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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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Melmoth's arrival caused the small stage's occupants to briefly look around, perhaps checking for Abdiel's eventual appearance or descent from above. That made the demon smirk. "I'm ahead of her by a few minutes," he said, "she's more flexible in her means of transportation, but I want every excuse I can get to work on my landings."

He then refocused on Alex. "My advice? Start with something from National Geographic. Full-blown IMAX, the best damn picture fidelity you could get on the big screen - and you're bound to find something that'll help you feel more of a bond with this place. The Cradle's old by its own frame of reference, but it's also fairly young from ours' - so it'll probably be a while before you really get the sense that you've put down roots in a place that's millions of years old."

He shrugged lightly. "Heck, if that doesn't do it for you, just ask Gabriel, the next time he's around. Indefectible belief in the march of History towards Progress, all the respect in the world for those crazy people you're about to start working with. I'd offer myself, too, but you'll hear plenty of people describe me as being a Materialist."

He took a few steps forward, fishing a stogie and lighter out of his inner jacket's pockets, but not lighting the chair bar just yet. "Can't deny it; I've always liked owning things. Comes with Greed, obviously. The thing is, incredible beauty's come out of money exchanging hands, before. What's just bragging rights for the new owner could start entire new artistic currents, set entire modes of expression."

Owens apparently couldn't hold one last question in. "Mister Othstein, you're now openly known as one of the more high-profile demons on the mortal plane. Calls to divest you of the local Arcane Stock Exchange's administratorship are being heard from multiple sources, and several of mine have told me you've been contacted by grieving relatives of former victims of yours. Now, you have the Throne of Fire's blessing. What would you say to those of us who feel uncomfortable around you, after the Goat's exactions?"

Mel visibly sobered up, and sighed lightly. He approached the cat and pocketed his cigar and lighter. "Miss Owens, you'll be pleased to know that I've asked the Arcane Stock Exchange to review my administratorship, in light of recent events. If they see me as unfit or as the carrier of bad optics, you'll know shortly, I'm sure. I personally won't mind it either way, my current responsabilities see me limit the flow of Mammon's old capital, to both give it its proper value and to prevent any potential market collapses. I'm more than busy as it is, believe me.

Throughout my time on this plane of existence, I've only ever Damned those set to drag themselves down of their own volition. Would you blame someone else for keeping matches in their home because a pyromaniac broke in and stole them? As a demon, I can only foster self-examination if a challenge is set. For every Wall Street rat or Bitcoin scammer that's fallen prey to me, I've seen dozens more pick up the red flags I designed to be as obvious as possible, and steering themselves clear of me - as intended.

As has always been the case in my dealings with Shield, any morally upright investor, manager or lender has nothing to fear from me. I can be reached through mundane means, and can be expected to offer consultancy services at decent rates. Those of us who would've corrupted innocents or caused the financial system to collapse for their own gain are either in Chimera Row or other similar facilities around the globe, or back in my domain - covering the bill due for their exactions."

Deirdre didn't miss a beat. "And how does a Greed demon pay, exactly?
- Arcane poverty," replied the Vaults' administrator. "Years spent living strictly within their means, forced to sell off whatever tithes or possessions were theirs in order to finance whatever other luxuries they might've desired. No bottomless credit cards on the mortal plane, no external manifestations of their rank - and high penalties if they circumvent me by resorting to mundane crime.
- What kind of penalty?" asked the cat.

Melmoth kept the same blunt tone. "Literal poverty. I've lived it myself; existing within your own means comes across as an unimaginable blessing after you'd spent years wondering which of your food or power bills you could afford to cover for the week. Mortals are sometimes well-acquainted with this, I've come to think that there's a good few Fiends who could learn from the experience.

The eggplant-nosed dragon grunted lightly as he watched Gutierrez' limo drive off. "Some dragons, too."

A hand was then raised. "You're not here for me, though - I'm here as a guest. Call or text my assistant if you need anything else."

The required media posturing having been taken care of, he reset his congenial grin into place. "I caught wind of Alex here wanting to cook! We've all got a big day tomorrow, so let's get ourselves indoors and get to it, eh? I just pulled an endurance run on my wings to get here - I could eat a horse!"

Hearing the boisterous demon, Gomez lightly stretched his back with a groan. "Welp, I won't have eyes inside there if I don't make some in-roads; I should probably get reacquainted with a few old patrons first..."

His eyes glimmered as conjunctival diodes winked in and out of view in his sclera - and Marius' phone buzzed, along with Aidan's, Aislinn's and Preston's. The sender appeared to be blocked, Hauser might later trace it as being part of a number pool typically found in Baja California - an odd Mexican presence in town, to be sure - and the message, written in Spanish, was appended with a slightly lossy JPEG of Lucky's old menu, as taken in a snapshot from someone seated at the iguana's counter.

"¿Crees que Archie gustan las enchiladas? Me encontrarás cerca. :)"
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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As the group discussed the potential meal plan, a human-sized, flame-lined portal opened up in between what was left of the press and the dryad's allies. Abdiel stepped out of it, wearing a sleeveless, form-fitting pink dress that reached her knees. Sending her beau and the others a quick smile, she said, "Apologies for my delayed arrival."

Alex's smile broadened even more at Melmoth's cinema suggestions. "Those sound like some good options! Any source that'll allow me to adjust to Earth quicker, the better! Thank you, Mr. Melmoth."

As the Greed demon handled Ms. Owens' questions, the dryad was impressed with his responses and felt more at ease with his presence. She now understood that the wisdom gained through his experiences had humanized him more to the way mortals lived, thankfully. She found herself wishing that certain dragons could learn from a similar example.

With Gomez's collective texting to the others' phone, Alastriona peered over at Aislinn's device as she looked at the new message. The female selkie lightly scoffed at the sight of the photo depicting the anthro iguana's old menu and looked up to scan the crowd for him. "Archie's adapted to a lot of modern things, so I think your enchiladas can be another one of them!" she exclaimed with a chuckle.

Now very curious at the mention of this cook, Alastriona searched for someone whom she only had vague memories of.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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"Enchiladas?" Preston muttered, peering at his phone. He knew who sent it, but even so he forwarded the message to one of his associates with orders to trace the supposedly hidden number. Gomez wasn't the only one who could play games.

Marius got up to join the others. "I could do with a nibble or two myself," he remarked, nodding to the new arrivals. "Hauser, drop the act and get over here, will you?"

Preston scowled at being called out, but he approached the group anyway, taking his glasses off and putting them away. Tristan appeared at his side too. "Show's over," he said to the minions. "Get those reporters outta here already."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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They'd all been ushered in with a slight bow and self-effacing smile from Archie, but this was more or less a Holden nonverbal signifier for a fair bit of trepidation. If Alex had her own apartments, the mansion's partial destruction had nonetheless required a near-complete makeover.

What remained of the original Victorian design was mostly confined to the intact West wing, but the main body of the house and its East wing had been stripped down and re-engineered from the ground up, combining touches of the premises' more uniform Old Kingdom appearances with taller and broader windows, clearer colors and simpler lines. The entrance foyer had previously been almost constantly darkened with Archie's excessive amount of potted ferns and thick forest-green draperies, but clearer wood essences, increased sunlight and a more pared-down presentation made the space feel airy without entirely negating its personal touches. The previously bold nineteenth-century wallpapers had been revisited in lighter and subtler designs playing between close color bands, so that any cursory inspection gave the impression that flat café au lait walls now dominated the main corridor. Peering a little closer, one could see a texture patterned after fern fronds embossed into the thick fabric.

Archie's old haunting grounds, the Huntsman's Room as he used to call it, now compensated for its isolated status between the double staircases with a few glass panels in the ceiling, which allowed for natural light coming in from the second story's skylights to stream in. The changes were more subtle in what had always been one of two of the spy's preferred spaces, starting with less Gaslight-Era clutter, more seating space and a redesigned fireplace. Archie had agreed to sacrifice the room's antiquated source of heat in exchange for a more uniform electric coverage, and an artfully-designed heater that used mirrors and a small projector to produce the illusion of crackling and dancing flames. The space now felt more open to others and less exclusive to Archie's use, with added side tables that displayed induction charging pucks along with a selection of magazines and other less serious publications. Above the fireplace waited a dolled-up panel presented in a fitted picture frame, with the redesigned side panels that had once hidden more baubles and tchotchkes now serving as resting places for the various elements of a fully-furnished entertainment center. If the team ever felt like watching a movie or catching a game, they'd have a perfect spot.

The West wing of the building now housed the group's main offices, along with the library proper. Space had been saved in negating closed-off offices and going for an open-plan design that would make the idea of walking to and fro with documents to carry much more efficient. The redo was complete, with almost wall-length windows dominating most of the space. Only the library's north wall was fully closed-off, in order for seven massive rows of on-rails bookcases to take up the remainder of the space. Aislinn wouldn't have too much trouble pursuing her research again, all she'd need would be a few wheel turns to free up enough space to walk between rows. If all the bookcases were guided along the rails to the far wall, the already-comfortable amount of breathing room grew to be almost twice its previous size - perfect for a winch-operated table hanging off of pulleys to be brought down and anchored in place, with its associated chairs hooking onto the table proper using brass mounting points set at regular intervals.

To those like Bucky and Vernon, the kitchen probably mattered most. The hired architects hadn't skimped there either, having taken the voraciousness of one permanent resident and of a few visitors into account. Three full gas ranges waited side-by-side, along with a walk-in fridge and freezer combo that would make the usual runs to the Last Round potentially larger, if perhaps slightly less frequent. There, likely sourced from Faerie, waited enough food to support most of the group for a month, or to sate Bucky alone for a week if left unchecked. Seeing entire hams and stags hanging from hooks in the back likely piqued Gubbin and Bagley's respective interests as the mansion's main cooking staff, the crisp and winter-green scent of Winter's kept farmlands, north of Evergloam, rising forth from the husks. Vernon's influence had grown enough to change Hope's sister city, in that the Black Ridge now looked like a distant outcropping of mountains looming over miles of crisp Boreal plains that wouldn't have allowed for Eirean's nurtured wheat and produce if not for the couple's obvious harmony. The four seasons now touched what had previously been a Summer stronghold, and allowed for nature's bounty to fully unfold. Of course, if some in the compound's employees were a little pressed for time, they'd also find a selection of premade and frozen goods.

"Welp," started Bucky, beaming like a self-satisfied car salesman who would've shown off a high-roller's luxury model, "there she is! The network hub an' trainin' facilities were also redone usin' some Faerie connections, so we've got even more of a gym without taking up more space. We've got a separate Gate for holding cells on a special circuit, too. Close it off and anyone we've got in holding has nowhere to go unless they can turn into mist and pass through the AC - but they'd emerge someplace our, um, defense contractors don't want us to talk about openly."

Three had to blink at that. "So we've got holding cells, now?
- Somethin' more secure that what we let the Goat shack in," grimaced the mechanical samurai. "Don't like it much either, Aidan, but it ain't like this negates the old open-bed policy. The old servant's quarters upstairs're still there for emergency night stays, and they've also been redone. We've thrown out the old spring mattresses, made 'em feel as much like modern bedrooms as we could. Archie, Bagley and Gubbin's offices are sort of in a mezzanine that's over the redone wing. They can see into the library and the workspaces below, in case anything happens."

Melmoth gave the kitchen an appraising once-over, hands in his pockets. "So where's your space, big guy?" he asked Shamus. "Looks to me like they gutted your Japanese tea room for the open-plan design. Won't be the same without your Bluegrass."

Bucky gestured dismissively, suggesting reassurance. "Perks of Faerie space; got my own dojo down in the basement, although it doesn't really feel like it's well, down in the basement. Door's actually a Gate to a rented estate a few miles west of Eien-No-Yuki."

His jaw's hinge dropped, suggesting a grin. "Two minutes on foot and I'm halfway across the world! Pretty neat, huh?"

A familiar voice purred, all in worn Mexican American inflexions. "Decent bugout, too. Smart. All Hauser needs is one hard disk out of your cloned drives, a network connection in Faerie, and he's suddenly days away from any active tracing attempts. Take a Shinkansen over to Osaka and you're anywhere else in the world within half a day."

Seeing the iguana stepped forward, Three's features went from mild incredulity to amusement. "Siempre como culebra," he lightly chastized the older anthro. "All this talk about telling Washington and Nogales to go suck some fat ones so you could spend your retirement days running an eatery that never really turned profitable... Was it all bullshit, seriously?"

Gomez motioned for the corner between the entranceway's arch and the bit of countertop waiting next to the first of the ranges, first making a bit of a show out of moving like the aging and wounded old soldier he technically was, before letting his implants take over. Anthro iguanas tended to have a permanent belly no matter how hard they trained, owing more to their muscular structure and their spine's design. They could pack strength, grace and speed in spades, however - and Gomez had seemingly been augmented. His posture changed, suggesting the kind of physical ease you would've found on wiry teenagers in full control of their physical range, or on well-accustomed vampires like Marius. He narrowed his eyes and smirked, a bit of his fat, pink tongue coming into view.

"It wasn't all guff, mijo - watching you grow up, getting you into horchata and mojito mocktails before you turned sixteen - that was all real. Always was real happy when it rained, 'cause it meant I'd get some company for dinner and I'd maybe get to help out with your homework. Problem is, some people that saw it more fitting not to stick around us fighters once things cooled down used to smuggle dope along the coast - all the way down to Mexico. Then," he said, adding a gesture and an ascending whistle, "all the way back up. As long as Gutierrez laid down low, Weasel Biggs didn't care where his cocaine and mescaline came from."

Carrie nodded. "So you were stationed here undercover, in case something like a coup came up. Why didn't you help out during the occupation?"

Vargas sniffed and smiled, crossing his arms on his chest. "Who says I didn't help, chica? Used to be I ran Exosuit, and I wasn't gonna let old age and some demons' hamburger cravings get in the way of what needed to get done. Smuggled out who I could, tried to take some load off o' your friends here by killing some tertiary targets, weakening the hierarchy..."

He shrugged. "Standard Covert Ops shit, really."

On a hunch, Three probed further. "How much does Marianna Jameson know, specifically? After the incursions, H&J practically owns the Pan-Asian cyberware markets."

That made Gomez grin toothily. "Everything, hombre. Brimstone was the win Lambert's old remnants needed for their synthetics tech, a rare earth with enough conductivity to shore us in quantum CPUs from here to two centuries from now. Once they had that, they had enough processing power to synthesize rejection-free proteins. With a little shepherding from the Sin Seven's corporate arm, they had a full suite of replacement limbs and organs ready to market. They just needed a guinea pig. It's all grown from my DNA, so there's no risk of rejection or addiction, no sense of otherness, no breakdown or psychosis or derealization or whatever the fuck. As far as my immune system's concerned, nothing's happened."

Three scoffed. "So, what, you've got Jameson on speed-dial too?
- No, but you do," noted Gomez impishly, "and I knew she'd peg my service record in Afghanistan with the Coallition, once I'd make contact. She's smart. A little paranoid, maybe, but smart - especially about doing a deep skin job on someone my age - but my being a reptile anthro made things easier. Colder blood's easier to keep oxygenated during surgery. She knew what she was working on - a blindside so her dear students might have enough of a fighting chance."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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As she hadn't seen the rest of the mansion the greenhouse was attached to, Alastriona took a moment to look around at the renovated area before following everyone else into the kitchen. She hoped to help someone in cooking, so she removed her jacket and rolled up her sleeves.

Having discreetly watched the presentation with the rest of the crowd, Matriel and Hanako had followed the group in. Matriel nodded to Abdiel as she noted their appearance.

Venturing over to the iguana, the dryad tilted her head thoughtfully. "I'm glad you were able to seek Ms. Jameson's expertise. I figure she knew the Gutierrezes would likely make a move at some point and understood you'd need some help to potentially go up against a pair of very old Quetzlcoatl."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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"An' I thought I were good at deep cover," Charles scoffed.

Aidan's phone buzzed right about then, with a message from Mary herself: I almost forgot earlier, Senor Gutierrez might make an appearance of some sort over there pretty soon. Keep an eye out for our favorite fry cook when he does show up! I'd be there myself but I'm still in London and I'd rather not put up with jet lag before the big shindig, you know?

Preston, for his part, was preoccupied with wandering around the place, especially interested in the new office spaces and the server farm. "Cool!" he declared when he came back into view. He'd ditched the clipboard, suit jacket and tie at some point, and now better resembled the old Preston they knew from before. "All modernized and shit. Might hang out again." He grinned at Vargas. "G-Good bugout plans too, even better."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Not wanting to close himself off to the gathering, Aidan settled with a quick reading of Mary's message, followed by a simple thumbs-up emoji in response. Pocketing his phone, he relayed the news, which made Archie nod in appreciation.

"An astute decision on her part," he said, "although I suspect our passing through Faerie should abate any jet lag to be concerned about. For now, however..."

He opened the fridge and pulled out a massive champagne bottle, with a French label Marius, Meris and Archie alone could've worked their lips around. "...I believe we've all something to celebrate," he said, smirking. "Food-wise, I had some more appropriate furnishings set aside than the PR wagon's glorified crackers, and you're all welcome to a bit of countertop, if you'd like to improvise something for yourselves."

Entirely unprompted, Nereus rubbed his hands together as he tried to politely push past the android. "Alright, who wants some tzatziki? Some heavy cream, a little Balsamic, some pepper and a few sliced vegetables, and I think we'll have something to fit the mood!"

Perhaps wanting to include Mary remotely, Carrie was seen gesturing for Aidan to give her his phone, to which he complied. Silva then spent a few moments capturing a Landscape panorama as the group chatted. They'd catch sight of Lucky sidling closer to Preston, as well as confirming Alastriona's deductions. "Yeah, that was her thinking, as well as what was left of Interpol's and Vienna's. With Europe almost locked down and America being an Infernal shitshow, the old Third World picked up the slack," he explained. "Main operatives globally were Chinese, Indian, West Indian, Somali - or little old Mexicans like me. Nogales ended up calling most of the shots operationally for everything on our side of the Atlantic, Jameson and some of her associates went on the warpath in Asia - shared intel as we went. Some Triads always were on speaking terms with the Sin Seven, so it sort of follows there would've been leaks out of California reaching Hong Kong. From there, all Jameson needed was a few less obviously Chinese scouts to embed themselves in barrios like Compton, and the beaners could be practically heard bragging about Kukulkan making a comeback. Which sort of fits in with what I wanna ask Preston here..."

The iguana then turned to Hauser. "So," he asked the young man, "how's it been for you? You know how we survived for the past year or so, but things were even harder for folks outside city centers or occupied areas."

He sniffed lightly, using his snout to point at Aidan. "They tried lookin' out for you, you know. You, Jameson, the Governor's old contacts in Paradise... Demons do know one thing really well, though, and that's isolation. Jammin' signals, cuttin' folks off in enclaves or pockets of resistance - that's the least of it. Sort of felt like I was an arm or a leg, and the rest of the body wasn't talking, if that makes sense. Even getting my checkups remotely was a pain," he admitted.

In the meantime, as Archie busied himself with champagne flutes and mostly succeeding at not making a mess, he conversed with Nereus, asking him to isolate the better parts of the last few centuries. They knew all about his suffering, but there must've been some sources of hope to cling to, right? In response, Nereus could be seen turning a little misty-eyed again.

"Oh, they were aplenty, which almost made it all the more difficult," he explained as he worked. "Chambers never... appreciated much of anything, honestly - our cover was just that for him, a cover - but I couldn't work my side of our schemes if I didn't at least find something to enjoy. Without much surprise to anyone here, I'm sure, most of it involved food. I wasn't born in Greece, but thinking back on our anchoring ourselves in Thessaloniki, I almost felt at home there, whenever I wasn't being badgered or hounded by my shadow. Greece afforded me space enough to mourn what we'd lost, decades enough to grieve Meris, in some sense; and time enough to try and recollect myself. Without Greece, I wouldn't have had the idea to try and expend the concept of healing others through different approaches than my wife's," he explained, smiling at the selkie Archmage.

The former Augur sighed as he thought. "I loved our travels, in their own way. From Greece to Egypt, from Egypt to India, from India to Nepal and China... The deeper my research went, the more frustrated Chambers became and the happier I was. I just had to do it while closing my heart to all the cult-related cells Chambers enabled while I sat in some guru's little hovel, absorbing their wisdom like it was water. I had to do it while deliberately ignoring what his plan was for all the knowledge I'd gained."

Marinos scoffed. "At first, I thought I'd launch some sort of internal rebellion of sorts. Addle one mind, save a few hundred - that sort of deal. I suppose I did, seeing as Chambers and his goons almost never picked those hearts and minds that turned into labors of love for me."

Archie had begun working on finger sandwiches by now. "Oh? How did this happen, exactly?"

The question seemed to surprise the former Augur. "You're serious? You've fought in the British Raj and you've fought against Amaxi worshippers who'd gone native, and you never picked up on meditation?"

The android shrugged. "Well, if you're referring to the concept of sitting alone with one's own thoughts, well..."

That answer seemingly left Nereus feeling a little dismayed. "You poor man," he said, "we should remedy this as soon as possible!"

Nereus refocused on the group. "Alright - show of hands, please. Excluding Alastriona for obvious reasons, who amongst you has a somewhat regular meditation practice? Archibald and the HPD keeping you functional and Jameson keeping up with your ability to handle supernaturals and metahumans is all well and good, but someone has to account for your mental and emotional health!"
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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The McConmara siblings more or less raised their hands. Ciaran's was only partially raised, and he had a mildly sheepish expression. "I don't know if you could call it meditation, but I tend to go for walks outside or focus on a creative project, whittling or something like that."

Aislinn tilted her head slightly. "I keep up a fairly regular meditation routine. It's a good skill for mages of any level to have. It keeps you lucid and grounded, so it hopefully keeps you from being as vulnerable with opponents."

Neasa smiled lightly. "I do yoga as part of my physical training, so meditation tends to go hand in hand with that. Mind you, it's just on apps I have on my phone."

Aspasia also raised her hand, which had Miranda lightly scoffing. "Mom, Mr. Marinos said somewhat regular meditation routine, not daily. You tend to be hardcore, so..."

That earned a snicker from the older Fauness. "Fair. Though, you could always work on your meditation skills, Mira," she jokingly chided.

Meanwhile, Alastriona used her keen sense of smell to hunt down some fresh vegetables in the fridge and had brought them to the countertop, now searching for an appropriate knife to cut them.
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Preston sniffed. "Long story," he muttered, "boring story. Nothing new." He flipped through one of his devices, one that looked a bit more outdated than the rest. "See?" He scrolled through images of board room meetings, first-person shots of bike races, meetings with various people (many of whom had their faces pixelated out of view). "After Vlastos, got c-company back, tried running. Couldn't handle it; Magnus was right, please don't tell him. Ran away, back to underground, back to network; built my own network before, you know? Vagrants, homeless, unemployed. People with skills but no friends, people I c-could use, people using me. All over city. Does whatever I want. Had a few at the party earlier, watching over shit."

He scrolled forward, more images. "Company's being dissolved; Vlastos gone, corruption wasn't, had to purge. Start over. Forsythe Holden overseeing, knows best how to spot bad influences." He pointed at himself. "Was in hiding when Invasion started. Got everyone underground; had to work with Arthur Holden..." He pulled a grimace. "Had to pay up. A lot. But kept people safe, fought back in small ways. Demon here, network there, mostly harassment. Broke into enclaves, rescued people."

The images now were of the devastation of those dark times. Shell shocked residents of Hope, ruined neighborhoods, a few aerial shots of the absolutely flattened ground-zero of one of the brimstone pillar strikes. "Got my own helicopter, surplus Marine bird, not decommed yet. Could have used a drone, but... felt impersonal, yeah?" He checked to make sure Aidan wasn't looking before showing the next image to Gomez: A line of surprisingly high-ranking demonic invaders all lined up against a wall. All beat up very badly. All shot through the left eye at very close range by a very large caliber weapon. "Personal t-trophy wall. Fought all them guys one-on-one, executed afterward. Good practice, good morale boost. Had to show them we weren't weaklings, weren't fucking about, right?"

Back with the rest of the crew, Marius was listening in. "I've heard a lot about this Jameson," he remarked as he accepted a flute of champagne. "Looking forward to meeting her at last, if she'd allow it anyway." At Nereus' question about meditation he chuckled and raised his glass in acknowledgement. "Every night before the sun goes down, I try to calm myself before injecting the suppressive enzyme. It's a nice little ritual, if not strictly necessary anymore."
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Re: Chapter VII - Healing Pains

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Nereus gazed intently at the speakers, going from nods of approval to a slightly bigger grin as Miranda confirmed her mother's regular practice, to a slightly deeper nod as Marius briefly detailed his routine. The Void Weaver developed his concepts on the matter while assembling the tzatziki dip's components in a small bowl.

"In my opinion, Miranda," he said, "there's no such thing as hardcore enough, when it comes to meditation. I eventually realized that the worst nights I worked through where my pining for Meris or my bemoaning our schemes became unbearable happened because I'd forgotten to center myself, somewhere during the evening. I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't been able to stop my racing mind, realize I was catastrophizing, and refocused on what I know about Meris."

Smiling, he pointed at the Archmage, unfurling fingers as he enumerated some of her qualities. "She's crafty, tenacious, as vicious as a leopard seal in a feeding frenzy if the need calls for it - and patient. So, so very patient, much moreso than me. There's no way this woman would've died in a ditch somewhere, I guarantee it - that's much more my speed," he said, chuckling in self-deprecation. "Refocusing on our conjoined ability to survive the centuries became my mantra, my Life-Giving Thought, to borrow from Hindu practice. Once I managed to contact Aidan through his ploy as a typical Renewal package purchaser, I realized that thought had been given shape and form, as expected of a sankalpa that's followed rigorously."

Three frowned lightly. "That's Sanskrit, right?" he asked, to which Nereus nodded. "It's like a set of instructions in the Speech, but delivered on the scale of your own existence. No amount of power like mine could manifest a truth like Meris being fine or your group thriving, it's a truth that demands conscious work and confident belief. You reaffirm your intention in the mantra, and then leave meditation to pursue your work - always in the pursuit of loving-kindness."

Three couldn't hold back a sardonic smirk. "And Chambers never caught on to this unbridled positivity of yours?" he asked, which made the former Augur pause as he was about to whisper something to the bowl, perhaps in an effort to manifest bacteria enough to rapidly turn the liquid mixture into more of a yogurt-like consistency.

The fat Squid snorted. "Oh, he caught on to it, alright. The packets you ordered and never read were stuffed with his handiwork - my job was to push on the other side of the metaphorical seesaw, to keep our valued partners docile and socially acceptable. That way, all he'd need would be an activation phrase and he could turn our newest accredited yoga instructor into a battle-ready killing machine."

The thought of this made Carrie and Aidan exchange a look, their expressions perturbed. The moment passed, and the burnished young woman picked one of Alastriona's sliced vegetables with a smile, dipping a reasonably-sturdy carrot julienne in Nereus' dip. One crunch later, she nodded gravely. "I'd add tumeric," she said. "Needs more oomph."

In the back, Gomez nodded and grunted as Preston cycled through the shots. He wasn't much of a keeper of mementos except for a few things stuck in a shoebox somewhere, but the timeline being depicted was familiar. The one difference was that he'd never pulled enough favors to warrant his own chopper, and that his age and background had made it relatively easy to play the part of a slippery problem-solver gone rogue looking to earn a paycheck from a Prince's underlings.

"Not many people know how to build a network, these days," he said, smiling in approval. "That's rare skill, Hauser - nowadays you just piddle around on the Dark Web after getting yourself some unregulated crypto and then say a coupla Hail Mary's, hoping you didn't just out yourself to an undercover cop."

He lightly glanced in Vlastos' direction. "Back before he started his new arc, I and a few spooks down in Langley kept an eye on you. Watched you grow. They figured they might tap you one of these days, and I, uh..."

He sniffed lightly, a bit of intentional vanity touching his posture. "I might've pushed a few of those names you know in your general direction. I know a guy who knows a guy, pieces on a chessboard - that sorta stuff. Wanted t'make sure you'd pull through and I wasn't in any position to stop my own hunts and pitch in directly. I figured, I'd worked with a few of your contacts in the past; so you'd work with some of mine. Share and share alike - even if I couldn't drop a bow on the box or whatever. Would've attracted too much attention, and the last thing either of us wanted, I bet, would've been to burn other operative cells working to save people."

The iguana then looked back down to Preston's cell phone. "More of a solo type, myself. Easiest gig I pulled during the incursions was snuffing out one of Belphegor's more, um, overzealous lieutenants up in Vermont, close to the State lines. Entire town stopped dead in its tracks, Sloth thralls asleep in cars stopped in the middle of Main Street - locals were basically dying from hunger, thirst and exposure without so much as a punch or a slap from the Fiends - all two thousand souls gone narcoleptic. Finding their boss took me two weeks, and these were the two weirdest fuckin' weeks ever."

There was a pause. "Guessing you know your zombie movies, right? Foraging for food in the local mall was exactly that -just swap zombie moans for the sounds of a few hundred throats sawing logs; knowing the real sensitive ones could bolt up, run you down, gut you open with their bare hands and then slump back down where they stood."
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