NOTICE: Yes, ladies and gents, I am back, and I have added two whole more scenes to this chapter, one of which should make the whole thing make more sense - in other words, Sif and Gravemoss don't appear totally at random, and the other of which is something of a bonus. I am working on chapter 45 as we speak.
Whoa... 100 reviews in about five days. You guys are amazing and I love you all.
And, yet again, my longest chapter ever at over 21,000 words. I did say I was going to be rounding off this arc in one chapter, so it was corresponding epic.
Dear god, that's 35,000 words in a week.
Okay, so, a few people have expressed concerns with a) the number of fandoms and b) the fact it's not Harry focused at the moment. These are reasonable concerns and I shall address them.
First, I realise that, since this isn't all published at once, it can be harder for people to get an idea what I'm doing.
In other words, it's harder to tell if I actually have a plan other than ramping up the action to the point of absurdity (which I'm actually not doing). I do. I really do. I don't intend to add any more fandoms, or indeed, more characters.
Or at least, not at the rate I've been doing. This story has functioned as something of an 'everybody meets everybody', and almost everyone who's everyone (at least, for the good guys) has been met or mentioned.
Also, Dresden is, while he gets a fair bit of screentime this chapter (unavoidable with first person, and that's how he works best as a character) going offscreen for a good long while. He'll appear every now and then, but will mostly be referenced and little more.
Aside from Coulson, who will have a key role to play, the SHIELD team is also going offscreen, probably for even longer.
Excalibur, likewise. They're like the Avengers without Steve and all the crazy coincidences keeping them together. Agent Wisdom and Agent Drew will reappear, Wisdom especially, but that's more because of who he really is. Of the rest, again, referred to but little more. Except, maybe, for Betsy. She tends to surprise me.
We're bringing it back in. The next arc will Harry centric, with the Avengers slipping back to the more supporting/family role they occupied earlier in the story. One more character will be introduced, but he'll be someone with a problem who Harry and company help.
We'll see the bad guys occasionally, just to touch base, but that's about it.
Second, after this chapter, as I've said, we go back to Harry. Why? Because, contrary to appearances, this story is about him. The reason the focus shifted away is because he's simply not capable of surviving battles like this: when he gets into trouble, he needs dumb luck and a healthy dollop of guile to get out again.
The Avengers are the heavyweight champions of the superhuman/supernatural world, when someone steps up, they knock them down. Harry's not even flyweight yet, so he doesn't.
But everything is indeed simmering down. This is the bad guys' desperation shot, and when it fails, they have lie low and lick their wounds until their next gambit comes into play, which won't be for a little while. We'll occasionally drop in on them, but mostly just to touch base.
The next arc, as one might put it, is Harry confronting new attitudes towards him (which are tinged by legends, history and the actions of the Avengers), his own attitudes to himself and the very large shadow of his family's not entirely squeaky clean past. Even the next action bit is centred around him and his friends.
Oh, and some manifestations of his now intermittently activating powers. Fun, eh?
So, now, this chapter will round off the action.
Betsy Braddock was a woman of great intelligence and perspicacity, with the supreme self confidence that came with being beautiful and knowing it, and being a telepath. Few people can claim to truly know their own mind. Betsy was one of them, and knew herself to be a sensible person.
A sensible person who was currently fighting a battle against an apparently never ending enemy only a few hours or so after taking on a telepath called the Shadow King in a gruelling psychic duel that had left her mentally exhausted, so, understandably, she was currently questioning her sanity.
For goodness sake, she thought, as she cleared herself some space via a telekinetic pulse specifically designed to knock some of the monsters onto the ground, tripping up their fellows and giving her some breathing room. Speaking of the monsters, which she felt would require either a bestiary or a grimoire to identify, if she'd been told a week ago that she'd be fighting an army of the undead, she'd probably have laughed. That was the sort of thing that her twin brother would do, not her.
Not so much right now. She was the one fighting the monsters, while Brian was safely away at university.
Then, she let out a sulfurous curse as one of the Black Dogs snuck past a telekinetic bolt, leaping for her throat. She put up her arms, desperately trying to rechannel her telekinesis into her muscles to give her the strength to fling this creature off her… and then was a hissing sound, a silver blur that described a shimmering, deadly half circle off to her left, followed by a pale and green blur that slammed into the bull sized spectral creature like a wrecking ball.
The Black Dog, headless, went flying for over twenty feet, not stopping until it slammed into several unfortunate and very squashed zombies of some kind that Betsy could not identify. Frankly, she thought, I couldn't care less.
That said, she did notice that the neck and detached head of the very dead creature, which, without its guiding sentience, was beginning to melt into some kind of ectoplasm, were smoking.
Then she heard the stunned voice of her saviour.
She looked up at the very surprised – and still very handsome – Fandral the Dashing and gave him a grin, one rendered a little wobbly by the near deathe experience. "Oh. Hello Fandral. Fancy meeting you here," she managed. "Hand up?"
He blinked, then nodded, pulling her up and scanning their surroundings for enemies. As it was, there were none. The battle had, temporarily, flowed away from them, and those monsters which did notice them seemed to have decided that there were easier pickings elsewhere.
"I never knew you were a warrior," he said.
"I'm not, usually," Betsy said. "But I was given the whole Queen and Country speech. And in light of what happened at MI6, I joined up."
Fandral frowned for a moment, then nodded. "Ah, someone exhorted you to do your duty," he said. "But I did not know that you had offensive talents."
"You should talk to my mother's friends," Betsy muttered, reconstituting her psisword. "They'd set you straight."
"I am sure that they are all fine ladies," Fandral said, hefting his sword. "And I am equally sure," he said, flashing her a smile that was probably illegal on at least three different continents. "That we would have many points of disagreement."
"I think that they're wrinkled up old prudes, but yeah, whatever you say, pretty boy," Betsy said, shrugging and smiling.
"Glad that you agree," he said. "Now, Lady Braddock," he said, bowing neatly. A hulking, vaguely gorilla shaped creature of hulking muscle and low intelligence tried to attack him from behind. Fandral didn't even turn round, and continued his bow. The flourish, however, buried the long knife that had been in his hand in the monster's eye. "May I have this dance?" he asked, over its bellows of pain.
She grinned, telekinetically took control off the knife and cut the creature's head off. "You may, Lord Fandral. But I am leading. I insist."
"But of course," he said gallantly, absently retrieving and cleaning the knife. "After all, I am but a visitor to this land, and I know little of the local dances."
"Then, Lord Fandral," she said, her psi-sword transferring itself to her left hand. She linked her right arm with his left and drew on her childhood memories, when her father had taught her and her brother some of the dances of his own childhood. She'd never had much use for them, but now… they seemed appropriate. To any with a mind to hear it, a soft, rhythmic, primal beat began to echo, growing in volume and power with every moment. "Let's dance."
And the two leapt into the battle.
Sif, hearing the beat in the back of her head, glanced around the battlefield, catching the sight of Fandral's blond hair and the astonishing purple of his partner's, as the two whirled, leapt and spun in time to the beat. She shook her head.
Honestly, dancing in battle… yet, unconventional even by the standards of the Warriors Three as it was, it seemed to work, as they were leaving a growing trail of corpses that were going from undead to merely very dead. And at least, she supposed, it was an improvement on that strange dance the Warriors Three tried in wooden shoes, which managed to be hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
Sif was a practical woman, so, if something worked, her attitude was less 'why?', more 'why not?' And she was well used to the foibles of the Warriors Three, so her reaction was less irritation at the indiscipline, more, exasperation, mild amusement and incredulity and a general feeling of 'please don't get killed you fucking idiot'.
The reason she could take the time to observe this was because she'd found that the opposition was almost disappointingly easy to defeat. The veidrdraugar had proven to be relatively easy to dispatch once they lost the element of surprise, though there had been a hairy moment when one had managed to attack her from behind. She'd seen it out of the corner of her left eye, though, and managed to turn anti-clockwise enough to rob its bite of killing force, pivoting and slamming it to the ground with her shield bearing left arm, before swiftly beheading it.
The clever little things had adjusted their strategy, one attacking from each flank, trying to draw her out.
It hadn't worked.
Of course, Sif mused, this relative easiness was probably because the battle field was open and brightly lit up, robbing them of their usual advantages of darkness, confinement and stealth, she knew to expect pack hunting strategies, the sort of thing she had faced tens of thousands of times before and the simple fact was, leaving everything else aside, she was stronger and faster than they were.
That said, she would not have liked to face them down a dark alleyway at night, much less ones created from Asgardians as opposed to mortals. Their advantages had been stripped away, and with those advantages, they would not be easy prey, something she was not minded to forget. It did not do to dismiss your enemy's capabilities. Sif had seen many a warrior do just that. And she had seen many a warrior die, in part, because they did just that. She did not propose to add her name to theirs.
Still. It was a little too easy, even… boring?
Her attention was then distracted from Fandral and Betsy's antics and her own musings on the quality of the enemy by an ancient and gigantic undead sea serpent of a breed which had not graced the seas of Midgard for millions of years. One would think that such a creature, even reclothed in conjured flesh, would not be adapted to life out of water and on a motorway.
Judging by the fact that it was charging towards her at speed, churning its way through its nominal allies with the same careless and immense raw power that it would once have used to power through the waves and the pinpoints of cold orange light that served as its eyes were focused on her with predatory intent, it seemed to be doing very well.
It was two hundred feet long. Its scales were like armour. Its fanges were like swords. Its roar was like an earthquake. And it was coming straight for her.
She grinned. She twisted her double bladed sword's hilt. The two swords separated, and she took one in each hand, hefting them experimentally.
And she'd thought she was going to get bored.
I paused. "Ah."
"What?" Coulson asked, frowning. "Have you lost the trail?"
"No," I said slowly. "I've got it all right."
"Then what's the problem?"
"The trail goes downwards."
Coulson went carefully blank. "You're certain?"
I nodded grimly.
"Um, what am I missing here?" Skye asked.
"We hunting a necromancer," I said. "Right?"
"Yes. So?" she said. I realised that she had absolutely no idea what was down there.
"Skye," Coulson said. "Have you ever heard of the catacombs of Paris?"
Skye looked blank.
"Otherwise known as the Empire of the Dead," I added helpfully. "Home to three million dead bodies."
There was a moment of silence, then Coulson nodded briskly to himself. "Okay. We go back to the Bus. From there, we get every piece of information on the catacombs of Paris we can – the layout, what's down there both natural and supernatural, entrances, exits, unstable parts, the works." He turned to me. "Can Bob handle recon?"
"Sure," I said, confident in the abilities of my handy-dandy portageek to find what we needed to know. I was equally confident that he would hit on Skye, Simmons and May the first chance he got and spend his time cruising the strip bars of Paris instead of doing anything useful, given the opportunity. So I didn't intend to give him the opportunity.
"Bob?" Skye asked, eyebrow raised.
"He's a sort of magical artificial intelligence," I said, and Skye's eyes went round.
"Really?" she breathed.
"Yes," I said, getting a foreboding feeling.
"Can I –"
"No," Coulson said flatly. Skye looked at him askance.
"Bob's a complete horndog," I explained. "And it's hard enough to get him to focus at the best of times."
Skye stared at me in surprise. "But… is he even tangible?"
"Trust me, that doesn't even slow him down," I said grimly. "I pay the little shit in romance novels."
Skye… giggled. Then the giggles turned into gales of laughter.
I felt got at.
"I'm sorry," she laughed, catching my expression. "But I was just imagining you… arguing with a skull... and bribing it with badly written mommy porn!"
I sighed. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up."
"He's also got a very poor grasp on morality and the knowledge to be an Omega level threat," Coulson said seriously. Skye's eyes widened and she sobered immediately. "Will consulting him take long?
I hoped it wouldn't, anyway.
Dane Whitman was, simultaneously, scared out of his mind and having the time of his life. On the one hand, it was terrifying to face creatures that were quite literally conjured from the nightmares of mankind. But on the other hand, as Winston Churchill had put it, 'there is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without result', and with every swipe he dodged, every blow he parried and every foe he cut down, he felt a mounting sense of wild joy. He'd been trained to fight since he was eleven years old and receiving the Ebony Blade at the age of sixteen had only intensified his desire to take the fight to the evil and teach them to fear the name of the Black Knight once more.
And now it was happening. It was really happening. He was being tested and passing with flying colours. Every move he made was getting smoother, easier and more natural, as he executed forms he'd previously struggled with as if he'd mastered them all his life. It was like life had slowed to a crawl, and he'd sped up, leaving Banshee, assigned, he was sure, to babysit him, far behind. This didn't bother him. After all, wasn't it perfectly obvious that he didn't need help?
He let out a whooping laugh of exultation. He'd heard about battle joy, but experiencing it was something else entirely. He felt like a god, immortal, invincible and implacable.
Five demons, each eight feet tall and muscled, with the look of lieutenants about them, seeing the swathe he was cutting through the demonic army, converged on him. They were fast. They were strong. They were cunning.
He was faster.
He was stronger.
He was more cunning.
He was the Black Knight, Master of the Ebony Blade. And they were no match for him.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous impact on his back, and he was lifted off his feet like a rugby ball off a kicking tee, flying a full thirty feet. As the tarmac came up to meet him, he closed his eyes and prepared to roll with the landing. Even through his armour he knew that he was going to have bad bruises at the very least.
He hit the ground and rolled, body operating on muscle memory and instinct while he cudgelled his stunned brain into working, trying to work out what the hell had just happened.
Well, that part was fairly obvious, his abused cranium replied. He hadn't watched his six and he'd been clobbered for it. And he'd better get up bloody quickly.
Scrambling to his feet, he whirled to face his attacker, stumbling as he did so, free hand going around behind his back to feel what kind of damage had been done to his back armour.
The answer was a deep rent across the back of the enchanted steel, the blow only stopped by the quilted kevlar infused arming jacket and titanium mail beneath. He gulped. If there'd been even a little more force behind that blow it would have chopped him in half.
And all of a sudden, everything had snapped back into real time with the cold clarity of terror. Because the creature that had caused the damage was advancing on him.
It was tall, at least seven feet tall in decaying mail armour, with the occasional piece of plate armour around the shoulders. Its face was cadaverous, skin stretched taught like a drum over gaunt, sharp features, pulling back from the mouth to reveal a rictus smile, set below a set of pale, dead eyes, the whole thing framed by long lank hair. Judging by the size of the armour, the creature had been powerfully built in life, presumably translating to a ridiculous degree of unnatural strength in death. In his, no, its hand, it held a long blade. Unlike the rest of it, the looked clean, well maintained and razor sharp.
The creature's rictus smile seemed to widen as it saw his fear, and began to close with him with strangely graceful deceptive swiftness.
Dane tried to bring his sword up, but as he did, one of his back muscles screamed at him, sending him into a staggering spasm of agony.
It was in that moment that he knew he was going to die, a cold, hollow realisation that he should have listened, he should have stuck by Banshee, who, yes, he could see him now, desperately fighting his way towards Dane, vainly shouting his name even though it was clear he would never get there in time, that he was never... never going to do anything, really. He was going to die here, a lump of regrets, impetuousness and unrealised potential.
The undead swordsman was ten feet away now. Dane desperately tried to stumble backwards, earn another half second or so of life.
Then the world went white.
And as it turned out, the consult didn't take long.
"Up and at 'em, Bob," I said, opening my backpack. The eyeholes of the enchanted skull within lit up at once as I put him on the bed of my temporarily assigned quarters on Coulson's plane.
"So, boss. What's the mission?" he asked. All he knew was that I had a job and he needed to keep quiet until I called on him.
"I'm being employed by SHIELD to track down the necromancer behind the destruction of MI6," I said. "Who has the Darkhold and just unleashed a gigantic undead army on London which is sucking in all of SHIELD's resources and probably the Council's too."
"That's the mission."
Bob gave me a long look. "Why did you accept it?" he asked, in the tone of someone who is trying to work out whether the person they're talking to is completely insane or merely phenomenally stupid.
"I'm broke and SHIELD pays good money," I said. "Bob, we're on the clock here."
"That's not the whole reason," Bob said shrewdly. Sometimes, my handy dandy porta geek is just a little annoying.
Well, actually, he's just a little annoying most of the time. It's times like this that normally have me reaching for the claw hammer. But, as he said it, the pictures of the dead children swam into the forefront of my mind and I was swamped with white-hot rage. "Those things killed children," I snarled, voice coming out far harsher and more violent than I'd intended. "I'd do it for free."
"You might as well have done," Bob said bluntly. "You're not going to survive to collect your pay."
I frowned. "You seem pretty certain."
"Boss, I know the necromancer you're looking for," Bob said, sighing, an impressive feat for a guy without lungs. "He's called Gravemoss."
"Like that's not ominous or anything," I muttered, picking up my notebook. I'd wanted recon, but every bit of information could count. "What else can you tell me?"
"He's from one of the Higher Realms of the World Tree– Alfheim, and was banished 1500 years ago for necromancy," Bob said.
I stopped. "1500. As in, one five zero zero?"
I sighed. "Great. Carry on."
"By the standards of Alfheim, he's a skinny geek. By the standards of Earth, even without his magic he's a super fast, super strong killing machine, like one of the High Sidhe on crack," Bob said. "But iron won't work on him."
"Right. And as far as magic goes?"
"Well, boss, you may not have noticed, but he's just raised an undead army," Bob said. "He even subjugated the Disir. He's got chops on Loki's level."
"Think cannibalistic wraith Valkyries that go through Asgardian armies like a hot knife through butter, and you've got a good start point."
"Wonderful. Will I be running into those?"
"No. Word in the spirit world is that they did something stupid," Bob said.
"What kind of stupid?"
"Piss off the Sorcerer Supreme stupid," Bob said darkly.
"How did they manage that?"
"Use your imagination, Harry," Bob said, rolling his eyelights.
"I've been using my imagination a lot recently," I said.
Bob leered. "I'll bet. Coulson always has the hottest girls on his team."
"I'd tell you to say something like that to Agent May's face, but I think the French would notice if I had to steal you a new skull," I muttered. "And it's mostly been thinking about the veidrdraugar and what they might be doing."
"Ah," Bob said sagely. "The standard heroic spiritual self-mutilation."
"Yeah, whatever. How did they piss off Strange?"
"Word is Gravemoss smuggled them into Asgard," Bob said. "And they kidnapped Thor's son. Whose mother just happened to have been Lily Potter, one of the Order of the Phoenix, who Strange taught at Hogwarts and best friend of Wanda Maximoff, Strange's apprentice. Strange was even the kid's paediatrician. It's safe to say that he has an interest in the kid."
I let out a low whistle. "I can see how that would annoy him," I said.
"And that wasn't all. They grabbed the daughter of Hercules too, and some Asgardian kid," Bob said. "Apparently for ransom."
I considered this in silence. If the kids had died, it would be safe to say that Gravemoss would be dealing with Thor, Loki, Odin, an Asgardian army or three, and pretty much the entire Olympian Pantheon. Hells Bells, they'd go to freaking war! Which wouldn't be such a bad thing if three dead kids would be required to start that war.
And, you know, the fact that a bunch of enraged heavyweight gods and two Skyfathers meant that we would be looking at fallout on an obscence scale, like the biggest natural disaster since Atlantis sank. At best. What Aurora was trying to do would have looked like a freaking joke.
I gulped, tried not to think about how phenomenally out my depth I was, and said, "Anything else?"
"Well… he's obsessed with death, he likes experimenting on people – that's what he was banished for, mostly, he was kicking around at Loki's level even before he got hold of the Darkhold, he's duelled Doctor Strange and survived…" Bob trailed off, and shuddered. "Boss, he's evil," he said quietly. Hells Bells, he actually sounded… afraid. "The real thing, evil with a capital E. You have no idea how much danger you're in even by being on the same continent as him."
That scared me. Not much really scares Bob, mostly because he's a spirit, and he has enough knowledge to translate to serious power. And he has a poor grasp on human morality. We see things in black and white, he seems them in blue and orange, or colours that we can't even perceive.
I have never heard him seriously describe something as evil.
I was in very, very deep.
"Oh, you're getting it now?" Bob said, reading my expression. He sighed. "Look, Harry, I know you're insane you've got this crazy compulsion to help people even when it'll get you killed or you're not even being paid for it, but even the Senior Council would want to avoid going toe to toe with this guy. I'd only give Doctor Strange fifty fifty odds. You?" He shook his head. "You'd be safer doing something quiet and peaceful, like storming the Vatican."
"That wouldn't be quiet and peaceful," I pointed out. The Vatican used to be the seat of the White Council and it's chock full of some seriously powerful mystical artefacts. It makes Fort Knox look like a children's tent.
"No shit, Dresden," Bob said flatly. "Get out of here while you still can, and preferably, take me with you, somewhere warm, sunny and a long way from here. Like the Caribbean, or Australia."
"Bob, it almost sounds like you care," I said.
"Hey, if you pop it, I'm probably going to get locked away by SHIELD in a box in an anonymous warehouse, probably right on top of the Ark of the Covenant," Bob said.
I snorted. "Indiana Jones isn't real, Bob."
"No," Bob agreed. "Good thing for you. If he was, I'd be working for him. He actually earns money, gets the girls and doesn't –"
"Have a sex obsessed spirit advising him?" I said. "Bob, I'm doing this. End of story."
Bob sighed, something he does pretty well for a guy who has no lungs. "On your own head be it," he said. "And by it, I mean some kind of necromantic construct that wants to eat your brains." He gave me a cheerful look. "Hey, you'd make a great zombie – you run around a lot, you do stupid things for no reason and you don't have any brains."
"And yours too. I need recon and you're the one doing it."
Bob's eyelights widened and then he shook his skull so fast it was almost a blur. "No. Way. Dresden, are you insane?"
"Jury's still out," I said. "Why not?"
"Because," Bob said, with the air of imparting knowledge to the slow. "I'm a spirit. He's an insane and insanely powerful necromancer. He can do pretty much what he likes with me."
"And that would be?" I asked.
"Enslave me, destroy me, torture me, eat me," Bob said promptly.
"Some of them do it for power," he said vaguely. Then his tone changed. "I don't care what I have to do instead, boss, I'll do it. Just… please. Don't order me out there."
Hells. Freaking. Bells. Bob was begging. Bob never, ever begs. I've sent him out and about playing recon when the freaking Fallen were in town and he's been fine with it. And now… he looked honestly terrified.
I've known Bob longer than pretty much anyone else who's still alive, short of my ex, Elaine. We go back. And while he's technically my bound servant and I could compel him to do it, not only would he probably put up as much of a fight as possible, but… it wouldn't be right. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should. My mentor taught me that, about magic and everything else in life, and I've stuck to that all of my adult life.
"Fine. You… you just rest up, Bob," I said. I paused. "If I don't come out of this alive, I'll… you'll have somewhere," I said, making a note to talk to Coulson about it. I didn't want Bob going into SHIELD lockup.
"Thanks, boss," Bob said, sounding relieved, eyelights winking off. Then, they briefly winked back on again. "Can I talk to the hot girls?"
"Bob, unless someone's life is literally on the line, you are not allowed to talk to anybody without my permission," I said.
"You're no fun," he complained.
"Good. Your concept of fun breaks at least fifteen different laws," I muttered, as I prepared to break a lot more laws than that.
"War Machine, this Director Wisdom, are you receiving me?"
"Loud and clear, Director Wisdom," Rhodey said, backing off from the long line of dragons. By his count, there were well over a hundred. "What support can you give me? Because whatever it is, it's going to have to be an absolute doozy."
"A squadron of Harriers and Typhoons, with another in reserve, though that one may be needed for London," Wisdom said. "All else fails, ground them somewhere isolated and open and we'll send in a Tornado squadron to finish them off. Oh, and I'm sending you one of my special agents. He should be with you in fiv minutes."
"That's great, Director, but how I will know your guy?"
"Oh, trust me, War Machine. You'll know him when you see him. He should be with you in just under five minutes," Wisdom said, slightly amused. "Oh, and… he generally goes by Archangel."
Rhodey put this puzzling thought to one side for a few minutes, engaging in harrying the dragons, probing at their defences and seeing if he could break through. Unfortunately, their skin seemed to have the rough consistency of high gauge steel. At least.
However, he thought aiming carefully, there were ways. And with that thought, he carefully fired a missile into one beast's open mouth, just as it was about to breath fire.
The results were… spectacular.
"I'd say, 'eat this'," Rhodey muttered. "But that would just be far too easy."
Then, something whipped across his field of vision, shooting across and down, before stopping. It was obviously humanoid in shape, and, indeed, Rhodey would have passed him or her off as just another person wearing body armour. If, that was, it wasn't for the two vast metallic wings that were very definitely not for show.
He watched, opened mouthed, as the humanoid figure shot upwards in a sudden clash of metal wings, hovered for a moment, vast wings flapping, then tucked them into his body, descending in a steep, silent dive, landing on the back of one of the undead dragons with thunderous force, and grabbing the ridge of the spine with both hands, before snapping both wings out, and flicking them in brief, economical and lightning fast slashes.
The metallic wings sliced through the leathery skin like a hot knife through butter, and as the creature began to fall, bellowing its rage, the wings swept forward in one swift, scissoring slash, neatly beheading the falling dragon, before using its remains as a springboard to takeoff once more, shooting up past the dragons, just below the cloud layer.
"Director Wisdom, this is War Machine," Rhodey said, slightly stunned. "I'm just taking a wild guess here, but I think your man is the guy with the metal wings."
There was a strained chuckle from the other end. "That kind of keen insight is why they pay you the big bucks, huh, War Machine?"
"Only the medium sized bucks, sir," Rhodey said, dodging a blast of dragonfire. "The Air Force isn't the most lucrative of careers."
"Public service generally isn't," Wisdom agreed. "And yeah, that's our boy. His comms are one channel up from mine if you want to get in contact. He'll probably want to. He's something of a fan. Wisdom out."
And, indeed, Agent Archangel was giving him an enquiring look. "War Machine, this Archangel, do you receive me, over?"
"Archangel, this is War Machine," Rhodey said, opening fire with his gatling cannon on the leading dragon. "I am receiving you, and I've got to say, that was a pretty impressive display."
"I'm glad you think so, sir," Archangel replied.
"That's a pretty impressive set of body armour you've got there," Rhodey said, pausing to punch an undead dragon in the face. "How do the wings work?"
As he did so, he briefly reflected that in the last few years, his life had become so much weirder. But, on the other hand, it was so much more fun than knocking the cocky out of wannabe pilots.
"I was born with them," Archangel replied, barrel rolling to dodge a stream of flame, and, shooting along its side, lay open the side of one of the magical beasts.
"With those wings? Man, I feel sorry for your mom," Rhodey said, stunned.
Archangel chuckled. "They weren't always metal, and they didn't properly develop until I was about seven. My back just looked sort of feathery until then," he explained. "As for the rest, I'll explain it over a beer. You're paying, though."
"Sounds great to me," Rhodey said. "But why am I paying?"
"Because you're – argh! – a Lieutenant-Colonel," Archangel replied, getting clipped by the blunt edge of a claw which wasted itself on his body armour. "I'm a university student barely out of training. I have student loans to pay and piss all beer money."
"University student barely out of… Wisdom sent you on this mission?"
"All hands on deck," Archangel replied, with the verbal equivalent of a shrug. "We don't have much choice. Team was scaped together at short notice. Besides, I love flying and I don't often get the chance. And come on, are you telling me that you'd turn down the chance to dogfight with zombie dragons?"
"You got me there," Rhodey admitted. At that age, he'd have leapt at the chance to do something that mind-blowingly cool. Well, after making sure that whoever was giving the orders wasn't hallucinating anyway.
Wisdom apparated out onto a road bridge, surveyed the battlefield and grimaced. Archangel and War Machine seemed to be at least slowing the progress of the dragons, and a squadron of Sea Harriers was en route, along with a mixed bag of other fighters, so he felt that they wouldn't be a problem.
The battle here, on the other hand, was still a problem. Yes, they were managing containment, having forced most of the army onto the M4, and Sif had brought down a grand total of five serpents all by herself, an impressive feat for someone who couldn't fly, while Thor and Iron Man had disposed of most of the remaining seventeen.
But the Hulk, their most potent weapon, was being soaked up by the enemy numbers, Thor and Iron Man were now mainly restricted to picking off any would be escapees and Loki had been forced to fall back and establish a perimeter to contain the intangible beings, or else they would run rampant over the countryside.
On the plus side, one of the three Knights of the Sword, shining like a vast beacon of white fire, whose presence put another god in their corner (Wisdom was of the opinion that you could never have too many gods, so long as they were pointed in the right direction and stayed that way) was, with the aid of Dane Whitman, the young Black Knight – and possible hindrance since Wisdom suspected that Whitman was quite likely to be inwardly debating whether to ask for an autograph - steadily chopping a large portion of the undead army to pieces.
And that which wasn't chopped up was being forced towards the Avengers and Excalibur or the withering crossfire from the tanks.
Speaking of the tanks, the Royal Tank Regiment from Tidworth had been portkeyed in, and, after silently staring at the enemy for a few moments, had basically shrugged and set up on the flanks at an angle to catch the various monsters in a withering crossfire, which was slowly whittling down the numbers. Any that got through the tanks were quickly chased down by a roaming pack of armoured cars on the ground and Predator drones in the sky. But still the blasted things kept coming.
He reached for his radio, ready to call in his ace, then froze as he saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye.
Instantly, he dropped and rolled, drawing his sidearm, a Colt. 45 with an extended magazine that was loaded with blessed incendiary rounds, and opened fire.
The charging veidrdraugr was barely perturbed by the three shots that he sent winging towards it, even though one blew a hole in its torso, and, swearing, he disapparated, a reappearing about thirty feet behind it, putting up an extrasensory charm. He would need every advantage he had, and he didn't want to be sucker punched.
As the creature turned, he considered one of those advantages. They were ambush hunters, and it had lost the element of surprise. Indeed, it was watching him carefully. It had been an elderly woman in life, and what rags it had had left had been torn or blasted off, revealing pale, wrinkled skin, dried up and pendulous breasts and greasy white hair that floated around its head like a halo. And that was another thing, one of its hands was missing, along with part of its torso, not that he doubted that it could easily club him to death.
Its dark, soulless eyes focused on him, and he slipped his sidearm away, drawing his wand.
"Come on then," he said quietly. "Let's see what you're made of."
The veidrdraugr blurred. It was far faster than he was. Far stronger. But it still had to cover thirty feet. His fingers had to cover less than thirty centimetres.
Mortal practitioners, wanded and wandless alike, aren't the most powerful players in the great game. If caught off their guard, they're as good as dead.
Peter Wisdom wasn't caught off his guard.
A laser like jet of flame roared out from the tip of Wisdom's wand as he sprang away to the left, widening the steadily growing hole that had been caused by his incendiary holy bullet. He felt the wind of its passing as he got clear, but clear he was. Catching himself on the side of the road bridge, he turned to look at his enemy.
White fire was eating away at the veidrdraugr, crawling towards its heart and power source. Wisdom fixed his gaze on it. His plan was simple. Keep it at a distance, keep scoring hits that help the fire along, reduce its mobility and wait for it to die.
It charged once more.
He flicked his wand again, unleashing another stream of flame, getting ready to spring away.
But this time, the veidrdraugar jinked, exploding off the ball of one foot directly into his leaping path, tackling him to the ground, forcing him to spill his wand. Rolling desperately, he managed to get an arm between his throat and its teeth.
Time slowed as the veidrdraugr's teeth, powered by jaws that could bite through light Asgardian armour, descended, then shut on the fleshy forearm, protected only by leather body armour.
There was a series of cracking sounds. A lot of brown teeth fell out. The veidrdraugr looked almost non-plussed.
Human teeth, even backed by an enhanced jaw, were no match for adamantium vambraces.
Another thing about mortal practitioners is that the sensible ones tend to be pretty good at preparing.
And Wisdom laughed the mad, adrenalin fuelled, gleeful laugh of a person who has laid down their last card. And it turns out to be an ace.
"Eat this, you bitch," he snarled, right hand glowing white hot with the flames of his mutation, the ones he'd christened hot knives, and delivered it into the being's dark power core. For a moment, he felt a terrible, life sucking cold on his fingers, then, with a flash and small explosion, the dark magic core exploded, and the veidrdraugar sagged, going from the stuff of nightmares to the stuff of nightheaps. With the smell to match, Wisdom mentally added, as scorched week old human flesh assaulted his temporarily enhanced senses.
He sighed his relief, then pushed the body off, sitting up. Then he was grabbed in a literally rib cracking bear hug and what felt like a set of shaped wire cutters bit deeply into his shoulder, followed by another sinking into his upper left arm.
One thing, a small detached part of him reflected as he screamed in pain, that he had forgotten about the veidrdraugr was that they also hunted in packs.
Thankfully for Wisdom's plight, he was being watched by Clint, who had admired his takedown, and who also quickly calculated that nothing short of an exploding arrow would shift them, and two exploding arrows would end up shifting most of Wisdom as well.
"Thor!" he yelled over the comms. "On the road bridge."
Thor didn't respond, but a moment later, a slim shape in dark combats darted from above, diving like a peregrine falcon, landing beside one of the veidrdraugar and, moving in a barely perceptible blur, ripping it away from the beleaguered Director by main strength, before frying it with a powerful blast of what seemed to be some kind of electricity, then ripping its head off, again by main strength. This all took less than half a second, and only someone like Clint would have caught it.
By this time, Thor's response was clear.
The other veidrdraugr, which, apparently mindless or uncaring of its fellows fate, had raised its head to gulp its mouthful. It didn't even manae to swallow. An even faster blur, this one silvery grey, shot across Clint's vision, then, very suddenly, the creature no longer had anything above the shoulder and Mjolnir was soaring back to its master's hand.
The slim figure, an MI13 agent that he recognised from SHIELD's files as Agent Jessica Drew, a.k.a. Arachne, was tending to her commander, who had unsurprisingly gone into shock from the sudden and violent physical trauma, blood loss and, probably, the unwavering realisation that he was being eaten alive, and he was about to look away.
Then Clint saw a fourth creature readying to pounce. In one swift movement, he drew an exploding arrow, nocked it and fired.
The arrow buried itself in the creature's eye and exploded.
Drew looked up sharply, glanced at the creature, then up at Clint, who nodded briskly. She nodded back, then gathered Wisdom into her arms in a fireman's lift, and took off, flying at speed towards the nearest hospital.
As he did, he saw Wisdom manage to whisper something to Drew, who paused, hovered, and tapped him.
Clint couldn't hear what Wisdom said next, but he could lip read. And Wisdom said five words.
'Maximoff, your time is now.'
He tapped his comms. "Guys, we've got a friendly incoming," he said.
"Great," Steve said. In the back ground, there was a clanging sound as his shield hit something. "Who is it?"
Before Clint could answer, the clouds began to throb, taking on a deadly scarlet tinge.
An incandescent column of crimson-white spellfire as wide as the Tower roared from the heavens, slamming into the ground with a thunderous roar at the heart of the army.
Everyone turned their eyes to the heavens. And they saw her.
Outlined against the explosion of light she floated, a shadowed, female figure, her arms spread wide and a cloak flapping in the wind caused by the thermal updraft like a battle flag.
And Thor laughed an incredulous, delighted, booming laugh.
The Scarlet Witch had entered fray.
"Bob won't do recon," I said. "But I do have some info on the necromancer."
"Why won't he do recon?" Skye asked, puzzled.
"He's a spirit," Coulson explained. "He'll be easy pickings for a necromancer."
"Ah," Skye said.
"We're facing someone called Gravemoss," I said, consulting my notes, and gave them the basic run down that Bob had given me.
Coulson looked grim. "Okay. This could be a serious problem," he said. "Last time SHIELD went up against someone from the Higher Realms, it was Loki, and he ended up killing every SHIELD Agent that he didn't enslave. Fire from assault rifles didn't even faze him. Even Thor without his powers and specifically avoiding doing lethal damage, managed to take out at least two dozen SHIELD agents. The only way he was brought down was he went into shock after he couldn't lift Mjolnir." He looked at me. "Set up your spell, I need to make a few arrangements."
In the end, setting up a spell to track the veidrdraugar wasn't that hard. The spell responded strongly first time out, maybe all the more so because the profane black magic stood out like a blot on the mystical landscape thanks to sheer contrast. It's not a concept I've heard of, not in a tracking spell, and I'm pretty expert with them. If you've got someone's hair or blood and they're still alive (and within about five hundred miles at the very, very most, because I have my limits) I can find them.
Either way, I got it up and running pretty quickly.
"You've got it?" Coulson asked.
"Definitely," I said grimly. "They're close."
Captain Cardboard then stepped up. While I'd been making my preparations with Bob, and then with the spell, he'd clearly been kitting up with what looked like some very high tech lightweight battle armour.
"Agent Ward will go with you as cover and if you come into contact, he'll engage. His body armour is composed of a synthetic vibranium weave designed to absorb kinetic impact and resist piercing impacts," Coulson said. Anticipating my many objections, he added, "And the simple fact is that he is faster, stronger and better trained than you are. If you discover the veidrdraugar, do not get bogged down in a fight. Agent Ward will mark their position. Your job is to find the boss. If you have a kill shot, take it. Agent Ward is armed with one of SHIELD's Deity class submachine guns, with comes with a semi automatic setting that allows for a degree of sharpshooting."
"Deity class?" I asked, giving the gun that Captain Cardboard was toting a long look. It was a little larger than Murphy's boxy little gun, the P-90, though of the same general class of weapon, slim, dark, with a forward grip to help steady the gun and a high tech looking scope.
"Based off the Asgardian Destroyer. One of the first generation versions of these weapons knocked Loki through a bulkhead and visibly hurt him. This is a fourth generation version," Fitz said cheerfully. "More powerful, more compact, more reliable and much more dangerous."
Captain Cardboard looked at me, then flicked a switch on the side of the gun. It audibly hummed into life, orange bands appearing down the side of the gun in much the same way as the runes on my staff lit up when I was using serious power.
"Like I said, if you have a kill shot, either of you, take it," Coulson said. "Otherwise, get the hell out of there. You won't last two seconds longer than the amount of time Gravemoss wants you two alive. We'll be following you over comms." He nodded. "Good luck."
Rhodey, hovering in a scorched, slashed and generally battered armour, felt that he'd done a good job. All the dragons were down, all but one of the planes had come out intact, and even the pilot of the Eurofighter whose wing had been damaged beyond functioning by a burst of dragonfire had, after a few hairy moments, been grounded safely.
"Director Wisdom, this is War Machine, come in?"
"War Machine, this is MI13 command. Director Wisdom is out of action. What do you wish to report?" a professional female voice asked.
"I hope he's okay. Command, every one of the dragons has been destroyed. And I never thought I'd hear myself saying that," he said, chuckling.
"Not many would," was the brisk, yet amused reply. "And your status?"
"Battered and bruised and sweating buckets, but otherwise fine," Rhodey said. "That said, I wouldn't chance my armour any further in combat. This baby needs some serious servicing."
"You shouldn't need to, War Machine. The battle on the M4 is now just clean up, and SHIELD has a hot lead on where the necromancer behind all of this is," was the reply. "Though if you can repair your suit, I'm sure the Avengers and Excalibur would welcome your presence. This guy's bad."
Rhodey surveyed the landscape below. A trail of very dead dragons littered the countryside for nearly a hundred miles. "With all due respect, Command, I'd guessed," he said. "I'll be making my way back to base. Maybe I can get some repairs done. And if nothing else, I owe Archangel a drink."
"Good luck to you, War Machine. Command out."
Rhodey nodded to himself and surveyed the landscape once. Then stopped and focused on an object that flickered into view just above the cloudline. There was at least one dragon left. "Son of a bitch," he muttered. "War Machine to MI13 Command, War Machine to MI13 Command, I was wrong! We've got one stray, hiding just above the cloud line."
"Received and acknowledged, War Machine. Do you need any assistance?"
"No, Command, thanks all the same. I know just how to cut one of these up now," Rhodey said, his armour tracking the dragon's path. Shooting upwards and flipping onto his back, just below the dragon's belly, he opened fire with his minigun and the machine guns on his wrists.
"Ah shit," he muttered, rolling until he was facing the ground once more and considered the situation. His repulsors wouldn't cut through the dragon's scales, not fast enough to tell – it would just move. His punches would annoy it, but little more than that.
"War Machine? Is everything all right up there?"
"I'm out of ammo, Command, and my repulsors won't do enough damage. But I have an idea. Can you give me the coordinates of where the downed Eurofighter hit?"
"We can give you a rough estimate, War Machine. What are you planning?"
"Something insane, Command," Rhodey replied. "So have some birds armed and ready to fly."
"Very well. Good luck, War Machine," Command replied, before reeling off the coordinates. "But we're going to have to scramble those planes immediately. That dragon's less than ten minutes out from Luton airport at current pace, more like five. If it gets in amongst the planes on the ground and start breathing fire the casualties could be in four figures, even five, very quickly. Whatever you're doing, do it fast."
"Roger that, Command. War Machine out," Rhodey said, as his armour calculated the coordinates, and set up a flight path, sending him arrowing towards the downed aircraft and a mad hope. Astonishingly, he found himself grinning. Thousands of lives, resting on an insane gambit and his flight speed. He was enjoying this. "Sometimes, Tony," he muttered to himself. "I understand why you love being a superhero."
It didn't take him more than three minutes to reach the crash site. The plane had landed on a soft hillside, and, had, apparently, mostly stayed together on impact. A quick, practiced survery said that the fuel was still in the tank and a good few armaments remained on the left wing. More than enough for his purpose.
A fully loaded Eurofighter Typhoon came in at eleven tons, and though this one was now probably about nine and a half at most, and Rhodey's armour could lift up to seventy five, that armour was beaten pretty badly. Would it take the weight? And what would the flight speed be like?
Only one way to find out.
"Here goes nothing," Rhodey muttered, getting under the jet and lifting it with a grunt of effort. So far, so good. Then, very carefully, he took off.
Amazingly, it worked.
"War Machine, this is MI13 command. Not to hurry you, but that dragon's within five minutes of Luton airport. The evacuation started as soon as you reported its position, but it won't be done in time, and there are several very full passenger flights on the ground."
"Command, this is War Machine," Rhodey said, experimentally building up speed. "I'll have it down in two."
And with that, he went supersonic.
Rhodey was acutely conscious of the way the downed jet was rattling above him, and was, now that he thought about it, very aware of the way that if this went even slightly wrong, he could be the first person in this part of England to die tonight.
However, within a minute, he was within sight of the dragon. The lights of Luton airport shone in the near distance. He would only get one shot at this, and he wasn't even sure what this was. He bent his flight path, angling away from the dragon in a long, careful loop, aware of both the need for speed and the need to compensate for the drag the broken jet produced and his reduced manoeuvrability.
Also, not to drop it. Accidentally bombing Luton Airport wouldn't accidentally be a strike in his favour.
But, eventually, he lined himself up on an attack angle with the dragon. Rocketing upwards and forwards, he lined the jet up carefully, aiming for the stomach.
He struck true, the nose cone of the jet, relatively blunt though it was, piercing like a lance, the sheer force driving it deep into the undead dragon's innards, forcing its front upwards as it bellowed, giant wings rowing at the air.
Rhodey, with one last shove to make sure it lodged, launched himself away from the dragon, and, as the jet began to slip out and the vast, otherworldly creature regain its balance, he hit it with the biggest repulsor blast he had. It was a sweeping shot, dragged across from fuel tank, to missiles. Perfectly aimed. Perfectly timed.
The result was truly enormous fireball that had Rhodey briefly struggling for balance.
And then, pieces of exploded undead Hebridean Black dragon rained down over Luton. "Command, this is War Machine. The dragon is destroyed. Though I really pity whoever's living underneath."
There was a moment of silence. "War Machine, did you just use the downed Eurofighter as a lance against the dragon and blow it up once it was lodged inside the creature's belly?"
"You might want to mention that I hit at Mach 1, Command," Rhodey said casually as he came down off the adrenaline high.
"Duly noted," Command replied, clearly impressed. "War Machine, are you sure you don't want to change your codename to 'Saint George'? Because it's well earned."
"I'm kind of attached to War Machine, Command, but thanks for the suggestion. Now if you haven't got any more dragons to slay, I might just call this a night," Rhodey said.
"Get some rest, War Machine. You've earned it."
Rhodey rather felt that he had.
The tracking spell led us, unsurprisingly, underground, roughly a mile south of the Eiffel Tower. Once we'd got as close as we could without being mobbed by monsters as soon as we went underground, Captain Cardboard, following directions in his earpiece, led me to an old manhole cover.
See, it turns out that during World War II, the French Resistance used the Catacombs as a way of sneaking men and supplies around the city, with the Germans being loathe to follow them. For that, I couldn't exactly blame them. I've gone down into the dark, after things that want me dead. At best.
It's the reason my left hand doesn't work very well.
Which was part of why I was nervous about this particular venture. Slavering monsters, I can deal with. Ambush, I can deal with. Dark magic, I can deal with - though, admittedly, I'd never gone up against anything with anywhere near as much raw power as Gravemoss reputedly possessed.
Well, okay, so I'd killed the Summer Lady, but that had been with a sucker punch. While she was distracted. And while she'd been a lunatic, she'd genuinely been trying to do the right thing.
Gravemoss was probably also a lunatic, but I really doubted that I'd get the chance to sucker punch him the way I had her. For one thing, Bob had specifically mentioned that, unlike the Sidhe, he wasn't remotely bothered by cold iron.
Also, Aurora hadn't been able to rip me in half like wet paper.
I got the feeling that if Gravemoss got hold of me, I'd be lucky if that was all he did.
As I descended, I saw Captain Cardboard slip a pair of apparently ordinary sunglasses on, pressing something on the side. If that hadn't tipped me off to the fact there was something special about them, the words 'Stark Industries', visible on the side in the electric blue-white of Arc energy for a brief moment before they were covered by those little loop things people put on the legs of their glasses to make sure that they don't lose them even if they fall off. When I reached the bottom, he handed me a pair of my own.
"Night vision," he said curtly. "And thermal imaging."
I hesitated. Wizards and modern technology go together like politicians and honesty. The twain can never meet. One has got to give. And I'd really rather it didn't give right into my face.
But then again, SHIELD had somehow figured out how to keep a plane chock full of tech several steps ahead of what is commercially available running in my presence without the slightest blip.
I took a deep breath and slipped them on.
Nothing changed. My puzzlement and disappointment must have showed, because Cardboard sighed, leaned over and squeezed part of the glasses.
Really, just, wow.
There is no other way to describe how amazingly cool it is to suddenly have the darkness peeled away like the skin of an orange. There's a reason that one of the superpowers kids always want to have is night vision, before they grow up and decide that they want boob magnet powers instead, and that reason is quite simply this: the human animal is oriented on sight. It's the sharpest of our fairly feeble senses, and we use it to navigate and perceive our world, keeping watch for both prey and threats. If you offered a hundred people the choice between deafness and blindness, most of them would choose deafness. Without it, we're in trouble.
That's why we're afraid of the dark. Because we can't see and we know perfectly well that there are things that know that and would love to take advantage of it. Night time is when we're bottom of the food chain and top of the menu.
And that's without adding an insane godlike necromancer and his pack of super sneaky stealth zombies to the dance card.
When I'd come down here, I'd worried that I would have to conjure a light, which might not be such a smart idea. It's generally considered a bad idea to invade dark places which you know are infested with things that want to kill you without giving them a freaking beacon to home in on.
So, although everything was in shades of monochrome, except for Captain Cardboard, who was rendered in shades of red - that would be the thermal imaging part - I could see pretty much as clearly as day.
Then I heard a cough, and Captain Cardboard gave me a look that said very clearly, 'get on with it'.
For the sake of it, I stuck my tongue out at him, unhooked my pentacle from belt, tracking spell still running, and followed it.
It was quiet.
That instantly put me on my guard. A decade and a bit of wizardry has taught me that things only get really quiet when something big and bad is about to try and eat you. A lifetime of horror movies has taught me that nothing good ever comes of plucky protagonists wandering around dark tunnels. It's like sticking an 'I am a moron, please eat me' sign on your back.
On that basis, I hunched up and tried to look inedible.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a coward. I'm too stupid to be something so sensible. But the back of my neck was beginning to tingle in that uncomfortable way body parts do when they're trying to convey to your brain just how vulnerable they are.
"Stand up straight," Agent Action Man hissed - I'd decided that Captain Cardboard was getting repetitive.
"You look vulnerable. Trust me, that'll just make them attack you faster," he said.
"How would you know?"
"Predators are predators, Dresden," he replied grimly. "And if you get eaten, so do I."
He had a point there. My recent experiences were, indeed, pointing out that while Agent Grant Ward had not much of a discernible personality, he wasn't actually wrong.
So, reluctantly, I straightened up and tried to look intimidating.
It probably saved my life.
As I straightened up, I caught something pale in my peripheral vision, about fifteen feet away, and whirled with a shout, hoping to simultaneously warn Ward and startle whatever the pale thing was.
The scream didn't slow it down in the slightest. Instead, as soon I began to move, it leapt at me with superhuman speed.
Straight, in fact, into my upswinging staff. While I'm a lean man, I'm also nearly seven feet tall and I've never been accused of being a lightweight. And in recent years, I've had to do lot more infighting. So when the head of the oak staff struck, it struck hard, snapping the creature's head back and sending it reeling.
I readied my shield and frantically scanned my surroundings, going back to back with Ward. I'd got lucky. I'd got very lucky. I'd spotted the creature maybe twenty seconds before it had got into position. It was an ambush predator, and the thing about ambush predators is that they like to get in real close before they attack, so the prey is practically dead before it has time to react. The one that had attacked Loki had, according to the SHIELD report, been no more than five feet away. This one had been closer to fifteen, and unlike Loki, my brain hadn't had to process a warning before my body reacted.
"How many?" Ward asked.
"I can see one," I said.
"Three. Hanging back for the moment. I destroyed one of them when it got in close," he replied. "There'll be more. Will they be coming from your end?"
"Hang on," I said, keeping a gimlet eye on the one my end, then opened my Sight.
The Sight is this sense that we Wizards have. Some call it the Second Sight, the Third Eye or the True Sight. What it does is strip away all illusions and reveal things as they truly are. Nothing can hide from the Sight, and it can reveal quite a lot about the person you're looking at.
This is not always a good thing.
Because, first off, despite its name, it isn't restricted to Sight. It's not like an inbuilt magical pair of Stark's Super Sunglasses. It simply appears that way, because, as I have mentioned, mankind is a sight oriented animal. In reality, it's more like opening your mind to the universe, and all the good, all the evil, all the beautiful and all the horrible things within it. I've seen things through the Sight that have nearly driven me insane through their sheer scale, things mortal man was never meant to witness. I've seen torture and cruelty of the most horrific kind. And I've seen some things... that are truly beautiful.
And I'm never going to forget any of them. Ever. Things you see in the Sight don't fade away. They're locked in your brain forever. And they change you. Which is why most Wizards tend to be pretty damn careful about using the Sight.
Especially when dealing with monsters like these.
Me, I felt it would be better to be alive and insane than to be dead and perfectly rational, the key word in this, of course, being 'alive'.
The tunnel as seen through the Sight wasn't dark and forbidding. Instead, it was lit by an eerie silver ghost light emitted from the walls. And then I realised that was exactly what it was. Ghost light. I looked closer, picking out an individual skull. But it wasn't a skull now. Instead, I could see a woman, face locked in a rictus of horror and fear, eyes staring sightlessly into eternity. I looked away as quickly as I could. Her spirit wasn't trapped here, that much I was certain of. Instead, this was an imprint, left by her death, something that alone, she'd never have had. But the sheer number of dead bodies down here meant that they seemed to almost feed off each other, the energy that each imprint emitted, a tiny, tiny, thing, little more than a spark per year, keeping them something approximating fresh.
Because while one spark per year can't power anything. But millions upon millions of those sparks, when taken together... now that's a different story.
And that wasn't all. The silver ghost-light, eerie as it was, had a strange beauty to it, so long as you didn't look too closely at what was emitting it. But running through it were thin, spidery black threads, which radiated an unearthly cold and... evil. I shivered. If I hadn't known that there was dark magic at work under Paris, this would confirm.
Then I looked at the veirdrdaugr.
It was only vaguely humanoid, a lean, predatory thing carved out of dark light, glowing a greasy green-black, touched with unworldly purple. It was hunched over, permanently coiled to lunge, and its solid black eyes glittered with hunger and a disturbing amount of intelligence.
It wasn't intrinsically malicious. It simply existed to hunt, kill and devour. It was a predator. That's what they do.
But the magic that animated it... that just exuded evil. I've Seen many things. I'd seen Faerie Queens prepare for battle. I'd Seen the soul of a man chosen by God Himself to defend those in need. I'd Seen dark magic used to maim and destroy. And I'd never Seen anything like this.
It was pure Evil.
There was no other word to describe it. Every other piece of black magic I'd seen before, some of them pretty damn horrific, paled into insignificance by comparison. This was something ancient, primal and terrible, something that saw Civilisation, Progress, the Age of Reason and sneered at them. This was a darkness older than time, immutable, unchanging and eternal. The entire existence of humanity was but the blink of an eye by comparison.
And through it, I could sense something of its source. It was Power, ocean deep and mountain high, something greater and more terrible than anything I had ever encountered, with the strength to take the entirety of creation in its hand and crush it into nothingness. This was a power greater than any God, any Archangel and any Faerie Queen.
This was the Power of Chthon the Elder One, born before time, of Chthon the Exile, banished before creation, of Chthon the Great, progenitor of all black magic, a being with a strength I could not comprehend, and a purpose I could never hope to fathom.
I was an insect before it.
Then, I heard soft laughter, cruel, quiet and somehow discordant, as if it did not belong in this world.
And He spoke in a voice of overwhelming Power that made reality warp and scream in protest.
Hello, little Starborn. Enjoying the view? Well, I think you've seen enough. Back you go.
And just like that, my Sight shut down, putting back in the realm of ordinary perception.
The words were silken smooth and mocking, along with the display of Power, designed to show me how insignificant I was, something to be brushed aside at will.
Because that pissed me off.
There was only one of them in front of me, and at least three for Ward, who'd taken one of them already, in such a fashion that they had clearly learned to respect him.
"How many?" I asked quietly.
"Ten," Ward said tensely. "And more are coming. They'll overwhelm us soon." I was guessing that he hadn't fired in order to buy time. The longer he stayed still, a potential threat, the longer the veidrdraugr would wait.
I smiled. It was a cold, hard smile. Because I had a plan The runes on my staff ignited. "Good."
"I've got one, with no more coming," I said. "On three, we switch dance partners. You step back to your left, I'll go to mine."
Ward tensed, then I felt him nod. "On three."
I lowered my staff.
I heard Ward's fancy gun open fire.
And I stumbled.
The veidrdraugar surged forward, looking to take advantage.
See, I hadn't stumbled. Not really. Instead, I'd gone down on one knee, and thrusting my staff forward like a lance, I shouted, "Forzare!"
A thick, low inverted spearhead of invisible force roared out along the tunnel floor, stretching from wall to wall, slamming into the calves of the veidrdraugar like a car doing thirty miles per hour. A very concentrated car.
Needless to say, a lot of bones snapped.
And they fell forward, stumbling. Leaving them vulnerable. Not only that, but the shape of my strike roughly funnelled them into the middle.
Normally, when I use fire, my favoured method of attack, I use my blasting rod, which is more precise than my staff. That's more of a general purpose tool.
But since my targets were obligingly staying still - for the moment - and had been funnelled into a tighter space - sort of - then it would do just fine.
So I shoved as much power as I could through my staff and roared, "FUEGO!"
It wasn't as focused as I might have liked, but the waist thick beam of white hot fire that howled down tunnel, accompanied by the dopplering echo of my voice, more than sufficed, tearing six of the monsters apart in one shot. I whipped my staff to the left, sweeping the beam through another five and gouging a twenty foot long hole in the left hand wall of the tunnel.
I cut off the spell and paused to catch my physical and metaphysical breath. Just as one of the veidrdraugr, clearly smart enough to play possum, erupted from my relatively untouched right. It was covered in raw blisters and blackened burns, suggesting it was caught in the thermal bloom of my initial strike, but that didn't seem to bother it in the slightest. It had waited until I stopped for a moment, lowered my guard, then it attacked.
Clever, I thought vaguely, as it leapt towards me.
Then a bolt of orange energy smashed it out of the air, and hurled it into the wall, tearing open its abdominal cavity and releasing a truly foul smell of excrement and rotting flesh.
"Chap with legs there," I managed. "Five rounds rapid."
Ward, whether responding to my sage quotation or simply operating on his own initiative, poured another three blasts into it, two into the head, one into the heart, in a humming roar of sound. Then, still moving, he picked out four more survivors, and took them out, one by one, with perfectly detached calm.
I mean, Hells Bells, he only missed once, and that's because one of them freaking tripped.
I nodded. "Nice work," I managed.
He grimaced. "I was lucky. They weren't able to move much after what you did to them."
He had a point there. If I hadn't spotted the one behind me when I had, or they'd sent more than one around the back, we'd be monster chow.
"Nevertheless, it was impressive."
I nearly jumped out of my skin, and whirled on the speaker, bringing my staff up. So did Ward, gun going to his shoulder so fast that it damn near teleported.
The speaker was a woman. She was tall and strikingly beautiful, with razor sharp features only emphasised by her tied back raven black hair, and dressed in battle armour in shades of gunmetal grey, though that was marred by the dark splatters all over it. She also had a black eye that seemed to be fading before her eyes, though it didn't seem to bother her in the slightest. In each hand, she held a long sword, covered to the hilt in a dark, dripping substance.
She looked around and frowned slightly. "I seem to have missed the fight," she said, sounding a touch disappointed.
"Yeah," I said slowly, taking it as reassuring that she didn't seem to consider us as potential opponents, since I could feel power radiating from her twenty feet away. "And you are...?"
"Ah, my apologies," she said formally. "I am Lady Sif, of Asgard. I was dispatched to assist you. Though, as I can see," she continued, examining the battlefield with a professional gaze. "You did not need it."
"Yeah, past tense being the key word," I said. "I'm Harry Dresden, of the White Council, and that's Captain Cardboard, of SHIELD."
Sif frowned, bemused, then nodded at me, "Wizard," and Ward, "Captain."
"I'm not a Captain," Ward said calmly. "Dresden just thinks he's funny." He saluted. "Agent Grant Ward, of SHIELD, at your service."
Sif smiled slightly. "Ah. I understand."
"Can we go now?" I asked impatiently, very much aware that we had won this fight by luck. We'd caught the veidrdraugar by surprise.
Now they knew we were down here. Hell, if I remembered what I knew of necromancy correctly, their boss knew we were here too, and if he came along, we could kiss our asses goodbye.
The odds were very much not in our favour, even with the Goddess of War on our side - something which I resolved to geek out about later.
Ward seemed to be of an accord, because he said, "Back to the exit. I'll cover you both."
I hesitated. I wasn't eager for another round against these things on their home turf, but I wasn't going to leave Ward to face them alone.
"I'll be right behind you and I can pick them off better than you can. If we come across a big group, or the necromancer, I'll need you at full strength," he said curtly. "Go."
I severely doubted that if we came across a big group we would get lucky again, and if we came across the necromancer, it wouldn't matter if I had all the White Council backing me up.
So I started forward as quickly as I could without it looking like I was running. I didn't want to encourage any lurkers to attack me, and if that didn't happen, then maybe we could get out of here alive.
"You do not seek to pursue this battle to its end?" Sif asked, puzzled.
"We got lucky this time," I said curtly. "If the necromancer comes along..."
She nodded. "No amount of luck will help us," she said, nodding. "A tactical withdrawal then."
"Right," I said, and we started moving.
Then I heard a soft, whispering voice like the rustle of dead leaves on stone.
"Leaving so soon?"
And I knew none of us were leaving the catacombs alive.
The white light flared and the undead creature shied away with a shrieking cry of mingled frustration and terror.
Dane blinked, shading his eyes against the furious, blazing white light, and in doing so, made out a tall, powerful figure within it, wielding a three foot long longsword with a classic cruciform hilt, which was emitting the terrible light.
Then the figure spoke, in a deep, resonant voice that was as strong and as immovable as the very foundations of the Earth.
"In the name of Almighty God, step away from that boy."
The creature howled with anger, and instead made to attack Dane once more. The figure took two short, swift and sure diagonal steps forward, meeting the creature's descending sword in a perfect parry, showing no sign of struggle against its superhuman strength, before performing a textbook disengage that knocked it off balance and delivering a stomping kick to the monster's midsection that sent it stumbling away.
"Yield," the man commanded sternly. "And I shall release you from this mockery of life."
This time, the creature seemed to let out a mocking laugh, and charged once more.
"So be it," the man said, with a quiet, terrible finality.
The blades clashed once, twice, three times, then it was over. The monster's head and body fell separately, heatless, voracious white fire consuming them, shattered sword lying beside the beheaded carcass. Jaw hanging loose, Dane looked up at his saviour, illuminated in the dimmed, but still present white light of his sword.
He was a tall man, at least six and half feet, powerfully built. He was wearing classic mail and plate armour, with a long, white cloak with a red cross embroidered into it. He had a strong, appealing face and dark, salt and pepper hair, neatly cropped, and a matching beard. His nose looked like it had been broken at least once, and where it would, in other men, have leant a roguish cast to their features, in this one it gave a sense of strength, nobility and steadfast endurance. His grey eyes shone like the steel of his blade, cold and focused.
And even in his current state, Dane recognised this man from the stories.
Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross. Michael Carpenter, wielder of Amoracchius, the Sword of Love. Michael Carpenter, the Fist of God.
Who met his gaze and smiled kindly. "Are you okay, young man?"
Dane gulped. And tried very hard not to squee.
"I'm, um, fine, thanks," he managed, struggling to his feet and only halfway making it, his back spasming once more.
Michael took him by the shoulders, quickly gave him a once over and said, "No, you're not." He smiled. "There is no shame in admitting that you are hurt. You've fought well."
Dane blushed slightly at the praise, and noticed that the battle around them had entered a lull. None of the monsters wanted to draw the attention of the Fist of God.
"Dane!" Sean yelled, the former X-Man gliding in to land beside them, performing his own once over check of the younger man, before smacking upside the head. "By my bones, ye're a fuckin' idiot sometimes, laddie! What were you thinking?"
"He wasn't," Michael commented calmly. "And that is no crime." He smiled slightly. "Maybe it should be considered a misdemeanour, however."
"It bloody ought t' be," Sean muttered, then turned to the other man. "Sir Knight, ye're a sight f'r sore eyes," he said, relief pouring from every syllable. "And ye have my thanks."
"All thanks rightly go to Him," Michael said with a gentle smile, in a tone that nevertheless conveyed acknowledgement.
"I've had a hard time keepin' th' faith in recent - an' take tha', misbeggoten scunners tha' yez are!" Sean began slowly, before an unfortunate pack of vampires decided to try their luck. Unfortunate because he howled at them. And when the Banshee howls, nothing stays standing.
Or, in the case of the vampires, in one piece. Several pieces, even.
"Years," he finished.
"What point is there to faith if it is not tested?" Michael asked. "Whether it is faith in others, ourselves, or even Him?"
Sean grunted acknowledgement, then activated a communicator. "Banshee to MI13 command," he said, accenting shifting to a carefully enunciated standard RP. "I need a medevac for Black Knight immediately."
"Whuh?" Dane asked, puzzled.
"Me accent's difficult enough f'r most t' understand in person. It's nae hard t' change it," Sean explained.
Dane nodded, then regretted it as his world began to spin. He was beginning to feel woozy. The adrenalin was running out, he was tired and the endorphins his body was producing for the pain had decided to throw a party.
So it was in this somewhat drunken state that he asked, "Sir Michael?"
"Can I have your autograph?"
I stared at Gravemoss.
He was tall, whip-thin and looked almost delicate in the half light of the tunnels. He could also probably rip me in half with his bare hands. His skin was pale and thin, like paper, stretched tight over his prominent bone structure and pointed ears. His hair was long and white, falling to his shoulders like a frozen waterfall and his eyes were a disquieting shade of red. Not because he was an albino. No, if you looked closely, you could see the fires of hell burning within. And if you were someone like me, you didn't dare look in those eyes for more than a moment.
But there was something more there, something that frightened me even more than his power and his reputation.
I recognised him.
Not him personally, but his type. You get them every now and then, the sort of children who never grow out of burning ants alive under a magnifying glass on a sunny day, step on a cat's tail just to hear it shriek and whip a dog just to hear it whimper and desperately subordinate itself, anything to make the pain stop. Then, they move on to people. They work out to break them, physically, mentally and emotionally, force them to obey their will.
And for some, it stops there. Control is enough.
But for some, it goes further. They just want to break things, not even to hear them shatter, but just because they can. They'll test out new forms of destruction on people, toying with them, finding new ways to break and burn, picking out their favourites. They kill because they want to know which way is the most fun and that's all other people are there for – to amuse them, one way or another. And no one can stop them.
And occasionally, just occasionally, turns fanatical. Suddenly, they're doing it not just for personal pleasure, but for a higher cause. Killing becomes sacrificing, a dedication to a darker power, in exchange or in return for strength, knowledge or favour, or worse, an intangible ideal.
I didn't know enough about Gravemoss to say what his motivation was, but if I had to guess, it was the last and worst – an intangible ideal.
And that terrified me.
It made me angry too. That anger combined with the simmering anger I'd felt since I'd taken this case, rage at the suffering of innocents and revulsion at this perversion of the powers of life and creation.
Suddenly, I didn't care that he was terrifyingly powerful. I didn't care that he was a godlike being on a level with Mab. I didn't care that he had access to the Darkhold, the Big Bad Book of Evil, behind which was Chthon, who was taking an interest in events. I didn't care that right now, there was a pack of about seventy Asgardian horrors between me and him, any ten of which I could take, until the other sixty ripped me apart.
I just wanted to smash.
"I hope you have something planned, wizard," Sif murmured, voice tense and twanging like a taut bowstring. The Goddess of War was afraid. And I couldn't blame her.
"Or we're all dead," Ward added matter of factly.
"I do," I said.
"Is it a good plan?"
Ward looked thoughtful. "So we're only probably dead. That's an improvement," he said dryly.
I glared at him as Sif stifled a small laugh. Ward smiled briefly, then returned to carefully watching the enemy.
Gravemoss cocked his head. "Probably," he said slowly and thoughtfully. Then, he disappeared.
And then, it happened.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious. Of the three of us, a tired wizard, a mortal commando and the Norse Goddess of War, which one of us provided the most threat?
Sif realised it before I did, and was turning as the necromancer appeared behind her, bringing her blades around. But he was faster, reaching out, grabbing her by the arm and freaking teleporting away, reappearing where he'd been. Sif broke away and lashed out, slicing Gravemoss' left arm clean off. Before she could add his head to the category of limbs removed, with a hand gesture, he bound her in dark, cold magical bindings, then looked down at the stump and frowned, as if it was merely inconvenient. And presumably it was merely inconvenient since the arm seemed to be growing back.
"What the hell," Ward whispered under his breath.
I rather agreed with him.
"Do what you will, monster," Sif hissed. "Kill me. Let them be, they are but mortal and cannot harm you."
Well, that would be a blow to my self esteem if, you know, I actually had any and didn't heartily agree with the fact that I was out of my depth.
That didn't mean I was going to give in. As I've said, I've got this thing about innocents, particularly women and children getting hurt. It's not the world's most progressive attitude and I cop to that. Hell, it's not practical either, and has nearly got me killed a few times. Actually, scratch that, a lot of times.
It's not that I don't recognise that they can look after themselves, since even if I was an inveterate member of the 'women-are-weak-and-belong-in-the-kitchen' brigade – which I'm not and never have been – to start with, the number of times I've had the crap kicked out of me by women of all kinds and/or seen them kick the crap out of something else would have long shaken me out of it.
A prime example of this would be Lieutenant Karrin Murphy. Looks like a particularly short and cute cheerleader, once strangled a troll with her nightstick, took out another one with a chainsaw and can beat me to a pulp every day of the week. Think Buffy, then take away the powers and multiply the badassery by a factor of awesome.
But, I still have this thing, and even though Sif was one of the biggest badasses in an entire world of badasses, and I wouldn't get in a fight with her if you paid me with a couple of Caribbean islands and I had the Hulk backing me up, the sight of anyone, particularly a woman, at risk of horrible death tends to set off my inner Neanderthal.
And leaving all that aside, she'd saved my freaking life. I owed her a debt.
But Neanderthals, inner or otherwise, aren't renowned for their brains and honour isn't a good substitute for reason.
So when I unleashed a bolt of force with a snarl of, "Forzare" (gimme a break, I make up my own spells and I go with what sounds good the time), one designed to dip, then deliver an uppercut to Gravemoss like a speeding hummer, I wasn't exactly epitomising the 'wise' part of the wizard stereotype.
He glanced at me, sneered, then flicked a finger. My bolt of force, visible only as a ripple in the air, bounced and shot towards Ward, who'd opened fire as soon as I had. One shot grazed the necromancer, and he didn't get the chance to make another one as he was hurled backwards by my redirected force spell, slamming into the wall of bones at speeds that were bone crunching in several painful looking ways.
"Death," Gravemoss said, in his soft, rustly, strangely lulling voice, as dark energy crackled around his hand. "Is not a probability." Then, to my stunned horror. "He thrust it forward in a blur wrist deep into Sif's chest, causing her to let out a gurgling cry. "It is a certainty." Then he tore her heart out, and smiled.
The smile was probably the worst part.
Sif, glaring at him, wasn't done though. With the last of her strength, she spat a mouthful of spit and blood right into his face.
He blinked, then wiped off the blood, and, hand crackling with dark magic, reached forward.
Then I realised with chilling certainty what he was going to do. He was going to raise Sif as one of the veidrdraugar, something a dozen orders of magnitude worse than the ones we'd faced so far.
And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The students in Hogwarts had quietened down, the nightmares passing. Nevertheless, on Professor Dumbledore's order, the Heads of House checked their students just in case.
Minerva McGonagall had checked the girls and the first and second year boys, but when she reached the third year dorm, she saw a light underneath the door.
Probably a student having awoken and deciding to read, she thought, or simply to have a light to comfort them.
Then she paused. This was Harry's dormitory. The chances of it being anything so normal were limited.
But even expecting the weird, when she opened the door, she let out a small gasp.
Because Harry was floating in mid air, completely limp, outlined in golden energy.
His dormmates were examining him from a distance, not going near him. The reason for this surprising common sense was the fact that Ronald Weasley was cradling his right hand.
"Mr Weasley," she said softly. "What has happened here?"
The boys all started, then Ron said, voice taut with pain, "We had nightmares, professor, then there was this flash of light and Harry was floating above his bed."
"Ron tried to touch him, Professor, to see if he was all right," Dean Thomas said nervously. "And… he got burnt."
Before she could enquire any further, there was a sudden movement. Harry, glowing even brighter, eyes discs of solid gold, had a look of concern on his face.
Then, moving faster than Minerva could register, he reached out and grabbed Ron's hand with inexorable strength, yet surprising gentleness. One moment, his hand was by his side, the next, it was wrapped around Ron's burnt one, the linked hands glowed golden-white for an instant… and then Harry – or whatever he'd become – released the hand.
"It's… the burn. It's gone," Ron whispered, amazed.
"I can see, Mr Weasley. Nevertheless, I will have you checked by Madam Pomfrey," Minerva said. "Who knows what kind of effects this magic could have?" She glanced at the boys, while keeping one eye on Harry, who seemed to be staring off into the middle distance. He was facing Southwards, and though she didn't know it, straight at the battle.
"What's happening, Professor?" Neville Longbottom asked, worried, worried enough to overcome his usual diffidence. "We all had terrible dreams, then this happened and you came in. What's going on?"
Minerva hesitated, then decided to give them a hint of the truth. "There is a battle going on just outside London," she said quietly. "The Avengers, including Harry's father, are involved, so I suspect what is happening is connected to that side of his heritage. I daresay you will find out about the battle tomorrow, but Professor Dumbledore has been assured that there is no danger to Hogwarts and the battle is ending with evil defeated. You may sleep well in your beds knowing that you are safe."
"What about Harry, Professor?" Seamus asked, nodding at the still floating boy. "Is he going to be safe?"
Minerva sighed. "I don't know. A lot of strange things have been happening recently, Mister Finnigan. But so far, no harm is being done to him." She eyed Harry. "Though I have never seen this before, he seems just to be floating."
Then, as if to disprove her, in a soft whisper underlaid by a sense of crackling, warm power, Harry whispered, "Look," and thrust his right hand out, pointing at something only he could see.
"Look at what?" Minerva asked, before she could stop herself. She didn't get answer, as the light around Harry winked out, his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell to the floor with a crack as his head hit the carpeted stone.
As she went to his aid, she found herself inwardly reflecting that nothing with Harry Potter was ever simple.
Thor hovered above the battle. Wanda's initial assault had delivered the death blow to the undead army, and she had then moved on to systematic spirit banishing, taking advantage of the fact that Loki had kept the intangible beings hemmed. It was all clean up now.
He himself was mostly limited to unleashing a set of three carefully confined but extremely powerful twisters, and using them to hoover up stragglers. Loki, having caught on to what he was doing and having been freed from the responsibility of locking down the spirits, had ignited the three tornadoes, and that, pretty much – aside from a near miss when the Excalibur agent called Banshee had nearly got sucked in. Thor had never heard so much inventive swearing from a Midgardian in his entire life, which was really quite impressive.
But there were still a few pockets of combat, where ground forces engaged groups of undead that had clumped together.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw an indistinct golden figure floating beside him. It whispered, "Look," and pointed.
Thor followed the pointing arm and swore softly. He would later reflect that the voice was familiar, somehow.
In the middle of one of the pockets of battle, the spiky haired figure of John Constantine was standing over Volstagg, who had taken what looked like a vast, raking slash to the back of the legs, forcing him to the ground, and defending him from a fairly generic looking undead demon. It was the sort that Loki could identify by name. Thor generally identified them too, but usually ended up giving them the same name.
As he wound up with his hammer, he heard Constantine complain,"I killed you last week!" in the same sort of irritated tone you would use for finding that one annoying bt of plumbing that simply won't stay fixed.
He smiled. Same old Constantine.
The demon began a reply, but didn't finish it. It's very hard to say anything when you don't have a head.
As Thor flew down to land beside him, Constantine glanced around, raised his wand and loosed a cutting curse that neatly beheaded three zombies, then took out a cigarette and lit it with the tip of his wand with an air of practised ease in a motion that Thor had seen thousands of times when he'd been James.
"I never asked," Thor said. "But how long did it take you to master that?"
"A week?" Constantine said, shrugging. "This a friend of yours?" he asked, nodding at Volstagg.
"Aye," Thor said, reaching down and rifling Volstagg's pockets.
"He's not even mostly dead," Constantine commented. "You can't go through the pockets for loose change until he's all dead."
Thor absently gave him the finger, before finding what he was looking for. A healing stone. He gently turned Volstagg over, examined his blood matted breeches and said, "Where does it hurt most, old friend?"
"Upper left leg," Volstagg grunt. "The rest aren't too bad."
"Loki and Sif will be the judges of that," Thor said, ripping open the breeches at the site of the mentioned wound and crumbling the stone over it. The wound quickly closed up.
"Not bad," Constantine commented, impressed. "What are those things?"
"Healing stones," Thor said, helping Volstagg to his feet. "My mother's invention, they are sort of general healing spell. Not much good for serious injuries, but they serve well for gashes and the like."
"I'll bet," Constantine muttered. "Do you know where I could get me a few of those?"
"Yes," Thor said, before letting out a low whistle as Wanda unleashed a powerful spell bolt that vaporised a small pack of vampire. "Her powers have grown dramatically."
"Too bloody right they have," Constantine said. "She was always bloody strong, but I'm pretty sure she didn't used to be able to fucking fly."
Thor coughed pointedly. Constantine glanced at him and rolled his eyes. "You can fly because you're the God of Thunder and Lightning, I know," he said. "Must be like a dream come true to wake up one day as a Norse God."
"When I first awoke after I died as James," Thor said slowly. "It felt like a nightmare."
Constantine grimaced and nodded. "I'll bet," he said. "About what happened to Lily... I'm sorry, mate. Wish I could have done something."
"Don't we all," Thor said, with a sigh. "Wanda most of all, doubtless."
"Yeah, she was a bit of a wreck afterwards, as you can imagine," Constantine said. "Especially when Strange put the kibosh on her adopting your kid. She loved the midget to bits."
"She did," Thor said, and smiled slightly. "I remember a certain someone cooing over Harry when he thought no one was looking."
Constantine glared at him. "I can still put a shrinking spell on your pants, y'know," he said.
"John, I grew up with Loki for a brother," Thor said, amused. "You are going to have to better than that."
"Don't bloody tempt me," Constantine muttered, reaching the end of his cigarette.
There was a moment of silence.
"You know, this is most interesting to listen to," Volstagg said. "You sound more like a Midgardian when you speak to your old Midgardian friends, Thor."
"And what's it to you, dough ball?" Constantine snapped. The cigarette he'd finished was, as he'd just discovered, his last, and he was consequently in a rather bad mood.
"Thor, is he insulting my weight?" Volstagg asked, sounding puzzled.
"Don't take it personally. He insults most people," Thor said. "Except Wanda."
"The woman who's bloody glowing red and teaming up with Loki," Constantine said. Thor looked over and saw that Wanda and Loki were, indeed, now teamed up and alternating between sweeping disoriented monsters into the other's path and incinerating those that came their way with metronomic efficiency.
Well, incinerated wasn't strictly true, but there weren't words for some of the things that Wanda was doing to them.
"A woman one would definitely not want to offend," Volstagg observed, sounding impressed.
"Indeed," Thor said. "John, do you have any friends or allies who manifest as golden figures?"
"Maybe," Constantine said, shrugging. "Why?"
"A figure of that description pointed out your plight to me," Thor said. "And yes, Volstagg, I do take on more Midgardian mannerisms when I speak to those I knew as James Potter. I suspect it is a trait derived from accessing those memories."
Volstagg nodded. "Sounds reasonable," he said, then looked around. "Is there anything to eat?" he asked hopefully.
"Is there anything to smoke?" Constantine asked. "Conjured cigs taste like shit."
Thor surveyed the smoking battlefield, strewn with rotting, burning corpses. "There are things to smoke and eat," he said slowly. "But I would be very worried if you smoked or ate any of them."
"Forzare," I growled again, this time pulling rather than pushing. This one Gravemoss didn't deflect, having apparently decided I was beneath his notice.
The force spell snatched Sif's body out of the air and sent her tumbling towards me, bouncing along the ground before she came to a stop about ten feet behind me. Dignified? Not particularly, but the alternative was worse.
Gravemoss looked annoyed, and glared at me somewhat coldly. Then he gave me a long look. "You are touched by darkness," he said slowly.
"A little," I said. I've made some bad decisions in my time.
"More than a little, mortal child," Gravemoss said softly, drifting over to me. "You have the shadow of Yahweh's banished children."
Okay. He could sense Lasciel in my head. That was an order of magnitude further up on the disturbing meter.
He stopped about ten feet in front of me.
"Any last words?" he asked. "The living customarily like to say something fruitless about their death just being the beginning."
Jeez. Talk about cliché.
Wait, did he just quote Obi-Wan?
Well, either way clichés and probably unintentional Star Wars quotes make great straight lines.
"A few." I levelled my staff. He smiled, amused. "I may not look like much," I said. "But I've got it where it counts." My staff lit up. "You like death, big guy?" I said, a toothy, angry grin stretched across my face. I was going down, but this bastard was coming down with me. It spread even wider as I saw, for just a brief moment, a flicker of fear on the necromancer's face. This wasn't going the way he expected. "Here's mine." I thrust my staff forward and bellowed, "BURN!"
I felt a ripping, tearing sensation deep inside, as if something was digging its claws into my heart and pulling it out through my chest. It was pain, but it was good pain. It was the sort of pain that was going to visit itself on someone else a thousand fold. My vision began to tunnel as the power gathered in my body, then thundered down my outstretched right arm.
And dimly, as the life began to fade from my body, I saw a gigantic column of blinding white light roar down the tunnel, felt the crisp dry air, heard the unique sound of immolating flesh…
Then all was nothingness.
Agent Ward groaned and sat up. The air was hot and dry, he noticed vaguely. Then he heard an urgent voice.
"Agent Ward, this is Coulson, can you hear me?"
"I've got you Agent Coulson," Ward managed.
"What's going on down there? Your comms went down and a gigantic pillar of fire rose up over Paris five minutes ago," Coulson said, worried.
Ward blinked, then frowned at Sif. There was a large patch of pinkish newly grown skin over her heart, he noticed vaguely. "Lady Sif? You were…"
"Dead?" she said, then glanced to her left. "Only mostly."
Ward followed her gaze into the shadows. He caught the vague outline of a red cloak and a pair of blank white eyes. Then the cloak swirled and the figure disappeared. "Who?" he began to ask.
"Doctor Strange, Midgard's Sorcerer Supreme," she said. "He is a healer of great skill and renown, enough to keep me alive for long enough to regenerate my heart."
"Ward, what's Dresden's status?"
Ward paused to speak, then groaned as a wash of colours exploded across his vision. "I think I'll let Sif explain, sir," he said, trying to suppress the urge to vomit. "I feel a bit rattled." He handed over his ear piece. "Put it in your ear and speak. Agent Coulson, my commander, is on the other end," he said, before pinching his nose and beginning to breath carefully.
"Sif, this is Agent Coulson. Is Dresden down?"
"He is, Agent Coulson," Sif said quietly. "He is dead. He used his death curse to save us."
Ward looked up. "What?"
"Dresden is dead," Sif repeated, and nodded along the tunnel. "He bought us life with his death."
Ward followed her gaze, seeing the drastically enlarged tunnel. The night sky could be seen from the far end as it opened out onto the sky.
He shook his head, wincing at the renewed sense of nausea. "He was a brave man," he said quietly. "He deserved better."
"He did. And he will be honoured," Sif said, hard voice suggesting that anyone who did not believe that he should be honoured would be introduced to her fist.
"He will," Coulson assured her. "Are there any more veidrdraugar present? Any sign of Gravemoss?"
"None," Sif said. "Though he would be fast enough to raise a shield before Dresden's attack hit."
Coulson nodded. "Gravemoss is alive then," he said. "Make your way to the nearest exit. Bring Dresden's body. We'll pick you up."
"Understood," Sif said, picking up Dresden's body carefully.
Coulson cut the connection, then let out a long, slow breath. "This my fault," he said to the world at large. "I should never have brought him into this."
"He chose to get involved," May said. Coulson looked up at her. He looked sad. Tired. And for the first time that she could remember, he looked… old.
"An uninformed choice. He didn't know what he was letting himself in for, not really."
"He could have pulled out at any time, and you know it. He didn't pull out because innocents were in danger and he could stop it," May said flatly. "You said it yourself. He wouldn't stand by." She folded her arms. "His sacrifice destroyed every one of those monsters in Paris. It'll have stunned Gravemoss at the very least and it launched him northwards. And I'm pretty sure that leaves him in striking distance of the Avengers." She met his gaze. "He gave his life to save others. And by giving his life, he gave us the chance to end this tonight. You can grieve later. Right now… I think he'd try and strangle you if you thought you were going to make his sacrifice a vain one."
Coulson nodded. "Get Fitzsimmons to calculate the trajectory. I want to know where he would have landed."
"No need, Agent Coulson," Fitz said, scrambling in, followed by Simmons. "We've got the trajectory calculations."
"Down to the last centimetre," Simmons said cheerfully, then her smile faded. "Is he… is he really dead?" she asked hesitantly.
"He is," Coulson said, after a moment. "And he died in order to give us a chance." Then he turned away so he wouldn't have to see her devastated expression. With a sharp series of tapping motions, he brought up a comms link with Fury on the Helicarrier. "Director, Paris is clear and Gravemoss is in the North Sea."
"Well done, Agent Coulson," Fury said. "Any losses?"
"Dresden, Director. He used his death curse to protect the unconscious Agent Ward and the body of the temporarily dead Lady Sif. The resultant fireball blasted Gravemoss several hundred miles north east," Coulson said.
Fury grimaced. "Damn shame," he said, shaking his head. "He was a good man."
"He was, Director."
"Sending them now, Director Fury, sir," Simmons said, voice a little wobbly from grief and nervousness at actually talking to the legendary Director Fury. Fitz merely nodded dumbly and input the coordinates.
"Good work," Fury said. "Your job is done. Refuel at the Triskelion, then ship Dresden's body home."
"Yes, Director," Coulson said. "Oh, and by the way, Sif should be arriving in London via Bifrost any moment now. She was resurrected by Doctor Strange."
Fury glanced offscreen. "That wouldn't surprise me. And indeed she has. It's pretty much just clean up here, unless that bastard Gravemoss manages to stir up more trouble. Safe travels, Agent Coulson." He cut the link.
Thor turned. "Steve?" he said, concerned, then relaxed. The other man was scorched, bloodied and generally the worse for wear, but not gravely injured.
"I've got word from Fury," Steve said. "He wants you and anyone else who can keep up to get out to sea. SHIELD's team in Paris ended up being forced to engage the necromancer."
"The necromancer was there?" Thor asked, frowning, suddenly worried for his friend. "I sent Sif to assist them, but I didn't know that he was present."
"She's fine," Steve said. "Though I don't propose to tell Loki exactly what nearly happened to her until we can put him somewhere safe to react to it. Like the middle of the Sahara Desert. Or the Moon."
"What happened?" Thor asked, hefting Mjolnir.
"The necromancer ripped her heart out and was about to turn her into one of those things," Steve said grimly. "The wizard that SHIELD contracted to track the veidrdraugar on the ground, some guy called Dresden, managed to get her body out of the way."
"Body?" Thor asked dangerously as thunder rumbled ominously overhead. "I thought you said she was fine," he said in careful tones that demanded an explanation before the owner of said tones got angry.
"She is. Apparently Doctor Strange managed to save her," Steve said.
Thor nodded, subsiding somewhat. "Where is Gravemoss?" he asked softly. "For I would much desire to speak with him."
Steve handed Thor an ear piece. "SHIELD will guide you in. Tony's already on the way."
"And I will join you."
Both turned to see Wanda join them. "I want this over tonight," she said in clipped tones. "This is the monster responsible for having Harry kidnapped?" she asked.
"Then he will be lucky if he dies quickly," she said.
"Indeed he will," Thor said grimly. "Steve, if you can find my brother, ask him to join us, please."
"I'll do that," Steve said, nodding. "Happy hunting."
Thor nodded, before whirling his hammer. "Can you keep up?" he asked.
"Watch me," Wanda said, a brief hint of a smile poking through.
"A pleasant activity I'm sure," Thor said, smirking. "But I have a girlfriend." Then he took off, shooting upwards. Wanda rolled her eyes, then followed him a moment later, quickly drawing level with him, even after he broke the sound barrier.
You thought you'd had the last word, didn't you? She sent, dryly amused.
I did, Thor replied cheerfully. You know, this is just like old times.
Wanda sobered. Yes, she replied grimly. Good people dying to stop bad ones. Oh yes, this feels very familiar.
Thor's smile faded and his face settled into a grim cast. Indeed. This Wizard, Dresden, shall be avenged. He glanced at Wanda. If you dislike combat, if you left the Wizarding World, why join us now?
Because there are some things I can't let pass, Wanda said. And 'Peter Wisdom' is a blackmailing manipulative bastard who just happens to have a point every now and then.
Thor blinked at this puzzling assertion, but nodded.
But most of all, Wanda said, and Thor could feel her anger. This bastard tried to get Harry, my godson, hurt, even killed. I'd happily kill him just for that.
In that, my friend, we are of one mind, Thor said, angling his flight north-east. And storm clouds followed his passage.
Quickly, they bore down on a thin, soaked bone white figure in a pale robe, who was busy fending off Tony's repulsor blasts.
This, Thor realised with mounting rage, was the creature that had ordered his son's death, attempted to murder and reanimate one of his oldest friends as an abomination and slaughtered countless innocents. He. Would. Burn.
"GRAVEMOSS!" he roared, summoning the biggest lightning bolt he could manage. "I WOULD HAVE WORDS WITH THEE!"
Tony, knowing that the phrase, 'I would have words with thee' meant 'I am going to smash you into the bedrock', got out of the way as the gigantic bolt of fork lightning, at least fifty miles wide and four hundred long, struck Mjolnir, which crackled with leashed power. And as soon as it struck, Thor whirled it once, twice, three times, then hurled it as hard as he could at the transfixed and rather stunned Gravemoss, who barely managed to raise a shield.
Mjolnir tore straight through it at an appreciable fraction of light speed, smashing the necromancer into the sea, which briefly lit up a crackling white as the lightning discharged, doubtless frying Gravemoss.
Thor, anger still pumping through his veins, summoned Mjolnir once more, just itching to make the necromancer pay.
Then Wanda swore. "The bastard ran," she growled, at Thor's questioning look. "Teleported away. He could be anywhere now."
And Thor howled with thwarted rage.
I don't remember much of what happened next. My old mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, suggested that mortal men weren't meant to know what the next life was like, so I had forgotten or been made to forget to preserve my sanity. Me, I was half expecting Valkyries, having fallen in battle alongside the Goddess of War, but that's life. Or afterlife. Whatever.
I only remember two things. One, I was at peace.
And two, a soft, yet mind numbingly powerful whisper.
Wake up, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Wake up. Wake up because your time is not yet done.
Then light exploded behind my eyes and I woke up, gasping and blinking. I looked around. I was on the main table in the lab on Coulson's plane. And I was alive.
"I'm… I'm alive," I said, stunned. "How is this possible?"
"Someone interceded, of course," Sif said calmly. "Someone powerfully magical."
"Or they had powerful tech," Fitz said. "SHIELD has some pretty impressive machines to call on and records of encountering technology capable of doing something similar." He shrugged. "It's not always magic is all I'm saying."
He had a point there, but that wasn't it. "No," I said, levering myself up carefully. "They used magic. I felt it." I shook my head. "Do you know who resurrected me?" I said. "Because I would kind of like to know."
"It was Doctor Strange," Coulson said. I missed what he said next because a short dark haired blur hit me at somewhere just south of light speed. It was Gemma.
I heard a muffled noise from somewhere in the region of my torso and the squeezing got tighter. I heard some stifled laughter, and glowered at the source – Sif, who remained resolutely unintimidated. Fitz looked awkward, Skye looked amused, Ward was giving me a flat look, May had raised an eyebrow and Coulson looked patient.
"Gemma," I said, trying again. "I just got back from the dead. So I would like to be able to breathe some time soon, because I hear that it's kind of vital."
Gemma let go of me and glared. "What made you think that sacrificing your own life was a good idea?"
"He didn't have any other option, Simmons," Coulson said, intervening. "It was the only play he could make that Gravemoss wouldn't expect."
Skye turned, frowning. "What do you mean?"
"Gravemoss is as far as I can grasp, a complete sociopath, with no empathy for others," Coulson explained, as Mouse shuffled over to me and cadged a few scratches while he sniffed me over, reassuring himself that I was still alive. "The idea of making the suicide play, of someone sacricing their life for others, especially others that aren't even present… it's completely alien to him."
I caught the present tense. "Is? Hells bells, look at what my death curse did!" I yelled, gesturing at the images of the molten walls of the tunnel and the very large hole at the far end, leading up to the city. "That shot should have vaporised him!"
"If it's any consolation, it really pissed him off," Ward said. This time, there was a note of genuine respect in his voice.
"As far as we can tell, he managed to get a shield up," Fitz piped up. "And we calculated his trajectory."
"Where did he land?"
Fitz examined one of his gizmos. "Somewhere in the North Sea," he said. "You blasted him a long way," he added helpfully, sounding a little impressed.
"I'd have thought I'd have launched him into orbit," I said weakly.
"Well, judging by my calculations, if you'd blasted him straight upwards, he would have at least hit the stratosphere," Fitz said cheerfully. "The blast force was approximately equivalent to a railgun."
"The fire ball was pretty impressive too," Gemma added a little damply. "It burned at about 2000 degrees Celsius."
"And was less a fireball, more a stream of fire which shot about a thousand feet into the air," May added dryly.
I stared at my cracked and ruined staff, then at the pictures of the long tunnel. It had been widened by a factored of three as the fire I had summoned had bored a gigantic hole in the Paris bedrock, evaporating all the bone. "I hope I don't have to pay for that," I said weakly.
"SHIELD will cover the clean up," Coulson said. "And the cover up. The public is ready for the Avengers. Not for necromancy and the undead."
"How are you going to explain this?"
I stared at him in disbelief.
"We'll doctor a few photos, alter a few films, make the pillar of fire about a third its actual size," Coulson said casually. "Human nature will do the rest."
"What about the London zombie apocalypse?" I asked,
"Robots, bio-borgs. Something supernatural, maybe, but like I said, the undead are a step too far for now," Coulson said. He shrugged. "Honestly, it could be passed off as a biological terrorist attack. Terrorists are popular at the moment."
I nodded my reluctant agreement. When newbies stumble into the supernatural world, they're amazed at how it all gets hidden away, a world full of nations, nightmares, angels and demons. Me, I'm just amazed that anyone notices. The only reason that New York wasn't rationalised away because it was simply too big. It is very hard to ignore a couple of thousand tons or so of rotting alien space whale when it's lying in Grand Central station.
I shook my head. "Right," I said. "But… Doctor Strange? The Sorcerer Supreme?"
Coulson nodded. I let out a low whistle. Strange, as I've mentioned, has something of a reputation.
"I swear that what he did was impossible," I argued. "Even for him."
"Strange has never really cared about what's possible," Coulson observed.
"Right," I said, stepping forward. "I'll ask Bob."
Then I paused. "Gemma… you can let go of me now."
Bob, as it turned out, wasn't much more helpful.
"Someone brought me back after I used my death curse," I said flatly. "That's impossible, right?"
"Not impossible," Bob said slowly. "If someone caught you quickly, grabbed your soul and had enough power to restore your lifeforce, then they could do it."
"And how many people are there capable of doing that?"
"Mother Summer, Mother Winter, a few of the more powerful gods, a Phoenix host and maybe an incredibly powerful wizard," Bob said. "Like, the original Merlin powerful."
"Coulson said it was Doctor Strange. Could he do it?"
Bob let out a long, low whistle, an impressive feat for a guy with no lips. "Put it this way, Harry, I wouldn't bet against him. Strange doesn't really care much about what's impossible."
"That's what Coulson said," I said dourly, and supremely unhelpful it was too. Even magic has rules.
"He was right," Bob said. "Hey, just be glad that you're alive to cash your paycheck." He looked at me. "But you're not going to do that. No, you're not going to leave well enough alone, even when you could be making time with the hot British scientist, because that would be far too normal."
"It's almost like you know me, Bob," I said with grim cheer.
For some reason, the Sorcerer Supreme wanted me alive. For some reason, he thought I still had work to do in the world. For some reason, he'd given me a second chance.
This, Gravemoss, HYDRA, it was too big for me, and I wasn't too proud to admit it. But. I could stop the veidrdraugar. Given the right time, the right preparation, the right things on the line… I can and will stop almost anything.
I picked up Bob. "Come on Bob. We're going home. I've got a city to protect."
Thor let his gaze rove around the battle marked M4 and the smoking piles of formerly undead bodies, which were now merely very dead. They were being vanished by Ministry officials.
He had landed back at the battle field a few minutes ago, his rage having mostly worn off. He was very good at immediate rage, but not so good at maintaining it long term. It flared up swiftly and with horrendous violence when caused to do so, but it would die down equally swiftly, and, currently, Thor was dwelling on the positives.
All his friends were alive and well, the Avengers being uninjured, except for a broken wrist on Clint's part, which he treated more as an annoyance than as a real injury, and the fact that Bruce was really very sleepy. Volstagg had gone back to Asgard with the recently arrived Sif, who reported that the veidrdraugar in Paris were all destroyed.
The day was won, the enemy had been destroyed or forced to flee.
Oh, and Wanda had departed with a promise to visit, though she had declined to meet Harry face to face until their correspondence had developed or he desired it.
All was, for now, well.
Loki came and sat down beside him, and for a moment, both were silent. Then, Thor could resist it no more.
"Quiet, you said. Subtle, you said. Cloak and dagger, you said," he said.
"Oh shut up," Loki snapped.
Thor chuckled heartily, and grinned as silence fell once more.
"It didn't go according to plan," Loki muttered eventually, as if this was a failing on the part of the universe which personally offended him.
"Brother, it never goes according to plan."
Gravemoss staggered into his lair, and began wildly gathering his possessions. He must find somewhere, somewhere else, somewhere that he wouldn't be found. He wasn't strong enough yet, not to face Thor, for while Thor could be handled, where Thor went, Loki was rarely far behind. Either alone, yes. Both together, with their bevy of mortal allies?
Well, if those allies were anything like the one who had proved so mad as to hurl all his lifeforce at Gravemoss in a desperate, yet rather impressive attack, and he suspected that they were rather stronger – the Scarlet Witch certainly was - then there would be problems.
He glanced down at his right hand. In it was the Darkhold. He went to open it. It would provide him with the power he needed, all he needed do was surrender himself to it…
He shook himself. No. He would not round off such an evening by becoming the slave of the Elder who had created that tome.
He looked around slowly. No, he would not. A new home was required. And fast. Then he smiled.
"Von Strucker," he murmured. "And Malfoy."
They wouldn't begrudge him the space.
They weren't that stupid.
A long way away from the sleeping Hogwarts castle, the flying SHIELD plane, the cheerful battlefield and the grim catacombs, a small, non-descript looking man in SHIELD uniform walked along the metal corridors of the SHIELD Helicarrier.
He looked up and around. No one observing. No cameras either.
He nodded and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small, non-descript looking device, and planted it out of sight.
"Hail HYDRA," he whispered, as it came to life.
Aaand the pay off of that will come, but not for a while, both in story (at least a reasonably lengthy Harry centric arc away) and in real life, because I'm going to South Africa for three months on Thursday. And I will have neither internet nor my laptop.
Which, alas, means no writing and no updates. Keep faith, people. This fic is not going to be consigned to the unfinished pile. Including that which is posted, I've written well over a million words for this series as a whole (yeah, series. Did you think I was doing all this world building just for the one story? This fic is going to have a lot of sequels). There's a lot more to come.
I may, repeat, may, get out a relatively short Harry chapter before I go, but the likelihood of that is… limited.
So, presuming that I don't, see you at the end of May.
Also, I said someone would die. I never said it would stick. :)
Please read and review.