“They expect us to step into that?” Trissiny demanded, stopping just inside the club’s door.
“Relax, that’s an arcane enchantment,” Gabriel said, edging past her. “They can’t have people walking in a real infernal effect, that’s incredibly dangerous and also illegal. More important, what is that music?”
“More important?” Trissiny muttered, but began gingerly descending the stairs into the mist.
The main floor of Second Chances was sunken, with the entrance and the bar area five steps up and the stage taller than that. It was a neat layout, the stage along the left side of the big room from the door and the bar to the right, with a clear space in front of the stage itself presumably for dancing and marked off from the tables which occupied the rest of the floor by a ring of comfortable couches and chairs. The entire floor area was covered by gently swirling mist which looked to be about two feet deep. That would simply be mysterious and pretty, if not for the sullen flashes of orange light which flickered through it from time to time, hinting at submerged hellfire.
At this early hour it was relatively quiet in the club, with a few musicians playing a peculiar syncopated tune on the stage, a lone bartender and a single waitress on duty on the floor, and only a handful of other patrons. The cluster who had been waiting outside were more than half the occupants, now sitting together at a table opposite the floor from the entrance.
All employees of Second Chances, from the serving staff to the musicians to the burly sleeveless man standing just inside the door, were revenant demons.
“It’s called jazz,” Nell answered Gabriel’s question, gently shooing them all down the stairs and into the misty floor. There were no visible fairy lamps; the faintly glowing mist appeared to provide the illumination, which would have been a spooky effect even had the interior walls not been rough-shaped to resemble a natural cave. “A natural outgrowth of the ragtime music you’ve probably heard around the prairie. I can’t say I really get it, but Vesk insists it’s going to be huge and he definitely knows music, so I’m watching spots like this to see what opportunities pop up. There’s nothing more profitable than getting in on the leading edge of a trend. Over here, best table in the house.”
She directed them to a table tucked away in the space to the left of the entry stairs and the right of the stage, with a decent view of both. Nell was the first there, largely because Trissiny and Toby were stepping with uncertain care through the mist and Gabriel kept slowing almost to a stop, gazing in apparent wonder at the musicians. By the time they had arrived, she had already seated herself and was lounging back in the wrought iron chair wearing an amused little smile.
The waitress manifested at their table almost the moment they seated themselves, a young woman with blunt little horns and facial features that looked like they might have been of local Jendi stock. It was hard to tell, between her oddly marbled skin and hollow skull full of flame.
“Nell, I haven’t seen you in the longest,” she said with a smile, flickers of orange light visible between her silvery teeth. “And these must be the special guests! Welcome to Second Chances, my lords and lady. I hope you’re not here looking for trouble?” The edge of fear in her tone and bearing were only just discernible.
“Oh, uh, no titles are necessary,” Gabriel said, tearing his gaze from the stage to give her a reassuring smile. “None of us are big on formality.”
“If there’s to be trouble, it won’t be us starting it,” Trissiny added.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Nell interjected when the waitress tensed up. “Settle yourself down, girl. Don’t worry, Kami, I’ll talk to them. We’re not gonna have any problems here, upon my word. I’ll have my usual. And what’s your poison, kids?”
“What do you have that’s not alcoholic?” Toby asked.
“Well, we make a fantastic Onkawi-style punch,” Kami offered. “Which is doable with or without the rum.”
“Without, please,” Gabriel said.
“Hey, as long as you don’t get too sloppy, I don’t mind,” Nell said, winking. “I’m not gonna rat you out to Arachne. Her rules don’t apply out here, anyway.”
“Thanks, but none of us drink,” he replied. Trissiny turned to him, raising her eyebrows in surprise.
“So, three glasses and a pitcher,” Kami said with a smile, “and Nell’s customary graveyard wisp. Anything to eat?”
Nell cleared her throat loudly, putting on a theatrical frown.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” the waitress said, tilting her head back in a gesture which suggested the rolling of eyes, though the flickering flame behind her empty sockets didn’t alter. “I don’t set the prices, hon, I just work here. Be back with your drinks pronto.”
The demon turned and swished away in a trail of disturbed mist, all three paladins gazing thoughtfully after her.
“So, you don’t drink?” Toby asked Gabriel. “Since when?”
“Well, when have I had the opportunity?” Gabriel replied, grinning back. “First it was my dad, and then Tellwyrn, and then… Well, honestly, I’m just afraid to chance it. Gods know I put my foot in my mouth enough sober. There’s too much riding on my already fragile discretion for me to be taking chances like that. It’s not a religious thing, like with you two.”
“Actually,” Toby replied, glancing at Trissiny, “that proscription is unique to Omnism.”
Gabriel blinked, then also turned to Trissiny. “Wait, you’re allowed to drink?”
“Avei doesn’t prohibit drinking,” she said with a shrug, “nor even drunkenness, at least not explicitly. But an Avenist is expected to maintain self-control; being drunk is not acceptable if you’re in the Legions or the clergy. Alcohol in moderation is pretty harmless, so long as you know your limits and respect them. Me, though… I decided more or less the same you did, Gabe. I’m just uneasy about anything that takes away my control. Speaking of which,” she added, shifting her stare back to Nell, “I am really doing my best to be open, here, but I’m in a room full of demons and I think some explanations are overdue.”
“One sec,” Toby interrupted. “Gabriel, that Vidian thing you can do that makes people not pay attention. How much concentration does it take exactly?”
“For me, none,” Nell replied before he could. “So let me dissuade the onlookers while you kids listen up. Trissiny is quite right, you’re entitled to some answers. Well, I’m sure you noticed that Ninkabi is a city of cliffs and bridges, where you’re never out of walking distance from a truly terrifying drop into the chasm.”
“Even I noticed that,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Bit hard to miss.”
Nell nodded back, though she was no longer smiling. “So I’m sure you can guess what the most popular form of suicide is around here.”
A short, grim pause fell. Toby shifted in his seat to glance around at each of the revenants in the room.
“Mortimer Agasti started walking the bridges at dusk when he was twenty,” she continued. “Being a criminal defense lawyer, he kept contacts among the local police, and knew what all the biggest jumping spots were. Suicide… Nine times out of ten, it’s a spur of the moment decision, a knee-jerk reaction to a surge of despair. If you can get to someone and talk them down, much of the time they won’t try again. Morty walked those bridges for twenty years, stopping and talking with anyone who even looked like they might be on the edge. He saved hundreds of lives.” Nell turned her head to gaze abstractly up at the stage, where the players had switched to a slower, almost meditative piece. “But you can’t save them all. Some people…didn’t want to talk. Sometimes, he had to watch people die right in front of him. Just snuff themselves out. And whenever that happened, he did the only thing he could to give them another chance.”
“By enslaving their souls?” Trissiny asked evenly. Toby and Gabriel both gave her wary looks; a year ago she would have delivered that line at the top of her lungs, probably with sword already in hand, but now she just sat there, apparently calm.
“Well, that’s the loophole I mentioned,” Nell said with a little smile. “It turns out the language prohibiting the keeping of revenants in Imperial law very rightly focused on that piece of evil. But a modified revenant whose creation specifically omitted the control clause is another matter. Then, they are classified as free-willed sapient undead and thus eligible for second-class citizenship.”
“Uh…citizenship has classes?” Gabriel demanded, straightening up in his chair.
“Not…exactly,” said Trissiny. “Free-willed sapient undead are citizens, or anyway can be, but the law puts some limitations on them. They have to be regularly checked up on by Imperial agents, they can’t travel by Rail or change address without notifying the government in advance. They automatically inhabit a higher tax bracket to offset what this costs the Empire to administer. Technically there aren’t different classes of citizenship, at least not as the Writ of Duties applies to people, but certain conditions that make a person inherently dangerous mandate those provisions. The same applies to some types of demonbloods and curse victims.”
“I’ve never even heard of that,” he said, looking shaken.
“Well, as a half-hethelax it wouldn’t be applicable to you. That bloodline doesn’t give you any magical affinity or infernal aggression. Malivette Dufresne lives under terms like that, as does your friend Elspeth. I’m surprised she never explained it to you. Juniper definitely will, if she decides to become an Imperial citizen.”
“It’s a strange sort of mercy,” Toby mused, again glancing around at the revenants working the club. “It is a mercy, though, clearly. And I understand the name now; Second Chances, indeed. Did he forcibly draw them back to this world?”
Nell shook her head. “Gave them a choice. A suicide victim rarely encounters a valkyrie, so it was a long time before anybody caught on to what Morty was doing. And some of those he called back preferred to move on to be judged by Vidius. He let them. But like I said…suicide is an impulse. Many of them regretted it. He offered them that second chance. It was the trial of the decade, when the Empire caught on,” she added, winking at Trissiny. “I know you Avenists like to follow legal matters, but I’m not surprised you hadn’t heard. Things like this are exactly what the Sisterhood doesn’t want people getting ideas about.”
“So…they’re not forced to work here?” Trissiny asked.
“They’re as free as anyone, but…” Nell shrugged. “Where else are they going to go? Not every revenant Morty brought back still works for him, but most do. More than a second chance, he’s made sure to offer them a place. Nobody else but the Wreath would. I’m sure I don’t have to argue that this is a better option.”
“That still doesn’t quite track,” Trissiny objected, frowning. “If the man wanted to go around saving lives, why would he want to be a warlock? This is the first time I’ve ever heard of infernal magic being used as anything but a weapon.”
“I’m very choosy about my friends,” Nell said serenely. “Mortimer Agasti is one of the most interesting men in the world, if my opinion counts for anything. If you wanted me to walk you through his whole life in enough detail that all his decisions make sense, I could. Given a few weeks. You’re getting the need-to-know version, and I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with that.”
“Well…that’s fair,” Trissiny replied, a trifle grudgingly.
Kami returned before any further argument could be offered, bearing a tray with three glasses, a pitcher, and a cocktail, which she began laying out on the table.
“Nell’s favorite: the graveyard wisp, made with the house absinthe!” The drink was livid green, glowed in scintillating patterns of light, and put off roiling smoke which poured onto the table and then over the edge to join the mist already covering the floor. “Aaand a pitcher of Blushing Virgin.” The demon winked at them while setting their glasses in front of the punch. “For the blushing virgins.”
Gabriel grinned lazily. “Wanna bet? Ow!” He abruptly straightened up, tucking his feet under his chair, and turned a scowl on Trissiny. “Why are you always so violent?”
“That was me,” Toby informed him.
“Thanks, Kami,” Nell said, beaming. “Put it on my tab.”
“Nell,” the waitress said in exasperation, “first of all, everything’s on the house tonight, and I know you know that. Second, as I explain every time, you don’t have a tab! There’s no point in opening one when you always pay up front.”
“It must flow,” Nell said solemnly.
Kami just shook her head. “Enjoy. Someone’ll come get you when the boss is ready. If you need anything else before then, just give me a wave.”
“Okay, I gotta ask,” Gabriel said while Kami sauntered off again. “What are you drinking?”
“What, this?” Picking up her livid cocktail, Nell grinned and took a sip. “For all practical purposes, just absinthe. With a touch of enchantment to add the glow and a touch of alchemy for the smoke.”
“So…” Toby tilted his head. “There’s…nothing to change to flavor, or alcohol content? It’s just absinthe, but needlessly flashy and more expensive?”
“Exactly,” Nell said merrily.
Trissiny was already pouring out glasses of the rosy fruit punch, which was garnished with pineapple slices and a hibiscus blossom. “Well. I suppose this is a good thing, overall. Sounds like this Mr. Agasti is an…unusual specimen of a warlock. Maybe I’ll have time to pick his brain a bit before we leave.”
Nell hesitated, her drink halfway back to the table. Instead of setting it down, she raised the glass again and took two more heavy sips before finally putting it aside. “Trissiny, that is a good impulse. And I understand that it represents some personal progress for you, which I don’t mean to discourage. But in this case I must ask you, as a personal favor, to leave Morty alone. Do what you came to do; you’ll find him a good host and likely to help in whatever way he can. But please refrain from poking into his business aside from that.”
“Well…all right,” Trissiny said slowly, setting the pitcher back down and pulling one of the glasses she’d just poured over to herself but not yet drinking. “Might I ask why?”
“It’s just not a good time. Morty has had a rough…” Nell trailed off, then sighed and shook her head. “All right, I suppose I need to tell the story in order for it to make sense. It’s about his daughter. He adopted a Tidestrider scapeling.”
Toby leaned forward, watching her closely. “I’m given to understand the Tidestriders aren’t well liked out here on the coast. I don’t know what a scapeling is, though.”
“You’re damn right, they’re not liked,” Nell stated. “The Tidestrider clans have raided the coast for centuries. N’Jendo is a very militaristic society; for most of its history the country was pressed by the islanders from the sea, by Thakar up north and Athan’Khar to the south. The only peaceful border was with Viridill, which naturally only added to its militancy. Well, nowadays, the Thakari are fellow subjects of Tiraas, and the orcs are gone. The Tidestriders aren’t a threat, but they also aren’t citizens and are heavily disadvantaged by the Empire’s hold on the Isles. Every society needs someone to hate, and they make excellent victims these days. Any ‘striders who come inland are in for a rough time in the Western provinces, and there’s nobody more vulnerable than a scapeling.”
“Nobody needs someone to hate,” Toby said with pure weariness.
“I’m not saying it’s a good thing, or in any way helpful,” Nell replied in the same tone, “but it is the nature of human societies. Don’t maunder too much on that part, though, because this is about to get worse. Scaping is a ritual practice whereby a Tidestrider clan will designate one of its members the source of its misfortune, and…well, kill them. Eventually. The process leading up to that gets pretty ugly, even more than it needs to. The idea is that all the clan’s ill luck is placed onto the scaped one and then destroyed. Their families are then banished from the tribe and abandoned on the coast. They prefer to pick on individuals with the least amount of family for that reason. Well, on one occasion about twenty-five years ago, a clan scaped a widow with a young daughter, whom they then tossed ashore on the docks below Ninkabi.”
“That’s repulsive,” Trissiny hissed.
“Stuff like that doesn’t endear them to the Jendi, or Thakari, or Onkawi,” Nell said wearily. “Discuss the Tidestriders anywhere in the West and the word ‘savage’ will come up almost immediately. The really sick thing is that similar practices have existed in every human culture on this continent, though in the distant past. It is neither accident nor their own fault that the Tidestriders haven’t shared in the progress and prosperity of the mainland; the Empire finds it useful to keep them as a weakened vassal state to secure its west coast, and the Western provinces use the clans in exactly the way the clans use the scaped ones. If you’re a politician it’s very handy, having a convenient source of primitive foreigners to label as a menace whenever the question of why your country is being mismanaged into the ground comes up.”
She paused, grimaced, and tossed back the rest of her drink. Smoke poured from her mouth for a few moments as she continued speaking.
“Morty found Maehe on one of his evening bridge patrols, half-starved and traumatized almost senseless. Her community had just ritually murdered her mother and tossed her out like old chum, and in Ninkabi locals had taken to tossing garbage at her for sport, as is the custom with Tidestrider scapelings. He took her in, and… Well, to make a very long story very short, taught her everything he knew. Morty raised Maehe as his own daughter, trained her in Imperial and Jendi law…and in infernomancy. She was to be the successor to all his enterprises, his assurance that there would be someone to continue looking after the revenants he’d rescued, which was a great concern of his as he grew older because their position became a lot more uncertain with him out of the picture.”
Nell paused again, glancing regretfully down at her empty glass.
“On the night of her eighteenth birthday, the day she would be an adult by Imperial law, Maehe snuck out and ran off. She hired a boat to the Isles, and despite having been raised in Jendi customs, found a wavespeaker to give her the traditional tattoos of her clan, so they would know who she was when she returned. Then she went back to the island where she had been born. And then she scoured it off the face of the earth.”
Soft jazz played over the chilling silence which descended, clashing with the mood. Nell met each of their eyes in turn before continuing.
“Mortimer taught his little girl well. It takes a hell of a warlock, pun intended, to take out multiple fae casters, but Maehe hit the wavespeakers first. She let the children escape on a boat to the next clan’s island, but destroyed every other craft that tried to flee. It took her a whole day to slaughter every last member of her clan, and char the island itself so completely that its beaches were molten glass and not a thing still grew there. Apparently she was very patient and methodical about the whole thing. At any rate, she had just finished up when the Empire deployed a strike team to deal with the renegade warlock.
“Maehe was waiting patiently in the middle of what used to be her village when they arrived. She politely explained what she’d done and why, and requested a quick death.”
“…okay, point taken,” Gabriel said in a shaking voice. “We won’t pester the guy with personal questions. I…damn. That poor man. Poor girl. Poor everyone. What a crappy way to die after all that…”
“Oh, she isn’t dead,” said Nell. “No, the Strike Corps has a bit of a problem recruiting warlocks to round out its teams. When they found one who was lucid, educated, and not gibbering crazy from infernal corruption, they gave her the standard deal: a ten-year term of service, with a full pardon if she was still alive at the end. So far, she is. And that’s where Morty is left, now. The Empire was obliging enough to at least notify him, but he gets no contact with his daughter until she is released from her term, assuming the Corps doesn’t get her killed first. And then the two of them have to deal with the fact that she took all his teachings and did the most abhorrent thing he could have imagined, not to mention throwing away all he had invested in the future and the hopes of all the revenants who had been her own family growing up.”
Slowly, she leaned forward, pushing aside her glass to rest her elbows on the table and stare firmly at them.
“And that is why Mortimer Agasti doesn’t see anyone anymore. The man who used to patrol his city every night, looking for people to rescue, has become practically a shut-in. So I would like you kids to be nice to Morty. Okay? Despite what you may think of warlocks, he’s a good man—as good a man as I’ve ever known, and I have known more people than you can imagine. The absolute last thing he needs is any more grief.”
“We will do our best to shield him from any,” Toby promised. Trissiny and Gabriel nodded mutely in agreement.
In the quiet which descended, they were approached by another revenant who cut a wake through the mist of the club. He was tall, lean of build, and walked with the grace of a martial artist, his skull surmounted by horns longer than any of the others they had seen, and branching twice almost like antlers. Though the man’s features were set in a cold expression, he bowed quite diffidently upon stopping at their table.
“Mr. Agasti is ready to see you now.”