Chapter VI - Asunder

This is what you came here for. Adventure, intrigue, murder, mystery and action - plus a healthy dose of boring everyday stuff. One continuous story-line, broken up into smaller themes for easier consumption.
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TennyoCeres84
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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Herbert's request left the selkie's features to shift swiftly from concern to glee. She placed her hands on his as they rested on her shoulders and grinned with excitement, squeezing them lightly. It was obvious that the new assignment had reawakened the Queen's penchant for political intrigued as well as her creativity. She replied, "As both a cantor and Solomon's Heiress, I'll give you the best and most memorable song I've created in a long while! It'll be epic and rousing!"

She turned to Cacus and smirked. "Give yourself some credit, Cacus! Envy already determined that Herbert is Pride's next Prince, and I've already discussed such with my husband. Why not give me a hand and set him on that course? Consider it the first step to getting back at that that bloody cockwomble for imprisoning you and knocking him off of his throne!"

Feeling her own pride in her abilities swelling, the sand near her began to hover and swirl around her in anticipation. She clapped rhythmically to give them a tune to sing to, which Cacus could add to as he wished. She began her melody with an undulating vocalization, somewhat similar to a battle cry.

"Herbert Wormsworth the Silver-Tongued
Mightiest of Hell's barristers,
Had unsuspecting beginnings,
Now he has great worth to show!"

"Talented beyond compare,
He thwarts his foes with ease and insight!
Marvel at his amazing wit!"

"He overcame the Goat's lies
and came to Hope's plight!
Noble and Dark,
A maverick of his Vice!"

"Even in battle,
he maintains his allure,
sharp-dressed to the nines!"

"His strong wings
carry him through anything
against gale and strife!
An incredible Fiend!"

"Contrary to Pride's virtues,
Wormsworth sets them right
Captain of an errant ship,
Toward a greater ambition!"

"Stalwart and unyielding,
he boldly pushes onward
Into a new eon!"

"Hail to the new Prince!
His Sovereignty abides
forever and ever!"


***

"The more valuable items would likely have been moved to a safer location. I remember hearing they did so during the days of Elysium, so they have backup plans for catastrophe level events in order to protect the art," Crystal noted.

The Throne eyed Zeke and then the general. "Suffice to say, Ezemial is willing to protect life's small pleasures as well as mortals' rights. Without the latter, you generally cannot have the former. They go hand in hand. He has Pandemonium's backing, as well as mine. The other Thrones aren't here, but I'm sure they would be unanimous with me."

***

"Where do you want us?" Nami asked, looking back to Quigley, Allocer, and the others. "At your side or on the battlefield with them?"

***

Abdiel chuckled and smirked. "Nice and scary, hm...I'll see what I can do."

She stepped a few feet away from Melmoth and Enlil and let a large plume of fire envelope her, acting as a changing room of sorts. When the flames receded, out stepped a nearly different woman. Her skill retained the same dark complexion, but her hair had been changed for a neck-length black bob, instead of the usual long side cut. Her brown eyes now resembled orbs of glowing lava. Bull-like horns protruded from the sides of her head and curved inward toward her face. The armor had been traded for a burgundy-colored pantsuit with exaggerated shoulders and black stiletto heels that appeared like they could pierce flesh just by looking at them. Her overall frame seemed somewhat gaunter to embody a perpetually hungry state.

Her ruby lips widened as she smiled devilishly, displaying fangs where once human teeth were. "How's that?" she inquired.

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Karl the Mad
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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Strong and hearty? For a mortal of over sixty years, perhaps, but in the grand scheme of things he may as well have been crippled. This much he had come to recall of his ancient past; guarding the great Library, making some small gains in the manipulation of magic while taking part in retrieval expeditions, becoming a seasoned raider himself in pursuit of books. Growing old, watching his family, staying back as a simple guardsman more and more until...

...until that day. Until the day that old man came in and would not be appeased. He shook his head and muttered sourly to himself; now was not the time to get lost in the past.

"You're awfully full of yourself, setting terms like that for someone you barely know," he countered haughtily, mostly stalling for time to find a loophole. He couldn't afford to be old and mortal and helpless again, not here. "Awful lot of baseless assumptions too. I was a librarian, for fuck's sake! You think there's honor in fighting a librarian?"

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Grish chuckled softly. "Please, Vlastos. You haven't so much as dipped a finger in the Dewey classification system in generations. If cultural upkeep truly did matter to you, you wouldn't have attempted to burn everything down in some grandiose display of suicidal ideation. You are as all Ordo Dracul: a schemer first and a warrior second. Don't you think you've lived long enough to outmatch most combatants, if placed on equal footing?"

The demon stepped closer. "If weakness is a concern, you needn't worry. I'm offering you the chance to remain powerful enough to challenge me, but weak enough so that the rules for single combat are maintained. You said it yourself: I'd have no honor in drawing my blade before a weak and feeble old man."

Then came a smile, glinting with menace. "Or would you rather renounce your issued challenge, Alexandrian? Gusion's left me feeling magnanimous - I hereby declare I shall not strike you, if you should walk away. I can't, however, say the same of my soldiers..."

* * *

As Meris sang, the first few changes to Herbert's countenance were familiar enough, as he'd displayed them in the last few times Aidan or someone else had gussied him up. Even if the aim had been something as mechanical as keeping the tower's defenses topped off, Herbert's nature usually resulted in straightened shoulders and in a self-conscious gripping of either a jacket lapel or his tie's knot, his features turning even the slightest bit of self-satisfaction into a spark of vanity. He'd been thanked for holding doors open in the past, only to smile as though it were something he had every reason to be particularly proud of.

Meris' words went above and beyond, something to Wormsworth's slightly ruddy complexion turning paler, verging on gold rather than burnished copper, with an odd effect of translucence making it seem as though he had some kinship with Tom and his fellow incubi's literally burning hearts. What was different was in how the effect extended to his hands and seemed to manifest as some sort of unseen and unfelt upwards gust Herbert was the only one to feel. His wings expanded, but instead of being carried off by the gust, he simply hovered a few inches off of the sand for a second or two and then quietly alighted back onto it, something in his eyes suggesting he wasn't entirely there, anymore. His soft focus and long, slightly gooey smile almost looked like those a drunk man could've displayed, and the way he turned towards the crest of the bowl, tail swishing like a cat's, suggested that mortal peril wasn't even on his mind.

Cacus knew that Pride's power rested on self-delusion, to a degree. His fork of their particular art involved how to impress those delusions of grandeur onto others, but anyone who had a foot in with Pride knew that Pride's Knights were only worth a damn on the battlefield because they wholeheartedly believed in their own martial skill. Make a Pride demon doubt, and you expose the chinks in its armor. Even without that, Pride's definition of excellence was usually pedestrian: it involved being a peerless fighter, a shrewd politician or a master of courtly intrigue.

What Herbert did, he'd never seen any Pride demon attempt - or so much as succeed in doing - in all his years.

He simply walked towards the suppressed group, boldly presenting himself as an additional target. Not having been informed, Tom had to suppress a brief look of panic and was forced to press on. "What the Hell are you doing?!" he seethed, in-between two bursts of Hellfire.

"I am simply evening the odds, mister Magnus," replied the lawyer. "Nothing more, nothing less." he replied. Leaving Tom baffled a few paces behind him, his stride didn't falter as six soldiers broke from the portal's defensive line and rushed him - only to phase straight through him. In response, Herbert slowly rolled his neck and elicited a few weak pops from his own bones, a low and soft moan playing on his lips. Smallish tongues of white fire danced along his fingers, his own Pride effectively leaking through his physical form. The moan turned into a soft chuckle, the exact same kind of contempt he'd probably reserved for a detractor, during his active years on Cacus' cabinet dancing in the sound of it.

"You can't touch me," he said, his voice carrying a sense of breezy finality. "None of you can. I can't quite call myself a believer yet, but I do know that not even the Goat could stand in the shadow of my Pride!"

The soldiers acted as though he'd personally insulted them, the bulk of them rushing him and breaking off from Tom and Aislinn - which opened the way for Meris, Aspasia and the rescued slaves to slip through. Wormsworth kept walking through the mob, head held high and eyes closed in what had to be the strangest, most deliberate and still somehow useful excess of self-confidence imaginable, not deviating from his course towards the rear in the slightest. All those who clipped through him soon triggered gold-white flashes, like strips of magnesium being ignited in a lab. Touching Herbert seemed to set all those foolish enough to try it ablaze, the flames glinting in odd after-images that left familiar impressions in the selkie and Chimera's retina's: Herbert in a mortal courthouse, speaking for some of his earned Eldritch clients, or the glimpse of some party in the Greenvale's renovated and restored ballroom, with his friends and colleagues all safe and sound.

In the end, the only ones left cowered before the gate, clearly tempted to simply throw themselves through it to escape Wormsworth's literal magnificience.

"Go through," he teased. "Run on to your master. His Pride can be extinguished, mine could never falter in the face of such pitiful invaders as yourselves.
- Y-You were never made a Peer," protested one of the Knights, "how can your mantle be so strong?!"

That slightly contemptuous laugh, again. "This isn't strictly my Pride, you fools."

Dawning horror stretched on the Knights' features, even as the fire that engulfed Herbert's hands grew in intensity and engulfed his arms.

"I'm proud of them," he said, "of the same creatures you would so callously destroy. I am proud to count myself in their number, to have them as my friends."

Another Knight seethed. "False king! Fool! Idolater! The Goat shall extinguish your light!"

Herbert pouted, shrugged and casually lifted the Knight off the floor with one hand around his neck. "He is welcome to try. None of you shall live to see it."

Gold-white fire engulfed the remainder of the opposing force and only lightly licked Wormsworth's suit, his gray jacket and slacks turning paler by the second. The two survivors ran off towards the portal, Herbert merely holding his ground, arms lifted as if to coax his flames to go higher.

"Vanity shall be mine," he shouted, "and I am vain enough to hope in the welfare of all that which you stole from us! I will bask in life renewed and wallow in peace, while all doors shall be barred for your ilk! The Sun of Pride dawns again - and it dawns for all of Humanity!"

He lowered his arms, and, seemingly, his heat and light output by the same token, and turned to face the group, feet crunching on newly-formed glass shaped out of the molten and cooled sand below his feet. By then, Tom was lowering one of his arms and giving Herbert a pointedly concerned look.

"Still think Raguel's Angel Time previz was bunk, Herb, or are you willing to accept what any two-bit Warlock figures out after surviving more than a month?"

Wormsworth's features went from one source of confusion to another, almost as though he didn't entirely remember the last few moments, and he glanced around himself before quietly croaking "W-What?"

Tom sighed as he stepped forward and scooped up some of the ashes. "All demons descend from the Princes, but most aren't much more than afterthoughts given flesh and bone. Asmodeus spent ages calling me the product of his melancholy moments and wouldn't you know it, I resented my kind's superficial forms of attraction. I'm thinking the Goat spawned you because he couldn't keep repressing you."

The warthog let some of the ashes fall through his fingers. "You started gestating the moment the Goat's last remaining embers of decency started to stir, and you spawned just as he was beginning to organize for the invasion, centuries ahead of time. That's thousands of years as a tulpa of sorts, the idea of Pride itself losing its crown to someone else, made manifest."

Herbert blinked again. "B-But, I'm a lawyer! I apportion punishments and justice in accordance with either this realm or Earth's own Judicators; I can't be expected to lead a Vice!"

Tom smirked. "I know the feeling. I thought I'd only ever sit by the sidelines, the Merlin to Hope's handpicked King Arthur. I didn't expect Iram to take the shape of a high-rise on the coast of Rhode Island, and I didn't expect so many people to place their trust in me. Look where I'm sitting, now."

* * *

"Ah," softly noted Zeke. "This should be reassurance enough, I'd say - both on the subject of my allegiance as well as the welfare of this country's cultural basin."

One of the President's cabinet members clicked her tongue. "What if Hell made you a better offer, somewhere down the line?" she asked, to which Lyman responded by rolling his eyes and lifting his hands in front of himself.

"I'm sure they'll try, but the only Prince who could conceivably make me an offer already left for this plane. Belial's just seen to my freedom; he knows my professional basis would allow me to be hired - but he more than certainly knows where my loyalties lie, at this point."

Absently, he pinched off a small wad of flesh from his neck and rolled it between two fingers, like a mochi ball or a wad of compressed cotton candy. Instead of popping it in his mouth, he settled with closing his fist around it - seemingly re-absorbing it.

"I'm a glutton, madam - not an ingrate. There's a difference. It'll be a cold day south of Leviathan's domain before the Pit pairs meats and wines or manages to put a price tag on a Mark Rothko."

He then looked back at Jubal. "With all due respect, we should be heading back. We've got a horned fool to trounce - and I've got a more-than-likely destroyed penthouse to scope out... The Goat's going to learn what it looks like when an equally deathless entity decides to use the Accords as intended and sues for damages... Did your friends use a Fae Gate to get here?"

Whitney scoffed in amusement. "Not exactly. We kinda locked 'em in one of Frank Brenner's space-compression booths, loaded it onto a truck and rode through a Gate to here.
- Hm. I imagine traffic is about to become an issue, considering Vienna's own plans. We'd better use Hell - or Heaven - to shorten our trip back."

Lyman glanced at Matriel as though referring to the Celestial Plane's infinity of constructed realms and kingdoms as a means to find a shortcut was entirely mundane. "From Texas to Rhode Island, do you think cutting through the Undiscovered Country's plains could get us back? I would've preferred a jaunt through the Elysian Fields, myself, but I doubt my own brand of battlefield preparedness would be popular with the others."

Archie blinked. "Why, what did you have in mind?"

Bob chuckled. "I figure Zeke here wanted to give Obelix a run for his money and stuff himself on moussaka and ouzo.
- Er, no," admitted the android. "I would rather revelry were kept for after our hard-fought victory."

Lyman didn't seem to be entirely paying attention, as one hand patted his generous tummy while his tongue danced underneath his snout. Judging by his eyes, he probably had lightly fried eggplants and melted cheese on the brain.

* * *

Looking back towards the larger portal, Lucifer noticed two relatively distraught-looking Knights passing through it, their swords' sheaths curiously empty. He clicked his tongue and narrowed his eyes, grunting in thought.

"Tell you what - Allocer, Urakawa? You're both with me. We're gonna see if we can't end this or at least keep the real tacticians busy enough for the average grunts to mess up... Haraldson, Quigley - one of you's got enough clout to shake things up on the ground, and the other one's gonna have it once some blood enters the equation. I have a feeling I know which trump cards our asshole of a common acquaintance has in store, so I'm gonna need the both of you to keep an eye out for a really mangy-looking classic Faun. Tail one of the McConmara alternates for info, or one of the warthogs."

Doherty's mustache bristled with impatience. "What about Nybbas and I?
- Nybbas is in charge of interference. What's your jump range, Doherty?
- I can clear three blocks if I have enough momentum," replied the walrus.

Lucifer nodded. "Then I want you just shy of four blocks away, and out of sight. You're an anthro, so keep your senses peeled. Nybbas is in charge of the signal you'll need to jump in, once we'll have brought the Goat's guard down. Once something catches your attention, run like Hell and make for the rooftop we'll be on as fast as you can. If you can't see us, use our scents."

Wallace looked a bit annoyed. "This is demeaning," he said, "I haven't had to sniff for my own allies or cabinet members before, and you don't know much about anthros if you think we do everything by sound or smell."

That left the Lightbringer to roll his eyes. "Listen, Hammerhead, you're an anthro superhero, last time I checked, and God's patch notes haven't told me anything about Ethan Alderan's Seraph feeling self-conscious about using his augmented sight to spot tiny cyanide drops on someone's hand! If he had to rush someone off to the ER without the least bit of explanation, he damn well did it, alright?! So get in close and get a good whiff in - we're losing time, here!"

Grumbling, Wallace settled with diffidently tweaking his pudgy nose in Nybbas' direction a few times, then muttering vague excuses as he approached everyone else and placed his nose slightly downwards, angled for the bend of each person's shoulder and neck. Vague thanks were muttered a few seconds later in each case, once he'd collected enough of an impression to memorize each scent.

Reaching Lucifer, he couldn't stop himself from frowning slightly. "You're using some sort of alien trident thingamajig," he said. "Why do you smell like a badly-burned steak with a gunpowder chaser?"

Briefly looking surprise, understanding soon bloomed across Lucifer's features. "Oh, right - that's from the planet's sphere of accretion. I must've picked up some Eau de International Space Station while I came down. The planet's mostly surrounded with trace accelerants and tiny bits of metallic junk - plus freeze-dried human waste."

Choosing to gloss over this last detail, Allocer couldn't stop himself from briefly looking up. "The invasions stopped the last crew complement from cycling back to Earth, they've been dependent on supply shuttles from Luna and Mars to survive. I wonder if they still can recognize their home."

Magnus grunted. "Well, Japan's tsunami barriers held, but record has it they've spotted four new islands rising out of the strait between Tsushima and South Korea. The Midwest is in for fifteen or twenty years of a new Dustbowl Era, and the San Andreas faultline is reportedly closed. The Suez Canal is blocked by falling debris, but most of everyone Wyvern could send feelers for tells us this can be repaired. Add Heaven and Hell's contributed changes to the biosphere, and animal and field researchers alike are going to have decades of additional material to sort through. We're liable to lose several native species, which should be replaced by their more resilient or adaptive supernatural cousins. Heaven's flora is symbiotic, Hell's is parasitic by default. If it weren't for the Celestials' influence, we would be looking at an extinction-level event spread out over two or three mortal generations. Add Heaven's influence, and we're likely to see an increase in genetic diversity."

Allocer grunted. "For which my old boss will obviously take credit... We should circle the park, use the buildings on the adjacent streets as cover. It'll take us a little longer to reach the Goat, but we won't be exposed."

* * *

Mel couldn't quite resist a few eyebrow waggles. "You're a century short of finding cultists who wouldn't mind sacrificing infidels to you, Kali, but maybe with a bit of a rebranding and a new campaign, we could probably get somewhere..."

Chuckling a little darkly, he pulled out another cigar stub and lit it with a flame conjured from the tip of his tongue. "My turn," he said, briefly inhaling and then exhaling much, much more smoke than his intake alone should've allowed for. His form turned increasingly transparent as he did, until it vanished completely, leaving only a bank of wispy, oily mist that seemed to follow an unfelt gust of wind. It pooled around Abdiel, adding dirty, sooty smoke to the illusion, and evoked the idea of the vaguely Rakshasa-inspired being channelling some sort of tainted well of power from within. The Throne would soon sense that while Melmoth's smoke might smell suitably Infernal to any onlookers, it wasn't particularly unpleasant for her. It looked like it should've reeked of burning plastic or synthetic fabrics stuck to a blowtorch, but a vaguely sweeter take on the Broker's usual cigars was all that reached her nose. The smoke curled around her, feeling a bit as though two Melmoths had gallantly looped an arm under hers.

The Broker's voice echoed from the open air. "Stick close, Enlil - I'll try and stay thick enough to keep you out of sight. Abbie and I just need to find ourselves a pod of unlucky Infernal rubes to start out with... First we scare them, we lower their guard - and then, we make our pitch."

Enlil looked about, seemingly unsure as to where he should look while replying. "How are you going to convince them you've given up on your more humane habits?"

The cloud of smoke bobbed once, as if suggesting a shrug. "Mammon's got a few tricks of his own. I can fake a few of 'em convincingly enough. You'll see."

The peace-seeking Envy demons parted open like a veil of flesh tearing itself open, hands questing for the transmogrified Fire Throne and the Carmilla elder without risking actual contact. "Follow," a myriad weak voices whispered, "Follow!"

The torn mass turned as transparent as Melmoth, essentially becoming as a series of vague heat waves sticking close to the ground, the rebelling Envy thralls going as straight as the blasted and pitted street allowed, and turn turning right as abruptly as a GPS' arrow would have.

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Meris and Aspasia proceeded forth with Herbert, but the Archmage raised a brow at the demon's sense of confusion and then smiled. "You have more potential than you realize, Herbert. I wouldn't have created those lyrics if there wasn't some basis in them," she noted.

She moved closer and clasped his shoulder. "A cantor can only work with the material they feel about the subject they're requested to sing about. I embellished some, but that's because you haven't reached your new role yet. However, someone has to set the stepping stones before you for you to attain that goal. I have seen your worth as the next Prince of Pride, and Envy's thralls have also noticed. You're already on the path, and you have all the support you could want. We know who you will turn out to be, so have the same pride in us as we do in you."

Aspasia also smiled while continuing forward. "I think you have a lot of potential. You might not see yourself as a fighter or a commander, but what I just saw? You have the true skills of a leader. I can't say that about the Goat. There's aspects of him that remind me of Rendell, but I don't see those qualities in you. I see traits that are far greater in worth."

***

Matriel scoffed at Ezemial's trace-like state and stated, "We should be able to venture through the Undiscovered Lands in Heaven from here and return to Hope in a fairly direct manner. It's not like in Faerie where you have to perform certain movements to reach Gates and is far more malleable with regard to distance. You basically think of where you wish to go and the entrance comes to you, more or less. Some areas might be more guarded right now, due to conflicts over the world. We might even encounter some of my brethren who chose to remain behind, who are probably besides themselves with all of the changes happening on the battlefield and with the timelines," he noted.

"The timelines?" Crystal inquired with concern.

The angel nodded. "The last time I used Angel Time, I noticed that the time streams were being changed at a rather rapid rate, and our timeline might in a precarious situation because of it. My guess is that the Almighty and the Architect are giving you more allies from elsewhere to combat Pride and its eldritch allies. They both know how desperate the situation is, so they're increasing your numbers and the odds of victory. Those who are like Gabriel understand this, but you have Uriel's ilk who simply can't fathom why They're going to such lengths to help you and would prefer to have things stay the way they were. Depending on what we find in the Undiscovered Lands, there is a chance we'll face some of Heaven's zealots."

***

Nami proceeded forward toward the nearest building that would provide cover and smiled meanly at Allocer. She said, "Oh, I'm sure he will...However, his PR might be countered. What if Wormsworth finds a way to suggest that he was the one who helped collaborate with Heaven, leading to the increased genetic diversity? Also, his claims can be refuted by all of the media that has been created since the incursions began. The collective photos, tweets, memes, blogs do not speak kindly of him, even while they've had to remain on the downlow from the Goat's anger."

"The victor writes history, and it may not be him for very long. The Vices' leaders are not a fixed status, contrary to what they think."

***

Abdiel appreciated the feeling of Melmoth escorting her while they searched for a batch of rubes to fool. She looked and listened closely for any nearby troops protecting the outer edges of the city, any stragglers who were likely just causing mayhem while the main conflict took place in the park.

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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"Oh, don't tempt me with a good time," Marius drawled, contempt in every line of his being. "Or- wait, are you admitting your men are stronger than you? Do you secretly hope I'll call your bluff and give you an excuse to sic your mutts on me?"

Deliberately he turned his back on Grish and faced the goons of the castle. "Look, lads! Your so-called 'boss' here tries to hide behind you in the face of an honest challenge! Let's see how well that'll work out for him!" He whirled about, pointing at one of the burlier types. "You. Whoever you are, whatever you are. You think you can take me, one on one, full strength no holding back?"

The demon, caught off guard, could only stammer for a few moments, and Marius moved on. "Oops, too slow, too dumb! What about YOU! Or YOU!" He moved down the line swiftly, denigrating each of them as he went and not giving them time to respond fully. Meanwhile some of them were picking up on what was happening outside the walls, and stepped toward the hole Marius had blasted to try and see.

Marius ignored it, though, and turned back to Grishnakhal. "Welp. Looks like your goons are all cowards. And I doubt you're any better, my guy. So what's the matter? Scared to face me head on, full power? I guess I'm wasting my time with this little throwdown, then!"

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Grish's apparent playful contempt from earlier decomposed into what almost looked like pity, as he followed Vlastos' selected faces. He knew they hadn't attacked the vampire for fear of what he would do after Gusion's apparent ignorance of his own authority.

"And here I was, believing that your setbacks would have taught you some measure of humility, some understanding of Pride's own chivalry... None of us here are as the Goat, vampire, and we take our duels seriously. It's only in the outcome that you should be concerned - but you've proven to be as petulant as a child. A child who, perhaps, deserves further punishment."

With no hex in place, Grish was free to move as quickly as he could - and Vlastos would soon find out that the demon was as nimble as his own supernatural gifts made him. Wormsworth's Gusion might have looked like a rigid, predictably locked-in fighter only tapping into standard fencing repertoires, Grish apparently had no such limitations. While Marius would need all of his focus to steer clear of some of the more recognizable strikes, a few more were the product of supernatural gifts that clearly predated his own, almost as though the handle and the pommel's counterweight weren't being considered as the chief components of the sword's offered stances. Some attempted hooks were upwards swipes performed with a blade that would've normally made anything other than downwards or cross-slashes difficult, clawed hands gripping one of the sword's side guards in what had to be a constructed technique of the keeper's, designed to apply as much torque to the side of the weapon as possible, as quickly as any single attack allowed. The vampire would quickly realize the demon packed more raw power than him, but put much focus into efficiently chaining moves together, using his legs to turn spins into flips whenever a normal change of stance would've left him too opened up.

* * *

For a split-second, Herbert looked like he wanted to react in what was customary to him, but he didn't get much further than another lapel clasp, self-satisfaction only briefly touching his features before doubt overtook them.

"I appreciate the joint votes of confidence, truly, but I remain a Fiend by birth, after all. Lucifer knows, I don't need much more than a pair of nicely-tied shoelace knots at my feet to feel chuffed. I can't imagine my Pride could coexist with, say, Aidan's or the Deputy Chief's or - anyone else's, really. I've done good at the tower because Leonard and I are the only two legal representatives you have on hand at the moment - but if Councillor Tanner hasn't left the city and eventually takes up his legal practice again, well..."

Tom sighed. "Look, this'll all be new for everyone, Herbert. You'll need a legal in with the American Bar Association, Rhadamantus is going to need ratification with the country's judges circuit, Ephesian's state is going to complicate his own practice; but the good thing about the current predicament is that everyone's going to want to fast-track our return to normalcy. We'll have new challenges and you'll have to sidle alongside a lot of potentially corrupt colleagues; but these are the opportunities I've learned to take. With demons joining the civilian workforce, we'll have better chances at seating your own Pride."

He glanced about. "You've just shown us you have it in you, and as horrible as the current situation is, it's malleable. Aspasia just mentioned Rendell, but I have to disagree with her on one small detail. I've seen his type enough to know they're right about one thing: if you don't have a project, you're a dead man walking. If there's one thing you should take from me - or that saurian simpleton - it's that scheming doesn't need to be reserved to the Fiends and Princes."

Hesitating, Herbert glanced back towards the portal and then back towards the dunes. "We should send the Squids and Cacus through the main portal and then use the one the summoner opened to return to the tower. Aidan and Bucky might need us."

* * *

Liz Pope looked up from her tablet as she approached Matriel. "This lines up with some Einstein-Rosen-class anomalies my team had been tracking over the last several weeks; essentially non-etheric poltergeist-like activity in various remote corners of the country. Small gravitational wells, planar shifts and functional gates that were barely a few microns wide - I'd interpret it as God and the Architect setting up small sandboxes away from prying eyes, testing the proverbial knobs and levers before fully allowing alternate timelines to cross."

President Jones nodded and glanced off towards the glowing horizon line. "I'm a dragon, magic is more my forte than theoretical physics. God willing, though, I'm sure you'll at least come to understand it with time. I'd follow along, but we have a front line to mop up and a second deployment to organize."

The Gentlemen's lead tweaked his Stetson's location on his skull. "I'd ask Mrs. Devlin and the rest to help out, but you're not without knowin' Walpurgis keeps a foot in the other location."

He nodded at Archie and Matriel. "Gentlemen, I think this next part's best kept in your capable hands."

* * *

Allocer chuckled softly, nodding his head in the negative. "Trying to bring these facts to the Goat's attention isn't what I'd call a fruitful endeavor. The only ones you could hope to reach are those mortal collaborators for my former colleagues - anyone who contributed out of fear or some sort of self-serving streak. Why do you think he's spent so much energy in attempting to destroy data centers across the globe? They're new Nexuses of their own, and he knows just how quickly the court of public opinion reaches verdicts online."

He fell silent for a while as they negotiated their stealthy cross over to building the Goat stood on top of. "It has to be hard for you," he observed, "I mean, suddenly being put in charge of something that's crippled; that's going to change into something else once it can be rebuilt. You're the Throne of Technology, but you paradoxically have no say on just how decentralized the Internet is liable to remain. I wouldn't be surprised if some new strain of Protectionism cropped up, if national Intranets formed or if international access were regulated."

* * *

Their Viennese allies keeping out of sight, the demon, angel and vampire would have long minutes of deserted streets to contend with. The enemy was massing in Centennial Park, so the bulk of those left behind involved the possessed that were too physically damaged to be of use or those corporeal demons who hadn't quite been sufficiently damaged to leave the Material Plane. Ezemial's Glutton cousins could also be seen here and there, browsing gutted ruins for clothes and food or occupying closed or abandoned restaurants as though nothing had ever happened. While Sloth's pledge of support still held, it followed that some proponents of the Vice would be kept too far away for their resilience or bursts of physical capability to be of any use. They were few and far between, but still largely recognizable as the sometimes-corporeal but usually-possessing instances that either slept on the sidewalk like hobos or that found weird or uncommon resting places to lounge in until something solicited their attention. Melmoth had to avoid chuckling at the sight of a loudly-snoring Sloth demon that had posessed some businessman in the days following the first incursions, only to end up wedged in the groove offered by the bent-in windshield of a crashed car. The man made it look like an especially comfortable chair, the dust that covered his clothes and skin suggesting he'd been swallowing flies there at least since the main assault on the Park had begun.

Still, they'd eventually find their mark: a gaggle of Wrath and Pride warriors that looked as though they'd partially shucked off their armor plates in frustration and who looked as though they were half-heartedly trying to defend the entrance of an underground parking lot they'd claimed as their own. Abdiel would feel Melmoth gently press against her chest, as if nonverbally asking her to stop for a moment. He obviously needed to listen, to relay what they were muttering. It didn't take long.

"Alright," he then relayed, "here's the sitch - you're looking at what's left of Hubris' Third Company and Rancor's Seventh Legion. They'd been pressed since the first few incursions and made up most of the scout forces that punched through in small numbers across the globe. Hell wouldn't have had a staging strategy if it weren't for them, and none of 'em received so much as an accolade. No extra power, no stipends from Greed's vaults, no titles or Names - nothing. Now, their numbers are down to a cipher and they know the Goat's promises won't pan out. Not for them specifically, at least. The Pit can pump out Legions for as long as portals remain, but these guys won't ever get their just desserts. They know it, too. They're bullies, though, so they won't simply fall in with the allies' promises of support."

A few seconds passed. "Wait here," he then said. "You're gonna lose me for a sec, but I'll pop right back into view. You'll recognize me."

As expected, Abdiel's earned mantle of smoke dissipated and turned thin, probably in order for the Broker to stay out of sight. He then slipped past the guarded parking lot's entrance and went out of view. Long minutes passed, with Enlil looking about ready to ask for a possible push forward, when the artificial cavern of sorts resonated with an odd moan. It wasn't exactly a classic zombie's aimless vocalizations even if it did sound a bit like it, but it also sounded like the kind of groan someone who was nursing one Hell of a solid hangover would've produced. Out of the gloom shuffled a stained, partially-decomposed but still smartly-dressed man in his fifties, his stained and dusty laminate on his jacket pocket suggesting this was the corpse of the former William R. Bridges, lead broker for Johnson Equity - an investment firm which likely hadn't survived the apocalypse. Strangely enough, while Melmoth did nothing to fix the body's structural integrity, he channelled some of his power reserves into the suit and sparse items of masculine jewellery, first cleaning them and then somehow magnifying their intent. What had stepped into the gloom holding its head like an office worker after a post-workday bar-hopping stint stepped out of it looking like the picture of gross monetary excess, if you could've dressed up a mildly bloated zombie in brand-new pinstripes, cufflinks, lapel pins and vest chains. The groan shifted in pitch, going from apparent effort to an almost incubus-worthy sigh of pure indolence.

It certainly caught the soldiers' eyes. "Who goes there?" ashed one of the Pride deserters.

Melmoth's voice was different, owing to his inhabiting a corpse, and it sounded like he didn't want to be discovered in the immediate. Mammon didn't get out much, so evoking him wouldn't be out of the question.

"So, that's how it feels," he said, adding a bit of a drunken chuckle for effect, as he then raised his rheumy eyes, worked his decaying jaw and exposed teeth, and took the cityscape in. "This, it follows, is how it looks like after the Goat's sucked all the capital out of it... What a waste of an investment."

The soldier repeated his question, to which Melmoth-as-Mammon replied by lifting a finger. "Hold on, let me just - get my bearings, here," he said, fishing out the corpse's laminate. "Bill Bridges, it seems, is who goes there - and he certainly was materialistic enough to make things comfy for me. The building has a panic room, all those who sheltered in it survived; while the poor fool ducked into his Tesla... Asphyxiation in a luxury car. An interesting way to go, I'd say."

One of the Wrath soldiers caught on. "Mammon? Is that you?!"

The zombie's teeth made an almost-quiet grinding noise. "In the flesh. Or, well, what's left of it after two weeks of vermin chewing poor Bill's face off. I say we cut to the chase, gentlemen - money doesn't make itself, after all. The long and short of it is I have investments to recoup - and I find myself in need of anonymous and trustworthy intermediaries..."

In the meantime, Enlil looked like he didn't know whether or wince or grin in amusement. "I know it's probably in-character for Mammon to want to enroll lesser demons in the classic Nigerian Prince scam, but it doesn't change the fact that it looks patently absurd!"

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by TennyoCeres84 »

Meris nodded. "They likely will. Even with your barrier staying up, the Goat would want to send more Abominations toward the tower. I can put a temporary barrier on the keep's doors, so that they'll be able to be relieved. Hopefully, Vlastos can hold his own and rejoin us sooner or later," she said.

AIslinn eyed Herbert. "Going back to what Tom said, your goals don't have to be large ones. Depending on what we're up against, we're likely going to need your Pride as a shield. Focus on flexing those "muscles" for the next while."

***

Matriel frowned thoughtfully. "Even with Walpurgis' dual locations, I should be able to open a portal from here, go through Heaven, and then arrive in Hope," he stated.

The angel focused on a random spot not far from a pine tree and created a portal, ringed by streams of water, Gentle, white light and mist could be seen through the other end, hinting at a more isolated section of the Plane of Bliss. The area seemed otherwise unoccupied and easy to venture through to.

He nodded to Archie and the others in their group. "We should get going. I don't know whether we might find some opposition from my brethren, but waiting around any longer isn't advisable. With Ezemial having escaped and Walpurgis taken back, the Goat will want to refocus his efforts, so time may not be on our side."

Crystal nodded to the Clank. "Let's go," she said.

***

"That's true to an extent, but all of that decentralized tech wants to be whole again. I'm the Throne of Technology, but I'll be more like a midwife, especially as sentience grows in all of that AI and software. All of those young minds are like embryos, waiting for the right material to gestate. Some of that material will be humanity's influences, so those burgeoning psyches will resemble mortals. I'll figure I'm mostly there to nudge them here and there and protect them from greater threats," she mused as she went along on their stealthy trek.

***

Abdiel chuckled. "Indeed. This should be fun to see," she responded to Enlil with a smirk. "I'm looking forward to my cue."

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by Karl the Mad »

Grishnakhal was fast, that was for sure. And strong, too! Every slash and slap had enough force behind it to level the walls around them, it felt like. But Marius was up to the task. Disdaining any weapons he elected to meet the Keeper bare-handed, a faint whisper of the reality-warping Black Speech enough to tighten the muscles and skin of his hands and forearms to act as shields, sufficient to ward the blows away without undue harm to himself. He still felt each impact, of course, but they didn't actually get through.

After a few exchanges along those lines he decided to get creative. An abrupt flash of light allowed him to disappear, and when the light faded there were THREE ancient vampires in his place! One was mere smoke and illusion, the second was one of the Keeper's own men, swapped out with blinding speed and magical trickery. The third was real, but by the time Grish would realize that, Marius was backhanding the shit out of him and knocking him right into a stack of crates.

Only he never landed. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he whispered a few more phrases in the Black Speech, and the very air became as thick as ice. The others were caught cold, and Grish's awareness was unaffected, but his body could not move an inch; he was suspended in midair.

"Okay, so." Marius was standing casually at Grish's side, hands behind his back, voice conversational. "Full disclosure: this whole... thing I staged here was just a ruse. A distraction, if you will, to keep you and your men occupied while my new friends make life hard for the forces deployed outside the walls." He gently pivoted Grish so he could see through the hole which Marius had blasted not so long ago. "See? Not looking so good for you boys, is it? And all this time you could have been marshaling your men to go help them... but no. You got hung up on little old me. Strike one!"

Just as gently he pivoted the Keeper back into place. "Strike two was trying to hobble us for this little duel. See, I tried to be fair to you! I tried from the outset to dissuade you of your hexes and your bullshit! But no. And now look at you, caught as neatly as a duck in a dock." He leaned in closer, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I could k1ll y0u w1tH0u7 l1f71nG 4 f1ng3R, but I won't. That wouldn't be sporting.

"But strike three..." His voice dropped even further, and grew chilly as the grave. "Strike three, you over-prideful dumbass, was underestimating me. You don't know a fucking thing about me, or what I'm truly capable of! If you had, you would have refused my challenge and sicced your soldiers to tear me apart, and dealt with the consequences of refusal later! But NO. You had to strut and preen and act the peacock. I knew you would, but you took it too far and made it personal. I didn't want this to be personal, but you've done it now."

He leaned back, and a rushing in the air indicated time was about to restart. "So now I'm going to kick your ass, make you look bad in front of everyone, and walk away laughing. I'm afraid I must now insist that you take your beating quite personally, indeed!" And with another backhand chop he sent the Keeper flying high, to crash into one of the towers and bring it crumbling down, while the sword in his hand became a pitch black adder poised to strike!

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

Post by IamLEAM1983 »

The black adder might've been a nice touch, but a crumbling was, for all intents and purposes, a crumbling tower. Things followed as they usually did in the event of massive structural failures like this; with a brief forward surge of Grish's men towards Vlastos that was interrupted as quickly as it began. Masonry, stained glass and various etched foci all came tumbling down, arcane vessels rupturing upon impact with wild little flares of unfocused magic, initially reddish sparks of power that flickered to blue before surging towards the closest terrestrial font they could find - it being Marius himself. Nothing overt would arise from this, but the vampire would get a sense of how young liches typically felt - at least based on how his hands began to tingle insistently. A more basal part of himself immediately conjured up the mental image of the vampire quickly burying his hands in the park's soil for an instant or two. As the instinctive urge to ground wild magic was something all Earth-borne things share, whether living or formerly classically alive, it wouldn't be entirely unexpected.

Still, it made for a weird buzz to experience - and a reminder of what could happen if the Fiends ever did claim the Centennial Tree. Power effectively lost and wasted, left to the inefficiently slow cleansing process of the planet, as opposed to the specialized foci its own biosphere had produced in response.

As for the interrupted surge, it was owed largely to the rest of the debris - crumbling masonry and all. In any case, Vlastos was in for a relatively safe window of opportunity for a retreat, if desired - or he could wait and see if those Pride Knights that hadn't been trapped or at least physically disrupted by the debris still felt like putting up a fight. He hadn't killed the bailey's keeper, in all likelihood, but that wasn't a blow anyone could simply shrug off; especially not if several tons of carved Brimstone were still settling on top of you.

Around Vlastos, those lucky few who were merely severely concussed acted like they didn't know if staggering towards one of the three remaining barracks was more worthwhile than wobbling their way past the gash in the wall. They didn't exactly look the type to have a counterattack in hand, a few of them casting bleary-eyed and dubious looks at the vampire while unbuckling their swords or unceremoniously tearing their capes off.

One of those who still looked a bit more mentally present walked up to Vlastos and winced as they nursed a growing lump on the side of their head. One of the soldier's horns looked crooked but the skin hadn't been ruptured, suggesting a nasty bruise was taking shape below. He groaned lightly, something to his voice suggesting he probably wasn't so high up to have all of Pride's affectations. All he had of it was some odd bent on Received English Pronounciation, like a Russian expat fresh out of an English boarding school.

"Not to be churlish; and I'm beyond sarcasm with a headache like this, but, how's the pension plan with Magnus Tower?"

* * *

Herbert was about to agree with Meris' offered plan, when Vlastos' riposte brought down one of of the keep's towers in fairly spectacular fashion. Looking over the Cantor's shoulder, the horned lawyer couldn't repress a head-ducking gesture and a wince.

"That's... going to leave a mark in the morning, I'd say," he observed, then looking back to the Archmage. "I would've said this was a good idea, Meris, but I doubt the stragglers have any will to fight left, after this. So long as we're out of here before the local keeper extricates himself from underneath, well, all of this, I'd say we'll be fine."

On the outer side of the gates, Hilliard and his understudies lifted their hands and mental focus alike from the large panels, the taller Squid looking at the vampire's created gash in the wall as though it had rectified some sort of glaring issue in its geometry. "I don't quite have your gift for witticisms," he observed, looking back to the others, "but I'd consider this satisfactory in the  immediate.
- Good," said one of the shorter Squids, looking a bit anxious. "Let's leave while we still can, hm?"

Nodding, Wormsworth looked back to Tom, who seemed to pick up on his intent. The warthog made his way towards the keep, one of his eyes peeled for any overly ambitious stragglers. They'd see a few crestfallen Knights trudging through the torn wall, those who glanced back at them settling with a disgusted moue or a dismissive hand gesture. They were clearly fed up, for now.

"Let's hope there's at least one or two usable artifacts in here, something we could use as an anchor point back home... Going back to Hope through the same way those last deserters went through wouldn't be smart, the Goat probably has spotters set to deal with anyone with horns looking to wave a white flag..."

* * *

With hands shaken and those who elected to stay regrouping with Whitney and the President, they stepped through the portal and entered the Undiscovered Country.

Heaven, like Hell, tended to twist and bend itself in accordance to culture and myth alike. Zeke had imagined himself trundling through the Elysian Fields with all of Ancient Greece's delicacies at hand, but the Undiscovered Country was a somewhat different slice of the Hereafter. The very idea of virgin land made manifest in all its unspoilt beauty and rugged majesty. Archie's jaw dropped at the onset, Matriel having led them to a small clearing in some forest, a pond waiting just in front of their feet. The sun's light was tinted green and the air was exactingly perfect after Walpurgis' lingering Infernal oppressiveness. With all the greens and golden tones, they might as well have stepped into a Pre-Raphaelite painting made three-dimensional.

As expected, the Undiscovered Country mimicked sylvan ruggedness while still ruthlessly adhering to Celestial ideals of convenience. A path lay ahead, flanked on either side by arching trees that seemingly cried out for a painter's brush or a skillfully-handled DSLR camera. There were roots and stones in sight, of course, but they looked exactingly placed in order to never be in one's way as steps were taken. Crystal's senses would perceive no predator within miles of their position, while every other tree's trunk looked perfectly shaped in order to offer support for a nap. With Heaven's mandate pushing the Host to fulfill every expectations of Reality presented by the recently deceased, it stood to reason that predators could still attack you and you could still stumble on a few rocks, but these events would only serve to further anchor and reassure you.

This was Real to you, if you were dead and journeying through these lands out of your own expectations. If you wanted to chop down some trees and fashion a cabin, you'd find everything needed as well as a surplus of contentment.

While Erin had stayed behind, Nergal had followed along in order to return to his own preparations in Hope, and to check on Otto and his own cabal. "I've never stood here until today," he said, nodding as he stated the obvious, "but I've long heard of this place through the first few settlers who founded Texas. Arable land forever untouched, freshwater streams never tapped or diverted, no bridges, dams or even camps - and anyone who settles here forms their own bubble, their own little sanctum; all so the whole is never so much as touched by once-mortal hands."

Archie was silent for a moment as his shoes crunched on the path's fine and loose gravel. "Paradise for survivalists and outdoorsmen, I'd imagine.
- Or those lucky Fauns who maybe died quick enough to avoid turning spiteful," noted Zeke, who looked pleased enough, if perhaps slightly detached. "It's all very pretty, of course, but if I ever manage the inconceivable feat of having myself pardoned in the Host's eyes, I'd rather carve out my slice of Heaven in the shape of an apartment in Paris, in the Cinquième - right above one of these picturesque cafés."

Archie smirked as he kept his eyes ahead, a few LEDs tracing the skitter of a squirrel across the path. "Daily side-orders of Provence sausage, with some Poitou Camembert and baguette slices, eh?"

The Glutton chuckled. "Maybe - with easy incentives including access to decluttered tourist traps. Not the tacky ones, mind you - I'd take just the Louvre and the Sorbonne, to be honest. Food, arts and culture until eternity ends, with young and supple folk to either fill up with knowledge or plumb for personal fulfillment and mutual pleasure..."

Nergal scoffed, even if the place's exuded mood kept his expression closer to an amused smirk. "Something tells me you'd be every bit the professorial fantasy some college-age mortals shop around for on the Web. I just can't imagine you teaching Law - you'd find ways to put every bright young thing in your bedsheets."

Hands behind his back, Zeke kept trundling along. "Says the man who probably is mentally clear-cutting a few square miles of this place or wondering how many workable iron deposits God and the Host stuck beneath our feet..."

Nergal shrugged. "You're a figment of Gluttony with a conscience and I'm a fading avatar of Wrath with a corporate roadmap and mortal investors to answer to."

Zeke sent him an oblique glance. "Meaning?
- Meaning this isn't Minecraft and I'm not about to conjure up a handaxe. This particular sandbox isn't for us; I'm not about to despoil it to sate my own curiosity - even if it is there."

* * *

"This'll be an interesting development," noted Allocer. "It's just too bad that I'm likely to see the first decades of it all from behind bars..."

The former administrator fell silent for the moment, as the pair approached the side and rear of the building next to the one the Goat's party stood on top of. Knowing Nami could effectively fly up, Allocer did the best he could in silently digging his clawed hands through mortar joints and using them as anchor and lifting points. He could feel that Lucifer was nearby, in some sense, ready to make judicious use of his abilities to come into view.

Being a former commander, Allocer knew he could've channelled his own roots and ditched the suit and tie, propeled himself upwards and landed a few steps away from the decaying anthro with a thud and the crackle and hiss of impact-point Brimstone cracks. He felt the Burning Suns had that specific honor; his was to act as the needed counterpoint to Pride's fatuousness. Like Wormsworth, his Pride had begun to shift - and it now took root in increasingly simpler concepts.

Silently reaching the top, Allocer took cover behind a ventilation unit and waited for another spurt of activity on the battlefield. A few proxies had joined the snake and vampire down below, enough to force the Goat and his appointed leaders to place their focus squarely on the park. No commentary was being exchanged - the Goat likely had some sense that some as-of-yet-unseen obstacle had formed, but failed to intuit its design. It was all Allocer needed to slip to another vent unit while swiping an ostentatiously-dressed aide-de-camp and covering his mouth.

"Shout," he said, as softly as he could, "and I'll pour molten Brimstone on you. That designer suit, those bespoke scars, the surgically-removed nose - that can't have been cheap, couldn't it?" he asked, his tone kept falsely conversational. The modified possessed human gasped quietly, exposing filed-down teeth.

"Allocer - you, here, alive?! We were told you'd been killed for your insubordination!
- Another one of the Goat's comforting lies, Thrall," whispered the suit-wearing demon. "Now I've got you here, you're going to do me a favor and message a handful of Centuries and their squad leads. Tell them Belphegor and Sloth are leaving the Greenvale - the cat's napped enough for the remainder of the conflict."

The aide struggled. "But they're Sloth - they won't leave! They'll influence anyone who comes near who isn't one of your allies!
- That's the plan," nodded Allocer. "I want to see the Greenvale Hotel's front steps clogged up with demons too busy goofing off to bother harming anyone. The Noonday Demon's always glad to get a few new playmates or nap partners...
- W-What if Belphegor wakes up?"

Allocer squeezed just a smidgen more. "He'll do as Sloth does whenever it's inconvenienced, Thrall. He'll kill them. The lucky ones might discover a few hobbies, instead, or get some well-deserved rest they won't ever wake up from. Your boss is going to notice it, once a few squads take the bait..."

He then did his best to get a sense of Nami's position, seeing as he'd at least cleared up the path for her to land. Now all they had to do was crash what almost looked like the spectators' row at Flushing Meadows.

* * *

Melmoth's Spanish Letter setup was textbook, if adapted to the reality of transplanar invasions. It involved a convincingly dry account of Mammon supposedly transacting with Uriel for a small slush fund of fungible assets kept untraceable to his own hoard, and conveniently inaccessible to its own beneficiary. A heavily-armed and motivated go-between was necessary, and a generous thirty percent of the total hoard was on offer - enough for any of the Pride and Wrath soldiers assembling before him to negotiate for a Name, a title and a better position in Hell's ranks.

Uriel couldn't help himself but to think that it all seemed rather obvious, but it was rather clear that recently-emigrated demons with a chip on their shoulder had a propensity for naïvety. What really mattered was that Melmoth had pegged a sub-chamber of Mammon's vaults as housing the cache, and provided the would-be defectors with an important nugget of factual information: the keys to the war effort's coffers were with the Goat's retinue. Anyone wanting a better life in the Pit's wastes would have to wade their way through the battlefield and then find out which Cabinet rep to skewer.

Then, as expected, one of them noted that pushing past thousands of motivated Pitspawn and their motivated Celestial and terrestrial opponents would be impossible. Melmoth-as-Mammon smiled at that and raised a finger.

"I'll then leave you to the crucial parts of this little gambit, gentlemen, partnerships centuries in the making. As for me, I'll have to pick a room with a view..."

The suit-wearing zombie burnt up seemingly on command, the resulting smoke billowing and resolving back into Melmoth's usual form. He looked different, however - less self-respecting and a tad more slovenly, with his granite-textured skin displaying oozing boils and something to his eyes suggesting patient malice.

"Heya, boys... I'd like to settle any questions first, and say that any claims of my having gone soft are greatly fucking exxagerated. Grind for long enough, and you pick up enough clout to even put old would-be gods into a bit of a head-rush. A few of our old pals barely remember their angel years anymore, and it turns out Kali's no exception. All the blood, the human sacrifices, the years spent serving as a proxy for the Squids' own cosmic bitch... They've done a number on her, she isn't quite all there, up here, but she's hungry, and she loves a good show. Lucky for her, I've tended to Greed quietly and efficiently since the first banks sprouted: never spilled a drop of blood myself, but I've damned millions of souls with easy money..."

He smiled, the gesture oozing malevolence. "All that play-nicey stuff with the goodie-two-shoes? That's how you rope 'em in, boys. It's a long and fucking boring process at times - but it ensnares 'em but good, trust me. No easy schemes, no Get Out of Jail Free cards; just me twistin' the idea of friendship around for a cause. Ask yourselves why your boss is falling apart at the seams - and why I'm here with the keys to a brighter future and a great piece of formerly Celestial ass at the same time..."

The Broker then whistled sharply if somewhat softly, something to the single tone packing more affected lecherousness than all of the world's combined wolf-whistles. One of the Wrath soldiers approached cautiously. "So Mammon never actually consigned you to the borderlands near Pandemonium in the hopes you'd fall at the hands of our enemies - you were assigned there on purpose. Your angering the Black Goat, or even establishing new headquarters in Magnus Tower..."

Mel conjured a new stogie and took a long, calculated and self-indulgent drag. "All by design," he said, carefully enunciating the three words.

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Re: Chapter VI - Asunder

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Meris joined Tom in returning toward the fallen prison and began searching for an intact artifact or two. Given that the collapse had occurred, it was plausible that some of the more sturdily-encased objects might've been launched some feet away from the building's vicinity. She used her abilities as a mage to sense where such an item might be. She hoped that the sand had at least cushioned the volatile toss.

After a few minutes, the Heiress found a wooden box partly buried in the sand. It was still in one piece overall, but there were some concerning cracks here and there. A reddish arc of light caught her eyes, and she quickly knew she needed to reinforce the container's structure before it gave way to the bucking power within. "Oh no, you don't!" she scolded the item. She focused her breath and pressed on the box, using her eldritch powers to strengthen the structure of it.

It worked, and the box became whole again, as though it had never been ejected from its original spot. She returned to Tom with it. "Here's one we could use. It should be enough to create another portal," she noted.

"If that's the case, then Vlastos needs to get over here, along with any demons who might be looking for a new job. We need to get going," Aspasia commented.

***

"Good to know. Of course, whatever materials needed for those settlers would never be depleted. An endless of supply of game to hunt, water that remains untainted, no space limits, and so on," Matriel explained. "Those of Irish stock have found these lands to be perfect terrain for hurling matches, so there's an allure for everybody here."

Crystal frowned. "Do you think it's possible these areas will eventually filter into the mortal realm?" she asked as she followed after the angel.

"It's possible. We know the planes are going to merge, but to what extent, that remains to be seen. On the other hand, we don't know the Undiscovered Lands' immaculate traits will last if introduced to the mortal plane's fauna. However, the more likely case would be is that the flora and fauna here would bolster the indigenous species, especially in the face of the destruction left by the incursions," he surmised.

***

With Allocer having cleared the path, the Nephilim landed near him and his hostage with a light and quiet landing. Given that she had been able to hear Allocer's plan, she nodded in agreement with it. "That's a good idea. That'll remove some their numbers from the response teams," she said.

Nami pointed her sword at the possessed human. "We don't have all day, so I suggest you get to contacting the Centuries and squad leaders. Also, no funny business, or you'll get skewered, as well as being burned by molten Brimstone," she warned.

***

Hearing Melmoth's whistle, Abdiel-as-Kali figured now was as good a time as any to make her entrance. She looked back to Enlil gestured for him to stay hidden while she left the area.

The Wrath goons would suddenly feel the sensation of static electricity in the air. Near the Broker, a smoke and lava-lined portal opened and emanated red light. She smoothly stepped out of it and greeted him and the gathered demons with an eerie and a creeping smile, the dangerous-looking opening closing behind her. She eyed the minions with a voracious expression marked by an intense and glowing gaze and a slasher smile in the making. They would get the feeling that she could easily pounce and madly devour them all.

"Filling these fellows in what we have to offer, Melmoth?" the horned demon asked rhetorically, hips swaying as she strutted over toward his side.

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