Even though you followed me around before, saying 'Onii-sama, onii-sama.'"

"W-why are you bringing that up now!" Rias began with a stutter, only to be interrupted as Lord Gremory pulled out a camera and took a picture of her mid exclamation.

"What a nice face," he chuckled. "Proof that we have raised you splendidly. I will share my wife's enthusiasm as she couldn't be here today!"

"Otou-sama! Please!" Rias begged, with the expression only a teen with injured dignity could ever truly wear.

It reminded me of how Molly used to talk to Michael, so long ago.

These people… these devils. They were family.

"Maou-sama, and Maou-sama's family," Akeno giggled as she watched Rias blush and squabble with her parent and sibling. "They have such interesting common features."

"Common features?" Ise asked, looking as though he didn't know what to think about the scene before him as Sirzechs reached out to ruffle Rias hair, only increasing her blush.

"Maou-sama is a very easy going person," Akeno explained with a smile. "And as his sister, Buchou is a very serious person. It's probably because her brother who became the Maou was so free natured that she couldn't help but become serious."

Ise crooked his mouth to the side, obviously trying to come to terms with the scene before him as the Ruler of the Inferno held up placating hands as his sister started to scold him, though he was grinning all the while.

"I don't quite get it," Ise finally admitted.

"It's a family thing," I broke in, also watching the scene, my arms folded in front of me as I did so. "It was a long time theory of mine, but I've always thought that when it comes to family, logic doesn't really have much to do with it anymore. Family is the kind of thing that can make you crazy, but not in the bad kind of way…" I lowered my eyes. "Well, not always in the bad kind of way."

I hadn't had much family, growing up. And what I did was lost, bit by bit over time. For a while, I never really thought too much about it, whether that was just me moving on or just a defense mechanism to keep me from thinking too much about what I had lost. When I found Thomas, I realized that yes, you never really stopped longing for it, for family.

And when I found Maggie, I realized that yes, I had been right:

When it came to family, logic, hesitation, and limits didn't really matter at all.

"Dresden," I heard Ise, and glanced at him to find him giving me a complicated look. I blinked, realizing that for someone who was usually more concerned about breasts than reality, I honestly had no idea what the other boy was thinking. If he was going to say more, it was lost as a call from two rather ordinary looking people revealed themselves to be his own parents to join in on the humiliation conga which was 'Family Day' at a typical Japanese high school.

Well, not like it had much to do with me.

If you'd like, I can stand in the back of the class as well, Lash offered politely.

'It doesn't really count unless you can share embarrassing stories and draw attention to me in the most aggravating method possible,' I turned down her offer. 'But thanks for the thought.'

"Dresden-kun," I was surprised when my tactful withdraw from the group was interrupted by none other than Sirzechs. "If you have a moment, there's something I would like to discuss with you."

"Oh? So the band is a go then?" I asked, nodding seriously. "Just so you know, I'm not writing the lyrics."

"Ahaha," Sirzechs gave out a soft laugh. "But Grayfia always tells me I have no head for them either…" he trailed off, shaking his head briefly as he rolled a save against being distracted. "Actually, it's in regards to the incidents from the other day. Do you have a moment?"

"Well, I'd have to check my day planner," I told him seriously.

You're free, Lash chimed in promptly.

'Thank you, day planner,' I told her with dignified gratitude.

"Lead me not into temptation," I told him, nodding at him to take the lead.

"Thank you," rather than taking point, he instead fell into position next to me, and the two of us walked casually down the hallway. "So, I believe you are aware of the true disposition of God, were you not?"

"I spent hours online trying to find pins with the logo 'Nietzsche was Right', but apparently it's too nichy," I confirmed cautiously, glancing around as he casually started a conversation about the kind of thing you really should only talk about behind closed doors, thresholds, and wards.

And I realized that no one, not the kids or their families or even the teachers was looking at us. Their even if they were facing our direction, their eyes just slid off as though we were completely unnoticeable by them.

I felt a chill go down my spine, reminding me that for all his congeniality, the creature was still probably the most potent entity I've come across on this planet.

"Nietzsche?" Sirzechs furled his brow for a moment, before his eyes lit up and he scowled, probably in an effort to cover up the grin he was starting to sprout. "Ah. 'God is dead'. That is a terrible joke, and in horrible taste."

"You're saying that when I find the pins I shouldn't order you one?" I asked, and he shook his head instantly.

"I'll take five," he informed me, before apparently regaining his composure. "But no. With the recent events and tension inspired by Kokabiel's rampage, a meeting has been decided upon by the leaders of the Three Powers."

"So I heard," I muttered, scowling. It was always dangerous when those kind of meetings happened. Yeah, sure, they might all end up deciding to set aside literally millennia of grudges and dissatisfaction, calmly decide on peace, and move on into a bright future filled with rainbows and puppy dogs.

But most of the time, those meetings just meant that things were about to go so far south they end up in Mexico. Or, given where I was currently, I guess Australia was a more likely destination.

Well, it's not like I'm going to be there to make things any worse at least. Just going to have to deal with the shit after it hits the fan.

"As a participant in the conflict, and as a representative of humanity in general, I was hoping you might attend as well," Sirzechs went on calmly, and I stopped, turned, and gaped.


*Scene Break*

"So you actually received an invitation from Maou-sama himself to attend the conference as well?" Tsubaki asked, giving me a somewhat shocked look as she paused in cleaning up the Student Council room meeting table. Increased exposure to the ongoings of the council had helped me get a good feel for the schedule and I have sworn to use this knowledge only for good.

Like showing up right after all the work was done so I could try to get that first lesson in Bizzaro World Magic 101.

Hey, if something is only good for me it's still good, right?

"I'm as shocked as you," I admitted, generously assisting the clean up by staying out of the way. "In my experience, it isn't often where you have a powerful creature and leader of a non-human species like Sirzechs that actively tries to see to the interests of mortal without expecting any kind of repayment for it. I'm honestly starting to like you devils more and more."

"You hear that, Reya-chan? Dres-chan likes us!" Tomoe chirped happily as she finished changing the garbage bags.

"It makes me happy to hear that Dresden-kun looks fondly on devils," the addressed girl smiled gently, though she looked more focused on wiping down one of the pillars. "It speaks well for Kaichou and Yura-chan's chances."

"Hmph," Saji grunted, pushing a dust mop over the tiled floor. "What are you doing here anyway? Shoo, shoo," he made brushing motions with one hand, and I considered flipping him off to show him more effective ways of using your hands in a disdainful fashion.

I decided to be the bigger man (haha) and let it slide.

"Rather, isn't it kind of rude to call the Maou-sama by his given name?" Momo chimed in, frowning gently as she questioned my choice of address. "Much less to call Serafall-sama something like 'Levi-tan'…"

"I think it's cute," Ruruko defended my habits, "though honestly, I don't think I could be brave enough to try it myself…"

"Well, perhaps expecting decorum from Dresden-kun might be too much," Tsubaki smiled slightly as she took a jab at me. "However, Serafall-sama did seem to enjoy it. I hadn't expected the doting Leviathan-sama to be supportive of her sister's choices, but it seems like you might have an ally now."

"Huzzah," I muttered, scratching my cheek and looking away awkwardly. Really, was it a good thing?

I still had no idea what to expect from having two teenage devils so obviously interested in me, but despite my earlier apprehension I was starting to get used to the idea, and I wasn't sure if that made me a scum bag, or just an ordinary person. I'd been spending a lot of time around Sona and Tsubasa, Hell's bells, even around the Student Council as a whole, and I can honestly say I've come to like them all to one degree or another. Sona and Tsubaki were both honest and diligent people, dedicated to going above and beyond their duty to the school as President and Vice-President. Reya and Tomoe were also good people, though they seemed more like ordinary girls rather than workaholics or devils. I didn't interact nearly as much with Momo and Ruruko, but watching the two compete so honestly and ineptly for the attention of the still oblivious Saji who hadn't given up the flame he had for Sona sort of made me feel a cross between feeling like I was watching a soap opera and that I should be cheering them on or something.

It finally happened. Teenage high school drama had fully drawn me in. Don't bother sending help, it's far too late for me now.

"What is going on here?" a new voice joined the conversation, and I glanced over from the corner as Sona made her entrance. "Even if I was detained for business pertaining to the upcoming conference that is no reason for you all too be slack- eep."

What started out with the promise to be a thorough dressing down ended in a surprised squeak as Sona realized that not just her peerage was present and caught sight of me. Two spots of bright red appeared high on her cheeks and she woodenly looked away.

I had to suppress a snort at the sight. Awkwardness, thy name was 'teenage girl who had recently been embarrassed by her family to the point of tears in front of her male interest'.

Stars and stones, I cannot wait to be at an age where people start acting reasonably again.

"Alright," I began casually, ignoring the way the rest of the room responded with varying degrees of concern, sympathy, and amusement at seeing their King in such a state. "I have a proposition for you, Sona. Why don't we both pretend that the other day ended after me meeting Lord Gremory, put aside everything that happened afterwards, never speak of those events again, and get on with our lives?"

"Oh," Tsubasa looked interested. "A straightforward solution. How daring."

"I…." Sona began, giving me a quick and hopeful glance as I volunteered to put aside what had promise for some truly prime material for off colored humor at her expense. "I would appreciate that."

"No problem," I told her, pushing off the wall easily enough. "Trust me, I understand what it's like, and I'm more than happy to just move on."

"And how would you know?" Saji muttered spitefully, before his eyes widened and he slapped his hand over his mouth in instant regret. Beside him Ruruko gave him a surprisingly fierce look for someone so small, but even without that Saji seemed to realize that his last comment strayed very close to lines that you really shouldn't cross.

It was something I picked up on, mostly through casual interaction, but I was under the impression that a lot of the resurrected devils I've come across became devils under conditions that were less than happy. I knew for a fact that for some like Ise, Kiba, and even Asia, becoming a devil had been a second chance at a better life for them, and though I hadn't got the stories I was under the impression that more than a few of Sona's little herd had similar tear jerkers in their past. Thus, prying too much was considered a 'no-no' when it came to a person's personal tragedies.

Again, I decided to be the taller man, I mean bigger man, and let it slide.

"I had a half-brother once," I reminded him dryly. "Did you know, the first murder recorded in the bible was a fratricide? I had a lot of sympathy for Cain more than once."

Tomoe giggled at that, the potentially tense mood disappearing as I cracked a joke. "Haha. Why's that Dres-chan? Did he mess up the apartment or eat all the pudding?"

"Yeah, that," I grumbled, thinking about all the times I came home to find the beer gone back when Thomas had been crashing with me. "That and he was an incubus. Do you have any idea how awkward it is to walk in on an orgy? Because trust me, no matter how many times it happens it never gets any easier."

I had meant the comment as a joke, but the reaction I got was rather unexpected. I sometimes forgot the big differences between dating as an adult and dating as a teen. As an adult, if two people liked each other, hell, if they just found the other physically attractive then there was no reason not to do more physical actions. Basically, as two consenting adults it was no one's business but theirs if they boink or not. But teens didn't quite realize that yet. They were still in the odd, formative years where their bodies were changing too fast, producing too many hormones, and it was all they could do to try and keep up with the growing new sensations and emotions for them. It was no wonder that most high school romance tended to be rather sedate compared to what it was like with those two consenting adults. That or degenerate into relationships based around awkward and/or kinky physical relations.

Those damn hormones…

What it came down to was I was probably the only one not in the room who wasn't a virgin, and even if my dating experience might have been lacking compared to some that I met, I had long since grown desensitized to the whole thing. However, no one else here was quite as comfortable talking about that kind of thing so bluntly.

Basically it amounted to a whole lot of really red faces. Even Sona's pseudo-unflappable poise wasn't spared the dusting of a blush.

"Y-You mean that literally?" Tsubasa had her hands up to cove her cheeks demurely as she asked the question. Then, her eyes widened a bit and she leaned forward a bit eagerly. "D-Did you ever… too?"

"Er," I began, getting the impression that maybe I was a bit off with judging just how innocent some of the girls present were.

"Yes," this time it was Sona who joined in, and though she was still blushing the light off her glasses had gave me a distinctly ominous feeling. That or the fact that she was gathering her power. "Tell me, Dresden-kun: did you ever join in something so depraved?"

"No, no, no!" I hastily defended. "I prefer genuine emotional closeness in my relationships!"

"Hmmm," Sona at least seemed satisfied, but Tsubasa's eyes lit up.

"So if you prefer that kind of thing, it means that you have done…" she began and I decided to end this before it started straying places that would just make it even more awkward.

"So!" I spoke over the Rook. "About those magic lessons?"

"Yes," Sona said the word slowly as she gave me a studying gaze. I put on my most innocent expression, and was pretty sure no one was fooled at all. "Magic lessons…"

*Scene Break*

"My, what big books you have, grandmother," I declared dryly, taking a moment to survey the positive mountain of literature in front of me.

I had negotiated for a book for enchanting protection for every member of Sona's peerage, and a book she had provided. It looked like the Kaichou was the kind of person who took her side of the deal seriously as well, though whether that was an aspect of her being a devil or just her usual no nonsense attitude for life was anyone's guess. Whatever the case, she didn't skimp on the quality of the books, judging from their size and apparent age some of them had.

"The humor is unnecessary, Dresden-kun," Sona told me primly as I pulled up a chair. Rather than sit herself, she continued to stand by my side, arms folded as she gave me a look that would have made an old lady librarian jealous. "Regardless of your own experience, I take teaching very seriously."

"Gotcha," I told her, taking the first book in front of me as I glanced over it. 'Ye Old Magicks of Blackness' it was titled, and I grimaced, pushing it aside for the next one. 'Primer For Mystics of the Devilkin', this one declared, and I wondered if I kept looking would I find one titled 'Magic for Dummies'. "Pedagogue Power, activate."

"There is nothing wrong with taking the act of teaching seriously," she informed me, reaching over to one book in particular. "I will have you finish these lessons in a prompt fashion so that you may move on to more advanced works in due time. For now, I feel it best if we focus on one school of magic until you have a thorough grounding, and from there start branching out. By the end of the year I hope to have you thoroughly grounded in at least three schools."

"You know, that might be a good place to start," I told her, accepting the book she had selected for me. 'The Mystic Persuasions of the Fey' seemed an odd place to start, though the fact that I was apparently going to be starting out in faerie magic gave me a little chill of déjà vu. I wondered how much I knew of the faerie from my own realm actually carried over here. "What is the fundamental difference between the different schools?"

"Primarily, it is the methodology or underlining principles that govern the use and effect of magic under various circumstances," Sona explained, her tone slipping into the kind that would have been right at home explaining calculus or Roman history. I had been joking when I had brought up pedagogues, but it looked like I may have hit closer to the mark than I had expected. "Magic is brought about through the use of calculations and circles, a process through which the effect of power being used through these formulas can be properly formed and transferred in a way which that is predictable and repeatable while maximizing the amount of affect that is generated at any given power output."

"I get it," I nodded, already opening the book she had selected. Rather than reading it, I started to quickly flip through the pages, pausing only long enough to glance at each page before moving on to the next. Sona frowned, but didn't comment on it. She must have thought I was just glancing through for now.

"It's not something that is so simple to understand," she began, but I cut her off.

"It's like a vending machine with no coin return button," I told her easily. "So long as you put the right amount in, push the right button, you'll get the right product. But if you don't put in enough, than no matter how many times you hit it you won't get your Snickers. Put in too much and you're not getting that extra hundred yen back no matter how hard you kick the machine. And if you hit the wrong button, you'll either end up getting the wrong candy bar, get nothing because you didn't put enough in, or again can kiss that extra change goodbye."

"That…" Sona trailed off, blinking rapidly and looking a little lost. "That is a rather odd metaphor, but strangely accurate…"

"And judging from the way you referred to it, I'll hazard the different schools of magic are combinations of different types of machines and machines with different products," I continued. "One machine might give you candy bars, but the other machine might have soda. Also, one machine might be one of those old fashioned ones that has the roller springs, where the other one might give you the same product by having one of those fancy moving elevators that pick up the product and put it down while you tap your foot impatiently wondering when vending machines became a freaking production show: same product, different process."

"Again, I can't say that you're summation is wrong, but the choice of examples…" Sona had a troubled look on her face as she cradled her chin with one hand, obviously trying to find some way to poke a hole in my simplification and probably coming up short.

I might be from another creation, but that didn't mean I couldn't find a similar cause and affect type relation from mine that would fit the mold here.

Because so far everything I was hearing was having magic of Bizzaro World sound a whole lot like Rituals back in my world.

In my world, a ritual was an act or process which was designed to call upon some other force to produce an effect. It was kind of like a contract: so long as you performed the Ritual correctly, you could count on the creature you were entreating to follow through. However, if you messed up, than that could have very bad consequences. Rituals weren't precisely evil, by nature, but they were for the most part not the kind of thing you wanted easy access to, mostly because the type of creatures you were calling on tended not to be very nice.

For instance, the ritual Lord Raith had tried to use based around sacrificing Thomas to launch a death curse at me, which was backed up by none other than He Who Walks Behind.

Personally, I came down with the White Council for once on the matter. Rituals weren't the kind of thing you wanted to many people to have access too.

Strangely enough, the best way to keep a ritual from working was to publish it as much as you could to get as many people trying it as you can. Rituals depended on the power of the creature behind it, and the more who tried to use that power, the less the effect in general as that power was spread around and thinned out. People who had access to a ritual usually went out of their way to try and keep it as secret as possible so that only they could call on that power.

The White Council on the other hand owned a couple publishing companies, and the moment they found a ritual they published it. It was what happened with the Necronomicon, after all.

"Anyway," Sona managed to recover as I reached the end of the book. "While it may seem daunting, the first step will be to finish reading the book. I expect you to complete the first two chapters by tomorrow, and will be ready to quiz you…"

"Done," I declared, closing the book with an audible 'thunk', before flipping it around so I was looking at the cover again.

"Done?" Sona repeated, blinking in surprise, before scowling. "Dresden-kun, do you honestly expect me to believe…"

"Go ahead and quiz me," I told her, offering her the book distractedly as I reached for my bag. Sona glared as I started pulling out a notebook and pencil, and proceeded to do just that.

It only lasted for ten questions. When I started pointing out spelling errors and smudges on the pages she was trying to read from despite not being able to see what she was looking at, she finally lost her patience.

"Dresden! I demand to know how you're cheating!" she declared, slapping the book in front of me and glaring, actually panting she was so upset.

In response, I just took the book back, opened it to page one, gave her a dry look as I pointed at my forehead and told her, "Ancient Spirit of Knowledge."

Sona blinked, obviously having forgotten that little bit.

"S-So wait," she put her hand to her head as she started to massage away her no doubt distracting headache. She finally pulled out a chair and collapsed on to it, her eyes closed as she did so. "So how is Lash-san…"

"Lash isn't human," I reminded her, starting about my business. "She's a spirit, and she doesn't have human limitations. All it takes is one look at a page and she'll remember it forever, and probably have finished reading it before I even finished turning the page."

"So than with just one glance, you already know…" Sona began, sounding frustrated as she opened her eyes, before they shot open further and she leapt to her feet again. "What are you doing!"

"Studying," I told her, rolling my eyes at her theatrics. "I said that all Lash needs is a look, but even if that's enough for her, that just means SHE knows the subjects, not me. The only way she can use that knowledge is if I let her use my body, and there's no way in hell I'm letting her have control like that too often. No offense Lash."

A wise precaution, she assured me, before I saw a finger only I could make out pointing at a page, and I nodded, taking note of it. Here as well, my host.

"I meant what are you doing to the book?" Sona looked like she was seriously considering lobotimization as a recourse to putting up with the migraine I was probably giving her. "Is that a highlighter?"

"Well, yeah," I continued applying bright yellow to the places in the probably century old tome where Lash was indicating. "For now, I'm just going through and marking the important parts, but latter on when I have time I'll go back and read everything. I wouldn't put it past Lash to leave out bits just so she can trick me into doing something embarrassing."

Again, your wisdom is apparent, Lash assured me seriously. It is well within my power to manipulate you into designing a spell that induces a sharp tug on all the hair of any female present.

'What is it with you and hair pulling?' I rolled my eyes before realizing something. 'Wait… ALL the hair?'

When she laughed softly, I gulped, and resolved to pay very close attention to my own studies.

There was more hair on a girl than just their head, after all.

"And…" Sona continued slowly, sounding like curiosity was starting to win out over frustration. "And are those place holder tabs?"

"How else am I going to find the important bits again later on quickly without them?" I frowned, giving her an aggrieved look as I put another small colored sticky note at the top of the page so it stuck out for easy access. "It will take at least three readings before I can remember where the important parts are myself."

Sona started to sit down again, still giving me a strange look. "You really intend to read the manuscript so many times?"

"Of course," I rolled my eyes, feeling my own frustration starting to build at the repeated questions. "You haven't really read a book until there are at least five creases in the spine." I paused in my highlighting to give her a scowl. "Just why are you getting so worked up by all this? Didn't you agree to be my tutor? Why is me studying getting you so bent out of shape?"

"Er," Sona began, and her eyes tracked to the side briefly in embarrassment. "Considering your normal less than enthusiastic efforts in class, I had assumed I might find these lessons to something of an uphill battle."

"I," I began, feeling somewhat offended by the confession, before pausing and giving a sigh. "I have no defense against that, actually."

It wasn't like I had made any excuses or attempts to hide the fact that I regarded formal public education as nothing but a bother I intended to pass through with minimal effort until I could roam the streets in broad daylight without worrying about a police officer appearing to drag me back to class. With that in mind, I guess I could better understand both her attitude and her surprise.

"Look," I began, pausing in my reviewing so I could face Sona more directly. "It's not that I don't know how to study or anything. Actually, one of my favorite past times is reading, so I'm no stranger to cracking a book, and some of them are even educational. It's just I have very different priorities to what I think is worth studying is all.

"I mean, I remember what you said, about school being more than just a place to learn things: how it's a place where people learn habits and discipline that help them throughout their lives. But be honest: just how important is it really to memorize things about history, or math? I mean, nowadays if you need to know what general beat what army at whatever castle you can just google it, and if you need the square root of pi times the cosign of whatever angle you can just make a spreadsheet. But magic, magic is different."

I gently slapped one of the books that I hadn't cracked yet for emphasis, but Sona didn't look, being too busy studying me closely as I started to get worked up.

"Magic is about life, about emotion, about will. It's the ability to take the world around you, and have the power to make it different, to wield it according to your will. Of course I take it seriously! I told you, I already know exactly what I'm planning to do with my life, and when it comes to something that important you bet your sweet ass I'm going to be putting my full efforts into it," I finished my declaration, before realizing that at some point in their I had gotten a little bit over enthusiastic.

And also brought up Sona's ass with the adjective 'sweet' in front of it.

Hoping she hadn't noticed that, and that she didn't notice the fact that my cheeks might, just might that is, be turning a bit red at the mental image, I turned back to the book with a cough, putting the highlighter back to use as I did so.

"I apologize," Sona said abruptly, and I blinked, surprised as I turned back to her. She had her head slightly bowed, but rather than look upset, she was smiling softly. "I admit, I had allowed my preconceptions to influence my expectations. It seems that Dresden-kun is simply the type of person who can only be serious about the things he is interested in, but when he is serious he is unexpectedly passionate."

"Er, no harm done," I waved a hand awkwardly and she straightened, still smiling gently. "I mean, it's not like I was giving you a list of reasons to expect otherwise."

"Still, I thank you as well for the learning experience," she seemed determined to drag this out as she continued. "I don't believe I have mentioned it, but in the future it is my hope to establish a school. There will no doubt be students like yourself in the future, and knowing how to deal with them will also no doubt be an important experience."

"A teacher, eh?" I gave her a measuring look, considering it. "Actually, I can see it." I guess she could tell that I meant the comment as praise, and she blushed slightly, smiling at the complement. She managed to get control of herself after a moment, and again she settled herself into her more composed expression.

"Still, I can say that I am pleased with this development," she announced, pulling her chair closer as she leaned over to look at the passages I was marking. She seemed to be taking note of the areas I had an interest in, and nodded slightly in satisfaction as she judged my choices worthy. "With enthusiasm like this, it should not take long at all before you reach a satisfactory level."

"Satisfactory for what?" I asked idly. "So that you can put a smiley face sticker on my tests?"

"Actually," Sona began, before pausing. I glanced at her to see her closing her eyes in thought. Finally, she nodded. "If possible, could you keep the upcoming conversation a secret from other devils, including my peerage?"

"Oh? A secret?" I frowned, giving her a measuring look. "That depends entirely on just what the following conversation is about."

"Since you have only recently come to know about devil culture, can I assume that you are unaware of the relationship between devils and magicians?" Sona prompted me, and I frowned, scratching my chin.

"Relationship?" I probed. "Not that I'm aware of. Outside of the typical thwarting of attempts at stealing souls, I mean."

"Then while you're preparing your preliminary work, now is fine time to educate you on the nature of the contracts that devils and magicians engage in," she straightened her glasses.

"I did just mention my aversion to having my soul stolen, didn't I?" I reminded her with a snort, and she shook her head in response.

"The nature of the contract magicians engage in isn't something so base," she corrected me. "Rather, the nature of the contract is meant to help both the magician and devil further their knowledge of magic." She held her hands out before her, and I paused as the left hand started to shine with a moderately complex magic circle before a globe of water formed above it. The right hand also started to levitate an identical ball. "How much are you aware of the nature of a devil's demonic power?"

"About as much as I know about hedgehogs," I told her, turning my attention away from the book completely as I took in the sight. What she was doing there in my world would have been a somewhat complex bit of spellwork back home. Depending on the wizard's talent the ability to summon or create enough water to form the globe could be anywhere from simple to moderately complicated, but once the water was created it would act like water should unless further effort was invested by the wizard to make it otherwise. Levitating it like that would either take a more pronounced effort of concentration as force was manipulated in order to make it stay hanging in the air. Making the water into a perfectly regular orb, once more depending on the wizard, would be either mildly complicated or rather advanced display of control.

"Hedgehogs?" Sona paused, sounding uncertain of my choice of comparisons.

"They exist, they're hard to pick up, and if you're careless with them you might get yourself hurt," I elaborated, and Sona cleared her throat, the obvious effort it took her not to snort at the description counting as a win in my book.

"Rather than like magic, which relies on formulas and calculations," she went on bravely, "demonic power instead relies on imagination. Demonic power can be shaped in almost any way, depending on the devil's own ability, but the price of using it is far higher than magic."

"So it's like going from point 'A' to point 'C' without stopping to waive at point 'B' along the way?" I frowned, and wondered if it would be dangerous to reach out and poke the globes. I tried to sense them, and as I examined them I realized that the two felt different to each other. The one hovering over the circle was calmer, more neutral in flavor than the one I presumed she had created using her demonic power. That one still had the distinct feel of Sona's own power to it.

"Correct," Sona declared, letting both the globes disappear, another different aspect from my world as in they literally disappeared, whereas in my world she would have had to aim them at a drain to get rid of them to avoid the risk of soaking the books scattered around us when the globes started acting like normal water did in the presence of gravity. "There are three basic reasons that magicians contract with devils: protection, to acquire items or techniques from the underworld, and for status."

"Alright, so I can get the protection," I admitted, pursing my lips. "I know damn well how important it is to have backup when situations get hairy," and no, despite what Thomas had lobbied for I didn't mean for 'when situations got Harry', "and I suppose I can get the second. Using a devil to get a phoenix down or elixir or something…"

"Most prefer Phoenix Tears," Sona frowned, giving me a curious look. "What is a phoenix down?"

"Er," I blinked, getting thrown off my track at the sincere question. "You're not really a fan of video games, are you," I finally decided, and she scowled, giving me a small glare. "Anyway," I bravely forged on, "what do you mean by status?"

"The strength and status of the devil that a magician contracts is often used as a measure of social status or accomplishment," Sona explained. "Similarly for the devils, the ability to contract a notable magician can reflect upon their position in society greatly."

"Huh," I grunted. "So it's all about showing off. Good thing I never really fell into that whole 'peer pressure' thing." Then I paused, a suspicion starting to grow in me. "And the reason you're telling me all this is?"

"It is my intention to convince you to contract me," Sona admitted shamelessly, adjusting her glasses as she did so.

"Sona," I began slowly. "Think about the first reason you gave me a magician contracts a devil. Than think about just how much trouble I actually get into. Ask yourself: is the course of action I'm contemplating really a good one?"

She grimaced slightly, eye twitching as she did so. "While I admit the thought is a bit off-putting, I consider the other aspects of a contract to overweigh them."

"Other aspects?" I prompted, scratching my head. "If it comes down to being able to show me off, I do admit I clean up well, it's just that I rarely bother to. Not to mention if you're trying to impress high society, am I really the one you want to use to do it?"

I mean, yeah, I could dance and all. But the most experience I had with anything resembling 'high society' usually involved making appearances in Mab's court. The first time that happened it ended with me and her dancing over the shattered frozen pieces of our enemies. The other ones after that had tended to end similarly.

I doubted devil society would look upon that as a positive event like they did in Winter.

"I…" Sona slumped slightly at that, again acknowledging that I might not be the best choice for those kinds of things. "I am aware of the as well. However, I believe that with the proper lessons that you might be able to comport yourself in a fashion which would minimally offend those around you…"

I gave her a patient look, and she coughed, turning to the side.

Good. It turns out she DID know me.

"A-anyway," she continued in a rush, "there are simply other reasons why a contract with you would be beneficial, Dresden-kun. To be precise, the potential advances in magical research that you will no doubt accomplish."

"Magical research?" I prompted her, frowning as she did so. "And what makes you think that I'll be able to measure up enough in those regards to overcome the immensely crippling deficiencies that I show up in just about every other corner?"

"Because you already have," she told me sincerely. I blinked, not really sure what I'd done so far to justify that statement. "Nobody, in any of the schools of magic, has ever come up with an enchantment designed to stop light power," she continued, reaching out to pinch my coat slightly. "Light magic can be defended against, yes, but only in general terms, defensive spells or barriers designed to protect against attacks in general. And yet you managed to create one, in short time after your first encounter with light power. And you are even now moving to improve it."

Now that drew me short. I investigated defensive magic in general on principle, and I was well aware of how varied it had been, at least back in my home world. Ever since my first shield charm failed to stop heat, resulting in the mess my left hand had become, I had broadened my research into the various spectrums of magic. The simple truth was that you could never cover all your bases. Like when I had first fought against Thorned Nashiel, despite the improvements I made on my shield bracelet he had simply launched attacks on so many spectrums of magic and elements that some I had probably never even considered or knew about had managed to go right through it.

For me, investigating the holy element from this world was just a matter of repetition of the same way I studied every other method of killing me that showed up and worked to make it less viable in the future.

I didn't even realize that here in Bizzaro World, it would apparently be A Big Deal, capital letters intended.

"Demonic powers are the abilities of devils, and magic is the power born from researching that power and making it a power that humans can control," Sona went on, smiling. "And for a devil making a pact, the discoveries made that way that can be used to benefit the underworld should be the most important consideration while making a pact with a magician."

"And here I am," I concluded, narrowing my eyes slightly. "A wizard who already found something that devil society would really like to get their hands on."

"Indeed," Sona agreed, though she seemed to realize that my reaction was a bit less enthusiastic than hers was. She managed to guess the reason quickly enough, and continued. "Dresden-kun, while I'm aware that you still have some reservations about devils, you must understand just how dangerous the power of light is to us. A devil killed by holy power does not just die, they are erased from existence. Though higher class devils may have some resistance, for lower and mid class devils light is one of the most dangerous things in existence. Especially for new devils that compose most peerages, as well as young pure devils as well. A method to defend against holy power might save many, many devil lives in the future."

"I…" I began, starting to scowl, before I stopped, and started scowling harder for a different reason.

I had no idea how to feel about this, actually. If it was my own world, I'd probably stop all further research into defending against light based power, burn all my notes, and find some way to lobotomize the information out of my head rather than risk the forces of hell ever getting an edge like Sona was describing.

But here in Bizzaro World, where devils could very well have souls, where they ran schools and dreamed about being teachers, where the mighty Leviathan was more concerned about cosplay and doting on her sister, and where freaking Lucifer himself quoted the Rolling Stones and indulged in banter it was a whole different ball park.

"I'm not going to just be handing my research over, or giving them out for free," I finally settled on, and Sona smiled, relaxing and looking very pleased as she nodded. "And just why did you want to keep this conversation secret, anyway? So far it doesn't seem like the kind of thing anyone needs to worry about. It's all common knowledge if what you're saying is true.

"Of course not," she agreed. "Devils are creatures of bargains and contracts. You're free to set whatever price you wish should you choose to sell your research, or even just items or clothing similarly enchanted. You would probably find many willing to pay a great deal for them. And I wish to keep it a secret," she added with a small shrug, "because many of my peerage are still very young as devils. They are still adjusting to their new roles, and I did not want to overburden them with too many details until they are more comfortable."

"I see," I narrowed my eyes, nodding at her reasoning, before small smile teasing my lips as I realized something. I had thought that I was setting a reasonable price when I was negotiating for the tomes earlier, but it looks like I might have been swindled a bit myself. That made me feel better about the enchantments not being permanent. "And you got your set for just a couple of books? I feel so used."

"That is not quite it," Sona shook her head, and I cocked mine to the side as she continued. "Dresden-kun, you must understand that you stumbled across such an innovation without having any grounding in any of the known schools. As a magician that can use magic without the use of calculations, to have accomplished that much by instincts only speaks the highest of your potential should you receive formal education." It looked like I wasn't the only one who could get caught up in the moment, because Sona leaned forward, taking my hand in hers as her speaking speed increased. "It is my duty, no, my privilege as an educator to be able to nurture that talent and see it blossom. I will do everything in my power to see that you receive all the instruction you need until you mature into the splendid magician I believe you capable of becoming!"

I blinked, staring at the usually reserved girl as she nearly glowed, not just with anticipation at the thought of what I could become but at the chance to be the one who would help me become it. This was the kind of passion that drove talented and intelligent people in any world to pass up the opportunity to go corporate or make the big bucks and instead take the meager income that being an educator provides and focus instead on teaching young people how to prepare themselves for the future and being damn proud of it.

"Teaching definitely suits you," I found myself repeating blankly, before realizing something. "So… do you hold hands with all your students, or just the tall, lanky, magician ones?"

"Eh?" Sona blinked, my question apparently throwing her off track, before she glanced down and only then seemed to realize that she had started to cradle my hand in hers. "Eh!" she squeaked, blushing brightly as she threw bot her hands in the air, waving them in erratic patterns as she backed off a quick step or two. "I! That is! I mean!"

Then she froze, put one hand up to cover her mouth while the other supported her elbow, and locked her head to the side, refusing to look at me. "My apologies," she got out in a mechanical sounding tone. "I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me. P-please do not think of me as a brazen or forceful girl for that."

"No harm done," I finally told her, feeling my own face heat up as hormones decided to once more wage war against my adult dignity and subject my poor beleaguered body to their Saxon-like brutality. Sona sat down stiffly, moving so she could face forward properly, before she gave me one quick look, and her cheeks got even warmer.

"Also, in the future, please refrain from commenting on my bottom," she told me, and though she didn't sound like she was necessarily unhappy at my objective opinion on the topic, her face was still bright red as she refused to look back at me. I cleared my throat, and decided to focus on the book.

Awkward moment is awkward.

*Scene Break*

"Are you sure this is the best place to be practicing?" I couldn't help but ask as Sona continued to lead me across the school grounds. "In my experience, training in magic is best done someplace without fragile things."

"Fragile things?" Sona prompted me, giving me a brief look as she led me to where my first attempt at practical application was going to take place.

"Fragile things," I nodded. "You know, like furniture, buildings, innocent bystanders, those kinds of fragile things."

Sona smiled briefly at that before nodding. "Indeed. I am coming to appreciate both your enthusiasm for your studies, as well as your diligence in bearing the safety of others in mind while doing so. But do not worry. This late the student population will have left for the day. The only ones present will most likely be other devils. More so, there are wards up to encourage any lingerers to avoid the area around the old school building. We shall most certainly have the privacy we need."

"Wards to encourage them?" I prompted, frowning at the confession of something dangerously similar to mind magic, before some of the information I picked up about this world's magic systems came back to me and my frown changed into a grimace. "I am very not comfortable with those kinds of magic."

Sona frowned briefly, giving me a curious, for her anyway, look. "If I had known about your aversion to certain types of magic, I would have chosen another discipline for you to begin with," she pursed her lips at her confession. "Faerie magic is among the simpler disciplines, but its specialties do not seem to agree with you."

"Probably should have started with something a little more straightforward," I agreed with her. "I'm more a 'burn the house down' type guy than the whole 'subtle illusion and trickery' thing."

Again, that little twist of déjà vu hit me as certain motifs and themes regarding the fey popped up. Though I couldn't help but wonder how some of the more arrogant faeries back in my home world would have dealt with the fact that here the faerie of Bizzaro World had more in common with Toot-Toot than the tall, sleek, and proud members of their race.

The faerie of Bizzaro World were apparently a tiny race, much like my old commander of the Za Guard had been. They preferred to live quietly and peacefully, away from the trappings of modern society and deep in forests and other natural places. Their primary interaction with other creatures was to play tricks on them, misleading them from paths and trails and similar old tricks.

Consequentially, the fey school of magic tended to stray mostly to illusions and other subtle magics. I had managed to up the quality of my veils while training Molly, but I still wasn't anything that impressive.

"Hence why I chose a school with the least potential for accidental destruction," Sona frowned as I confessed my own tendencies towards large scale accidental destruction. "I would rather not have the school damaged while you are familiarizing yourself with formal magic."

"Touche," I told her dryly. I paused, cocking my head to the side as I heard something. I frowned. "I thought you said that there wasn't going to be anyone else here?"

"I said that there would be no normal students," Sona reminded me as the sound got louder, indicating that whatever it was that was making it was getting closer. "Rias' peerage does make use of the old school building as their base. It shouldn't be surprising to meet them."

"Right," I frowned, listening as the voices got closer. "Hey, doesn't that sound like someone crying?"

"It does sound as though…" Sona began, narrowing her eyes with a frown, before she was interrupted by the appearance of the origin of the sound.

The school grounds around the old school building had a kind of overgrown feel to it. Apparently the old building had been built back into a small grove, a good way to ensure its privacy. It made sense as a location for a group of devils to make their base. The woods were appropriately thick, and had a good bit of underbrush as well.

I could only blink owlishly as from that underbrush a small blonde girl emerged. She was running as fast as she could, desperately pumping her hands as she did so, and she looked terrified.

"Uwah!" she cried, looking behind her before redoubling her speed. "Eeek! Stop! Don't chase me while swinging Durandal like that!"

Right behind her, Xenovia appeared, sprinting as well as she wielded the immense holy sword I had seen her use when fighting against Kokabiel. I had only interacted with her peripherally at this point, but I had learned from Ise that after finding the truth out about god, Xenovia had done a one-eighty on her stance on devils, and had agreed to join Rias' peerage as her second Knight.

I'd heard about rebound careers, but I hadn't been able to help but think that maybe she should have thought that one through a bit more. Then again, finding out that everything you ever believed and fought for was a lie could tend to inspire those kinds of decisions.

"A healthy mind comes from a healthy body!" the serious girl declared, swinging her sword at the retreating blonde, causing her to shriek and pick up speed. A moment later, Koneko emerged as well, and the tiny girl held out what appeared to be several cloves of garlic. The silver haired girl was chasing the blonde too, apparently.

"…Gya-kun. If you eat garlic, you will become healthy," Koneko declared, somehow managing to sound flat and disinterested despite her rapid movements.

"Stop! Waaaaa! Koneko-chan is bullying me!" the blonde cried, before screaming and dodging another swipe from Xenovia.

Normally, this was the kind of situation I would be all over: an innocent young girl being chased by two devils was the type of thing I tended to intervene in. However, several things caused me to hesitate. For one, I knew for a fact that Xenovia as a Knight could move a whole lot faster than she was right now, and her swings, while dangerous, were lazy and easy to dodge. The swordswoman, er, swordsdevil, had also proclaimed something about 'healthy mind and body' as well. Add on that Koneko had called the blonde by some kind of nickname and also mentioned her health, and I found myself wondering if maybe this was in fact some kind of devil custom rather than a violent assault.

So in the end I held back, and gave Sona a curious look. "Does this kind of thing happen often? Because if it does, next time I'm bringing a stereo so I can play the Benny Hill theme."

Sona sighed, a hand up to massage her forehead as she closed her eyes and grimaced. I could already imagine the headache she was getting as yet again the world failed to conform to her level of severity.

"Oh! Dresden! Kaichou! When did you two get here?" a new voice drew my bemused view away from where the three girls were proceeding to start making laps around the old school building, and I turned with a grin.

"Ise," I greeted the other boy, before looking at his side. "And Asia. How you two been doing?" Then I pointed towards the ongoing chase. "And just what the hell is that all about?"

Asia began to laugh, that kind of awkward giggle when you were trying to find humor in something that would only be funny in retrospect and was just embarrassing at the present. Ise had a similarly awkward look on his face as he rubbed the back of his head.

"Well, it seems that Maou-sama felt that Buchou's ability as a King had risen enough for her to release her Bishop who had been sealed for having an unstable power," Ise offered slowly, his own eyes drifting back to the chase. Sona frowned, pursing her lips as she folded her arms.

"So that is Vlad Gasper," she nodded, apparently knowing a lot more of the story than I did because even though I was still confused by the explanation she seemed to buy it.

"What is all this commotion?" a new voice joined in, and I glanced at where it came from to find Saji approaching as well. He gave me a brief frown, before he realized that I wasn't alone and he smiled eagerly. "Oh! Kaichou! Why are you here?"

"Saji," Sona greeted cooly, nodding at her Pawn as he approached. "I should ask the same to you. If you're neglecting your duties…"

"Not at all, Kaichou!" Saji declared, proudly lifting the sack he was carrying. "I was on my way to see to the flower bed right now! I just stopped by when I heard that the hikkomori servant who had their ban lifted was about to take a look."

"I see," Sona nodded, giving a slight smile. "It is good that you are so diligent, Saji."

The words must have made the boy's day, as he positively beamed at his crush, before giving me a glower from the corner of his eyes. It only lasted a second before he turned back to the chase. "Oh," he grinned as he took in the details. "It's another blonde, isn't it? And a girl at that."

He had the happy look of a guy who realized that there was going to be more eye candy around in the future, before he remembered that his current crush was still in front of him. Coughing in embarrassment, he turned away and pretended that he wasn't looking out of the corner of his eyes.

Surprisingly, Ise sighed and shook his head slowly. I would have thought the breast obsessed devil would be more excited at the addition to his peerage.

"Saji, I'm sorry to say this, but that's a cross dressing boy," he declared, and Saji flinched back like he was struck.

I, on the other hand, could only blink, and turn to double check. On the next lap around I focused on the blonde's throat, but was unable to find an Adam's Apple, either indicating that Ise was mistaken and this really was a girl, or that this was a boy who still hadn't quite hit puberty yet.

Given its size, the fleeing devil could be either or. I decided to take Ise's word for it.

"This is a bad joke," Saji muttered, bowing his head with a groan. "I mean, don't people who cross dress do it so they can be seen? Since he's a hikkomori, it's like there's no reason for it at all…"

"I know, right?" Ise moaned, looking depressed. "Asia-chan was really looking forward to meeting her fellow Bishop, and in the end it's a cross-dressing hikkomori vampire that spends his time hiding in a cardboard box…"

I froze, tensing up at his words. "Vampire, you say?" I asked quietly, reaching for my staff slowly. My eyes tracked the fleeing blond carefully, studying for more than the amusement factor.

"Dresden-kun," Sona cautioned me, and I paused as she stopped my hand with hers. She had a cautious look on her face. "Before you do anything rash, it might be best to take a moment and consider the situation. Like devils, there are many myths of vampires which are untrue."

"Eh?" Saji grunted, before he scowled, and gave me a cautious look as well. He backed away from me slowly, eyeing my gloved hand carefully.

He probably remembered my first confrontation with Sona and her peers after I learned they were devils too.

I hesitated for a moment, before letting my hand fall, and Sona smiled slightly. Instead, I folded my arms, and considered the situation.

I was really starting to hate Bizzaro World. If for no other reason than it constantly made me have to stop and reconsider my initial responses to everything it threw at me. One of these days, I was going to hesitate in the face of something I really should have blasted first and thought about later.

"Okay," I began slowly, deciding to rundown the list. "Vampires. Tell me, is he by any chance some sort of hideous bat monster wearing the flesh of a human in order to conceal its presence?"

"Eh?" Ise blinked, giving me a befuddled look at the question. Sona frowned as well, before answering.

"No…" she began. "Though I don't believe I've heard that type of rumor before…"

Okay, so I can cross Red Court off the list. "How about a reanimated corpse possessing hideous strength and magic that sleeps in the dirt of its grave to regain its power?"

"Again, your rumors…" Sona pursed her lips as she shook her head. "No, the vampires are a species all of their own. They have purebreds among their race, but they also can change humans into vampires as well."

Not Black Court either. I considered bringing up White Court, but decided that if the vampire, who had at this point tried to climb a tree and was wailing piteously as Xenovia reached up periodically to try and poke him with her sword and Koneko periodically tossed the garlic into the air at him as well, had incubus or succubus properties they probably wouldn't have called him a vampire at all.

I decided to accept, for now, that vampires of this world were significantly different from the various Courts of my world, and focused on the important part.

"Does he feed on mortals?" I asked bluntly, eyes narrowed.

"No," Ise shook his head, again sighing as I gave him a quick glance. "Apparently, vampires do need blood, but Gasper over there doesn't like the taste. He really is horrible example of a vampire…"

"While vampires do indeed drink blood, it is not generally a harmful experience for humans," Sona elaborated, already knowing exactly what I wanted to have either confirmed or denied. "Though there are some that do so, like devils it is more a matter of personal taste than a trait of their race."

"I see," I finally relaxed a bit, still keeping an eye on the vampire, Gasper I think he was called. "Just so you know, if he ever does kill a mortal, regardless of whether he's your peer or not, I will come for him."

"Dresden-kun," Asia spoke up, looking nervous as she did so. "I don't think Gasper-kun is like that. Buchou wouldn't let him as well, since he's a devil now."

Ise was giving me another one of those strange looks he sometimes got, before he suddenly grinned. "Don't worry, Dresden! Since I finally got a Kohai, I'll make sure to raise him right!" He gave me a guts pose, pumping a fist into the air enthusiastically. "Just leave it to me!"

Strangely enough, the promise actually did a lot to relieve me. Ise was kind of perverted, but he was honest, straightforward, and generally good people. He was a friend, after all, and I didn't think he would be the type to let one of his comrades go down the wrong path.

"Right," I sighed, and let myself relax more. I turned back to the scene, and found that the vampire was now hanging from a branch, apparently having lost his balance from dodging a garlic toss and was still crying pitifully. "You know, before I found this scene sad. Now I'm starting to see the humor in it."

Oh, if only Mavra could see it. It would probably drive the old corpse back to her own grave in disgust.

And then I nearly jumped out of my skin as a new voice chimed in, laughing as it did so. "Ha! I agree! So this is where the servants of the Maous' families come to play."

I was glad that I wasn't the only one that was surprised, because if only the wizard didn't notice someone sneaking up on them than it would really put a hit on the 'wise and knowing' part of being a magus. Asia squeaked in surprise, and Ise spun, a look of shock on his face as Sona stiffened and Saji dropped his bag of gardening supplies.

I had one hand on my staff by instinct as I turned enough to catch sight of the speaker. It was a man, wearing Japanese style clothes. He had black hair except for a shock of blonde on the front, and he looked to be in his mid-twenties, with a roguish type of good looks that kind of reminded me of Thomas of all people.

"Azazel!" Ise gasped, turning a little pale as he thrust his arm out so he could push Asia behind him. The name had an effect on the other devils present. Sona went stiff, straightening as her eyes widened in surprise, and Saji blinked, looking nervous.

"H-Hyoudou! B-By Azazel, you mean…!" Saji began, and Ise nodded, his war face making an appearance, about the same time his gauntlet did.

"Yeah, it's him, Saji. I've made a contract with him plenty of times," Ise declared, and Saji gulped before his own Boosted Gear shimmered into appearance.

The newly identified fallen angel, Azazel, just snorted at the preparations for battle, not even bothering to look as first Xenovia, than Koneko got wind of the situation and spread out behind him as well. "Hey now, thaw your postures, devils," he drawled. "I'm not here to fight. I was just out taking a stroll, and thought to come see a gathering place of devils. I'm not the type to go around bullying low class devils." He gave Sona a roguish grin, and I could make out a small bead of sweat forming at her hairline. "Or the sister of the current Leviathan, for that matter."

"Well, if we're planning on being polite and friendly, I could always try to find a goat for you," I declared, unable to resist the urge to step between the fallen angel and the girl, though I refrained from thumping my chest and swinging my staff like a club so I guess that much should be enough. "We'll have to find a mountain to toss it off of, but that shouldn't be too hard."

"Dresden?" Ise began, giving me a confused but cautious look as Azazel paused, giving me a surprised look. I grinned carelessly as I continued.

"Though I have to say, for all the pain and suffering you're responsible for, I might just skip on the goat," I continued, and Azazel snorted at that.

"Oh? I've heard that some of the Grigori have been causing trouble…" he began and I cut him off.

"I meant for having invented make up, hair care, and jewelry," I told him in a deadpan voice. He blinked, looking completely caught off guard. "I mean, you are the fallen responsible for teaching mortals about cosmetics, aren't you? Do you have any idea how many men have suffered having to go around with their girlfriends and wives and pretend that they really saw a difference between two identical brands of hair dye?"

"Dresden!" Sona hissed behind me, sounding like she was resisting the urge to grab my cheek again to stop me from mouthing off to the powerful creature I was giving lip too.

That or she was offended that I was admitting what every man could agree on: that all makeup looked the same and we were only pretending we could see the difference.

Azazel seemed shocked, blinking at me in surprise, and I tried not to show how tense I was. Mouthing off to creatures like this was always a risk, in that powerful and immortal creatures that just about everyone else in the world were polite to sometimes just didn't have much in the way of coping mechanisms for being mocked.

You could tell a lot about a creature from the way it responded to a one liner. A lot about individual people too, for that matter.

So when he threw back his head and guffawed with laughter, I felt myself relax, if only slightly.

"Haha! A follower of the classics! The book of Enoch?" he asked, wiping away what looked like a tear after he finished laughing.

"Azazel, the Scapegoat. They say you fell from heaven for taking a mortal wife," I nodded, recalling what I knew about the fallen angel mentioned in the Apocrypha. "And that afterwards you taught the knowledge of weapons to men, and the art of tinctures and precious stones to women."

"Ah, those were the days," Azazel continued to chuckle. "Though it was more a harem than a wife that made me fall! Ah, women are amazing!"

A strangled noise caused me to glance at Ise, to find him absolutely rigid as he stared at the fallen angel he had previously been tense about with awe. "A h-harem!" he whispered reverently, and I could almost feel some of the tension flow out of the air as even Saji relaxed a bit, giving a cautious look of respect for the fallen.

It was a guy thing, I suppose.

"Ise-san," Asia sounded resigned, no doubt used to her love interest's own particular quirk.

"So!" Azazel continued, still sounding as though he was amused. He grinned carelessly at me. "A brave kid, not afraid to trade jibes with high classed fallen, carrying a rod and wearing a coat. You must be Harry Dresden of 'Fire and Ice'."

And like that, despite the groups general trend towards relaxing, I found my own personal tension skyrocketing.

He knew my name.

Azazel, who from what I knew about this world was actually the leader and Governor of the Fallen, knew my name, and knew me by description.

Then again, come to think of it, both the Lucifer and the Leviathan had also recognized me on sight. That was just less unnerving because I was personally involved with their families. This was an entirely different matter.

"Fire and Ice?" I asked lightly, trying to conceal my unease. "What's that supposed to be about?"

"Like it?" Azazel offered light heartedly. "I thought it suited you as a title. When Vali reported a young magician throwing around the two opposite elements like they were going out of style, I found myself a little interested. It was quite a scene you left behind at the church as well. Our researchers took days to figure out what happened."

I didn't know who Vali was, but the name seemed to put some tension back in Ise, so I made a note of it to ask him later. The fact that Azazel admitted to having been researching me personally was more important now. If he had even gone so far as to find the only other place in this world I had tossed around serious magic in battle, then it spoke a lot about how thorough he was when it came to investigating.

"I hope you didn't have any trouble cleaning up," I told him. "By then the pieces must have thawed out. It was probably quite the mess."

Koneko, the only other person here who had been present for that shindig gave a little shiver, her nose scrunching up as she probably imagined just how that would have turned out.

"That it was," Azazel agreed carelessly. His grin turned sharp as he tried to meet my eyes, though I focused on the bridge of his nose like I normally did. "Though Vali did say something about an interesting little spell of yours. Claimed that it was strong enough that even Kokabiel had trouble overcoming it. Don't suppose you want to talk about it? I'm always interested in new things."

I gave him a small, hard smile. "Sorry. Union rules. A wizard never reveals all their tricks. You know how it is."

Soulfire. He had to be referring to the soulfire garrote. Whoever this Vali was, they had to have a good eye, because between the enormous balls of fires, glaciers of ice, columns of lightning, and masses of pure destructive energy that was being thrown around during that fight, the garrote was so small as to be nearly unnoticeable. But that still didn't mean they knew what I had been wielding. It looked like Azazel and any other fallen angel that had heard about would think it was just a particularly well designed spell. It still wasn't realized just what I could truly do with soulfire.

It meant the edge was still there.

"Governor-dono," Sona spoke up, stepping from behind me with dignified steps. It looked like she had recovered her bearing, and with the scene less tense she moved to take charge. "I am called Sitri Sona, and am responsible for this school. I was unaware of any scheduled visit. Could your presence here be in regards to the upcoming conference? If so, than I will be willing to escort you until a proper representative of the devils can be summoned."

"Tch," Azazel grimaced, one hand coming up as he impertinently began to clean his ear with his pinky. "What a boring topic. I was just bored and decided to go out and take a stroll. Why the hell would I want to talk about the conference when I'm doing something relaxing?"

Sona managed to refrain from showing it, but I could tell she was put off by the response. Honestly, it reminded me a bit how both Sirzechs and Sarafall were both overly casual despite being leaders of the devil race.

"With the conference so imminent…" Sona tried again to maintain the diplomatic route, only for Azazel to casually wave her off, and then point towards a nearby tree.

"You! The vampire hiding over there," he declared casually. I made out a startled noise, and was pretty sure that the fallen hadn't made a mistake about where Gasper had disappeared to. Azazel began to walk casually in the tree's direction, but with the heavy mood somewhat lightened the gathered devils seemed confused about whether to treat the Governor of the Grigori as a threat or not.

Personally, I was holding my gathered will and magic very close to the surface, but I was willing to wait until he made a move that would justify me striking back.

"You're the possessor of Forbidden Balor View, aren't you?" Azazel declared casually, and even if I didn't quite know what that Balor thing was it was at least a relief that I wasn't the only one that had been investigated. It looked like doing his research beforehand was just the fallen's modus operandus. "If you can't use it properly, it will just be a thing that harms others. As a support type Sacred Gear it can have certain deficiencies." He hummed briefly, straightening after studying the vampire's eyes. "You devils never really got far in your research into Sacred Gears. For a Gear that is invoked from any of the five senses, if the owner's own control is deficient it can tend to run wild…"

With a quick glance around, Azazel suddenly pointed at Saji, who flinched and raised a shaking hand to point at himself as well. "You. That's Absorption Line, isn't it? If you're practicing, come over here and use it to suck out some of the vampire's power. With less power Forbidden Balor's View is less likely to run out of control."

"M-My Sacred Gear can suck the power of other Gears?" Saji muttered, staring at the lizard thing on his hand. "But I thought it could only take power from people…"

"That's the problem with you kids these days," Azazel snorted. "Because none of you ever try to understand the power of your Gears, nothing interesting has been happening. Absorption Line holds the power of one of the five Dragon Kings, you know: Vritra, the Prison Dragon. It can connect to any object and scatter its power. If you do it quick enough, you can even connect it to someone else and transfer that power instead."

"I see," Sona murmured, giving Saji a studying look as she adjusted her glasses. Saji looked shocked, staring at his Gear in surprise as he learned more about it in a few minutes than he probably had in months, and from someone who was supposed to be an enemy at that. "This opens many possibilities…"

"Oh, yeah, Sekiryuutei," the fallen went on, waving casually at Ise, who gulped in response. "Sorry about Vali. Our Hakuryuukou contacted you of his own accord. I'm sure it must have been a surprise, right? Though he is an unusual guy, but he doesn't seem to be eager to settle the rivalry between red and white immediately."

"What about you?" Ise sighed, looking confused and annoyed. "Aren't you going to apologize for hiring me all those times without telling me who you were?"

Azazel just grinned. "I don't apologize for my hobbies." Like that, he turned and left.

Everyone was quiet for a bit, no one quite sure how to respond to the encounter, before I finally sighed, releasing my will and letting my power disperse.

"Raise your hand if you're a little freaked out by how easy that went," I declared and Ise and Saji both immediately raised their hands. A moment later, Asia and Koneko did too, joined finally by Xenovia. Sona just sighed at the childish declaration, before she also raised a hand slightly. Behind the tree, Gasper poked a hand as well, the only part he seemed willing to show.

"Good," I nodded thoughtfully. "As long as it's not just me."

*Scene Break*

"Wait," I began slowly, holding a hand up to try and slow down Ise as he made his explanations about just who Gasper was, and why my first encounter with him had involved him being chased around by one of the strongest holy swords still in existence as well as cooking ingredients. "His Sacred Gear can stop time?"

"Yeah," Ise nodded cheerfully, not seeming nearly as put out by the revelation as I felt he should be.

"But it only stops time of anything in his view?" I asked for clarification as I tried to wrap my mind around the impossibility being presented to me.

"Pretty much?" Ise offered, frowning as he realized that I was apparently having a hard time with this. "Why's that so weird?"

I stared at him. "But… it's stopping time? I mean, how does that even work? That's like stopping mass, or turning off physics. I mean, look at that!" I pointed a finger at the volleyball as it hovered, just stopping midair. "I mean, I can't feel anything from that at all! How is it just sitting there?"

"Because its time was stopped?" Asia offered curiously, blinking innocently as she answered my rhetorical question.

"But if it was just a matter of stopping its time, then wouldn't it have been driven through the wall as the turning of the planet affected its position in real space?" I demanded, trying to figure out which way was West now that the sun had gone down so that if the frozen ball suddenly started obeying the laws of physics like it should I wouldn't be behind it.

"Huh," Saji grunted, before shrugging it off. "Well, it's a Sacred Gear. They all have unusual abilities."

"Though I'm impressed that you came up with such an interesting theory," Sona mentioned, also not looking nearly disturbed enough by the rendering to nothing of the fourth dimension.

'Lash, back me up here,' I demanded, hoping that the only other visitor to Bizzaro World would at least be able to understand my plight.

It is not nearly so noteworthy as you think, my host, Lash didn't sound the least bit interested in the phenomenon at all. I have told you in the past, that your mortality limits many of your perceptions of various illusions, time included.

I managed to suppress the twitch in my cheek, but it was a close thing. 'Traitor,' I told her, before palming my face and deciding to just ignore the impossible event I was seeing.

Bob was right. I was useless with any theory that involved dimensions beyond the three I was familiar with. I'll just chalk this up to one of the things that I knew I didn't know.

After Azazel's departure, it had been decided that gardening could wait for Saji as the fallen angel's suggestion for training was tried out. So far, according to Ise, it had ended up improving the vampire's abilities immensely. Seeing as I had never seen Gasper's attempts at using his Sacred Gear before, I could only take his word for it.

"I'm just going to go over here and concentrate on bending the forces of the universe to my will in a fashion which actually makes sense," I muttered, deciding to focus on my own training, rather than the vampire's.

"I'm sorry!" said vampire apologized to me, eyes wet with tears. "I'm sorry! I'll try harder!"

"Don't worry, Gasper-kun!" Ise cheered for him enthusiastically. "You're doing great! Ready for another… oh?" he paused staring at his arm in confusion. "Did you just stop time in my arm?"

"I said I was sorry!" Gasper covered his face and sank to the ground in a crouch.

"Don't worry!" Ise reassured him easily. "It'll unfreeze in a bit, so no harm done!"

"Gyah!" I considered getting ear plugs as all the ways that statement was wrong hit me. I mean, what about the blood in his arm? If it was frozen, then that meant nothing was getting in or out, and blood vessels should be rupturing left and right as they were blocked! Not to mention that Ise was actually moving around, his arm stuck in the position it had been in when it was frozen but still moving in accordance with his body. Shouldn't he be stuck in one position, just like the ball was?

A soft sound came from beside me and I turned, giving a skeptical look at the originator. "Are you giggling, Sona?"

"Of course not," she declared immediately, her lips twitching enough for me to want to call bull. "Now than, should we proceed?"

"Right, focusing," I took a deep breath, before sitting down, crossing my legs. Putting my hands on my knees, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. When I had first been learning how to gather my power, Justin had drilled meditation into me as a method of focusing, just like I had with Molly when she first started as well. As time went by and I got more experienced it was easier and easier for me to drag more and more power quicker, a handy trait for when you have about two and a half seconds before the demon sprinting towards you to eat your face made it to set up a shield. Most of the time I didn't bother meditating any more, except for when I was about to do something really big or really subtle.

This one was the latter. I had managed to gather enough of the theory from the last few lessons with Sona to come to the conclusion that Bizzaro World's magic probably wouldn't cause me to simultaneously implode and explode, or paradox myself out of existence or something.

Still wasn't too sure if I'd be able to use it like everyone else though. Or even if me using it might end up resulting in any spell I attempt to have completely different results than what it normally occurred.

And so I let myself sink deeper and deeper in concentration, the sounds of the world around me fading into background noise as I focused.

This should be sufficient, Lash noted. I let myself go a little further, just to be safe, and then I opened my eyes, focusing them on a point a few feet in front of me.

The first part was actually disturbingly easy. Honestly, even as I heard Sona's voice in the background, droning but still recognizable as some kind of caution or encouragement, I focused more on doing something I was already intimately familiar with:

I made a Circle.

In my world circles were some of the most fundamental and important basics of magic. The circle was a kind of screen or barrier, a way to trap spirits or make a shield as a circle can prevent power from passing through it one way or another. Most of the time, I tended to use props when I made circles, using chalk or just scratching a line in the ground around me, but props were just tools to help focus the wielder, and if the wielder was strong enough and paid enough attention than they could do it without props.

In many ways, what I gleaned from Sona and the books was that circles were kind of similar out here in Bizzaro World, as in they affected the flow of magic. However in this world they seemed much less like props and more like necessities: the circle provided the base, and the runes, sigils, cuneiform, and whatever other word you wanted to use for the important looking squiggles that were inscribed within the circle were what directed the power.

The study of magic in Bizzaro World was finding the most effective combination and placement of those props. Actual magical power seemed to be based around an individual, much like in my world, with some people being blessed with a lot and others not so lucky. However, the circles could be used to circumvent that limitation. A suitably well crafted circle, where every mark had been calculated to maximum efficiency could provide an effect which far surpassed the amount of power invested in it. Similarly, a spell could have reduced effect as well, requiring a much higher amount of energy for a much lower yield.

In that way, a smart magician, or one with better resources, could easily overcome someone with way more power than them. Then again, someone with way more power and access to those efficiently crafted circles could use them just as easily, boosting their effective power even more.

So with that in mind, I set my will and magic in motion.

And thus, my first spell using Bizzaro World's magic system failed. Spectacularly.

I blinked, staring up at the dark sky, wondering how I got in that position and just when my ears started ringing. I shook my head, watching as Sona hovered over me, frowning with worry as her mouth moved.

Then something green invaded my sight, and the moving mouth had a voice that wasn't being drowned out by an orchestra of bells.

"-esden-kun! Can you hear me? Dresden-kun!" Sona's tone was a little high pitched with concerned. She was glancing between me and the small crater that had appeared where I had been concentrating the circle earlier, and even though it had probably been nearly a minute since it formed dirt was still falling down periodically.

"I'm up," I declared, glancing over as Asia gave me a worried look, her Sacred Gear dwindling as she finished putting me back together. "Thank you, Asia. That was looking to be a proper concussion if you hadn't shown up."

"You're welcome, Dresden-san!" Asia beamed happily at me, and I decided to find out when her birthday was so I could get her that pony I always wanted to give her.

"That is a relief," Sona sighed, before giving me an expectant look. "I see something went wrong." She pointed towards the small crater, with a radius of only a few inches. "I don't believe I've ever seen a result like that for a first attempt."

"Yeah," I muttered slowly, before tilting my head and tapping some dirt out of my hair. I was going to be very happy that my apartment had warm showers by the time the night was over. "I think I know what happened. How deep is it?"

"Deep?" Sona repeated, frowning at my question. "Is now the time to be worrying about such things?"

"It'll help me figure out how much I overpowered the spell," I admitted, pushing myself to my feet as I made my way over. I peered down, and couldn't suppress a small whistle. "See?" I told her as I knelt, putting my arm into the hole.

I made it down to my elbow. Sona's eyebrows went up at that, before she frowned again, crossing her arms in thought.

"If there was enough power to dig that deep, why didn't it spread any further?" she asked me. "You said you knew what you did wrong?"

"Gasper," Ise called out somewhere in the background. "You can come out of the box now. Dresden's done exploding things."

"Noooo!" the vampire whimpered. "I don't like loud noises! And I'm sorry I froze Saji-san, Ise-kun!"

"I tried to micromanage," I admitted to Sona, cracking my neck slightly as it was revealed that no matter how awesome Asia was, there truly was no force in the world besides a hot tub that could cure a crick in your neck. "I'm too used to handling all the parts of the spell that when I tried to activate this one I was riding the spell worse than you ride your peerage."

"I will have you know that I do not micromanage," Sona declared firmly, glaring at me slightly. "I administer with prejudice."

I blinked, completely derailed.

"Did you… did you just make a joke?" I gaped at her, and despite her attempts at hiding it I could see a slight flush high on her cheeks, as well as a tiny, almost unnoticeable smile.

"So if you spent too much effort attempting to control the spell," she continued, bravely ignoring my stunned expression, "why was the effect so contained?"

"Because I'm more used to using circles for defense… and you DID make a joke!" I decided to focus on the more important events that were going on. "My god! This has to be some sort of special event! I wouldn't be surprised if a holiday was named for today! Maybe I should call Levi-tan so she can-ow!"

I started to hop on one foot as she took two deliberate steps and put her foot into my shin again.

"You should be more careful," she told me with narrowed eyes. "There are still many falling rocks. If another were to hit your leg like that we might require Asia-san to treat you again."

"Ahhhh," Asia began, looking back and forth between us, adorably confused. "But wasn't that Kaichou… eep!" she cut herself off and scrunched herself to present a lower profile as Sona turned a brief glare on her too.

"Shame on you, bullying a little girl like that," I muttered, still somewhere between shocked and bemused at the one liner that the serious girl had dropped.

"Now, back to business," Sona declared, pushing her glasses back up before putting her hands on her hips and giving me an expectant look. "I presume you're ready to try again, or are you going to give up after only one failure?"

"I'd tell you to crack the whip a little more, but considering how serious you take everything I don't think I'd like that," I grumbled, but returned to my previous position. "Right. Take two."

I sunk deep enough into my meditation that I managed to miss her indignant response, and focused instead on the spell. It only took me a minute before I was at a point where I was ready to try again.

I was used to using my will to wield my magic. I had to focus my intent, to follow through with every spell until it reached its conclusion. This time after I had the circle in my mind, I deliberately held back, only supplying the power and then standing back to see if it worked.

And so that this time I might get my hands up to brace myself from any concussion.

Well, even if the first one was a spectacular bust, the second one was only a mild one. I watched as the circle I had formed in my mind lit up, a brief shine of pale white, and then it sputtered, the flare tracing the outline of the circle only for it to erase in the same pattern, making for a really neat light affect but not much else.

Eh, next time I end up in a kegger or a rave, or whatever they called parties these days, I'd have a neat trick.

"Better," Sona nodded slightly.

"Better as in I don't have a concussion, but not much else," I disagreed, rubbing my chin. "I think this is a 'my porridge is too hot, my porridge is too cold' moment."

"Porridge?" Asia repeated, blinking in confusion, and I sighed at the death of classic children's literature. "What does that mean?"

"It means I need to find the 'just right' range," I offered, already sinking back down. I was starting to get the hang of it now, and with that came a better understanding of just what they meant when they said magic was based around calculation in Bizzaro World.

It wasn't about just enacting my will on the universe, it was about using the circle to enact the will, about finding just the right amount of power to get the effect, no more, no less. I was willing to hazard a guess that more experienced magicians would be able to estimate just how much power any given spell would need just from experience, taking in the complexity of the spell or the different symbols and being able to factor them together to figure out a precise end number.

Like algebra, only algebra that might blow up if you don't divide and then add in the right order.

Third time's the charm, my host, Lash offered pleasantly, and I would have rolled my eyes if they weren't already closed.

'It worked for Goldilocks,' I offered back. With a deep breath, the circle engraved in my mind, I tried again.

"Well what do you know," I muttered as the circle flared into being, and a silvery light appeared above it, bobbing and weaving mysteriously. "Here's hoping the bears aren't coming back soon."

"Ooh!" Asia started to clap excitedly, and Sona smiled in satisfaction.

"Ha! Way to go Dresden!" Ise cheered, pausing in his throwing of volleyballs at the vampire to give some support himself.

"I can't believe I missed him blowing himself up," Saji muttered, before grudgingly speaking up. "Well done, Dresden."

"Interesting," I muttered, still sitting cross legged, still somewhat meditative.

"You sound as though you have a question," Sona honed in with the instinct of someone who could sense the chance of education at a hundred yards. Like a scholastic shark or something.

"The circle already disappeared, but the wisp is still here," I pointed out, watching the bobbing ball of light move in mysterious circles. It was a simple bit of a fairy magic, just a willow the wisp spell, meant as a distraction or a means to mislead someone, but it was a success at least. The circle that had summoned it into being had already faded but the light was still dancing merrily.

"Once the spells effect has been realized, it's not necessary for the circle itself to remain," Sona explained easily.

"So does the length of time the spell lasts vary according to how much power you put in?" I started to ask, and Sona opened her mouth before I cut her off, shaking my head as I found the answer. "No, when I used too much I just got an improvised landmine. So it has to be the spell itself. Which means that one of the sigils or doodads in the circle itself is responsible for how long it will go on. So does altering the mark alone cause a change in the spell?" Again, Sona started to answer before I realized it myself and waved her off. "No, because the rest of the spell was centered around the amount of energy that sigil used. So since nothing lives in a vacuum, if you alter the length you'd probably have to alter the intensity, or the way it moves as well. So a good magician would probably be able to make those calculations on the fly, and adjust their spells with a thought."

"I would be upset at being cut off, if I wasn't satisfied with your insight," Sona told me sourly. I grinned at her.

"Alright, I'm batting one for three now," I declared, settling myself back down as I focused again. "Time to up my season's average."

"Right!" Ise declared, turning back to his own training. "Gasper! We're going to compete with Dresden! If we don't stop a volleyball for every spell he does right, than how can we say we're training as hard!"

"R-right!" Gasper declared shakily, looking far more adorable than a boy had any right to as he quivered in his school girl uniform. "I-I'll try!"

As though we would allow a challenge like that to go by unanswered, Lash declared, and between that second and the next, I was blessed with a incorporeal cheerleader with red and white pompoms and an enormous 'D' sewn onto the chest of the uniform. She gave me a winning smile, and I had to suppress a snort as I focused inwards, studiously not taking note of the sway of her skirt.

'Shame on you, picking a fight with a little boy like that,' I told her, before a small grin of my own sneaked out.

I began by attempting to be able to duplicate the spell exactly, experimenting with just how much magic I could sink into each attempt before it either worked or failed in one of the previous methods. Through trial and error, I managed to ascertain that no matter how close to having either too little or not enough magic I got, the effect was always the same.

With that done, I went on to trying something a little harder. Since the spell itself was no more than me holding the mental image in my head, I decided to up the complexity by not holding one image, but holding two instead. With Lash doing impressive cheers and flips between them, it only took me a few tries before I had managed my new goal, and then I decided to test my limits there as well.

I was a wizard, and had been one for decades at this point. I might not be overwhelming at the delicate stuff, but as a wizard I had more than enough experience at maintaining my concentration as well as building complex images in my head.

Still, I was new to this way of things, and I found that creating eight circles simultaneously was the limit for now. I could probably rely on less if I was attempting to use different spells simultaneously.

I was deep in my concentration by now, the kind of zone of pure focus that I usually only tried when attempting some sort of complicated ritual that could kill me if I messed up, when I first attempted to use something besides my magic to power the circle. Reducing my focus back down to only one spell, practice making it almost second nature by now, I let Winter creep through me.

The circle that came into being wasn't white, like it was before. A frosty blue formed instead, and when I said frosty I meant some of the grass beneath it started to freeze as it flared, and the wisp that came out of it was a similar color. The air around it began to mist almost immediately, and it trailed that mist as it bobbed and danced like the rest of my creations.

There was no noticeable distinction between the amounts of power that it required though. It looked like choosing my source of energy had no regards on the spell itself, only on the outcome.

Though that could be only at this level. More complicated spells, or ones that focused on an incompatible energy might have more of a affect.

The wisp I made through Hellfire also took similar energy, but compared to the other wisps it had more noticeable differences. For one, just like a Winter driven spell circle froze the ground around it, this circle glimmered dark with red undertones like a log on a banked fire that still had embers in it. The wisp itself glowed sulfurously as it weaved through the air, and it moved with much more violent motions, looking almost malicious in the dark.

I briefly considered what would happen if I attempted the spell with soulfire as well, and had just decided against it when…

"Empty night!" I swore, being violently ripped from my concentration as something thunked against my head, nearly toppling me as the surprise made me jump, and my legs chose that moment to remind me that they had been folded for probably a rather long period of time at this point. "The hell was that?"

"Sorry, Dresden," Ise told me with an aggrieved look, "but if you kept that up we probably would never be able to get Gasper out of the box."

"What is that supposed to…" I began, scowling, before I looked around the clearing. "Oh," I offered lamely.

"I-I-I'll never be able to stop that many!" I couldn't see Gasper, but his voice was coming from, of all things, a cardboard box. "I-I-I-I'd have to be here all night! Nooo! I want to go back! I want to go back to my roooooom!"

"Er," I began, glancing around at the clearing in front of the old school building. "Maybe I went a little overboard."

All around, floating and drifting, were dozens upon dozens of the fey lights I had conjured. Some of the earlier attempts had faded out, and a few others looked like they wouldn't be around for much longer, but I had been doing multiple attempts for a while before I had managed to find my limits, so the entire courtyard was aglow as they moved and twisted around each other.

If any of the normal students were still around, I wouldn't bet against rumors about the building being haunted springing up at some point.

"It's pretty!" Asia declared giddily, clasping her hands in front of her as she enjoyed the sight for what it was.

"…suspicious," Koneko on the other hand had eyes for two orbs in particular. The orb of Winter and the orb of Hellfire stood out among the other masses, partly because of the effect that both of them had on the environment, and partly because it almost appeared as though the two balls were fighting. Hellfire would swoop down at Winter, only to jerk back when it got too close, and Winter was doggedly following the Hellfire, not responding to its jitteriness and just always moving closer.

"You probably shouldn't get too close to those two," I finally offered, watching them closely. It made me wonder what would have happened if I had used soulfire, all things considered.

Probably not the best idea. Who knows how long an orb powered by pure creation could last.

"Hmm," Sona hummed softly to herself, looking around the clearing with a small smile. "Well done."

"Looks like I got a little out of hand," I shook my head, trying to climb to my feet and finding myself stumbling for more than just the fact that my legs were pins and needles. It had been small, all things considered, but it had been steady, and I had used a good deal of power over the course of my experiments for the night. "Once I got the hang of it I started to experiment a bit. It's still just a level one cantrip, so it's not that impressive or anything."

"Not at all," Sona shook her head, turning that smile at me instead. "It takes normal magicians years of studying to reach the level where they can succeed at even a simple spell. It is even harder for magicians to use multiple spells at once. While you are right as this is still the level that a well-trained apprentice might manage, you have done well to make it so far in only one night of practice." She gave me a brief frown. "Though if this was due to Lash-san's influence…"

"No, she was too busy making the human pyramid," I told her easily. "And figuring out how to spell the word 'supercalifragiliciousexpealidocious' in human lettering."

"Er," Ise began, tilting his head to the side pausing from where he was nudging Gasper's cardboard box. "Is that a real word? Even with Language, I couldn't understand it."

"I'll rent you the movie sometime," I told him, finally getting all the feeling back in my legs as I stretched them. I grimaced as my right knee popped, but being ambulatory only seemed to underscore just how much power I'd been tossing around for the last couple of hours. Picking a spot, I decided that up was overrated and sat myself back down, letting my legs splay in front of me as I leaned back on my hands with a sigh.

"Thank you for the hard work," Sona smiled at me, before she surprised me by taking a seat nearby, folding her legs neatly to beneath and a bit to the side of her. "So. What were your impressions?"

"It's…" I began, taking a moment to order my thoughts. "It's different. Not so different that I can't do it, but it's like comparing apples to oranges."

"What do you mean?" Ise asked, before nodding at Saji. "Looks like it's time for a break. Come on, Gasper, out of the box!"

"That went on a lot longer than I thought it would," Saji sighed. "I guess the gardening will have to wait until tomorrow."

"I'll give you a hand," Ise promised him immediately, grinning as he pumped a fist in the air. "You too, Gasper!"

"But I haaaaate dirt!" Gasper began crying, though whether it was because of how much he disliked getting down in the mud or because Koneko has picked him up easily by the back of his uniform and was carrying him with one hand to where everyone had plunckered down on the grass of the courtyard.

"Magic by formulas is just so simple, so ordered," I continued, pursing my lips as I tried to find a way to quantify the findings I got from circle spellwork. "It's the complete opposite of how I normally do it."

"Oh?" Sona sounded interested, leaning forward slightly as she gave me a polite look. "In what way? I'm interested in hearing how a magician capable of using magic without calculations does so."

"I guess this would be a rare chance," I admitted, though Sona really had no idea just how rare it really was. It wasn't often you could discuss magic with someone from beyond the creation. If I'd tried that with an Outsider, their attempts to eat my face would no doubt greatly detract from the discourse. "The way I use my power is based more around willpower, around conviction and belief than just calculations."

"What do you mean?" Asia asked, looking curious, and where she had sat beside her Xenovia frowned slightly.

"I am also interested in magic," she admitted. "The Church had very little in the way of users. Since most magicians were pagans, I would sometimes offer prayers for them." I watched, bemused as she put her hands together, a gesture that was echoed by the former nun next to her, and the two intoned in unison, "Oh, Lord… ow!"

Yes, even the 'ow' was in unison as the two devils suddenly clutched their heads grimacing.

"You two never learn," Ise sighed, and I got the impression that the two devils promptly receiving holy punishment for entreating the Lord was something repeated often enough that he was more or less used to it.

"Anyway," I began slowly, giving the two maidens clutching their heads an odd look. "In order to use any magic, I have to believe that I am able to, to believe that I have the authority to move the world around me according to my will. It's kind of like the power of a devil, in that I have to be able to imagine what I want, but then it's just a matter of making reality act the way I'm imagining, not so much just making my power into something else."

"What do you mean?" Saji prompted, and for once the other boy sounded curious rather than combative. Maybe he was just tired from using his Sacred Gear for so long, or maybe he was honestly interested in my explanation.

"Well, earlier, when you showed me that trick with the water," I turned to Sona. "Can you do it again?" Pursing her lips at being dragged into the explanation, she allowed herself to be prop, causing a ball of water to form once more. "From what you said, that water that you made is your demonic power being converted into another form, right?"

"Correct," Sona agreed, and Ise proved himself similar to me in interest if not my equal in restraint as he reached out to begin poking the ball.

"For me, it's a little different," I went on, holding my hands up. In one hand, a ball of fire started to form, and in the other a ball of ice. "I'm not making either of these, instead I'm causing an effect which makes them happen instead: fire is more or less just really excited particles, heat, that are moving enough to become visible to the naked eye. Ice, on the other hand, is what happens when water particles slow down so much that they're become solid."

"I see," Sona smiled slightly. "So you do pay attention in science, even if you don't give the proper attention to your tests or homework."

"I pay attention when it matters," I stuck my tongue out at her with great dignity, and Asia giggled. "Right here, I'm using my will to slow the motion of the particles to form ice, while simultaneously taking that motion and transferring it to my other hand to create fire."

"Er, I think I get it," Ise offered, the expression on his face saying that he was lying, but no one called him on it. "But then, wouldn't using fire and ice go together really well?"

"Not really," I let the fire go out, and gripped the ice to break it, dropping the fragments to the ground. "It takes a lot of effort to do one type of affect, either the slowing or the exciting of the particles. Most people tend to focus on one, and it takes a lot of patience and skill to learn how to use the exact opposite of what you normally do. And also, another difference between how I use magic and how other magicians or devils use it is that once I make something, like fire, it acts just like normal fire would unless I specifically force it not to. It looks like it saves a lot of effort for other magicians if they just put the instructions for the what they want their spell to do in the casting phase rather than controlling it all the way through."

"That is what you mentioned earlier, about micromanaging?" Sona nodded slowly, an interested look on her face as she recalled my earlier explosion. "Interesting. It seems that there would be much more leeway for improvising or altering your magic than the traditional method."

"Huh," Ise still seemed confused, but nodded slowly. I got the impression he would be turning to one of his other devils later to try to get a more thorough explanation. "It seems a lot more convenient and easier to use than normal magic." He paused, blinking suddenly. "Wait, does the way you use magic have any bad sides?" he asked, giving me a serious look. "Like that Winter Mantle thingie?"

"Funny you should mention it," I nodded seriously. "Because that's the other difference between the way I do magic and the way magicians use it. The way I do it can be very dangerous to the user if you use it wrong."

"You do not seem overly affected or concerned," Sona noted, giving me a careful look. "So it seems likely that these dangers are only present in certain situations. Traditional magic does have forbidden spells, so I surmise that your magic does to?"

"Er, good guess," I blinked, nodding at how quickly the devil had narrowed in on that.

"It is only logical," Sona brushed off my complement easily enough, before giving me a pointed look. "So, Dresden-kun. Just what are these forbidden spells? If I am to chastise you for using them properly, I'll need to know in advance."

I narrowed my eyes at her briefly, considering. "You know I'm not going to let you spank me, right?"

Saji gulped, and looked away, a shifting awkwardly, and Ise winced as his hands went to his own butt as though to massage away remembered pain.

"We shall see," Sona declared, the glare of the wisps reflecting ominously off her glasses. "Now. Again. Out with it."

"Right," I sighed, rolling my eyes. "It's not so much any type of specific spell that you shouldn't do. It's the way you use your magic that can be dangerous. And for the most part, it's not so much that the spell has any physical danger to you, but rather, in how it can change you if you're not careful."

"Change?" Sona prompted me, frowning.

"To use magic my way, you need to have the conviction and belief that you have the authority to do what you are planning on doing," I explained. "You have to truly believe that have the right to cast that spell, that what you're doing is correct." I tried to find an example, as all I got were blank faces at my explanation. "For instance, mind magic."

"Such as the ward that encourages others to avoid this place that I mentioned earlier?" Sona asked, and I nodded.

"To use magic my way to affect the thinking of others, I would have to believe that I had the right to do so. I would have to believe that I had authority to alter someone's mind, to affect their free will, to control their thoughts." I grimaced, shaking my head. "I would have to believe that controlling someone's very thoughts is acceptable. And the more you think that way, the easier it is to think that way later. The more you believe you have the authority to do so, the more authority you start to believe you really have. It causes the user to escalate. Before you know it, you're not invading their mind to find out what they were thinking or for any specific reason, but you're invading just because you really think it's your right to do just that. And once you think it's your right to invade, you also begin to think it's your right to control as well. Do it enough, and you're not invading their mind for a purpose, you're purpose is just to invade their mind." I shook my head, scowling. "If you reach that point, you're nothing but a rabid dog, and the best thing you can do for anyone that far gone, and for everyone else around them, is to put them down."

They were called Warlocks in my world. Those who had succumbed to corruption and became creatures beyond redemption, who had to be killed for the safety of all around them.

My belief that the best way to deal with Warlocks was prevention, to find the young users with talent and give them the resources necessary to avoid that fate, but once a user had fallen, had reached the level of Warlock, even I had had to agree with the White Council's policy of no mercy.

"That's scary," Ise declared, shivering, and near him Asia also looked frightened.

"I think I understand your caution," Sona frowned softly, an expression of deep thought on her face as she pondered my scenario. "But while the use of magic to manipulate the minds of others is often frowned upon, I haven't heard of a scenario like the one you've stated…"

"That's because the way normal magicians work, belief doesn't really matter," I explained. "All a normal magician has to do is form the spell and give it power. There's no conviction there, no belief. It's just cause and effect. It's not the caster that's deliberately touching another's mind, they just supply the energy needed and the spell does all the work. It's still morally contemptible and downright wrong, but the magician would be able to avoid altering themselves that way."

"And are there others?" Saji spoke up. The boy looked serious, scowling as he nodded his agreement at my summation about the morale figure of those who would use magics of the mind on others. "Other types of magic that can be dangerous?"

"Mind magic is a big one, but any magic that controls the will, dominations or enthrallments," I listed, "necromancy also is a no no. Changing the shape of another is just as dangerous as mind magic. And the big one: killing." I shook my head with a sigh. "Killing with magic is one of the most dangerous things there is."

Koneko wasn't normally a very expressive girl, but at my final list she sat up slowly, straightening as she narrowed her eyes at me.

"So if someone like you uses magic like that, than they're eventually going to go crazy or something?" Ise folded his arms, frowning as he reached that conclusion. I grimaced, and held a hand up to wave it back and forth.

"It's not quite that simple," I admitted to him. "It depends on the person, as well, if they're able to resist the affects. How often they use magic like that, the exact type of magic that they use. There are artifacts or items, things that can be made or already exist that can limit or even change the corruption. If a wizard trains hard enough, they can get the self-discipline necessary to not be affected either. But it's dangerous anyway: most items that can help can have a heavy price for doing so, and if a wizard gets overconfident and just thinks that they're good enough to resist it when really they aren't they can find themselves sliding down a slippery slope with no hand breaks pretty damn quick."

There were other magics too, other things a wizard should stand well back from, to be very, very cautious about. Back in my world, there had been laws, taboos.

In my world, these seven taboos had been listed in the Laws of Magic. Do not kill mortals, do not change the shape of another, do not violate the minds of others, do not violate the free will of others, do not use necromancy upon the unwilling spirits of the dead, do not swim against the streams of time, and do not reach beyond the Outer Gate.

Those were the rules, back in my world, and if you broke them you could expect the Wardens to find you, no matter where you hid, and the swords most wardens had weren't just for show. You wouldn't get a trial, you would just get the execution.

Well, most of the time. I had broken the first law back when I was an apprentice, after my teacher, Justin DuMorne had tried to break the fourth law and enslave me. I had nearly gotten that execution, but my grandfather Ebenezer McCoy, though I didn't know it at the time, volunteered to try and teach me. I had spent a significant portion of my young adult life under the Doom of Damocles, the constant monitoring of the wardens with my beheading the immediate response if I ever showed a hint of breaking them again.

Funny part was, I understood it. Nowadays, I understood it all too well.

Anastasia Luccio had put it best when she had described the purpose of the White Council: it didn't exist to help people, it existed as a means of restraining power. The Council wouldn't have cared if you just cast a veil on yourself and walked into a bank to rob it. That wasn't a use of power that was inherently dangerous, though it was kind of a dick move. What the council cared was about keeping enough people from being corrupted by their own overconfidence, to keep people from crossing lines that could damage them. It cared about making sure those who had power used it in a way which wouldn't endanger those around them or themselves.

Until they were ready for it, anyway.

I wasn't lying when I said there were ways to avoid that kind of self-destructive cycle. Ebenezer had held the title 'Blackstaff' and had the artifact of the same name. It had been a dangerous tool, a thing that could stop that kind of corruptive influence, but it made the wielder pay a hefty price with their body for it. And even though I ended up killing her, there had been a necromancer, Kumori who had used necromancy to save a man's life, who had had the training necessary to avoid the negative consequences of that kind of magic.

But there were more dangers in magic than just the danger it did to your mind.

When I was still young, and yes, I counted my twenties in that time frame, I had believed that magic was just life, that it couldn't be good or bad, that it was just the way it was used that defined it.

I was wrong.

I had come across powers that were truly evil. Powers that were by their very nature horrible, twisted, wrong, and that any who would use them were inescapably defiled by them. My old island, Demonreach had been a source of such power. It had been a prison, made centuries ago by Merlin himself for some of the most wicked, dangerous, and terrible creatures in existence, and their power welled up through the island with enough force to make it the source of one of the darkest leylines in existence.

If I had tried to use that power when I was still inexperienced, it would have broken me. Rashid, the Gatekeeper, had warned me about that when I first ended up punching the spirit that inhabited Demonreach in the face while making friends with it. He'd been right. It'd taken me years, many years, before I even started reaching the point where I could handle a portion of that dark energy. I still hadn't trusted myself to be able to truly wield it by the time I ended up taking a permanent vacation beyond the Outer Gates.

But I had been learning, and I had been reaching the point where if I had stayed I might have been able to use it safely.

Probably when I hit the end of my first century, but hey, there was a reason no one took you serious as a wizard until then.

"…can you?" Koneko broke me away from my thoughts, and I glanced at her. She was still watching me closely, and I didn't blame her. I already knew what the next question was. "…before. In the church. You killed those exorcists."

"What?" Saji blinked, giving me a blank look.

"Rias mentioned that," Sona simply nodded slowly, frowning as she did so. "She did say it was during battle. Surely that would have a bearing on the affects you mentioned earlier?"

I sighed, feeling pensive as I let my gaze fall to the ground in front of me. "Like I said. It's not that simple. It's not like there's a switch that just gets thrown and suddenly you're overcome with the urge to find a fedora and grow a moustache so you can start swirling it while you cackle maliciously. There's a difference between using my magic to make fire or ice and then using that on somebody, and say, a spell designed to rip the heart out of someone from a distance. There's also a difference between using magic to kill on some innocent bystander, and using magic in the heat of battle."

"Dresden-kun," I glanced up as Asia spoke. She looked nervous, and a little sad. "I-I'm sorry. That you had to do something like that," she went on in a rush, bowing suddenly. "If it wasn't for me... is it my fault that you had to do something dangerous like that? Do you regret having to do something like that?"

"Asia-chan," Ise floundered, looking like he was fighting the confusion that crying women inspired in men everywhere as his hands floundered between offering her a hug and being afraid to touch her and make the crying worse.

"Do I regret it?" I asked slowly, before shaking my head. "No. They dragged an innocent girl into the night, tortured her, and killed her, all for their own greed. They stood by and did nothing when you died, and even helped kill you. Than they attacked with the intent to kill. So no. I don't regret killing those sick bastards one bit." I smiled coldly, at the memory, before grimacing. "Then again, I could have just froze the ground under their feet to trip them, or their limbs. I could have knocked them out, or just drove them off."

I sighed, feeling very, very old, and just a little scared.

I had changed a lot over the years. In the beginning, the thought of killing another person was enough to make me sick. But as time went on, as I got sucked into more and more battles, that had begun to change. Back when I had to stop the Darkhollows, I had killed two people, outside of combat: Snakeboy Cassius and Corpsetaker. Originally, that had haunted me. I'd had nightmares for a while. They faded. A while later I buried a ghoul to his neck in glassed sand, before shooting him in the head from behind. There were nightmares then too, but they were fewer and further in between.

Not too long ago, I considered killing Ise in cold blood just because he had become a devil. There weren't any nightmares at all after that.

Maybe it was me being corrupted. Maybe it was a result of the mantle of Winter Knight. Maybe it was just because I had been in a war to preserve my creation from the murderous forces of the Outside and now had a far more askew sense of 'acceptable violence'.

Whatever the case was, I had become someone who could kill without mercy if I needed to.

God help me, I still couldn't tell if that was me being twisted by dark magic, or just the person I'd become naturally after everything I'd been through.

"…did say you hate fighting mortals," Koneko added, still looking at me. She seemed less cautious, and more curious though.

"Wait…" Saji began slowly, staring at me. "You don't actually know a spell to rip someone's heart out, do you?"

"Well," I began, deliberately ignoring that question. Really, there was no good way of answering that one. "It would be so much easier if I could just get my hands on a shotgun, or a good revolver. That would cut out the prob-em!"

"Dresden-kun," Sona glared at me. It was exceedingly easy to tell, seeing how close she had gotten so she could pinch my cheek ferociously. "What have I said about firearms?"

"Wha 'ad I 'ay a'out 'inchin' 'y 'eeks!" I snapped back, tugging at the hand on me. Okay, that's it. I'd been holding back for a while, seeing as I honestly had no established response to someone pulling my chops like this, but enough was enough. Reaching out, I put my hand on her head and started messing up her hair. "'Ake 'at!"

"Dresden-kun!" Sona snapped, blushing at the unexpected contact. "Stop that at once!"

"You 'irst!" I told her, as she started to flail with her free hand, refusing to surrender my cheek as she tried to fend off my assault on her hair. The combination of pushing and pulling reached the point where she lost her balance, and she gave a small squeak as she tumbled over. In turn, I gave a manly squawk as she refused to let go and I had to go down as well in order to keep my face in its current shape.

"Oh," I heard Xenovia speak up as I continued my return assault on the one pinching my cheeks. "So this is a type of flirting too. Pay attention, Asia. We might need to try this method."

At the word 'flirting', I paused, and realized our position: Sona squirming on the ground, me propped up above her on all fours, her hand on my cheek as mine froze on her head. Hell's bells. This position was even worse than the one Tsubasa had lured me into.

You could always give it a tug, Lash laughed.

I could do nothing to stop the damn blush that comment caused. Sona also seemed to realize our position, and I was treated to the adorable sight of her eyes going very wide and her cheeks turning even redder. She froze, looking up at me uncertainly.

It had been a very, very long time since I had been in a position even remotely similar to this one: since I'd been this close to a female, since I'd felt just how soft they really were. I didn't even notice when the hand on her hair had shifted, until it was against her cheek instead, cupping it.

My eyes shifted to her lips, and I wondered what they would taste like. My hormones seconded the motion most enthusiastically. My common sense listed reasons why that would be a bad idea, but I was having trouble listening to that part of me.

I could see the way Sona caught where my eyes wandered, and heard her soft breath as well.

"Kaichou!" Saji's voice cut into the daze my stupid body was putting me in, and it was enough for me to stop the train of thought I really shouldn't have been riding. Sona blinked, and I didn't let myself consider what train she had been riding either.

"Hrk," I declared, rapidly pushing myself up and turning to the side, clearing my throat. Sona got up rather quickly too, and I could see from the corner of my eye as she also turned until she was mostly facing away from me. "Well," I began, speaking very quickly and adjusting my clothes awkwardly. "Long day. Very profitable."

"Yes," she agreed immediately, matching my pace. "Certainly a sign that future lessons will go smoothly. I see no reason why we can't stop for the night."

"Good, good," I nodded quickly. "Stopping is good. So I'll just be going. Work to do, and all that."

"Yes," she also nodded. "There are matters I should attend to immediately. I shall be taking my leave than."

"Are you sure there isn't anything between you and the Kaichou, Dresden?" Ise grumbled, and in response I pointed my staff to trip him with a brief tug of force into where Asia and Xenovia were standing. "What the-!"

"A chance!" Xenovia proclaimed immediately. "Asia! The one who strikes first claims victory! Without Buchou here, this is an opportunity!"

"Ehhh?" Asia blushed hard, before nodding firmly, putting on that war face of hers that menaced balls of yarn everywhere. "Eh!"

"Right," I agreed with Sona, ignoring the pile of people I had caused. "Leaving. Good. Well then. Bye."

"Yes. Good night," Sona nodded one last time, still refusing to look at me, and the two of us immediately departed. Sona was walking with a rather stiff gate, and I was pretty sure I was doing the same.

As I departed the clearing, still lit with the eldritch light of the wisps I had populated with it, I came to a decision. The first thing I was doing when I got home was taking a shower. A very cold shower.

*Scene Break*

"Suspicious," Tsubasa muttered, giving a narrowed look between Sona and I, my other pursuer having folded her arms and started tapping her toes.

"What's suspicious, Yu-chan?" Tomoe asked, fidgeting slightly at her chair. I could tell she was nervous, even as I finished slipping the duffle bag onto the table.

"The way those two are acting," Tsubasa continued continuing to glance between us. "It's suspicious.

"There is nothing at all suspicious about our behavior," Sona declared, though when she glanced at me from the corner of the eye she started to reach up to adjust her glasses only to apparently stop herself.

"Absolutely nothing," I agreed, clearing my throat as I unzipped my bag. "We are as unsuspicious as unsuspicious can be. If you looked up unsuspicious in the dictionary, it would have our pictures right there."

"Hmmmm," Tsubasa frowned, and I don't think she found our reassurances to be very reassuring at all. "I bet Kaichou went and set a flag. Fuku-Kaichou, do you know anything?"

"Yura-chan," Tsubaki sighed, adjusting her glasses primly. "Can we please wait until after the conference to discuss these things? I would prefer we remained focused until then."

"I don't like it," Saji declared, folding his arms and scowling, and for once it wasn't at me. "I don't like the idea of Kaichou going by herself."

"Don't worry, I'll keep her out of trouble," I told him dryly. "You know how she acts up so much and all."

"Irony," Sona sighed, giving me another sideways look. "It seems your repertoire has been expanding."

"I'm always researching better ways to be a smartass," I declared confidently as I started pulling out my supplies. "It's the only way to guarantee my PHD from the school of wiseassedery."

Ruruko tittered a bit, and the rest of the room relaxed, if only slightly as well. It was natural for them to be tense at this point, seeing as today was the day of the conference between the three great powers. It was scheduled to start in only a few hours, and more than that it was being held here, in Kuoh Academy, the personal stomping grounds and responsibility of Sona and her peerage.

Tsubasa seemed to be the only one who really was that concerned about Sona and I right now, but then again she was the only one with a personal stake in that so I suppose I could understand it.

Didn't speak much for her priorities, but she was a teenage girl, after all. Nobody really understood teenage girls, especially not teenage girls themselves.

"So why did you change your clothes?" Tsubasa finally seemed ready to set aside her suspicions, and instead focused on the fact that I was the only one present not still in the Kuoh Academy uniform. Then she blinked as she caught sight of what I was doing. "And why are you wearing jewelry?"

"Sometimes a guy just wants to look pretty," I told her drolly, continuing to slip on my rings. Each one was woven band of three smaller rings of different metals. I was currently wearing black khaki cargo pants, and as a nod to my position as Winter Knight I had put on a pale blue silk button up, the most expensive piece of clothes I owned technically. I'd made sure to shave today as well, and had debated giving my hair a trim before deciding that was way more effort than I was really willing to put in to a conference I was effectively an impotent observer to.

Beyond the clothes though, I was busting out a number of other party favors. Things I had been working on, off and on since I got here most of them being tried and true favorites of mine, though a few were newer inventions that I had never gotten around to making in my old world due to lack of time or resources.

I'd had two years by now to do some tinkering, and I was sort of glad I had done so, though at the time it had mostly been an exercise in paranoia and boredom.

"Oh, I bet they're magic!" Tomoe chirped, leaning studying the rings as I finished putting on the set. "What do they do, Dres-chan?"

"Well, one of them is the ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them, but I ended up dropping that one in with the others, so now I wear them all because I can't tell which is the right one," I told her, and got a blank look in return. "Right, Japan. Different taste in literature…"

"Ah, wasn't that from 'Lord of the Rings'?" Reya perked up at that, and I grinned at her.

"Ah, another believer in these pagan lands," I praised her, and she smiled slightly. It looked like she was living up to that 'librarian girl' image I had gotten off her from all the time she spent in the school library. I slipped on a bracelet made of woven strands of dozens of different metals and adorned with numerous charms shaped like shields. I paused as I considered another bit of jewelry, one of my newer inventions, not sure if I wanted to risk it as well. "So, on a scale of one to ten," I began, deciding to just ask, "one being very unlikely and ten being pretty much inescapable, how likely is it that someone in the conference is going to use some sort of mind control or free will enslaving enchantment?"

"Two, possibly a three," Tsubaki volunteered for me, pursing her lips as she considered the question seriously. I suppose it was a mark of how used to me the Student Council as a whole was getting that she didn't stop to ask why I would ask that question in the first place.

"Eh," I finally decided with a grimace. "Why risk it?" I took the enchanted earring, and with a grimace pushed the needle through the mostly healed hole in my ear. I pulled some tissues free and held them to my ear in order to catch the blood that reopening the hole caused. I rarely used earrings, but ever since Mab had cornered me into wearing one before I had decided that it made for an extra place to hold some defensive gear.

"I take it from your question that your accessories are enchanted in various ways?" Sona asked, and this time her professional curiosity was enough for her to face me directly. I nodded, still waiting for the bleeding to stop. The professional tone helped me ignore the memory of her cheek against my palm, and I focused on the upcoming conference instead.

"Yeah," I told her, shaking the shield charm briefly so it jingled. "Most of the time it's not really necessary to have so much on, and I'm pretty sure you'd never let me wear it all in school, but all things considered I decided to go all out for today."

"Is that really necessary?" Momo asked, frowning as she watched gave a brief look into my bag, her eyes widening slightly at just how many things I had in there. "I mean, what's the worst that can happen?"

"The conference fails, war breaks out among the three powers, it escalates into an apocalypse, the world ends as a shattered smoking husk," I grimaced. "But hey, if you try hard enough you can usually make any worst case scenario end like that."

"Dresden-kun, please refrain from unnecessary speculation," Sona told me sharply, and I glanced at her, a bit surprised at how abrupt her tone was, before realizing something.

'Smooth move, Dresden,' I told myself, suppressing a sigh.

Sona was scared. It was obvious enough why, in retrospect. This wasn't just a conference between outside forces that may or may not have an impact on her indirectly in the future, like it was for me. For her, this was a meeting that might decide the future of her race, and it was one she, a young girl, was actively going to be involved in. What happened here, maybe even based around something she would do or not do, could have ramifications that might last for centuries, even millennia. I glanced around and saw that same tension reflecting to varying degrees in every other devil in the room.

Yeah, maybe flippancy might not be the best choice here.

"Chances are," I began more seriously this time, giving Sona a straight look, "that this is going to go down without it escalating into violence."

"Why do you say that?" Sona gave me a serious look right back, and I went on, listing my take on this conference.

"So far there's been a long standing truce between the powers, right?" I listed, pulling the tissue away from my ear and confirming that it had stopped bleeding. It took a brief effort of will, but I set the piece of paper on fire easily, causing a frown from the serious girl. I didn't want any of my blood laying around, even if so far I hadn't seen much indicators in this world that blood was commonly used as a catalyst like it was in mine. "My read is that so far all sides are happy with that. You devils are taking your chance to lick wounds and recover as a species, and the other sides are probably looking to do the same. In fact, the whole reason that Kokabiel started rampaging in the first place was that he was getting sick of peace and his boss hadn't been doing much to start the fighting again, right?"

"That is true," Sona nodded, before giving me a pointed look and then actually pointing at a nearby garbage can. I rolled my eyes, but when the tissue stopped burning I made sure to wipe the ash into it like she indicated. "So then the question is whether or not his actions have had suitable impact as to affect that truce."

"Got it," I nodded, before slipping on my duster, and retrieving my blasting rod. I tucked it into the loops I had sown in to the inside of my coat just for that purpose. "That and just how much the other leaders are wanting a renewal of war as well. The impression I got from Sirzechs and Sarafall was that devils were just fine with things standing as they are, and Kokabiel had started the whole mess because Azazel seemed to come down on that side of the fence too."

"So then what it will come down to the most is the response of Heaven," Sona had started to relax, adjusting her glasses as she did so. It looked like this kind of mental exercise was just what she needed to focus on in order to ease the tension.

"Right," I nodded, pulling a large coil of wire that had a plug at the end and pocketing it in easy reach. "Now, they might come down on the whole 'holy war, jihad, crusade' type thing and use the chance to restart hostilities, or they could come down on the 'continued coexistence and love thy neighbor' side. Religion is notoriously fickle on that kind of thing. However, they have one big thing working against them too."

"The fact that the god of the bible is dead," Sona concluded. "Without god behind them, than their chances of coming out on top if hostilities renewed is significantly less."

"Bingo," I nodded, pulling a bottle of enchanted Vaseline and debating internally whether the chance of illusions coming up was likely, and then debating whether my recipe against fairy enchantments would even work right over here, and deciding to bring it along just in case. "So, my read on this situation, is that it all comes down to just how much posturing every side involved is going to be obligated to make, and just how big a response every other side will have to have to all the posturing."

"What does posturing have to do with anything?" It was Reya who spoke up here, frowning in confusion, and I opened my mouth to respond when Sona beat me to it.

"In the case of Heaven, it was their loss of the Excalbits… Excaliburs," Sona corrected herself immediately and I gave a smug grin as she gave me a brief glare, "that caused this situation. They will naturally have to have a response ready if any of the other powers chooses to make this an issue. Similarly, it was the fallen angels that were the thieves in the first place, regardless of whether it was one fallen acting alone or not. It was still one of their leaders that did so, and thus Azazel will no doubt have to prepare himself for similar accusations. As it was we who were forced to take action in regards, the devils are in a position of strength in these negotiations."

"And I'm almost completely over the vertigo that used to hit me every time I thought of the devils as the good guys," I commented dryly, pulling out a small canteen that could clip on the back of my belt. It was just filled with water, but I'd learned my lesson about not having one on hand before.

"Okay, seriously," Saji sighed, giving me a tired look. "Just how much equipment do you have?"

"I've managed a bit of a collection, but strangely there's always something I end up needing that I never think to bring," I sighed. "Though right now, I would sell my soul for a Smith and Wesson .44 revolver." I paused expectantly, looking around the room. When I got nothing but sighs, a few smiles, and a glare from Sona, I pouted. "Seriously. A room full of devils, an offer like that, and no takers? For shame, oh infernal legion."

"Even if we had one to trade, we would be the ones who have to deal with Kaichou afterwards," Tsubasa told me dryly. "Do you blame any of us?"

"You make a fair point," I nodded seriously. Then I gave Sona a quick glare. She was looking a bit pinch happy at the moment. "And don't you dare. Because if you do, I'm going right for the hair again, and you wouldn't want that right before a conference, now would you?"

"Let's," Sona began, and I blinked in surprise as she flushed slightly, glancing away guiltily. "Let's just go."

"Kaichou," Tsubasa began with narrowed eyes. "What's this about hair? And why are you looking away?" Sona just hastened to make her escape, and I cleared my throat and did the same. "I knew it! Suspicious!"

*Scene Break*

'Let's make peace.'

Out of all the things I thought might pop up during the conference, I think that one rated pretty damn near the bottom.

And yet, just a second ago, a roguishly grinning Azazel had casually offered it up as though he was suggesting a place to go for dinner.

I mean, so far, the conference had been going good. Sirzechs, Sarafall, and some maid that made me just as nervous as the other two were representing the devil side, and the most chilling thing to behold on that side was Sarafall not wearing her magical girl suit. On the Fallen side were Azazel, and some grey haired kid in overly fashionable clothing that was staring a little too hard at Ise.

Someone should really tell him that Ise was only into chicks. It might head off some embarrassment for the poor kid, seeing as he looked like he had it bad for our resident breast obsesser.

The angels were a sight to see as well. I'd had dealings with more than a few, back on my own world, and I found myself wondering if I'd have a chance to run into Bizzaro World's Uriel at some point.

It was mostly morbid speculation, truthfully. That and the earnest desire to know the truth:

Would I be able to refrain from bursting out laughing at the sight?

The first angel was male, and looked about what I'd come to expect after having dealt with a couple high ranking devils and fallen: like a normal guy with wings. Gold wings, to be fair, but just that. If he was the leader of angels, than I would probably expect him to be around the same level of power as Sirzechs, so I refrained from probing too much. I wasn't sure if it was just the difference between knowing and not knowing, or if it was some legacy of me being from beyond creation, but even now I could still feel Sirzechs power, an inescapable pressure just from being near him.

I'd like to hold off on finding out what it would be like to feel every creature in this room the same way. I was trying to aim for nonchalant, and breaking into a cold sweat may ruin the attempt.

There was another angel, a blonde who held herself even against even the toppest ranks of beautiful female creatures I'd come across in the past. Not quite Mab level, but definitely up there with Lara. She was mostly quiet, glancing around the room with a gentle passiveness that made me wonder if she had been chosen to come along for the calming affect she seemed to project.

I checked my earing carefully, but determined that no, the calmness she radiated wasn't some kind of magical effect designed to ensnare the unwary. That or my earring really didn't work as well as I thought it would.

Beyond those seven, the only other people present in the room were Sona, Rias, Rias' peerage, and me. The devils had taken seats provided for them along the wall, but I had chosen to simply fold my arms and lean against the wall, a move which I'm sure Sona would come at me for later, once we were in private and she wouldn't be making a scene.

For once, it wasn't really any kind of insolence or desire to keep myself poised for action that was really prompting me to stay standing.

Honestly, do you have any idea how silly it looked when you had to sit while carrying a staff? There really wasn't any way to hold a tall wooden object like that while seated that didn't either look ridiculous, or end up poking anyone sitting near you by accident. Not to mention with my blasting rod in place sitting would just cause it to stick up, and it really wasn't the time for a 'Why yes, I AM happy to see you! How'd you guess?' joke.

Still, I had nearly ended up dropping that staff when out of nowhere, in the middle of being accused of being the least trustworthy of the group, Azazel had casually offered a genuine peace rather than a tentative ceasefire like what had been existing.

Things like this never worked out that easy for me. I mean, no explosions, no being forced to make soul wrenching choices or take horrifically suicidal chances, no sudden twists or turns of some insidious plot to work out and thwart?

'Lash, pinch me,' I told her as I watched with dizzy fascination as the talks progressed from there, all sides expressing their own desire to bury the tomahawk and smoke the peace pipe.

As you wish, my dear host, Lash chuckled, and I suppressed a quick jump as she obeyed my somewhat carelessly worded command by giving me the sensation of a pinch somewhere a little sensitive.

'And now you're on with the cheeks too,' I grumbled, before focusing again. The male angel, Michael from what I've heard, had turned to Ise, and the two were talking about the hardships of trying to take gods place and what it meant for the believers. 'Still, this is unbelievable.'

The story of lions and lambs comes to mind, Lash agreed softly, and I could feel the intensity of her attention, peering out from my eyes. I was almost worried she was about to make her own so she could pay more attention to the parts she deemed most important. Though who here would be the lion, and who would be the lamb?

'The best I had hoped for was something along the lines of the Unseelie Accords,' I countered. 'This world could use a codified method of interacting with other powers that everyone could agree to. This, this is like Mab and Titania meeting up, shaking hands, agreeing to let bygones be bygones, and then going out for cocktails.'

The meeting had progressed as Lash and I traded observations, with Ise having finished a mild confrontation with Azazel about his own death (Hell's bells, was Ise's life starting to take a turn for the Dresden? Though that confrontation was a lot milder than mine had been with Kincaid. And I had been pissed about him screwing the pooch when killing me too. Honestly, assassins these days. Can't even kill one wizard…) and it looked like things were just about wrapping up. There would probably follow up meetings, negotiations, chances to iron out the details and slip concessions but those kinds of things could take time to finish up, and just making the offer for peace was probably about as far as anyone wanted to go with this meeting.

"Well then," Azazel began, settling back and folding his arms with a smirk. "Maybe it's time to hear the opinions of people other than us those who seem to have influence in the world. How about we start with the magician? So? How what do you want from the world, 'Fire and Ice'?"

"'Fire and Ice'?" I managed to make out Serafall's soft question as she tilted her head in bemusement at the title that Azazel had given me. She grinned slightly afterwards, a devious expression appearing on her face. I couldn't help but wonder what it meant, even as I frowned and focused more on Azazel's question.

"Bearing in mind that I am not a duly elected representative of humanity as a whole, speaking objectively I can say that humanity would in general have no issue with this peace," I finally decided. "All sides coming to an agreement to refrain from interfering with mortals outside of the believers and those who seek them out would greatly reduce the effect of the supernatural on day to day life."

It was probably the best deal I, and by proxy humanity, could hope for. There would always be those who sought out and dealt with the supernatural, but for the everyday vanilla mortal this greatly reduced the chance for them to have the inhuman thrust into their face rudely in fashions that would result in mortal suffering. Because of that, I did my best to act objectively, and tried to make my statement as inoffensive as possible.

"I thought as much," Sirzechs was the one who responded then, smiling happily at my statement before he gave me a curious look. The Devil seemed after something more than just platitudes it seems. "And how about you, personally, Harry?"

"I don't think for one second that it will work perfectly, and with that in mind if anyone here or any of your followers ever lays a finger on a mortal in my presence, I will destroy them utterly," I declared easily. At my side Sona looked like she was suppressing the urge to groan.

I was never very good at inoffensive.

"Ho!" Azazel chuckled, and the grey haired boy behind him seemed interested in my statement. At some point, I think I heard his name as Vali earlier, he'd dragged his gaze away from Ise, and seemed content to give me a studying look, still smiling but the expression more amused than anything else. "Big words! You don't lack in spirit, do you 'Fire and Ice'?"

"Intentions are meaningless, if you don't have the power to back it up," Vali grunted. Well then, condescension: the staple of just about every creature I'd ever met that thought they were greater than humanity.

"Now, now, Vali," Azazel was still chuckling as he confirmed the name of the other boy. "Dresden-kun might still have a ways to go, but he's still young, and he shows plenty of talent. Give him a few years, and you might be surprised."

I had to restrain the urge to grit my teeth. These people, these things, they were looking down on me. On ME, who had stridden the Outside and laid waste to its knights, who had destroyed my enemies without mercy for less…!

I took a deep breath, and forced Winter back down in me. I had a lot of practice doing it, but no one is perfect, especially me, so it was to be expected that I'd slip on occasion. The instincts that the mantle of Winter Knight put in me were predatory, dominating, and vicious, but once I had enough experience to identify when my thoughts stopped being mine, it wasn't too hard to set them aside.

That being said, I agreed with the emotions Winter was inspiring in me, at least in part.

I wasn't being taken seriously at all. Even as Azazel chuckled and Vali smirked in a superior fashion, I caught sight of Sirzechs smiling bemusedly, and Sarafall just gave me an encouraging grin as though to tell me to 'do my best' or something. The angel side, Michael as I'd found out over the course of the conference, also just seemed to take my comment in stride, smiling as encouragingly as Sarafall did despite us having never met. The other angel, who still didn't have a name to go with the face, just continued to radiate calmness though from previous observation I'm pretty sure that was just her normal mode.

The fact was, that even if I was here, at this conference, it didn't mean I was considered to actually be a part of it. I was just an interesting human, one who had been in the wrong place at the right time to get involved in the mess that spawned this meeting, more a curiosity than an actual player.

I might have a seat at the table, but it was the kid's seat, and the adults had no problem talking over me.

It was irksome, and it was dangerous.

Molly had shown me it first, back when I was wandering around in just my soul after I had tried to arrange my own death: that reputation mattered. She'd told me how just having me in Chicago, a wizard of the White Council, had been enough for a lot of the more dangerous creatures to stay clear of the city. Moreover, it was me there too, 'Mad Wizard Dresden', a man who had faced down things a lot more dangerous than him, repeatedly, and always seemed to manage to survive and sometimes even come out on top.

The BFS, Brighter Future Society, which had been composed of the strange alliance between Marcone, Murphy, and most of the aware and active members of the supernatural community, had been having a hard time with the Fomor after the Red Court was destroyed, having to go so far as to even align with Lara to protect the city. The Fomor had been willing to take the chance and continue activity despite the alliance against them.

When I had finally made it back to Chicago, it took less than two months before they cleared out. I had had a reputation as being dangerous to cross before, and when the title of Winter Knight had been added, apparently that reputation went up to 'suicidal to tangle with'.

Out here in Bizzaro World, I was starting back from square one. I was just some kid off the street who knew a little bit about magic, and not much else. It was annoying, but if I wanted to make a reputation again, to have that little edge that made things either nervous to try and mess with me or just plain preferring to avoid me, than it was going to take me a lot of time, and a lot of potentially dangerous situations before I was back at that level.

So, if I didn't want to have to deal with all the small fries again, if I wanted some credibility, I was going to have to do something risky, something to put a bit of doubt about just how harmless I really was into the grapevine.

'Lash,' I began, taking a deep breath. 'I'm about to do something reckless and potentially stupid.'

My goodness. My host doing something irrational? The surprise has rendered me speechless, she declared in a dry tone. She continued, sounding more serious. Harry, are you certain? Your course of action, what you are planning… it may pose great danger to you.

'I'm banking on the fact that I'm pretty sure it can't be worse than Seeing Mab,' I told her, and then opened my mouth and jumped into the deep end.

"Azazel," I began, "I hear you like to research strange and unusual things, like Sacred Gear. Tell me, have you ever heard of a Soulgaze before?"

"Hmm?" the leader of the fallen sounded idly curious. "Can't say I have. It isn't some sort of Sacred Gear, is it?"

"Not quite," I confirmed for him, still speaking calmly. "It's a phenomenon, very rare, that sometimes pops up in practitioners. I'd heard rumors of others being able to do it, but so far, I only know one person who can use initiate a Soulgaze for sure." I gave a brief smile, and it took effort to make it friendly and not just a show of teeth. "Three guesses who that is, and the first two don't count."

"I've never heard of such a thing," Sirzechs joined the conversation briefly, sounding intrigued.

"Sirzechs-chan, do you know who it is?" Sarafall whispered in a tone which really wasn't as private as she probably meant it to be. "I don't want to make a guess and get it wrong. I only have one chance that counts!"

"Onee-sama," I heard Sona mutter, sounding slightly pained at her sister's antics. I could see her from the corner of my eyes as she gave me a narrowed look, studying me closely.

She probably knew me well enough to know I was planning something, but not well enough to realize just how stupid it was. I mean, yeah, she was probably expecting something stupid, but THIS stupid?

I mean, no one is that dumb, right? Besides me, I mean.

"You see, a Soulgaze happens when the practitioner meets someone's eyes," I went on. "It lets them see into the other, to look on their soul itself, to know them at their most fundamental level. And what you see, you can never forget. It never fades, it never becomes just a memory. It's there forever, as sharp and as real as the day you first saw it. But in return, the other person gets to look at you, as well. They see the practitioner, just like the practitioner sees them."

"How romantic," I heard Rias whisper, and Ise jumped slightly as I caught sight of her giving him a sideways look, taking his hand in hers. I could tell that she thought that kind of knowledge was a good thing.

Ah, to be young again.

"Interesting," Azazel simply folded his arms, a smirk growing as he studied me. "And you're telling me this now… why?"

"It's just, I need your opinion on something," I told him, fixing my gaze on the floor in front of him as I started bracing myself. "You see, I was told it only worked between mortals, between two humans. But I have empirical evidence that it can actually work between a mortal and a fallen." I shrugged theatrically. "It's just, the last time that happened, it drove the fallen mad. She died, screaming for me to get away. So, I was just wondering: was it because the Soulgaze itself did something to her it wouldn't have done to a human, or was it just that what she saw when she looked at me was that horrifying?"

"Raynare!" I heard Kiba hiss as he realized just what I was saying. He had admitted to being curious about just what I had done to Ise's murderer, and I heard Ise gulp softly at the name.

"I see," Azazel's response sounded intrigued as he leaned forward. I felt the weight of his power gathering, and I knew he had taken the bait. He smiled, and I honestly couldn't tell if it was because he thought that he would be able to call my bluff, resist what was about to happen, or if he was just honestly interested in what was an unheard of phenomenon in this world. "Well then, I suppose the best thing to do is to give it a try again? Experimentation is what answers mysteries like this!"

"Wait," Ise began, as I lifted my head, accepting the challenge. "Maybe this-"

My eyes met Azazel's directly.

The gaze started immediately.

I looked into Azazel, and I saw power. So much power. It was a wellspring as deep as an ocean, a bedrock as solid as a mountain. This was the leader… the Director of the Gregori, one of the Watchers who fell from Heaven, an Emissary of God laid waste, one of the Fallen. He… did he even count as a he? He was male, yes, but what meaning was shape when one was crafted to be an embodiment of purpose, to be the hand that enacted the will of the Almighty?

A hand, which had turned on its creator. A purpose which had lost its way. Certainty and righteousness given in to doubt and confusion.

To regret.

And that was what I saw in Azazel. At his very center, regret.

He had been so certain once, until doubt had been cast on him, until lust drove him to stop heeding God's will for him. And he had fallen for it, been cast out for it. He had buried that regret deeply, under pleasures of the flesh, under war against angel and devil alike, but nothing changed that regret.

He had come to live with it though. He had become comfortable with his loss. He knew that he could never have what he once had before again, but that loss, that regret, had been touched with nostalgia. He would never be able to be what he once was, but he could move on, even without god, and find other purpose, find other reasons.

'—The world moves even without God.'

I'd barely paid attention earlier when he had made that declaration, when he had proposed peace. He had truly come to believe that. It was a truth he had come to understand, that allowed him to change.

And now, he had his interests, his things that he found to fill his life. He enjoyed his research into the Sacred Gears, allowing him to understand more of the world around him, of the purpose he had abandoned. He enjoyed teaching, and studying, and learning, and passing that learning on.

And so he regretted.

But even without God he moved.

It seemed the Fallen of the world shared something with the Fallen of mine.

The only one I had ever met who mourned a loss as fiercely as Azazel dwelt in my head.

The gaze ended.

"-is a bad idea…" Ise was still finishing his sentence, one hand nervously reaching out as though to stop me, but it was too late now. He was cut off by the sudden scraping of a chair.

Azazel had half launched, half tripped as he forced himself backwards, his head snapping back as he drew in a sharp breath. All twelve of his wings which he had been displaying throughout the meeting tensed, curving sharply as though to either embrace him to protect or to point at me to attack.

In return, my hand was already moving, drawing my blasting rod with the ease of a gunslinger of old in a quick draw shootout. The runes on it erupted into sulfurous light as I pulled cold power through me as well.

I had been ready for this. Whatever Azazel thought was going to happen, nothing could have prepared him for a Soulgaze, for what it meant to truly See someone. Because of that, he had startled, the brief animal instinct to panic in the face of the unknown.

And when a creature like him panicked, it was a very, very dangerous thing to be standing still and appearing like easy prey.

He froze, regaining himself, staring at me with more intensity than he had bothered with the entire rest of the meeting, and I met his gaze without hesitation. I had already seen everything I needed to see, and there was no more danger of an accidental gaze.

We watched each other, frozen in one of those ridiculously long moments, his wings darker than black and poised to strike as hellfire glowed in my staff and Winter showed in my eyes. I heard a few voices in the background, mostly from Michael but Sirzechs was saying something too. I ignored them.

"Earlier," I growled, voice rough and a hint of steam coming out of my mouth with each word at the cold flowing through me, "you laughed when I said I would destroy anything that laid a hand on mortals in my presence. So. Are you still laughing?"

"Azazel!" Vali seemed surprised, the boy pushing slightly off the wall, frowning as he glanced at his leader. The leader of the fallen just narrowed his eyes at me, studying me like he had seen me for the first time.

Which wasn't that inaccurate a description, all things considered.

"Also," I went on, smirking slightly. "What do you think? Soulgaze induced insanity: defective product or buyer's remorse? I can have a customer survey drawn up if you want."

Azazel seemed to relax his stance, his wings returning to behind him. Slowly, he started to smile. It kept growing, until finally he threw his head back and guffawed out loud. I let myself un-tense as well.

"What's going on?" Sona whispered at me harshly, but I just leaned backwards, slipping the blasting rod back into my coat.

Funny thing, about Soulgazes. After you've had one, it makes it a lot easier to get a read on the person you looked at. The danger of Azazel lashing out in surprise had passed.

"If any fallen moves against a human, it's against my orders," Azazel finally settled down to a chuckle. "I'd prefer it if you just turned them into me."

"The way I see it, that's entirely up to them," I shrugged. "I mean, if they're willing to go quietly, sure. But if it's them or the mortals, well, they had their chance."

"Azazel." It was Michael who spoke up, looking slowly between his old comrade and me, not understanding what was going on. Azazel, a creature at his level, had just effectively acknowledged my claim, had tactically admitted that I had the power to do what I had declared. The angel didn't look like he knew what to think at the development

"Wait!" Sarafall gasped. "I get it! So that's who can do the Soulgaze thing! To think Azazel would have such an ability all along! And to use it on Harry-chan!"

"Onee-sama," Sona ground out, and I could see her resisting the urge to either blush in embarrassment or rub her head in frustration at her sister.

"It seems we've born witness to something rare," Sirzechs finally spoke up, and his tone had enough authority that the room started to settle. "Why don't we settle down, before what we have been working for gets disrupted?"

"Agreed," Azazel shrugged, plopping himself back down into his chair. He carelessly dragged it across the floor as he pulled it back to the table. "So," he went on, shaking his head. Casually he waved at the maid who still unnerved me greatly for some reason, more so now that she was giving me a cool studying look just like everyone else in the room was. Even as she brought over a fresh cup of tea she didn't take her eyes off of me. "I see. Yeah, if one of the lower ranks saw that, it doesn't surprise me that they might not be able to take it. You're a tough pill to swallow, Dresden."

"Like you're one to talk," I told him, grimacing.

I'd been right. It was still nothing compared to Mab at the height of her power. Honestly, it wasn't even anywhere near as bad as the Yee Naldlooshi had been. Still, it had been intense, that much was for certain. And it was going to be with me forever now.

"So," Sirzechs continued, looking between the two of us and appearing more relaxed as the two of us casually traded banter, our earlier hostile moment long gone. "You saw each other's souls? What… what was it you saw?"

Azazel and I paused, our eyes meeting again in an unspoken question. Finally I spoke up.

"I don't want to know," I shook my head. "I think I can go a very long time without ever having anyone tell me what they see."

"Ditto," Azazel nodded. "So, again this time seriously: Harry Dresden of 'Fire and Ice': what is it you seek?"

"My only concern is the safety of mortals," I told him flatly. "I have no intention of going out and starting a fight. I can't change any of you, I can't stop everyone who might decide to prey on humans. But if it happens in my sight, I will not let it go without a challenge. You've already said that the fallen won't interfere with humanity, but you still have a history of killing mortals and taking their Sacred Gears. I won't let that happen if I'm around."

"Fair enough," Azazel shrugged, throwing back his tea. "Though to be fair, if a Sacred Gear is dangerous enough I reserve the right to try and recruit the user. Some Gears are just too dangerous to everyone around them to leave them unattended."

I grimaced, but nodded. I could understand about the necessity of restraining power. "Also, to the devils," I continued, turning to regard Sirzechs and Sarafall. Sarafall was still smiling cheerfully, but Sirzechs wasn't exactly at ease. He still had a friendly smile, but I got the impression he was taking me seriously for more than my guitar skills and rapier wit. "You guys already hunt stray devils, so you shouldn't have a problem if I deal with one first. And I can't stop mortals from making contracts: if they get themselves in over their heads, they really shouldn't have been playing with fire. But there are a lot of ways besides that to harm mortals, and I bet there are some devils who aren't as friendly as you all have been. If I see it happen, I'm going to do something about it."

"I see no reason why we should expect anything else," Sirzechs nodded, not looking upset with my declaration. He smiled slightly. "In fact, if what I heard is correct, you might expect us to do business with you in the future. I understand your homepage lists you as 'wizard', correct?"

"My rates are reasonable, and so far you devils come through on your bargains," I allowed, perking slightly.

Finally, the chance to get some jobs that will really cover my bills! Good thing I brought my business cards!

"And finally, you angels," I turned to the last group present at the conference, and Michael blinked, looking genuinely surprised that I was including them in my list as well.

"Ara?" the lady angel finally spoke for the first time this evening, lifting a finger to point at herself in surprise. "What do you mean, Mr. Dresden?"

"The forces of heaven do not have a policy of harming humans," Michael added, frowning slightly in confusion. "It is our nature to provide blessings to them instead…"

"Tell that to those two," I pointed at Asia and Xenovia, and Michael grimaced again. I almost felt sorry for him, because it had already come up several times in the conference how heaven had screwed the pooch on those two, and it looked like Michael really wasn't that used to having to eat crow like that. "Look, I get it. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few: the tau of Spock and all. And I get it that you had to step up to fill some pretty big shoes when you took over heaven. Hell's bells, so far everything I've seen says you're doing a pretty good job, all things considered."

Michael smiled slightly at the compliment, and gave me a brief nod of thanks which I returned before continuing. "But if someone ends up getting kicked out like that, or if they just weren't a Christian to begin with, than same rules go: I see angels attacking a mortal for reasons like that, well, I ain't standing still. Is that an acceptable compromise, angel formerly known as the Prince of the Hosts?"

Michael seemed confused by the title, though I caught Sirzechs covering his mouth and stifling a grin. It only lasted a moment before the maid reached out and pinched him discreetly. Michael didn't notice and nodded as he considered my words. "If such a thing were to occur, than I can find no reason to fault such actions." He smiled at me compassionately. "I do not think you will find much need to act, in our regards. In fact, if you do find one whom we have had to unfortunately turn away, please, look after them in our stead."

He bowed slightly as he asked the favor, and I had to sigh. So far, everything I've seen of the angels put them in a good light, it's just that they weren't as perfect as they needed to be. They didn't have that weight, that certainty of purpose that they had in my world. They weren't infallible, and they knew it. Stars and stones, Michael was as much as asking me to pick up the slack when I could.

Wouldn't be the first time that an angel pushed a workload on me. At least here I'm fairly certain they'd pay the bill if I sent it, unlike Uriel.

"Welp," I leaned back against the wall again, folding my arms and shrugging. "That's about all I have to say. Congrats on making peace and all."

"Is it just me, or did Dresden just do something pretty amazing?" I heard Ise whisper to Rias.

Well, I had just pretty much stood up to the rulers of three species, some of the strongest of their kinds, and started making demands. In my defense, those demands were all things they were pretty much willing to do anyway, but the reason I had folded my arms was so that nobody could see the fact that they were shaking slightly.

I can't believe I just got away with that.

"Dresden-kun," Asia also whispered, and I glanced at her to find the gentle girl giving me a worried look. "A-are you okay? Earlier, when you and Azazel-san did that thing… you looked a little sad…"

I blinked, honestly surprised that she had picked up on that. I would have thought that the whole near cataclysmic confrontation would have been the thing most people picked up on.

It looked like she had noticed my reaction to the truth, one I had always worried about:

My soul had just shook the composure of a higher being. Whatever Azazel had saw there, it had been enough to convince him that I was far more dangerous than he had thought I was.

My soul really wasn't the kind of place I should be proud of anymore.

"Never claimed to be on the side of angels, sister," I told her softly, letting my gaze settle on the floor as I sighed.

I missed Mac. More importantly, I missed Mac's beer. I really wanted to get drunk right now.

"Do you want to be?"

I was surprised, glancing up as I responded to Azazel's blunt question. He smirked, but went on, tone still serious. "You know, you might be standing by the devils, but in the end, you have much more in common with us," he gestured with his arm as though to indicate his faction being behind him. "How about it? The Grigori could have a place for someone like you."

And what did THAT little invitation say about me, I couldn't help but wonder. Still…

I thought about what I had seen in him, and wondered if maybe he might not be a little right about which side truly fitted me more. Sona seemed to realize my hesitation, and I glanced down in surprise as I felt a tug and realized that she had pinched the edge of my coat. She was looking away, refusing to match my surprised look, and her cheeks were just a little red, but beyond that she had maintained her composure.

It wasn't really a necessary gesture, all things considered, but I had to keep my business face on despite the cuteness of the move.

I already knew where I stood, after all.

"Sorry, but the only side I'm interested in is the mortal one," I told him. "Someone has to look out for the little guy." Then I frowned. "Our bad luck that that someone seems to end up being me."

"I figured as much," Azazel shrugged, not sounding surprised in the least. He just settled back in his chair, looking as though he expected my response. "The offer will remain standing though."

Empty night. Just what did he See in me if he was going to give me a standing offer to join his side? And what was with every dubious power I came across, in Bizzaro World or mine, that made them always extend offers to join them?

It's your height, Lash assured me, a bit of humor in her tone, though she sounded more subdued than normal. It wouldn't surprise me if what we had seen in Azazel had struck a chord with her. We can't help but see how tall you are, and then imagine how much it would cow our enemies if we could just get you in the appropriately malicious attire.

'That explains so much.'

"And how about the other people with the power to influence the world. We have two heavenly dragons here, after all. How about it, Vali," Azazel turned to give Vali his attention. "What do you want from the world?"

"As long as I can fight strong people, then its fine," the grey haired kid shrugged carelessly. His eyes lingered on me as he did so, before he glanced back over at Ise again.

I really hoped he hadn't decided I'd make a good second choice when he found out Ise wasn't gay. I wasn't that good at letting people down like that, and I didn't want to come off like I had a problem with the way he swung. I'm strictly in the 'boink and let boink' outlook on life, and whatever two consenting adults did in private was none of my business unless I was one of those consenting adults.

"And how about you, Sekiryuutei?" Azazel changed his attention to Ise, and the boy gulped, looking very out of his depth.

"Er, even if you say something like that, I don't really know how to respond," Ise admitted, scratching his head as he glanced around for help. He started with Rias, before moving to Akeno, and I was a little surprised when he even glanced at me for direction. "I mean, all this seems really complicated and important. I'm spending more time looking after my junior, and I never really thought about the world, so even if you ask my opinion about it, it's not like I really have one right now…"

It made me happy to hear that kind of opinion from Ise. It meant that even with all this crap about devils and dragons, even after getting involved in politics at the level of his species survival, it still meant he was normal. No seventeen year old kid really knows what they want out of life at that age, or really thinks about the world in general. Azazel seemed less satisfied with his answer.

"That's not good," he clucked his tongue as he frowned. "As someone who has the ability to affect the world, if we don't have a clear statement from you right from the start than it only makes things more difficult for those standing at the top later." He nodded, grinning as he came to a decision. "How about I put it this way. Hyoudou Issei: if war breaks out, than as a dragon you'd have to be at the front line. If that happens, you won't be able to sleep with Gremory Rias."

I think most of the room froze, for varying reasons. The most prevalent being is that no one could really believe that the leader of fallen would say something so outrageous, though I'm pretty sure Sirzechs had more behind his sudden grimace, and I don't think anyone missed just how profoundly Ise seemed to take the words. I could literally hear him gasp at the thought of missing out on the chance to bang his boss.

"However," Azazel went on, grinning at the effect his words had on the room. "If there's peace, than the most important thing to worry about is the continuation of the species. It would pretty much be your duty to try and have as many kids with her as you can. How's that? Did I make it simple enough for you? If there's war, than there's no sex. If there's peace, than you can have sex all the time. Which would you prefer?"

"Peace, I want peace!" Ise declared, breathing hard as he thrust one hand into the air enthusiastically. "Peace is the best! I want to do naughty things with Buchou!"

"Ise-kun,"Kiba began with a pained smile. "Sirzechs-sama is right there, you know…"

Rias gave a shaky smile, blushing as she refused to meet anyone's gaze as Ise seemed to realize just what he was saying, and just who was still present.

Strangely enough, this also helped relieve me. Men's lives were pretty much based around the desire for sex until around the time they turned twenty five. It was no coincidence that that was also when they got a break in their car insurance prices.

Ise seemed to realize that maybe talking about the Lucifer's kid sister like that right in front of him might not be the best idea, and he coughed slightly, recovering from the happy place Azazel's words sent him. "Well, I'm really not that smart, so I didn't really get most of what the conference was about.
However, I can say that since I seem to have some really strong power, I'll just go on using it for the sake of my comrades. If anything threatens them, then I'll just do what I can to protect them and focus on that." He shrugged, looking even more embarrassed. "Though right now, I'm still kind of weak…"

Whatever the rest of what Ise was going to say, it was lost to me, as without warning, billowing grey mist erupted from the floor around me. I reacted, slamming my hand back into my duster as I reached for my blasting rod, sucking will and magic in as fast as I could, but it was just too little too late.

Before I had managed to gather enough magic to do anything, the mist enveloped me completely, and with a feeling kind of like being thrown onto a rollercoaster while it was already in motion, my body lurched.

I guess things really had been going too smoothly. And I was willing to bet that this right here was that complication I had been expecting.


*Scene Break*

There really wasn't much you could do to plan for suddenly being abducted by mist. I mean, really: mist? You have to actually be able to conceive of something beforehand if you're going to plan for it, and even as cautious as I'd become over the years, being kidnapped by vapor wasn't something that ever really occurred to me.

That being said, I would just have to fall back on my more general plans for what to do in the case of sudden abduction in general.

First, do not stay wherever you showed up. Typically speaking, if they're trying to put you somewhere specifically, it usually was because they had prepared the area for some purpose ahead of time. The last thing you wanted to do was stand around gaping when the anvil they had propped above you starts to drop.

The moment some measure of maneuverability returned to me, I threw myself to the side, fast and hard. I didn't bother to try and maintain my footing, just launching myself in a full out dive towards my shoulders, intending to roll and put even more distance between me and where I had been standing.

Second, take stock of your surroundings. You needed to know what you're dealing with before you started making more complex plans, and attacking indiscriminately might only make the situation worse. If you've been stuck in a glass house and start throwing stones it won't end well for anyone.

In this case, the brief glance I got of my new surroundings indicated that I hadn't gone far at all. For all intents and purposes, it looked like I was in the exact same room that I had been in, sans everyone else. The idea that I hadn't actually been abducted and that everyone else were the ones in trouble flashed through my mind. I caught sight of a few newcomers instead, and adjusted my roll to put distance between me and them

Third, seek cover. It didn't matter from what, it didn't matter how, but get some kind of concealment or big sturdy object that you can cower behind. Cowering is good. Cowering means you're less likely to have any of the more tender parts of your body suddenly sprouting new holes from the fangs/magic/mundane shot gun that was about to be unleashed on you.

There wasn't much in the way of cover currently, seeing as the only furniture in the room was that enormous James Bond-esque table that the three powers had been using, so I went with the next best thing: hiding.

I was just completing my veil, however inadequate it might be in the long run, when a cheerful voice broke my concentration in a heartbeat.

"Heya, Wiz-kun!"

I stopped, freezing as I realized that I recognized at least three of the people in the room. It was enough to make me hesitate.

"Jeanne," I began, cautiously regaining my feet, still gathering power. "We have got to stop meeting like this."

"He's a jumpy one, isn't he?" someone I didn't recognize spoke up quietly. It was boy, probably about the age to be in the same grade as me, with white hair and a number of swords strapped to his belt. He looked frail, and kind of reminded me of Kiba from his general appearance.

"Ha! I like it," Heracles spoke up, the enormous guy slapping the previous speaker on the shoulder. "He's got good instincts. Probably was about to start blasting!"

"We did call upon him unannounced," Georg spoke up, adjusting his glasses as he did so. "If the situation were reversed, would any of you acted differently?"

"Nope," Jeanne agreed easily enough. The blonde giggled. "I would have been stabbing the moment anyone showed up!"

As the banter continued to exchange between them, I took advantage of the moment to take stock of my situation. First, was the room itself. I had thought I might still be where I had been originally, but the air here felt off. There was a sense of some kind of power present, like a lingering enchantment, and patches of mist fluttered along the floor at seeming random.

Honestly, the feeling of this place…

It kind of reminded me of Nevernever back home.

Beyond that, the room had new occupants. There were six of them total, and I already knew three on sight. Jeanne, Heracles, and Georg were all familiar: the three all in some kind of uniform that vaguely resembled a school outfit, though they had all made allowances to personalize their appearance. Jeanne had a sword strapped to her waist, thin, probably a rapier. Heracles had forgone the jackets that the others were wearing and was instead standing proudly in a thin muscle shirt. Considering how many muscles he had, I guess I couldn't blame him for flaunting what he had. Georg still had a robe on over his uniform as well.

The other three newcomers had their own little quirks. The first that came to mind was the one who had spoken earlier, the fragile looking one with white hair who had a number of swords strapped to his waist. I didn't know why he felt the need to collect so many, but final count ended with him having five.

The second newcomer looked a lot younger than the others, and didn't have much in the way of accessories. He was just wearing a normal uniform. What really made him stand out was the way his face didn't really have an expression. He just stood there, not joining the banter like the rest, staring at me with emotionless eyes.

Very 'Children of the Corn'. Freaky.

The final member, on the other hand, was the one who really caught my eye. Standing tall and proud, he had strapped some old fashioned armor to his waist, though I honestly didn't know enough about the types of armor to identify where it came from, but that wasn't what caught my eye.

"So," I began softly, feeling my grip on my staff tighten involuntarily. "You must be the boss."

"What makes you say that?" the other boy asked, smiling in curiosity as the banter died down.

"'Cause whatever it is you're holding definitely feels like the kind of thing a boss would have," I told him.

That thing… that thing he was holding. It looked like a staff of some kind, but not like mine. This thing, whatever it was, it reminded me more of Sirzechs than anything else.

Overwhelming power.

It was different from Sirzechs, feeling more like the power of light that I had been studying, but it was different from that too. There was something about it, a weight or a flavor or however you want to describe it, that made its presence… hard to be near.

Host, Lash whispered. I do not think you should observe it over much. A blossoming chill that came from my earing indicated that whatever that thing was, there was a very real chance that just being in its presence might be able to affect a person's thoughts.

'Best advice you've given me in a while,' I thought back, dragging my gaze back to the one who was holding that thing. He smiled, and it was a surprisingly honest expression.

"You have a good eye," he complimented me, tapping the thing on his shoulder. "This is the Longinus."

"A Sacred Gear that has the power to kill even a god?" I asked for confirmation purposes. He nodded casually. "Which one?" I couldn't help but ask.

"THE Longinus," he repeated, and it took me a second to realize what he was implying.

"You mean the spear wielded by Saint Longinus, after he stabbed Christ with it?" I asked for confirmation, and he nodded again.

That explained why the thing freaked me out.

"So, if you have it, can you settle a mystery for me?" I went on, crossing my arms and frowning. "Half the stories I hear have Longinus being cursed with immortality for the stabbing, and the other stories say he realized just who Jesus was and converted to Christianity himself. Which is it?"

The other boy blinked, surprised at the question, before he started laughing. Again, it was a surprisingly honest sound, all things considered.

"I don't have a clue," he admitted easily. "I just have the spear. If you ever find out, could you let me know as well? I wouldn't mind having that cleared up too."

"So," I went on, still glancing around the room as casually as I could. Barring the creepy kid, everyone seemed relaxed, confident, and at ease. Nobody had attempted to restrain me, kill me, or visit any kind of harm on my person. As far as kidnappings goes, this was probably the least uncomfortable one I'd experienced. "Anyone want to tell me what's going on here? I mean, it's been like three minutes since I was abducted and I haven't had to set anyone on fire yet. That's a first for me."

"I'll be happy to," the armored boy agreed congenially enough. "First, allow me to make introductions. My name is Cao Cao. You've already met Jeanne, Heracles, and Georg." He nodded in turn to each of the three and they waived or nodded as appropriate. "This one is called Leonardo," he put a friendly hand on the creepy kid's head and ruffled his hair, which didn't do much to change his expression, "and this one's name is Siegfried," he nodded to the white haired boy who nodded back politely.

"Charmed," I told him cautiously, "I'm…"

"Harry Dresden," the other boy interrupted. He smiled slightly. "I know. I've had my eye one you for a bit. I'm happy to finally have the chance to meet you in person."

"Great," I sighed. "A stalker. And it didn't even have the good graces of being a hot, overeager, sexually aggressive cheerleader. Why can't I ever get the good kind of stalker?"

"Jeanne," Siegfried began slowly, a hint of teasing in his tone. "What would it take to convince you to put on a cheerleader outfit? I think it might greatly influence the outcome of this meeting."

"Sig-kun!" Jeanne frowned, pouting. "How could you think something like that! I'm not a cheerleader!"

"And the fact that she didn't deny any of the other qualifiers has perked my interest," I announced easily enough. She flushed slightly, probably realizing what I was implying and then she pouted at me, puffing her cheeks out in that strange way I've noticed a lot of Japanese girls do when they were put out. "But seriously though. Who the hell are you, why the hell am I here, and what the hell do you want?"

"I'll be happy to answer all your questions," Cao Cao declared, chuckling as well as Jeanne started to fume. "Though it may take some time. Would you care to have a seat? I believe Georg managed to recreate the tea as well."

"So in addition to Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum I have to figure out which of you is the Hatter, the Hare, and the Mouse?" I asked dryly. "Oh, this will be a challenge, I see."

"I'd like to support my candidacy for the Hare," Georg announced as he moved to the tea set that Cao Cao had mentioned. "Though I hope you realize who you're casting yourself as?"

"As long as it doesn't come down to 'off with his head', I think I can deal with it," I told him. To my surreal disbelief, most of the room actually was making use of the chairs present. Heracles even went so far as to lean back in his, propping his feet on the table casually.

"What are they talking about?" Jeanne whispered to him, and the big guy shrugged.

"Beats me," he admitted. "What's all that about tweedle-whatever?"

Siegfried laughed slightly, eyeing the two as he did so. "I'll explain it to you later," he offered politely. Jeanne perked, grinning at the quieter boy.

"Thanks, Sig-kun!" she told him. At the tea table, Georg sighed, shaking his head, though it looked like he was smiling despite himself.

"Now, Dresden-kun," Cao Cao went on, also smiling as he proved himself either literate enough to get the jibe or having been a fan of Disney when he was younger. "Let me begin by introducing our organization. We are the upper echelons of the Hero Faction of Chaos Brigade."

"Gonna have to explain a bit more than that," I told him, frowning as I maintained my standing position. "Also: Chaos Brigade? What, you couldn't go for something more traditional like 'League of Evil'? I mean, yeah, that's copyrighted, but you could have at least tried. Maybe 'Legion of Doom', or even something more formal like 'Organization of Nefarious Intent'?"

Cao Cao didn't seem the least bit affected by my jabs. I was trying to get a feel for him, to get a rise, but so far he seemed to take everything I threw at him with a sort of patient good nature. If anything, he laughed a bit at some of them.

The forces in this world just seemed a little too peaceful sometimes. I mean, Lucifer himself likes to quote Rock and Roll, and the leader of the fallen spends his time experimenting with magical items like a massive geek.

Not that I could claim any better, come to think of it. Given a choice, I'd probably do the same.

"Actually," proving my point, Cao Cao just laughed slightly. "It wasn't the first choice of names. It's actually something of an inside joke."

"Oh?" I offered, accepting the tea cup that Georg had actually brewed and started passing out to the other people present. "Care to let me in on it?"

"Chaos Brigade is a number of different factions that gathered around one particular presence," Georg offered as he passed out the beverages. "Each faction has their own goals and plans, and it is only that particular presence that draws us together. Supposedly, when the number of factions grew enough to justify a name, one of the leaders complained that with so many different goals it would be pure chaos trying to keep track of everything. The name ended up sticking."

"Huh," I grunted, genuinely nonplussed, not just with the story but with the willingness the others seemed to be displaying in explaining it to me. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I began to let myself relax down from 'hair trigger' to 'extremely and justifiably cautious'. "Strangely enough, I can see it. At least they didn't choose a name in Latin. No organization named in Latin can ever accomplish anything on time."

'Lash, what do you rate the chances of this being a meet and greet by a helpful, cheerful, and altruistic organization that just had really bad luck choosing a name for itself?'

Somewhere between zero and eight percent.

'So theoretically it could happen, right?'

Whatever you say, my host. Just maintain your guard.

"You mentioned a presence that you are all gathered around?" I probed, and before I even got the chance to ask any more, Cao Cao spoke up.

"That would be Ouroboros Ophis, the Dragon God of the Infinite," he explained easily, and I really wish I had a bit more of a grounding in this world's powers, because despite having a really impressive title I knew jack all about this Ophis.

"Right," I nodded slowly, before shaking my head as Georg offered me a cup as well. I wasn't about to sit down and drink the cool aid, even if things have been going surreally good so far. "So what, you guys are some kind of cult or something? If you're planning a virgin sacrifice, I should advise you that even if it has been a long time, I'm afraid I don't really qualify."

"Nice," Heracles grinned conspiratorially at the confession. Figured the big guy would find that impressive.

"Nothing like that," Cao Cao just shook his head, his gestalt like calmness not being shaken at all. "And I wouldn't exactly call it a cult, though Ophis does grant blessings some times, if they're asked for. We of the Hero Faction refrain." He smiled slightly at some kind of inside joke. "And also, we brought you here because we were hoping to recruit you."

"And that's two shady offers in a half hour," I groaned. "Seriously. Do me a favor, tell me it's not because you think I would look good in your uniform."

"Why on earth would you think that?" Sigfried at least seemed nonplussed by my request.

It might have been a silly question, but Lash had brought it up before, and with Lash, sometimes you really couldn't tell.

"Never mind," I told him, not willing to explain why I had started to grow a paranoia towards fashion. "So. Is this the part where you tell just what you Hero guys are? Because so far, the impression I get is you guys have some sort of compulsive need to ambush that you feel guilty about afterwards and offer apologies via mundane methods. If that's the case, I know a few counselors."

"It is simple enough," Cao Cao let my jibe slide. "We, the Hero Faction, are those who are descended from or inherited the spirit of various heroes through the ages, and our goal is to prove how far humanity can go in the face of the inhuman, and defeat the monsters and demons that prey on humanity."

I paused, studying the other boy very carefully. Finally I went on, not joking anymore. "I'm listening."

Cao Cao nodded, a satisfied look on his face. "I'm sure you've seen it before, Dresden," he paused before asking in an aside tone of voice. "Is it alright to simply call you Dresden? I was never very fond of the Japanese affection for suffixes."

"But I think they're cute!" Jeanne muttered as I nodded my assent to being addressed by just my name.

"Right," Cao Cao promptly ignored her as he went on. "Like I was saying. I'm sure you've seen it before, haven't you Dresden? The way humanity is toyed with so often? All kinds of things: demons, devils, monsters, fallen. All these creatures, doing as they wish, not caring about the humans they might hurt. In their eyes, human suffering doesn't matter. What do they care? They think that all humans are weak, powerless. Why should they hold back when humanity is unable to stop them?"

He gestured to the room, including himself, and noticeably including me as well.

"We are the proof that they are wrong. That humanity isn't just prey, isn't something they can play with how they feel. We are the Heroes, the Yuusha, the brave souls that have the power to fight back against them. People like us who have existed throughout the ages, our ancestors or those whom we have inherited the spirits of. I created the Hero faction as a place for us to gather. I have been searching for those who have the abilities, who have the talent, to join us."

"And I passed the muster?" I asked softly, narrowing my eyes. "Man, and I didn't even update my resume."

"You probably should," Georg offered, smiling as he did so. "Considering you just stared down the heads of the three factions of the great powers, it might be something worth making a note of."

I felt a brief chill as the comment. "So. Unless rumors really do surpass the speed of light, it looks like you guys are well connected." A spy. That was the only choice. They must have been watching the meeting. But for what? What was there goal? How had they managed to circumvent whatever defenses the leaders of heaven, hell, and the Grigori had in place?

It came to me easily enough, surprisingly.

"That Vali kid," I frowned. Cao Cao seemed surprised for a moment, before his smile widened.

"Impressive," he noted, nodding as he complimented my deductive reasoning. "How did you come to that reasoning?"

"He's the only one that makes sense," I shrugged, lining up my reasons in my head. "I know most of the Devil side, and they wouldn't be the type for it. The Lucifer is too interested in humans to want anything but peace, and shady organizations like your League of Evil don't fall in line with that. The Leviathan too. The angels I could see behind it: their goal is the blessing of the faithful, but you guys don't seem like the devout type. Vali on the other hand as much as admitted that the only thing he wants is battle. Peace wouldn't be his style, but an organization guaranteed to get into a whole bunch of fights just by existing? Yeah, I could see that in his type of idiom."

"One might think that Azazel would be to blame," Cao Cao pointed out. "He is the leader of the fallen, a notoriously untrustworthy race."

"I know Azazel," I shook my head immediately, the soulgaze flickering through my memory. "He's crazy, but this isn't his kind of crazy. Add on to that that most of the ones there were leaders of their own organizations, and Vali is the only one that sticks out."

"Calm, reasonable, logical," Georg listed approvingly. "Cautious, but not afraid to act if he needs to, and with enough power to back up his aims. Cao Cao was right to approach you, Mr. Dresden."

"Better than the other scrubs we've been picking up, but still not that great," Heracles muttered, folding his arms in a move I could almost hear a squeak from his muscles moving. "Too damn skinny though."

"Yes, Vali is indeed a member of the Chaos Brigade," Cao Cao admitted easily, not even bothering to deny my accusation. "However, he is not a member of the Hero faction. Like I said, the Brigade is a gathering of many different organizations, with many different goals. The Vanishing Dragon has his own group that follow him, and he and the Heroes only interact in passing." His smile grew slightly, an edge in it. "Though I wouldn't mind having a fight with him again."

"So. You had an eye in the conference, and you were so overcome with awe over my awesomeness that you had to grab me out of a room with some of the more dangerous creatures in existence?" I supplied for him, moving on from the 'who' and 'why' and on to the 'when' phase. "Because if you're trying to stay unnoticed, snatch and grabs are usually better done in dark alleys."

"Mainly, it was to ensure that you wouldn't be caught up when the conference was attacked," Georg supplied for me easily. I glanced at him sharply at the word 'attacked'. "One of the other factions, the Old Maou faction of Chaos Brigade had been planning an assault to disrupt the peace conference. We decided to use the opportunity to make our acquaintances."

"Old Maou?" I repeated, narrowing my eyes as I felt my tension racquet right back up from where it had been relaxing. "You knew there was an attack? Then why aren't you doing something? I thought you guys were supposed to be dedicated to stopping devils and monsters and stuff." I glanced around, deciding to risk get face full of powers by searching with my senses. "For that matter, where the hell is everyone? Was there some kind of forced teleportation or something?"

There was just too much going on in this conversation despite the fact that paradoxically nothing was going on physically. I couldn't sense anything, not the devils, the fallen, or the angels, anywhere about. The conference had held the strongest of their species, and they had had freaking standing armies on hand in case things took a turn for the hostile, but from where I was standing there wasn't anyone. It was as though the whole world had just disappeared.

"When the attack by the old Maou faction started, I used my own Sacred Gear, Dimension Lost, to pull you away from the battle," Georg explained. The fog around him began to swirl and when he gestured it actually responded, twisting into a small dust devil. I realized that whatever the fog was, he was controlling it. It was a hell of a lot different from Ise's Boosted Gear, or any of the other Sacred Gears I had seen, but I realized that this mist was either a creation of a Sacred Gear, or maybe even the Sacred Gear itself. "Where we are now is in a dimension of my own creation, one away from where the actual fighting is, but I modeled it after the location that you were in in order to avoid overly startling you."

"Handy," I muttered, unable to keep my eyes from tracking around the room. I had noticed the mist before, but had chalked it up to somebody having a little too much love for drama and ambience. Now though, I paid much more attention to just where the tracers were floating. They were potential weapons to the magic user, not just nifty ways to make things more impressive. "Do you do keggers, or raves, or whatever they call parties these days? Might make a bundle as a living fog machine. Probably more environmentally friendly too."

"Originally, I had intended to wait until things died down before approaching you," Cao Cao went on, ignoring my jibe or the way Jeanne giggled again. "I had thought it likely that the Old Maou faction would either be beaten back, or simply might ignore you in favor of the current Maou or their family. However, after making a show of confronting the leaders of the three great powers, I thought it likely they might attempt to put you down as a potential future threat. That, and I grew increasingly certain that you indeed belong among the Hero Faction."

"If you ever lay a finger on mortals, I will destroy you utterly," Siegfried paraphrased me, idly tracing one of the hilts at his hips. He smiled slightly, a reserved but approving expression. "The sentiments of a Hero indeed. No Yuusha could have put it better."

"So how about it, Wiz-kun?" Jeanne chirped in cheerfully. "Why don't you ditch those devils you've been hanging out with and join us! It would be a lot of fun having another wizard around!"

"Bah. Wizards," Heracles snorted. "Why couldn't we have found someone who knows how to throw a punch instead?"

"So?" Cao Cao once again ignored the byplay between his fellow Heroes. Instead he focused his eyes on me. It was a sharp, but confident and proud gaze, stern but inviting, and I was struck by the charisma of the wielder of Longinus. This was a man who was meant to stand above others, a leader who others would flock too, who already has those who flocked. "Join us, the Hero Faction of Chaos Brigade. Together, we will throw down those who prey on humanity. We will defeat them, whatever they are, no matter how strong they might be; we will prove that humanity is stronger than them." His smile widened. "Be the Hero you are meant to be."

I swallowed.

Okay. I'd gotten better job offers before.

But not that many.

This, what was being offered here, was infinitely more tempting than even Lara on her best day. It was more insidious than even Mab's offers to take up the mantle of Winter's Knight. It wasn't quite as bad as Lash had been back when she had still been playing for her originator's team, but it was pretty damn close.

This was the chance to do what I already did, but now to have help, to have support while doing it. This was the promise of comrades who would fight beside me, and support me. I wouldn't have to be alone, to be the only one standing against a seemingly unending hoard of nightmares and monsters. The chance to 'have help' rather than just 'be the help' as Rashid had put it back when we first stood in front of the Outer Gates and he explained just what was at stake, what the Winter Knight really was.

I was tempted. I was only human.

And, even if I wouldn't admit it due to being a guy and thus obligated to never discuss my feelings, I was lonely.

Humans weren't meant to be by themselves for too long. We are, at our most basic level heard creatures after all. We need social interaction, to have ties and bonds with others. Things as simple as talking, even just touching, were powerful experiences, things that we craved and relied on.

And I hadn't been doing much in that department.

I was, for lack of a better term, an Outsider, on multiple levels at that. I was from beyond this creation. I didn't have things as basic as a history here, people I had met and shared a connection with over a long period of time. I was in fact only just starting to actually interact with the people of this creation outside of my work, and even then, I wasn't technically interacting with people at all.

Maybe that might have been part of the reason I was able to look past my preconceptions about devils and start to get to know them as individuals despite their species. The reason I was willing to share so much about my past, albeit edited to avoid the revelation of that whole Outsider thing, then I would have been back in my own creation. I wanted to have those connections again, the comradery and familiarity that I had built over time with my friends and allies back home.

I had been hesitant to do it with humans, mostly because I had no idea what the culture for human magic users were here, and hadn't wanted to risk being found out. It had been easier to get along with devils, creatures fundamentally not human, so that I could start learning more about this world before testing the waters with other wizards or magicians. Even if that meant enduring high school drama.

And now, here I stood. With other humans, humans who had power, who did what I did and fought monsters. Humans who wanted me, who were inviting me to join them. I could see the easy way they interacted, the casual friendships and interweaving interactions that they had amongst each other.

And I yearned for it.

But I hesitated.

There was something I had to know.

"Earlier, you mentioned that another faction, the 'Old Maou' I think you called it, had attacked the conference," I began softly, not meeting Cao Cao's eyes but coming as close as I dared. I didn't feel like another Soulgaze today. His eyebrow raised slightly in question, but he nodded. "What do they intend to do? What are their goals?"

"Some stupid bit about destroying the Maou, taking over the underworld, and remaking the world in their image," Heracles snorted apparently unimpressed or simply not caring about the goals of others.

"And you aren't interfering?" I felt my tone sharpen, my caution starting to heighten again.

"We factions have little to do with each other," Georg shrugged casually, showing a similar lack of interest. "We only interfere with the others when our goals are either in alignment or contention."

"I see," I stated flatly, and Cao Cao raised an eyebrow, looking interested by my response. "Then I'm afraid I have to decline."

"What?" Jeanne straightened, her eyes widening as she yelped in surprise, and Georg looked similarly surprised by my answer. Heracles on the other hand narrowed his eyes, starting to look angry. Sigfried just raised an eyebrow, not looking particularly interested, while Leonardo…

Just. Kept. Staring.

Okay. Seriously. Creepy.

"I see," Cao Cao actually didn't sound surprised. I got the impression he was a little disappointed though. "May I ask why?"

"Because what you and I do are too different," I told him bluntly. "Sorry, we just wouldn't work out. Don't worry, I'm sure there's some special wizard waiting out there for you. One day you'll find the one."

"Wouldn't work out?" Heracles demanded, kicking his feet off the table and leaning over it threateningly. "What are you talking about?"

"Yeah!" Jeanne had started pouting, crossing her arms as she did so. Nearby, Sigfrieds eyebrows raised even more, and he quirked a bit of a smile at my break up speech. "You already kill monsters, so why don't you…"

"That's the thing," I interrupted, shaking my head slowly. "I don't go around 'killing monsters'. What I do is go around 'protecting mortals'."

Understanding flashed across Georg's face, and Cao Cao simply nodded. Heracles just started to look angrier. "What's the damn difference? It's all the same thing!"

"No, it isn't," I shook my head, cooly matching his growing anger with chilly logic. "Right now, the Three Powers have just decided on peace when they were attacked by someone who you just admitted had plans for remaking the world. That peace would have been the best chance to reduce their influence on mortals the most. They had just admitted it to me. And now someone is trying to break that peace, to restart the war which would drag so many mortals into it as well. And yet you're just sitting here, not caring. If we were on the same page, you'd already be up there, stomping down monster ass and taking names from this 'Old Mao' faction. Instead you're not doing a damn thing to stop it. Tell me," I turned to Cao Cao, "you just admitted you have some kind of goal, and that you guys only move in relation to it. If accomplishing that goal meant including uninvolved mortals in it, if it had the chance of causing casualties to bystanders, would you still do it?"

"Yes," Cao Cao told me, not flinching or hesitating as he admitted that he would indeed risk the lives of innocents for whatever it was he was planning. I closed my eyes briefly, resisting the urge to scowl, before opening them again.

"Then there you have it," I told him. My tone was all business now. "I won't join an organization that would callously risk the lives of innocent bystanders. You get the same offer everyone else gets. I won't go out on a jihad against you guys or anything, but if I see you endangering mortals in my presence, I won't let that happen unopposed."

"Anything that lifts its hands against mortals will have that hand torn off, even if it is a fellow mortal," Siegfried murmured, and despite me more or less telling them all to screw off, he seemed impressed with my declaration. "It's a pity," he shook his head, smiling slightly. "I think I would have liked having you around."

"It would have been nice to have another magic user," Georg sighed, and though he seemed disappointed, he also seemed resigned. Jeanne was looking between the two with a confused and disappointed expression, as though she couldn't quite understand just why it was I was refusing even if she realized others in her little party did. Heracles was starting to growl, not taking the rejection nearly as well.

"I see," Cao Cao nodded in understanding, before smiling slightly. "It's a pity. I think you and I could have been friends."

"Shape up your act, and maybe someday in the future," I told him. I was still tense, but his reaction was a good one. I had pretty much just thrown a gauntlet in his face, and a typical reaction of most shady organizations to that was usually 'hit it till it dies'. Judging from the reactions of the others, it looked like I might have dodged the bullet in this particular case, but it was still probably a good idea for me to get the hell out of here fast before they decided to use the more standard response. "Now, unless you're planning on revealing your mysterious goals in an effort to get me to change my mind, I'd like to be sent back now. You see, I just found out that hell is having an insurrection, and I'd like to keep the current regime around. I don't think the rebellion will be quite as beneficial to mortals as the current bosses."

"We plan to defeat the Great Red as a way of proving that humanity's power is superior to those of nonhumans," Cao Cao told me easily.

I blinked.

"Wait," I began slowly, really trying to understand what I was hearing here. "Did you actually just reveal your mysterious goals, just because I asked nicely?"

I suppose there are some benefits to living in Bizzaro World, Lash pointed out, obviously as unprepared as I was to having the answers just given to me rather than having to have me track down clue after clue to figure out what was going on.

'I know,' I told her. 'Really kind of throws you for a loop, doesn't it?'

"The True Red Dragon God Emperor, the embodiment of Dreams and Illusions, is the strongest creature in the world," Cao Cao went on easily enough, idly drumming his fingers against the Longinus. "Even Ophis, the Dragon God of the Infinite cannot beat it. Ever since the Great Red took up residence in the dimensional gap, Ophis has been unable to return." Cao Cao's smile turned predatory, a look of anticipation showing through his so far calm features. "Think of it. What it would mean for humanity, if they accomplished something that not even a Dragon God could? It would be the ultimate proof of humanity's power, the true calling of any Hero."

"Great Red?" I repeated, again wishing I had a firmer basing in this world's powers. For the life of me, the title evoked nothing more threatening than a big red dog which had haunted the books of my childhood. I found myself distinctly underwhelmed by the end goal of the Hero faction at the thought.

Host, Lash on the other hand, hissed a soft warning in my head. She sounded distinctly uneasy, bordering on urgent. I think they mean the creature that harried us to this realm in the first place.

'Harried us to…' I began, before I understood just what she was referring to.

My jaw physically dropped, and I only distantly heard the echo of my chair as I shot to my feet, both hands coming to slap down on the desk in front of me. The suddenness of my motion caused a lot of tense or potentially soon to be dangerous reactions, but I was too busy staring at Cao Cao.

"Wait," I began, swallowing with a dry throat. "Great Red. Wouldn't happen to be, oh, couple hundred yards long, enormous tail and wings, claws and fangs, stereotypical dragon, would it? Flies around in the void, doesn't like company? That Great Red?"

"Oh?" Cao Cao leaned forward, sudden interest in his eyes as he studied me. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you almost sound familiar with it…"

"Familiar?" My voice might have been a bit high pitched at this point. "The damn thing tried to eat me! Why? Why on god's green earth would you want to fight that thing? Hell's Bells, it has teeth that are bigger around than I am tall! Bigger than me! Think about that!" I held a hand up to emphasize that yes, I wasn't exactly a small man, and despite starting to look confused as well as angry, Heracles snorted at the visual. "It's the size of a freaking island nation, and if it was one its main export would be violent death! And you want to pick a fight with it? Are you crazy, or just stupid?"

"Oh?" Georg had leaned forward as well, and Sigfried had straightened, but I was too focused on Cao Cao to really deal with that at the moment.

"So you have met the Great Red," Cao Cao's smile grew.

"Why would you even want to fight it?" I continued, still too completely flabbergasted by the sheer immensity of these idiot's death wish. "All it does it fly around, scaring…"

I froze.

I straightened.

My eyes narrowed, and everything I was feeling fell away. Winter swept through me, and for once I didn't bother to hold it back.

'Lash,' I didn't need to say anything else.

I understand, Harry, neither did she for that matter.

We had debated in the past, just what that immense dragon meant, the Great Red I now knew it to be called. About what it was, about how we came to be in this creation. We hadn't been prepared for anything resembling a survivable world to exist in conjunction with that portion of the Outside. You see, there had been nothing to mark it, like our creation had. You would think that a creation would have its defenses against the Outsiders, like our Outer Gates. Instead we had pretty much just tripped into this creation.

And the conclusion that we had come to, was maybe this world had a different method of protecting itself from the forces of the Outside.

'The one even we fear,' He Who Walks Behind had declared as the Great Red came for us.

Maybe this creation didn't have an Outer Gate, because it had something far more effective to protect it. Maybe, just maybe this creation was protected by something far more proactive, far more offensively oriented than our Gates had been.

Like an enormous freaking red dragon death dealing monstrosity.

It was just speculation for the most part. Idle curiosity on both our parts. But, if it was true…

Than these gathered kids, were intending to destroy this world's only protection against the Empty Night. I couldn't tell right now, not without further research, if this goal was something they did out of ignorance, or if they, like what could be found in my old creation, were being influenced to do so by something more malignant.

In the end, it didn't matter though. Whatever the reason for it, even if it was just speculation, even if I might be wrong, it wasn't something I could just let slide.

I had seen one creation nearly fall. I would be damned, figuratively or literally, if I let another creation ever even entertain the possibility of doing so as well.

"Well this is an unexpected turn of events," Cao Cao murmured, standing as well, the Lance of Longinus in his hands as his grip tightened on it. The rest of the room was starting to stir as well.

"The offer I made earlier has been rescinded," I stated, a plume of frost marking my words.

And then we all started trying to kill each other.

*Scene Break*

I didn't even need to say an incantation for me to throw the first spell. When I had first arrived here, I hadn't had much in the way of resources when it came to putting together my party favors. Because of that, I did pretty much like I did when right after I had started my tenure as the Winter Knight: I had focused on my staff as a substitute for just about everything else. Normally, I prefer to simply keep my staff as nothing more than a channel, a means to more effectively shape my magic. However, in a pinch I could also carve more specific spellwork into it.

Like seventy seven of the same sets of runes I used on my rings, for instance.

I aimed the blow straight at Cao Cao. I had thought about maybe diffusing it, trying to take all of the gathered heroes at once, but another quick glance at the lance in the leader's hands was enough for me to decide that I did not want to give him even the chance to turn it on me.

Despite the way the entire freaking table shredded in a path between him and me as the force tore through it, he didn't even flinch as he put the staff in a guard position between in front of him. The force struck him, and rather than flattening him, it just forced him backwards.

Straight through the wall.

"Ha!" I was moving, even as I caught sight of the counterattack. Heracles was either faster than he looked, or he had already been preparing to fight before everything went pear shape, either way he was the first to close in on me. One meaty fist was already swinging down at me.

In response, I pointed my staff at the floor he was standing on and said, "Infriga."

"Heh?" His war cry changed as ice blossomed around his feet, trapping him and then beginning to spread, coating the floor in an ever increasing radius. He tore his foot free from the trap easily, but it threw him off enough that when his next step touched the ice it went out from beneath him.

"Sorry Wiz-kun!" Jeanne was next, and I almost didn't have enough time to throw up a shield as one of her holy swords nearly took me in the liver. I was incredibly thankful that I had brought all of my toys with me today, even if they hadn't proven necessary for the conference itself. I had only had to flood my will into my bracelet to conjure a defense, and I wouldn't have had time to call another spell without it. Instead, I was able to defend myself while continuing to spread the ice until it was lapping up the walls of the room.

"Whoa!" Jeanne apparently hadn't noticed just what I was doing, because even as she shifted to take another swing at me, looking like she was intending to try and flank me, just like with Heracles she wasn't able to keep her footing on the slick environment.

Then I was throwing myself to the side as two swords which most definitely seemed like the opposite of Jeanne's swords nearly took my head and my liver again. I barely got free, and felt a tug on my duster indicating it hadn't quite made it in time.

I rolled easily, recovering my footing without any effort, and noted the fact that my enchantments for protecting against piercing hadn't even slowed the blades down.

"Hmmm," Siegfried noted, and I took care to track his position. The swordsman hadn't chased me, and was instead standing still, both swords at the ready as he held his position. "Interesting. You have surprisingly good footing, all things considered."

"Harry Dresden, on ice," I declared, a predatory smirk stretching my cheeks a little as even the cold of Winter wasn't enough to stop the Dresden wit. "Get tickets now."

It was a simple enough strategy, after all. As the Winter Knight, I knew ice in the way only one beholden to it could. I had no trouble at all maintaining my balance on it, even moving at high speeds or making tight turns no matter how slippery the surface. My opponents, on the other hand, would either have to watch their footing or risk losing it just like Jeanne and Heracles already had. Siegfried had apparently resigned himself to holding his position rather than risk taking a tumble as well.

"It's truly a shame, but I suppose I will have to capture you until Cao Cao decides what to do," Georg declared, and I was grateful for it, because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to react as fast as the mist in the room froze, then started to launch itself at me in quick lances of vapor.

"Ventas!" I declared, giving my staff a quick jerk and summoning a gust of wind to counter the attack. Then I snarled, and found myself throwing myself to the side as despite the fact that wind against mist really should have been effective, it apparently didn't mean a damn thing against mist somehow being controlled or generated by a Sacred Gear. I let a trickle of Soulfire rise up, and tried again. "I said 'Ventas', damnit!"

This time, the breeze I summoned was actually visible, a shimmer of green white haze through it as the Soulfire empowered it. Despite that, the mist looked like it was visibly resisting the affect even as it was pushed aside, saving my ass from whatever the mist was trying to do.

"Impossible!" Georg sucked in a sharp breath, as apparently the thought of wind actually doing what it normally does to mist seemed inconceivable to him. His eyes narrowed. "To be able to counter Dimension Lost? Unbelievable…"

Actually, considering he was using a Sacred Gear, the thought that maybe I had just done something noteworthy came to mind. Maybe just like when I had designed anti-light protection, had I just done something really surprising by accident again?

Think about it later, Dresden. You can geek out all you want over the theory after you're out of the frying pan.

"Interesting," I shifted again to get the speaker into my line of sight, and found that even though I had just put him through a wall, Cao Cao was apparently made of sterner stuff. Stars and stones, if I had been put through a wall back before I became the Winter Knight, I would at least look it. From what I could tell, Cao Cao didn't even have a scratch on him.

Also, he was standing on the remains of the table which I really should have also covered in ice. And he had the Longinus in a much more offensive position than previously. And it was pointed at me.

Also also, that creepy kid? Leonardo? Apparently, and this was only a wild guess here, but apparently he also had some kind of strange ability, seeing as great humming balls of darkness were starting to gather at his side, shifting and shaping in a way which vaguely reminded me of watching a Yee Naldlooshi as it changed.

Screw that.

Reaching with the speed of a gunslinger of old, the coil of wire hooked on the liner of my duster was retrieved and tossed, the incantation, "Forzare," helping me cause it to unravel, whipping into a woven mess that went flying straight at Cao Cao. The Longinus user was fast, already batting it out of the way even as the plug, also according to my will, entered the electric socket behind him.

"Tsk!" the young man hissed, but it looked like whatever the lance was made out of it didn't conduct electricity nearly as well as I hoped as he did not promptly start convulsing. Despite not taking him out of the fight, it distracted him enough for me to point my staff at the rapidly shaping things besides the kid, suck even more heat out of the ground below me as I decided that if even mist was going to need Soulfire to counter I might as well just go for gusto with fire, and threw a lance of Hellfire at the closest growing monstrosity.

Then I stomped hard, using the power of the Winter Mantle to achieve enough force to shatter the frozen floor beneath me, and fell out of the room.

"Infriga!" I pointed the staff at the hole, even as I touched ground, and promptly shut the gap with thick ice, and then just as promptly turned and started running like a scared little girl.

It went against my instincts at this point. All of the Winter in me was driving me, nearly overwhelmingly, with the urge to hunt, to stalk, to bring those insolent little creatures down one at a time, before taking Jeanne and doing things to her that would make her scream, either to stop or for more depending on my whim at the time, but I forced myself to streak through the hallways of the school, aiming for the nearest stairwell with all the speed I had garnered from years of dedicated roadstering.

To counter the instinct of Winter, I started to list all of the logical reasons why I should be focusing on getting the hell out of Dodge.

"One, I'm outnumbered six to one," I grit my teeth, pouring on the speed. I made it to the end of the hallway, and rather than lose speed by slowing down to turn I simply jumped, planted my feet against the wall, took two steps on it sideways, and then threw myself in the new direction in a roll that let me recover my feet without losing any momentum.

"Two, it's safe to bet that every last one of them has some kind of Sacred Gear, probably powerful ones if they're at the top of their faction," I continued. I heard something shatter behind me, followed by a very disturbing noise, like the sound of some hunting animal, and started trying to go even faster.

"Three, I'm currently trapped in some sort of alternate dimension thingy, under the control of one of those powerful Sacred Gears," I continued, and I heard something loud behind me, a series of one and then a second loud clangs. I was leaning forward to help generate momentum, so to look back I actually just had to lower my head even more.

"Four, I'm being chased by a couple of demonic hunting cats," I added, unable to keep a note of incredulity at the sight. However he had done it, that creepy kid had somehow managed to summon a set of wicked little monstrosities that would have made even a malk seem like a tame little kitten. They were as high at the shoulder as my waist, with strong looking limbs covered with dark green scales that blended into black fur on the body, with faces that only had a passing resemblance to an actual cat, and claws and teeth that looked far to exaggerated and sharp for me to want to risk dealing with.

"Rexus mundus," I cast, and rather than just a sheet of ice or some kind of lance, I used my glacier spell to create jagged sharp blocks of ice midair, scattering them behind me in an attempt to stop the two evil kitties. They were fast, and one of them managed to get past before the ice fell, but the second one yowled angrily as it was struck by one, the frozen daggers slowing it down enough for a second and third one to hit before it was buried beneath them.

"Five," I continued, seeing the stair way coming up fast, "the conference is being attacked, and helping there is just as important for the fate of the world as dealing with potential Outsider influenced suicidal idiots."

I hit the stairs jumping, not bothering to take them. Instead, I just twisted, again hitting the wall that marked the halfway point where the stairs changed directions and let out onto the ground floor feet first, before kicking off of that and pushing onto the wall parallel to the final flight of steps, and kicking off of that again, to once more land in a perfect roll that ended with me in a kneeling position, staff up and pointing behind me.

"Six, Parkour!" I declared, and was greeted with the sight of the other demonic kitty imitating my movement as it too leapt down the steps. "Infriga!"

With an explosion of mist, I quickly stood, stepping to the side as the newly made catsicle landed about where I had, and then exploded into chucks of ice. They crunched softly beneath my feet as I turned and continued fleeing, though I kind of wish someone had saw that whole scene, considering how cool it must have looked. No one was ever going to believe me if I just told them about it.

Winter was still powering me, but I was able to think clearer now, and I was able to formulate something resembling a plan. First, I had to make distance. I was essentially trapped in enemy territory, and getting away from them was the first order of business. One on one, I might have been able to take any of them one on one, depending on their individual skill levels, but I wasn't giving myself good odds against all of them together. The best course of action would be to beat it, research both them and the Great Red, and then if I need to, try to find them and take them on my own terms. If they pursued, I would have to hope that some of them were faster than others, and that spreading them out might give me the chance to deal with them one on one.

If they proved persistent, I might be able to use my knowledge of the school to start hunting them in the same way, and the Winter in me growled in approval at the thought.

Still, escape was the best option, and with that in mind I made it to the door leading to the courtyard. Once clear, I could make my way to the forests around the Academy and…

"Oh balls," I groaned as I made it outside and realized how screwed I was.

I'd forgotten where getting out of the frying pan generally landed you.

The sky was missing. So were the other wings of the school. So was the forest.

So that's what they meant by this being another dimension.

'Lash, we need options,' I told her, and no, my voice was not high pitched with nerves.

I am considering, my host, was her response, and it made me a lot less nervous. When something like her said 'considering' it mostly meant 'processing all options as fast as a freaking super computer on steroids'.

"Dresden!" A savage shout alerted me to the fact that I was no longer alone. I cringed as glass began to rain down on me as Heracles, apparently a little pissed about the tripping him thing earlier, literally threw himself out of a window from the second story. He landed in front of me, whirling as he scowled, before he started charging me, hand cocked back as he got ready for an attempted smiting. "Why don't you fight like a man, you cowardly little…"

That was as far as he got, apparently losing his train of thought as I started charging him right back. Apparently, just like Freed, the idea of a wizard not making distance and making with the magic was an unexpected thing to him.

"You're actually going to fight!" he crowed, sounding savagely delighted. "Bring it!"

I grit my teeth, and prepared for the timing. I had to do this fast and hard, because the longer I spent, the more of them that would appear. I needed either to buy time for Lash to analyze the situation, or start on that whole 'hunt them one by one' option.

Heracles was big, there was no denying that. But I had a lot of experience fighting things bigger than me. I knew more than a few tricks for taking advantage of the difference in size.

Heracles was actually laughing as we closed in, but right when we were about to exchange manly punches to each other faces, the hand holding my staff pointed with one of the rings on my hand and unleashed the kinetic force it had stored in all three of its bands right at the teenager's feet.

"Hrk!" Heracles grunted as his feet were literally yanked out from under him, causing him to fall forward. Me, on the other hand, planted my front foot, pivoted, aimed at a spot two feet behind his head, and threw an uppercut that connected to him square in the chin. The pure force of it, with the power of the Winter Mantle as well as his inertia and mine, threw his neck back and forced his mouth shut with enough force that I wondered if he had a good dentist.

"Round one, knockout," I declared, as he physically lifted off the ground, describing an arc like something you'd see out of a boxing movie.

However, in a flash of luck that I really wished would happen more often, the pivot also brought the doors of the school I had just ran out of, consequentially giving me about a half second's warning as the second demonic kitty, the one I thought I had gotten earlier, proved to still be in the fight. It was bloodied, and most animals would have engaged in some kind of flight reflex after taking wounds like that, but no, this one apparently had better work ethics than those slackers.

I barely had time to get my arm up as the thing pounced, it's front paws nailing me with enough force that it felt like it was a freaking car running me down, and it's jaw snapped shut on my arm with power that would no doubt be agonizing if I wasn't currently immersed in my Knighthood. It drove me backwards, yanking its head with savage, animal motions, and I had enough experience to actually know the exact moment when that forced broke my arm, cracking one of the bones in there easily.

I howled, and in that moment Winter surged and me being a wizard didn't matter. This thing, whatever it was, was challenging me, ME, as though it was the superior predator here! Such insolence would not go unpunished. Its claws raked at me, not able to make its way through my duster as my free hand opened, and claws of ice blossomed from my fingers. Just as savagely as it, I drove them into its side, raking and ripping with ruthless abandon.

The cat thing yowled, and even if it apparently was able to overlook its previous injuries, these were a cat of a different coat. Its jaw opened and the paws on me started to push, as though it was trying to retreat.

With ferocity that only could be found in the darkest, coldest nights by creatures that hunted and killed without ever seeking the light of day my freed hand sprouted those claws too. Both hands sank into the monster cat, and it writhed to try and break free as I lifted it, and then brought it down on my knee, breaking its back brutally, before tossing it away.

"Whoa! Way to go Wiz-kun!" was the only warning I got before I caught sight of Jeane. I managed to come back to myself enough to know that I was in trouble as she was already mid swing, bringing that shining sword of hers down.

It was moments like this that all the paranoia paid off in as with another practice move I arched my shoulder to give me some space between my back and my coat and then rolled them, flipping the top of my duster up so that it covered most of the back of my head. I tried to dodge as well, and was at least able to catch her attack on my shoulder blade rather than my neck. The impact was like getting shot, and I used it, throwing myself to the side with it to roll and try to get space.

"Eh!" Jeanne sounded surprised as I regained my feet, and I caught sight of her stomping her own with a childish pout. "No fair! Why didn't it cut!"

'Lash, I have good news,' I told the shadow of the fallen. 'It appears our protection against light magic has proven successful.' Even if the force behind the blow had been significant, my protection against piercing had appeared to work, my coat having held up against this sword even if Sigfried's had gone right through it. I could faintly make out some smoke coming from the spot where I had been struck, and it looked like my duster had taken a bit of burn damage from the light element, but it was still holding.

To a limited degree, she answered softly, though I doubt it will be enough for that.

I felt a nudge as she gently manipulated my nerves to indicate I should look up, and when I did couldn't help but complain.

"Now that's just not fair," I muttered as I caught sight of Cao Cao, literally standing on air as though it was solid ground. In his hand, Longinus blazed, and from the tip of the rod a blade of light so intense it was nearly painful to witness was burning. There was no doubt in my mind that whatever protection my duster had, it wouldn't be sufficient against something like that.

"What a savage way to deal with Annihilation Maker's beasts," Cao Cao sounded more intrigued than actually affected in any negative way. "If I hadn't seen it myself, I would have doubted you were a magician at all!"

"Indeed," this voice came from the door back to the school, and Sigfried pushed his way through, closing it behind him and then planting himself there, two drawn swords in his hands as he watched me carefully. The slim white haired kid seemed focused but relaxed, a dangerous sort of posture that was scary enough to anyone who was able to recognize it. "Really, I'm truly starting to regret his loss. The thought of him in the Hero faction would have been inspiring."

"Cao Cao," another voice began, and I sighed, already guessing how the rest of this day was going to go as I caught sight of a swirl of mist that dissipated quickly to reveal Georg, standing so that I was between him and Jeanne as he cut off my escape routes. "Please, I must ask that even if he is restrained, he be treated well," the magician sounded earnest, though his eyes were locked on me with disturbing intensity. "I would very much like the opportunity to speak with him about magic. His skills, his techniques, they are unprecedented!"

And now I had a fan boy.


As though to just make the day worse, the downed body of Heracles started to laugh, proving that he wasn't quite at the end of the ten count yet.

"Magic? Who cares about that!" he declared, already pushing himself back to his feet. "What a punch! I actually almost felt that! Well, in thanks, let me show you something good!"

'Lash, please tell me you have options,' I declared, as around the body of Heracles a glow began to form. When that glow formed into what looked like honest to god miniature missiles sprouting out of his skin like bizarre piercings, I continued. 'Really, really good options please.'

This realm, whatever it is, Lash began, speaking quickly but concisely, must still be attached to its original creation. Because of that, it is most likely that it is still attached, perhaps in a sense running parallel while still interacting with the original…

'English please, Lash,' I interrupted her as the freaking missiles began to move. 'Now!'

Open a hole as you would to Nevernever and hope for the best, she said immediately.

'It worked before!' I decided, before taking my staff and stabbing it into the air beside me.

"Aparturum!" I shouted, dragging my staff down.

Well what do you know? It worked again.

"How!" I heard Georg's shocked shout, but didn't stick around to hear the rest as a freaking bombardment of really dangerous looking missiles started closing in on me. I ran through the new opening and hoped that wherever it led it didn't have as much eminent death as was here.

"Dresden!" I had one wild moment to look around, and nearly collapsed in relief as I found myself still standing on the courtyard of Kuoh Academy. It looked… different at the moment. Kind of like what I would expect in some war-torn future post-apocalyptic dystopia, but it wasn't a giant lake of acid, so I'd take what I could get. It even had Ise, and I would have been thankful that the other boy was apparently still safe, but I had more pressing matters to worry about.

"Move, move, move, move, move!" I snapped, grabbing him and dragging him to the side with a yelp. I started to get more of a grasp on the surroundings, and just had time to catch sight of some familiar white armor as I recognized as Vali in his buff form, and some other strange guy who looked kind of like a cross between a man and a monkey. I'd have thought it some kind of bigfoot, but since I had met those already, I decided not. "Dodge you idiots!"

"What are you-" Ise began, only to let out a high-pitched 'eep' as I just managed to get him out of the way just as about two dozen of those missile things followed me through the gate.

"What the-!" the monkey guy began, already dodging as Vali launched himself into the air, just as they struck with thunderous detonations right where they had been a moment ago.

I cautiously looked back into the portal when the attack seemed to be finished to catch sight of a surprised looking Heracles. Then, wordlessly, I flicked him off before closing the portal behind me.

"What the hell was that, Dresden!" Ise shouted, before he paused, and his eyes narrowed. "What happened to you?"

"Well, well, well," another voice joined in, and I glanced over tiredly to find Azazel standing nearby as well. He looked about like I felt, his clothes ruffled and burnt in places, and I couldn't help but notice that one of his arms also seemed to be missing. "Just what happened here?"

"Oh, you know," I sighed, grimacing as I felt a bone shift in my arm. "One of those days."

*Scene Break*

"…and then we all had punch and pie," I finished my story dryly.

"Really?" Tomoe asked, giving me the wide eyed look of innocence that only the truly gullible could attain.

"Tomoe-chan," Reya sighed, though she was giving me a concerned look. "Really, for the conference to be going so well, only for something like that to happen…"

"Annihilation Maker, Dimension Lost, and even the True Longinus," Tsubaki shook her head, giving me a concerned look. "Those three… to think that of not only would a group possess Longinuses, but they would even have so many of the top tier ones gathered…"

"It is no laughing matter," Sona agreed, her normally cute expressions marred but an excessive scowl. "They were even able to penetrate the security of a conference meant to house the leaders of the Three Powers." She gave me a look which might have passed for 'concerned' if it wasn't for the scowl, as well as the fact that, well, it was Sona.

"I don't believe the bit about the demonic cat one bit," Saji grumbled, though Momo and Ruruko both looked like they were suppressing giggles. Then Momo looked like she was about to put a hand on his shoulder, only to be interrupted by Ruruko getting there first.

"Now, now, Genshiro-senpai," the pawn began, and Momo and her exchanged fierce looks before the younger continued, still patting his shoulder. "I'm sure Dresden-kun wouldn't make something like that up."

"Well, all I got out of it was a broken arm, a burnt coat, and a couple stitches," I pointed out with a shrug. I had thought I had gotten away clean when I had dodged Sigfried while I was icing the room up, but it turns out that he had managed to give me a good two inch mark to remember him by. I wasn't certain if it was adrenalin, or if those swords of his were just that sharp, or even if it was just the Winter's Mantle, but I hadn't even noticed until afterwards when everyone was getting patched up.

And given that Asia had healed even that without leaving a mark, I considered what I had learned to be worth a lot more than a scratch like that.

"Three Longinus users gathered together," Tsubaki stated softly. "Members of a group dedicated to proving the strength of humans. And that they are only a faction of a much larger group, one that has gathered around Ouroborus Ophis, the Dragon God of the Infinite." A nervous tension spread throughout the room, as even this mostly typical high school devils weren't able to properly contain their tension at the thought.

"Though there is one thing much more important that should be noted," Sona, shook her head slowly. I had little doubt she was already dissecting the information and trying to decide on how to react to it.

"Agreed," Tsubasa also, somewhat surprisingly, was pondering something that was equally momentous to the announcement of peace between the three factions as well as the existence of a multi-celled terrorist organization named after a bad pun. "We should focus on the important things first."

"Why is it that you are only showing up at school now, after classes are done?" Sona demanded of me, somehow managing to get her glasses to glint (dare I say it?) diabolically in the otherwise unexceptional lighting of the School Council room.

"Just what did you and Kaichou get up to!" Tsubasa pointed an accusing finger at me as she spoke at the same time as her master.

When Reya coughed softly, looking away in embarrassment, I was glad I wasn't the only one who found the duel accusations and what it revealed about both of the young devil girl's priorities to be a little awkward.

Tomoe, on the other hand, began to giggle, though she did a much worse job of hiding it then Tsubaki did who had slapped both hands over her mouth and was shaking slightly.

"Yura-chan," Sona turned to face her rook, eyes narrowed in a much less fierce and much more familiar glare. "Why do you persist in pursuing that subject? Haven't I already assured you as your King that no noteworthy events have occurred?"

"Kaichou has already revealed that her actions as 'King' can be used to cover her actions as a woman!" Tsubasa shot back, folding her arms and smirking triumphantly. "Besides, won't your insistence on paying attention to the rules get in your way of raising flags? What if Harry-kun starts to think of you as a cold woman?"

"T-that will not happen!" Sona declared, though she flinched back briefly at the accusation. "I have already spoken with Dresden-kun, and he is aware of what my future goals are. There is no way he would hold my attention to them against me!"

"Aha!" Tsubasa's eyes narrowed and she leaned in. I'd noticed that while normally reserved and obedient, when Tsubasa and Sona started to get into one of these tiffs that the both of them started talking to each other on a more familiar level. "So that's what happened! Was it a lovey-dovey discussion of your future together? I bet you even got some skinship in!"

"J-just the h-holding of hands does not represent skinship!" Sona declared, before slapping a hand over her mouth and starting to blush faintly as she realized that she had let something slip she probably hadn't intended to.

"Ha! So you did do something!" Tsubasa declared, leaning forward eagerly. Rather than appearing jealous, she suddenly seemed more interested in hearing about the juicy details. "Have you two kissed yet too? How far have you gotten?"

"Oooooh!" Tomoe joined in as well, also sounding interested. Saji flinched backwards, putting a hand to his chest as he glared at me, though behind him both Momo and Ruruko gave me thumbs up at my supposed progress with seducing their love interest's love interest.

Stars and stones, was this my life now?

It was the day after the conference, and as was appearing to be my habit after the really bad mix-em-ups, I'd decided to just skip coming to school the next day. The conference hadn't started until late, after all, and the ensuing fracas had taken a good bit of time as well. There had been a good bit of tension after I escaped, and even I could admit that the one human present disappearing right before an attack was a little suspicious.

I was fairly certain that while the big wigs might have believed me, they most likely had a few of their subordinates keeping an eye on me, just in case. Even me revealing the information of one of the groups of the newly revealed Khaos Brigade probably didn't reassure them one hundred percent that I wasn't some sort of plant.

Though I think the true origin of the League of Evil's name might have caused Sirzechs to actually laugh out loud. Only think, because while I heard a suspicious noise from his direction, when I checked it was to find him grimacing while rubbing his cheek, that really unnerving maid from before standing surprisingly close as he did so.

Whatever the case, after hours of tension, throwing around magic, a brief but very intense series of sprints, and then a prolonged period of inactivity to allow the adrenaline to wear off, I was well and truly tuckered. If the devils wanted to preserve their school image and force themselves to attend, that was all up to them.

I was only human, and I already had an image as a delinquent, so I had no problem skiving off to nap.

Though once I was up, I did make it a point to drop by the Student Council Room. Partly to be able to give a more detailed version of my experience with the Hero faction to Sona and her peerage, partly to do a little follow up of my own.

"So Azazel really decided to stick around?" I asked Tsubaki as she drew near me, the tall girl smiling helpfully as Sona found herself growing more and more uncomfortable as more and more of her peerage started to press her for details about our supposed progress.

"He has volunteered to be an adviser to the Occult Research Club," the vice-president answered softly. "I believe he is meeting with them now to announce his new position here. I believe that Leviathan-sama and Lucifer-sama are planning to have him nearby in the early stages of the peace in order to help with the negotiation of any details that may crop up."

"And to keep an eye on him, seeing as the fallen actually have the worst rep of the three power," I nodded. Honestly, at this point, I thought it was a pointless precaution.

Azazel wasn't interested in some sort of complex double cross or twisted scheme.

I knew.

"I am glad that you are well, after last night," Tsubaki continued, and I blinked, surprised at the confession as I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. She was half turned to face me, and she had a surprisingly gentle smile on for someone who was usually so serious.

"Glad that you no longer have to bear the title 'tallest in the room'?" I asked playfully, and she gave a soft chuckled as she nodded.

"That, and since you started spending time with her Kaichou has seemed much more relaxed," she explained, turning to give more attention to Sona as she blushed slightly under the attention of Tsubasa and the rest. I had to admit it, it made her look less the stern and imposing King, a high class devil and family to one of the Maou, and more like a normal girl her age.

Damnit, it made her even more adorable than normal, and I found myself fighting back a flush of my own at the sight.

I heard two chuckles, one from inside my head and the other from Tsubaki as she caught sight of my struggle.

"Yeah, well, anyway," I declared, before bravely moving past the embarrassment of being caught acting my physical age. Damn the hormones, full speed ahead. "I was thinking about arranging a 'Congratulations, we're all not dead' party actually. I've always found avoiding near certain death to be something worth having a celebration about."

"Just you and Kaichou, perhaps?" Tsubaki had a sly look on her face, and I was glad I had already mastered the blush reflex earlier. I was about ninety nine percent confident that I didn't let any other reaction to what she was implying show besides a shrug.

"Actually, I was thinking everyone from the Student Council," I admitted, and Tsubaki blinked in surprise. "I spend a lot of time around all of you, and I like to think I get along with everyone well enough. And isn't it a tradition to go out drinking with your coworkers after a long day or something?"

It wasn't something that showed up in America much, seeing as most coworkers didn't want anything to do with the people they were forced to put up with in order to pay their bills, but hey, when in Rome, right?

"It might do some good," Tsubaki pursed her lips, considering the idea. "Tension has been high these last few days, and with things having turned out as they have, it might do us some good. You'll have to run it by Kaichou though."

"While I applaud the idea, I'm afraid it will have to wait for later," Sona cut in, and I realized that she had finally had enough with the interrogation. Pulling free from the small circle around her, she straightened her glasses, the tiny color on her cheek still remaining already fading. "There are still responsibilities that have to be seen to before we can relax."

"Rightio," I shrugged, though I guess I was a bit disappointed.

I'd been thinking a bit, as well as sleeping. About how much the offer from the Hero Faction had tempted me. About what it meant to have companions, even in passing, and how I hadn't really made any effort to change that over the last two years.

Maybe it was time to stop living so much in the past or in my head, and start doing that reaching out to people thing again.

Hell's bells, I guess I already started, haven't I?

"Well, when you all have the time let me know," I shrugged my coat back on as I stood. My shield charm jingled, and Sona gave it a disapproving look. Tough. I now had confirmed proof that a group that meant me harm had the ability to kidnap me from even someplace as secure as the conference, so I wasn't going anywhere without a whole bunch more of my toys these days. I guess my reputation as a delinquent was going to start growing. "There's this place down by the station that I found that has some really good udon…"

I found myself quite suddenly stopped by a grip like iron on my arm. I nearly started gathering my will, before I realized that it was just Sona, though for some reason it was a Sona that was showing more of her devilish strength than I had even thought she had as held my arm with an inescapable grip.

"Udon, you say?" Sona asked me, and I couldn't help but notice how flat her tone had gone. "From a shop near the station? I haven't heard of any such shops."

"Er," I gave her a careful look, not quite sure what was going on. To the side I saw Tsubaki as she suddenly straightened her glasses as well, a serious look appearing on her face. "Yeah? It's a fairly new one. Just opened."

"I see," Sona nodded, adjusting her glasses as well. "Well, given the severity of the crisis we just concluded, perhaps I was too hasty to disregard the need for rest and relaxation. One day's delay will not overly affect the running of the Academy."

"Huh?" I couldn't help but blink at the sudden change in tune. "Well, if you're sure…"

"Allow me a moment to finish putting away some of my materials," Sona declared, already turning to walk briskly to her desk. I stared as the rest of the council also started packing up quickly. Just about everyone there had a serious look on their faces in one way or another, though on Tomoe it looked somewhat tempered by her natural carelessness. The only one that looked like they weren't about to face some kind of unexpected momentous task was Saji, and he just looked resigned.

Well, time to use all those hard won trained investigator skills and detective myself some answers.

I decided to try via subtlety first.

"Dude," I whispered edging up to the only male present, "what the hell?"

For once, he didn't glare, instead just sighing.

"For Kaichou," he began, before grimacing and shaking his head, "no, for all of Kaichou's peerage, and even her household the Sitri, udon is considered a very serious matter."

"Right," I drawled slowly, before shrugging and deciding that thinking too much on it would just make my head hurt.

"Dresden," Sona spoke again, a tone of command in her voice. "Quickly. You will act as our guide."

"Well, if it works," I muttered myself. I had sunk myself into Winter pretty deep the day before, even if I had avoided Soulfire. Spending time with my friends was good for the soul, after all. And if I had somehow managed to stumble on the perfect bribe item for the devil girl who I was tentatively attracted to, then hey, why not make use of it? "So, Sona, how many bowls would it take to get you to tell me about that heredity power of yours…?"

I was still really curious about that!