Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby TennyoCeres84 » Mon Apr 16, 2018 6:58 pm

"No, the ritual can be mostly be about intention, Melmoth. We can just stick to small talk," Abdiel indicated, gently taking his hand. "Tell me about your week at the office and stock exchange.'

The Throne figured that letting the Broker do most of the talking would distract him from the pair of brief, but slightly deep incisions she made with the metal nail filer on their respective palms. Meanwhile, her eyes became half-lidded while focusing the Celestial fire from her body, through her cut and into his. With the incisions made, she threaded her fingers with his and pressed the palms together. The flow of the element into his hand would feel like a small, soothing, yet powerful stream of lava. Simultaneously, he would feel the fierceness that wildflire had entering into him.

As a side effect, he might see the angel assume a hybrid form that blended her human and Ophanim appearances. On her exposed skin, he might see henna-styled gears and wheels turning rhythmically while emitting a metallic sheen. A faint hum filled the space between them. By now, her garnet and ruby-red wings serenely draped around her like a regal cloak, the numerous, amber-hued eyes matching her half-lidded state. During all of this, he wouldn't feel any suffocating or painful purity originating from her; this was a freely-given offering of friendship, which would become apparent to him as well.

The entire procedure lasted a maximum of ten minutes, with Abdiel sliding a cauterizing finger over each of their cuts. She sighed and rapidly blinked her eyes to bring her back to full awareness. The wings and turning mechanisms on her skin disappeared, while she looked at him. "How are you feeling? Is everything okay?"

*~*~*

"If I recall, Shield had a brief encounter with Mr. Kramp, so they'll at least be used to him. We've already got a few affable but peculiarly aggressive types in our group. Azardad, Mathers, Grimley... I'd have to side with Vernon on this one, Countess. The coming attacks will force us to deal with aspects that we might not be comfortable with, but they're necessary," Meris admitted.
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby IamLEAM1983 » Tue Apr 17, 2018 11:06 am

Melmoth licked his lips nervously and looked away. For a good few minutes, he managed to prattle on about the Dow Jones Index and the Paracelsus Indicator - his home-grown stock-ticker index for Wolfram and Associates' dealing with magical artifacts - as well as a few basic water-cooler anecdotes. The first slash made him pause, halt his delivery and cough nervously, while the Celestial fire coming in contact with his own open palm made him stop outright.

"WHOA, NELLY! THIS IS - that's - um - that's, er, actually kinda not so bad! Am I turning green around the gills? Do I look alright, Abbie? Not that I might pass out, it's just that, you know, with a coupla thousand years of spooky stories about us Fallen and Celestial fire, well..."

He swallowed laboriously. "Actually, I figure passing out's on the menu. I don't feel like I'm all there, y'get me?"

A few seconds in, Abdiel's charge began to have its intended effect. If Melmoth did pass out, it didn't resolve in anything more than a few seconds of leaning against the countertop with unfocused eyes. His own weight and Volker wedging himself right next to the Broker both prevented him from falling off or otherwise injuring himself. He came to a moment later, looking like he'd entirely lost track of time.

"Oh-kay, fine - I'm back, unconsumed and everything... What'd I miss? Why do I feel so peppy all of a sudden?"

Focusing on Abdiel brought his immediate memories back. "Right - swell. Cauterized scar and everything! Neato! I'm fucked, though, if the Goat so much as learns that happened," he then added, chuckling nervously. That chuckle then faded as realization swept over him.

"Come to think of it, I'm not fucked anymore, aren't I? I've got mojo now, and it doesn't depend on my old contract with Bleat-Britches..."

Tom coughed in his fist. "You did mention your helping us," he reminded. "Past that, I'd say you're free to go A God am I on, um, Horns-Face. I can't beat Bleat-Britches as a derogatory nickname."

Melmoth's eyes and posture looked about the same, but his confidence of the earlier days was steadily returning. "Can't do that, Magnus - there's people here. I've got employees, friends, a whole buncha people I can't just toss aside for the sake of precipitating the conflict at hand. Like I said, my first priority's you types," he said, as he stood up, once again focusing on his inner source of power.

"I'd thank you, Abdiel," he said, even as smoke again began to gather around him, "but you've just about forced the Pit into bankruptcy, now!" he said, his voice trailing into a darkly joyous peal of laughter. Once again, he turned into a massive creature of black smoke, reddish thunder now flashing in the midst of his own mass. As with Asmodeus, his voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, not so much suggesting malevolence as it did unrestrained relish, this time around.

"Howsabout a little home improvement, first, huh?"

Then followed what had to be a definitive first in the field of demonic interactions, as Melmoth's form and influence swallowed the club and tower, ethereal and unfocused workmanlike whistles and half-remembered tunes then floating in the air as cracks in the floor and ceiling seemingly healed the way skin would. The building groaned and protested as each and every single micro-impact Asmodeus' discharges and weight had caused was corrected - even the broken furniture items reassembling and stitching themselves back together, more or less rewound to their exact state prior to the Prince of Lust stopping in for a drink.

A minute or so in, a non-corporeal cackle split the air. "Goddamn, if this is how the djinn felt back in Iram when someone asked them for a wish, I can kinda understand why they're so arrogant about it! I'm in every nook and cranny in this place, and I feel like a million bucks! Hahaha, clutch your pearls, you Wall Street fakers and sociopaths, 'cause trickle-down economics are cashing that check!"

The reconstituted TV screens in the club flickered to life, Melmoth's face appearing in view in front of the Kremlin. "What's that, Vlad? Seemingly untraceable deposits in the Cayman Islands? You and your little club of oligarchs stuffing each other like Christmas geese while looking down at a planned socioeconomic collapse? Welp, just wait after we deal with Hell's refugees and I get some leeway, 'cause then I'll make you spiral out into a case of extreme vagrancy! One nuked reputation later and no tools to service that primo Alkaev armature, you'll get a taste of the ol' gopnik lifestyle, comrade!"

The screen flickered between channels, then settling on a distant view of Gliese and Paradise. "Elysium, Elysium... Shit, even the Yakuza are sick and tired of you James Bond rejects! Once immediate survival won't be a concern for most folks, then I'm making the ghosts of Earth's economists shit in your bank accounts with all their Scrooge-and-Marley-esque fire and fury! I've got decades of dividends to cash in, Gregory old chap, and I'll make sure you feel the sting!"

The screen flashed again, going from a few other locations - some in Louisiana, some in Scandinavia, others in Faerie, with Melmoth always in the forefront. "And so. Many. Others, too! The High Roller's back, baby, and I've got retribution on the brain!"

Not being particularly impressed, Tom knew he could address Melmoth's broadcasted self as if he were in the room. "So long as Hooves-for-Brains pays first, I'm fine with everything else," he said."

All the screens flashed to a view of the destroyed Spire, Melmoth standing in front of it like a newscaster. "Ha, good one! Thanks for the reminder, though - y'gotta have priorities. I think I'm still allowed what, uh, just happened. Call it airing centuries of pent-up grievances."

Tom shrugged at that, which left Melmoth to more or less phase out of one of the TVs, through the wall, and to once again stand corporeally in front of his friends. As he did, however, he drew in a deep breath and deeply exhaled.

"If only my body was worth a damn," he said, smirking, "'cause I feel so frickin' hot, right about now!"

* * *

"I'm glad to see that we agree on this," nodded Langdon. He smirked, seemed to briefly withdraw, and sounds of brief protest could be heard out the door. One of the Knights was arguing with someone, telling them they couldn't come in as the King and Queen were in a private audience, only to suddenly yelp in pain and then groan. The doors opened to a Faerie Knight cupping what looked like a bleeding nose, and an oddly cyanotic fellow with almost satyr-worthy features ambling in with blithe confidence. Kramp looked as grotesquely expressive as before, his red, green and white Victorian clothing scheme feeling like an advance taste of Christmas. The only dash of modernity looked to be some sort of sling or tactical webbing slung over his vest and under his morning coat, something that probably supported the pair of holdout whips he carried, along with a slew of concealed short blades.

"You rang, Your Maj?" he asked, entirely ignoring Titania and her guests as he went to stand beside Meris.

Oberon nodded. "I did, Mister Kramp. I hereby swear unto you an Oath of Servitude towards Meris of the Orcades and her allies, applicable until further notice," he said, gesturing towards the Archmage. Only then did the Christmas Devil acknowledge her.

"Sweet," he said, "I'd been havin' a hankering for some Rhode Island clams and beer... I'm told things are heating up for Uncle Sam, to the point where it looks like the country's moronic doomsayers were probably right. All 'cuzza some guy named Ephosian or something - one of those pet projects for bigger assholes than me."

The demon grinned. "I'd shake your hand, but you're probably wondering where I stuck mine before I came here - or who it killed on the way," he added, leering for effect.
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby TennyoCeres84 » Tue Apr 17, 2018 12:17 pm

"That's normal. You're like how I first was when I manifested from God's creative processes," Abdiel responded, smiling broadly at his display. "Hot, energetic, explosive. It's fun at first, but then you learn to temper your power and moderate it so you don't cause atoms you just joined together to erupt. I had time to learn, as did all the Thrones. In your case, it's more like learning to balance the books while occasionally living it up."

Aislinn had been amused by the Broker's exuberance and looked over at the angel. "The club's recovery time is great; it's almost like it was never hit by Asmodeus! Though, since this has no precedent, how are you going to deal with the other angels?"

The Fire Throne shrugged. "It's been an eventual day, so I figured why not top it off? Gabriel, Raguel, and Amenadiel will probably think I've lost my mind, but more collaborative measures will be happening in the future. For now, things can be kept quiet, but I feel what I've done is right and fair. We Thrones embody the elements and Justice, but Justice is not a black and white matter. Giving Melmoth just a fraction of my power is just one of those situations."

She looked around at Melmoth's handiwork. "Club Ishtar is effectively going to be like a second Iram, one that we want to succeed. There may be future generations of Djinn, Cambions, and Nephilim, but the key differences are the world they grow up in and how we bring them up. However, laying the right foundation is crucial, and I think we've started on that."

Her eyes returned to the demon. "With your new power, tweaking your body some might be more feasible to make it more durable; I'd take Magnus up on his advice on how to do that."

*~*~*

Meris scoffed and settled with giving him a respectful nod. "Not so much, but I'm glad to have you aboard, Mr. Kramp. The situation is that some of your former brethren in Hell are causing a ruckus while we're dealing with an eventual planar merger and a social integration unlike anything the realms have seen thus far, along with keeping the Others from entirely ending us," she explained.
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby IamLEAM1983 » Wed Apr 18, 2018 11:11 am

Tom raised a placating hand. "I think that can wait, in the immediate. I doubt you're in the mood for a primer on conscious regeneration," he told Melmoth, the Broker scoffing in amusement.

"Are you kidding; I've never felt better! I feel like there's a dozen urges fighting for attention in there, the kind of stuff I usually didn't pay attention to all too often - I feel like eating, like drinking; I'd thank any other asshat who'd walk through either portals here looking for a fight and, well..."

He gave Tom a wink. "If I'm feeling like a third of the way you usually felt, Magnus, then I'll have to settle for regretting not having a partner around. I feel..."

The demon looked at his own hands. "I wanna hold somebody, keep 'em warm and safe; I wanna show someone what happens when my luck runs high, the experiences I can freely give to people, and I-"

He sighed. "I wish I hadn't perfected shallowness, honestly. Consequence-free joyrides are fun, but something about Abdiel's embers makes me wish I'd gunned for more meaningful relationships - a bit like Naberius and Meris. He doesn't just serve because he was called, he serves because he believes in her one hundred percent. I wish I had that, honestly. Someone I could just stick to on the professional level. The Stock Exchange is a long-term project, sure, but everything about it is ephemeral."

The Warlock offered a more supportive smile. "You'll find someone, Melmoth. I felt the same way once I realized what mortals had and what I lacked. Flings or trysts are easy to work through, professional or personal commitments don't just show up out of the blue. Play your cards right, and you'll wake up with a, well, secure investment in someone. Something from which you'll be able to reap a different kind of dividend: trust, love, understanding..."

Volker looked like listening to this sufficed. "I'm comin' from this from a different angle. The demon I am and the merc I'm livin' in both had trust issues. I am the way I am 'cause brushing people off was an effective survival mechanism on both levels. The more you cuss, the more you throw yourself at any other new shithead that rolls its head in, the more you're sure the folks who'd care are gonna stay at arm's length. Being an idiot's super useful if solitude's what's kept you alive so far. What Tom's tried to teach me doesn't come easily, but I figure I'll need every ounce of restraint I can get if I'm gonna be a decent Director of Security for this place. I'm gainfully employed; I can't afford to fall back on maverick shit like I used to."

Tom seemed to agree. "Now if only Paimon could understand that...
- Guy's fresh off the block," replied the wolf. "I needed a little over five hundred years to so much as speak to you or the other guys, remember? Y'can't expect Pride's renegade Duke to be all Mister Rogers just 'cause you said so. He'll need a while and a ton of stimuli to gradually break his own mold."

The wolf scoffed. "Right now, fella's probably sulkin' because he didn't get to climb up here and sock one in Assy's taint. Not because that would've helped us, but because his hypertrophied ego wants him to play hero every five minutes."

* * *

"Ooh," replied the demon with some relish, "I loves me a good merger, from time to time; eh boss?" he rhetorically asked, looking back at Oberon. "Back when those Elysium freaks attacked and we had ourselves some Hueys and Apaches flying in all dizzy; we had ourselves a lotta work to tackle, what with the pissed-off locals pulling the How dare you card on crash-landed US Army morons. It's like chocolate and peanut butter, only y'can hear physicists and Archmages groan and tear out fistfuls of hair in the distance."

A forked tongue was briefly visible as his grin widened. "Gets even better when demons get involved, lemme tell ya: the bottom rungs get so sanctimonious and cartoonishly evil at the same time, it's like cutting up a parade of Scooby-Doo villains... Are we lookin' at widespread devastation, or is it just a few idiots popping in?"

Benson grunted. "Try Option A, genius. I wouldn't joke about mundanes biting it before the Army'd so much get to lift a pinky finger."

If anything, Krampus looked to be overjoyed. "We're talkin' about that kind of spread?! Grade-A Royal Approval targets?!"

Oberon nodded. "Extreme prejudice, Mister Kramp - with some assistance for life-saving procedures, if any should apply."

The Christmas Demon closed his eyes, seemed to swoon for a second and then transitioned into a dual fist-pump. "Yes! Yesyesyesyes - a horde of naughty boys to cut down, all to myself! It's Christmas come early!"

He then grabbed Meris by the shoulders. "Where can I kiss ya? The lips, the cheeks, forehead?! I don't do boredom, miss Archmage - I really don't - and I was stuck waiting for targets between Kiwiland and London-town! Either someone found me something or I'd have to go looking for iron-packing trouble on my own!"
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby TennyoCeres84 » Wed Apr 18, 2018 4:13 pm

Abdiel smiled at Melmoth. "You and Paimon just need to give it time. In the meantime, you have Heathcliff and your other employees. Ensure that they know their worth to you, as I imagine that content employees make for better productivity anyhow," she replied to the Speculator.

Aislinn considered Volker's commentary. "All the more reason to have him interact with the people who are coming and going in here, eventually. Some will need to be tossed out, but the rest will probably feel something like a protectorate to him. If he has any personality influences from Minos, that might sate it to some degree."

*~*~*

The kiss comment made her chuckle awkwardly and say, "The forehead will do. As for boredom, that will be in short supply for the time being. The fellow that you mentioned: Ephesian? He's the lawyer that is currently involved in a cybernetics crime trial, and the Prince of Pride is looking to usurp his body. Mr. Ephesian leveled up recently with regard to defending the wrong souls in the Pit and the Shadowlands, but depending on how the matter plays out, we're sure to see some hostiles from Hell and beyond."
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby IamLEAM1983 » Thu Apr 19, 2018 4:10 pm

Aislinn's comment caught Tom's attention. "I know the big guy's a recovering bully, pun intended, but what is it about Paimon that reminds you of Minos?" he asked her.

* * *

"Awesome," replied the demon, looking like he was actually thrilled. "It's always the innocent ones that get everyone else into shit. Princes wouldn't bother fucking with someone like you or me, not by a long shot!"

Vernon frowned lightly. "Has anyone from Hell attempted to retrieve you in the past?
- A couple," shrugged Kramp. "It took a coupla centuries after my first Oberon broke me down.
- What happened to them?"

Kramp smirked sharkishly. "Dinner," he said, licking his chops. "Screw iron, the King here packs something we call Storm-cold, the gentler side to Mab's endless blizzards. It's running down my whips, as hard on your average Pit-shit as Celestial fucking fire. Storm-cold's what you summon as the Yule King for Hope, it's what our King channels as the Lord of the Wild Hunt, and it's every bit as potent as what the Throne of Water could dish out if he needed to flash-freeze some unlucky bastard."

As he spoke, Kramp lowered his right arm and lightly shook his wrist. Something long, shiny and segmented, like a chromed snake, slipped out of his jacket's sleeve. Via seemed to be concentrated in the handle and then left to course along the segments, each bigger plate made from what looked to be some sort of titanium frame onto which smaller plates of raw iron were bolted. It gave the whips a scaly appearance, chunks of the Bane interspersed with a metal blessed with a higher tensile strength, The iron segments were carefully positioned, designed to deliver shallow-to-moderate slashes no matter the angle.

"A Fae killing other Fae," noted Naberius. "Grisly."

Oberon nodded. "Grisly and needed. Sharpe's cabal has proven it won't be any more courteous than we've been. Demons were never courteous to begin with, it depends on the angel you're considering, and the occasional dragon nativist resents our breaking free from their shackles in the world's dawn. Many in our courtiers forget that our obtained safety came at the price of covert alliances and betrayals, and Mab's been conducting sorties into our realm for generations, now. I've come to expect much out of our regional Lords and Ladies - those who stick to an Eldritch take on Wuthering Heights are in for a rude awakening."

Eir lightly hesitated. "I've, erm, given up on fencing a little over eighty years ago. Archery and firearms are more my speed now, along with Aikido classes. I hope that won't be an inconvenience, Your Highness."

Titania shrugged. "As long as you do what must be done, Milady, neither my husband nor I care in which form you do it.
- Not to worry, I haven't left the old parry and riposte to waste," smirked the Winter Lord, managing to make humble-bragging still feel actively humble.

Eir smirked at that. "Bet you I'll beat you to field-stripping a pistol.
- You probably will," conceded Haskill, his smirk looking impish. "Not that I care, I've had a Kendo, fencing and stick-fighting instructor for the better part of the last two hundred years."

Eir groaned comedically. "Kendo - great. My boyfriend's a weeaboo."

Surprisingly, the Queen seemed to catch that reference. Her teeth flashed and her shoulders lightly shook, but she didn't produce a sound.
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby TennyoCeres84 » Thu Apr 19, 2018 7:14 pm

"Some of it's his build, but it's also the intense focus on honor. His arrogance can be annoying, but there is something to him that made him defect from the Goat," Aislinn answered.

*~*~*

"Not really surprised, given your connections to Eien-no-Yuki, Mr. Haskill. I'm more of a capoeira type, to be honest. A Yoruban man named Adewale taught me staves, blades, and archery, so a Brazilian martial art was quite compatible," Meris explained. "It gave me an edge when I had to fight Arbiters who had been trained by Adewale or their predecessors. Throw in some elemental magic, and you get the idea. "
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby IamLEAM1983 » Thu Apr 19, 2018 11:26 pm

Tom gave some thought to Aislinn's explanation and then looked off to the elevator doors, as if Paimon had been about to come up. "'I guess we'll have to put him and Rhadamantus in the same room, at one point. They barely interacted during our raid on the Spire, so I don't think we can afford to be conclusive. I'd rather we waited until things stabilize somewhat."

Melmoth nodded. "Yeah - sounds like a decent plan to me. Now I've got some leeway, I've got some mortal employees to send on suspiciously timely vacations in remote corners of the globe. Say, Patagonia or New Jersey. Y'know, one of these average places Pride wouldn't think of as being portal-worthy. You two gotta make sure this place is still ready for an influx of panicking schmoes, too. Now's it's properly un-fucked, all you've got left is shutters to check, food and water stores to shore up and an armory's worth of stolen Infernal kit to rack up."

Tom nodded at that. "Speaking of, Biggs managed to finagle me a few dummy orders with FN and Colt's. We'll have some mundane options on the side.
- Such as?" asked Volker.

The warthog shrugged. "I went by your list of favorites. At least, the old merc's list of favorites, that is. M16 rifles, Tec-9 submachine pistols, Drake's preferred Match and Five-Seven pistols - I couldn't get a whole lot of Base Block models, minifactory-carrying models cost a pretty penny. We'll have to contend with manual reloading for now, for the most part - just like the old days."

The wolf didn't seem to mind. "Leave the fancy-pants self-loading techno-guns to Elysium's angry exes, I do better with stuff that couldn't pass for an expensive printer model."

Melmoth seemed dubious. "Should I tell my folks to start packing?
- Heat?" asked Tom, "No. They're civilians, they'd only risk riling up demons who'd be looking for a fight. If they're packing their suitcases, though, that'd be wise. We've got space, but we're not bottomless. With Earth being a focal point, anyone who'd go extrasolar would be among the safest of us all."

The Broker grimaced at that. "Yeah; Tobolensky's freighter rates are steep, even if you're willing to pass for grain barrels or imported alcohol on a manifesto, somewhere. Plus, any kind of massive exodus would be picked up by Pride. We've got magic, Paradise has weird black-hole-ish shit it doesn't really understand. Nobody's really equipped to deal with Pitspawn, not for the next several million light-years."

Volker sniffed. "Which kinda brings Amenadiel's contempt back into focus. God's focus on Earth sure is hard to justify, when you consider we're basically in the ass-end of nowhere on the galactic scale."

* * *

Vernon seemed interested. "Who was your mestre, if you don't mind my asking?"
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby TennyoCeres84 » Fri Apr 20, 2018 1:00 am

Abdiel titled her head in admittance. "That's true. God's fascination for Earth baffled even us, early on. We knew there was life that was already populating in distant reaches of the universe, but They strongly focused on this little planet. From what I remember of the species populating those worlds, they are what youwould consider extremes. Because of how life was able to start on the planet because of its "Goldilocks" location, I believe They were intrigued by the diversity that Earth held, in contrast to other planets. Consider the Creator as a science geek who likes all the different sciences that exist, but They are really intrigued by biology," she summarized with a scoff. "Another part of it is Earth's isolation from the more populated regions of space. It allowed life to flourish without intergalactic threats showing up on a young planet and hijacking Their Creation."

*~*~*

My mestre was Amadi, one of the members of an early quilombo. He was of Native Brazilian-Igbo stock, and a great teacher. We met when a counterattack from Chambers came ashore and threatened his quilombo. I wasn't aware of its existence, but I did once we encountered Amadi's forces throttling our common foe. Initially, he didn't know what to make of me, since I had followed after Chambers' men. However, once he saw me going after them with a blade, he understood me to be an ally. There was a bit of a language barrier, as my knowledge of Portuguese was still rather limited then, but I had a freed slave, who had joined me, translate. He acknowledged I had good form, but he indicated that I could do better, which led to me becoming his pupil," Meris explained.

She chuckled lightly. "Amadi was something of a rake and a polygamist, but he was respectful toward women. On more than one occasion, he asked if I might be one of his wives and continue to defend the quilombo. I told him no, that my heart was still anchored to Nereus, despite the distance and inaccessibility to him. Once I completed my training, I went on my way, and we saw each other a few more times before I entered into my encounter with Chambers that gave me the opportunity to Ascend."
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Re: Chapter IV - Earthly Delights

Postby IamLEAM1983 » Tue Apr 24, 2018 11:42 pm

Melmoth gave Abdiel a slightly quizzical look. "Huh. So what are we, then? Beta tests for tormenting or tutelary instances for a testing-phase world?"

Tom smirked at that. "I'll channel my inner Lucifer for a second and state that I honestly hope we aren't part of what God planned for. I like to think we've tossed some unpredictability into the mix - not all of it reprehensible.
- And he wonders why Amenadiel doesn't trust him," rhetorically stated Volker with an eye roll.

Tom shrugged at that. "I don't need him to trust me from the get-go; trust is earned. For now, all he needs to understand is that I'm giving him a crucial chance to better study those puzzling mortals of his, and to do so in the right conditions."

Melmoth etched a smile. "I dunno that an angel needs a paycheck, Tommy..."

That made the warthog widen his own grin and give a wink to Abdiel. "It's not like I have to pay my bartender, over here - five minutes with Hesediel and she can will billions of dollars' worth of gold into being. Abdiel doesn't need a stipend, she could bring your entire and oh-so-precious economy crashing down with a flick of her cosmic wrist. Still..."

He went for a debonair shrug. "Within these walls, she's my employee. Employees get a paycheck. It's good form. I don't care what you'll do with your twelve hundred a month, Abdiel - at best, I hope you'll use it to dig a little deeper into the human experience. If God Himself came in here looking for a job, I'd put Him through the same paces as everyone else."

* * *

The question of Ascension did seem to pique his curiosity, but the meeting had lasted for some time, now. Vernon settled with a smile and a knowing nod.

"Ah, martial arts masters... Such quirky fellows, eh? Some are adventuresome, filled to the brim with their own exploits, chests taut with occasionally earned self-esteem, and others carry the weight of their past failures like some dead albatross, determined as they are to eventually produce the perfect bare-handed craftsman, the consummate exemplar of their art..."

He sighed wistfully. "Kurama-san is of this second variety. A student he does not abuse is a student he does not care for - and believe you me, I came to learn of the ways in which he did hold me in his esteem," he said, chuckling. "I measured it in the insults, scathing barbs and sheer contempt he flung in my general direction for over sixty years. I was the paunchy old fool who would never amount to much without his Mantle, the English idiot who believed his native phlegm would be a fitting counter to his battlefield-honed impassivity; the buffoon good enough to keep the Urakawa estate awake at night with his exhausted snores..."

The Winter Lord smiled. "I may not use it much, but I still do keep my katana on display, back home. I sharpen and oil it religiously, but it would make for too obvious a weapon for my tastes."
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