So, there we were, wildly outnumbered by rag-tag group of murderous fairies and facing a quartet of H.R. Geiger's answer to how to make a My Little Pony. My companions were engaged in various states of combat as they struggled to keep the wave after wave of doom as directed by Disney away from the barely chugging hippy wagon. We at least had the advantage of poor aerodynamic construction on our side, the thick ferrous sides of the bus limiting the potential points of egress into the bus to the windows. The Russians were firing so wildly they seemed likely to run out of ammunition at any moment.
I barely noticed the rest of the fight as the Nuckelavee charged, bearing halberds nearly as large as the bus we were riding in. The wizard Harry Dresden would have been terrified. The god Harry Dresden was almost positive that he was going to lose this fight and watch his friends die. The mantle of the Lord Warden Dre'su'den the Ha'ri, empowered by the belief of an entire planet worth of worshippers?
It was 1000% down for what was coming, and I'd broken the dam I'd placed upon it in my mind when I'd tapped into it in the Nevernever. Power rippled along my arms, shattering the chainmail between my gauntlets and pauldron as my porcelain skin shimmered and boiled. Ugly black lines of starlight rippled within my veins, spreading out in a spidery pattern as I braced my staff in my elbow, pointing it up and at the nearest of the Nuckelavee as it swung down with a massive halberd. The galloping beast was having little difficulty in catching the ancient bus as my brother weaved it through traffic. Long, skinless, and sinewy the beast's footfalls made the earth shake beneath us as though we were in an earthquake.
I stared into the creature's hateful, frenzied human face and grimaced at the sight of it. It was foul, even for a monster of the Nevernever. What might have once been mortal meat was twisted and corpulent with disease, the hale red of the creature's flensed chest met what at first might have appeared to be a mask but was truly a massive concoction of festering boils and rotting pustules around the creature's burning eyes and jagged, broken teeth. The overpowering scent of burning sick and melting human tallow permeated the air as I watched the halberd descend, waiting till it was feet from the roof of the bus before bellowing, "Arietius."
I had not spent the previous year just sitting idly by and feeling sorry for myself in my palace. I'd been training, learning and planning. I had a library of fifteen thousand years' worth of magic to learn, and be damned if I hadn't just been inclined to take a peek. Did you know, for example, that the ancient Egyptian gods found a way to compress entire, complex spells down to the inscriptions within a single hieroglyph? Or that multiple hieroglyphs can be inscribed upon a single object with overlapping lines in order to pool, multiply, and exponentially increase the effects when they are finally released? For example, when I'd made the elaborate staff in my hand I'd use a combination of my own existing runes and magic predating any written histories I'd ever seen and interwoven them. Seven hundred and seventy-seven overlapping runes were laid upon my staff, each individual cluster of runic kinetic collectors individually capable of storing what my old force rings had been capable of wholesale. Do you know what even one tenth of that amount of Kinetic force can do when it's unleashed? Do you know what happens when half is unleashed?
The Nuckelavee did – that's for sure.
The roof of the bus blasted off the moving vehicle entirely as a tsunami of kinetic force tore fourth from my staff, months' worth of collected kinetic energy thrusting out like a battering ram. The putrid, burning giant exploded into a shower of rotting meat and plague-ridden viscera as the roof of the bus hit it at super-sonic speeds. Long horse-legs tore from the towering body and flew around willy-nilly, massive bulk crushing cars and homes even as the fairy dissolved into ectoplasm. The Nuckelavee behind it was able to move out of the way, but only just so – screaming in agony as the ferrous projectile tore the creature's left arm from its socket to leave a smoking crater of burning vitriol pouring from the creature's open wound.
I laughed. It came to me easily, a long and manic laugh that sounded less like my own and more like the demented cackling of a man committed. It was hollow, dark, and echoing in a way that was eerie even for the metallic basso of the Goa'uld. I couldn't stop laughing. I didn't even want to stop laughing. The narcotic power of the mantle's belief flowed in my veins, opiate thrumming encouraging me to greater violence.
I wanted this power – needed it to defeat the Nuckelavee. It was my power, earned. The part of me that was Harry Dresden knew that this was the mantle's will, not my own, but it just felt so good to let it happen. I barely even noticed as my feet left the ground, a glowing nimbus of starlight and lightning lifting me from the floor of the bus to hover high enough to have an unobstructed view of those who dared try to assassinate a god.
"What the fuck?" The Major shouted, covering his head as the laws of physics seemed to cease to apply to me. He looked to the Colonel in the apparent hope that he might get more clarity from his commanding officer but found little relief from his superior officer. Zukhov was otherwise engaged up in the act of stabbing a butterfly winged monstrosity with a long purple tongue that spat caustic sparkles, and not predisposed to noticing anything beyond his immediate issue of personal safety.
Thunder rumbled in the skies, clouds filling the previously pristine air of Cairo. I whooped, my endless cackling howls of joy interspersed between every word as I screeched a challenge to the fairies, an unnatural sense of glee filling me as I considered the danger to life and limb. "Well come on then, there's still three of you and only one of me. Give me a challenge!"
"Warden," Ammit snarled, her voice edged with concern.
I ignored her, bobbing my head to the rhythm as I snapped my fingers, humming to the music as I faced danger with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Specifically, Queen.
Thump thump, clang. Thump thump, clang. I beat my staff against my chest and pauldron in time to the music, weaving will within the immortal words of words of Freddie Mercury. I've never been a particularly good singer. And while I'd like to claim that my mantle gave me some godly enhanced voice – no such luck. The deranged, near-homicidal metallic-echoes did little to improve the quality of my singing only gave the distinct impression that someone was playing a Queen album through a blender as I spoke the first words of my incantation. "Buddy you're a boy make a big noise…"
It was when I got as far as "noise" that I realized that the sorcerous thunder of the summoned storm was cracking in echo of my madman's melody. The skies broiled as a bolt of ensorcelled lightning came down on the "clang" of my pauldron, bright green energy colliding with the injured fairy. The monstrous creature crowed with agony, writhing on the ground as the dreadfully fulminous spell flensed the things muscles.
If felt good to use my power as I chanted the spell laced classic rock, summoning a rain of divine retribution upon the forces of Summer. Not just good. Food was good. Sex was good. This was beyond compare. I'd never actually done drugs, but this had to be what heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy felt like rolled up into one tasty package. The closest I'd come had been when a vampire of the Red Court had infected me with its saliva, but that hadn't been even a fraction of what this felt like. I didn't just feel powerful – that word wasn't good enough to describe it. I felt like a god.
Creatures of Summer were monsters magnificent in their beauty and warmth, the nightmares of my adult life, and they were nuisances to the mantle of the Lord Warden. I hovered above the bus, fixed in place as the now topless hippy wagon turned abruptly, tilting me on my nimbus as it struggled to match the tight angle Thomas was forcing it to take. One of the remaining Nuckelavee stabbed towards me with its halberd, aiming too low and cutting through the broiling nimbus as it reflexively elevated me from danger. I pointed my staff into the creature's eye, screaming "Rock you!" as the skies replied to my musically motivated magic. The electrical discharge came down from the sky, channeling through my body and out the tip of my staff as I tapped into it for another burst of pooled kinetic energy. The swirling tempest of kinetic energy pulped the beast's rotting head, tearing it from the creature's shoulders.
I got as far as "Sing it" when a stone dagger pierced my neck, crucifying my cutthroat conjuring karaoke. I ripped it out of my throat, stuffing it into my belt as I faced the direction of my attacker. A wizened looking goat man was riding a long tendril of flowering vine that appeared to have grown up from beneath his hooves, showering glowing petals in a seeming tsunami of living technicolor. His face was contorted in a look of abject hatred as he raced towards us, braying a furious challenge.
As the flesh of my neck knitted back together I caught a glimpse of three purple stoles hanging from the simple rope around the waist of his brown robe. Purple stoles, though they were frayed and faded with the passage of time, of the exact same make as those worn by members of the Senior Council of the White Council of wizards. The eldest and most dangerous Wizards on the planet earth, this guy had killed three of them.
He aimed a staff that felt all too familiar to me and brayed something that sounded vaguely Celtic. My helmet's visor reacted instantly, slamming shut as a concentrated stream of Summer's fire billowed towards us. I raised my defensive hand, bellowing "Defendarius!" to summon a spherical shield between us. Even tapping into my mantle, I struggled to extend the shield wide enough to protect the moving car from the overwhelming gout of flames. It was like someone had unleashed a small sun on us, oppressive heat leaking through even my enhanced version of my previous shield spell.
The magics I'd learned from the Goa'uld made ritual shielding device had informed my own defensive magics, allowing me to mitigate the effects of heat beyond any reasonable need to protect one's self from fire. The curly horned aggressor did not appear to feel the need to limit himself to what I'd previously considered reasonable.
I was sincerely worried that the crystal foci in my gauntlet's palm was going to rupture before the wave of flames gave out. Lucky for me – I hadn't come alone. There was a loud crack of gunfire before the goat man fell off his vine, braying in pain as branches grasped out slow his fall. I looked down at the bus in surprise to see Enlil whispering into the ear of Kincaid as the mercenary pointed his weapon in the direction of where the fairy aggressor had previously been.
Kincaid held out his hand and accepted a handful of something from Enlil before sitting back on the chair. The sullen god shook his head at the man's return to inaction, pulling his side-arm from and firing the Zat at an approaching fairy. At least one jewel encrusted braid was missing from the man's beard. My eye twitched I knew that Enlil wore a lot of jewelry but precisely how much had those jewels been worth to motivate the mercenary from inaction? The single stint I'd hired Kincaid gave me a ball park estimate of how many zeroes I could put behind an afternoon of that man's time.
It was a lot. I'd gotten a discount and it was still more money than I'd planned to earn in a career of private Wizarding. The man was wealthy enough that he didn't just have "fuck you" money, he had "fuck me" money. So I could comfortably put a whole bunch of zeros behind how much a braid worth of jewelry was worth.
But if that was the case, then the staff I was holding was probably more valuable than the operating budget of Chicago – possibly Illinois as a whole. I only mention that to provide context to exactly why it felt utterly bizarre to be smashing it across the face of a winged fairy that tried to take me out. Trust Harry Dresden to be given a fortune in gemstones and turn it into the word's gaudiest cudgel.
One of the creatures died with a piteous snapping of breaking muscle and sinew, dissolving into ectoplasm as I pointed my staff at one of the two remaining Nuckelavee, releasing all of my remaining stored kinetic energy at the giant equine monster. It didn't hit the beast quite as hard as I'd hit the first, but it was more than adequate to rip the horse-head from the creature's lower body. The malformed monster clutched at it's decapitated equine portion, desperately trying to force its innards to stay inside as the lower half spasmed and died.
As I considered the best route to assaulting the remaining Nuckelavee I felt a stabbing sensation of inquiry within my mind. Not a mental attack – more strangely direct, there was a voice pressing against the will of the Mantle. A reverent chant – the High Priestess Muminah was willing her worship to me, invoking words in the name of the Lord Warden. I tried to dismiss the insistent query, but I couldn't cast aside the pure sincerity of it. Just a single word, repeated over and over again. "Listen."
Ok, but to what? There were so many noises that between the gunfire, blaring horns, and spells one could hardly tell them apart. Was this just a generic prayer? No – it was too immediate, too precious a plea. The Priestess needed me to listen to something specific. But what?
Common sense suggested it was something that she was capable of hearing, so I tilted my head and did my best to listen. I'm pretty good at it actually, it's not magic – not really – but most people seem to lack the talent. I focused, raising my shield to give me a respite to the combat for a second as I separated out the individual noises.
Ammit – she was trying to get me to listen to Ammit. The Goddess was beneath the smoking pillar of etheric smoke, hopping up and down as she tried to grab me by the ankle. The saurian goddess was furious, bellowing, "Let go! You're going to get yourself killed – you need to let go!"
Let go? Of what? The only thing I was holding was my staff. I dismissed the suggestion as preposterous, flinging a wave of flames as the intoxicating power pumped through my star-flecked veins. Stars and stones this felt good.
"Let go of the mantle!" Ammit snarled. "You need to let go of the mantle!"
Preposterous – I scoffed at the very idea of it as the divinity vibrated from my very core, shivering in ecstasy as the spidery patterns of inky black spread out further and further along my arms. An icy shiver of power rumbled through me as I tapped deeper and deeper into the well of power, digging for something to end this fight. The mantle eagerly offered me power, sending a seductive sense of numb cold up my fingers that ought to have terrified me even as it turned my silver-white fire a sickly shade of green along the edges. It felt so good that I almost didn't even mind as the flesh around the veins began to rot and fall away from the exposed white bone.
"Damn it Warden, listen to me or we will all die. Me, Enlil, the Archive, your priestess and even your precious phage will die!" Ammit hissed. "You'll be dead and the rest of us won't be able to put up much of a fight long after."
"I'm the only thing protecting us!" I protested lamely as my shield hand shook, hunks of muscle falling from the bone of my arm at an alarming rate.
"You've been a god for less than a decade, I was alive in the time of Apep." Ammit snarled. "Stop arguing with me!"
I closed my eyes and tried to let go of the power. The mantle did not want to go. The Lord Warden Dre'su'den was exercising his will, and he would not be silenced easily. I found myself arguing with my own self-image, trying to offer it justifications to placate the collected will of the mantle. Self-preservation proved an entirely worthless reason not to be in the thick of things, as did avoiding harm to my compatriots. It ultimately took the implication that harm would befall a mortal, Muminah, for the well of power to recede in past my mental dam – disempowering me even as the cloud lowered me to the floor of the bus. I felt a stab of agony as inky black smoke pooled down from exposed bone as my flesh re-knit itself.
I looked from the no longer gaping wounds to Ammit, trying to articulate a sufficient mix of apology and thanks when I was abruptly ripped from the bus, full body whiplash running through me as I smacked against an invisible barrier put up in the bus' path – crushed like a bug on a windshield. As my bones snapped back into place I rose up in bafflement, lifting my broken body with my staff. I was in front of the entrance to the Marriott. I was outdoors. Sure, there was a fence around the property, but it was a damn hotel. It shouldn't have even had enough of a threshold to bother me.
Another wave of force hit me, shoving me up against the sheer surface of the threshold as the remaining Nuckelavee pinned me against it with his halberd, putting me in direct line of sight to the security guard as he casually exited the guard post. The overweight Egyptian man looked from me, to the bus that had stopped down the road – momentum having carried it a long way past the guard post even as Thomas had stomped his foot on the breaks. He snorted derisively as he eyed the people disembarking the bus and running towards us, seemingly unbothered by the scene unfolding around him.
He smiled at me, blinking in a way that exposed familiarly wide, black eyes beneath the skin mask imitating mortal form – several times too large for a human or even a vampire.
Svartalves, just perfect.