The First Spell


I wasn't quite sure what day of the week it was, but I'm pretty sure it was a Wednesday. Never quite could figure out Wednesday...

Apparently most people liked Wednesdays. Most people had a regular nine-to-five job and got the weekends off. Most people could go home on Wednesday evening, happy that most of the week was over and they only had a few more days left until the weekend.

Most people weren't currently fighting an eldritch monster from beyond time and space on a battlefield that warped and changed chaotically.

Guess which category I fit into. I'll give you a hint: I've never been good at nine-to-five.

See, the thing about Wednesdays is that it usually means the first half of my week sucked, and the second half of my week is about to suck harder. Right now, that meant I was hastily throwing up a shield in order to not be torn in half by claws attached to a forearm that's thicker than my torso and covered in some weird combination of mold, fur, and scales. I'd managed to get it up in time, but I was running on empty and it wasn't enough to block the blow entirely. I was knocked off my feet by the sheer force behind the swipe, and my head struck something hard when I landed. When I stood up, the world was swaying. Swell, a concussion, just what I needed.

I shook my arm and grimaced, looking down at the shreds of what used to be the sleeve of my duster. I'd enchanted that thing with pretty much everything that's tried to kill me before and failed – it was bulletproof and stab-proof, spread out any impact across my entire body, breathe better in the summer, and protect from all sorts of ghouls, ghosts, and things that went bump in the night – but somewhere along the line I'd forgotten Protection from Outsiders. Oh well. The rest of it had become a casualty of war a while back, so I would have needed to replace it anyway.

My host, perhaps you should focus on the fight rather than the fashion nightmare you insist on wearing, the voice in my head told me.

'Is now really the time, Lash?' I asked her, flexing my hand to make sure nothing had been damaged too terribly.

Before you get the wrong idea, it's not my voice in my head. I'm not crazy.

In this case, the voice belonged to a fallen angel – a pillar of creation that's existed since the dawn of creation, and one that was hellbent on persuading me to join the dark side of the Force and damning my soul for all eternity. And she was pretty good at it, too. The fallen angels, and this one in particular, were schemers and manipulators to the core.

But the voice in my head wasn't a fallen angel, not entirely. It was actually the shadow of the fallen angel Lasciel. It was a long story, but I'd managed to split Lash off from her progenitor and now she was on my side, more or less. It's that age-old story from before time existed... Boy meets girl, girl tempts boy with eternal damnation, boy snarks at girl, girl sacrifices herself to save boy... The sort of thing those sappy Hallmark soap operas are made from. She drove me nuts, but when she'd sacrificed herself to save me from an Outsider's psychic brain drill, I'd realized how much I'd missed her.

And now you are reminiscing, Lash sighed. Perhaps next time the Walker will take your arm off entirely instead of just the sleeve.

I grumbled under my breath, but she had a point. 'I think you gave me fewer headaches when you were a brain parasite.'

Even though I couldn't see it, I knew she was smiling faintly at my comeback before getting serious again. Speaking of headaches, Harry… A second later, the ringing in my ears stopped and I took a grateful breath as the dry land finally decided to act like it. It is temporary at best, my host, but the concussion should not inhibit you for now.

'Thanks, Lash.' Now that my vision wasn't double and I could see straight, I stood up and looked for wherever my opponent had disappeared to.

I had a half-second to react to the roar of anger from my left, but that was like an eternity as I drew on the power of Winter and spun. The Walker pounced at me, and I drew back my fist and decked it. I felt something crack, but I wasn't sure if that was my fist or its face. Either way, it tumbled to the ground, hopefully in pain. I gritted my teeth as red-hot shards of agony started working their way up my arm. Guess that crack was my arm, huh?

The pain went away after a second thanks to Lash playing around with my nerves, but my arm still hung limply by my side. I broke my arm, but the Outsider… was perfectly fine, I guess, since it stood up and snarled at me. I wrinkled my nose as the stench of death and decay reached me from where it was. Its breath matched the rest of it perfectly, at any rate. A match made in Hell.

Slowly, I straightened up and exhaled, my breath fogging up from the last shreds of Winter coursing through me. With a howl, He Who Walks Behind charged at me, and I narrowed my eyes. "Forzare!" I barked, slamming as much will as I could into the spell. The Walker tried to change course, but the ground underneath us had shifted to ice in an instant, and that momentary loss of traction was all I needed. The bolt of force slammed into the Walker and sent it skidding away along the ice.

I moved after it, intending to follow through with something that might stand a chance of hurting it for real, but the howling winds whipped snow around and obscured everything. "Wizard!" He Who Walks Behind roared out. "Your own will betrays you!"

"I just didn't want to keep looking at your ugly mug!" I shouted, standing still. The Walker would be able to find me no matter how stealthy I was, so I just needed to make sure I found him first. But despite my best efforts, the snow was making me blind.

Well, I knew how to handle a whiteout in this situation. I concentrated my will and a sun bloomed into existence above me, reflecting against the snow. It sizzled now and then when flakes landed on it, but it was so powerful I could feel the heat warming my bones. I always had a knack for fire, and it answered my call just like it always did. But I wasn't done yet. 'Lash?' I requested, and I could swear I felt phantom lips brush my cheek.

As you wish, my beloved host.

The sun twisted and warped as it changed, growing darker as its nature was distorted. A smell of brimstone and sulfur billowed around me. Hellfire - the power of destruction, of corruption. Out beyond the Outer Gates, I had no qualms about using it. It was Hellfire, but Hellfire was a product of my world. Pouring so much of it into the spell, to the point where it was almost more Hellfire than regular fire, was dangerous, but it was still a solid link to my world in this place where chaos reigned.

The blizzard disappeared in an instant, replaced by gouts of stinking flame from scorched holes in the ground. The massive fireball above my head crackled and snapped, chaotically testing the limits of my will. But that was okay – I wasn't going to be holding onto it for much longer. When the blizzard disappeared, so did the Walker's cover.

It charged me, and I shouted wordlessly in defiance as I unleashed everything I had, pouring it into the Hellfire-charged fire spell. It slammed into the Walker and kept going, crashing into the ground and exploding with a roar of flame. The ground around the impact cracked from the sheer heat, and the wash of hot air took my breath away. Dust rose from where the sun had landed, obscuring the crater.

For a timeless instant nothing moved, and I hoped that this last attack finally did it. Suddenly an ugly laugh cracked the silence, and I felt that hope die as the hellscape surrounding me warped into a disgusting sight, corpses as far as I could see piled high along a sluggish river of blood. "That almost tickled, wizard," He Who Walks Behind rumbled in its calm British accent, emerging from the cloud of dust. The Hellfire-infused fireball had had some effect, at least; the fur or scales or whatever you called the fungus-like stuff covering its body had been scorched and blackened, and small flickers of flame still danced over the Walker's crooked legs and too-long arms. "But it wasn't enough to stop me," it sneered.

I grimaced. 'Somehow, he smells worse, now. Does he smell worse to you, Lash?'

You know as well as I that your senses are mine, Harry, she told me. But yes, the Walker is rather rank.

'Okay, good, it's not just me.' I tried to grin, but a sudden coughing fit caught me by surprise. When I was able to catch my breath, I spat out the blood in my mouth – the coppery tang was a harsh reminder that even if I didn't feel the pain, thanks to the combined efforts of Lash and the Mantle of Winter, I couldn't exactly walk off getting half my ribs snapped in two.

My host… Harry, Lash said gently. Your body is at its limit. If you continue fighting, you know that you will die. Even I cannot prevent that.

'Maybe with an attitude like that, I might, Lash,' I told her as I wiped at my mouth with my arm. I really wish I still had my duster. First thing I'm doing if I somehow manage to live through this fiasco is getting a new one.

My bravado aside, I was running out of options. I'd thrown pretty much everything but the kitchen sink at the monster in front of me, and nothing had left so much as a dent. Even Hellfire, probably the most destructive aspect of my arsenal, hadn't had an effect.

I tried reaching deeper, to summon up more magic, but I knew I was scraping the bottom of the well. I'd been fighting nonstop for so long… And I hadn't made it out of all those earlier battles unscathed, either. Every one of them had taken their pound of flesh, and I was totally exhausted. I was empty of Winter, of fire and force. "Would you like to know what I'm going to do to your world, child of the stars?" the Walker purred at me.

"I get the feeling you'll tell me anyway, even if I don't," I glowered at him. I barely had enough energy left to make quips, which should be a pretty good indication of how dire my situation was.

The Walker spread its lips, showing off its misshapen teeth that were too sharp and too long to fit in its mouth but somehow did anyway. "I'm going to slaughter every last man, woman, and child you fought so hard to protect," it sneered. "But their deaths will not be quick and painless. Oh, no. They will suffer, wizard, for your arrogance at thinking you could stop us." It laughed, and the dark sound twisted my stomach. "You will die knowing that you failed."

Die.

I went still and closed my eyes. I was going to Die Alone – the death curse laid on me would see to that.

But if I was going to Die Alone, there was something I had to do, first. If nothing that I threw at him was going to keep him down, then I had to make my last-ditch effort at stopping the Walkers forever.

"Heh…"

The soft chuckle made the Walker snarl. "What is so funny, wizard?"

I shook my head. "The fact that you think you've managed to beat me."

"Why do you still resist?!" the monstrosity howled. "You can't win! Your body is broken and shattered!"

"You're pretty too," I growled, trying hard to ignore the blood that came with the words. "But my job is just about done."

It snarled, its mouth far too wide. It was like staring at something from Lewis Carroll's drug-fueled nightmares. "What do you think you can do now? You are broken, mortal. You may have stopped us for now, but nothing will prevent us from coming back with a force twice as strong!"

I couldn't help it. I laughed again, despite knowing it would hurt. "Seriously? That's your idea of a threat?" I raised my hand. "You were scarier when I saw you in that pinball machine, way back when."

I lowered my hand and the massive Gates to my world started to swing shut. "Now run, coward," I growled.

As I watched the ponderous Gates slam shut, I smiled. There was no way for the Walkers to get back through the Gates now, and the Faerie Queens would be on guard against something like Nemesis. Even if I failed, even if I fell in battle, my world would be safe. "You fool!" the monster raged. "What have you done? Do you wish to die?"

'Die Alone.' I'd already fulfilled that death curse once, but I guess it didn't quite stick. So the universe was giving it a second go. I turned and stood tall against the monster. "Stop your yapping," I told it. "You're giving me a headache."

"What do you hope to accomplish?" the Walker laughed, closing in on me with a loping run. Super, it could go on all fours too. "You are alone! You are lost! You are mine! I will take you apart, piece by piece, and your screams will be music to my ears! You will scream for a death I will not grant you! Who are you to try and stand against me?!"

I closed my eyes. Sure, I was going to die alone. But you know what? I couldn't care less. Because dying alone meant that everyone else didn't die. Because right here, right now, I could stand and face this monster that was trying to destroy humanity, hell, heaven, and everything else. Murph. Molly. Thomas. Even Marcone, Lara, and those assholes Nicodemus and Kincaid. Hell's bells, even Mab and freakin' Odin.

And most importantly… My daughter, Maggie…

"Who am I?" I asked quietly. "I'm the one people call when things get strange and when there's no one else that can help."

Everything I've done, I've done to protect the people that were counting on me. I couldn't just give up and lie down when there was even one shred of will left in me. 'Lash, I'm gonna do something incredibly stupid,' I told her.

What else is new, Harry? she asked me with a twist of amusement. Then I gave her access to what I was planning, and her mental voice sobered immediately. My host… Harry, if you do this... It will destroy you. Left unspoken was the statement that when I died, so would she.

I smiled. 'I know, Lash. And for what it's worth, I wish there was some way to get you out of here.'

Do not fret, Harry. I felt warm arms wrap around me. They weren't real, but I felt them – and maybe that made them real enough. You are my partner, and I will stand by you to the end. Phantom lips brushed my cheek.

'Thanks for everything, Lash.' I meant it, too. We might have started out as enemies, but over the years that transformed into an uneasy truce; after she came back from saving my life, we were partners through and through. I trusted her with my life and sanity.

He Who Walks Behind must have sensed something changing in the wind, because it roared, "Why? Why do you still fight? You know you can't hope to win!"

Why did I fight? I fought because people were counting on me to not give up. I fought because this was my world, damn it, and I wasn't gonna just roll over and let something that escaped from Lewis Carroll's drug-fueled nightmares destroy it. There were people I had to protect, no matter what happened to me.

As I thought about that, standing firm as the Walker charged me, I felt something inside me swell. It was my final trump card, the last ace up my sleeve – Soulfire. It was the fire of creation, the diametric opposite of Hellfire, and it burned up my soul for fuel. When that was gone, I'd end up dead. More than dead, really – what made me me would be gone and there'd be no afterlife. I'd have ceased to exist. I wouldn't be able to come back as a ghost like I had the first time.

Soulfire was fueled by my soul, yeah, but it was more than that. It was the total sum of who I was, the amalgamation of every single decision I've ever made and every thought I've had. And right now, I was using every last bit of that power inside me, drawing on it regardless of the cost.

I would take He Who Walks Behind with me. I'd taken the two that came before him, and this would destroy the last of the Outsider's Walkers. Even if they came back, they'd remember what it meant to threaten my reality.

"Wizard!" He Who Walks Behind howled as it lunged.

I opened my eyes to see that our battlefield had changed to be the perfect place for my last stand – a gas station. "My Name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden," I pronounced.

And I unleashed every shred of raw Soulfire that I could gather in one giant blinding explosion.

Die Alone.

…Infinite blackness.

"…ost…my host… HARRY!"

"Lash?" I breathed, so very, very tired. I was cold. And something was broken. Something that should be in me was torn. Barely left. I was... breathing, but why was I breathing? There wasn't a... point...

"My host, you must focus."

Whatever was weak inside me, it was bolstered. Slowly I tried to sit up. "Lash?" I repeated, my voice firmer. "What happened to the Walker?" I couldn't see anything except for myself and Lash. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that there wasn't anything in existence except for me and Lash. As awareness came back, I took stock of my situation. I was... alive, for a certain definition of the word. My...soul was shattered. I'd sacrificed too much of it, and even now I could feel it trickling away. I'd disappear when it was gone, I knew. "Did we beat it?"

"I am uncertain, my host," she told me. "Its presence has disappeared, but there is no way of knowing whether the explosion of Soulfire was enough to destroy it, or merely to damage it so much that it retreated."

"Man," I sighed. "This was so much easier when all I had to do was kill an immortal or rob a god."

Lash giggled, but fell silent. "My host... Harry, you are dying," she said.

"No, I hadn't noticed." I tried for sarcastic, but I think I landed somewhere around exhausted.

"Your soul is disintegrating. You burned too much, and now you are paying the price."

I just laughed, letting myself float. My body... My physical body was gone, now, I think. Burned away in the Soulfire. And this form was what was left of my soul. I glanced down to see my body shattering a little bit at a time. "Well... Looks like this is the end of the line. Good knowing you, Lash." Lash didn't respond, and I hoped she hadn't disappeared. That would have sucked, not being able to chat with someone while I died. But she drew from my soul, so it made sense, I guess.

And then a pale light shone in the darkness above. I focused my weary eyes on it, and it took shape into a human figure. "Oh, hello," I murmured. "What are you doing here?" It floated down in front of me, reaching out. "You're... a soul," I mumbled. It was pale and flickering - dying. It reached out for my hand. "You sure? If we merge... I don't even know what'll happen. Or if we can."

Still, I took the hand and felt something inside me strengthen.


I opened my eyes and then immediately shut them. Turned out someone had the great idea to make things about twice as bright as they should be. "Ow," I declared, then realized that I wasn't dying any more. "Lash?" I mumbled. "Am I..."

It seems so, my host. Her voice was a welcome sight - er, welcome sound. She sounded perfectly normal, if a bit worried. You are alive, if a bit...different.

'Lash,' I groaned silently, 'don't say things like that. You know how that makes me feel.' I cautiously opened my eyes again. Hopefully the powers that be had turned down the lights in the last few seconds.

I found myself staring at a florescent light bulb. That gave out a tiny little pop and died a second later. Yep, good ol' anti-tech field is still active. The fact that I was even staring at something like that filled me with a strange mixture of relief and unease. For one, I was locked on the other side of the Gates, and they couldn't be opened any more, I'd made sure of that. So either I was insane -

While I doubt you'd notice the difference, you're as close to sane as you get, Harry.

- or I was in some weird fever dream. A few other pops sounded and the light level died to an acceptable brightness, so I started to examine the room. White walls and ceiling, hanging drapes, a machine that seemed to have funny lines flickering across it, though it seemed to be having...problems...

'Lash?' I asked, doing my level best to stay calm. 'Am I in a HOSPITAL?'

I believe so, she confirmed, bringing my panic level from Defcon Three to Two. I became aware only moments before you woke up, which would explain why the lights and machines are only now starting to fail.

"I have to get out of here," I muttered, forcing myself to sit up. The pain from my entire body was a huge red flag, since that meant it was either enough to get through the Mantle of Winter, or my magic was being suppressed. 'Lash, is that you?'

It is. I've taken the liberty to attempt to restrain your magic as much as possible, she told me. It helps that your willpower was entirely drained. If you remain calm and move quickly, you should be able to get out of the hospital before it becomes too powerful.Just the fact that she could do that would have been terrifying if I'd known about it back when she was trying to corrupt me. Now, though, I knew she was only able to suppress my magic because I was giving her permission.

'Roger that.' I pushed through the pain and stood up. My head felt dizzy for a second, and I swayed before getting my land legs again. 'Um... I feel shorter. Am I supposed to feel shorter?'

I will explain what I am aware of once we are outside.

I shrugged and looked around the room, removing the electrodes attached to my skin. With a quiet hiss of pain I slid the IV out of my arm, ripping the bloody needle off and glaring at it. If I was lucky, I'd be able to find some clothes somewhere and not have to wear this ugly hospital gown outside. For once, my typical terrible luck didn't hold, and I found a white shirt and jeans folded in a closet. After getting dressed and collecting the hospital gown and IV, I glanced at the window, then shook my head. I couldn't use Winter's Mantle, and my body was already damaged. A fall would be too much. I took a deep breath and opened the door to my room, ignoring the way my body ached with every movement.

Stepping outside, I was immediately greeted by a hallway; I glanced left and right and just decided to keep moving. Even though Lash was trying to keep my magic down, if I hung around and gawked I could still blow out a heart monitor or something. I glanced at one of the name cards on the wall beside a door, but couldn't read the moon runes. Then I blinked and the names were written in English. I smiled slightly and made a mental note to thank Lash later before running through another of the meditation exercises I'd learned as an apprentice.

In, out. In, out, I told myself as I wandered through the halls, looking for either a way out or a map that told me where I was. Lucky for me, I found the latter. Unlucky for me, a quick glance told me I was on the third floor. After a second a red line traced itself on the map. This should be the fastest way out, Lash informed me. You should still hurry, though I took care to ensure that we avoided the emergency ward.

'Good thinking', I told her as I memorized the route and started moving again. 'Now, all we have to do is get out of here without getting in trouble and we'll be golden.'

A nurse stepped out of a room just as I was approaching it and turned before starting. She started saying something that I couldn't comprehend a word of, and then mid-sentence I could understand her. "-oing up? Sir, where are you going?"

"Checking myself out," I said easily. "Have a nice day."

I started to move past her, but she reached out and grabbed my arm. "I'm sorry, but rules state that a patient must be -" My rising impatience must have made my magic strain against Lash's restraints, because the lightbulb right above us started glowing so brightly it literally shattered, raining glass shards down on the two of us. "Eek!"

"Sorry, gotta go," I murmured, tearing away and hurrying down the hall. Damn it Harry, keep your cool. Just gotta get outside and then figure out what's going on.

Imagine a can of soda. That can of soda is always being filled, a little bit at a time. That's kinda how my magic was - and when it spilled over, technology was affected. Now, imagine that the can was sealed. Now nothing's spilling out, and technology is fine. That was basically how the suppression spell worked. The only problem, and the reason I didn't rely on it if I didn't have to, is that the can never stops being filled. That means that the pressure inside the can is always being increased, more and more. Eventually, the seal will break, and things will end poorly. Which, if I didn't hurry, would mean my magic would burst out and fry every piece of electronics in the building.

I was able to slip downstairs and past the rest of the well-meaning nurses; the hallways were a little busier on the first floor, but everyone was minding their own business. That's it, pay no attention to the six-foot man hurrying outside in a hospital gown. Just keep doing your thing. I tried to avoid thinking about what would happen if my magic exploded out right now, when I was in the center of the hospital.

Lash sighed. Shouldn't you be focused on keeping your cool?

'Hey,' I argued, 'you know me. Cool as a cucumber. If I were any cooler, I'd be able to freeze -' Beside me, I heard a machine start beeping loudly as it malfunctioned, followed swiftly by a yelp of surprise. 'Okay, focusing now.' In, out. In, out.

I made my way through the halls and found myself in a wide open foyer. It was getting plenty of sunlight thanks to the massive glass doors on the other end of the room. My goal was in sight. All I had to do was make my way past all the people waiting in the room. And not get stopped by the well-meaning nurses. Stifling the urge to whistle jauntily, I ignored the looks that some people were sending my way. What? It's like they've never seen a guy running out of the hospital before.

I could feel my magic starting to push against Lash's control. Normally I'd be thrilled to have my power back, but right then it was gonna end really poorly. I could kill a TV set at a hundred paces just by looking at it funny, and with the amount of magic power I was used to handling nothing electronic managed to survive around me for long. Since I was in the hospital, full of delicate things keeping people alive, that would be pretty bad.

I was almost there, the doors were right ahead of me. I could see my freedom! Just a little bit more and then I could figure out just what the hell was going on.

I opened the door and stepped outside, just as Lash let go of my magic. I let loose a sigh of relief as Winter's Mantle reasserted itself and the aches and pains went away. 'That's better,' I told Lash. 'Thanks.' I tried my best to ignore how pretty much everybody talking on their cell phone had winced as my magic was released outwards, away from the hospital. I think I saw a traffic light flicker, but it rallied like a champ.

Of course, she said graciously. Now, may I suggest you find some warmer clothes? A veil will work, but you would still feel the chill. A pair of warm arms wrapped around my chest, her body pressing into my back, and I rolled my eyes. And I can only do so much, she whispered.

'Cute,' I told her. With a quick focus of my will and a muttered, "Vestimentum," a veil sprang up around me, making it look like I was wearing my regular clothes, duster and glove included. It was a handy spell that I'd developed a few years ago that worked pretty well despite me being not exactly great when it came to veils. Looking left and right, I blinked and sighed. I had no idea where I was, so any direction was as good as any other one. 'Mind filling me in while I wander?'

Certainly. First and foremost, I believe that we are not in our creation anymore.

What.

I stumbled at her announcement and blinked before catching myself. 'What?' Yeah, I can see why she wanted to wait to tell me. If she'd laid that one on me while I was in the hospital, I could have blown the whole building's circuits. 'How is that possible?'

Do you remember, Harry, when your soul was fragmenting? The other soul that approached us and offered -

Lash cut off suddenly as a firm hand gripped my upper arm. I bit off a curse as I whirled, clenching a fist, to see a woman holding me. She was wearing a labcoat with a more common pant, shirt, and tie combo underneath, which was a bit odd. Usually people went with one or the other, not both. Her silver hair and grey eyes were a bit striking, but what really caught my attention was the decidedly unamused glare on her face.

Beside us, a man cursed suddenly as his cellphone let out a pop and died. There was a faint smell of smoke in the air. Oops.

"There you are," the woman sighed. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing, Minato?"

I blinked, staring at her. There were so many things wrong with that sentence, I was dumbfounded. Fortunately for my reputation, my mouth runs on autopilot. "Oh, just taking a light stroll," it said. "It's a nice day out."

The woman watched me for a second, and then sighed, shaking her head. "Fuck, but I need a cigarette," she muttered. "Come on, let's go. I was heading to a meeting when the hospital called, saying you disappeared, and the meeting isn't exactly something I can blow off." She sighed again. "I guess I'll just be doing a tele-conference in the car instead. And if he doesn't like it, he can just suck it up and deal with it."

She started walking, all but dragging me along with her. After a second of stunned surprise, I pulled my arm free. "Um," I said intelligently, then trailed off as I noticed something very important. She'd grabbed my left arm, and in pulling free I caught sight of my hand. There was something wrong.

Namely, there wasn't.

My left hand had been a mass of burned flesh ever since I ran into a vampire with a flamethrower – another Wednesday, I think, come to think of it – and though it was healing steadily thanks to my wizardly wizardness, it was still enough to make me swear off hamburger for the next week or two every time I saw it. This hand was perfectly normal.

The woman stopped and looked at me as I stared at my undamaged hand. "What on Earth are you doing, Minato?"

My host... Lash broke in, sounding amused. I should take this time to mention that you should probably look at your reflection.

I didn't know why she wanted me to look at myself, since I knew what I looked like. Like a hobo that hadn't shaved for at least a week, only twice as bad. Still, she nudged the muscles in my neck and I gave in, turning to look at the nearest window.

Someone completely different looked back at me.

Oh.

Super.

I believe that when you merged with that soul, enough of its 'self' had died that it was essentially... filler, as it were. As such, your consciousness is now inhabiting the body of this boy. Your physical body is his, now. We were fortunate that your magic is tied to your soul and not body, but I'm afraid that is the only thing that crossed over.

I just stared, ignoring the sharp words of the woman that had tried dragging me off. The clothes were mine; if I turned my head and squinted, the messy black hair could almost pass. But the face was foreign. I was never the traditional image of handsome – those genes went to my half-brother – and if pressed people might charitably call me scruffy-looking. This body, on the other hand, might almost be handsome, in a boyish sort of way. I wouldn't know – despite what those hairdressers at Thomas's salon think, I am very much not attracted to men. 'So what you're saying is,' I began slowly, 'we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto?'

I don't believe so, no. If anything, you'd be closer to an Outsider that has taken over this body - willingly given, of course. Because that was really what we had to worry about, here. From the language written and spoken, we are likely in this world's version of Japan.

I narrowed my eyes, watching the unfamiliar face mimic my expression. 'Just fantastic. I'm on the other side of the world in a completely different dimension, a woman that apparently knows who I used to be is trying to drag me somewhere, my EVERYTHING hurts, and to top it all off I look like I'm twenty.'

I believe you are nineteen, actually. I caught a brief glimpse of your medical chart as we were leaving the room.

Could this get any worse? 'I'm nineteen in someone else's body!'

You could be fifteen, I suppose,Lash mentioned idly.

Empty night. Have I mentioned that I really hate Wednesdays?

'So who's the woman?' I asked Lash absently, still trying to deal with the sudden loss of about half a foot and all the scars I'd managed to pick up over my long and illustrious career as punching bag for everything that had a beef with humans. I flexed my hand. It felt weird to feel it move without the stiffness. And to be able to look at it without losing my appetite. 'And why'd she call me Minato?'

If I were to guess, Lash said, the mother of Minato Sahashi. Your mother, in other words.

I felt my heart skip a beat. Mom. The closest thing I'd ever had to knowing my mom was her voice thanks to something she left behind. The message she'd left behind in Thomas's soul, and the gem that fit into my pentagram. Things I'd never have again.

A mother's touch is important. Our mothers are the final line of defense as children, the ones that protect us from the things that go bump in the night. I never knew mine. And now the only things I had to remind me of her were gone.

I didn't realize I could miss something I'd never had as much as I did right then. I looked at the reflection and grimaced. That wasn't me. That was someone that was dead, and I was just wearing his body. 'Lash... Could you...' In a heartbeat, my reflection flickered. When I looked again, it showed me. Young Harry, how I'd looked when I was actually nineteen. 'Neat trick. Thank you, Lash.'

A beautiful woman appeared in the reflection next to me. Lash, the shadow of the fallen angel Lasciel. She could take on any form she wanted, since her appearance was just her playing with my brain to make me think I was seeing an attractive blonde in the window's reflection, but she tended to favor the tall and athletic look, wearing a Greek toga that fell to her knees. Of course, Harry, she said. I knew that if I looked to the side she could make me see her, but I just smiled. After a heartbeat, she vanished.

I turned back to the woman. "Sorry about that," I said, cutting off what she was saying. "Let's take this from the top. You are...?"

She sighed, pressing a hand to her forehead. "Very much regretting I left my cigarettes in the car... We'll talk once you're back in the hospital."

"Uh-uh," I said immediately. "That's a bad idea."

"And why, exactly, are you refusing?" she demanded. "Christ, I don't need this right now..."

I sighed. "Because all the expensive electronics in that place are kinda important and I'd rather not break them all. Can we just... find a place to talk about this that's not on the street?" People were starting to give us looks. Jealous of my fashion sense, obviously.

Obviously, Lash snorted.

'Quiet, you.'

The woman sighed again and shook her head. "Oh, whatever. Come on, we'll talk in the car." I shrugged. It was better than standing around in the street, even though there was a good chance the car would break down within minutes.

I followed her down the street, back toward the hospital. The woman stopped next to a car that could feasibly pass as a limo. "Get in and we'll talk. By the way, what happened to your clothes? I know I've never seen you wear anything like that before."

"Magic," I said wisely, and then opened the door for her. She raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything else and got in.

I got in after her and closed the door behind me. The car was comfortable, but the air conditioning immediately cut out a few seconds later. The woman looked irritated and tapped on the glass separating the back of the car from the front and said something when the glass slid to the side. After a few seconds, she sat back, scowling even harder. I very carefully didn't say anything about it being my fault.

"Ah? Who have we here, Takami?"

I glanced at the car's other occupant out of the corner of my eye. I had noticed her when I got in, of course; it would be impossible not to notice someone like her. Long, pale gray hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, and her grey eyes were narrowed with interest. I was very careful not to let our eyes meet; her small smile sent shivers down my spine. It was like looking at Mab smile. She was wearing a long grey coat with a strange symbol on its lapel, though she didn't have her arms through the sleeves. Under the coat was a... very flattering black leather top that hugged her body and made sure everyone was aware of every curve. Her black miniskirt was just barely long enough to qualify as clothing, and her stockings covered most of her skin but left a small swath of creamy flesh between the top of the stocking and the bottom of the skirt. She was a very attractive woman - not inhumanely beautiful in the way of the Fae, but unearthly; she could definitely give a White Court succubus a run for her money.

Possibly multiple White Court members, though for the sake of the plurals involved I hope not.

Oh, Harry, Lash sighed. So I notice these things. What of it?

Still, I wasn't relaxed, a shouted command away from starting to throw fire everywhere. That would be because of the large sword she was carrying across her lap.

It would also be because her aura was soaked with blood, so thick I could almost taste it. I resolved not to think about it until I was alone in a room, preferably with quick access to a toilet.

Sadly, this wasn't even the worst I'd ever dealt with. That fact alone said way too much about what my daily life was like.

"Karasuba, this is my son Harry. Harry, Karasuba," the woman - Takami, apparently - said before pulling out a thin laptop from somewhere in her lab coat. I was going to say something, but she opened it up and it started running no problem. Which was weird, since the car's AC system already died and the laptop was both closer to me and more delicate. I'd managed to fry at least ten phones just by standing on the sidewalk, so how was it that the laptop was still running? "Harry, we'll talk after I have my meeting."

I shrugged. It wasn't really like I had anything better to do. 'By the way, Lash, thanks for automatically using my name when you translate this.'

It involves no extra work, she murmured. And I thought you'd appreciate it.

'You thought right.' I coughed and looked at Karasuba. She disturbed me on several levels. First off, I'm pretty sure that carrying a sword around like that wasn't exactly normal. And there was that smile. It was a calm smile, almost cheerful in a way. Coupled with what I could sense of her tainted aura, it brought to mind that time when Mab pulled string after string to manipulate Nicodemus to wasting the favor she had owed him while at the same time ensuring that he sacrificed everything while only obtaining the bare minimum that would fulfill her end of the agreement.

In other words, that smile was spooky and I didn't like it.

"Is there something on my face?" It took me a second to realize she was talking to me. "...Harry?"

I bristled at the disdain in her voice. The car's engine sputtered for a second before resuming business as usual. Takami didn't even notice, and her laptop didn't flicker for a second. Seriously, what was up with it? That thing should have given up and started whistling Dixie a while ago. "Just wondering what's up with the sword," I said once I had my temper back at reasonable levels. "I mean, I'm pretty sure the whole Kill Bill thing went out of style a while ago."

"Is that so?" Karasuba mused. "Are you saying you'd like to see it bared?"

"Not until after the first date," I replied promptly. She blinked, and then laughed politely. Somehow, I don't think she was amused despite my well-documented sense of humor; the sudden surge of killing intent that accompanied the laugh seconded that thought.

Laughter's an important sound to us humans. One type of laughter is good laughter. It's something that comes from the soul, from that place deep within us that makes us who we are. It can warm our hearts and set us at ease. It reminds us of the good things in life, like friends, family, and a bottle of Mac's beer.

That kind of laughter, I didn't hear much in my line of work.

The second kind of laughter comes from something inhuman. It comes out twisted and dark, a funhouse-mockery of what laughter should be. It twists the insides and raises the hair on the back of our necks because we know that whatever's making that sound isn't human. It's missing something in it that we hear in our laughs, something that we seek out instinctively. It's easy enough to experience it first-hand – just go to the nearest zoo and listen to a hyena laugh.

Safer than tickling an ogre, at any rate.

Karasuba's laugh was the third kind of laugh, the kind of laugh that comes from kids that don't know any better and from cruel adults that want to crush their opponents, see them grovel before them. It was a laugh that was full of hatred and disdain. I swallowed. "You're frightened, aren't you?" she asked, watching me out of the corner of her eyes.

"Sure am," I said easily. "But honestly, I've dealt with nastier things than you." Sure, she seemed dangerous. Probably one of the more dangerous people I'd met, in terms of how quickly she'd kill me if given half an excuse. But I'd tangled with Walkers from the Outside, and after dealing with Saruman, a Ringwraith just didn't really rate. "Hell's bells, you're not even the scariest thing I've had to deal with today. So how about you calm down before I show you exactly what I did to those things?"

It wasn't exactly a bluff. When it came to her, my Wizard sense was tingling. She was definitely powerful, I could sense that ever since I sat down in the car. Whatever she was, she wasn't human, and that let me fight without having to worry about breaking the Rules. Still, if we had to throw down in the car I'd probably be at a disadvantage without my duster or any of my magical gizmos, and to make things worse Takami was still glaring at her screen. If I got into a fight, she'd be dragged into it.

"How brave," Karasuba murmured, her smile widening even more. At this point, her eyes were crinkled into thin slits. "Perhaps you'll be an entertaining one to fight..."

Magic answered my call as I tensed, ready to attack or defend myself, and for a heartbeat we sat frozen, watching each other and waiting for someone to make the first move. Then we were interrupted by Takami's heavy sigh. She sighed a lot, I'd noticed. "Oh, for the love of... Damn it, Minaka, I've told you a hundred times! That won't work and you know it!"

"But Takami!" another voice whined. "It'd be so much fun!"

Karasuba and I paused in our posturing and eyed Takami. She was glaring daggers at the laptop. Whatever was happening, it was definitely pissing her off. Which didn't seem to take much. Maybe being pissed off was her natural state. Takami just snorted. "You're only suggesting this again because I'm not there in person to hit you over the head."

I glanced at Karasuba. "Does this happen often?"

Her smile faded and the bloodlust went down a bit, letting me relax my grip on my magic. It faded away and I sat a little more comfortably in my seat. "She's your mother. You tell me."

I just looked away. My mother was dead, and Takami hadn't done much to endear herself to me. "You know what?" the woman snapped. "Fine. I don't even care anymore. Do whatever the hell you want." With a final burning glare - I'm surprised that the laptop hadn't burst into flames from her glare either - she slammed it closed and tucked the laptop back into wherever she'd been storing it before. "Hah... God damn asshole..." She shook her head. "Alright. Now that that's taken care of, Harry, would you care to explain exactly what you were thinking, running away from the hospital in your condition?"

I sighed. Looks like we were back to that. "Like I told you, there's important machines in there, and I'd rather not accidentally blow up a life support machine."

Takami looked at me like I'd grown a second head. "What are you talking about?"

"Magic," I told her seriously.

She waited, but that was all I was going to give her. "They mentioned there might be head trauma," she muttered under her breath, pressing the heel of her palm to her forehead, "but I think this is pushing it."

"Now that we've established that I wasn't running away for the exercise," I said, "can it be my turn to ask some questions?" Takami just waved at me with her free hand. "Okay, I think we'll start things off with who exactly are you?"

That question managed to startle Takami, her already pale face going whiter. "What?"

I was pretty sure I hadn't stuttered, and I trusted Lash's translation. "I'm sorry, but I have no idea who you are. The only reason I know your name is because the Bride here said it." Karasuba barked out a short laugh.

"This is unreal..." Takami closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. "Can you remember anything? Anything at all?"

I shrugged. I could remember plenty of things, but if I told her any of them I'd probably be committed. Or attacked by Karasuba. Either way, it wasn't like I could tell them I was really 40-odd years old and from a different dimension.

So I went with Option B: play stupid. 'Don't say a word, Lash,' I told her preemptively.

Lash giggled. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that you'd do more than merely play stupid, Harry.

Grumble, grumble, grumble, stupid fallen angels. Is it too late to trade this one out for a newer model?

"Fantastic," Takami muttered. "Amnesia... I knew we should have taken you to one of our centers..." She shook her head. "Karasuba, it looks like our plans are going to be canceled. You can go ahead without me."

"My, my," Karasuba drawled, obviously amused by this whole fiasco. "If you're certain I can be let off the leash, I will leave you two to your... mother-son bonding, then. Have fun..." With a final smile, she moved past me to open the car door and let herself out. I made sure not to actually touch her – I might have been able to keep from gagging earlier, but if she touched me, I wasn't sure what would happen.

For a while after Karasuba left, Takami and I sat in silence. Eventually she shook her head. "We might as well start moving while I start talking." She leaned forward and said something to whoever was driving.

"Where are we going?" The engine of the car had managed to survive my presence and veil, though the stereo system had given up the ghost sometime between when Karasuba and I started getting into a pissing match now.

"Your apartment," Takami said.

On the way to the apartment, Takami filled me in on everything 'I' had forgotten. 'I' - that is to say, Minato Sahashi - was a college-age student struggling to actually make it into college. The entrance tests were fairly rigorous, it seemed, and I'd failed to make the grade the first time around. So I'd attended a prep school and studied hard in order to make it into school again. Only there had been an accident. Three days ago, a day before the test, I'd been in a traffic accident, and sunk into a coma. According to Takami, I had struck my head against the pavement, and the doctor had warned her there was the possibility for a shift in personality or other brain problems.

I very studiously ignored Lash's comments on the latter half of that.

Thanks to the accident I'd missed the entrance test. Which was probably a blessing in disguise - I was the proud owner of a hard-earned G.E.D., which meant that college was probably a little out of my wheelhouse. Besides, what's learning trigonometry compared to learning how to harness the mystical forces of magic? At least, that was my excuse when I was blowing off school.

As for the family side of things, Takami worked for some pharmaceutical company, and given the way she was giving Karasuba orders she had to be fairly high up there in the chain of command. The way she was very carefully avoiding telling me the name of the company she worked for was a small red flag; you don't survive among the Winter Court without learning how to smell a dodge from a mile away, after all. Being able to dance over the frozen corpse of anyone that offended Mab was pretty high on the resume too, but I don't think that's going to be very applicable here.

After a brief interruption where she answered a call on her cell and proceeded to run rough-shod over anything the person on the other side was trying to say, she told me about my sister Yukari, who was a year younger than me. That was a weird thing to learn; I'd only had a half-brother before, and he was an incubus. We only met when we were both fully grown, which meant that I grew up without having a sibling at all. But Minato had grown up with Yukari.

He'd also grown up without a father – apparently, he left after Yukari was born.

Good to know that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

She showed me a picture on her phone - it was of her, Yukari, and Minato when they were just kids. Something deep inside me stirred when I saw that picture. They looked like such a happy family, Yukari in her pink shirt throwing up a V as she beamed at the camera. Minato seemed a little shocked that the picture was being taken. Takami was smiling, arms around her children. When I asked her what happened to her hair - it matched Yukari's and Minato's color in the picture - she just laughed and said it wasn't polite to mention something like that to a woman.

Before long, we arrived at the apartment. It was a pretty run-down place, but it looked cheap, the kind of place a poor college student would have rented. It reminded me a lot of where I used to stay, actually, before Malcone converted it into an anti-everything magical bunker. Unlike my old apartment, though, this one was on the second floor, which meant it was going to be difficult to set up a workshop. It was about as small as my old apartment; there was a small table in the center of the room and a ratty couch off to the side, with a few bookcases along the wall. There was a small kitchenette next to the door, and I did my best to stay far away from the fridge. It would be difficult to explain why the fridge died just because I walked near it - and besides, there might be food in there. I seriously doubted it, but a man can dream, can't he?

A cursory exploration found a bathroom and shower off to the side and a second room behind a sliding door. There was a small TV on a stand, but more importantly a closet with clothes in it that looked like they'd fit me. As I was prowling, Takami had to take a call outside, so while she was outside talking on the phone I let the veil drop with a sigh of relief. I was just no good at the things, and it was a struggle to keep that one going for as long as I had. I eyed the hospital gown and then sighed, balling it up and dropping it on the floor. I'd burn it and the needle the first chance I got, just in case there were other practitioners about. I slid the second door closed just as Takami came in. "So how about it?" she asked. "Anything seem familiar?"

I took another second to look around the room, then shook my head. "Nope. It's like I've never been here before."

She frowned. "Hm... Look, Harry, I've got work. Here..." She dug in her labcoat and pulled out a wallet. She rifled through it before handing me a few bills. "This should cover dinner for tonight and breakfast tomorrow. I'll take you around town, and we'll see if anything seems familiar." She paused, but I just nodded. "Harry, I..." Her phone rang again, and she grabbed it. "What?" she snapped. "...Oh, for - I'm coming. I'll be right there." She snapped the phone shut and pocketed it again. "I've got to go. I'll see you tomorrow."

I was already moving to open the door for her. "I'll see you then," I said.

She gave me another look, and then stopped just outside the door. "And Harry... I'm glad you're okay." I managed a weak smile and she left. I closed the door behind her.

The light in the room exploded, plunging me into darkness.

"Just great," I sighed. "Lash, could you, please?"

Immediately after I asked her, it was like a light switch was flicked in my brain. I knew it was still dark in the room, but to me it looked like the lights had turned on. I turned around to see her daintily picking her way through the glass shards on the floor and table, not moving a single one. Not surprising, since she only existed in my mind, but still irritating. After crossing the glass-littered carpet, she sat down on the couch and folded her legs, looking around with interest. "It's rather small," she said finally. "But I suppose we couldn't ask for anything better."

I grunted something vaguely related to English as I opened a window to let some real light in and searched for something to clean the glass up with. "So, what do you think about... all this?" I asked.

"The first thing that comes to mind is that this isn't our creation," she sighed. "We are the Outsiders here, and everything I've seen seems to suggest that had you not shared your soul with Minato Sahashi, we would not be corporeal right now. Much in the same way the Walker was only visible in reflections the first time you encountered it," she added after a second. "What has interested me is the technology this world seems to possess."

"Yeah, I noticed that too," I said, sweeping up the glass shards with the dustbin I'd found under the sink. "You're talking about how Takami's phone and laptop were working even after everything else broke, right? 'Cause that was weird. Maybe it's got some sort of new circuits or something."

"Perhaps," she nodded, then frowned. "There is one other thing, my host. That... woman in the car."

I paused, then frowned. Karasuba. The aura of blood around her wasn't new. I'd encountered places like that, places so seeped in bloodshed and death that it'd become part of the aura. I'd even run into a few people with that kind of aura, mainly warlocks and the Knights of the Denarii. And if that wasn't a glowing review of her character, I didn't know what was. But there was something else, not covered by the blood she was soaked in. "She wasn't human, was she? She was something like..." I trailed off and scowled. "Actually, I have no idea what she was," I admitted. "I've never seen anything that gave off that kind of magical wavelength. Have you?"

She sighed. "I have not either, and that is what bothers me. I am not... used to not recognizing things." She smiled after that. "I look forward to learning as much as I can about them."

"Well, Karasuba was definitely bad news," I muttered. "Seriously, she gave me the creeps. She works with Takami, though, so... I guess we might see her again." Then I shrugged as I sat on the couch next to Lash. "Well, I try not to let homicidal maniacs ruin my day, so I think I'll get over it."

Lash smiled. "As resilient as ever. For the moment, however, I believe you should look into finding a place to eat. Your body has, after all, been in a coma for several days now." Which reminded me. With a wave of my hand, the hospital gown and IV needle burst into flames. I was careful not to let it spread, though, and a quick Ventas Servitas blew the smoke and ashes out of the window.

I groaned and stood up. "Might as well. Then we can see to setting some wards up." The threshold on the apartment wasn't fantastic, but it was still there. And I was feeling a little vulnerable without my suite of wards protecting the door.

After all, it might be paranoid, but that didn't mean there weren't monsters like Karasuba roaming the streets.


HM! What's this?!

It's a crossover, that's what this is. Now, my last 'foray' into crossovers ended in a spectacular failure. With luck, this story won't end up the same. That being said, my attitude towards this story is back and forth between "I'll do okay, just make sure I focus on making it a good story" and "Oh holy fuck what the fucking fuck am I doing there is no way this is going to end well this is going to be a shitty story just like Shared Strength ohfuckohfuckohfuck." Which is fun. Unlike Shared Strength this oneisa passion project, so if it crashes and burns...

I am also apparently incapable of taking a break between stories so... yeah.

Anyway, I had this idea after binging through the Sekirei manga for the second or third time and reading over my favorite segments of a few Dresden books (particularly, the Harry vs Sharkboy scene). What really sparked it was the realization that winging the Sekirei was supposed to 'fix' what was wrong with the Ashikabi… Though that's not quite right. Perhaps it would be better to say winging the Sekirei draws out the best of the Ashikabi. Regardless, I got to thinking, the winging is kinda like sharing the soul (it's basically a marriage ritual, right?) and Harry's magic comes from the soul, and then things just… spiraled out of control from there.

Before anyone says anything – and I know this will come up – this story's been in the works for a long time. Since 2014, actually; that's why Lash is the 'brain parasite'. Skin Game wasn't out yet, we didn't know that the parasite was actually his and Lash's daughter; and with the way Lash left him the gift of being able to play guitar (or hear good music when playing guitar, it's not very clear especially given the nature of Lash) I figured that she was the source, just lying dormant. Harry heals from the brain damage over time, and Lash comes back. By the time Skin Game came out, the rough outlines of the story were set in stone, especially with Harry and Lash's interactions, and I like their dynamic too much to restructure the characters. I have, however, tried to incorporate the events of Skin Game where it would make sense.

Anyway, feedback is greatly appreciated – Harry's voice is steadfastly refusing to come to me, so I'm doing my best with what I have. Still, I feel iffy about it, so any suggestions on how to make Harry sound more Harry-like would be appreciated.

As for the contents of this chapter, it was entirely setting the stage. How Harry gets to the Sekirei-verse, and what's going on. More details will be coming in later chapters, especially related to how he's interacting with his new family. So far there's no call for a M rating, though if that changes in the future then so will the rating.

As always, thoughts and suggestions are welcomed, though I reserve the right to ignore them and do my own thing.