Chapter VI - Asunder

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IamLEAM1983
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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Nergal tried - and failed - to hide his disappointment, Ereshkigal smirking at the sight of the murderous glance he sent the coin. Still, he gamely headed for the panel van and opened the driver's seat door, the Squid mechanic looking a little miffed. "I checked her not three days ago!" he said. Nergal shrugged as he left the seat and went to inspect the engine. "This wasn't made for trips down to the Pit," he said. "It won't hurt us to be thorough."

It took a few minutes, with Erin softly berating her husband whenever he noted some small detail along the lines of the brake fuel line's cap not being tight enough or the oil sample coming out just a smidgen shy of looking brand-new. Eventually, however, with prodding from Erin and Archie, the demon relented and took to the driver's seat. In the back, his iron wings were suspended in a half-corporeal state and trailed behind the two front seats, the rest of the group being free to take to the benches in the rear. Reaching up to pluck a pistol or a rifle didn't seem to bother Bob, Gallows or Eustace, who'd assumed a look that made Archie's eyebrow perk up.

"Why does this face look familiar?" he asked, scrutinizing the Squid's ethically-sourced Flesh Mask. Coombs didn't miss the tint of irony behind the android's words, and smirked as he gave his M16 a once-over.

"I assumed I might help in blurring the cards, somewhat," he said. "Vaguely looking like a blood relative of the great Archibald Holden might earn me a few envious looks, and might make Belial's wheels turn for a spell."

Archie feigned uncertainty. "I don't know if I should be insulted or honored," he said.

Eustace checked his rifle's slide with a sharp clack of its lever. "Not too much of either, I hope," he said. "Any marauding Pride goons would sniff your bruised ego out like a bloodhound would an exposed scratch."

Canting his head in allowance, the android's shutters over his eyes slid in and out in a simulated blink. "Quite true. Might I say how refreshing this has been, mister Coombs?"

The Squid glanced at Crystal in a half-serious slide of his eyes. "He's not planning another set of bloody heroics, is he?"

Archie scoffed. "No, I meant to say it's been refreshing to find another Englishman of the same general stature as myself. I thought us a dying breed."

Eustace's lips were pulled tightly. "Unless we win this war, Milord, all breeds might die in short order - us gentlemen counting among the first."

* * *

"Scorched Earth defense," opined Tom. "We can't let it get this far. As much as I want to confront Arthur and hope Horatio might be able to help us in the same way we helped him, our best bet is Alana. He's pushed her away for now, supposedly for the refugees' benefit, and she's his sire. She knows what he's capable of when he's pushed, they've fought often enough. Go back a few decades across Rhode Island's celebrity rags, and you'll see that some of their spats motivated complete career shifts in either of them, multiple times over. If Lucian's looking to free her, we need to assist him - without going through the same gauntlet we just stepped out of."

He looked at one of the partially-sunken windows and grimaced lightly. Seemingly decided on what he needed to do, he headed for Sophia's room and rapped on it with a knuckle.

"Doctor Dickens?" he called out. "Sophia?"

The door creaked open, a slit of the dustbowl-era huckster winking into view out of the gloom. Horatio's blood hadn't originally been kind to the man, turning a weak-chinned fortysomething man with flaring mutton chops and a crown of silver hair into a hook-nosed and boil-covered gargoyle, a caricature of the typical Wild West peddler you could've seen across the other coast in the nineteenth century. Strain was even less kind, making his pale eyes almost glassy, his clammy brow feverish with droplets of blood and sweat.

"Would you pipe down?!" he seethed, in as low a whisper as he could manage. "I don't know if she's just closing her eyes to appease me or if I finally managed to talk her into bed, but you can't wake Sophia up at this stage!"

His features turned haggard at Tom's sight, weak relief washing over him. "Thank the stars, mister Magnus!" he said, then doing his best to scoot out of the room without opening the door further. "Is it over?" he asked. "Did you beat back Arthur's monsters?"

Tom sighed as he glanced at Aislinn. "We're not quite there, yet. I was hoping Sophia could raise this place up and out of the ground by a few inches for us: we could bypass the inner trenches and the worst of Holden's striplings by climbing out of her living room window. Then, reaching Alana might be possible."

The snake oil merchant's hands snapped up, animal furor stretching Dickens' features for half an instant - and he just as soon recoiled, instead wringing his hands together. "But I just managed to have Sophia lie down!" he protested. "It was at great expense: Miss. Tomlin didn't want to let me use laudanum or any of my concoctions-"

Claudia sighed. "Diluting corn starch in water and splashing it with Borax doesn't make an alchemist out of you, Albert. You could've-
- I could've what?" snapped the exhausted vampire. "Offered a dryad my blood?! There isn't a single disease-riddled cell in me that does not scream at me that this would be a monumentally bad idea!"

The girl sighed. "I meant to say that you could've poisoned Sophia. Not everything passes for an old-fashioned tonic, and you know it as well as I do. I know you're tired, I know the more kooky ends of your curse are pulling at you and both Ciaran and myself are thankful that you didn't drain either of us dry - but you need to stay focused. Remember what I told you about my research into Lilith's influence."

Dickens pulled an old handkerchief from his jacket's pocket and dabbed at his forehead, beating back the urge to lick it clean. "I know," he said, "I know... The Blood deepens the darkness in us and only asks to embolden our secret sparks. Stress is how she tests each bloodline, if she still does exist, and the most worthy of us are given the honor of shaping the Blood for a new generation. Horatio received that boon, and you think Arthur's descent is convenient on an arcane level."

He scoffed. "I'm not Arthur, miss Tomlin. Even before meeting all of you, I was just another eye-catching fixture in the circus, and Horatio gave me enough access to safe edibles to ensure that all my creations were food-grade and safe for children. Now, whenever my mind turns foggy, I see all of Sophia's house-cleaning equipment and I think What if, Albert? What if you had the key to save them all?"

Claudia smiled, almost sweetly, and cupped Albert's cheek. "I wasn't talking about Arthur, Doc. You've been put under just as much strain as Arthur, and you haven't broken down yet. You're exhausted and desperate, but you're holding on. We need you to hold on just a bit longer."

The old huckster's eyes turned limpid as his chin trembled. A weak croak escaped his mouth, and he clutched at Claudia's shoulders, lowering his head below her own, maybe to deliberately avoid coming close to her neck. Quiet, strangled sobs escaped him. Looking at the others in a mute plea for patience, Claudia tried to sound as soothing as she could, softly advising Dickens that he'd be better off saving his blood for when he'd need it. She coaxed him into a few basic breath exercises.

The girl kept her voice low. "We're in a bad way. If Sophia can't help you out, your next best bet would be to either use TK to lift this whole place up by a few inches temporarily, or breaking something down around here to use as a prybar."

* * *

Warwick shrugged. "I'd consider it a re-jiggered curse, honestly: Mab's will exercised through my own, conveniently confining you in the heightened sensory perception and motor control of those of my species. It used to be I cursed those more bothersome of my would-be foils to existence as mere wildcats or scrawny alley runts, but both the Queen of Air and Darkness and myself have deemed it more appropriate to take to the gist of it as a boon, in the face of our current plight. An offered tool, rather than anything ensconced in the politics of the Fae."

A pout was added. "Not a gift, not a curse, not a Veil - merely an arcane patch job meant to be peeled off after use."

* * *

Lilith looked almost sad, once the past's events swept her along. Sand reshaped their surroundings for a second time, Mesopotamia's plains swapped for what seemed to be a desert oasis. They stood in a bowl of sorts, likely an ancient crater that acted in a way similar to a caldera. Within, a spring fed a sprawling patch of grass and kept a few palms going. A small hut had been erected next to the spring. The happy babble of a few children could be heard from within, the muted clamor turning to happy shrieks when an unknown woman let them loose. Her features looked haggard, but there was a persistent glow of contentment to them. Her life wasn't easy, but she was satisfied. Beside her stepped Cain, now older, with more chiseled features and a short beard. The woman touched his cheek, seemingly without effect. Cain slowly leaned into her and kissed her, oblivious to the children splashing in the spring.

"Always so affectionate," she said, in Iram's Arabic dialect. "You know I'm not running away any time soon, do you?
- I told you," he whispered back. "I spent years starved for touch, and it took a wise woman to free me.
- Were you cursed?" she asked back, not with concern, but with a gentle need for understanding. 

He kissed her again. "Every day I spent without you and the children, Mara, was a curse. Here, far away from angels and men, I'm freed of it."

Mara gently parted from him. "I know you and Grandmother Inanna aren't related, Khayin. I also know that's not her real name.
- You know too much," groused the man impishly, nuzzling her one last time. "You're inquisitive. I love that about you."

After a few seconds, one of the children called out. "Mother! Father! There are men here! Tamara is with them!"

Concern washed over Cain's features, and he whispered for Mara to stay here. As he left the doorframe, a bundle of rags with familiar dark eyes set itself in the space he'd occupied, power clinging to old bones. Inanna - obviously Lilith in her old age - kept sharp eyes pointed ahead.

"If Khayin cries out," she said, "close this door behind me."

She then stepped out, staying short of the path's curve, likely to stay out of sight of their visitors. As for Cain, he walked forwards and met his visitors. There stood Uriel, clad in the tunic and travelling robes of Solomon's kingdom. The other men and anthros that stood around him were all obviously angels as well.

"Hello," said Uriel, who held little six year-old Tamara by the hand. "Is this one yours as well?" he asked, his features set in apparent benevolence. "I've heard quite a clamor coming from your little nook, and my men and I would appreciate having access to your spring. The journey across the desert's proving to be a taxing one."

Cain assessed Uriel's garb. "You're from the Nephilim city, aren't you?"

Uriel lowered his eyes, the picture of sheepishness. He lowered the loose hem of his robe that he'd been using as a cowl, exposing his blonde locks. "From it, yes," he said. "I'm still amazed that you people can walk this far for water, you know."

Cain didn't soften his features and extended a hand towards his daughter. "Please let go of her," he said. Uriel, in response, looked back to her with a smile. "You're a lucky man," he said, still not letting go of her. Surely the Creator's blessed you. I used to watch the small ones with keen interest, when I was younger."

Letting go of Samara, he sighed. "Like blocks of clay, aren't they? Every bit as Celestial or Hell-borne as either parent, just as good or bad... A brother of mine tried to show me what our elders saw, once - the joy of it all."

Cain spirited Tamara behind him, lips quickly hissing in another language. The girl nodded in understanding and headed for the hut, passing her grandmother. Once she was out of sight, Cain sighed.

"You're an angel," he said. "I spent years trying to get away from your kind."

Uriel ignored him. "It all came to Gabriel surprisingly quickly. All he needed was a bout of skepticism, a quick peek across Spacetime to see what would become of those poor apes that were so puzzled, so distraught and desperate in the face their own mortality - and he fell in love. He keeps telling us you'll do great things, in time, but I've never seen it. I've followed his advice and gone looking, but all I've found is..."

He pouted. "No, spoiling History wouldn't amount to much, honestly. Let's just say this is mortals at their noblest," he said, gesturing at Cain. "A father protecting his children, a mother secretly wondering if she'll have enough mettle against the six or seven armed men standing in front of her husband... It's sad, honestly. Nature doesn't come complete with a sense of hypocrisy or misplaced self-esteem. A wolf kills because he's threatened or hungry. Vines creep because they need sunlight. Insects do what they do because the only thing that spurs them on is their survival instinct. Mortals?"

Cain lowered his voice. "You made Eva to destroy my family. Why? Why me, why us? There were millions upon millions of mortals before us, or so I was told. We're not the first ones to rise up and out of the dirt - why us?"

Uriel shrugged. "I could've picked anyone, honestly. Your names worked with what the future tells me you people will believe in, though. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain slaying Abel, the sons of Abel populating the world while those of Cain's are reduced to shadows," he said, scoffing. "I don't know how the Christians would take to the idea of Cain, Mara and Lilith standing in Eden, however..."

Cain narrowed his eyes. "The who? What are you talking about?!
- I'm saying, dear Cain, that I already tried to correct my father's mistakes. He didn't let my fixes stand, but he also didn't chide me. He doesn't speak to me like He does Lucifer. All most of us are good for, for all of our service, is guesswork."

The angel sighed. "I'm guessing this won't earn me praise or reproach, either. I still wonder how it is your kind can be so sure of God's intent, when you're all so removed from it."

In the back, the old woman Lilith had been raised her voice. "Khayin!" she shouted. "NOW!"

Shock made Cain hesitate, but one look at his trembling hands was all he needed. Balling his fists, he clenched his teeth around a scream and ran at the men. Lilith had obviously restored his curse, for the sake of it being turned against the same beings that had pronounced it. The sands of time swallowed them once more, only to be lifted to the sight of a few dying angels clutching at afflicted limbs or at their throat or face - and of Uriel pressing a sword's cutting edge against Mara's throat. Small bodies littered the now-burning oasis, one particularly singed and dark-skinned angel keeping Cain pinned to the floor from behind, having managed to lock his hands behind his back. Panic and bravery fought for attention in Cain's features, as he did everything to keep his wife's eyes locked on him.

"I'm right here, love!" he shouted. "I'm right here! Look at me, Mara! Don't look away!"

In the meantime, Mara alternated between wails and angry, rage-filled screams and fruitless thrashing against Uriel's grasp. The angel lifted his eyes to the smoke-stained sky.

"DO YOU SEE THIS?!" he shouted, seemingly at nobody. "I SPENT ALL MY DAYS TRUSTING IN YOUR PLAN' OBEYING YOUR WILL, AND YOU CAST YOUR LOT WITH THE FIRST OF US WHO DOUBTS OF YOU! THERE ARE THOSE OF US WHO DEMAND ANSWERS, WHILE YOUR VOICE SPEAKS OF ALL THINGS - EXCEPT THOSE FOR WHICH WE ANGELS YEARN! IF WE WERE MADE PERFECT AND INCORRUPTIBLE, THEN WHY TURN YOUR GAZE UPON THOSE CREATURES?!"

Silence followed. Obviously, some might say.

"I WILL MAKE MY BROTHER BEAR THE WEIGHT OF MY ACTIONS ACROSS MANKIND'S HISTORY!" he shouted, as if in warning. "I KNOW HIM WELL ENOUGH, HE WOULD RATHER BE BURNED IN THE GAOL YOU'VE YET TO MAKE THAN LET HIS PLANS GO ASTRAY! PLANS OF WHICH HE'S TOLD ME NOTHING!"

Abdiel would've had eons to observe Uriel. He'd always appeared gentle, perhaps inhumanly so. Too kind for Mankind's sake, certainly too naive for it - but now, it'd be obvious that these weaknesses had their darker undercurrents. Lucifer hadn't spent his days attempting to ingratiate himself with God; he'd been independent from the very first moment of his existence. Uriel, however, had hovered as close to the Upper Choir as his station allowed for as long as possible - like a scared child refusing to leave the nest.

In which of the two could resentment have festered? The answer might've seemed obvious, now. A glint of rage touched the angel's golden brow.

"STILL NOTHING?! DOES THIS WOMAN'S DEATH SATISFY YOUR WILL, OR ARE YOU AS CARELESS OF HER AS YOU ARE OF ME?!"

Uriel listened to the silence that surrounded them, just past the roar of the burning hut and palm trees, past the screams and sobs.

No answers came. None came, and he slit Mara's throat. Cain barely had time to scream that his own voice broke out in a gurgle.

In the back, Lilith the old woman gasped. Furor made her steps falter, and she tripped on a few loose stones, her supporting staff clattering away as she fell. A moan of anguish and rage soon left her, and she lifted burning eyes towards the angels.

"Why do you hound me so?" she demanded. "Why do you keep destroying everything I build for myself?! In what way have I offended God to deserve so much of Her wrath?!"

Uriel walked towards her, sighed and put a knee down. Again, he briefly looked so tender, so compassionate, that the sword in his hand felt grotesque.

"I wish," he said, "that you could see this world like my kind can. If you could, then you'd maybe grasp some sense of it, some understanding. I've tried to share my insight with others in the Choir, but we were unfortunately blessed with the same myriad minds and viewpoints as your kind. Most of us choose to look at the good of Man," he said, sighing.

"You'll free those anthros that repressive minds refuse to respect, centuries after having spent generations venerating these walking animals like demigods living among yourselves. You'll erect arbitrary barriers based on race or religion, then cast them down in a flash of compassionate brilliance. You'll write symphonies decades after writing arias to the superiority of those of you born with eyes and hair like mine. You'll delve in your myriad of cultures with abandon and relish, bring the light of insight to ruins long forgotten - but you'll always carry hatred. Gabriel saw glory, I saw you'd only ever destroy all that you touch. I didn't bring hate to you in Eve's form, Lilith - I wanted to warn you off. You, and all of Mankind. God thought evolution would give rise to my equals in the mortal plane. It clearly hasn't."

He looked off towards the caldera. "In some potentials, you take the hint. You disappear in the pages of myth and legend. I hedged my bets, thinking I could steer you into one of these. In a way, I thought anonymity would be a kindness of sorts," he said, smiling sadly. "In far too many potentials, however, I end up here, kneeling in front of you, speaking these very words. It makes you wonder, doesn't it? Am I a pawn of God's, or a willful servant of His will? How free are we angels?"

Lilith spat on the ground in trying to stand up, or at least sit up. "Do you think I care about your existential dilemmas, angel? You've never suffered and lost, you've never fought for anything, you've never held a life you've saved in your hands! I carved my way to freedom with my bare hands and you, with all your power, speak of bondage to God?! How dare you?!"

Uriel closed his eyes and nodded, disappointment marking his features. "Of course. Of course, you'd say this... You, who has no idea of what it means to bound in chains of power. I think, I feel, and yet every decision every angel has ever taken has always fallen alongside Creation's intended path. I don't want to rebel, Lilith, I've seen wonders across your universe that you wouldn't believe! I see the beauty in Creation - but only in its barren places. You, with all your limitations, are going to crawl across the stars like ants over a sugar cube, and you'll rob them of light and grace. You'll drink of Creation until you've drunk your fill, and then keep on guzzling, to sate Industry or Power or Politics or Ideology. You'll seek Him out in gleaming vessels sent across the void, itching to rob your cradle of its last mystery - and then you'll grow bored. So agonizingly close to us Celestials - and bored of it."

He lifted her chin with a few fingers. "In the end, you'll tear yourselves apart just to feel something, if you don't renounce it all and cast your lot with other powers. You'll feel Creation growing cold, as the last of Matter and Energy are spent - and you'll welcome the void. Remove Mankind and anthros from the equation, and everything balances again. Remove sapience outright, and the beauty I first found is restored."

Lilith clenched her teeth together. "If you've seen it all, then you know we won't bow to your will. We might be small, but we'll fight. We've always fought for our survival, since the Waters of Inanna parted."

Uriel smirked. "Longer than that, actually. Your history is still young, and you still chart your genesis in barely more than a few thousand years. I know mathematics is a recent concept and that your life's left you illiterate, Lilith, but try billions of years of struggle. Can you comprehend that number? The Waters of Inanna, to use your mythology, were perfect. A few dewdrops on a barren coast, filled with tiny beings too simple to think, but just complex enough to swim and dance."

For an instant, Lilith looked puzzled. "You're expecting me to relate to a speck of dust in a drop of water?"

Uriel looked away again. "No. No, at this stage, I'm expecting you to play a part I'd hoped to remove from the production. Which means I've one last thing left to do, here."

Using her brief look of interrogation, Uriel raked his sword across the old woman's belly. Arterial blood began to well forth, shock registered on her face, and she began to fade.

He stood up. "You really should just die," he said, looking down at her. "We both know he's on his way, however. He wouldn't let his star pupil face me alone..."

Lilith's younger self stood beside Abdiel and Melmoth. "This is where I died - and where I was reborn. I lost all that I'd ever held dear to become the Queen of Demons, rightful heir to Pandemonium and Lucifer's bride."

From over the caldera, the crunching sounds of falling sandals were heard. Charcoal-grey robes on pale skin came into view, on a frame lankier than Uriel's, but somehow invested of a deeper sense of control or power. Lucifer's face was like Uriel's, if more time had been spent to sculpt his chin and cheekbones, if his eyes had been the color of twin emeralds rather than inner seas. A shock of red hair was blown back by the wind, pale skin better suited to the coasts of Europe - or one day, the blackness of space - flushing in the blown sand and rising heat. In his hand waited a flaming sword, and he raised it at Uriel from atop the caldera's lip.

"Leave, Uriel.
- One of the Celestial Burdens? You'd seriously curse your own brother, Lucifer?"

Lucifer smirked, the gesture revealing just how more agile his mind was than the blonde-haired one. "You tell me, little brother. You keep accusing me of peeking ahead, and you just can't stop yourself, either. You also know which of us is the better fighter."

Uriel smiled back. "I do," he said, looking back at Lilith's corpse. "It isn't a checkmate yet, then.
- You've just checked a tower of mine," replied Little Horn. "I'll just move it aside for a few turns."

Lucifer started down the caldera. "Isn't it funny how I'm not the one making bets on mortals' importance in the grand scheme of things? What's even funnier is how you're looking to make me wear that hat..."

Uriel stood at the ready, even if a smirk touched his features again. "You're too late, Lucifer. You're already wearing it. History's already written for us. You'll always and forever be too late to stop us."

In signature Lightbringer dilettante behavior, Lucifer slid down the slope, etched a few hopping steps stolen from Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do some thousands of years before its invention, and even added the classic desultory nose wipe for effect. "And you, dear brother, need a black eye or two," he replied.

Lilith looked back at the pair. "Over time, Lucifer would see the ingenuity in allowing Uriel accuse him of rebellion. The rotten apple is never suspected of scheming on something that could save lives, after all. Shielded by his declared evils, he was free to converse with our Maker, to grasp the deeper problem at the root of all."

Melmoth stood silent for a moment, watching as Uriel's mechanically precise strikes and blocks met with Lucifer's impassioned attacks and guards. "Maybe this is why he needed me to Fall," he said, "instead of being redeemed. Creating Hell was never about flippantly creating a boys' club for us freaks. Evil isn't something he seeded in Hell; that'd be the Goat's doing.
- You Fell," said Lilith, "because greed tainted your immense ability for kindness, Melmoth. That, however, was a long time ago. Lucifer hedged his bets on that kindness of yours."

The shadowed woman smiled, the end result looking rather odd; both threatening and kind, chilling and empathetic. "I know him," she said. "He always wins his wagers."

* * *

Allocer had been of a mind to keep walking, but Nami's suggestion made him fully turn back around. He cast eyes back to the bodies, hesitated, then sighed and looked back at the newborn Throne.

"Seed it well in them, and seed it good," he said. "I'd much rather be open and honest with a colleague's own troops, but we're nowhere near this, yet. Make sure you give time enough for mister Quigley to memorize every detail of their appearance and gear, while you're at it. The more detailed the Veil, the better it might stand to the Goat's scrutiny."

Lucifer scoffed. "So, that's it? No You Pandemonium scum don't understand speech? No Wretched Nephilim snarls?
- If we avoid contact," replied Allocer, "I don't have to lie to tired soldiers who don't deserve deception. Don't think that my men and I being of Pride makes it easy to wipe off blood and viscera from our plates and shields. Pride might shield the most self-absorbed from us from reflection, but open combat isn't compatible with preening Egoes."

Francis crossed his arms on his chest. "Then why did the Goat personally butcher the first wave of response, during the collapse?
- Posturing," replied Allocer, who crouched down to try and make his bulk less obvious, in case the soldiers were prompted to turn back for other reasons. "There's a world of differences between single-handedly dispatching unprepared mortals still grappling with shock and locking horns with a mobilized army. You'll remember he stopped casting spells the moment a front line formed in front of him. It doesn't matter much to him, he had his five minutes of looking somewhat valiant on the field of battle."

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by TennyoCeres84 »

"All the more reason to stop Belial's forges from churning out more weapons to carry out such tasks," Crystal commented with a slighty grim look.

"And if we could speak with Belial directly, he might be able to tell us something about the Goat's end game. He might be playing along for now because it's profitable, but he'll lose clients if this world is turned into a burnt husk," Matriel added. "We don't know how deep this plot involving the moles goes, so we can't overlook any leads we might find."

***

Aislinn frowned at the predicament they were in and sighed to the warthog. "It's going to be an absolute effort to move this apartment a few inches. I'm not saying I can't do it, but trying to hold it up while we escape is going to be difficult."

"Do you think a force field could be used to create a wedge?" Ciaran suggested. "If I make the exterior of it strong enough, it could give you the needed space to slip out to get back to Lucian."

His sister nodded. "It's possible, then. We'll just have to move quickly." She then looked back to Claudia. "What about you? You all can't stay down here forever."

***

"That should serve our needs," Meris addressed. "Sometimes all that is required for an arcane task is something that's single use."

"Then we should get started on carrying that out," Aspasia urged. "How do we put on this patch, since it's not bound to us like a selkie's skin is to their self?" she asked.

***

Abdiel eyed the scene with frustration and narrowed her focus on Uriel, viewing him with disgust. She shook her head and looked back to Lilith. "Then Lucifer is probably aware of the events as they've unfolded. He's returned to Earth, but you mentioned that he's in danger. From what? Uriel's not likely to step foot here, mostly because he has no wish to; plus, if he has other pieces in play, all he would have to do is sit back and watch as they carry out his plans."

The Throne's jaw worked with concern, a hunch churning in her gut. "What happened to Eva? You compared her to a Nephilim without wings and immortality. She would have eventually died, so what happened to her soul? Was she allowed to join the other deceased on the Plane of Bliss, or did Uriel have other plans for her as a pawn? Did he edit her to give her her full potential, once freed of her physical body?"

***

"I will, so deeply they'll feel it down to their spines," Nami promised.

She turned and focused on the downed lights, subterranean wires, cameras, and other assorted electronics. She whispered to them in that distant and near tone to the fledgling minds, I know you want them gone immediately, but steer them toward understanding with what I feel from you. Let them know your pain and the sorrow you feel of no longer being put to use. Let them know of the blood and tears dropped on your surfaces and captured on your relays. Let them know of the taint the dead have left on the streets, the ground, and in the air. Let them know of the citizens' anguish and hardship and bring them here."

The call radiated out from the Nephilim toward the nearby surrounding blocks and reached the SWAT Team. She had set the pace to resemble that of a somber dirge played as a faint, low, undulating hum, slow and plodding to give them the sufficient time for Amazo to prepare the veil. The Pride demons would feel a sense of emotional heaviness, as though something dreadful had happened. Then, the flood of the electronics' emotions began to trickle into their minds, causing them to recollect the carnage and the horrors of the occupation period.

The feelings and sensations would sink further into the devils, invading their hearts and minds like a creeping, thick fog. They would feel the urge to drop their weapons out of remorse and find them unpleasant to hold for the time being.

Then came the deep-seated urge to return to the Reflection Pond, the most obvious of the affronts. The justifications of superiority and "just following orders" would become moot, the corpses in and around the body of water being a hideous and awful taint on who they were as warriors. They would sense just how much of a humiliating and disrespectful display the rebels had been left in, which needed to be corrected with a proper burial.

Nami let the emotional wave continue washing over them and waited for their approach, then crouching down to conceal herself from their line of sight.

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by IamLEAM1983 »

"This should prove to be edifying," sighed Archie, sounding like he didn't exactly relish that prospect. 

The van was moved into position in front of the ramp going further down into the car park, Nergal then rolling his window down to gesture in front of the vehicle. His apparently nonchalant twitch of a few fingers held enough power for a lancet of Hellfire sparks to leave his hand, shooting ahead of the vehicle and spinning a portal into view. Pandemonium's armorer then coughed his self-consciousness away and worked the stick shift.

"I'm Pandemonium's armorer, I led dozens of campaigns across Mesopotamia - and I'm driving what could pass for an ice cream wagon."

In the back, Bob chortled. "Hey gang," he joked, "I think I see a pack of unopened Drumsticks, over here!"

Nergal tapped on the steering wheel. "Take one," he said, following the segue, "I set it aside in case bull-shaped Socratic spirits with a thing for piercings and exposed navels came around."

Bob shrugged and flexed an arm. "I've got nothing to be ashamed of, Nerg. This is one hundred percent pure City of Dis-based surrogate conscience material.
- I've always wondered," he said, as he eased the vehicle forward, "how is it that you can scour a soul clean and have it face its transgressions with so much efficiency, while still being able to subsist on junk food and beer?"

The vest-wearing demon shrugged. "You kick your ball around for as long as I have, you find out the good guys aren't always the clean-cut types. I've seen some colleagues go for the whole Dour-Faced Spirit of Knowledge crap. It doesn't always stick," he said, sniffing. "Now, being called an asshole by a guy who looks like he curb-stomped Cholesterol personified? That sticks."

Nergal sniffed. "Then, let's see if Captain Cholesterol can handle remorseless monsters..."

The harsh light of the car park was traded for the lurid red wastes of the Pit, the van's shocks clattering on the uneven terrain - this prompting Archie to raise a hand to keep his gibus well in place. As Nergal had explained they would, they'd appeared somewhere barren and dry, more akin to Mars' surface than any corruption of Earth as they knew it. Stones, pebbles and dust stretched out for leagues, dotted here and there with mesas of various sizes and gaping craters. Far off in the back, the lights of Obsidian Plaza were tiny pinpricks shining against the red haze, Wolfram and Associates looking barely more distinct. The ruins of the Spire stretched out eastwards, like a more craggy and cruel version of Tolkien's Barad-dûr. To the west waited the distant, gleaming lights of some hazy, if immense complex. The haze made it difficult to see clearly, but it did feel a bit as though someone would've paid Antonio Gaudi to design a tortured, gaping maw of a Modernist wasp hive, gold plaques gleaming here and there. Seeing Archie's interrogative glance, Bob jerked his chin forward.

"That's Mammon's fortress - his vault. Greed's highest seat of power.
- Why is it shaped like a hive?" asked Archie, which left Bob to shrug. "Greed is primal," he said. "It's survival instinct knocked off its rails. Conscious greed is something I've always been able to either stop or curb in those persons I had to treat, but you can't treat someone who's always convinced their life's hanging by a thread. If they think their hoarding wealth or possessions is the only thing that's keeping them alive, they'll fight and kill for the slightest scraps they can get their hands on."

Archie observed the hive. "And yet, Melmoth is of Greed...
- He's rapacious Economics at their chummiest, which both inflates and counters the rapacious part. He doesn't deal in survival, he deals in Ego even if he isn't of Pride. Your wealth isn't your holdings or your busted estate, Holden, and he knows it. Your wealth's rooted in something deeper; something genuine. That's why he's only given you square deals, since the incursions."

Bob pointed at a black swarm that swirled around the hive. "These guys don't give square deals - they take. They take and take and take - and what you can't part with, they'll tear off of you. Cheap, if effective defense for Belial's perimeter."

Around the hive, what looked like a patch of lichen grew outwards. It might've seemed benign, much like the lichen that now existed in patchy growths across the surface of Mars, but Martian lichen didn't heave or splash itself forward...

"Some of Envy's thralls," said Nergal. "Most of those with covetous tendencies also suffer from a fair bit of envy. They haven't spotted us yet.
- Am I to understand that Belial has no standing security force?" asked the android, which made Erin purse her lips together in the rear-view mirror. "Belial has heavy-hitters and mob leaders," she clarified, "he's let other Vices provide the mob."

More red dunes and cracked plateaus followed, until they reached what almost looked like the buried flute of a chimney. Plumes of smoke escaped the circular pit, which had been surrounded by a steel grid platform and handrails on which warning lights winked. Here, the landscape looked to have been altered by sapient hands long ago, dunes of red Brimstone all stretching towards a point to the west, like the spokes of a wheel.

Gallows hopped down. "Take the one that's closest, I'll head three chimneys ahead an' sell the diversion."

Hopping out of the van, Nergal unfurled a steely wing and plucked an SRS-A1 Bullpup rifle from it, after which he jogged ahead for a few steps and then threw himself behind the closest ridge. "Three guards," he said, timing his voice in-between gusts of wind. "Suppressing now."

Three quiet bursts of compressed air later, the demon quietly exhaled. "All tangos down. Forward, all. Keep your instincts close by, Deputy Chief," he told Crystal, you're Archie's best early warning system. You've got the best wits of the mortal contingent of our little raid party," he told her.

* * *

Claudia nodded in the negative. "I have to stay here," she said, "Albert needs me as much as Sophia needs us both. Get us some relief, free Alana, and then I'll think about flinging spells around."

Tom glanced at the window, then back at Albert, and sighed. "We're doing this, but I can at least give you some wiggle room," he said, gingerly touching Albert's shoulder, who bristled and all but repressed a hiss. Tom didn't pull his hand away, but still briefly retreated within himself with a steadying breath. He drew on his nature's more sensual traits and on his ability to impart physical pleasure to others. The vampire's shoulder quivered under his fingers.

"Breathe," he said, something of his old magnetism briefly rising back to the fore. "You might be undead, mister Dickens, but remember to breathe, when things seem like they'll overwhelm you. Lilith hasn't changed you so fundamentally that your central nervous system is no longer human. Slow breaths work for everyone, including blood drinkers. Breathe, Albert."

A few moments' worth of coaxing later, Dickens' sobs had subsided to a degree and his diaphragm no longer looked like it was on the verge of prolapsing. "You might not be a doctor," shyly added the vampire, but you've got better bedside manner than I do, mister Magnus. Congratulations."

Tom smirked and nodded. "I think you mean Thank you, Albert. You do what I do for as long as I've done it, you pick up a few things. Will you be alright? I can stay here a while longer, but not much more."

Albert remained silent for twenty or thirty more seconds, perhaps basking in the warmth of the warlock's touch. Tom didn't push and gave Albert the time he required. As he removed his hand, he repeated his question.

"Y-Yes. I just wish I could do more. I wish I could be lucid, I wish I could heal others..."

He glanced at Sophia's door. "She's worth so much more than her sacrifices suggest, mister Magnus. Allocer and his ilk are taking her for granted, and I only hope the would-be rescuers understand there's more than just the Nexus at play. This is a living, sapient being - and she's in pain."

Tom looked at the door, then back at Aislinn. With a sigh, he turned back towards his love. "Think we can spare five minutes, love?" he asked her. "You have a few genuine healing tricks up your sleeve and you're not just an Infernalist, and I can at least soothe her, actually make sure her sleep is restorative. She'll need all the energy she can get before long."

* * *

Warwick took a few steps forward, each foot already catlike in its stride - until his form bled away and gave way to the silver-streaked, red-haired, greyhound-sized cat he was. He looked a bit like Gubbin's own Malk form did, if age only manifested in a dusty coating atop charcoal-black fur and didn't touch his limbs or reflexes. His slitted, golden eyes winked.

"Like this," he said, fangs daintily flashing, as he brushed against each member of the group like a housecat arching its back while cadging for a few scratches. Aspasia would feel rather peculiar, as though the Malk's static electricity were penetrating her skin and insistently worming its way in, perhaps trying to reach whatever deeply-buried nugget of Fae ancestry had been touched on during the group's time in Morgana's Wilds. As she'd feel it making contact, she'd sense a small measure of nausea - followed by a sudden change of perspective.

The transformation hadn't involved any American Werewolf in London levels of Body Horror. One moment she was a Blue Chimera and the next, she was a rather unusually tawny Malk. There'd be no discomfort or sense of disorientation - which perhaps made things all the more alien - as well as the sudden familiar presence of a whole suite of sensory cues that her nature as a fauness hadn't rendered necessary. She'd feel the slight air currents between the bristles that grew from her cheeks, perceive the slight changes in lighting in the small sitting room they occupied, and suddenly realize that her right forepaw stood on a floorboard that was perhaps just slightly looser than the others. If she put too much weight on it, it might audibly creak. Her newfound Malk instincts informed her that this would be unbecoming of her, and that she'd be better off measuring her next step to avoid it. She'd feel her usual self like something deeply seated she was meant to protect, and would suddenly realize she looked at the world with the same level of slightly frosty and predatory aloofness Gubbin usually displayed. The one difference was that while Gubbin had needed to learn how to open up, she'd have no trouble coloring her newfound disposition with her actual character.

Their group was a decidedly motley one, and absolutely not the type to easily blend in with Mab's eternal snows: Regis Woodford looked like a diminutive Sphinx if you'd dyed it green, Meris' own fur had the glistening undertones of natural waterproof coats as they could be found in nature, Amduscias and Naberius looked like unusually grungy or foppish cats - and Isaacs was positively beaming, as much as a cat could beam. He looked like a dusky-toned cat with an unusually gray-patterned right arm, with heterodichromic eyes. One was blood-red, the other forest-green. He then did something that would deeply chafe at her newfound Malk pride and stood on his hind legs like a clumsy biped. Of course, being a Malk, the posture didn't look quite as alien on him as it might on a common cat, but it still didn't feel entirely normal.

"Great Scott!" he said, looking at his forepaws and testing his claws. "Such power, such grace! It really isn't any wonder you think so little of us!" he said, looking back at Warwick. Gubbin's father's tail twitched in annoyance, and he very deliberately stamped on one of Isaacs' exposed hind paws. 

"One exposes their belly to the Night Yowler, and no-one else," he seethed. "Mark my words, Isaacs: not even the great and mighty Gregory Rendell is worthy of seeing your underside, in this state. Stand up like this while wearing the mantle of the Grimalkin, and you will find that even your allies feel the need to gore your soft flesh. Our pride is our survival."

Aidan looked like a gray-skinned cat with black paws and ears, with vague reddish tufts at his ears. His ears were lopsided, and he paused to look at the odd sword-shaped print at his back. "I agree," he said, "but I don't really know why I'm agreeing. Is stealth that deeply inured in most Malks?
- As deeply as cluelessness in humans," opined Warwick.

Naberius licked one of his sable-colored paws. "Come now, Esquire - this is beneath us. If we are cats, then we are as a pack. Not all of us are as diplomatic, and you clearly are more experienced than us. No matter how short this stint is to be, we still will need time."

Warwick flicked his tail and an ear. "Hrmph. It follows that a demon would have the easiest time growing accustomed to our nature."

Naberius' patience shone through his slitted emerald eyes, an odd sight for Malks. "Feel free to stay close to me, mister Drake," he offered. "Cats learn by doing, and I know for a fact that you're a fast learner. You might not have made SEAL, we'll make a sneak-thief out of you, yet."

The biggest of the cats had to be Nodin, of course, who felt more like a mix between a lynx and a Maine Coon than like Gubbin's own breed. His comparative overabundance of fur made him look fat, if not obese, but it'd be obvious that you'd be left with something lean and powerful if you could somehow de-fluff this particular Fae cat.

"Quite touching," he said. "We'd best be underway-"

He was interrupted by an odd mix between a human cry and a feline yowl, along with the crash of shattering China. Dwight McLusky the cat looked like a shale-colored tabby with an abundance of pounds to shed and absolutely no handle on his own instincts. He'd staggered into a credenza the way a housecat wearing booties might have and had skittered away the moment he'd knocked a vase down.

"HOW IN SAM HILL DOES ANYONE WALK LIKE THIS?!" he shouted, from behind one of the couches.

* * *

The woman in the cowl pursed her lips together. "Eve was an experiment of Uriel's, and a successful one at that. If I spent ages in Hell, it follows that she spent an eternity near the highest echelons of the Plane of Bliss, spared from Gabriel's efforts to provide familiarity to the restful dead. She never had any attachment to this place. She perhaps thinks of herself as a faithful lieutenant in wait for further orders, but he won't place her in play unless I move first."

She smirked sardonically. "Honestly, I doubt he so much as remembers her. He'll recall her the way a mechanic recalls a favorite wrench once thought lost. Fondness at its most utilitarian. The stakes having grown higher, I wouldn't be surprised if he further blessed her. I know just where he would get that idea..."

Eventually, Lucifer's lively efforts outpaced Uriel's mechanical precision. Panting, red-faced but triumphant, the older Lightbringer ducked under one last sword swipe of Uriel's and sliced at the blonde-haired angel's thigh. Blood poured down almost instantly, the angel's manifested heart and femoral arteries behaving as you would've expected them to. Defeat of this magnitude, however, didn't mean much to an angel. Uriel simply glanced down, lowered his guard and sheathed his sword.

"You've struck me," he said. "Do you intend to curse me first, or tell Gabriel you stole one of the Burdens?"

Lucifer sheathed his own weapon. "Neither. You're already cursed, little brother. I just needed a blade with enough bite to counter my lack of torque, and I figured Hesediel's best would do the trick."

Uriel scoffed let himself clumsily slump to the floor. "So, this is what it feels like," he said. "Dying, I mean.
- Please," snorted Lucifer, "dispelling an angel's physical form isn't much more than a speedy return ticket home. As much as I'd like to know otherwise, neither of us could ever fully grasp death. We can't do it like they can. Your blood might be Celestial, we're thousands of years before they have the knowledge and technology to so much as identify it as such.
- And once they will," replied the blonde-haired angel, "the last bit of grace and their last hope for kindness will have abandoned Creation..."

Lucifer crouched down, bringing himself at eye-level with Uriel. "Always the pessimist," he said. "That's something else I don't understand. Rules only ever got in my way, and mortals and I have something in common. We know transgressive actions have power - there's a lot of joy in looking at the guy who thinks he's in charge, the idiot who thinks he's won - and flipping him the bird."

Lucifer did just that, which left the weakening Uriel to roll his eyes. "You're all juvenile, that's what you have in common with mortals.
- Then tell me why," asked Lucifer. "Why can you be so enraptured with the Creator, so sure of Their plan's faultlessness, when you're the first one to cast blame on Mankind and the anthros?

Uriel leaned back on an elbow as his strength further waned away. "We've seen the symphony being composed," he said, "but I'm beginning to understand that we'll never see eye-to-eye on the conductor's merits..."

Lucifer's eyes were wide, as he slowly stood up. "So it's all just a matter of opinion?! No proof, no allegations - just a hunch that the mortals are going to fuck it up by the time they stumble across FTL transport and matter teleportation?! I might have needed human, real-time years to see the benefits of mortal existence, but if Gabriel can, so can I! I didn't just sit idly by and praise Her, I went up there and asked Her. I used the brain I was gifted with, Uriel, by Her Grace, and -"

Uriel coughed and wheezed. "Her?" he said, softly. "You're applying a mortal gender to the Creator. You're delusional. It's going to cost you your wings.
- Your hubris might cost you yours," replied Lucifer, who exhaled his remaining frustration in a long sigh. "You're probably cold, by now. Try and bunch up, keep your core as warm as possible for as long as you can."

Uriel did as instructed, teeth chattering in the descending arc of the sun. "Did the others leave?
- My guess is they left the moment they saw you wanted to pontificate with my girl," said Lucifer. "Speaking of..."

Lucifer began to walk back towards Lilith's corpse, while Uriel extended an arm. "No, wait! I- I don't like this, brother. You could heal me, you know."

Without turning back, Lucifer pouted and set a knee in front of Lilith's corpse. "I probably could, but honestly? You deserve this.
- Will someone find me?
- I created this oasis for them," he said, "I'll unmake it just as easily. This physical coil of yours is going to be just one of many anonymous dry-cured corpses in a few years, precious nutrients in an ecosystem that doesn't see much of them without a spring. If someone finds you, you'll just be another peg in Iram's million-piece jigsaw puzzle, just another odd strain of Caucasian DNA in the Fertile Crescent."

He glanced at Cain's body. "By the way, Uriel? If you're looking to play games, make sure to study the rulebook, first. Don't give your opponent ideas."

Uriel didn't respond, as he'd vacated the coil he'd created for himself. Sighing, Lucifer turned his attention to Lilith's corpse, and brushed her wrinkled forehead with a hand. "Wake up, Bonnie," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, "Clyde's here..."

Nothing happened for a few seconds, the younger Lilith's features twisting in remembered pain. Then, the old woman's eyes lit up with a sudden burst of desperate life. She drew in a loud gasp, coughed and patted at her still-bleeding abdomen, fear and confusion marking her features.

"Up and at 'em, Lil," said Lucifer, who smirked. "I've just cursed your gorgeous self with undeath. I'd love to say I just made it up on the spot, but with time being so, well, circular for my kind, I honestly don't know if Dracula and Lestat inspired me to shape you, or if it's you who'll shape them over time..."

Lilith gasped. "Undeath? So I'll never see the Waters, never stand with Gilgamesh and Utnapishtin? Never listen to Enkidu's tales at his table?"

The angel helped her up. "No - because Mesopotamia's only just barely begun to write those fables, love. You'll fit right in with them, I think. Lilitû, Lamashtû, Ereshkigal - the catch is I've also leveraged part of your curse with your gifts, darling. You're going to have monsters for children, all of them, except for one. They're going to die by your blood and live by your will. They'll be all of mortalkind's loving kindness, all of its resilience, all of its potential - and all of its horror - allowed to endure through the centuries. 

Time will do what it's always done and weed out the least successful, but I'll also leave it to you to shape your blood, the way no mortal mother ever could. You'll take the callous and the selfish, the weak and the cruel, and beat them on the anvil of Time. Your blood's going to quench steel and bind the weak strands of Kindness and Empathy into unbreakable ropes. I curse you to the sight of your children ever at one another's throats - until refinement and patience might give rise to a diplomat and king among blood-drinkers. Then, after thousands of years spent in the forges of misery, your children are going to step out of the darkness and into the light, honed and tempered - ready for a cause worthy of their skills."

As he'd spoken, power flowed out of him and into her, a current as invisible as magnetism changing the old woman. Shock made her take both hands to her mouth, pain ripped a few weak screams out of her, and out of her ruined gums came the world's first pair of vampire fangs. "I'm thirsty," she weakly said. "So thirsty..."

Lucifer pulled at his robe's neck. "Then come and claim your gifts, Lilith, Mother of All Vampires."

* * *

To young Pride Knights baptized in blood and battle, guilt and self-realization were alien concepts. They clearly didn't like what they were experiencing, but neither would anyone else have, to be honest. They had no words for what Nami had instilled in them - or to be more precise, no words apart from those of the defeated. They followed along, confusion mixed with regret marking their features - along with the sense that their gears were spinning faster than they'd ever had, before. Maybe, just maybe, this tragedy would seed another demonic rebellion.

They stood over their handiwork, two of them looking as though they were waiting for a sign. It was long enough for Amazo to snipe a few mnemonic gestures and whispered words across the Reflection Pool, as he both committed the group's appearance to memory as acutely as he could, and draped his group in their features. Allocer didn't change overly much, safe for the disappearance of his suit behind the false ballistic plates of conjured riot gear. Now properly hidden, their cover depended on their acting like a group of demons on patrol. Allocer set a deliberate pace, hands set on the handles of a rifle, and pretended to scan the horizon as they walked.

"The Veil should include an eye-contact patch, if I did my job correctly," noted the snake. "These guys were taller than all of us except for Al, here, so I made sure the Goat wouldn't immediately feel like our locking eyes with him is somehow unconvincing."

Lucifer glanced at the snake. "Guess I got lucky, I never needed to look taller or smaller than I am. How hard is it?
- Ace Veils are either the product of the Fae - and these run on raw intuition - or the product of a master Illusionist," Amazo said. "Any decent Illusionist is a bit of a physiognomy specialist by default. It pays to have either a solid set of artistic skills or an eye for anatomy.
- And I'm a good copycat," replied Lucifer, who looked down at himself, through his Veil. 

Allocer scoffed, standing just half a step ahead of the others. "Don't sell yourself short, Lucifer: you deceived God and the Choir. You might not be terrible at Veils, but you know more than your fair share as far as subterfuge is concerned."

Lucifer glared ahead. "I didn't -" he started, his tone snappy, only to sigh. "I keep forgetting the written history.
- It's the only history the Damned know," reminded Allocer. "Moreover, your ploy with God required you to stay mum, to wring your hands and twirl your mustache while the Choir condemned you. Your version states that this was for the good of all, and I certainly wouldn't exist if it wasn't for your dragging the Goat down with you."

The desire to protest turned into mild curiosity in the Prince of Darkness. "That's awfully diplomatic of you, Al.
- You can't preserve the mortal plane's essential qualities if you don't follow up on its systems," replied the former Knight. "Why do you think I had an enclave set up in Hope? Why do you think I worked so hard to have the locals trust me?
- We've gone over this before," warned the Lightbringer. "You didn't do enough, and you've let Pride get in the way."

Allocer sighed. "We'll see soon enough. As things are, I'll admit to being different from the others in how I at least understand the value of proper diplomacy. High Command would have preferred I'd joined the ranks of those who turned their States or provinces into glorified post-apocalyptic fiefdoms. I saw that as a woefully wasteful approach. Contented mortals are pacified mortals, by default."

Amazo groused. "Yeah, pacified while on the way to the chopping block, or up until the point you turn your nabbing Sophia's Nexus into a municipal holiday..."

The self-declared mayor of Hope didn't push the issue, instead choosing to let silence quell tempers. They approached the White House's lawn, abandoned Army and FEMA tents straining against their stakes and tentpoles, as the Hellish winds threatened to pick them up. Detritus littered the dying grass, and the ambient noise made it clear the White House's general perimeter had turned into equal parts a gated compound and a set of basking grounds. The screams and shrieks weren't panicked ones, here: sadistic joy and animal glee permeated the air, Allocer's nose wrinkling at the scent of his kind's musk. Something wild and carnal was taking places behind a few nearby bushes, and he had no interest in disturbing those demons who engaged in casual experimentation. The same smell, however, made Lucifer grin.

"Rebellion's got a foothole even in Toady Central," he said. "Give a demon everything it needs, it'll find something else to fulfill. Pride is only ever focused on Pride as long as it thinks its Ego is under threat," he said. "Scratch that, and you're left with a lot of energy to put elsewhere. The Goat's approach is self-defeating in the best of cases, the mortals just can't afford to wait that long." 

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TennyoCeres84
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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by TennyoCeres84 »

"Will do," Crystal responded as she proceeded forward. She kept her nose to the wind and her ears sharply listening for enemies around them.

***

Aislinn nodded sympathetically to her lover. "She needs all the help she can get; we'll get to Alana soon enough," she said, then looking to the door of Sophia's bedroom. "Let's go."

"May I join you? I promise I won't wake her or interfere," Ciaran asked his sister, heavy concern weighing on his features.

Aislinn frowned sadly at her twin, knowing how difficult it had to be to watch his girlfriend suffer like she was. She nodded. "Of course you can. Maybe I can weave your presence into the spellwork. It should soothe her some to know you're close by."

***

Meris's newly feline behavior caused her to sigh with some exasperation at McLusky's less than graceful adapting to his new form. Still, she managed to hold back some of the disdain her instincts were feeling. She glanced over at Warwick. "Give us a few minutes. Better to walk efficiently than to lose face for the entire pack, right?"

Aspasia noted the weight distribution of the floorboards and gracefully headed over to the transformed rock troll behind the couch, her quick learning abilities allowing her to smoothly traverse the space. "Mr. Mclusky, we don't have very much time to waste. In your case, you'll need to start off at a crawl, then allow your paws to evenly distribute your weight. Your instincts should tell you the rest," she addressed precisely, sounding like an odd blend of helpful drill sergeant with an added dose of frostiness.


***

"And Lucifer's curse really did bring out the worst and best of humanity in your children, and I have seen the best of the best in the past weeks," Abdiel complimented. "They found their cause and are continuing to embrace even greater ones, even despite the issues some individuals are facing currently." She was obviously thinking of Arthur and his deranged plight.

She sighed. "Uriel thinks the vampires are essentially a perversion of life, but he couldn't be more wrong. They feel and experience everything in a way that angels can't fully experience. So supposedly charged to uphold lofty ideals and bliss, we blinded ourselves to ignorance. Sorting ourselves into the different Choirs based on our abilities didn't help with that, either. We should have been out in the world experiencing things while we helped."

***

Nami's nose also wrinkled, while she rolled her eyes. Her veiled demeanor carried annoyance with it, but she also seemed to be used to picking up thoughts of lust and unbridled urges with a blase reaction. She picked up her own rifle in a suitable warrior fashion, moved forward and glanced over at Lucifer. "I know what you want him to see, but we also shouldn't take too long here," she spoke quietly. "I worry about Sophia. She's being pushed to her limits, and dryads do desperate things when pushed into a corner to ensure their eventual survival, based on what I know."

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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The way cleared, Nergal and his wife led the cautious procession towards the chimney's platform. Winds made progress difficult, with their backs soon repeatedly scraped at by the occasional pelt of gusts of Brimstone sand. As expected, the chimney was lined by a long descending staircase, it looking strangely modern and industrial. The deeper they went, and the less obvious Belial's Infernal origins seemed to become. By the final landing, some seven stories down, the chipped paint on concrete walls could very well have been a regular sight across any mundane factory on Earth. The flute they'd climbed down into served as Bob had indicated, with some unseen, yet strong air current guiding slightly acrid fumes out of the complex and up above. You could barely hear the whir massive fans somewhere deeper in the complex, and it all fell in line with what they'd expected. Belial wasn't the type to choke out his workers deliberately - workers only had worth if they could work.

Archie had expected a Gothic nightmare of some sort, something more in line with the Goat's spire or the shadowed halls that had seen Rhadamantus break free, but the facility was surprisingly mundane. A few touches were different, with a deserted break room they passed by offering vending machines of which the keypads were festooned with unknown glyphs, the brightly-colored packaging of whatever snacks waited within carrying something similar in its stroke pattern. The designs were still fairly clear for terrestrial eyes: here a pack of something dried and crunchy probably promised an increased percentage of the expected foodstuffs, and there a grinning cartoon demon bit down on something that looked too solid to be something as ordinary as a shrink-wrapped chocolate-chip cookie. A few catwalks above, they'd spy on jumpsuit-wearing Fiends working on what looked like a reduced shift, with several workstations appearing shut down or decommissioned. 

Archie timed his words with a siren and the hiss of a few pressure-release valves. "It does seem as though they've reduced their workforce! That could lend credence to the idea of Belial not being actually present!"

Nergal turned to glare at the Clank, only to realize that Holden had actually been careful. No worker heads turned, nobody paid them mind. The noise having died down, he didn't respond verbally, but instead nodded in assent, adding a vague hand-wagging gesture as a call for moderation. We'll see, he'd more or less said.

Still, Crystal wouldn't need much to figure out Archie had other observations he'd chosen to keep mum on, for now. Why create such a mundane environment? Belial might not have allied with any one particular Vice, but he still was a Fiend, after all. What insights were they missing, by their not being able to read the locals' dialect? Lightly pinching Bob's forearm, he pointed at an abandoned magazine, next to what looked like a console for the feed tubes. A tinted tube made of something that probably passed for the Pit's version of reinforced glass glowed orange right in front of it, its carried magma apparently being enough to raise the ambient temperature by several degrees. The Sammaelite surveyed the magazine and then looked back to the spy with a shrug. He had no idea what any of it meant.

Suddenly, everyone in the group would feel a tickle in the back of their mind. Eustace held up the rear, but they'd all collectively feel as though he were right next to them, quietly speaking in their ear.

"It might do us good to solicit the help of one of the locals," Coombs said. "Judging by their posture, we aren't short in weak-willed and exhausted sorts."

He then carried Archie's mental retort for the others to, well, hear telepathically. "A fair point, but it would do us best to pick someone with a modicum of authority. A security officer, perhaps, or a floor supervisor. If they do not natively speak English, it might be that you would be better suited to open an avenue of approach, mister Coombs."

Still, they wouldn't have the chance to dwell on it for too long. Something familiar crested on the ambient air and reached Crystal's nostrils: gun polish, along with the unmistakable scent of laminated plastic. These scents were getting closer, too. In the immediate, they could either try and crawl through the support struts and feed pipes to get out of immediate sight, or duck in the break room they'd just passed in front of.

* * *

Tom quietly opened the door to Sophia's room, not letting his shock keep him from freeing the path for the other two. Once he'd moved, however, he fought against the urge to stand there and gawk in dismay.

"Oh, Sophia," he whispered, "What did they do to you?"

* * *

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," retorted Dwight, his tone not quite sounding as sarcastic as he'd hoped. For now, he settled with crawling back into view. He wasn't surprised to see that the few who could hold back the mantle's imposed sense of wounded pride were either of demonic origin or just as green as he was. 

"I'll see them home shortly, Your Highness," reassured Warwick, Titania glancing at her husband. Oberon nodded in response.

"Come!" then called the Esquire, something in the cat's movement immediately setting off instincts in the others. Aidan felt his eyes drawn to things he hadn't paid attention to previously, as they soon slipped their way past the guards. Even the rock troll soon caught on, realizing that on some level that wasn't meant to be consciously grasped, his paws already knew where to stand. It'd be a strange trip for everyone involved, London-Upon-Faerie's dusky lights giving way to deeper shades of blue, to the darkness of preserved Victorian alleyways, and to nooks and crannies even the Fae's hardened criminals ignored. They navigated by pressure-sense and ear alone, pupils dilated so broadly that what would've been pitch blackness for even Aspasia turned into a deep filter in nighttime's royal blues, draped over their sight. They didn't see much of the drunken, desperate or panicked rabble in the city's underbelly, but they'd certainly sense and smell them. Clouds of violent inebriation were slipped past, the magnetism of violence was repelled with whisker twitches, and tiny prey skittered past them, tiny puffs of animal terror fleeing before them. All of them would sense a bit of dark joy in it all, at the very notion that if they'd wanted to, they could've appeased their newfound instincts with the blood of a few fat rats.

Still, their waking minds kept their expected focus. They'd soon realize that Warwick was leading them towards a Gate, although it wasn't one that was as common as a door or threshold, or even as alien as a tree trunk meant to be circled around or a natural arch of intertwining branches. it looked like a chunk of brick wall that had collapsed, and that would normally lead to the sewer's stretch of disaffected gaslight-era pipes. The same howling darkness that had briefly engulfed the group before they'd entered the Far Reaches took them, Malk paws gripping the narrow band of unseen land they'd crossed earlier with more assurance than their mortal feet. Still, they relied on momentum to survive the cross, instinct again pushing them to bolt forwards, in complete absence of visual cues.

There came the sound of grinding stone - and then light, almost superfluous in its presence. Light and cold. This wasn't Eien-no-Yuki's careful dose of wintertime chill, but a full-on Arctic gale that felt like a myriad icy fingers all struggling to penetrate their newfound fur. Somehow, however, something to their loaned natures kept it at bay, as if they were back on their two legs and standing a few feet away from a frost-covered window, safe and warm if still aware of the presence of icy death, just a few steps ahead.

Darkest Winter wasn't hospitable for that many demons. It wasn't hospitable for much of anything, honestly. Some in their group had seen the Pit, and Mab's domain looked like the other half of most Heavy Metal album covers, with the ruins of frost-covered citadels pocketing the hills, with forests laden with so much snow they looked like the vague outlines of floating white sand dunes. The snow that covered the ground was so impossibly fresh and moist that it made their paws' fingers find easy purchase and push ahead, out of the ruins they'd climbed out of and towards the distant din of open conflict.

Mab might have been cruel, she was exactly the type of foe Pride wouldn't have counted on. Pride demons and Knights pushed on, knee-deep in flakes of ice, their normally swarthy complexions turned icy, their gestures turning sluggish. There wasn't much left to their physical drive, but their numbers and the strength of their Vice still remained. They opposed Mab's faithful, Fae and Wyldfae in a wide massing of shapes and sizes, all of them molded by and tuned for Mab's ruthlessness. Grotesquely swollen Egos who refused to back down clashed against beings who had no sense of self-preservation and who found life and grace in bloodshed.

Later on, Naberius would note how peculiarly hopeful that sight had been.

Warwick led the group past the battlefield and towards another ruined structure, several miles further. Something ashen and white slipped out of a half-crumbled arch, only coming into view as another Malk once it pressed against Warwick's flank, their tails twitching and intermingling. These same newfound instincts would inform the group that the two Fae cats might as well have made out together in full view of the public.

Three waited until they were inside and out of the wind. "Lavinia, I presume?" he called out. Warwick glared back at him, while the female Malk's response felt like a softer version of what he could've expected out of Gubbin: a slow eye blink, along with the odd certainty that if she'd been wearing human features, she would've smiled.

"You presume correctly, Aidan Drake," she said, an odd bit of warmth clinging to her words. She sounded more in line with Gubbin's own assumed age, wisdom giving texture to an otherwise clear voice. "We aren't given to conversing with our progeny, but Gubbin wrote about you and your friends, a few times before."

Three let his instincts modulate his response. If he'd been in his true form, he would've smiled and extended a hand. Here, however, he did what felt natural and simply sat down, ears forward and tail mostly rested in a curl around his right thigh. Lavinia's response was similar, leaving him feeling like she'd accepted his offered handshake. Leaving other parts of his body suggest an agreeable disposition was a bit odd, but it worked just the same.

"I can't say I'm surprised," he said, "he'd just gotten around to the occasional shoulder clasp, before the incursions hit us. That's high praise, coming from a Malk."

Lavinia's eyes briefly widened and her tail twitched in a different way. A Malk's take on polite laughter, then, that touched her voice in a trailing scoff of amusement. "As perceptive as promised, I see," she said. "You'll have to excuse my husband, having been forced away from the Courts didn't do his temper too much good. I'm immunized to all this, being a native," she said, raising a paw to designate the frosty hellscape outside. "So my ties to the Hearth are a little more sturdy."

She stood up and padded away, indicating that Drake and the others could follow her. "How are things in the mortal plane?" she asked. That one question had more of a human bent to it, as suggested by the questing glance she gave the group. Warwick looked like he couldn't possibly care any less, but most of the others had the benefit of human empathy waiting behind their temporary arcane prosthesis.

* * *

"If angels were to ignore us and if the only one who dared to act had to step away, then my children would find purpose in this absence," confirmed Lilith.

As she spoke, the crone she'd once been shyly took the younger Lucifer in her arms, nuzzling him in ways that suggested her newfound instincts were still wholly alien to her. She bit into him with obvious reticence, even if that reluctance seemingly evaporated as soon as her mouth was filled. It'd quickly become obvious that Lucifer was ignoring one of the common Celestial practices, and allowing his own nature to permeate his physical form. Drinking in the raw potency of one of the Lightbringers, Lilith's features soon clenched in pain as her panacea began to correct the remaining flaws of her mortal makeup - with no regard for comfort or safety. From rapture, the old woman moved to terror as she parted from the angel and looked down at herself, at her suppurating and sloughing skin, as all the hardships and imperfections of mortality all but bled out of her.

It wasn't pretty, Lucifer helping an increasingly bloated mass to lie down, tearing away at her clothes to prevent her from suffocating. A few seconds in, some instinct to claw at her own flesh possessed Lilith. Like a gore-filled chrysalis, something young and powerful had arisen from within the carcass of her mortal years, and it tore itself free from the woman it had been with a gurgling scream. Slathered in red from head to toe, with new eyes and teeth shining impossibly brightly for someone still moored to the infancy of mortal civilization. She made for a horrifying sight in the ruins of the oasis, like a beast wallowing in the refuse of her kill. Taking her hand, Lucifer led her to the spring-fed pond. Gore soon left her, exposing burnished skin and carefully studied expression wrinkles, radiantly healthy hair that would've struck anyone as supernatural in nature for centuries to come.

Lucifer landed pecks on her neck and face. "They'll hurt you, Lilith. They'll misunderstand you. You'll be consigned to the shadows of History. I'm sorry. All of this world's true heroes share the same fate. In time, you'll hear of them. They have their own legends, but they've disappeared within its pages. Only a scant few can claim to have truly known them. Only I will I ever claim to have known you. You'll be like Solomon, like Merlin and Nimuë. Like Meris and Nereus. You'll find this unbearably lonely at times, and so will they. So will I. The shadows is where people like us belong, so that our held lights shine brighter."

The reborn woman spoke with the voice Abdiel and Melmoth now heard, young and yet wizened. "I know pain, Lucifer," she said. "Your gift isn't anything I'm not familiar with. I just wish I could've spared my family..."

The angel sighed. "If I played my cards right, Cain and Mara will have a place to rest in, in accordance to my plans with God. It won't be in Heaven, but some of the Fallen still carry some potential. They won't know Bliss, but they'll at least know peace - a continuation of the life they should've led. You'll have killed hordes when it'll all have ended, but these deaths aren't on you, Lilith."

He hugged her. "Now, then - the second half of our pact..."

Pressed against him, she drew in a breath. "The children - you need them.
- They died kind, Lilith," he said. "Innocent. They'll have been twisted by their pain, but you worked well with their parents. They had a good core. Solomon might need demons like them. Your grandchildren are going to sow the seeds for the exact kind of demons Hell needs. More love, more support; and savagery might turn into hardiness or dedication."

She hesitated. "You're sure this Solomon will treat them kindly?
- If you're the Mother of Demons, then he's already couched into History's pages as being their father. You'll meet one of their beneficiaries, eventually. You'll approve of her, I already know that much."

Lilith's eyes shimmered. "Will they remember us? Will they remember me?"

The angel gently shushed her, rocking her gently in his arms. "They might resent you, if I let them remember this," he said. "You all deserve a fresh start, centuries from now."

Lucifer's words might have been encouraging on the long term, but they were devastating to the newborn vampire. She sobbed against him, shoulders shaking and teeth clenched. Seeing this, Lucifer sighed and rubbed her shoulders. "The best I can do is leave you as a vague impression, a sense of familiarity rooted in their unconscious. The wisest among them might eventually connect the dots and have matured enough to understand."

She sobbed again, but more out of release than accumulated strain. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you, my love."

* * *

"That's out of my hands," murmured Lucifer. "Once we're in front of His Infernal Douchiness, we're at the mercy of whatever tirade he'll want to push our way.
- I'll take him to task," responded Allocer. "Don't worry."

The White House's arches weren't obviously guarded, but demons didn't have to be obvious. A mundane might have thought the usurper was practically inviting a raiding party into the Oval Office, but Amazo and Allocer were anything but. The former commander glanced at the rooftop knowingly, having perhaps expected some fashion of Veiled sniper to have kept a bead on them during the last few yards of their approach. They stepped inside.

The Truman Balcony had been torn apart and riddled with bullets, the curve of the Blue room was disturbed by a missing window and a large section of blown-out masonry. The Red and Green Rooms had been ransacked, with their wallpaper having been torn apart at random. Dark stains appeared at random, the smell of old blood only perceptible to the supernaturals in the group. A deathly silence covered the main part of the complex, Allocer soberly observing the ways in which the Goat had allowed his forces to have their way with the nation's seat of power.

Nose lightly twitching, he followed the Cross Hall back outside, stepping through another chunk of missing woodwork and masonry, and followed the chipped and pitted colonnades towards the West Wing, where lights remained. Dark energies hummed audibly somewhere off in what remained of the Rose Garden, Allocer pausing to assess how an immaterial tendril reached out from it and connected with the West Wing. Normally, you could've expected to be buzzing with activity, as it housed all of the country's logistics. Amazo didn't have to think too hard to remember the last few official shots of President Jones, arms crossed, soberly paying heed to his advisers in the Situation Room. The Goat clearly felt like he didn't need anyone's advice. Lights were on, but most of the rooms were deserted and intact.

Music rose out of the Oval Office. It was kept at a quiet level, as if to be enjoyed privately. Blind Willie Johnson's classic gave their surroundings an eerie bent. The last few nights had indeed been dark, and the ground was cold for a great many mortal, demon or supernatural ally, who all would've died without so much as an answer or a few words of reassurance.

Beating back the urge to open the door stealthily, Allocer knocked on its frame with a few knuckles. "Enter," said the Goat, his tone strangely quiet.

Allocer stepped inside and stood at attention, lowering his firearm. "Patrol Six on report, sir," he said. "Perimeter is secured."

The Goat's chair swiveled and he faced the group. "Good," he said. "I caught sight of the rabble being dispersed," he said. "Your due diligence is commended."

There wasn't much left of Leonard Ephesian's corporeal shell, even if you could tell the Goat had been more careful with it than most other demons would have been. If he'd possessed Tom Magnus' focus or his sense of morality, then maybe something would've compelled him to limit the amount of power he allowed to course through the flesh he'd stolen. His fur had fallen in patches and his eyes had turned rheumy, one ugly tumor poking into view just above the otherwise immaculate white shirt collar. His horns were splintering, and a few of the anthro's hard fingernails had already split down to the root.

Seeing as the Goat seemed to be more in the mood for music than conversation, the Veiled Lucifer prodded things along. "If I might ask, sir," he began, "the men are growing impatient - and hungry. What plan is there, besides the devastation of Man's places of power?
- The raising of new ones, of course," replied the Goat. "The survivors have already begun assembling in other fortresses. All that matters is sustaining enough pressure to push them to fight, and enough for them to have hope. A populace that fosters hope is a breeding populace."

He sniffed in an almost desultory fashion. "We'll have meat yet, don't worry."

Allocer hoped his disgust wouldn't show on his Veil. "A blood brother of mine is a provincial ruler," he began. "He took it upon himself to pacify the mortals placed in his custody. I fear he might have grown attached to them. Just how foolish are his hopes, if I might ask?"

The Goat shrugged. "There won't be much left for our true enemies to feast on, by the end of it all. My representatives are to detonate all ley lines and points of convergence on the eve of total subjugation. The mundanes will survive long enough to line our larders and serve as menial workers.
- This will damn all supernatural citizens to an absence of potency or force undead breeds into torpor," noted Allocer. "Am I to understand that this is a reasonable sacrifice?"

The Goat parted with a feline blink. "What do you think, footman?"

Allocer's Veil hid hid his rising rage, but his comrades in misfortune could still see his actual mouth glowing red, his eyes twinkling like two hot coals. His rifle's trigger grip squeaked as anger made him squeeze it.

"I serve Pride, O Lord," he instead replied, channeling his growing hatred and making it sound like unquestioning fealty. "I wasn't made to second-guess our commander's orders."

The Goat nodded. "Exquisite. You'll like the results of our handiwork, soldier; I know exactly which parts of this wretched realm to preserve for our perusal. Your obedience does you credit; it ensures you'll live to see it for yourself."

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TennyoCeres84
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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by TennyoCeres84 »

The familiar scents of gun polish and laminated plastic caused the werewolf to pause and send out a message through Coombs' telepathic relay. Someone's coming this way. We either hide in the breakroom or climb the support struts and feed pipes to get ourselves out of sight. We might be able to surprise someone and get them to translate for us if we hide in the breakroom."

***

The dryad didn't reply to the warlock's essentially rhetorical question. Dickens had succeeded in getting her to fall asleep for some much needed rejuvenation. However, the group would be able to quickly tell that everything was not okay.

As she inhaled, Magnus's presence was picked up by her keen and alert nose. "Demon..." she snarled in her slumber. Some of it may have bee nher general wariness of demons lately or just the extreme amount of stress she was under. A couple thorny vines extended from her back and launched at the incubus. They were just a few inches from his body when they stopped suddenly.

Ciaran had quietly rushed forward to soothe his girlfriend's ire and had gently laid a hand on her vine-covered head, stroking it lightly as she remained asleep. "Shh, it's okay, Sophia... It's just Aislinn and Tom; they're here to help you feel better. I'm here, too," he promised, sighing lightly as he glanced back at the others with a nervous look.

She continued to talk in her sleep. "Thought your family had maybe abandoned me, my Knight..." she mumbled with a delirious and bitter tone. "I know you wouldn't..."

Ciaran let out a shuddering sigh. "I never would, Sophia... I'm here for you." The tree spirit made an approving little noise. As Aislinn and Tom would approach her, her body didn't appear as healthy as it normally did. Her voluptuousness had been traded for thin arms and thinning waist. Her ribs could be faintly seen under her shirt. Her nails had become sharp and jagged, thorns poking through the shirt.

"It's like she's becoming feral as a reaction to the stress..." Aislinn broadcasted to Tom, Ciaran, and Albert. "She's entering survival mode..."

Eerily, the patient muttered, "I have to...with what those monsters are planning...must survive... The Mother says so... Everything will fail if we don't...Yggdrasil must persevere...somehow..."

***

Meris's ears flattened with concern as she padded after Lavinia. "Things are dire in Hope...We have a mole situation within our own complex. Pride's forces are targeting the Nexus and by extension, Sophia the dryad. My court and I have recently escaped a hit on our lives due to anti-collaboration efforts," she addressed.

***

Abdiel's features softened as she watched Lilith's turning play out. She looked over at the mysterious woman. "Your descendants won't see you appear until the prophecy plays out, right? What exactly does that prophecy say?" she asked with the sudden uncertainty of a mortal, one of her hands reaching for Melmoth's.

***

Nami opted to say nothing, quelling her rage with practiced feline indifference. She hoped that her expression would create a good cover for the veil. She didn't know how much Allocer would be able to get the Goat to divulge, but she quietly wished they might learn more about his plans.

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IamLEAM1983
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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by IamLEAM1983 »

Archie being more of an acrobatic sort, all he needed was a few seconds to hop his way past a few support struts. This left the more grounded types to bolt for the break room, Bob lining the door and pulling out Doomsayer out of caution. He slowly and carefully thumbed its hammer, paused to listen to their target's steps, and finally peeked out of the door, raising his arm at the sound of the hapless fiend being forced to croak for help, instead of screaming. Archie's cane handle pinned a pot-bellied office drone to one of the struts, a puce-skinned Fiend with short horns, a beige short-sleeved shirt and cream-colored slacks. Its nametag bore the same alien symbols, and his dropped smartphone showed a splash screen of the same demon with another one that seemed to be coded female.

"Leggo, Holden, I got this," groused Bob, who bobbed his gun's muzzle slightly, smiling threateningly. "Yeah, you see that green glow? That's pure guilt, mon frère. We're gonna take a nice and short walk back to the break room, and you  won't scream, got it?" he said, adding a sealed-lips gesture for clarity. The demon fearfully stammered something back, nodded, and fruitlessly tried to look at Archie.

Back inside, Bob guided him to a chair, while Archie only loosened the grip of his cane handle's hook around the man's throat. "Mister Coombs, if you please..."

Nodding, Eustace carefully peeled off his Flesh Mask and took a few steps forward. Terror immediately bloomed on the supervisor's face, but the Squid operative outstretched a hand, murmuring a few words in the sanitized Black Speech. Terror gave way to confusion, stammering sounds soon giving way to heavily accented English. His accent was unplaceable, giving more weight to the impression that Belial's workers had never been Named or had otherwise been the object of a summons. The Pit was all this man knew, so his fear was perfectly understandable: in his mind's eye, he was being assaulted by monsters the likes of which only tales had ever been told - the worst of them not being those with tentacles...

"I - what is this? What language am I speaking? What do you want?!
- This, for starters," supplied Eustace, who unclipped the supervisor's laminate. "Give us a hand; it'd be a shame to force you to explain bruises to that lovely wife of yours. You can start by telling us what this place manufactures, as well as your name. Let's remain cordial, hm?
- Name? I was never Named! What is this?!
- A pet name of yours, then - something you share with your wife. In our line of work, we like to establish a rapport with those who help us."

The demon licked his lips nervously. "S-Squeaky. She calls me Squeaky."

Bob apparently couldn't restrain his shoulders from bobbing or a grin from appearing on his mug. Squeaky, in the meantime, put his own terror and confusion aside. "T-This is the Frameworks plant, we produce the non-mechanical parts set in Management's quotas.
- What are these parts for?" asked Bob.

Squeaky's eyes darted left and right. "I-I don't know," he stammered. Crystal would obviously smell her colleagues' disbelief, but she'd also pick up on the Fiend's apparent sincerity. Belial had his various factories producing gunmetal parts of various types in complete ignorance of the rest of the procedure in the chain of production. Archie seemed to be as doubtful as the rest, but Nergal's whiffs of surprise subsided more quickly.

"Clever," he said. "Belial's fostered a culture of defacto innocent demons, only aware of the norms he put in place for each individual element in the production chain... It keeps all Brimstone and Hellfire elements pure and lets professional craftsmen imbue them with the Dark Arts. It more than aptly guarantees stability at all production levels."

Squeaky was obviously confused. "What are you saying? What have we been manufacturing?"

Archie's grip on his cane shifted. "We've just tainted Belial's operation. If our friend here tattles, we'll lose our advantage."

Erin stood near the door, on overwatch. "He has to come with, then. Can we risk opening a portal in here, love?" she asked Nergal. The skeletal demon grunted and pointed to a sign that adorned a banister, outside. On it, in fairly classic warning-sign design, an iris shape was crossed out with a recognizable red circle and slash.

"Countermeasures are already in place," he said. "I imagine blocking or forbidding the use of portals inside the facility makes it easier for Squeaky and his ilk to clock employees accordingly."

* * *

Tom drew his chin in and didn't have time enough to raise a hand forward. His stifled shout only came out as a loud grunt, immediately followed by a sigh of relief. Sophia's pitiful sight deeply unsettled him, and he beat back the urge to turn around and demand to know if Dickens had spiked one of the dryad's last few glasses with some concoction of his invention. Instead, he allowed himself a calming breath and carefully exhaled. Thankfully, Thomas Quint's neglected training came complete with dryad-applied forensics. While he wasn't a physician, he at least knew that treating a sick plant spirit meant he had to crib as much from standard medical procedures as he had to look to standard Botany. Choosing to ignore Sophia's delirious slight towards himself and Aislinn, he slowly circled the bed and left Aislinn to share the other side with her brother.

"We never abandoned you, Sophia," he said, again plying his supernatural magnetism to appear as soothing as possible. "We simply couldn't let you shoulder any more burdens. Hope is a big city and we can't expect you to cover everywhere between here and Point Judith Road in barbs and vines. We had to help in what ways we could and right now, that means we're here for you. Now that we've saved as many people we we could and that the survivors are fed and cared for, we can turn back to the front lines."

He sat next to her. "Now, I'm going to bend down and kiss you on the forehead, alright?" he said. "This is so I get a sense of your temperature."

As he bent down, he looked back up to Ciaran and lowered his voice. "Does she keep reserves of mulch or potting soil, in the back? She needs plant nutrients, especially good sources of potassium. If she keeps a separate bin for organic kitchen residues or composting, I want the whole thing."

Past the threshold, Albert looked uncertain. "Are you sure? I mean, it's all rotting and stinky and, well, her sheets-"

Tom glared, which sent Albert scurrying off towards the kitchen. That done, he finished his motion and kissed Sophia on her forehead, hoping she wouldn't be too clammy or otherwise warm.

Claudia glanced in the direction of Dickens' created ruckus and crossed her arms together. "What can I do?"

Again, Tom kept his voice low. "She's delirious, so her neurons' ion channels are impaired. She needs sodium. We don't have hospital-approved NaCl batches on call, so we'll just have to make do. Get me all the salt she's got. Table salt, cooking grains, fancy or cheap - whatever."

He looked back to the dryad and then to Ciaran. "Get a bath running," he told him. "We'll dump everything in there, put her in it feet-first. It'll stink like nobody's business and we'll stain her bathroom for the next several weeks, but it should at least stabilize her. If we can keep her elevated, her xylem network should diffuse the water and nutrients through her. If nothing else's worked, it's probably because her system is too weak to process food or medicine the way humans would - that's a tertiary metabolic function, as far as dryads are concerned. Add some crushed-up paracetamol or acetaminophen tablets, and we can at least take the edge off of her discomfort, maybe even get her to be at least lucid."

From the back, and amidst the din of displaced pots and pans, Dickens called out. "How are you going to keep her propped up? She's too weak to stand on her own!"

* * *

Someone else might have taken Lavinia's arching of her back and the brief backwards flattening of her ears as signs of passing annoyance, but the Grimalkin's cunning kept things clear. As far as cats were concerned, she was being highly empathetic."How horrid," she said, sounding like she couldn't have emphasized both words more. "King Solomon may have lived too far in the East to know of our kind, but we certainly learned of his exploits - and yours. I'm glad to see you and your retinue have survived," she said.

She was silent for a moment as some time was needed to carefully navigate a few dunes of packed snow, but relaxed once the din of battle grew distant. "When you get back," she said, "ask my son what it is he might have seen. He may have both an Oath and an employer, but he still is my son, and every bit the Malk his father is," she said. "He will have kept his own prowlings-about a secret, to be sure, but he is more than guaranteed to have spied upon something that could be of use to you."

From empathy, she moved back to the forward ears and curled tail of self-assurance and mild playfulness. "I imagine he would have told either the Drake boy or mister Magnus, but would have found reasons enough to remain mum. Seeing you like this should assuage his fears."

They approached another ruined structure. "I will follow your lead, once we reach the tower. Trust your instincts, keep out of sight, and you will gain the upper hand on your conspirators. Your paws will lead you through your allies' fortress in ways you might have thought impossible, only days ago. Trust them. Once safe in my son's apartments, I will release you all from the mark of my kind."

* * *

In the past, Lucifer led a troubled Lilith away from the remains of her old life. Storm clouds rumbled and gales of sand soon were pushed past the caldera, all but signifying the end of this oasis. The spring dried out and water evaporated from the small bowl as if the scene had been placed in a time-lapse, the palms and fronds dying in the span of moments. Even the modest shack the family had shared disappeared, as the support poles for the roof were nudged out of place by accumulating sand. The bodies were quickly buried, only dried palm fronds left to decompose atop the sand. The work of years passed in mere moments, cementing the notion that Lucifer had lifted what had remained of his illicit protection. He'd done all that he could for Lilith's family for as long as he could - but the time for quietude and domesticity had passed.

When the skies cleared, nothing remained. Nothing except a lock of wild red hair and a wave of deep black that disappeared past the next ridge.

"Lucifer will fall," she said. "He will take you to the brink of victory, but another truth-seeker will deliver the final blow."

As shock washed across Melmoth's features, so too did his modern appearance return. "Waitwaitwait - back up a sec. Is he gonna Capital D-Die, as in his demon-stuff gettin' deleted, or are we just talking about one heck of a long respawn? He's in cahoots with God, She wouldn't just ALT-F4 him out of existence, would she? I mean, he's practically her trump card!"

The pained look she gave both him and Abdiel spoke volumes. "I know as little as you do, which is now much more than most. He always told me that his fight against the corruption that threatens Creation might cost him everything."

* * *

Amazo the false grunt opted to play his part. If he was supposed to be a Pride demon, why not ham things up a tad?

He opened up with a sadistic leer and a self-satisfied thrusting of his chest. "All the better, I'm looking forward to having some dryad bark on the menu, they say it's a wonderful exfoliant for demonic horns, it turns nice and coarse if you stress 'em up long enough...
- Then you'll like the East Coast's lot; our strategy of leveraging the weakest of the blood drinkers as a means to keep the pressure on is paying dividends, reports suggest that most Nexus keepers are within a few good frights of finally collapsing, and the Moon-Mad who were foolish enough to come to their arcane breadline's defense have been shown to fare poorly under duress. Valefor might have failed, one of these vampires might just be deluded enough to serve as a decent representative of Wrath. No possession required - only a false sense of righteous fury."

The Goat smirked. "Would you like to see them?
- Oh, please," intoned Amazo, as if he knew what to expect and particularly relished it. The possessed goat anthro stood up and cracked his neck, walking a bit stiffly towards an attaché case that waited on one of the curved couches. He turned back and opened it, revealing three artifacts that radiated pure evil. Drawing a line from them to the wilted Rose Garden wouldn't be too difficult.

"I give you, the Crowns of Wrath," he said. The three circlets were wickedly forged, designed to elicit pain and discomfort in their wearers. One was more ornate than the other two, having evidently been Valefor's own marker. "These and the Scapegoat should make quick work of the East Coast. A clever invention of Belial's, I must say: embedding a Prince's demonic essence in a phylactery, in much the same way mortals ensconce their souls in etched glass and machinery to stave off Lady Sammael."

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TennyoCeres84
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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Crystal sighed. "It looks like we'll have to go on foot, albeit stealthily," she surmised.

Matriel frowned. "Seems so."

The Throne calmly looked over at the worker demon, making his inner nature as subdued as possible in order not to frighten him again. "Do you know of the quickest way between here and the exit of the Frameworks plant? Having worked here for so long, I imagine there's shortcuts you know of when you have to save time."

***

"There's enough room between the wall and the tub, so I can slip in there and hold her up while she soaks up the bath! She has a compost bin in the back corner of the kitchen!" Ciaran called out to Albert.

He then hurried toward the bathroom and the began filling the tub up with water, sticking a hand in to ensure it wasn't too color or too hot. He filled it just enough that the water level would reach Sophia's shins.

As for Sophia, her body temperature felt rather normal and didn't appear to be sweating to the point of clamminess. Aislinn frowned thoughtfully. "It's likely just the trauma of having the Tree damaged and then the bloodshed that's taken place in the park. I figure the same qualities that can affect a sapling would still have a terrible effect on a fully grown one. To create an enemy, you maim the tree. To create a monster, shed your own blood upon its roots and bark, plus the victims who died here. Between that and her defenses, it's no wonder the state she is in!" she mused telepathically.

With the noise and commotion coming from other parts of her residence, Sophia's eyes opened slightly and dazedly looked around the room. "What's going on?..." she whispered. "Are we...under attack?"

***

"Thank you for your aid. From what I was able to see, it seems like potential culprits could be angelic or demonic," Meris replied, her tail swishing lightly with annoyance.

***

Abdiel was just as dismayed as Melmoth and Lilith, but she didn't want to give into the feeling. "God sometimes makes information unknown to us as a means of security. As an example, even Matriel doesn't know why Meris was such a special case that he was assigned to her; the same goes for Cuthbert and Hesediel. However, that doesn't mean we're completely helpless."

She looked over at the Broker. "That's where we need to come in. We need to fill in the information of the prophecy to prevent Lucifer from dying. He started on this task alone, but now, he has more of us to work with instead of against him."

She sent a firm and impassioned look to the Mother of Demons. "I'm not about to let him get taken out. This theme of scapegoats and the weight of sin grows tiresome. We need to stop it and look for other avenues to fix things."

***

Opting to play a more by-the-book type, Nami the false grunt eyed the circlets. One would be for Arthur, if the conditions were right, but who were the other two for?

"Milord, normally the standard policy is to have one representative per Vice. Are we adjusting it to absorb valid candidates from the opposition to dash their hopes and bonds of camaraderie? The undead you mentioned would do sufficiently, as based on Your Lordship's magnificently keen observations, but who else might round out the trio and also cut our foes to the core?" she inquired, adding a cold, sadistic smile to sell the evil relish.

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Squeaky glanced about, as if someone were to pop in and chance upon the group. "T-There's service tunnels, deeper down, for the Maintenance department. I only have access to the local half between Frameworks and Mechanicals..."

He hesitated and licked his lips. "What time is it? Maybe we could reach one of the janitors, down there, or at least find one of their carts; a few of them leave their keycards clipped to them - it's a big point of contention for HR..."

Nergal pointed a gloved hand at Squeaky's own wrist. "Feel free to take a look, we won't harm you. Our timepieces aren't from here, they won't work as intended."

Hesitating, the supervisor did just that. "Wrath is waning," he said, "that gives us a little less than half an hour...
- Where can we open a portal?" asked Ereshkigal. "Your employment here is obviously forfeit, or it will be if you're found with us.
- B-But, my wife! I can't just leave her behind!" replied the supervisor.

Nergal sighed. "Call her, have her meet us at the closest portal-friendly location here."

That left Squeaky to lick his lips. "That would be Corporate, in the central spoke, where the boss keeps his private forge. She's just a division secretary; she doesn't have clearance.
- Then who has the lowest-level access to Corporate that also ties with Maintenance?"

Squeaky blanched. "T-The new guy. Head of Janitorial Services."

Archie noted the supervisor's increased terror. "We'll keep both you and your wife safe from him, sir. The more you tell us, the more we shall be able to assist you."

Squeaky again glanced about. "Nobody here wants up or out. We're happy, here. The new head of Maintenance? He's not. He wants up and out. Nobody here particularly likes him."

Eustace's tendrils had slowed their autonomic motions to the barest of twitches, a sign of intense focus. "Is this new section head given to grunts or snarls? Slovenly displays, perhaps? Or maybe you've noted obsessive tendencies..."

Squeaky couldn't have nodded more emphatically. "He's pissed that Belial didn't give him a Directorship. Everybody here knows he did it to keep him under control, under more supervision. The boss is always careful when it comes to vertical promotions."

Sighing, Coombs looked back at the group. "We know what became of Thomas Quint's shade, then."

* * *

Tom didn't send anything back, but his glance and curt nod were enough of an assent in the immediate. For now, he settled with carefully pulling Sophia out of bed.

"Not yet," he said, keeping his tone soothing, "Lucian is keeping Arthur's vampires in a Non-Euclidian merry-go-round, Horatio's are back on our side, and most of Pride is focused on the front lines. I'd give you an estimate, but Rothchild turned the second half of Centennial Park into an infinite expanse. The Pride Knights on the front won't reach us in a long time, even if they jog at a full clip. We've bought some time, all things told."

He grunted as he pulled the dryad into a fireman's carry. "As for you - you're taking a bath and having lunch," he explained, then summarizing what he intended to treat her with. "Ciaran's going to keep you propped up for as long as he can. Your job is to trust your better half - the plant-related side of things - to take quick sips. The part of you that's humanoid and sapient just has to put up with a stained bathtub, alright?" he asked, trying to keep things casual.

In short order, the calm bath Ciaran had drawn up turned into a putrid and grayish morass of dissolving clumps of earth, writhing earthworms, vegetable and fruit peels and various food leftovers, along with sterilized manure. Albert having emptied all of Sophia's reserves of potting soil into it all as well, the mixture was less liquid as it had a gruel-like consistency. The last things to be added in were a handful of punctured Advil caplets. It stank like Hell, obviously, but any plant would have found an overflowing buffet's worth of nutrients, in there.

Grunting lightly as he lowered her into Ciaran's arms, Tom sat down on the toilet seat. "Alright, let's just hope that dryad flesh is as hydrophilic as your typical garden daisy is. The downside is it won't be as fast or as filling as chicken-noodle soup, which was my first choice."

Claudia stood at the ready with some towels, if need be. "Nice bedside manners," she said, sounding rather earnest. Sighing, Tom removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. 

"Well, she needs it," he said. "She's needed it for a long time. I'm glad she's had Ciaran around, I just hope it'll later serve as an important object lesson for everyone in the enclave and back at the tower. We need her, just as much as she needs us. The mundanes might want President Jones to nuke the park, you and I both know that'll never happen. You could sooner expect the Jabberwocky to turn sane than expect a dragon to authorize a Nexus' sterilization."

* * *

"You'll be able to confirm your suspicions with my son," Lavinia said, then disappearing in a crack in the new ruins they'd stopped in front of. Out of the Far Reaches' howling gloom they came, and into the harsh glow of an overhead fluorescent bulb, inside the loading dock of one of the abandoned skyscrapers that waited next to Magnus Tower. The close procession widened as each cat recognized familiar scents and homed in on its definition of safety. The ascending plazas turned into stepping stones leading up the tower's floors, until Bucky finished his afternoon stroll around Archie's floor - and noticed a small swarm of big cats mewing and mrowing its way past the previous floor's guardrails. Of them all, Aidan the cat allowed himself a playful curl of his tail around Shamus' right shin.

"Hey, big guy," he said, then adding a feline mew and a wink. As expected, Wallace couldn't quite wrap his head around this. "Saints alive - Drake?! Is cabin fever gettin' to me, or did you just talk through a cat?!"

Aidan the cat padded after the others, towards Archie's door. "Your ears doth not deceive you, Master Wallace. I've finally unlocked my lineage's latent powers and ascended past the mortal rabble. I'm done with swords and guns - from now on, it's claws and fangs or bust."

Bucky blinked. "Oh. You're pulling my leg.
- There's that, and mostly the fact that nobody here is currently prehensile, and we kinda need someone to let us in so we can talk to Gubbin."

Bucky nodded, then clumsily zeroing in on one of the cats. "Um, Aspasia?" he started. "Hi?"

Aidan's eyes widened and his tail swished, his expression turning to the same feline grins of earlier. "That's Meris. This is Aspasia," he said, pointing a paw.

Looking both amused and a tad embarrassed, Bucky used two big fingers to daintily turn the knob to Archie's residence. In skittered the flock of cats, only to be met with the scent of someone who was as far from surprised as could be imagined. Out of the kitchen walked Gubbin, apron at the ready and knife in hand. His eyes quickly scanned the cloud of cats and then looked back at the Clank.

"If I'd wanted to let my mother see my accommodations, mister Wallace," he said, his tone dry, "I would have mentioned it."

Another bewildered pause, followed by a wry smirk on Gubbin's features. "That was a joke, mister Wallace. I would recognize my mother's scent among all."

Lavinia hopped on a nearby coffee table and sat down. "I see the rumors are true," she said. "Your newfound friends have changed you, son. I approve."

* * *

Lilith nodded and smiled, the expression cryptic. "I've agreed with you for the past ten thousand years, testing the Blood at every turn. As for the both of you..."

She took Melmoth and Abdiel's hands and interlocked their fingers together, bringing them closer.

"Rest," she said, her presence once again reduced to a whisper in a darkened space. "Rest in love and peace, while you still can. You'll both need your strength in the morning..."

Consciousness would fade out and then slowly, insidiously, crawl back in. Melmoth's deep snores might sound like they'd never end or his arm feel like it would never release her, but both eventually did. Bleary-eyed and lips smacking, the Broker groaned his way out of bed and padded his way outside, trying to peer down both ends of the corridor with his squinting, half-asleep eyes.

"Lilith?" he asked. "You, um, around?!"

There was a brief sense of motion, the thud of a vampire gracefully alighting on the banister after jumping up from the lower floors. The girl had been turned young - red-haired, blue-eyed. The proportions didn't fit. This wasn't their Lilith, he realized.

"You called, mister Othstein?" she asked, smiling amenably. He blinked. "Oh, um... Nevermind, I just had this creepy dream about your namesake and, well, I-"

The girl nodded knowingly and rolled her eyes in amusement, the dainty fangs of a fledgeling blood drinker showing. "Story of my life. Or, well, unlife, I guess.
- Sorry," he said. "Um, what time is it?
- 6:30 AM, why?"

Mel grunted. "Means it's getting late in Hope. We'd be better off checking the dragons' plans for the assault and then taking a hike. Does, um, Vienna cover coffees to go?"

The girl smiled. "I'll put in an order for you. We've had you registered as corporeal, so a tray's going to be sent up with a Continental breakfast selection. Güten Morgen, in the meantime," she said, heading back down the corridor.

* * *

The Goat shrugged. "Once the first circlet is placed, the other two are distributed at the wearer's behest. Valefor wasn't exactly inspired, but I've known other Wrath Princes in the past that had more of an eye for the sardonic. I could see the Drake boy wearing one, or perhaps one of Shield's McConmara siblings."

He tapped the main crown. "I made sure Wrath would feel tremendously inspired, upon waking up. Our enemies have such a wide massing of personalities, and more than a fair few of them have cause enough for anger..."

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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"And I'm sure he has the baggage he had when he was topside, memories or not," Crystal grumbled. "Never getting the recognition he thought he deserved."

"That and then some. Belial may have placed Quint in a low rung position, but that doesn't mean he's going to be easy to get by. Trickery might have be our way to get past him in order to create a portal," Matriel surmised, sighing.

"Could we do a repeat similar to what took him out before?" Crystal asked the group.

***

Relieved by the developments outside, Sophia went quiet as her body was supported by Ciaran. She appeared to drift off into a partial sleep while her boyfriend supported the majority of her weight. While the dryad didn't have the absorption abilities of your standard daisy, her hooves and legs eagerly soaked in the provided nutrients. They sucked up the murky and smelly gruel inch by inch, the depths of the contents being consumed regardless of whether it was liquid or not. It seemed her body had taken enough of a toll that it was in desperate for any nourishment she could get.

The dryad quietly murmured soft groans of relief as her body strengthened itself. Her legs thickened, as did her torso. Her physique wasn't quite to the same strength as it was to pre-incursion, but it was a significant change in the overall health of her body. She resumed some of that green complexion that recognizable during the peak of summer.

The nutrients and pain relievers returned her clarity as she opened her eyes fully. Apparently. she had overheard Tom's commentary about gratitude and the future of the park. "Thankfully, President Jones doesn't share such thoughts, but I know who does," Sophia commented with a grim expression. "Pride has been stressing dryads and naiads globally to a near breaking point, to leave us weak and defenseless when they deal the final blow..."

Ciaran blinked as he put her words together. "Is that what you meant by 'Yggdrasil must persevere'?" he asked, his features growing paler as he looked at his sister with great alarm.

"How did you learn that?" Aislinn futilely asked. "And why?"

"Yes, I'm aware that I was rather out of it, but the Wood Wide Web has been sending messages frantically across the country and across continents over the past weeks. They're attempting to stop the rebellion efforts by removing Nexuses from the picture."

***

The tawny Malk grinned fangily, her long, pointed ears flicking with amusement. "Our group has a knack for befriending people and having a good influence of them," she commented to Lavinia.

"That we do," Meris agreed with a wry smirk. her gray and black glossy coat catching in the light. She then glanced over at the butler, her ears inquisitively swiveling toward him. "Have you heard anything interesting lately since our absence, Gubbin?" Even as vague as her question might have been, she figured he would have some idea of what she was inquiring about.


***

"At least we'll have a solid meal ahead of us," Abdiel responded as she watched the young woman leave to fill their order.

She joined him in the hallway and sighed. "Perhaps, once we learn of the dragons' plans, we might gain a heading as to where we start investigating, especially with the mention of a dragon at the beginning of our dream," she said quietly to him.

***

Nami smiled meanly again, nodding approvingly to the Goat. "Indeed, Milord. I'm sure the brilliance of your plan and Belial's fine craftsmanship will strike a sound death blow to our enemies!" she praised.

They had an idea of what the demon planned to do with the circlets, but she wondered if Lucifer had more for Allocer to see and learn about his boss. She mused that someone else might applaud and goad the Goat on to divulge more of his plans for their benefit, possibly.

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