Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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 VII - Healing Pains

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Alastriona chuckled as he warned her and shook her head in amusement, taking the gift from him. "Thank you, Vernon," she said, briefly looking at the package to see the easiest way to open it.

She didn't take too long to open, but she saw no reason to tear it away, just in case the gift was of a physically fragile nature. She mused that whatever was in the paper had some emotional and mental strength to it.

***

Meris mentally chuckled and sent, Dear, even at your most amorous, you were respectful toward me. This fellow has read too many 19th century romance novels and decided to throw tact and the idea of personal space out the window."

In her own feline manner, Hanako sent the Fauness a look, wondering if she could help the Countess out of the awkward encounter.

Taking the hint, Aspasia cleared her throat in a manner that would get the attention of even the most obtuse types and break them out of whatever inappropriate behavior they were doing. She did it in such a way that Sedgewick the Second wouldn't have been able to pinpoint the source of the sound, but it would be enough to spare Eirean a few seconds of his advances.

It was likely this trick came from the occasions she had to give a report to Rendell, but she otherwise had to break up some carnal meeting between one of the local Drifter women and her former leader, whenever he felt sensual pleasures were a good way to keep the locals wrapped around his clawed finger.

***

Fake Meris clicked her tongue, having turned on the vocal feature to disguise her voice. "It wouldn't be the first story of dire straits bringing two people together in passion and dedication that we've heard," she answered with a wry smile. "I don't get the sense that he's lying either, but I'd like a little more info."

"What's your amor's name, Aatxe? A lady of that caliber likely gained a reputation during the War, so there's a chance we might've heard of her, given how quickly news spreads nowadays," she noted.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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"Hm," Charles said, weighing the options while surveying the scene. "These ol' places always have crazy un'erground shit, yeah? Storm drains 'n sewers 'n servants' passageways? Is there any way we coul' use them?" His thinking was clear enough, if they could sneak around and bypass all the defenses, they could serve the papers and avoid a headline-grabbing firefight in the middle of a somewhat prosperous college. Granted, they'd still have a firefight getting out afterward, but still.

"Failin' that, if there's a tower or steeple or somethin' we can reach easy enough, I c'n pick off some o' them scouts 'n snipers he's got set out waitin' fer us," he went on, turning his gaze upward a little.

He went to the trunk of the car and started arming himself, making use of enchanted holsters and a seemingly bottomless satchel to stuff a surprising amount of weapons onto his person. Subtle body armor and a couple of protective charms rounded out his ensemble, and to cap it all off he stuck an earpiece in one ear, handing the other to the Prince. Then he took a few steps away and lowered his voice. "Testing, testing..."

------------------------

"Ah, having an in with the bobbies is always a good idea, though I might be one step ahead of you in that regard," Mary replied with a smirk, getting up to follow them out the back. Considering her preference for weaponry, that probably went without saying.

She turned to her man Ming. "You know what to do, hold the fort up here and don't get on the news," she told him, and he nodded back, standing up to take her seat at their old table. The others who had preceded her into the diner didn't react, but it was clear they had their orders.

"Well, let's not keep the morons waiting, shall we?"

-------------------------

Preston grit his teeth and fought to stabilize the bird, finally getting it under control and back on its own power a few hundred feet from the ground. One well-aimed missile knocked the remaining shuttle sideways and to the ground, and Marius dove down to intercept and lighten its descent so it landed gently.

He wasted no time tearing the doors open and disabling, gagging and capturing the surviving crew of the shuttle, and by the time Preston had his own bird safely on the ground, Vlastos had the crew trussed up and waiting for them in front of the wreckage. "Who's gonna be the good cop?" he called out conversationally.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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The gift turned out to be a small hobby horse carved out of a single block of wood. No paint finish adorned it, but it had been meticulously sanded down while maintaining just a few coarse angles - enough to suggest this wasn't quite one of Vernon's victoriana, but something more primal, more ancient - and likely more significant. Its associated rider was a crude little figure made out of softened wicker and wool, green shocks of wool poking through the brownish plant matter. One of its hands ended in a little plaque of buffed-up tree bark - evoking a small shield - and a small sword similarly carved out of wood waited in the other hand.

"Ah," noted Vernon, "it seemed I picked an aspect of the Green Knight for you. A fitting present, considering what he typically represents for dryads like yourself. That would be your people's duties as custodians of the bonds between planes, of the warp and weft of Magic; as well as ages-old representatives of civility and graciousness. You're to speak of and for Nature, and you will soon sense where your tree's roots may choose to come to rest. Its roots will speak to you, through blood and instinct, and you will come to sense how profound, how alive and complex, this second part of you truly is."

He paused to contemplate the gift. "For you specifically, however, I sense that the Green Knight refers to the support you've earned, the Oaths and bonds afforded to you. Mine and Eirean's, of course, but also mister Holden's and his friends and employees - and how such ties primarily serve to bolster us in times of need."

Vernon gently gripped Alex's hand. "You will come to meet panicked, fearful or desperate people, my dear; especially people who have known Sophia. They will ask you to act in her stead, will foolishly expect you to be her. The Green Knight and his Steed mark your ability, your destiny , to chart your own course. The walrus means well, but he will try to... mythologize you, to enshrine you well before your passing - because you are the source of what this city takes its name after, now. We all have our duties, but our primary Oath should always be towards ourselves, my girl. Your ties to Hope will inevitably come to define part of who and what you are, but you should be unafraid to let all those who ask things of you know that you are far more than a simple watchdog, let alone a safety cap on the local Nexus. I can sense that Archibald will want to respect this thoroughly, but life sometimes forces us to harden our tone, even towards our friends and loved ones. Others may not be as charitable."

He carefully wedged the figurine onto the horse. "The Green Knight helps his retinue and cares for his vassals. He runs his enemies underfoot if need be, and displays wisdom enough to provide whatever guidance he can, instead of his sword's tip. More importantly, the Green Knight bows to no-one. At least, to no-one who won't have earned kindness from him, first."

* * *

Aspasia's cough did work, but Coach didn't exactly feel like letting the guy change his avenue of approach and figured he'd force him to refocus. "So," he asked, "Albus Severin Regal, if you're second in name, what do we call ya? 'Cause if there's three of you, I'm not calling three men by the same name."

The goblin parted with a slight self-satisfied chuckle. "Apologies, Milady," he first started, likely to obtain dispensation from Eirean, only to refocus on Silas. "I am the second, good sir, so most call me Severin - or Sev, as of the last few decades. My father goes by Albus, my son is called Regal. I am the main Accounts Manager for Coasttown, and see to the distribution of Sireless Oaths."

Nereus repeated the term as a question, which earned him a quizzical look from Sev. "Ah - one of the benthic gentlemen, I see; unversed in our customs. I assume the Lady has explained to you what it is we transact in, and we call these Oaths Sireless if they are stored with us to serve as investments. An Oath has a Sire if it is pronounced with intent to benefit or hinder a particular target, and Sireless if it merely stores power and agency."

Spector nodded. "Like enchantments for physical objects, only applied on Fae Oaths. You could call this Eldritch Cryptocurrency , effectively."

The former Augur settled with a polite nod, but Meris would recognize the slight waving motion of his tentacles to indicate veiled displeasure. Had some other Squid tried to structure a scheme or cult of theirs around Bitcoin or NFTs, shortly before the war, perhaps?

* * *

"Her name is Carrie Eleazar Silva," provided Aatxe, enunciating the three words with obvious respect. He'd started up again, only for Bucky's quiet swear to cut him off.

"Darn; that's Drake's main squeeze! World sure doesn't get any smaller, huh?" he told Neasa, only to be cut off himself. Aatxe gripped the bars of his cage and rattled them once. " You know her?! Then let me out at once - our goals align and mine are pressing! Fuera, my friends - she may yet be in grave danger!"

Bucky pushed back against the bars and lowered his voice. " Pipe down, Casanova - we need an alibi! The Augur o' Dalarath and his Consort can't just pop in outta nowhere after centuries on a research trip or on the lam! "

Apophis slithered closer. "Has anyone bid on you?" he asked Aatxe. The demon sighed as he settled down. "No. I was deemed too risky. I heard them speak of sacrificing my corporeal shell in their goddess' name, but only the market handlers paid close attention to me."

The snake nodded. "So we may shape a narrative. Meris and Nereus have fallen to the Damned during the war, and you have come to collect a tithe of gratitude from the Speaker. Very little in the way of recent news ever makes it down here, and the Augur's presumptions of weakness are well known."

Bucky looked unsure. "So I'd have to roleplay as Nereus possessed or something? I mean, I've seen plenty of demons over the last year, but I don't know if I could sell that well enough...
- I could provide whatever Black Speech you would need," added Apophis, "for effect, of course."

* * *

"Loud and clear," confirmed Herbert, who didn't look entirely satisfied with Charles' suggestion. Still, he didn't rebuff or reject it, instead settling with looking down at his still-immaculate Oxfords with a chagrined air. "I'd hoped we wouldn't consider this particular avenue, even if I must admit it has some merit..."

Something about his own words seemed to trouble him, and he briefly reached up to scratch at the base of his left horn. "Oh, well," he then noted, shrugging, "nothing ventured, nothing gained! With the castle being part of a campus - or at least, having formerly been part of one - extensive care was placed in isolating the premises' old fanes from the surrounding modern sewer system, but..."

He chuckled. "I believe if you rummage around the glove box, so to speak, you'll find a pair of Coltan charges. They burn brighter than Thermite and are somewhat more silent than traditional explosive plastique. That should allow us to punch through to the castle's sanitaries or its undercroft without raising undue attention. Er - bring the included visor as well; Abraham wouldn't forgive me if you blinded yourself on my watch."

The Prince drew in a breath, mostly to steady himself. "Now, to access this horrid place," he muttered, thumbing his phone and furrowing his brow for a few moments, until something made him part with a light Ah and raise a finger.

"One of the culverts running under the highway is particularly large and connects to what looks to be an abandoned squatter's den, almost a cave in its own right. There appears to be a network of narrow galleries snaking under the highway, and they lead to..."

He gulped, glancing up at Charles with an uncertain look. "An old crypt dating back to the Vikings' exploration of Rusland. Another gallery leads up to Glehn Castle, but it appears the original architect bricked over a caved-in passage. Either I augment these charges using my own power, or we never go through. Either way, we're left hoping none of the withered corpses lying there date back to when Black dragons ruled these lands..."

He pocketed his phone, suddenly looking less satisfied by Charles' selected implements. "I hope Heathcliff stashed at least one good claymore in there, somewhere - and I don't mean the mine..."

* * *

"Let's not," confirmed Three with a short smirk, followed by a quick duck into the rear corridor that led to the bathrooms. He wasn't headed for them, however, and instead stopped at a door that was marked Staff Only. Quickly recalling the code he'd earned from the barkeep, Aidan punched it in and opened the door, climbing the short concrete steps down to the rear parking and unloading area. He reached the fence that cut off the loading bays from the employee and customer parking spots, gave the camera a quick glance, confirming it was offline, and then took a few steps back as he brought his abilities to bear. He was just behind Carrie as they both broke into a short sprint, whispered motes of the Speech on their breath and amplifying the strength of their strides - and vaulted over the barrier. A quick tuck-and-roll later, they made their approach toward the unloading dock's door. A little mental and physical tug, a little calling on Three's earned title as a Knight of Summer - and they were through.

Or at least, they were through to one of London-Upon-Faerie's last few waystations before the kingdom proper. The resulting space was a bit odd, like someone had smashed the London Tube, Roman ruins dating back to Londinium and massive Victorian-era sewers together, with the main space's conjured and illusory skies barely more than a transparent mirage, so far from its sustaining spell's epicentre. Strangely, more food-related aromas wafted from up ahead, Aidan fighting the impression that they were technically walking over the location occupied by electrified train tracks in the mortal plane, as he stepped forward. Soon, a genuine Roman Thermopolis came into view - essentially the Ancient's idea of an over-the-counter takeout deli. Seated at its stone slab were two unmissable figures: one trying to diminish its massive stature with an equally-large grey cloak, and the other looking unbothered by its small size - at less than three feet tall. Percival of Evergloam looked like he was trying for the role of Aragorn in a Lord of the Rings play, and Nigel Woodford still looked like a handful of genteel attitudes and arboreal quirks combined, his size-adapted Great White Hunter outfit now festooned with patches of moss, the living wood of his rifle's butt looking so fresh Mary could've deformed it with a single squeeze.

"Nig'," started Aidan with a smile, "How goes the one and only Forest Troll who's in Camp Titania?
- He goes," replied the pint-sized man, who raised his little earthenware cup of herbal tea in a salute. "I've finally caught up on the last two hundred years and earned a sizable advantage against my, erm, undesirable compatriots and their relative lack of modern tactical wherewithal, and I've heard some of Morgana's little devils refer to me as Rambo with Manners. I suppose I'll earn some reprieve once the crater I leave in their racial memory is deep enough to trigger half-remembered spooky stories to whisper around campfires."

Nigel's pith helmet's leather braid had been replaced by a twine of fresh vines, with a tiny patch of mushrooms having taken root along its side. The troll's own trimmed beard had turned greenish as well, with the glint in his eyes suggesting there wasn't much left of the hapless and confused Victorian transplant Meris and her retinue had rescued from Morgana's Wilds. Woodford might've been small and Mary could've kicked him around with or without an exsosuit - technically - but something to his countenance suggested he could hold his own now, even against comparative giants like Hardy & Jameson's CEO. Not that this stopped him from removing his helmet and offering Mary a gallant nod.

"Milady, I must say your efforts have had the effect of a healing balm on China's own stretch of Faerie. Cathay has never been as splendid as it currently is. The Monkey King felt the urge to extol the virtues of his realm's rapid reconstruction and invited Faerie's best game hunters to a sortie, a few weeks back. Your name was on his lips for most of our journey."

* * *

As the chopper landed, Gomez mutely considered their options. He was a cyborg, Marius was a vampire older than modern civilization, Zebediah looked to be a few nickels short of a dollar and Preston hadn't been described to him as someone able to strike direct fear in his enemies...

"My vote for the other one's on you, abuelo," he told the vampire, smirking as he stopped to plant his rifle with its butt to the ground and to lean on it in a manner that managed to look both casual and somewhat menacing towards the Squids. "I can be scary too, but we're short a car battery and some crocodile clamps..."

One of the Squids spat on the ground, ejecting a loose tooth, the one eye that hadn't swollen shut thanks to being jostled around the cabin glaring at them. "It doesn't matter what you do to us," he spat, "your being here confirms it - Xenophon Thanos is here. We'll simply-"

Lucky clicked his tongue. "Was here, compa. If you think we'd be stupid enough to leave Meris and him within range for you guys, you're dumber than you look.
- We have other teams. We'll intercept them no matter where they'll go!"

Gomez shrugged. "I don't doubt you'll try - shit, I would too, if my boss was Johnny Chambers - but that's not what interests us. I don't know where Marius sits, but what I wanna know is if someone in one o' you three chucklefucks has a diverging agenda...
- Our faith is sound, by Chamberlain's will! You'll never-!"

The anthro rolled his eyes. "Whatever, Doctor Zoidberg. I'd clench those buttcheeks, 'cause over two thousand years of Alexandrian Black Speech rhetoric hits hard - or so I'm told..."

He frowned at Preston, mostly for effect. "You've got some pull, Hauser - anything you could offer up to sweeten the pot, before we let Old Stick loose?"
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Alastriona studied the small figurine Vernon had placed upon the wooden horse and smiled fondly at it. She could see the affinity the Green Knight shared with dryads with its rough wicker and green wool body.

His words about her associated Oaths and the bonds they created reminded her that when difficult times would come she wouldn't been alone in her endeavors. It was heartening to have a physical representation of this part of her life.

Her grayish lips pursed as he explained how Doherty and other well-intended but misguided sorts might approach her in the future. "I imagine that comes from his time in Hope's Golden Age. Many of the older supes and villains are, to an extent, mythologized themselves. Sophia had a rocky relationship with Doherty and only gained his full respect until later on, especially when her Tree blessed him with his abilities. He's only familiar with a surface level of dryads, as it seems like many are."

The dryad gently took the Green Knight and his horse from the Winter Lord, again smiling at it. "I'm going to help protect this territory, but I also want to make a name for my own. I don't want to stand in Sophia's shadow for any longer than I have to, even with as much as a I respect her, her life, and the foundation she laid for me."

***

"It's possible, of course. The Loyalists would use any means that they could to gain a foothold and spread the Others' madness. However, that's not our focus right now. We'll spend our time here for a bit and then proceed to London," was Meris's reply as she laid a reassuring hand on his arm.

In the meantime, Aspasia flicked her ears curiously and looked at Sev. "If you handle SIreless Oaths, what do your father and your son do? Are they somehow related to your tasks?" she asked.

Given her nature, she was unsure of how the goblin would see her, as the impact of Elysium to this particular part of Faerie was unknown to her. Also, her attire features a button-down shirt and cropped trousers.

***

"Small world, for sure," Neasa agreed before Aatxe began to literally rattle the bars. She was thankful Bucky got him to calm down as they plotted an alibi.

As Apophis offered a likely background for them to work with, she could see Bucky's uncertainty and grasped his hand. "Meris mentioned that demons tend to vary in how they behave in their stolen bodies. Some are overt and obnoxious about it, while others are more subtle and competent."

"Competence would benefit us more, so we should go that route. Another matter to consider is the type or types of demon that possessed you. Harrogath is supposed be in line with Gluttony, and that's the one most in line with Nereus's normal behavior. You could mix his traits in with behavior with one of the other Vices. Envy, Wrath, Lust, take your pick..."

She gestured to herself. "Given that I'm your Consort, Lust might be useful with some Vanity thrown in. Or I could even try Wrath. I'm competent, but I also must pay fealty to the Augur who elected me to be worthy enough to stand at his side. Depending on what you pick, my role could play off of yours."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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"Were ya actually wantin' to assault 'em head on, guns 'n powers blazin'?" Charles asked teasingly. He checked the trunk again, reached into the back and pulled up a hefty two-handed blade. "Claymore fer ya!" He handed it to the demon lord, then checked back himself, coming up with a naval cutlass of some sort. "Yer boy musta left these in 'ere at some point, cuz I sure didn't pack no swords."

But it came with a belt and scabbard so he shrugged and wrapped it about his own middle, since he had plenty of room and a backup wouldn't hurt. Especially if those Viking corpses weren't as somnolent as they should be.

On that note he made sure he had a shotgun easily accessible, in particular a sawed-off lupara alongside a silenced .45. Any long guns were left in the enchanted satchel.

"Look on th' bright side, if we can git behind 'em before th' shootin' 'n powerin' starts, it'll be that much more of an advantage for us, yeah? So quit yer moanin' 'n let's git on!"

---------------------------

"I had planned on it," Marius replied easily, cracking his knuckles.

Preston stepped up. "Help us, we help you," he offered. "Help disappear, escape Chambers, do good for once. Like they helped me."

One of the squids spat at Preston's feet, to which he merely shrugged and gestured for Marius to take the floor. The vamp didn't speak, he merely gestured... and one of the cultists' heads separated from his shoulders! The body tipped sideways, spraying the other two with blood and fluids, while the head hovered in mid air, screaming despite not having any lungs!

Then, once the other two were well and truly drenched in the viscera of their ally, Marius gestured again, and muttered a string of harsh syllables at a volume too low for Preston to make out. Despite that, the head and body of the example squid reunited, reattached... and he was left there shivering and gaping.

"We are not fucking around," he growled, looming above them threateningly. "Either you help us, or I will personally make you regret ever crawling out of whatever spawning pool made you! You think you can Speak?! You know NOTHING of Speaking!"

----------------------------

Mary curtsied gracefully in response to the praise. "It is my home, I could do no less," she replied modestly. She eyed Carrie and grinned impishly. "You know, I've got my own Aatxe, only he called himself Grenhizer. Shall I get in touch with him and cross a few signals, see how he fairs against yours with the right... incentive?"

It was easy enough to guess what she had in mind. Get the two demons to fight each other instead of Three or anyone else, if they were really so besotted by their near-human paramours.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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"None of us would want you to, either," confirmed Vernon. "Least of all, Sophia herself."

He let his satisfaction, love and appreciation for Alastriona's approach to the situation linger in the air for a few moments, and then drew in a breath. "Well, the rest is, honestly, part and parcel for someone of my station. Reading rooms, bedrooms, rapiers affixed on walls which I use to bring no end of frustration to my housekeepers, walls festooned in oil paintings of your stuffier ancestors going back some five centuries... I think one of my great-uncles stuck to his Roman lorica up until the steam engine was conceived, actually," he noted, smirking.

Vernon stood up and picked up his overcoat. "How about I showed you Winter's less foreboding side, hm? You've seen me get all frosty, I'd say it's advisable I showed you how your mother and I's situation isn't exactly common," he explained, adding a shrug. "Us Lords scheme, mere Knights preen and, well, the average Winter commoner makes a fair share of Hope's domestic disturbance events, during the Holidays. Some saucy mortal makes a comment, an exchange turns heated and, well, someone's septum ends up being deviated. If the one making the comment is on Summer's side, well..."

He shrugged. "We're all just a nation packed with supernatural curmudgeons, honestly," he added, chuckling. "I'm just one of the cuddlier ones."

* * *

Severin gave Aspasia a once-over, then shifting to meet Coach's glance. "How strange, sir," he said. "We hear so much of the scions of the Mother of the Wilds and of the way Morgana destroyed their culture, living in such a time as to see their flesh move about without their grace is-"

Silas cut him off. "If you're going to address my wife's questions, speak to her directly," he said, hardening his tone. That made Sev blink and start an apology - again, at Coach - to which the lich nodded in the negative. "I'm not the one who's being insulted," he noted, his tone kept light on purpose. "I'm also not the one with the meanest right hook in the couple. Lack of flesh on my bones and whatnot."

That seemed to do it, Sev meeting Aspasia's gaze with a fearful look he tried - and mostly failed - to shift into something congenial. "Well, er, I maintain the accounts, Regal moves their foci as needed and handles the vaults themselves, and my father Albus sees to all overhead administrative items."

Coach's lips shimmered into view over his rows of teeth, tightly pulled into a smirk - as if to mockingly ask Sev if addressing the Chimera had been an ordeal. Sev motioned for the others to follow him and seemed glad to clear the air a bit as they headed closer to his carriage. "We have our clients speak their Oaths not to living targets, but to cleared foci - typically carved stones, but also other objects all depending on the client's request - and then hold onto these foci for later use. I'm given to understand that one Marius Vlastos used a similar technique for arcane energies in your plane of origin, the difference being that our clients' vault contents couldn't power any spell directly. Oaths are markers of intent, so they have power either while they are used, or while they're being held as signifiers of the depositing client's wishes. As you can imagine, you also couldn't turn an Oath of Good Health or an Oath of Fealty into curse material - but our clients absolutely can create open-ended curses of a sort, designed to be stored for later use against targets that are unknown at the time of the deposit."

Nereus seemed interested, but still wasn't as nearly interested in Sev's explanations as he was in Coach's open-ended defense of Aspasia - phrased in a way that avoided negating the Chimera commander's own capabilities. His smile behind his tentacles was obvious enough - this was actually a man after his own heart.

Evidently, Sedgewick thought he could flip the script a bit and expected something he'd understand. "That said," he noted, "I'd like to understand how it is that modern Fauns came to be, after their obliteration cut them off from the World's Breath," he noted. "Your being here is, if I may, a brazen negation of this world's very laws."

Silas didn't say anything, but his lower jaw shifted slightly, his eye sockets narrowing into a very visible frown.

* * *

Shamus knew himself, and knew quite well how Gluttony might seem like an obvious pick, but it also wasn't exactly flattering. He partly was a big eater because it brought him comfort, and partly because of his armature's needs. Aatxe reached through the bars as best he could - which wasn't a lot - and brushed the Clank's arm with a finger.

"Consider how all Vices are freed from Pride, now," he noted. "I am of Pride and Lust, and a scion of Gluttony could speak to something more than mere binging urges. It could be your Gluttony is experiential instead of sensory."

That ripped a nod out of Wallace. "Yeah - like Lyman's - not that you'd know who this is yet, though. Demon riding a Gluttony Warden, now he's working as a lawyer back in Hope."

The Pride Knight nodded. "No, but I can imagine. He yearns for luxury and does find some satisfaction in finer things, but his appetites are constant and never-ending. He hungers for beauty and peace above all else now, I'd imagine - especially after being freed. You could use these urges as something nobler than merely waiting for the table arts of the pulpos ."

That got a nod out of Wallace. "And you're our lieutenant or something, then.
- Or something," nodded Aatxe. "I will take care of the aesthetics of things - making the both of you look possessed shouldn't be too difficult. Just make sure to keep your Veils up to their maximum opacity."

Nodding, Shamus then used his free hand to twist and tear the padlock that held the cage closed, and then opened it with a grunt. Aatxe stepped out, stopping to grasp the cruel-looking collar that was closed around his neck, and drew in a breath as he strained against it - trying not to scream as it brought him pain. Eventually, however, it was off and quickly covered with a Veil of the Spanish demon's usual clothes; a fitted pinstriped suit equipped with a leather hoop for a rapier. Grunting, the demon stomped off to a locked weapon rack and tore its own lock off on his own, freeing his blade from the displayed weaponry.

Behind them, other demonic voices started to ask for freedom, to which Aatxe replied by facing them as he placed his blade in its hoop. "In due time, brothers!" he said, raising his voice enough to be heard by the closest ones, but not so much as to shout. "In due time, our company shall be freed - but for now, I ask for your patience..."

A few in the back weren't exactly patient, shouting back insults and jeers aimed towards the Knight's concept of chivalry, but Aatxe didn't seem to care and instead gave Neasa a wide grin. "Let's be off - I'm anxious to see what kind of retinue an idiota like the Speaker surrounds himself with."

* * *

Herbert caught the sword surprisingly well, a self-satisfied smile playing on his lips for a few moments. "Melmoth was inordinately kind in loaning me Douglas," he noted, "I would not be surprised if he found ways to add implements of tertiary concern to our mission, such as emergency rations or maybe a few bottles of water."

Slipping below the highway, the Prince couldn't quite repress a moue of displeasure at the sight of the hem of his pants turning dusty. He also grimaced more pointedly once one of his shoes briefly caught into something soft and moist, but otherwise made no comment. As expected, they soon found the crevace in the culvert's wall, Herbert taking a moment to grasp his spaded tail's tip in one hand, and conjuring a plume of Hellfire around it. The resulting light wasn't as bright as a standard torch, but it still provided enough to go on.

For a few minutes, Wormsworth stuck to warning Jenkins of uneven spots or of the occasional bit of lateral freeclimb that was required, Tallinn's noise fading behind them as they went deeper. The first few chambers they came across had evidently been charted by squatters in the past, but even these distant traces of human habitation faded entirely. One last shimmy, and the passage's earthen walls gave way to ancient stones finding purchase in the equally ancient and almost rock-hard soil.

"There it is," whispered Herbert, "a funerary complex, as of yet undiscovered by mortal archeologists and accessible to us thanks to Angel Time. If you'll give me a moment, I'll simply-"

He bent down and touched Jenkins' feet, before doing the same to his dusty patent leathers, weaving a bit of power around them. It might take a few seconds, but the soldier would soon realize the demon had encapsulated his feet into a form-fitting version of his old ego-based barrier spell.

"There," he said. "I would make a poor example of reformed Pride if I didn't protect these mortal archeologists' access to these halls - and preserved them from our contaminating presence. You'll be as agile as before; you simply won't leave footprints behind," he explained.

* * *

Telling a Loyalist that they knew nothing of Speaking would've normally triggered some sort of compensatory display, with one of the other two having apparently just worked up the nerve for a challenging response; only for the one who'd been decapitated and mended back together to give his comrade a rather universal look: facial tentacles or otherwise, nonverbally demanding of someone else that they shut the Hell up was rather hard to miss.

"Then we won't Speak," Marius' victim then replied, swallowing hard as he seemingly tested his recently-torn and newly-mended throat. "A debate in our idiom would be pointless, at this stage. I opt for silence."

The third one nodded affirmatively, but the second rolled his eyes and looked back at Marius. "You can kill them both," he said, his tone flat and surprisingly calm. "I'll tell you what little I know."

His comrades sent him incensed looks and their tendrils flared, but Lucky leveling his rifle in their direction kept them quiet. The iguana kept his tone conversational, following this. "Encapsulated teams, huh?" he asked, to which the second Squid nodded.

"Only our mission handlers have access to complete details," the Prelate confirmed. "Everything else is on a need-to-know basis. My assignment involved target acquisition and elimination, if possible.The delaying of our targets was a secondary objective, if the first couldn't be attained."

Zeb snorted as he came closer. "This is the homeboys' team, chum; it isn't as though anyone here were on a pre-planned flight path to London.
- Correct," nodded the Squid. "You're all still variables in a fluctuating outcome. We had to eliminate any potential interference in London.
- Are there Void Weavers there?" asked Zeb, which earned him a snort.

"Besides Thanos, we have no native Persons of Interest on-assignment. Intelligence briefs suggested the Texas contingent would try and make itself known to discourage us from getting involved. The selkie and usurper reaching London would only serve as an instigating event; Jubal Whitney knows Titania and Oberon will want to see something concrete. Something more than just one adept Speaker and an Archmage well-versed in our language."

Vargas wasn't satisfied. "You already know Whitney's inside and out; this can't be about his folks. You're expecting something else, and someone back in Dalarath wants a report."

The second Void Weaver nodded. "Eliminate variables, establish the purest setting available, observe the outcome."

The lich grimaced at that. "That's not very Eldritch Horror of you, isn't it? Where's all the chaos, the willful nescience?"

There was a silence, as the other two Squids looked at their comrade. He simply hung his head for a few moments. "Your demons aren't the only ones to have awakened to deeper truths during the war," he then said, as he looked back up. "The difference is, my people still don't delude themselves into thinking your world is fit for us. There is a path forward, and unlocking it matters more than some petty delusions of societal corruption or permanent destruction."

* * *

Carrie grinned back. "A supernatural Casanova against, what, a supernatural Werther? Color me intrigued, but I'm short on literary examples for randy German demons with a thing for chivalry."

Percy grunted thoughtfully. "Pride is of a most peculiar disposition, as it does seldom-times mete out beings of honor and chivalry. My clan hath lays of our encounters with their kind. Of their sin, they only truly exemplify the stubbornness - although some would call it tenacity."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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His remark about being one of the cuddlier Fae amused the young woman, and she chuckled. "I look forward to seeing this side. With being in the Cradle, I haven't had the chance to see the full scope of Faerie's denizens, even with Eirean and your examples to go by," Alastriona commented, following him after he put on his overcoat.

***

The audacity of his rudeness toward her mother almost caused her daughter to react, but she earned a Look from Aspasia. Miranda said nothing as well, but she didn't hold back a cold glare at the goblin.

Sedgewick's last statement earned him an amused scoff, the Fauness tilting her head slightly. "Oh, really?" she replied, then glancing down at her form. She did a light hop, her cloven hooves making a sturdy clopping sound as she landed. "Well, gravity works for me. That's one worldly law I haven't broken, thankfully."

Placing a hand on her hip, she glanced at the carriage as they approached it. She casually fetched out a silver coin and idly fidgeted with it. "As for my existing in this world, the short of it is due to Queen TItania's blessing and modern science."

"I won't bore you with my whole backstory, but science developed a way to resurrect the fragile essences found within Faun fossils and these were combined with modern essences of humans, anthros, wild goats, and so on until a sufficient map of sorts could be placed in a standard ovum, fertilized, copied and stored. Queen Titania gave her permission for this to be done and after some eventful years, we Chimeras are alive and contributing to society."

As she explained this, she causally took in her surroundings and flicked the coin off into the distance where it was heard bouncing off a tile roof and then a rain gutter. The coin made its return as it zipped by Sev's right ear, with Aspasia then deftly catching it in the palm of her hand.

Hanako watched as the satyress caught and twirled the coin on her fingers, smirking fangily. "Excellent reflexes as usual, Aspasia-san. The Countess made a wise choice in making you one of her Knights. As I've said before, your archery skills are on par with our best in Eien-no-Yuki."

The former commander nodded graciously to the Malk and smiled gamely in Sev's direction. "I might not match up to the legends of yore, Sev, but I believe I've fought enough battles alongside the Fae as a Wyldfae and made it through Morgana's jungles to be standing here today says something, whether or not I fall in line with any perceived laws of the world."

***

Glancing back at the Pride soldiers still in the cage, Neasa followed along with Bucky, Apophis and Aatxe. She checked her Veil's opacity and the tone of her voice. She was thankful she could mimic Meris's mannerisms, along with her appearance.

"Let's get to it," she agreed with a smile, a Meris-like stride to her steps.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Charles crept along behind Herbert, grimacing at the evidence of squatters. Where the demon had his tail, he was content with flicking on a flashlight clipped to the front of his vest. It was difficult squeezing through the narrower bits with all the gear he had, but he made it work somehow, and arrived at the last chamber with only minor scrapes to speak of.

When Herbert did his foot thing, he looked down curiously, but shrugged and looked ahead. "So, how much are ya expectin' these corpses to not be as dead as they're s'pposed ter be?" he asked conversationally.

----------------------------

At the end of the exposition, Preston rubbed his chin in thought. "Buncha mad scientists then," he muttered, staging an exaggerated and obvious yawn. "Boring! Don't have time." He hated to offer help and then rescind it, but if these clowns really were trying to delay or kill them, they probably didn't have time to stand around and help out. He cocked an eyebrow at Gomez and shrugged, leaving it up to him.

-----------------------------

"Basically, it sounds like we need to teach them a lesson in what no means, if I'm gathering your situation rightly," Mary replied to Carrie. "I know Grenny got pretty stuck in whatever pop culture chivalry they absorbed back in the day."

She looked over at Percy and Nigel then. "Man problems aside, are we still on schedule? It wouldn't do to be late to the party, I'm sure..."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Replacing his overcoat, scarf and stovepipe, Vernon led the young dryad back to the front of the mansion and then lightly touched her back. Alex would sense a persistent, if thin cocoon of warmth form around her, carrying faint effluvia of baking pies and roasted chestnuts. It was as if she had a permanent garden-side brazier next to her, and one that was more than strong enough to turn the thick cover of snow and the icy gales just outside of Frosthall into vague suggestions of the selfsame things. Not that it stopped her hooves from maybe needing a few tries before finding her footing in the Winter realm's permanent cast of snow.

Evergloam had always been of Summer, but Vernon's instigation as the local Winter Lord had exposed the need for more appropriate lodgings for those of his Clan. Far ahead, one of the Fae city's inner walls loomed - along with a seemingly stationary band of clouds that drenched it in near-constant rainfall. Haskill had blanketed one-sixth of Evergloam into a picturesque and permanently twilit wintertime display, and the Lady Eirean's eternal Summer gently encircled it, what should've been hurricane-force winds created by opposing rising and falling air currents instead manifesting as a permanent breeze you could hear whistling across the Winter Quarter's border streets. Along the wall, an immobile and permanent early dawn waited - even as gently cycling stars shone with their late-year brightness, overhead.

For a while, Haskill settled with some small talk and a bracing pace, likely to better shield Alastriona against his demesne's cold. The small farmlands that waited right past his gates looked serenely asleep, the occasional small house they came across radiating warmth. It wasn't uncommon for fiddles to be heard and for more smells of cooked food to reach them. A few charmingly grotesque Fae turned John Tenniel-worthy faces towards them as they passed, waving a hand and maybe shouting a question or a greeting for the Lord. Angular cheeks and ruddy faces, too-wide mouths that couldn't stop smiling or permanently dour sorts who replied to everything with pensive grunts - Vernon greeted them all with good grace.

Past his lands, however, the town's streets waited. There, a change in the air became perceptible. The same danger Vernon had briefly embodied had returned, how faintly exuded by the stones and cobbled paths that surrounded the pair. Cobblers, jewellers, painters, head offices for hunting posts, bankers and more - all of them seemed to be staffed by people who offered Haskill a smile and nod, but who gave Alex strangely indifferent glances. Summer, after all, was the kinder and more welcoming of the two Clans - Winter had always harbored more guarded souls, except in rare instances.

Eventually, however, Haskill found what he'd been expecting - and he found it in front of an inner-town tavern called the Wet Skunk. A goblin chatted them up for a few minutes while polishing a mug at the counter, and then leaned in.

"Say, boss - I heard one of my regulars say he'd like to invoke a Challenge against you. Not full-on Old Ways, but - y'know."

"Yes, of course," sighed Haskill as he removed his overcoat, "the last few months haven't been short in hype men, as it were... Are they present?"

By way of a response, the goblin barkeep tapped his nose and winked, using a slight brushing gesture to disguise a pointing finger towards what looked like a cross between a blueberry and an anthro pig. The man had the orange-red ear tips of the Wyldfae, but a skin that seemed permanently set to the tones associated with drowned corpses flash-frozen in wintertime lakes. For the moment, Haskill ignored him and sat at the bar, contentedly holding a mug of simple cleared broth between his hands, more to appreciate its warmth than to drink it down. Alex had been offered a mug of the local tea, a slightly reddish affair that smelled faintly of several different berry strains.

"Let's see how well you can tug on ley lines from afar," the Winter Lord then suggested to his adoptive daughter. "Find his connection to your Tree - it'll be quite thin and fragile, as you'd expect, as you're brand new - and gently tug on it with your mind. Add a small measure of intent, something enticing. The locals don't react too well to anything suggestive presented by complete strangers, so try pulling on your tea's flavors or my mug's warmth - anything anodine, yet comforting. Make him sense that approaching us could sate some sort of need of his..."

He paused for a moment, then remembered a few things from Paradise. "If you're unsure, try and recall some of the Vanguard's lessons on how via obeys gravitational pulls. You aren't trying to suggest an irrepressible force like one of Nasir's black holes, but rather a gentle slope in the fabric of the local ley lines - as if everything in the Winter Quarter gently flowed downwards and towards yourself. You're the mouth of a small stream, and his attention is the water that flows through you."

* * *

Judging by the way Sev quietly mouthed the word fossils as she spoke it, he was more than a few centuries out-of-date. In any case, he'd certainly been hoist by his own petard, rhetorically speaking.

"I, er, had no wish to dispute your, erm, expertise, my dear - please forgive this truly mortifying display of impudence on my part; you find me obliged and willing to assist you in all financial matters," he said, unable to repress an uneasy laugh. Coach also couldn't repress a snort.

"Depends," he added, "can you do somethin' about the current car APRs mortal-side, or maybe help us refinance what's left of 'Spasia and I's mortgage, with Hell having done a number on interest rates?"

Sedgewick blinked. "Well, er, if your needs fall within the province of the Fae, I may certainly-
- Nope," replied Silas, without letting him finish, "we're not in the market for supernatural leashes, thank you. I'll let you know if you suddenly end up being more useful than the phantom itches I can't scratch without some help."

Across the street, a few passerbys couldn't quite repress a snicker. Neither could Nereus, who gave Meris a grin. "What's that like?" he asked the skeleton. "Having phantom itches, I mean."

Silas seemed glad to shift to something more amusing than the banker's social faux pas. "Welp, try scratching your back - even with a back-scratcher - when all you end up doing is poking at your own spine's discs. I can sort of close my fingers onto anything out in front without focusing too much, but my back is a little hard to keep completely phased-in. Twice a week, I hand 'Spasia a towel and let her find my back's edges, give me a scrub for those two or three spots I can't reach, between my shoulders."

Azazel grinned. "Ever poke your ghost-guts by mistake, mister Robertson?
- Early on," amenably conceded the lich, "sure. Think every lich does, once or twice. It's unpleasant enough that you quickly figure out how to not manifest those bits physically. I manifested eyeballs for one Halloween, back when Mira was five - scared the bejeezus out of her for three days."

The cowboy gave his belle a smile. "I'd say that was one of the few times you made me sleep on the couch."

* * *

Bucky needed a few tries for his Nereus - especially a possessed Nereus - but he'd figured his Gluttony Warden wouldn't have let the Augur's body turn particularly stiff. He instead slowed down, opened up his gait, and added the occasional, slight birdlike whip of his head, and a few cogitating hums and snorts. Aatxe had altered his appearance, giving his Augur the cast of the recently-deceased, as if the demon hadn't entirely bothered with kickstarting the body's processes. So, not exactly a Tom Magnus-like - but close enough.

As expected, their coming in full view soon garnered interest. Doors first opened and shut instantly, fleeting eyes peering at them and the occasional tendril poking out to catch their scent, the verbal component of the Black Speech forming an aural bedrock of whispers around the quartet. It took a while, but one of the Prelacy eventually worked up the nerve to step forward. Owing to his double-layered character, Bucky didn't really bother to repress his snort of amusement at the sight of a still sleepy-eyed Void Weaver hurriedly shucking on what looked like a glyph-colored stole. Bits of food still clung to the robe underneath, and something to the particularly slimy sheen of the Squid's cast made him think it might be their version of bedhead. As expected, the Void Weaver hid a yawn behind an emphatic cough.

"Good morning, Your Eminence," he started in English, bowing as he did. "Neither the Chamberlain or the Speaker warned us of your visit - I trust our plans are afoot in the world above?"

"Yes," replied the false Nereus, Bucky adding as much evil relish as he could without sounding too hammy. "Everything is proceeding apace, my son - with a few unforeseen details. The Augur you see before you fell to the might of the forces of Gluttony, as per a pact form with Harrogath. I have his power, his knowledge - but very little of his compunctions."

The Squid didn't really look like he knew how to take to this, his expression shifting from a spark of joy to a sustained look of concern. "I... see. What use does a demon find out of a convenant with one of our Lords, then?"

In response, Fake Nereus pulled Fake Meris closer and kissed her fully, producing satisfied moans and slavering noises that wouldn't have been the hallmarks of an actually respectful kiss. Under the Veil, however, Bucky had simply pressed his metal lips against Neasa's and made a few extraneous noises, as if he'd been asked to dub over a sloppy kiss on video. He didn't overdo it and knew enough not to make it last too long, knowing the Veils were under no such limitations. The false Augur slavered and pushed the fake Meris into his own mass, the illusion following Apophis' added weight and even perspiring and drooling as it soon parted from the seemingly-undead Archmage.

"I Hunger," lustily added the projection. "I Hunger as Beelzebub Hungered, and as Harrogath surely does. With Gluttony laid low, I required a suitable master - and a new toolset to ply. The baroque grotesqueries of the Ever-Consuming are a familiar province for one such as I, who has Wanted without measure for millennia.
- And what should we address you as, then? You are not without knowing our rites for accession for Augurship are sacred, and-"

Bucky stepped closer. "I am your Augur, worm. Challenge me again, and all of Harrogath shall see that us demons have no qualms about eating our own servants. I could tear you asunder and eat you limb after limb - or entwine pleasure with your agony. You choose."

Another Squid left its house and stepped closer. "Please - don't listen to Davoth; he is conservative to a fault, unable to witness and appreciate new folds and weaves in Amaxi's watchful darkness..."

This one was smaller, frailer - and more servile. "We welcome you home, Augur and Consort - your darkness looms and humbles us."

Apophis slithered forward, his demeanor entirely different from the mincing and vulnerable posture he'd previously displayed. His maw opened and, again, his human features emerged, one hand gripping Davoth's tendrils and giving them a painful tug.

"Insolence is unbecoming, Choir Leader," he hissed. "Reach the Word House and call ahead, so that the Speaker knows his father has returned!"

* * *

"If I weren't here, they would remain dead for certes," summarized Wormsworth. "Not to downplay your achievements, my friend, but you weren't exactly made as a sentient ember of cloying self-satisfaction. I might be a nicer Prince of Pride than the previous bloke, but few are the Draugr who could count my Sin as having a single honorable bone in its body..."

He winced mostly for effect. "So, erm... Keep your wits about, hm? It'll be a while before burial site guardians and other watchful spirits turn and shrug when I pass, thinking Oh, it's just Mister Pride doing lawyerly things..."

A few minutes later, a low and sepulchral wail rose from the passages ahead, followed by a foul-smelling draft - predictably doing nothing to Charles' flashlight but wrecking havoc with Herbert's plume of fire. A look of unease passed over the demon's features, but he steeled himself with a cough and moved forward. For several long minutes, this was it - until a glacial pair of eyes set in skin that looked like rotten parchment given the consistency of limestone peeked out of the gloom and yanked Wormsworth forward. The Prince of Pride, Lord to the Order of the Fly and Commander of Incalculable Legions, couldn't do much more than yelp and grunt as he was pulled forward and seemingly tossed on the ground.

Obviously, Jenkins didn't speak Rus, and especially not Rus pushed out of a throat older than European civilization - and likely unused for just as long. What the Draugr had said clearly wasn't nice, and was followed by the clang of steel against stone and the flash of several sparks - along with another undignified yelp from Herbert, who had little choice but to scooch back and away in the gloom. Still, his hand flashed against Jenkins' flashlight, and a tiny stab of pain flared against the vet's right temple.

Suddenly, the mummified vampire Viking's words were perfectly clear, as if he'd spent years studying one of the earliest precursors to modern Russian. The only thing that wasn't any clearer was the Draugr's diction, but no spell could work miracles, after all.

"Disturb our rest, will you?!" angrily croaked the warrior, pushing forward with a downwards strike which Herbert avoided by rolling away. "Rusland is ours, Spawn of the Black One; and dragon blood flows in these veins! FALL BACK, FOUL ONE!"

It couldn't land its strike properly, however, as its eyes had only noticed - and failed to account for - Charles' flashlight. A screech escaped him as he raised an arm to try and shield its eyes.

"AWAKEN, MY BROTHERS! DEMONS COME, AND A MORTAL WARLOCK BRINGS GODLESS LIGHT!"

Wormsworth exchanged a surprised look with the vet. Godless light, eh? Well, one civilization's useful tools had to be another one's inscrutable magic, after all...

* * *

In return, Gomez looked back to Marius. "You're the one with the big guns, cholo," he said, shrugging. "Me, I'd leave one of the other two talkin', take 'em back to the Penfield guy or the Geek Squid with his dog boyfriend - but this one? Eh, I'd say this new posse needs to know we don't fuck around. I know Travers is s'posed to be all Gray Man and shit, but if they're playing the long game, well..."

He stepped forward and squatted down, using his rifle for support with one hand. The other one went up and pinched the Squid's leftmost tentacle.

"They best not take shortcuts. Ain't exactly sporting - right, Marius?"

Fear blossomed in the Void Weaver's eyes, Gomez keeping his expression as casual as he could. "It's a funny language, they got," he said. "Funny brains, too. Y'think you could, I dunno, format his Space Ooga Booga parts and just leave him with plain English? That'd be Dain Bramage enough for self-centered intellectual fuckwits, no? Surgical enough to flatter his ego, devasatating enough to send a message..."

The Squid could barely resist his urge to quiver. "You wouldn't," he quietly said. "Even I wouldn't rip Spanish out of you, Vargas!"

The iguana rolled his eyes. "Ay, no me hagas llorar, por favor..."

* * *

Nigel affected a mocked look of haughtiness. "Schedules bend to the needs of the Fae and their envoys, Milady Jameson," he added, then punctuating this with a wink. "Like a certain wizard, we'll arrive precisely when we're meant to."

Three couldn't repress a smile. "You took to this Fae stuff far too well, Nigel," he noted. Woodford scoffed in amusement as he replied. "I still have a few issues with human-sized kitchens, I'll admit, but I could vault over Miss Jameson with my eyes closed and without ruffling a single hair of hers, if I had to. If a human can take to her tumbling-about, a forest troll should do so with at least as much ease."

Percy seemed amused as he readjusted Vigilance's strap on his shoulder. "And how farest thine tumbles, Master Aidan?"

The human couldn't repress a self-defeated chortle as he raised his hands. "Still very Black Speech-assisted, I'll admit; I'm more comfortable with superhero landings than careful tumbles. If it weren't for Nereus' pointers over correspondence before he freed himself, I'd still just be projecting forcefields and stopping small-calibre fire."

He sent a grin at Mary. "It works, at least. I jumped down from Magnus Tower during the war, mowed down flying Mordor rejects on my way and landed in a three-point crouch in front of four Pride Knights who could just stand there and gawk. Fighting someone off is easier when they don't know what to expect out of you."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Alex sipped her tea and recalled the lessons taught to her by the Vanguard Queen, remembering how she had illustrated the way via sloped down and toward gravitational bodies. It was the way the Earth could draw the arcane force down to the planet's surface and into the earth and waters. Without it, she recalled, life wouldn't had have been as diverse and magically potent as it was.

She looked down at her tea and gently swirled the liquid in her cup, the light from the lanterns catching different hues in its reflection. She could pick up the hints of raspberries, cranberries, strawberries, to name a few. There were also hints of spices thrown in to balance out the sweetness.

Closing her eyes, the dryad's reached back toward Frosthall and then further into the renovated greenhouse where her Tree stood with its slowly deepening roots. From there, she let the Tree's vague senses reach out from its location toward where they were in the tavern. She felt her, Vernon, the barkeep, and the blue-skinned Wyldfae's respective arcane signatures.

Then came the enticing bait. The porcine challenger's senses were gently filled with nostalgic images and scents. Gold, orange and red flames roaring within a hearth after a long trek through Mab's Wastelands, the promise of hearty foods and drinks cooked within it, flavored by berries and spices potent enough to make his mouth water. The sensory payload would lead him to their seats as though they were old, grizzled allies waiting to hear his tales.

***

Aspasia snorted lightly and then chuckled as she remembered the incident. "Yeah, it was. The neighborhood kids were also a little hesitant when they came by for trick-or-treating!"

Miranda scoffed and grinned as recalled the memory. "Can you blame me? I was used to seeing your eyelights, then all of a sudden, I see a couple green eyes floating in your eye sockets with nothing else around them!"

Aspasia chortled. "Even after our brief stint in the tabloids, we still managed to grab the locals' attention in one way or another. Having The Last Round as our business kinda normalized us. Popular family restaurant, just be prepared for the unorthodox owners!"

Meris smiled. "I think that'll definitely have to be our first date of sorts, once things settle down. Is there anything you suggest from your menu?"

Aspasia clicked her tongue thoughtfully. "Well, we're just your standard American fare, but we're able to accommodate different dietary requirements."

***

Neasa had lightly returned the kiss, but she tilted her head back to increase the apparent forcefulness of the illusory liplock. She added in her own moans and shivers, appearing somewhat submissive to the opposing Veil. Once they parted, Fake Meris licked her lips as though relishing the taste of his tentacles against her lips. "I never tire of that sensation, Augur..." she responded huskily.

"I am of Envy, and I grew bored being part of an endless swarm, always craving what all of the others yearned for but could never reach! As this selkie, as Consort, I can experience all of Harrogath's myriad of blessings, mundane and profane, all in their hideous beauty on my own and by the Augur's side!" she declared, an unsettling slasher smile appearing on the Veil's face.

She ventured closer and peered down at Davoth after Apophis had tugged on his tentacles. "I suggest you hurry and not keep us waiting, Choir Leader, or I might have to see what it's like to slowly remove your tendrils one by one and eat them as a raw delicacy in front of you, hm?" she added tauntingly, flashing her dainty fangs while running her tongue over them for emphasis.
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