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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Karl the Mad
 

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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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If Charles were capable of fear anymore, this shambling pile would probably inspire it. But he was sure in himself, in his own powers, and hardened his heart as he thrust the flashlight forward. "I'lL sHoW yOu GoDlEsS!" he screeched, bringing the lupara up and blasting point-blank at the thing's chest! A second blast took its head off, and he darted around the body, using TK to fumble shells from his bandoleer so he could keep the light up.

It only took a second to reload the weapon, and he leaned down to help Herbert up, offering the tail of the flashlight so he could keep it at the ready. "No lying down on this job, amigo!" he said shortly, weapon up as he kept a lookout for more freaks.

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

"Carve out the Speech?" Marius replied thoughtfully. "Hm... I've never tried, but it doesn't sound hard. Just tedious." He knelt down behind the Squid in question and put both hands on his bald head. "Keep the other two under control, you lot..."

Then he closed his eyes and pushed out with his senses, penetrating his victim's mind, looking for the language section. All the while he muttered in the Black Speech, barely audible as a low bass drone.

Nonetheless, when Preston felt his eyes vibrating in their sockets, he grimaced and put space between himself and the process, large-caliber handcannon steady on the other two Squids.

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

"Ain't that the truth!" Mary laughed. "Still though, it sounds like you could do with some advanced instruction, hm? What I do isn't all urban awareness, sight lines and breaking down doors, after all. Maybe Carrie could come too?"

She missed her students, if she was going to be honest with herself. But self honesty had never been her strong suit.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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It took a few moments, but the flat-faced Fae soon left his former group and made a bit of a show of ambling closer to Alex and Vernon, turning his head towards them as if he'd just spotted them at the last moment.

"Milord, hello," he started, pushing in to put a hand on the Fae's shoulder while his other one went for a wrist clasp, his tone a little too forthcoming and chummy to be friendly. "I'm sorry for intruding on your evening with your young friend, but I've been asked to speak with you; relay a message of sorts."

Haskill kept his expression cool and merely raised an eyebrow. "A pleasure, mister...?
- Muggs," replied the pig, "Clancy Muggs. I'm in Lyle Machae's entourage - passing tracts, more or less."

The name made Vernon slightly pull away. "Machae, you said...
- The boy's uncle," nodded the pig. "Shame what he did, of course, damn shame - and now the superheroes Topside have his old butler supposedly guarding their backs... Machae Senior didn't approve of his nephew's dealings, obviously but, er..."

Clancy drew in a sharp breath. "I think he doesn't approve of you, either. Steered too hard in the opposite direction, he says you did."

Haskill parted with a diplomatic shrug. "It's his opinion, of course. I'm sorry if he finds me unsatisfactory, but he certainly knows I hold Town Hall with the Lady McHale every week. I would be honored to give his grievances the proper course."

The pig's smile tightened, as if to mutely reply with No, you won't. Instead, he added something more vicious.

"Some of us don't approve of the company you keep, sir. There's standards in place. Expectations, and Machae Senior would like to remind you they exist."

As if to score his point, Muggs placed a leather glove on the table. Its fingers were too long to fit him and they were five where he only sported four digits per hand. Someone else's right glove, then.

"Ah," quietly replied the Winter Lord, the tavern's fiddler and drum ensemble barely managing to cover the faint crackle of frost that emanated from Vernon's head and shoulders. "Not the Old Ways, then - the Medieval ones. Why build an election platform when one may challenge his rivals in single combat?" he asked sarcastically.

Clancy shrugged. "Mister Machae says it's more of an appetizer; he's got an honest campaign run planned, too. So not Medieval, not quite so old as yours, either - but definitely Iron Age Celtic. Wants to show he's free and clear, up to represent Winter's best interests."

Vernon pouted appreciatively. "Hm. An honest admission, seems like. Earnest, with no small amount of gumption..."

These words made Clancy think Haskill was about to agree, when the Winter Lord raised a finger. "I invoke my Right of Counsel, then. Will you please let me speak with my daughter?"

The pig didn't seem satisfied, and in fact seemed increasingly frustrated. Still, he huffed out a breath and nodded. "Fine. You've got the rest of the day. Upon my honor, I won't disturb you again."

Vernon remained silent as the man's Oath took place in the air and closed in on him. He then left, not entirely of his own accord, and left Vernon to give Alex a heavy look.

"Apologies, my dear," he told her softly, "I thought him a fool, but our man seems like he's been adequately briefed on our customs. These modern Commoners often forget how Evergloam isn't quite Hope, and how appearances matter more than how one is accosted."

If anything, he didn't look terribly worried, as his second coating of frost fell away from his shoulders. Haskill looked more pensively annoyed than anything else. "Lyle Machae," he murmured, repeating his challenger's name as if dwelling on it could intuit some deeper truths.

* * *

Nereus smiled behind his tentacles. "Try as I might," he noted, "I can't really shake the genetic inheritance Amaxi saddled my forbears with. "Meris is the health-conscious one between us two, I'm too much of a foodie to be consistent in that regard."

Silas chuckled. "So, leafy greens and lean meats three days out of five, interspersed with greasy-spoon classics and Hellene comfort food, hm?
- When thinking of Meris and our common goals tided me over on my better days, I was staunchly Mediterranean in my choices," the former Augur admitted, as they approached Sev's carriage and boarded it. "When I felt like I was on the edge of a precipice, I drove over to one of my old Miami safehouses without telling Christopher and ordered a large Chicago-style deep-pan pizza with all the fixings using a burner car and an online takeout menu. It's happened more times than I'd care to admit."

The Squid looked back to Aspasia. "I understand you've fed Shamus Wallace - Archie's Bucky. His ravenous nature is energetic and zesty and, well... I'm from the other side of the coin. Being conditioned by Harrogath doesn't wear off easily, and my old libations as a cult leader were a sick source of comfort."

He sat down. "I could just close my eyes, let His hunger take over, and imagine that every bite I was forced to take was another step being taken, or another stone being laid down."

Archie scoffed lightly. "I'm sure Shamus would've appreciated," he noted, which made Nereus glare at him for a heartbeat.

"No, Archibald. No, he wouldn't have. I don't begrudge you for making that assumption, but it's only in the later years that Harrogath's manifested through me as more of an intellect, in a sense. What Mister Lyman depicted in yesterday's show is a recent development, which I can't quite explain. I especially can't explain why He, of all the Others, wouldn't have tried to thwart us somehow. I've never ritualistically known Harrogath to call himself the Crafty. If going back to Dalarath wasn't sheer suicide at this point, I'd source the physical copies of the Black Books and bring them back here for research."

The Wisp canted his head as he sat down and crossed his too-long legs. "You're saying Harrogath used to have less influence on Dalarath?"

The former Augur looked at the others and threaded his fingers together. "The Others are several things at once. They're unique beings, but They also exist as a gestalt, a symbiosis. They influence one another, push and pull against one another, but they're all more or less at equal strength. None of Them can, in theory, break free from the other ones long enough to develop more of a sense of Self. Otherwise, Dalarath wouldn't have formed a single culture worshipping the Others but might've created several smaller currents, instead."

A popping noise left his tentacles. "And now, we have evidence of a Dead God actively scheming, completely on Their own. Even Amaxi isn't this independent, She always acts through Dar-Larath's rage and Harrogath's endless want. A Dead God, forming an opinion on Amaxi and Dar-Larath's shared goals without sharing it with Its siblings..."

Silas grunted in thought. "Doesn't seem impossible. I mean, I'm more of a hedge mage, do-it-yourself type of practitioner, but I've done my homework on Squids as soon as rumors of cults started flying, back in the nineteen-tens. Back then, the Architect was their apocryphal adversary, someone they didn't speak of out of superstition. It seems like He operated like your Dead Gods, but entirely on His own. Well, up until He met our God, of course, and got pulled into this mess with the rest of us over the next few billion billion years or so."

* * *

Someone from topside might've rolled their eyes at the false possessed, but Dalarath's locals had an obvious dearth of experience in creature feature movies. Both Prelates took off, the rest of Dalarath slowly awakening as the rumor mill ran ahead of them. Apophis did as he claimed he'd do, and led Bucky, Neasa and Aatxe through the streets and up to the Augur's palace. They were made to preen and posture for a few minutes while the snake creature hyped them up for good measure, and then could finally retire inside the structure proper, Apophis adding in one last intentionally-crazed-sounding "HAIL AUGUR!" that sent the crowds outside into an absolute frenzy. Aatxe held his intentionally disturbing smile in place until the massive double doors had been adequately closed, and then let out a sigh.

"Santa Muerte, that was one Hell of a crowd, eh?"

Apophis' shoulders shook, but he didn't produce any chuckles. "I've seen worse," he noted, a small smile betraying his approval. "It'll be most of a day before they realize our esteemed ruler isn't scheduled to step out onto one of the balconies above and belt out one of his homelies... That gives us time enough to work."

He glanced at Bucky. "On the short term, I'm expected to have you bathed, fumigated, fed and bedded. We don't have time for all of this, the Speaker is about to return from one of his inspection runs. Dalarath's grown cramped over the past century or so, and we've had to scout out new brine pools or reopen old ones, to reach other caverns or air pockets. Right now, we have Dalarath itself, two functional dormitory neighbourhoods located in chambers connected to the San Andreas fault, and a number of smaller claims awaiting assessment. Respite Point's done some expanding on their own, as well. In total, we estimate that about six million Void Weavers live underground as we speak, with only one of them being on our side.

After Hell's droves, six million didn't look like a lot. Hope itself was a little more populous, in comparison. Shamus commented on this, which earned him another look from Apophis.

"Six million Black Speech users, mister Robertson. Only one million of them on our side, with a fraction of this number consisting of battle-ready troops. For now, the enemy can't reach the conditions it would need to authorize frontline deployments: they know they wouldn't stand the onslaught of your allied demons and angels, and the rebels know they wouldn't be able to adequately support common ground troops yet. So it's still a cold war for now, still fought with spies, cells and infiltration units. Delmar be praised, we've worked hard to keep things that way, for the sake of the innocents above."

* * *

"Not to worry," nervously replied Herbert, "Sloth isn't my province, after all!" he joked, grunting as he was pulled back to his feet. Apprehension and nervousness lasted on his features for maybe a second or so longer, until he found it in himself to bring his own weapon up to bear and deployed his Ego-based bulwark.

"Back, you wretches!" he called out. "The Prince you knew is no more, and the Pride I represent would sooner be cloistered in Hell than disturb your sacred office! Let us pass, and none other shall meet their end today!"

The demon's translation layer kicked back in, raspy growls sounding out. "Different faces, different clothes - Pride lies, as it always has!"

That response made Wormsworth sigh as he pressed forward and unfurled his wings as much as the narrow space they were in afforded him without inconveniencing Charles. "Then come and claim your share of blood, O Draugr; you will find nothing if a honorable challenge!"

More growls followed as living corpses pressed forth and Herbert focused his Ego in the shape of a medium-width buckler in front of his left fist, his other hand gripping his sword as he exploited the first vampire's lunge out of the shadows to attack from below, and plant his blade in the dessicated corpse's jaw.

Over the next two or three minutes, Herbert demonstrated the fact that while not being given to Charles' own martial abilities, Princedom had done him some good. He was both a little too showy and a little too careful, but this more or less suited some people's idea of a training regimen designed by failure-averse Pride Knights.

* * *

The defiant Prelate had begun by pleading in the Speech's dialectal layer, only for the sentence structure to erode under Marius' efforts. It felt like a child attempting to beat back the waves as they lapped at his sandcastle, as the operative first defaulted to any other sentence structure that could've carried the same meaning than whatever it was Vlastos had just erased. Eventually, there was nothing Eldritch left to his efforts - merely the words No and Stop blurted out without conjugation or context. Even the barest trace of a pidgin had been removed, dawning horror taking root as the operative finally realized he could no longer recall the shape of what he'd just told his enemies.

This wasn't as merciful or graceful as a fugue state, however. Fugue states come complete with cases like involuntary language suppression, typically rooted in the concept of the sufferer no longer remembering how to so much as speak his lost language. In clearer terms, an amnesiac wouldn't have known they'd lost something.

What Marius had wrought was far, far more cruel. This particular Squid would remember the feeling of speaking the Speech, the power that coursed through it - enough to shatter civilizations - but would never be able to bring forth anything coherent, ever again. The sheer horror that widened the Squid's face was difficult to miss, as was its transition into helplessness. Pride, however, was still present.

"They'll find a use for me," he stammered, "they won't let me down! They never have before!"

Gomez pursed his lips together. "Any of you fellas ever seen a chairjock get fried before? Actual keyboard warriors don't give a fuck, all they've ever done is send commands to a CPU. Chairjocks, though? All that pricey cyberware, all those compute units that made their brains out to be superweapons - all gone. They're stuck in the meatspace again, stuck with a mouse and keyboard, social engineering or dumpster-diving for passwords."

He paused, his silence as grave as you'd expect. "They'll never fly again. Only ever heard of one guy who managed to 'deck it after getting fried; and the only reason it ever worked was 'cause he was being bankrolled by Aldergard Fuckin' Kuhn. Everyday jackasses, though?"

The iguana parted with a mean smile. "Learned helplessness, compa. Shit's big in your cult programming routines - I'd say it's time you had a taste of your own medicine."

Zeb, in the meantime, wandered off by a few paces. "Welp, that was fun - we've got prisoners to wrangle, now. We've got one busted bird and a handful of disreputable people; anyone here pack a car lockpick or something?"

* * *

"I'd be my pleasure," replied Carrie. "You're SWAT-adjacent, I'm USMC - I haven't lived through how Aid integrated what boot camp drilled into him with the rest of you guys. I've seen it, but living it could always be useful."

The old canal rounded a corner, London-Upon-Faerie's cheerful din hitting them rather suddenly. What initially looked like a blown-out collection basin was exposed to impossible sunlight and stretched out far ahead and off to the sides, streets snaking out of sight in a collection of styles that both felt eccentric and implacably ordered, Tudor row houses waiting in front of a series of Regency-Era cottages, which themselves stood a stone's throw away from the outer courtyard of someone's perserved Roman domus. It stood to reason that if you dug deep enough, you'd find neighbourhoods fashioned after old Briton caers, or fenced-off communities that could've served as a source of inspiration for Asterix's spoke-lined settlement. Something in Percy's shoulders shifted, a measure of relief seeping in as the throng swallowed them. Noticing it, Nigel couldn't quite repress a grin.

"Missing the Old Country, are we, old boy?" which elicited a rueful smirk from the ram-faced behemoth. "Somewhat," he admitted. 'Tis good to step away from Mortalkind's whirl and rush, from time to time. Bask in timelessness for a fortnight or so. All in moderation."

Carrie looked about. "I'll say," she noted. "I can't see a single smart device in sight, not even a flip-phone. We're in Faerie's heartlands, it makes sense that we'd stick out like sore thumbs in the middle of hardcore traditionalists."

Aidan smiled as they walked. "I've always liked coming here. We're technically underground, but the air smells cleaner than anything in Hope, and the age of the place shielded it from the worst of the incursions. I figure the only demon we'll meet down here's going to be Azazel."

As they approached the main avenue leading to the castle, what looked like a German Shepherd anthro with red ear tips walked towards them, balancing a guisarme against one arm as he walked, and wearing a gambeson, surcoat and cape similar to Percival's own outfit. Its colors were different, however - all in summery greens and yellows.

"Good morning to you all," he started as he stepped closer, his features arranging themselves in an easy smile. "You may call me Kay, Viscount of London-Upon-Faerie. I was asked to escort you to the King and Queen's reading room before the ceremony takes place."

Three and the Fae dog shook hands, the human inquiring as to whether or not he was of this particular stripe. Where Percival would've responded to questions about his nature with a mixture of earnestness and posturing, Kay was simply earnest. "Yes, well - if you couldn't tell, I'm a little less solemn than our large friend, here," he said, offering Percy a wink. "Hounds of Faerie, especially Summer-aligned ones like myself, tend to be the inverse of Malks. My volunteering to greet you shouldn't come as a surprise - my better nature prevails and it isn't in my intentions to pry unnecessarily, but I have to confess to being curious of your own realm. That and, well, I love meeting new people - it makes networking for the city's sake all the more easier."

Carrie led with an easy opener, considering. "Have you ever been to America or China, Sir Kay?
- I'm afraid not," replied the Hound with a pursed smile, "a Viscountship tends to limit one's opportunities for travel. I know London proper inside and out, mind you, and I'm not exactly socially or technologically out of the loop, but London is at the heart of both Realms and as such, its security requirements are rather stringent."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

Post by TennyoCeres84 »

As the Winter Lord preoccupied himself with the repetition of the challenger’s name, she used a similar approach to how she drew the porcine Wyldfae to them, this time drawing via to surround the immediate area of their table. She had effectively created a shield to prevent the minion from eavesdropping. The energy formed a green-colored box around them before fading, leaving a faint hum around them.

With that done, the dryad flicked the glove in annoyance. Alastriona frowned sharply and whispered,“Vernon, no amount of repeating his name will clarify the matter.”

The young tree spirit rested a hand on his nearest shoulder and asked, “What’s on your mind? I have some idea of what likely lies ahead of you. I’m not worried about your battle prowess, but what about this campaign the Wyldfae spoke of? Should we expect underhanded tactics, bluster from McHae’s poetic satirists?”

She lowered her head slightly and sighed. “I think many Fae tend to forget we dryads are effectively barometers of the Courts, or perhaps they just don’t care. For what it's worth, you and Eirean have an excellent balance and are united. That serves as a valuable deterrent against outside forces. We need to convince others of that factor, regardless of what McHae or anyone in his little entourage thinks. With your absence, it’s possible some may have forgotten this.”

***

Aspasia shrugged as Nereus speculated. “To me, it sounds like Harrogath is trying to develop Its own identity. Mind you, on a much longer scale than might even be perceptible by Its peers. If “Know thyself” is an important tenet, why wouldn’t it be similar for a Dead God?” she suggested.

Matriel had been listening and then commented, “That is entirely plausible. God and the Architect are both independent of each other, even though They both have similar goals. Harrogath may want what They have.”

Meris frowned thoughtfully. “Do you think It could be thinking even beyond the end of this universe? Wouldn’t this Creation simply blink out of existence when it’s time?”

The Throne appeared pensive. “Yes, it would. We angels have tried to see past the most distant point in Angel Time, the end of ourselves. I would be remade as something, but possibly not even as a Throne. Whoever controls the next cycle of Creation might not even need Thrones.”

The selkie furrowed her brow as she looked back at Nereus and suggested, “We need more evidence, but I’m beginning to wonder if this is one of Travers’ goals. To be there at the end of everything, to have influence over what comes next and whichever god will take control next time.”

“This would be beyond any of our lifetimes, but he might be laying the foundations for that here and now. Even if formless Matter is all there is, would there be an underlying force within it for him to take advantage of?”

***

Given their ruse had worked, Neasa joined them in laughing, though keeping a hand over her mouth in some slim case that they might be heard.

As Apophis explained the situation, the roane raised an eyebrow at him. “We can pass off the simulation that we’ve been properly pampered and bedded with the illusion.”

Her expression turned serious as she stated her concerns, “Before the Speaker gets here, there’s something I’d like answered first. You mentioned that you needed freeing and assistance in reaching Respite Point. However, you’ve clearly capable at intimidating the Prelacy and moving about on your own. That trap of a shack in Faerie is evidence enough, and you’re not exactly chained to the Speaker’s side.”

“How and what are we supposed to help you through? You already know about the Resistance, so what’s keeping you from escaping when the Speaker’s not around and still maintaining your presence as a double agent?” she asked.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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"No time!" Preston shouted, drawing his revolver and advancing on the two yet-intact cultists. "Vlastos! Fix the chopper!" He kicked one cultist to the ground, shoved the other until their heads were stacked one atop the other, and put the barrel of his gun to the left eye of the squid on top before pulling the trigger. Then, without a second of hesitation or remorse, he turned on the one that had had his Speech cut out and shot at the ground beneath his feet. "You! Fuck off or be fucked! Stop wasting time!"

And while that one stumbled blindly away to whatever random-ass fate awaited him, Preston took a few deep breaths, reloaded his weapon and put it away. "Prisoner problem solved."

Vlastos delivered a sarcastic gold clap, though most of his attention was on the chopper as he muttered phrases to force it back into some kind of flyable condition. Brute force reality hacks, mostly involving rewinding time for the various busted parts. Hopefully it would last long enough to get them to London!

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

Charles was not given to fancy proclamation when there was a fight at hand. "MoThErFuCkErS!" he shouted, lunging ahead with shotgun in one hand and the cutlass in the other. His regenerative abilities were on full display, as he made little move to defend against the attacks of their enemies, and Herbert would see the wounds he took healing over almost as fast as he took them.

He was still careful about defending some parts of his body, of course, like his head and neck, or his upper torso. But the rest he didn't care about; it would all be just another set of scars within the hour.

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

"I know that feeling, I didn't get out much while I was in service to the Crown," Mary offered, shaking Kay's hand. "Mary Jameson, if it pleases you." She assumed they knew who she was already, so refrained from her usual introductory spiel.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Haskill didn’t respond right away, instead letting Alex work through her own unpacking of the situation. At best, he looked slightly peeved that his daughter had cut him off for maybe a second, at the most, but the negative emotion didn’t last long. Once she finished, he nodded.

“This is indeed possible,” he said. “That said, I believe this senior Machae knew exactly who to challenge, and how. He won’t content himself with a simple duel; he knows I answer to the Old Ways while ensuring that doing so does not endanger anyone. He is counting on the locals’ insistence, and on my not offering a traditional portrait. I’m a relic from the era of gaslight and steam ships; not a pre-Roman Celtic chieftain with a battle-toned physique.”

Still, he didn’t look discouraged by that fact. “Rulers of old were judged on their moral and ethical purity, and some of the physical tests druids put aspirants through were only symbolic. Things like forcing the man to hold flaming branches upside-down, so their hands and forearms would be wreathed in fire, and using the provided light to supposedly assess the candidate, screen them for perceived impurities. In the absence of a local druid, dryads sometimes served as judges.”

He sighed. “He’ll run a traditional campaign first but will eventually try and discredit me towards those who would’ve seen me as inadequate to begin with.”

A smile was added. “He forgets what I am, what we Fae are. A weak chin and a belly like mine are not what they would be to a mortal. If I publicly have the approval of the local dryad, things could be swayed in our favor. That said, I would absolutely ask that you remain impartial. We’ll have to speak to your mother about this, first. The traditionalists will disapprove of our getting Eirean involved in this, but we need to assuage the Progressives, first.”

* * *

“Not if he still exists as a Void Weaver, no,” noted Nereus. “I have power, so does Chambers, but no amount of Speech could equal Matriel’s power – mostly because our creative impulses have been misused for so long.”

Archie quirked an eyebrow. “Does this suggest that you could challenge Matriel on the professional level?”

The former Augur quietly snorted, a grin making his cheek dimples bunch up as he smiled behind his tentacles. “With a little luck, I’ll get help from Penfield in shaping New Dalarath together at some point in-future, but that’s effectively the most extreme application of my talents I could think of. I can undo atomic bonds in individual objects, turn this carriage’s straps into bombs waiting to go off at the slightest jolt. I could freeze water with a few thoughts or thaw out a block of ice – but the extent of Matriel’s powers are, well, cosmic in proportion. There’s much ado about the Others, but I think most mortals forget how we now have living beings that are only a few hairs away from being gods themselves just – starting families and holding down jobs here on Earth,” he explained, gesturing at the Throne.

“So, Travers? I think he’ll first settle with being a witness to the end of it all, and then worry about the technicalities of how a lowly Prelate is supposed to ask for his turn at the wheel, when there’s likely a handful of other incumbent Creators waiting for their turn.”

* * *

Apophis’ look back at Neasa suggested he knew exactly why the selkie had hit on this snag. “The Speaker himself forces my hand,” he explained. “I can leave on my own on some nights, that much is true, but the… dead man riding the Speaker’s body is extremely active. I would need a reason to leave, later today, and you are exactly what I’ve been needing: some enforcement, as well as a believable motive.”

Bucky grunted. “Uh-huh. What’s so special about today?”

As they walked, the man-headed snake led them to what would’ve been their private bath and stopped for a few instants. Aatxe nodded and stepped closer, using a claw to scratch a few demonic sigils in the archway. The forms of loose robe-wearing concubines and eunuchs shimmered into view, soon followed by scantily-clad doubles of Meris and Nereus, who alternated between rubbing towels against one another, greedily kissing or turning to their companions to do the same.

“The Speaker is visiting us from Hope,” the attendant explained. “In the face of our latest cells’ various failures, he took it upon himself to assess Dalarath’s enemies. I was told by a contact in Respite Point that I could expect more intelligence as to their assumed persona, but the information is too sensitive to be trusted to the usual chains.”

Fake Nereus looked about ready to pop a forehead vein. “That asshole’s made it to Hope?! Do you have any idea who he’s fronting as? Any clue at all?”

Apophis grimaced lightly. “This is what I hoped to learn by leaving here, today.”

Aatxe took a few seconds to consider their words. “Whoever they are presenting as, it would have to be someone important, but only to a point. I can smell this thing’s noxious Pride everywhere – but there is some cautiousness to it. Some aftertaste in the air…”

He looked back at Neasa. “I know these types. They fancy themselves as rulers, but are more shrewd than the Squids’ own Chamberlain. They know how mortal society is rife with social vantage points that do not come with traceable obligations.”

Bucky seemed a bit confused. “Great,” he scoffed, “so we can rule out the mayor. Any other deductions you’d like to share with the class, Einstein?”

Aatxe either took it seriously or simply ignored the sarcasm. “He would not be one of your policemen, or one of your officials. He would not lead any flock or even respond to coded summons from cultist cells. He would pick a position enabling him to see the mortals as if in a procession or a line, for his perusal. He would also have long enough to gain a deeper understanding of key subjects, as well as obtain their trust. Several avenues could offer him this. Local politics, por ejemplo. medical postings, archival-related duties, the local media…”

Shamus’ attitude changed, when faced with Aatxe’s thoroughness. “I guess,” he noted, adding the shadow of a smile in approval. “I’m startin’ to see what Silva saw in you, big guy.”

The Spanish demon bent his upper half slightly. “You are too kind, señor Wallace.”

* * *

Hauser’s solution had some merits: the logistics of prisoner handling was out of their hair, now. If Gomez approved in any way or otherwise disapproved, Preston wouldn’t find out. Vargas merely straightened himself with a grunt, stuck to a noncommittal “Welp,” and then turned to pay attention to Vlastos’ efforts.

As for Zeb, the lich swayed a bit as he tried to stay put, his uneasy glancing in the direction of the fleeing Squid making it difficult to assess just what, exactly, he had in mind. He probably didn’t have much, all things considered, seeing as he was drunk as a skunk.

“What’s that about London?” he asked, looking very much like the two Squid corpses slightly, if continuously twitching after Preston’s execution, wasn’t somehow disturbing. The Many-Armed and Her Brothers weren’t in the habit of letting failed assets fall in the hands of Their enemies, so odds were something more patently supernatural would eventually befall these two bodies.
Vargas glanced back at Zeb. “There’s a chance all of this might’ve been a diversion for a coup or an attempt at something – an event that’s planned for the big Choosing thingy in London.”
Buck looked to be half-asleep for an instant, only to silently hiccup. “Right. I’d probably have planned something too, if I had no sense of subtlety – and I know how I look, Vargas. I’ve been here nearly all my life, I know the locals see me as Thomas Quint’s more tolerably eccentric counterpart. It’s hard to be subtle about things when you’ve got a family like mine.”

The iguana grunted. “And what would you do, hm?
- Oh, I don’t know,” airily replied the lich, “wait until everyone’s focused on the main event, maybe wait a bit longer – up until the point something actually happens to the Azazel lad – and then cock things up with a spell or two. Or three. High-profile public assassinations were something of a thing for those people that drove my ancestor insane, after all. If it’s the smart ones that are in play, I’d just sow dissent – or maybe kick back while these new Chinese buggers do my work for me. Serendipity and whatnot.”

Looking a bit frustrated with Vlastos’ pace, Zeb then produced a flask from his dressing gown, took a swig and then shook his hands and wrists free. “Lemme just…”

By way of elaboration, he produced very Jack Kirby-worthy blumes of Eldritch smoke and greenish light from his hands, tendrils of which quickly snaked towards the partially wrecked ‘copter and coalesced into more green-tinted apparitions. Instead of Wampanoag braves, however, an engineering team that looked to have been plucked out of unused extras for The Frighteners shimmered into view, their voices and tools tone-shifted out of intelligibility as electric ratchets whirred and ghostly soldering irons popped to life. None of the ghosts would impede Marius’ own work, and even seemed to pause on occasion to measure his work and follow his lead.

“I just wanna know what the space-chick stuck in your brandy, Buck,” scoffed Vargas. “A year ago, you couldn’t light a match with magic to save your undead ass.”

Zebediah stifled a burp. “Purpose, perspective – call it what you want. All I know is the booze quiets anxiety. Personal or professional doubts, however? Haven’t had one of those in months, which probably peeves off dear old Evvie…”

Vargas looked a bit worried. “Evangeline? She’s just a ghost now, isn’t she?
- If you can call her that,” amended the lich. “Even the most hateful of all spirits has a fraction of her willpower when they manifest in the mortal plane. I like getting plastered like this, my dear Gomez, because it gets me to admit truths I’d normally try and shut off…”

There was a pause, after which the lich looked back to Preston. “Truths like how you probably did good, killing these two and chasing the third away. These poor sods can’t excel at anything if they can’t cheat their way to prominence, and that one’s about to get a massive reality check. With a little luck, Hauser, you just killed a few undercover cells with a single bullet.”

* * *

Regenerative abilities or not, Herbert had a certain sense of battlefield camaraderie. Besides friendly fire, a unit member wouldn’t simply stand idly by while a colleague took otherwise-manageable injuries. He did his best to cover Jenkins’ blind sides, either with an attack of his own or by strategically placing a length of unfurled wing on Charles’ non-dominant side, in-between attacks.

Eventually, they were down to what had to be the mausoleum’s commander. Bigger, possibly burlier in life and likely more cautious, it had held his ground while most of the other Draugr pressed forward. Eventually, however, his rasping and spine-chilling voice hissed out a single word.

“Stop.”

As if on cue, begun swings were aborted and, moving almost like automatons, the remainder of the undead keepers stepped away from Herbert and Charles, returning to resting positions and postures along the walls. The leader then stepped forward.

“I have seen what I wished to see. A mortal such as you, human, I had yet to encounter. Furthermore, a human that travels with a Prince of Pride – and a Prince of Pride who fights honorably, no less – is someone who raises many questions.”

He glanced at Herbert. “Fiend. Your quest takes you beyond my walls. Might I know why?”
Wormsworth applied the translation spell on himself. “Someone worse than I waits ahead. Someone who has yet to realize that… some sort of Ragnarok has befallen your realm, over the past year. Those of my kind, and angels alike, now walk the same roads as mortals. They do so as allies.”

The leader stared, saying nothing, until he unfurled an arm and then pointed past himself, to the corridor beyond. “The nethers of the Christian fortress you seek lie ahead. We had not roused forth, not having received the expected signs. We were unsure of what these strange days foretold. If I am to believe you, then Midgard has changed.”

Herbert nodded. “It has. I believe I speak for the both of us if I say we would be honored to have you by our side, sire.”

The Draugr grunted. “I am Bragi Sigurdsson of Jutland, my name and honor stretch from Rusland to Orkneyjar.”

That made Wormsworth pause. “Orkney, you said? Are you familiar with Dragon’s Peak? Er, Kräketoppen, I believe?”

The leathery vampire stepped aside ponderously. “I am. I served under the Dragon, alongside the most esteemed of our former thralls. I dined in the same halls as Magnus Haraldson, before the Gift took me.”

The spaded demon sent his human comrade a glance. Small world, huh?

* * *

“The honor is truly mine,” replied Kay, a bright smile on his canine features. “I was told you could expect trouble on the way over,” he then noted, addressing the entire group. “None of you seem the worse for wear – no brigands on the last stretch?” he asked, as he started back up the street.

Percy’s response was phrased in a rumbling breath. “Nay, sir Kay. It does seem that none of us were waylaid. Verily, I did not expect our enemies to be particularly brazen, not when Fiends now freely walk this Earth and Celestials share thine posts. ‘Tis the ceremony that worries me. So many younglings allowed to Choose formally, in a single location…”

Kay shrugged lightly, his guisarme bobbing as he walked at a brisk pace. “Not to worry, Sir Percival – the Queen’s Guard is at hand. The Great Hall will be as secure as these arcane vaults we’ve heard much ado about.”

He tapped his nose. “If any of you had been Veiled, we would’ve already had words, my friends – believe me.”

Nigel bounded forward and landed on Three’s shoulder, likely wanting to hitch a ride for the last strides. “Your tracking skills are not under question, Milord, but all of us here have had cause to cross swords with our Abyssopelagic friends at one time or another. The Prince’s exactions on American soil provided smaller, more daring cells with golden opportunities, and I have it on good authority that the South Pacific and Asia alike had their own scrapes,” he explained, glancing at Mary with a nod. “Veils are the least of their worries.”

Kay made a chuffing sound. “Well, then, it’s good that we’ve opened the proceedings to outside contractors you, yourselves are familiar with.”

Carrie briefly took stock of the drawbridge they crossed on foot. “H&J, you mean?
- Them and Griffin Security,” confirmed the Hound. “Milady Marianna’s professional venture came highly recommended, and Nigel Griffin is a local son; long-reformed from his larcenous days and one of the late Queen Elizabeth’s last Knightings. We attempted to contact Alexandria Antiquities, but it seems that mister Vlastos’ own business ventures have not yet fully redeveloped, following his departure to Mars and eventual return.”

Three grinned at Mary. “That’s gotta be an A1 commission fee, right there. I know you’re not consistently boots-on-the-ground with the company, but you’ll definitely have to thank your Sales team for this!”

Kay sighed in appreciation. “Yes, that is quite the project, to be sure… Mister Griffin was quite eager to work with your employees, Miss. Jameson – at best, I’m given to understand that he’s offered your team several weeks’ worth of research in a few days – all the while ripping a few amusingly awkward comments from themselves and the King and Queen’s own wait staff.”

Three caught the inference instantly. “Oh, Christ. Nigel was actually buck naked in the same halls Fae dignitaries are going to be sitting in?!”

Carrie seemed to know a thing or two, and gave Mary a smirk. “Griffin’s the Good Invisible Man, more or less. His power doesn’t turn off and it doesn’t cover clothes, so…”
Woodford snorted in amusement. “Anyone related to thermal imaging in your team must’ve had a field day, Mary.”
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Alastriona smiled back, albeit with a pensive feeling to it. "I'll do my best to remain impartial, Vernon, but I hope McHae doesn't carry things to an extreme. Eirean's probably still traveling, so it might be a while before she's able to return. Assuaging the Progressives likely won't be difficult, though he's probably ruffling some of their feathers by challenging you."

Her brows rose as an idea came to her. "We could try doing some investigating into exactly what McHae might have planned. I don't think doing research into your opponent is forbidden, after all."

She circled back as to who would be a referee of sorts, either a druid or herself. "If I end up being the judge, would McHae's side take my decisions seriously? In their eyes, I'm a Summer dryad, regardless of your influence on me. That Muggs fellow didn't seem that interested in at least paying his respects toward me, even if he didn't care to be friendly. Will my worth, by extension, also be questioned?"

***

"And before he reaches that point, he's going to do ambiguously gray to downright wrong things to pave the way for that eventual goal," Meris pointed out. "Travers obviously is going to direct things to a certain extent, and he doesn't want us getting in the way of that. All the more reason for us to a thorn in his side too, depending on the situation."

In response to the former Augur's self-examination, Matriel grunted lightly in thought and stated, "At this point in time, those would be your limits. However, given what your earliest ancestors were capable of, there may be more things to your capabilities than you're currently aware of."

"As you probably know, God tasked me with keeping an eye on the Voidweavers in general. My responsibilities increased after Meris was born, and I realized she would be a pivotal player, like yourself, so I will help you in whatever way that I can. Obviously, respecting your own independence. Even with giving Marquis Samigina guardianship of the seas, it's still one of my duties to help your people live to your full potential. It's a collective goal the Architect and God want, after all."

***

Intentionally ignoring the sight of Aatxe's illusion, Neasa nodded appreciatively to his commentary. "Once we see what the charlatan's like, we might be able to also gauge what professional field he'd be best suited for," she added. "It'll really depend on how forthcoming he is around us."

"Some people are better suited for certain jobs than others. Perhaps it's something related to what Nicholas Buck learned when he was mortal and before Chambers got his tentacles on his mind," she noted.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Preston stared at the ghostly mechanics corps that Zeb summoned up, but saw nothing to complain about regarding the work they did so he just shrugged it off. "Lift off ASAP," he muttered, climbing back into the cockpit.

With the additional help, Marius had the chopper back in flying shape relatively quickly. "I hadn't counted on getting much past London, but with Zeb's ghosts it might actually be airworthy again. But the boy's right, we shouldn't waste anymore time." He glanced around for the remaining cultist, but that one had disappeared, so he shrugged again and climbed in. "All aboard!"

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

Charles fought as hard as he could, swinging the cutlass and blasting away with the shotgun, until the boss zombie called his minions to a halt. After a moment, when it was clear no more attack was coming, he relaxed and lowered his arms. "Well met, then."

If this fellow was a viking, perhaps... "Er, maybe you knew me ancestor? Jansik of Holmbr, also knows as Mad King Jan?"

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

"Mm, that rings a bell," Mary replied coyly. "I'm sure the company servers will be buzzing for weeks because of all this, if they aren't already!"

At the mention of Vlastos, though, she cocked an eyebrow. "There's a name I've heard a lot, lately... didn't he try to blow up the planet about four-ish years ago?"
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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As you could've expected, a drunken lich wearing slippers didn't have an easy time boarding a twice-refurbished 'copter. Still, the weirdly energetic twinkle in Zeb's eye-lights suggested he enjoyed this little escapade. If he'd had labial muscles, he probably would've been grinning.

"How formal is the London thing, anyway?" Zeb asked, to which Gomez responded after looking down at himself and assessing Preston and Marius. "I'd say we're all under-dressed for the occasion, compa, and we won't exactly have time to spruce ourselves up. You've at least got the Basil Rathbone Casual thing going, but I'm just a 'borged-up Federale. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it; I've got it on good authority that some of Meris' peeps can make wonders with two bits of twine and a little Hellfire."

The lich didn't look entirely convinced. "And where's our vector for Faerie again? I've done some good work, but I still can't coax some Da Vinci-worthy modern monstrosity of engineering to cross an entire ocean on-time for something that's taking place today."

By way of a response, Lucky glanced at Preston and ajusted his microphone. "Head northwest, back towards the Bucks' property. Most of the large-freight Gates are sealed, now, but there's one Oberon's forces used to pincer-move Pride's forces, during one of the last deployments. They're using it to send and receive construction materials, now. There's just one catch - it's set right against the cliff face, just underneath the mansion's support struts."

The lich chortled. "So either we startle a gaggle of Victorian High Elves by pushing a modern chopper over their heads, or we crash into the rock face and go up in a ball of flames. Absolutely grand!"

Vargas laughed. "Ain't you never heard of Harry Potter, Buck? Platform Nine and Three Quarters? S'kinda like this, actually! Playing Chicken with solid barriers is sort of part-and-parcel of using these bigger Gates. Once we're on the other side, the place's weirdo time dilation thingy should let us arrive on time."

* * *

Braggi looked above and away for an instant, as if sifting through the musty cobwebs of his undead memories to recall which of the Jansiks he'd known this mortal was speaking of. A few seconds later, he nodded appreciatively.

"Yes, I have met him - but not as a Jarl to his own clan. He was young, then - an esteemed Thane still. The fact that you call him king suggests he may have died with honor and joined Valhöll. The fate of the Draugr never spoke to him, but we held no grudges. Twice, he joined us in the Dragon's longhouse, and twice was he greeted as a brother."

The lead vampire stepped forward and then gestured with his greatsword. "There will be time for stories later, Blood of Jansik. For now, let us see to your task."

From two to seven, Charles' group pushed forward. Braggi's icy stare was fixed ahead as the tunnel smoothed out and, finally, a somewhat recent cave-in was exposed. Through a crack between two rocks, the golden glow of electric lights in the old chapel undercroft. The sound that very subtly reverberated around them had to have been a bass-boosted FM radio pushing the latest Pop hits through the castle's lower stones.

"What seidr is this?" considered the vampire. "I do not recognize the language these rituals are being sung in."

Herbert watched as Sigurdsson wedged his weapon between two boulders and pushed, slowly freeing the path ahead. "Not a ritual," he corrected, "but music. The other blood drinkers will owe it to your band to put you up to speed, I'm afraid. You've been asleep for something close to two thousand years, I would assume."

One of the Draugr, what had probably been a handsome woman in her prime back when her skin hadn't looked like brown wax paper, rubbernecked past the widening crack. "I do not recognize the language they are singing in - this is truly black magic!"

Herbert, at this point, knew better than to try and educate jet-lagged Draugr on his own, and only grunted in vague assent. It'd be a while before they understood that they stood on Estonian soil and were hearing what likely sounded like the local candidate for the first post-invasion edition of Eurovision...

* * *

Three had to spare Mary a smirk, after a comment like this. Still, he spent a few seconds appraising the castle's lower bailey, seeing as he'd never actually entered Oberon and Titania's demesne from the front, before. It wasn't exactly a Disney Viennese affair, but it was more fluted and more sleek than most of England and Scotland's former duchies. It also reached far higher, with the moat they'd crossed very minutely lit at regular intervals. The middle courtyard followed after a flight of stairs, then followed by the Great Hall's main entranceway proper. The open spaces in the courtyards had been packed with activity, suggesting that no amount of official functions would've stopped things dead in their tracks. They'd seen metalworkers and harriers, the castle's own farmers tending to the King and Queen's livestock - a fair departure from Hong Kong's usually segmented scents. You didn't smell fish unless you headed for the fish markets, and didn't smell pork buns or beef strips unless you went looking for them. Here, though, everything clashed with everything else: manure and fresh hay, the crispness of pine fronds and freshly-baked bread - and the soundscape was just as varied, too. People felt industrious and happy, in a way that might seem slightly alien to Marianna's now-frequent exposure to office din or to the Sin Seven's new corporate aims and the demands for productivity that they imposed. Even the looser departments in Hardy & Jameson didn't openly crack jokes while working, as if the nine-to-five were an excuse to gab while accidentally being productive.

Past those few seconds, he addressed her concerns, however. "He did. We won, he opted to lick his wounds, retreat to Mars on the usual billionnaire's solo excursion. He was remote with the Vienna Council, Forsythe and Enlil helped him see through his own needs. He realized he needed a change, that his ploy had basically been a malformed call for help."

Carrie nodded. "I'd say he realized his need for control was and is more of a species-specific affect, and less something that speaks to who he is as a person. Vienna doesn't like to say it reforms anyone, but they help people like Marius to realize that they can still fit in with us. It helps that Enlil was interested in giving outpatient therapy another go after spending sixty years as the Council's Head of Security, so he took Marius under his wing."

Woodford glanced about as they entered the hall. "Enlil is of Carmilla blood - possibly the eldest of them all. If you know their lineage, you know how close most vampires of this type tend to remain to their mortal roots, to our own sense of Humanity. I'd say Vlastos couldn't have asked for a better watchdog than an especially compassionate one."

Notably, Mary might remember how rare Carmilla vampires had been on her perp lists, back during her SCRT days. She'd probably taken out a handful of burnouts before; vampires so exposed to human joys and sorrows that they'd eventually shut them out entirely and turned callous, but the general thinking about Enlil's bloodline reminded skeptics that they'd been among the first blood-drinkers to openly sign the Accords. They'd thirsted for life itself, for open contact with mortals, more than for blood proper.

* * *

Haskill produced a chuckle, fondness marking it. "He's Winter, my dear. He'll gripe and moan and maybe kick stones around for a while, but he'll come to accept it. He is already known for being more lucid than his nephew was, but my own Mantle should be indication enough that some parts of our temper are difficult to readily suppress. To be honest, I'm more worried about independent actors he might inspire. A firebrand politician can keep coyly intimating that threats are beneath his platform's consideration, but it doesn't stop the base from taking matters into its own hands, after all."

He pouted for a few seconds. "As to your worth... Well, the inescapable fact of the matter is you're brand new, sweetheart. Like any newcomer, you'll be questioned. God knows I was at first, the hardliners loved Finnegan Iverson's habit of giving your mother the cold shoulder, and here I was - the picture of gentility in her presence."

That made him laugh again. "Conservatives of any stripe like to think the Past was some halcyon Golden Age wherein no faults can be found. What plays in our favor is that the very recent past was a blight for everyone in Hope and Evergloam alike. I'd bet a few shillings on the wider massing preferring mine and Eirean's consorting, however scandalous it might be to some, to Pride's occupation. I say that having come to respect Allocer in his own right. His taking a knee and accepting his imprisonment convinces me that anyone who cares to look wouldn't exactly witness a dearth of honorable characters. In sending Mister Muggs our way, Lyle MacHae's shown that he intends to convince the baser elements, first."

* * *

"Well, this humbles me," noted Nereus with a slight nod. "You have my sincere thanks, Matriel. I'm sure us rebels will do our best to live up to your vested interest in independent Void Weavers."

He'd been about to add something to Meris' summary of the situation, when Archie took the lead on Travers. "Speaking as a spy," he said, "I couldn't ask for a better opponent than a particularly ponderous one. If Travers' goals lie with the heat death of the universe, then even the slightest bit of instigation of his own measures should take decades to set up. If we don't simply get distracted by some other grave threat, I believe we'll find some way to make him realize he isn't the only player on this chessboard."

He tapped on his rifle cane's hilt pensively. "Of course, this is less fair towards our younger mortal companions, but I'm certain even someone who reasons in weeks and months could act as a thorn of their own. As the Vlastos kerfuffle taught us, planning matters more than mere brawn, or even gumption."

The Sedgewicks' carriage lurched around a corner, those inside hardly feeling the old-fashioned springs as they creaked atop the four axles, the Fae horse positioning itself in front of some sort of loading bay. He didn't stop, however - or at least not for more than a second or two - and then pressed on forward at a slow canter, the carriage passing a Malk that seemed to be using two large and polished wooden sticks like a stevedore would to signal someone to keep advancing only to a certain point.

"Is this standard?" asked Spector to Eirean, who didn't look exactly concerned. "Oh, it's fine," she said; "it's just that right-of-passage isn't something you can really keep in a safe now, isn't it?"

By now, Nereus was more than a little curious, his dark eyes going as round as circles once the massive vault they'd entered was effectively closed on them. For a second, there was no light outside of the soft golden-white of the primitive generator that kept the interior lights on. Then, another slant of light became visible, this time ahead of the horse. It grew wider, until another vault door stood open in front of them. Only once the rear axle had passed the rear axle did the Summer Lady lose that slight edge she'd been carrying in her posture.

"Welp," she noted, "welcome to London-upon-Faerie. It looks like Albus did good on my last few Oaths; I wasn't looking forward to currying favors again..."

One obvious sign of their change of planes was the shift in the road's observable quality. What had been smooth was now rough cobblestones, something that made the cabin jostle every which way. One particularly big bump made Nereus wince and lean forward slightly as he brought a hand to the small of his back.

"Ugh - this is mostly what I don't miss about the eighteen-hundreds: uneven pavement!"

* * *

Bucky the False Augur grunted softly. "Guy had been a businessman's son, but he fancied himself an explorer - or so my trawling the city's archives told me, back before we were first crated. Wanted to leave his mark in New Netherland, follow in Hudson's footsteps. The official story is ergot infected the mansion's grain reserves and made him go mad, but I've had time enough with Gammell and the Squids, during the occupation. A Wampanoag shaman doesn't just consciously damn hisself and curse an entire family because one of the local big shots' gone loony. The less official records are all sealed up with the Bucks, and Archie's started thinkin' that if Samoset had known exactly who or what it was that drove ol' Nick over the edge, he wouldn't have just cursed the city or the patriarchs - he'd have marked all of us personally, several generations over. An arcane tactical nuke, right on top of a Dutch colony he would've seen as doomed."

Apophis looked conflicted, although not in a way a cultist would have appreciated. "Our official records state that the same force that broke this Buck man's mind is the force that gave me life. I would see its spread of injustices end, but ideally not at the expense of mine or other creations' existence."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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At the mention of McHae targeting his base for support, Alex frowned with frustration, but then eyed the Fae Lord with cautious hope. "Is there any chance of convincing them that you can appeal to them?" she asked.

She continued, "Is there anything I can do to help? Showing them that I'm not your standard Summer dryad might lend well to showing that you're a good influence on me, that I have Winter's interests in mind, too."

***

"I don't particularly miss them myself," admitted Meris with a sympathetic smile. "Hopefully once we're inside, we'll be walking on more level flooring," she acknowledged.

The Archmage gently nudged his hand out of the way and whispered a brief incantation while placing her hand in the same spot. Soon enough, the Void Weaver would feel his back pain fade away and take on a cooling sensation. "You might want to use your cane for additional support on the cobblestones, but you shouldn't have any further back pain from walking on them."

***

Neasa considered what they knew, while tilting her head slightly to listen for any approach from the Speaker or other Void Weavers. "There is the consideration that whatever made him go mad wasn't necessarily evil, but it was a tool. Even the angels in the highest Choirs can cause a mortal to lose touch with reality if they see their true form. Chambers could've slowly eroded at his sanity and filled his mind with what was useful until whatever decency he had left was eroded away."

"He might've seen himself as an explorer, but explorers at that time still would've had some backwards perspectives on the Indigenous population. If the locals weren't killed off from disease, then a carefully addled colonizer wouldn't have had any issues with decimating their numbers and the settlers along with it."

"All Chambers would've had to do was wait for things to settle down there, implant Buck's soul into the Speaker's body and then he'd have an easy way into Hope with its sizeable Nexus. The Bucks' curse would've made for the perfect breeding ground for devotional acts for the Others. Then the specter or whatever it is impersonating Zeb Buck's late wife... Bad luck on top of more bad luck. It was a win-win situation for Chambers."

She shrugged and said, "It might have all started with something that would be perfectly mundane for Void Weavers, but it'd be perfectly toxic for someone like Nicholas Buck. Then throw in their ability to create precious metals and stones out of thin air. Greed just sweetened the deal. Maybe Chambers promised him the seat once he had molded him enough. Suitable puppet to fill the role instead of the rightful owner."
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